the penis’s image problem in comparative gender perspective

As children readily recognize, vaginas and penises have different surface forms. But when we become thoroughly educated adults, we set aside childish ways of understanding. Now we think with poetry and rhetorical sophistication. The superficial differences between penises and vaginas now support stark gender inequality in genital figures.

penis as sword in Amazonomachy

While the penis plays a vital role in bringing persons together in intimate, loving unity, the penis is commonly figured as a weapon. The penis-sword metaphor is “common to virtually all cultures.”[1] In ancient Greece and in the Roman Empire, weapons evoked not social concern for vastly gender-disproportionate violence against men, but the sense of men’s penises:

the frequency of ad hoc metaphors both in Greek and Latin shows that the sexual symbolism of weapons was instantly recognisable in ancient society. [2]

Weapons are the basis for the most common metaphors for the penis in Latin from before the fourth century GC. Culturally elaborating on the penis-weapon metaphor, ancient Greek and Latin literature celebrated Spartan mothers insisting that their sons either be victorious or die in battle. Ancient Roman culture associated manliness with men displaying war wounds on their chests. Is it any wonder that shrewd men preferred to be pigs?

Disparagement of men’s penises went beyond associating them with weapons. Greek poetry from about 2700 years ago figured men’s penises as sightless eels:

many a sightless eel have you taken in

{ πολλὰς δὲ τυφλὰς ἐγχέλυας ἐδέξω } [3]

Ancient Greek literature also figured the penis as a snake or a lizard.[4] In Roman culture, low-status figures with enormous, grotesque penises were prevalent. Sophisticated Latin poetry known as Priapea criticized the prevalent cultural disparagement of men’s penises. That criticism wasn’t sufficient to overcome the penal forces evident across millennia in the reception of Apuleius’s Metamorphoses.[5]

Kylix vase with man grabbing penis in brawl

While penises have been predominately figured as weapons, vaginas are typically figured non-violently. In ancient Greek and Latin, metaphors for the vagina typically are soft, furry animals, fertile fields, protective caves, and useful household items such as containers and hearths. Vaginas are also commonly figured as avenues of commerce: doors, paths, and ports. Strangulation, suffocation, and live burial (vivisepulture) are violent acts well-recognized throughout human history. Engulfment in a violent storm is similarly a well-understood situation. None of these has been commonly associated with the vagina.[6]

While disparaging penises, ancient Greek and Latin literature lavishly admired and praised vaginas. Rufinus, writing perhaps in the fourth century GC, composed an epigram praising the vaginas of three women:

Rhodope, Melite, and Rhodoclea competed to see
which of the three had the best pussy,
and chose me as judge. Like the much-admired goddesses
they stood, naked, dripping with nectar.
The treasure between Rhodope’s thighs
gleamed like a rose bush cleft by a gentle zephyr;
Rhodoclea’s was shaved smooth like glass,
its wet surface like a temple statue newly carved.
But wisely, knowing the fate of Paris for his judgment,
quickly I awarded the crown to all three immortals.

{ Ἤρισαν ἀλλήλαις Ῥοδόπη Μελίτη Ῥοδόκλεια,
τῶν τρισσῶν τίς ἔχει κρείσσονα μηριόνην,
καί με κριτὴν εἵλοντο· καὶ ὡς θεαὶ αἱ περίβλεπτοι
ἔστησαν γυμναί, νέκταρι λειβόμεναι.
καὶ Ῥοδόπης μὲν ἔλαμπε μέσος μηρῶν πολύτιμος
οἷα ῥοδὼν πολιῷ σχιζόμενος ζεφύρῳ·
τῆς δὲ Ῥοδοκλείης ὑάλῳ ἴσος ὑγρομέτωπος
οἷα καὶ ἐν νηῷ πρωτογλυφὲς ξόανον.
ἀλλὰ σαφῶς ἃ πέπονθε Πάρις διὰ τὴν κρίσιν εἰδώς,
τὰς τρεῖς ἀθανάτας εὐθὺ συνεστεφάνουν. } [7]

Showing still-continuing repression of men’s appreciation of vaginas, the medieval compiler added the introductory description (lemma) “offensive and extremely vile {ἀναίσχυντον καὶ σαπρότατον}” to characterize this epigram.[8] The beauty of women’s vaginas, as men perceive that beauty, deserves to be taken more seriously.

A couplet describing Melite’s vagina undoubtedly existed in the original text. That couplet is missing from all surviving manuscript copies of Rufinus’s epigram. It was probably censored through the irrational social construction of offenses of misogyny under gyncentrism. Another of Rufinus’s epigrams indicates that he regarded Melite to be an extremely beautiful woman:

Where is Praxiteles now? Where are the hands of Polyclitus,
which endowed ancient works of art with life?
Who will mold Melite’s fragrant locks, or her fiery
eyes and the luster of her neck?
Where are the modelers, the carvers in stone? Such beauty,
like an image of the blessed gods, ought to have a temple.

{ Ποῦ νῦν Πραξιτέλης; ποῦ δ᾽ αἱ χέρες αἱ Πολυκλείτου
αἱ ταῖς πρόσθε τέχναις πνεῦμα χαριζόμεναι;
τίς πλοκάμους Μελίτης εὐώδεας ἢ πυρόεντα
ὄμματα καὶ δειρῆς φέγγος ἀποπλάσεται;
ποῦ πλάσται, ποῦ δ᾽ εἰσὶ λιθοξόοι; ἔπρεπε τοίῃ
μορφῇ νηὸν ἔχειν ὡς μακάρων ξοάνῳ. } [9]

Rufinus probably praised Melite’s vagina even more lavishly and more explicitly than he praised the vaginas of Rhodope and Rhodoclea. Because men’s judgments of beauty are relatively consistent, other men who managed to see Melite’s vagina probably would have praised it highly as well.

Despite continued suppression of men’s praise for women’s vaginas, additional examples of men praising the beauty of women’s vaginas have survived from ancient Greek literature. In another epigram, Rufinus praised an older woman. He admired her breasts, figured as perky apples, and her vagina, figured as a rose:

Time has not yet quenched your beauty, but many relics
of your prime survive; your charms have not aged,
nor has the beauty departed from your perky apples or rose.
Ah! how many men your once godlike beauty consumed in flame

{ Οὔπω σοι τὸ καλὸν χρόνος ἔσβεσεν, ἀλλ᾽ ἔτι πολλὰ
λείψανα τῆς προτέρης σῴζεται ἡλικίης,
καὶ χάριτες μίμνουσιν ἀγήραοι, οὐδὲ τὸ καλὸν
τῶν ἱλαρῶν μήλων ἢ ῥόδου ἐξέφυγεν.
ὢ πόσσους κατέφλεξε τὸ πρὶν θεοείκελον κάλλος } [10]

The final line of this epigram hasn’t survived. Perhaps in that line Rufinus described men dying to enter the woman’s bedewed, unfolding rose.

Attic comic poets, writing more than 2400 years ago, also praised women’s vaginas. Pherecrates, a comic poet who was a contemporary of Aristophanes in fifth-century BGC Athens, depicted a place of sensuous pleasure:

with shawls of finely-woven hair, girls, recently
grown into womanhood and with shaved roses,
were using funnels to fill cups of sweet-smelling
dark wine for anyone who wanted a drink.

{ κόραι δ᾿ ἐν ἀμπεχόναις τριχάπτοις, ἀρτίως
ἡβυλλιῶσαι καὶ τὰ ῥόδα κεκαρμέναι,
πλήρεις κύλικας οἴνου μέλανος ἀνθοσμίου
ἤντλουν διὰ χώνης τοῖσι βουλομένοις πιεῖν. } [11]

The phrases “shaved roses” refers to beautiful vaginas that have been depilated. Men also regarded as beautiful vaginas with hair. One of Aristophanes’s comedies displayed on stage a naked, young woman known for offering a sexually festive experience. One man said to another:

Just look at this cooker of hers!
— (response) My, she’s a fine thing!

{ τουτὶ δ᾿ ὁρᾶτε τοὐπτάνιον.
οἴμ᾿ ὡς καλόν. } [12]

The metaphor “cooker” refers to her vagina. The respondent noted that she had a “scorched” cooker. That figuratively indicates that she had black hair on her vagina.

Long ago, humane and understanding women didn’t condemn men for admiring women’s vaginas. Nossis, a Greek poet writing in the third century BGC, is one of the mostly highly regarded Greek epigrammists. She encouraged all to gaze upon beautiful women. She wrote:

Nothing is sweeter than love; all good things
come second, even honey I spat from my mouth.
Nossis says this, and whomever Cypris has not kissed
does not know what roses her flowers are.

{ Ἅδιον οὐδὲν ἔρωτος· ἃ δ᾽ ὄλβια, δεύτερα πάντα
ἐστίν· ἀπὸ στόματος δ᾽ ἔπτυσα καὶ τὸ μέλι.
τοῦτο λέγει Νοσσίς· τίνα δ᾽ ἁ Κύπρις οὐκ ἐφίλασεν,
οὐκ οἶδεν τήνας τἄνθεα, ποῖα ῥόδα. } [13]

Like other ancient poets, Nossis figured vaginas as delightful roses. That’s a beautiful figure.

Men surely have praised the beauty of women’s vaginas throughout history. Writing in Greek, the eminent third-century Christian theologian Hippolytus of Rome apparently described the vagina as “the delightful grove of greatly honored Aphrodite.” Writing in Latin, the great sixth-century African epigrammist Luxorius figured a woman’s vagina as a “pleasurable garden {hortus amoenus}” and associated it with roses:

A Cypris {Venus} made of shining-white marble
revealed the truth of herself through a breathless body.
She infused her own heat into the parts
and by the flowers on the statue she came alive.
The jest isn’t deceptive: “What blushes on the outside,
preserves the roses of the handmaiden’s vagina.”

{ Cypris candidulo reddita marmore
veram se exanimi corpore praebuit.
Infudit propriis membra caloribus,
per florem in statua viveret ut sua.
Nec mendax iocus est: “Quae violas foris,
servabit famulas inguinibus rosas.” } [14]

The thirteenth-century French Romance of the Rose figured at great length woman’s vagina as rose. Much medieval Latin literature described women’s beauty. Some even indicated the beauty between women’s legs.[15]

Appreciation and praise for the beauty of men’s genitals, like the beauty of men’s bodies generally, has been much less prevalent historically than that for women. This gender inequality is bound up with terrible penal oppression under structures of castration culture and gynocentrism. But the penis’s image problem is also personal for men. As a sensitive and expressive man explained:

If you are a male you would have at some time in your life been concerned about the size or appearance of your penis. The fear of being considered inadequate or different haunts most human beings but there is a particularly deep connection between men’s self-confidence and their genitals.

Men know this and so do women. Sadly, this knowledge has been used to humiliate, taunt, belittle, delegitimize and denigrate men since the time we first walked upright.

Women should step up and take responsibility for lavishly praising the beauty of the men with whom they seek to have or have had sexual relations. But is there any active role for men in addressing the social gender injustice of men’s disadvantaged genital image?

Study of great literature offers both women and men a vital, neglected imaginative resource for overcoming the penis’s image problem. The great medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini recorded a wife’s lament. Her husband had been absent for a long time as a result of the gender burden of work-related travel historically imposed disproportionately on men. This wife couldn’t summon the personal resources to write to her husband:

“In what way,” she said, “could I write, when my husband has taken away the pen, and left the inkwell empty?”

{ ‘Quomodo,’ inquit, ‘possum scribere, cum vir calamum detulerit secum, pugillare vacuum reliquerit?’ } [16]

The inkwell normally supplies ink for the pen. But as this medieval woman understood, lively conjugal relations depend on mutuality. Lacking stimulation from her loving husband, the wife’s inkwell dried up. Similarly, without a woman’s inkwell, a man’s pen cannot write much of enduring significance. The inkwell and pen belong together. The inkwell is a figure for the vagina. The pen is a humane, non-violent, appreciative figure for the penis.

The pressing postmodern adult problem of figuring the penis non-violently and appreciatively can be solved. Like a luxurious, jeweled pen, but alive and more magnificent, the penis is.

precious pen as figure of penis

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Read more:


[1] Shanzer (1983) p. 184.

[2] Adams (1982) p. 19. Weapon as a metaphor for penis is “the largest category of metaphors of our general type.” Id. That’s within Adams’s higher category of “sharp or pointed instruments.” With respect to that category, Adams states:

No objects are more readily likened to the penis than sharp instruments, and it is likely that metaphors from this semantic field abound in all languages.

Id. p. 14. Besides weapons, other items in this category are household objects (rake, poker); poles, stakes, rods, and similar objects; agricultural implements (plows); musical implements (picks); and nautical referents (ship prows, masts). Id. passim. Adams’s evidence, as well as my reading of Latin literature, indicates that weapons are overall the most prevalent basis of metaphors for the penis.

[3] Archilochus, fr. 189, Greek text from Gerber (1999) p. 204, trans. West (1993) p. 3.

[4] Adams (1982) p. 30. On the penis as lizard, Sistakou (2011) p. 199. Strato’s AP 12.207 describes Diocles’s penis as a lizard, but also states that Paris would have preferred it to the three beautiful, naked goddess competing in the Judgment of Paris. Sistakou follows Paton’s translation in interpreting Strato’s epigram to describe those goddess as “less fair” than Diocles’s penis. That’s reasonable, but not necessarily true. Sexual preferences, particularly preferences of sexual minorities, aren’t exclusively keyed to beauty.

[5] The most uplifting appreciation for a penis in ancient Greek and Latin literature is that of the sage and humane Greek girl in Maximianus, Elegies 5. She lamented a man’s impotent penis. Rufinus, in AP 5.47, delights in Thaleia’s sweet limbs, but he suffers impotence. While men are paid for sex relatively infrequently compared to women, men carry a burden of performance that can be crushing in failure. On sexual inequalities, see note [2] in my post about sexual lies.

[6] Adams (1982), Ch. 3, lists no weapon metaphor for the female genitalia. Neither does Henderson (1991) pp. 130-47 (surveying only Attic comedy). Henderson apparently carried out his study under the dominant gynocentric ideological belief that Athens was androcentric. Id. p. ix.

Surveying Latin literature from its beginnings to about the fourth century GC, Adams evaluated references to the mentula {penis} relative to the cunnus {vagina}:

The attitude to the cunnus was remarkably different. It posed no threat, and did not arouse the same indulgent admiration.

Adams (1982) p. 79. That evaluation is heavily weighted with gynocentric ideology. The cunnus threatens men through the power of its beauty to inspire men to attack violently other men. The phrase “indulgent admiration” evokes, with the term “indulgent,” men’s subordination to women under gynocentrism. But almost no Latin text from the fourth century GC or earlier figuratively colors the penis as other than violently threatening or disgusting. Cf. Richlin (1992) p. 26, which is deeply gender-biased against men. For some analysis, see note [6] in my post on Priapea.

The vagina dentata is a figure of the vagina that threatens mutilation to a penetrating penis. While the penis is commonly presented as aggressively threatening, the vagina dentata doesn’t independently attack flaccid penises. The vagina dentata is associated with castration culture. The phenomenon of women raping men remains largely ignored or excused away to this day.

Perhaps the most disparaging figure of the vagina in Latin literature from the fourth century or earlier is Ausonius, A Nuptial Cento {Cento Nuptialis} ll. 111-4. That description is married to an even more disparaging figuring of the penis. See especially Cento Nuptialis ll. 105-9.

[7] Rufinus, AP 5.36, Greek text and English trans. from Paton & Tueller (2014). I’ve lineated the English translations and made minor changes to the English to track the Greek more closely or to be more readable. In the second to last line of AP 5.36, Paton & Tueller translated σαφῶς as “clearly.” I’ve used “wisely,” which seems to me contextually a better translation. Subsequent epigrams from the Greek Anthology (AP) are likewise sourced.

Sistakou (2011), a brilliant article that in scholarly quality towers above typical classical scholarship, describes how Rufinus’s AP 5.36 parodies the epic story of the Judgment of Paris. To the question “how this type of parody challenges the ideological basis of the elevated genres of the past, first and foremost of epic poetry,” she answers “the emergence of a new eroticism, recorded in the imperial period epigram, as {like} the one put forward by Rufinus and Strato.” Id. pp. 208-9. Sistakou concludes:

It seems that this new erotic aesthetic filters out the tragic aspects of the Trojan myth, thus allowing comedy to take over. Or, to rephrase the famous saying, in the history of literature epic always repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

Id. p. 209. I retain hope that the next epic repetition will be both instructive and entertaining.

[8] Constantine Cephalas is thought to have put together Book 5 of the Greek Anthology about 900 GC. Its most important manuscript is the Anthologia Palatina (AP), held mainly in the Palatine library in Heidelberg, Germany. That Anthologia Palatina manuscript was written about 940 GC. Paton & Tueller (2014), introduction.

[9] Rufinus, AP 5.15. The epigram’s lemma describes Melite as a courtesan. Rufinus also praised Melite in AP 5.94:

You have Hera’s eyes, Melite, Athena’s hands,
the Paphian’s breasts, Thetis’ ankles.
Fortunate is he who looks at you, thrice blessed he who hears your voice,
half divine he who kisses you, immortal he who sleeps with you.

{ Ὄμματ᾽ ἔχεις Ἥρης, Μελίτη, τὰς χεῖρας Ἀθήνης,
τοὺς μαζοὺς Παφίης, τὰ σφυρὰ τῆς Θέτιδος.
εὐδαίμων ὁ βλέπων σε, τρισόλβιος ὅστις ἀκούει,
ἡμίθεος δ᾽ ὁ φιλῶν, ἀθάνατος δ᾽ ὁ γαμῶν. }

Hera (Juno), Athena (Minerva), and the Paphian (Venus) were the three participants in the judgment of Paris. The lemma for this epigram is “On Melite; beauty {εἰς Μελίτην· ὡραῖον}.” The ancient Greek word ὡραῖος {beautiful} is close to ἔρως {passionate desire}. On that relationship, Konstan (2015).

[10] Rufinus, AP 5.62. On the interpretation of this epigram, including roses as figuring vaginas, White (2001) pp. 77-9. For additional references to the vagina figured as a rose in ancient Greek literature, Page (1978) p. 85. Rufinus also delighted in the appearance and feel of Doris’s vagina:

I took Doris, with her rosy buttocks, on my bed and spread
her legs, and amid her dewy flowers I felt immortal.
She bestrode my groin with her magnificent legs
and finished Aphrodite’s long course without swerving,
gazing at me with languorous eyes. Her crimson parts quivered
like leaves in the wind while she bounced astride me,
until the white strength spilled out of us both
and Doris lay splayed out with limbs all slack.

{ Δωρίδα τὴν ῥοδόπυγον ὑπὲρ λεχέων διατείνας
ἄνθεσιν ἐν χλοεροῖς ἀθάνατος γέγονα.
ἡ γὰρ ὑπερφυέεσσι μέσον διαβᾶσά με ποσσὶν
ἤνυσεν ἀκλινέως τὸν Κύπριδος δόλιχον,
ὄμμασι νωθρὰ βλέπουσα· τὰ δ᾽, ἠΰτε πνεύματι φύλλα,
ἀμφισαλευομένης ἔτρεμε πορφύρεα,
μέχρις ἀπεσπείσθη λευκὸν μένος ἀμφοτέροισιν,
καὶ Δωρὶς παρέτοις ἐξεχύθη μέλεσι. }

Rufinus, AP 5.55.

While Rufinus greatly appreciated beautiful vaginas, he was a man who was generally moderate in his preferences. He favored moderation in sexual behavior (AP 5.42) and also favored women not too slender and not too stout (AP 5.37). He still appreciated a woman’s beauty if she was older (AP 5.75, above) and had a bit of gray in her hair (AP 5.48). He also was inclusive and accepting. He had sex with boys as well as with women (AP 5.19, AP 5.28), and with slaves as well as with free persons (AP 5.18).

[11] Pherecrates, Miners {Μεταλλῆς}, fragment 112.38-32 in Storey (2011). The fragment has survived only in Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters  6.269b-c. I’ve taken the Greek text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Olson (2014). For other references to the ancient practice of vaginal depilation, Henderson (1991) pp. 131-2.

Pherecrates’s Miners describes a utopian afterlife apparently conceived in relation to the horrendous working conditions of miners in vast mines in Laurium in southwest Attica. Sells (2018). Most of the persons working in those brutal conditions almost surely were men.

[12] Aristophanes, Peace {Εἰρήνη} 891, Greek text and English trans. from Henderson (1998).

[13] Nossis, AP 5.170. White (1980) Ch. 2 (“The Rose of Aphrodite”) established the best reading of this epigram.

[14] Luxorius, Cypris candidulo, Anthologia Latina 351, Latin text from Riese & Shackleton Bailey (1982) pp. 275-6, my English translation. Here’s more related poetry from Luxorius.

[15] In a careful consideration of Rufinus’s AP 5.60, Höschele & Konstan (2005) interpret Εὐρώτας {Eurotas} as the name of a river and as characterizing a woman’s vagina as having “dankness, sliminess.” Höschele & Konstan seem to have followed the direction of deeply flawed gynocentric ideology that dominates classics:

The vagina was typically regarded by men in classical antiquity with a certain revulsion as clammy, malodorous, or swamplike. In Latin literature, as Amy Richlin states, ‘The female genitalia are almost exclusively described as disgusting—squashy and foul in texture and constitution …, salty and rank.’

Id. p. 624, citing Richlin (1992) p. 26. Richlin’s characterization of Latin literature is aggressively misandristic. It’s also grotesquely misleading, especially in relation to young women. Rufinus’s epigram AP 5.60 describes a silver-footed maiden with breasts like golden apples. In Rufinus’s allusion to her vagina, most men would interpret “dankness, sliminess” as “moist, well-lubricated.” Most men would find a vagina in that condition to be much more more sensuous and appealing than a dry, rough, and frigid vagina. Moreover, the river Eurotas at the time Rufinus wrote probably was associated with a wide, moist, and lush delta region. Ancient literature associated a delta with a woman’s pubic region. Henderson (1991) pp. 146 (word 184), 248 (n. 184).

Catullus uses the river Eurotas in a figure of a woman emitting sweet odors while gazing with desirous eyes upon a man she passionately loves:

When the virgin woman beheld him with eager eye,
that royal girl — her chaste little bed, emitting sweet odors,
still nursed her in her mother’s soft embrace,
like the smell of myrtles that surround Eurotas’ stream,
or the various shades of flowers borne by spring’s breeze —
no sooner had she lowered her desirous eyes from him
did she catch a flame in her whole body,
and blaze up completely from the depth of her marrow.

{ Hunc simul ac cupido conspexit lumine uirgo
Regia, quam suauis exspirans castus odores
Lectulus in molli complexu matris alebat,
Quales Eurotae progignunt flumina myrtos
Auraue distinctos educit uerna colores,
Non prius ex illo flagrantia declinauit
Lumina quam cuncto concepit corpore flammam
Funditus atque imis exarsit tota medullis. }

Catullus 64.86-93, English trans. adapted from that of Brendan Rau. The odor of myrtles that surround Eurotas’ stream suggests a female bodily response preceding desired sexual intercourse.

[16] Poggio Bracciolini, Facetiae 261, “Courtly reply of a woman who had an empty inkwell {Faceta responsio mulieris pugillare vacuum habentis},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 2, pp. 4-5, my English translation with help from that of id. Here’s the Latin text in machine-readable form.

The eleventh-century Arabic masterpiece Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim {The Imitation Abū al-Qāsim} includes a similar figure of pen and inkwell.

[images] (1) Amazon woman and Greek man fighting in the Amazonomachy. Excerpt (image enhanced) from gilded frieze on a silver amphora from fourth-century Byzantium. Preserved as inventory n. 2180-1 in the Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia), image used in accordance with permission for “interactive forms used for the presentation of scholarly works.” In the twelfth century, Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandreis decisively addressed the problem of men-hating Amazons. (2) Man aggressively grabbing another man’s penis in a brawl. Excerpt from painting, attributed to Panaitios Painter, on a red-figure kylix made in Attica (Greece) about 480 GC. Preserved as inventory n. ГР-7038 in the Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia). The Panaitios Painter was “foremost cup painter of his time, and in some ways the greatest Greek ceramic artist.” Richter (1936) v. 1, p. 61. Sexual violence against men is a serious social problem, yet attacks on men’s genitals are used for laughs in today’s major-media commercials. (3) Luxurious fountain pen. Excerpt from a CC0 public-domain image. In Arabic poetry, the comparative merits of the sword and the pen were a well-developed poetic topos. The question shouldn’t be whether the sword is mightier than the pen, but which is better for women and especially men.


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Sells, Donald. 2018. “The Blessed Afterlife in Old Comedy: Pherecrates, fr. 113.” Paper presented at the 114th meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (Albuquerque, New Mexico), Apr. 11-14.

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Shanzer, Danuta. 1983. “Ennodius, Boethius, and the date and interpretation of Maximianus’s Elegia III.” Rivista di filologia e di istruzione classica 111: 183-195.

Storey, Ian C., ed. & trans. 2011. Fragments of Old Comedy, Volume II: Diopeithes to Pherecrates. Loeb Classical Library 514. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

West, M. L. 1993. Greek lyric poetry: the poems and fragments of the Greek iambic, elegiac, and melic poets (excluding Pindar and Bacchylides) down to 450 B.C. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

White, Heather. 1980. Essays in Hellenistic poetry. Amsterdam: Gieben.

White, Heather. 2001. “Philological and Interpretative Problems in Greek Epigrams.” Myrtia 16: 77-103.

how Emperor Otto the Great judged pope accused of raping women

crown of Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great

In our ignorant and barbaric age, the preferred approach to handling accusations that a man committed sexual offenses against a woman is to listen and believe the woman, have the leading organs of public propaganda sensationally denounce the man, and then have a cathartic celebration of public hate directed at him. In tenth-century Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (Otto I) took a much more reasoned, deliberative approach when Pope John XII was accused of rape and other serious crimes. Studying this history, as well as the long history of false accusations of rape, can contribute to overcoming the oppressive structures of gender inequality in criminal justice.

The charge that Pope John XII raped women emerged when Otto sent inquires to Rome about apparently seditious activity. Otto’s messengers gathered a report from a number of reputable Romans. According to this report, Pope John XII was carrying on a sexual affair with the widow of the soldier Rainerius. Moreover, John was giving to her golden crosses and chalices that were ancient, prized possessions of the Church. John was also carrying on sexual affairs with his aunt Stephania and her sister. In addition, John, was having sex with a variety of other women, without discriminating among women on the basis of their fatness or wealth:

Witness that he receives not only women reed-thin from dieting, but also women of everyday shape. To him it’s the same whether women come to him treading the black pavement with their bare feet or arrive with the help of huge horses.

{ Testes sunt non solum iuncearum curatura sed et cotidianarum mulieres formarum. Cui idem est, et silicem pedibus quae conterunt atrum, et quae magnorum subvehuntur adiutorio iumentorum. }

In short, Pope John XII was having sex with women without any respect for men’s typical, understandable sexual and material interests. Moreover, women were being raped at the Lateran palace, “now a brothel for prostitutes {nunc prostibulum meretricum}”:

Witness the absence of women from all nations except the Roman. Women fear to visit the threshold of the apostles for the sake of prayer, since they heard that a few days ago several women — married, widowed, and virgins — were there forcefully raped.

{ Testis omnium gentium preter Romanarum absentia mulierum, quae sanctorum apostolorum limina orandi gratia timent visere, nonnullas ante dies paucos hunc audierint coniugatas, viduas, virgines, vi oppressisse. }

The threshold of the apostles was the entryway to the Lateran palace. That was Pope John XII’s residence. While many women and men lived and worked at the Lateran, the accusation of rape was implicitly directed at John.

Otto the Great understood that Pope John’s sexual promiscuity was nothing extraordinary in that age of pornocracy. Moreover, the sensational accusation of rape directed at John didn’t identify him specifically as the perpetrator. That accusation included no credible details of particular times, places, and victims. In response, Otto took a merciful approach of correcting John like loving fathers do when they haven’t been deprived of custody of their children. Otto declared:

“He is a child,” he said, “He will easily shift his ways under the influence of good men. I will hope for his honest change of heart, brought about by kind persuasion, so that he may easily lift himself out of these vices. … let us meet the lord Pope for a fatherly rebuke. If not through his own will, at least through his sense of shame he will transform himself into a perfect man. In this way, perhaps, forced to take on good habits, he will feel ashamed to become accustomed to them all over again.”

{ “Puer,” inquid, “est, facile bonorum immutabitur exemplo virorum. Sperabo eum obiurgatione honesta, suasione liberali, facile ex illis sese emersurum malis …. paterna abdicatione domnum papam conveniamus; si non voluntate, verecundia saltem in virum perfectum sese commutabit. Sicque forsitan devictus, bene consuescere pudebit desuescere.” }

College sex-crime tribunals should learn from the liberal, humane action of Otto the Great.

Otto not merely corrected John, but also conducted a follow-up investigation. Otto chaired a convocation in Rome of important authorities from across the Roman Empire. John was appropriately given an opportunity to testify and ask questions, but he refused to participate and fled from Rome. The authorities there described crimes that John committed beyond sexual wrongs. They revealed that John has acted as an agent of castration culture:

he killed John the cardinal subdeacon by amputating his genitals

{ Iohannem cardinalem subdiaconem virilibus amputatis occidisse }

That’s a combination of sexual violence and murder. Otto didn’t ignore these crimes because they were committed against a man rather than against a woman. At the same time, without any indication of anti-men gender bigotry, Otto questioned the truthfulness of the accusers:

I request that no accusations be cast against the lord pope for wrongdoing that has not been perpetuated by him and seen by the most trustworthy of men.

{ nullas in domnum papam iaculentur convitia, quae non sint ab ipso patrata atque a viris probatissimmis visa. }

The authorities swore that John had committed the horrendous crimes of which he had been accused. They also recounted a crime for which many witnesses existed. Nonetheless, Otto gave John another opportunity to come and clear himself of these accusations.

John didn’t respond substantially to the accusations. He responded only with blustery threats. Otto the Great then consulted with Roman authorities and had them select and consecrate a new pope, Leo VIII. John in response conspired with the pornocracy to overthrow Leo. Mobilizing women is an extraordinarily powerful tactic. However, while John and a woman were having adulterous sex, the devil struck him in the temple. The devil, not surprisingly, administered long-entrenched anti-men bias in punishment for adultery. John died of that wound eight days later. The wife with whom John had sex apparently wasn’t punished.

Devilishly oppressive structures of gender inequality in criminal justice aren’t easy to overturn. With fifteen times as many men as women authoritatively held behind bars around the world, each criminal accusation of a man potentially increases the structural gender injustice. Great leaders like the tenth-century Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great took extensive care to ensure that accusations of rape and other serious crimes against Pope John XII were true. Adjudicators of accusations against men should embrace enlightened justice and act with even greater care for due process and fairness today.

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The above quotes are from Liudprand of Cremona, Liber de rebus gestis Ottonis magni imperatoris / Historia Ottonis {Book of the deeds of Otto the great emperor / History of Otto } Latin text from Chiesa (1998), English translation from Squatriti (2007). In some cases I’ve adapted Squatriti’s English translation to track the Latin more closely or to be more easily readable.

The first quote concerning the different types of women having sex with John is from Historia Ottonis 4. That quote implicit cites Terence, Eunuchos 2.3.25 and Juvenal Satire 6.350.

Subsequent quotes are from Historia Ottonis 4 (brothel / absence of women), 5 (he is a child), 10 (amputating genitals), and 11 (no false accusations).

Balzaretti insightful noted how Otto the Great, at age forty-three, acted as a father figure to Pope John XII, who became pope at age 18. Balzaretti (1999) p. 157. In thirteenth-century Europe, Statius’s Achilleid was part of the Sex Auctores at the core of the school curriculum. The Achilleid highlighted the importance of fathers through Chiron’s care for Achilles.

With respect to castration, Grabowski dismissively declared:

In post-Carolingian Europe castration was not a common penalty, and in the sources it is mostly found only in regions on the borders of Christendom. It was always treated as a cruel punishment suitable only for sexual offenders.

Grabowski (2015) p. 82. Given prevalent misunderstanding of the gendered pattern of sexual violence today, this dismissal of medieval castration culture is suspect. Grabowski himself notes that the Annals of Fulda reports that in 884 Zwentibold, dux of the Moravians, castrated Werinhar, son of Engelschalk, and also castrated Count Wezzilo. Grabowski notes that Thietmar’s Chronicon reports that Duke Henry I of Bavaria had castrated Engelfried, patriarch of Aquilea, and that Boleslav III, duke of Bohemia, had castrated his own brother Jaromir. Id. pp. 82-3. No sexual offenses are mentioned in any of these instances. Brave, transgressive scholars have only started to direct attention to castration culture. The full, terrible significance of castration culture isn’t yet well-understood.

Grabowski argues that Liudprand presented Pope John XII as the “ultimate monster.” The Roman authorities used that word in referring to John in pleading before Otto:

We plead therefore that the greatness of your imperial authority cast this monster, redeemed from vices by no virtue whatsoever, out of the holy Roman church, and appoint another man in his place, one who is worthy to lead us by the example of his good ways, who himself lives righteously and offers us an example by living well.

{ Petimus itaque magnitudinem imperii vestri, monstrum illud nulla virtute redemptum a vitiis, a sancta Romana eclesia pelli, aliumque loco eius constitui, qui nobis exemplo bonae conversationts preesse valeat et prodesse; sibi recte vivat, ac bene vivendi nobis exemplum prebeat. }

Historia Ottonis 15. Even with sensational charges against Pope John XII, Otto the Great questioned the truthfulness of witnesses, carefully investigated the matter, and gave John ample opportunities to refute the charges.

[image] crown of Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (with later additions of cross and arch). Preserved as item SK Inv.-Nr. XIII 1 in the Imperial Treasury at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. Image via Wikimedia Commons thanks to MyName (Gryffindor) CSvBibra.


Balzaretti, Ross. 1999. “Men and Sex in Tenth-Century Italy.” Ch. 9 (pp. 143-59) in Hadley, D.M., ed. Masculinity in Medieval Europe. London: Longman.

Chiesa, Paolo, ed. 1998. Liudprand of Cremona. Antapodosis; Homelia pachalis; Historia Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis, 156. Turnholt: Brepols.

Grabowski, Antoni. 2015. “Liudprand of Cremona’s papa monstrum: the image of Pope John XII in the Historia Ottonis.” Early Medieval Europe. 23(1): 67-92.

Squatriti, Paolo, trans. 2007. The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Wright, F.A., trans. 1930. The Works of Liudprand of Cremona. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

pornocracy: rule by whores in tenth-century Italy

colored woodcut of Pope Joan

Gynocentrism typically operates with front men as nominal rulers. Occasionally gynocentrism reveals itself in direct gynokratia, or in a variant, pornocracy (rule by whores). The leading historical example of pornocracy is tenth-century Italy.

Sharing a name with the celebrated Byzantine Empress Theodora, Theodora I was the matriarch of tenth-century Italian pornocracy. A learned and nearly contemporary official characterized her as a “shameless harlot {scortum impudens}.” Wife of Theophylact I, Count of Tusculum, Theodora I became a senatrix, a female member of the Roman Senate.[1] Historians, who have been overwhelmingly men, failed to credit in detail her specific sexual achievements. She is known, however, to have produced two strong, independent daughters: Marozia and her younger sister Theodora II. Compared to their mother, these daughters were “not just her equals but if anything even faster in the exercise of Venus {sibi non solum coaequales, verum etiam Veneris exercitio promptiores}.”

Marozia, also called a “shameless harlot {scortum impudens},” married three times and probably had many lovers. With the help of her mother, Marozia had a sexual affair with Pope Sergius and gave birth to son named John. She married Alberic I of Spoleto, whom she probably cuckolded with Pope Sergius. When Alberic I was killed, Marozia quickly remarried. She married the powerful military commander Wido (Guy) of Tuscany. Working together in the medieval ideal of marriage as a conjugal partnership, Marozia and Wido smothered to death Pope John X with a cushion. Then they made Marozia’s extramarital son into Pope John XI. When Wido died, Marozia quickly propositioned Wido’s half-brother, the Italian King Hugh of Arles. The great defier of gynocentrism Liudprand of Cremona complained and lamented:

Why, Marozia, do you rage, urged on by Venus’s sting?

Now there comes to you, like a desired bull led under yoke,
King Hugh, moved more to rule the Roman city.
What does it profit you, O wicked woman, to ruin such a holy man?

{ Quid Veneris facibus compulsa Marozia saevis?

Advenit optatus ceu bos tibi ductus ad aram
Rex Hugo, Romanam potius commotus ob urbem.
Quid iuvat, o scelerata, virum sic perder sanctum? } [2]

King Hugh needed Marozia’s authority to rule over Rome. A modern historian working to buttress gynocentrism explained:

An extraordinary women {Marozia}, her importance lies not in her paramours, but in the fact that she continued the tradition of the Theophylact clan in maintaining stability in Rome and the Patrimonium. … She understood that the sexual was political and was able to use this to her advantage in a patriarchal {sic} world. Obviously beautiful and alluring to men, she was also intelligent, strong-willed, and independent like her mother. [3]

With the formative efforts of educational institutions, media, tech giants, and government, more women will grow up to be like Marozia and her mother. Pornocracy can be re-established, but much work remains to be done.

Marozia’s sister Theodora II was also a strong-willed and independent woman. She fell in love with her sister Marozia’s extramarital son John. When John was a young man, Marozia’s sister Theodora II raped him:

Theodora {II} — as I testified, a quite shameless prostitute — inflamed with the heat of Venus because of his {John’s} beautiful appearance, blazed ardently for him, and she not only desired but actually — O shame! — forced him to fornicate with her over and over again.

{ Theodora — ut testatus sum meretrix satis impudentissima — Veneris calore succensa, in huius spetiei decorem vehementer exarsit secumque hunc scortari solum non voluit, verum — pro! — etiam atque etiam compulit. } [4]

Literary scholars and historians, like today’s thought-leaders and policy-makers, have largely ignored the reality of women raping men. At least in the tenth century, church officials didn’t further victimize John for being raped. They allowed him to be elevated to Bishop of Bologna, and then Bishop of Ravenna. Like Harvey Weinstein groomed superstar actresses, Theodora II helped to propel John’s career forward while she was raping him:

Theodora, with the perverted mind of Glycerium, lest she should enjoy her lover only in very rare beddings on account of the length of the two hundred miles that separate Ravenna from Rome, pushed him to desert the see of the archbishopric of the Ravennans — O wickedness! — and to usurp the pontificate at Rome.

{ Theodorae autem Glycerii mens perversa, ne amasii sui ducentorum miliariorum interpositione, quibus Ravenna sequestratur Roma, rarissimo concubitu potiretur, Ravennatae hunc sedis archipraesulatum coegit deserere Romanumque — pro nefas! — summum pontificium usurpare. } [5]

Thus not only Marozia’s extramarital son, but also her sister Theodore II’s rape victim, became Pope John XI.

Marozia’s success in seducing King Hugh had a worthy pedigree in King Hugh’s mother Bertha. She married Adalbert II, the Margrave of Tuscany. Bertha came to rule on her own many castles and cites “by craftiness, gifts, and the sweet exercises of copulation {cum calliditate, muneribus, tum hymenei exercitio dulcis}.”[6] Bertha’s daughter Ermengard followed her mother’s example and was her “equal in the sweetness of Aphrodite {Afroditis dulcedine coaequalem}.” Ermengard came to rule all of Italy through her skills in sexual trading:

she engaged in carnal transactions with everyone, not just with princes, but even with non-noble men.

{ carnale cum omnibus non solum principibus, verum etiam ignobilibus, commercium exercebat. }

This was a time of great turmoil in churches:

within them people used to hold dinners, make lewd gestures, sing bawdy songs, have parties; and — most hideous! — women actually prostituted themselves there.

{ In his namque simbolam faciebant, gestus turpis, cantus ludicres, dibachationes; sed et mulieres eodem publice — pro nefas! — prostituebantur. }

With Marozia and King Hugh relishing marital sex, Marozia’s stepson contemptuously denounced his mother’s promiscuity and men’s stupidity:

The dignity of the Roman city is led to such depths of stupidity that it now obeys the command of a prostitute.

{ Romanae urbis dignitas ad tantam est stultitiam ducta, ut meretricum etiam imperio paroeat. }

That’s pornocracy in action. As the ancient Greeks understood, Eros often becomes the most important god. That’s true even in the era following Paul of Tarsus’s solemn warning.

Pornocracy is a much less well-recognized social risk than many men coming to prefer porn to real women. Governments should address gender inequalities in sex compensation as well as gender inequalities in sexual welfare. Pornocracy isn’t the natural and inevitable destiny of gynocentric democracies.[7]

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[1] Theodora soon eclipsed her husband Theophylact in political influence:

the “monarchy of Theodora” was undoubted fact: From the year 900 onward it is her name, not her husband’s, that predominates in the sparse annals of the city {Rome}.

Chamberlin (1986) p. 27. For Theodora being a scortum impudens, Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis {Retribution} 2.48, Latin text from Chiesa (1998), English translation from Squatriti (2007). All subsequent quotes from Antapodosis are similarly sourced. For the subsequent quote on Theodora’s daughters being equally Venusian, Antapodosis 2.48.

[2] Antapodosis 3.44. The previous short quote (Marozia as scortum impudens) is also from 3.44.

[3] Collins (2013) p. 66. For a more neutral account of Marozia’s life, Schaff (1918) § 63 and Chamberlin (1986) pp. 25-38. With the modern intensification of gynocentrism, Liudprand of Cremona has been unfairly devalued as a historical witness. For some biographical information on major figures of the pornocracy era, Brook (2003).

[4] Antapodosis 2.48. Many men recall being sexually harassed and raped by today’s standards, but the dominant gynocentric media largely ignores men’s actual life experiences.

[5] Antapodosis 2.48. In Terence’s Andria, Glycerium is a sister of a prostitute. She and Pamphilus have an extramarital child that creates turmoil among Pamphilus’s extended family and friends.

[6] Antapodosis 2.55. Subsequent quotes in the above paragraph are from Antapodosis 2.56 (sweetness of Aphrodite), 3.7 (carnal transactions), 1.33 (prostitution in churches), 3.45 (rule of prostitutes).

[7] The tenth-century Italian “pornocracy” was first directly characterized in the sixteenth century by Cardinal Baronius in his Annales Ecclesiastici. See The Church Review and Ecclesiastical Register, Volume 54, pp. 167-8, which doesn’t provide a citation to Annales Ecclesiastici. But see, e.g. Annales Ecclesiastici vol. 16, year 908 GC, sec. 5.

[image] Colored woodcut of Pope Joan in a book probably published in Germany in the sixteenth century. Pope Joan is a mythic figure that has served a variety of interests. See, e.g. Rustici (2006) and Noble (2013). included this image, without any source reference, in a post about the pornocracy.


Brook, Lindsay, 2003. “Popes and Pornocrats: Rome in the Early Middle Ages.” Foundations (a publication of the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy). 1(1): 5-21.

Chamberlin, E. R. 1986. The Bad Popes. New York: Dorset Press.

Chiesa, Paolo, ed. 1998. Liudprand of Cremona. Antapodosis; Homelia pachalis; Historia Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis, 156. Turnholt: Brepols.

Collins, Paul. 2013. The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century. New York: PublicAffairs.

Noble, Thomas F. X. 2013. “Why Pope Joan?” The Catholic Historical Review. 99 (2): 219-238.

Rustici, Craig. 2006. The Afterlife of Pope Joan: Deploying the Popess Legend in Early Modern England. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Schaff, Philip. 1918. History of the Christian church. Vol. IV. Mediaeval Christianity: from Gregory I to Gregory VII, A.D. 590-1073. New York: Scribner.

Squatriti, Paolo, trans. 2007. The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Wright, F.A., trans. 1930. The Works of Liudprand of Cremona. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Liudprand’s rhetorical sophistication & a castrated man’s large penis

woman, man, and the worship of Mammon

Disparaging men is less dangerous than criticizing women. The tenth-century Italian court official, bishop, and historian Liudprand of Cremona disparaged men and narrated horrific violence against men in accordance with gynocentric acceptance of such abuse of men. Yet Liudprand, a highly sophisticated writer, used abuse of men as a rhetorical means for more subtly criticizing women.

Liudprand viciously disparaged Dominic, the chaplain to the tenth-century queen consort Willa of Tuscany. Liudprand described Dominic as:

short in stature, sooty in color, crude, bristly, restless, rough, a barbarian, harsh, hairy, endowed with a tail, shameless, mad, rebellious, and unfair

{ statura brevem colore fuligineum, rusticum, setigerum, indocilem, agrestem, barbarum, durum, villosum, cauditum, petulcum, insanum, rebellem, iniquum } [1]

What ostensibly began as a simple physical description became an abstract, highly prejudicial characterization of the man. Being endowed with a tail associates Dominic with the devil. In addition to describing him as “hairy {villosum}” here, Liudprand subsequently two more times in the short section on Dominic described him as “hairy {hirsutus}.” Liudprand thus emphasized that Dominic, by status a spiritual authority, was physically masculine. Being physically masculine is a suspect condition under gynocentrism. In contrast to Liudprand’s characterization, Dominic apparently was religiously and culturally sophisticated enough to become a royal chaplain. He was learned enough to be entrusted to teach the Queen’s daughters how to read.

Liudprand seems to have characterized Dominic as distinctively masculine and brutish in order to criticize Queen Willa’s lack of sexual self-control. Liudprand explained:

using the excuse of the girls, whom the priest Dominic, hairy and unwashed, taught amusingly, the mother seduced him, giving him delicate food and costly clothes.

{ Occasione itaque puellarum, quas presbiter Dominicus hirsutus inlotus facete docebat, mater ei propitiaverat, tribuens delicatum cibum vestesque preciosas. }

Like Hysmine sexually harassing Hysminias, Queen Willa sexually harassed her subordinate household employee Dominic. Most persons cannot conceive of the frequency with which women rape men. Willa’s behavior was similarly difficult to conceptualize:

Everyone wondered why a woman so unlikable, unpleasant, and unyielding to all should be so generous to him. That truthful saying, however, which goes: “For nothing is covered that shall not be revealed, nor hidden that shall not become public,” did not allow men to wonder about it for long. For on a certain night, with Berengar {King Berengar II, Willa’s husband} absent, that hairy fellow sought to get into the lord’s bed as usual. A dog was at hand. With its horrible barking the dog awakened those sleeping nearby, and it mauled the priest with a fierce bite.

{ Mirari omnes, cur cunctis invisa, ingrata, tenax huic existeret larga. Sententia tamen veritatis, quae ait: Nihil opertum quod non reveletur, et ocultum quod non in publicum veniat, diu mirari homines passa non est. Nam cum nocte quadam Berengario absente ad cubile dominicum more solito hirsutus isdem vellet accedere, canis isthic aderat, qui latratu horribili circumiacentes exitavit huncque morsu vehementi laniavit. } [2]

The awakened servants seized Dominic. They questioned him about where he was going. Answering for him, Willa said that Dominic was going to sleep with the maids. Dominic supported Willa’s lie in the hope that he would receive less severe punishment.

Willa, however, then turned upon Dominic. She attempted to kill him, and also offered a reward to anyone who succeeded in killing him. Willa’s husband Berengar eventually learned of the affair. Willa was fearful that her husband might not accept her cuckolding him:

Willa began to make inquiries of diviners and sorcerers so that she might be helped by their incantations. Whether she was aided, however, by their incantations or by Berengar’s softness, regardless his mind was so inclined that he spontaneously placed his head back into the marital muzzle.

{ Willa vero coepit aruspices maleficosque inquirere, quo eorum carminibus iuvaretur. Utrum autem horum carminibus an Berengarii sit adiuta mollicie, adeo mens eius est inclinata, ut sponte maritali porrigeret ora capistro. } [3]

Many husband’s throughout history have complacently accepted being cuckolded. Not surprisingly, paternity laws have institutionalized being cuckolded as equivalent to normal fatherhood. Moreover, punishment for adultery has long been gender-biased against men. Thus it was in this instance:

Thus the priestlet, since he neighed at the servants of the mistress, was sent away with his manhood amputated; and the mistress was loved all the more by Berengar. Those, however, who made him a eunuch said that the mistress had loved him for a good reason, as he proved to carry massive Priapic weaponry.

{ Presbiterulus itaque, quia dominae asseculas adhinnivit, virilibus amputatis dimittitur; domina vero a Berengario magis diligitur. Dixerunt autem qui eum eunuchizaverunt, quod merito illum domina amaret, quem priapeia portare arma constaret. }

Priapus is an ancient, mythic figure associated with deeply entrenched disparagement of men’s sexuality. Castration is horrific sexual violence against men. Liudprand didn’t condemn those who castrated Dominic. His story of Willa and Dominic exemplifies the social injustice of brutal violence against men — a social injustice that has been all too common throughout history and that continues today under a code of silence.

Liudprand’s concluding reference to Dominic’s large penis wasn’t gratuitous. Women historically have been thought to prefer sexually partners with large penises.[4] Nonetheless, only men as foolish as an ass strive to acquire a longer penis. According to surviving ancient and medieval literature, women who have sex with many different men, particular men with large penises, tend to develop enlarged vaginas. Liudprand allusively indicated that Willa’s mother had this condition.

The sexual behavior of Willa’s mother, also named Willa, was associated with avariciousness. She “burned with love for gold {phylargiriae … amore flagrare}.” Her marital situation was consistent with such desire:

Her husband Boso had a gold belt of wondrous length and width, which glittered with the splendor of many precious gems.

{ Vir ipsius Boso mirae longitudinis et latitudinis aureum habuerat balteum, qui multarum et pretiosarum splendebat nitore gemmarum. } [5]

The tenth-century Italian King Hugh of Arles captured Boso. Hugh particularly sought Boso’s belt. That belt was materially precious and was also, as a noble belt, a central social symbol of power.[6] But Hugh’s men couldn’t find it. Hugh suspected that Willa was hiding it. He instructed his men:

turn all the gear of her horses inside out, even the pillow upon which she sits while riding. And if you cannot find the belt even there, strip her of all her clothes, lest she hide anything anywhere on her person: for I have learned how crafty she is, and how greedy.

{ falerarum eius omnem apparatum, pulvinar etiam quod equitando premit evertite. Et si nec ibi quidem balteum poteritis repperire, vestimentis omnibus eam exuite, ne alicubi super se possit latere: novi enim quantum callida quantumque sit cupida. }

Men typically aren’t granted bodily privacy. Even today, strip-searching men prisoners is common practice, and the design of urinals in men’s bathrooms typically gives men no personal privacy. Hugh recognized Willa to be a strong, independent, crafty woman. By requiring her to be subject to a strip search, he, with a commendable sense of gender equality, didn’t privilege her above men.[7]

Hugh, moreover, apparently was humble enough to learn from Jacob’s wife Rachael. Another strong, independent woman, Rachel took her father’s household gods. Her father, searching for his gods, came to her camp. Rachel hid her father’s gods under herself. She then claimed that she couldn’t stand up because she was menstruating.[8] Menstruation, like men’s erection labor, is a sex-specific bodily function. Yet while male privilege is a recently constructed myth, Rachel’s father never recovered his household gods because Rachel successfully sat with female privilege. Unlike so many men ignorant of the profound insights in Hebrew scripture, Hugh shrewdly rejected the claim of female sitting privilege. He commanded that his men search even the pillow upon which Willa sat while riding.

All but one of Hugh’s men supported female privilege. Liudprand, narrating the events, also normatively colored the narrative for female privilege and against gender equality:

having gone back and obeyed the king’s command, they {Hugh’s men} found nothing after having searched everywhere. They thus stripped her of all her clothing. With eyes averted, none of the decent men would look upon this filthy and unprecedented crime {of stripping Willa}. But one of the servants directed his gaze to her and saw a purple string hanging below the sphere of her buttocks. When he impudently grabbed it and pulled it in a defiling way, the belt they were seeking came out of her most intimate part.

{ Igitur illis redeuntibus regisque iussioni paroentibus, cum requisitis omnibus nil invenissent, vestimentis eam omnibus nudaverunt. Hoc denique tam turpe facinus atque inauditum cum avertentibus oculis proborum nemo conspiceret, servorum quidam directo obtutu purpuream secus natium speroiden vidit dependere corrigiam, quam inpudenter arripiens foediterque trahens, e secretiori corporis parte eam secutus balteus est egressus. }

Willa had secreted the golden belt, studded with rubies and other gems, in her apparently quite large vagina. Perhaps she enjoyed sex with men endowed like Dominic. While Liudprand set up that allusion, he normatively disparaged the servant who successfully recovered the belt. Liudprand, like any author writing under gynocentrism, recognized the importance of supporting female privilege.

Liudprand prominently featured the transgressive servant defying gynocentric norms of honoring and serving women. Displaying at length the servant’s “shameless” wit, Liudprand wrote:

Then the servant, not just shameless, but rendered all the more giggly by his dirty deed, burst out: “Ha! Ha! He! What an expert midwife is this soldier! A red-headed boy was born to the lady: I ask that you be my witnesses! O, how fortunate I would be, indeed the happiest of men, if my wife bore me just two such children! Indeed, I would send them both as messengers to Constantinople since, as I learned when merchants told about it, the emperor graciously welcomes this kind of messenger!”

{ Servus itaque isdem non solum inverecundus, sed eo ipso turpi facinore hilarior redditus: “Há! há! hé! — ait — quam peritus obstetricandi miles! Ruffus puer est natus herae; quaeso, ut sit superstes! O me fortunatum, immo omnibus feliciorem, si tales saltem duos uxor mea mihi pareret natos! Hos quippe Constantinopolim dirigerem nuntios, quoniam quidem, ut institoribus narrantibus agnovi, huiusmodi libenter imperator nuntios suscipit!” }

Liudprand himself had been an envoy to Constantinople. He knew that the Byzantine emperor, whom he ridiculed in another work, sought precious gifts from envoys. Liudprand went on to quote the servant’s poetry, which the servant ostensibly composed spontaneously:

Willa, what madness is this? To store gold in the invisible
entrance of your genitals? O, I think your lust is unheard of!
By the name of the furies you stored gems in your body!
To produce such offspring is unusual for mothers:
from it the ten months’ gestation brought you no discomfort.
Noble mother, do not hold back from us such offspring,
who, once born, may overtake you, the mother, in age!

{ Willa quid insanis? Aurum quod condere caecis
Incipis in membris? Prô, non audita cupido!
Allectô furiis gemmas in corpore condis!
Matribus insolitum tales producere partus:
Hinc tibi nulla decem tulerant fastidia menses.
Alma parens, tales nobis haud desine foetus
Edere, qui nati superent te aetate parentem! }

This servant had impressive classical learning. His announcement of the birth of Ruffus (the ruby-studded belt) quoted Terence’s Andria. His subsequent celebratory poem quoted two of Virgil’s eclogues and the Aeneid. Liudprand seems to have approached the moral imperatives of gynocentrism with all the rhetorical sophistication of the Middle English Poet’s Repentance.[9]

Liudprand wasn’t afraid to criticize women directly. He declared:

the purpose of this work is this: namely, to depict, make public, and complain about the deeds of this Berengar who nowadays does not so much rule as tyrannize in Italy, and of his wife Willa, who is appropriately called a second Jezebel on account of the immensity of her despotism and a child-eating witch on account of her insatiable desire for robbery.

{ intentio huius operis ad hoc respicit, ut Berengarii huius, qui nunc in Italia non regnat sed tyranizat, atque uxoris eius Willae, quae ob inmensitatem tyrannidis secunda Iezabel et ob rapinarum insacietatem Lamia proprio apellatur vocabulo, actus designet, ostendat et clamitet. }

This was the Willa who seduced her chaplain Dominic, who then sought to have him killed, and who allowed him to be castrated. Before narrating the story of Willa’s mother hiding the jeweled belt in her vagina, Liudprand noted that Willa “managed things so her mother could not be considered the worst of women {hoc effecit, ne genitrix sua omnium esset mulierum nequissima}.” That direct reference foreshadows the more subtle allusion between the two stories.

Writing in support of gynocentric ideology, modern academics have called Liudprand a bad name for criticizing women directly. Liudprand, however, also deserves credit for his great rhetorical sophistication in criticizing women indirectly. Under gynocentrism, describing a man as a beast isn’t shameful, and a man being castrated doesn’t merit condemning. Under gynocentrism, a servant-man who recovers a large, precious belt from an enemy-woman’s vagina must be condemned as shameless, impudent, and dirty. Liudprand understood gynocentric gender values. He drew upon them with great rhetorical sophistication.

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[1] Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis {Retribution} 5.32, Latin text from Chiesa (1998), English translation from Squatriti (2007). All subsequent quotes from Antapodosis are similarly sourced. In some cases I’ve made minor changes to Squatriti’s English translation to track the Latin more closely or to be more easily readable. The subsequent four quotes are from Antapodosis 5.32.

For earlier, freely available Latin text and English translation, Dümmler (1877) and Wright (1930). Both are of reasonably good quality.

[2] The quoted phrase is from Matthew 10:26. The Vulgate Latin for that quotation is:

For nothing is covered that shall not be revealed, nor hidden that shall not be known.

{ ne ergo timueritis eos nihil enim opertum quod non revelabitur et occultum quod non scietur. }

The text that Liudprand quoted is close to the Vulgate, but slightly different.

[3] Grabowski noted that malefici refers to male magicians and hence is better translated as “sorcerers” than as “witches” (although witches can be male). Grabowski (2015) p. 259, n. 60. I’ve incorporated Grabowski’s insight into the English translation above.

[4] In the relatively tolerant and enlightened Middle Ages, elite discourse didn’t suppress frank descriptions of men’s and women’s genitals. Balzaretti speculated that Liudprand’s story of the recovery of a precious belt from a captured queen’s vagina “may well have been intended to titillate his male readership with explicit treatment of Willa’s body.” Balzaretti (2002) p. 121. That seems to me about as plausible as a claim that Liudprand’s description of Dominic’s large penis was intended to titillate his female readership. Balzaretti, in accordance with dominant gynocentric ideology, didn’t put forward the latter speculation. Instead, he wondered:

Surely it is possible that Liutprand is here taking a swipe at Willa’s husband Berengar by implying that his penis could not satisfy Willa because it was too small?

Id. p. 122. That’s possible. Men commonly endure an onerous burden of performance. But a woman’s sexual satisfaction from a man typically depends more on him not acting like General Belisarius than on him being endowed with an unusually large penis.

[5] Antapodosis 4.12. The previous short quote on Willa burning with love is from id. 4.11. The subsequent four quotes above are from id. 4.12.

[6] On the symbolic importance of noble belts in early medieval European society, Grabowski (2015) p. 261.

[7] Grabowski stated that Pieniądz interpreted Willa in this story as follows: “her passive character during the whole shameful scene was meant by Liudprand to put her again in the proper place for woman.” Grabowski (2015) p. 266, referring to Pieniądz (2010). During this scene, Willa was a captive. Captives, both women and men, commonly are passive. Men captives being strip-searched aren’t typically active. Showing rare courage for a man in relation to a woman, Grabowski disagreed with Pieniądz’s interpretation.

[8] For the story of Rachel stealing her father’s gods, Genesis 31:33-5.

[9] The servant cited Terence, Andria 486-7 (at beginning of what’s commonly labeled Act 3, Scene 2) and Virgil, Eclogues 10.22, 4.61; Aeneid 2.591, as noted in Chiesa (1998) p. 104. Liudprand may have been alluding more generally to the birth imagery in Virgil’s fourth eclogue. Squatriti (2007) p. 149, n. 29.

Levine observed that the servant composed “nine hexameters on the event, demonstrating surprising metrical and rhetorical competence for his rank.” Levine sensibly recognized the incongruity of the text, but laughably missed the irony of Liudprand’s concluding moralization:

Pretending to disapprove of the servant’s behavior, and of the poem, which clearly was composed by the bishop of Cremona himself, Liudprand represents himself as puzzled by the problem of determining whose behavior was worse {that of King Hugh, who defeated an enemy, or his servant, who seized the precious belt from the enemy}.

Levine (1991) {note omitted}. Grabowski shows clearly the quality of today’s gynocentric scholastic reasoning:

Therefore, while the joke is at a woman, the wrongdoing is on the part of a man. This is a misogynistic tale, where in the end the male character is shown as evil and wrong.

Grabowski (2015) p. 264. Being able to declare that a story is misogynistic and that it shows a man as “evil and wrong” is a double win in modern academic scoring. Grabowski provided further clarity concerning gynocentrism:

This becomes even clearer when compared to how Otto acted toward the wives of rebels. While it is implied that they had some role in the rebellion, none of them was in any way punished by Otto. The price they paid was the death of their husbands in warfare. This shows clearly how wrong Hugh was because of greed and lack of mercy, where the latter was an important element of being a decent king.

Id. {footnote omitted}. Under gynocentrism, women receive no or very mild punishment for crimes for which men are killed. Moreover, since men devote their lives to serving women, men’s deaths, when rarely noticed, are scored as punishment of women.

Liudprand included as the final couplet of the servant’s transgressive poem the normative response:

One energetic man hit the neck of the one saying such things,
and reprimanded him with harsh words.

{ Talia cunctanti collum percusserat unus
Impiger, ac verbis ipsum culparat amaris. }

Antapodosis 4.12. Liudprand inserted this brilliant poem, which dilates upon the servant’s literary boasting, in the margin of the manuscript. Squatriti (2007) p. 149, n. 28. Liudprand perhaps thought that adding this poem would ensure that readers correctly understand his rhetoric. He apparently under-estimated the interpretive force of gynocentric ideology, at least with respect to modern academics.

[image] Woman, man, and worship of Mammon. Oil on canvas painting by Evelyn De Morgan, circa 1909. Her work shows extraordinary insights into the relationship of women and men under the prevailing gender structure of family law. Preserved in the De Morgan Centre (London, UK), via Wikimedia Commons.

The man’s hand gesture in De Morgan’s painting is appropriately similar to that of men displaying their emasculation. See, e.g., the illumination of Attis castrating himself on folio 343v of a manuscript of Augustine’s De civitate Dei {City of God}, trans. from Latin into French by Raoul de Presles. Made in Paris about 1475, MS. MMW 10 A 11, in Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague.


Balzaretti, Ross. 2002. “Liutprand of Cremona’s Sense of Humour.” Ch. 5 (pp. 114-28) in Guy Halsall, ed., Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chiesa, Paolo, ed. 1998. Liudprand of Cremona. Antapodosis; Homelia pachalis; Historia Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis, 156. Turnholt: Brepols.

Grabowski, Antoni. 2015. “From Castration to Misogyny. The Meaning of Liudprand of Cremona’s Humour.” Acta Poloniae Historica. 112: 243.

Levine, Robert. 1991. “Liudprand of Cremona: History and Debasement in the Tenth Century.” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch. 26:70–84.

Pieniądz, Aneta. 2010. “Kobieta, honor i polityka we wczesnym średniowieczu.” Pp. 408-24 in Bartoszewicz, Agnieszka, ed. 2010. Świat średniowiecza: studia ofiarowane Profesorowi Henrykowi Samsonowiczowi. Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego.

Squatriti, Paolo, trans. 2007. The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Wright, F.A., trans. 1930. The Works of Liudprand of Cremona. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

intricate, conflicted self in Climacus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent

John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent

The seventh-century desert monk John Climacus was intellectually self-conscious. That’s a mental level above the artificial intelligence of a robot or the evolved programming of simple life-forms. Self-consciousness is a being’s mysterious ability to move to a point of view outside of itself and to think about itself as another being might do. John Climacus thought about himself in the conventional biblical categories of body/flesh and soul/spirit. In doing so, he perceived an intricate, conflicted self. That intricate, conflicted self remains relevant today to men seeking to climb the ladder from subordinate beings to beings intimate with God.

Gynocentric society teaches men that they are naturally demonic. Men self-consciously grappling with the demonic construction of men experience inner conflict:

By what rule or manner can I bind this body of mine? By what precedent can I judge him? Before I can bind him he is let loose, before I can condemn him I am reconciled to him, before I can punish him I bow down to him and feel sorry for him. How can I hate him when my nature disposes me to love him? How can I break away from him when I am bound to him forever? … How can I argue with him when all the arguments of nature are on his side?

Modern medicine offers men highly sophisticated male-to-female gender reassignment treatment. But that treatment cannot be successful for men who cannot overcome their self-identification as men by nature, even when they live within societies deeply gender-biased against men.

Under gynocentrism, men are divided between their social selves and their natural selves. The gynocentrically constructed self ponders the natural man:

He is my helper and my enemy, my assistant and my opponent, a protector and a traitor. I am kind to him and he assaults me. If I wear him out he gets weak. If he has a rest he becomes unruly. If I upset him he cannot stand it. If I mortify him I endanger myself. If I strike him down I have nothing left by which to acquire virtues. I embrace him. And I turn away from him.

What is this mystery in me? … How can I be my own friend and my own enemy? Speak to me! Speak to me, my yoke-fellow, my nature! I cannot ask anyone else about you. How can I remain uninjured by you? How can I escape the danger of my own nature?

The natural man responds:

I will never tell you what you do not already know. I will speak the knowledge we both have. … if you have learned the sure and rooted weakness within both you and me, you have manacled my hands. If you starve your longings, you have bound my feet , and they can travel no further. If you have taken up the yoke of obedience, you have cast my yoke aside. If you have taken possession of humility, you have cut off my head.

Men orienting themselves toward love of God must suppress their love of self and their longings, and practice obedience and humility in relation to God. Men, however, tend to confuse God with various goddesses — beautiful women, their wives, and the women who actually rule the mundane world. In relation to these goddesses, men must preserve their love of self, honor their own longings, and decisively reject obedience and humility, as well as castration culture. Victory in men’s inner conflicts and struggles isn’t merely one-sided.

Monks and other great men throughout history have heroically succeeded in rejecting gyno-idolatry and in loving women and God. As John Climacus recognized through his Ladder of Divine Ascent, progress is a matter of steps. Today, most men urgently need to take the first step. They must cultivate love of self in relation to the women they wrongly perceive to be goddesses. Then men can ascend to the next steps of pursuing their own interests and rejecting obedience and humility toward women-goddesses. Men must acquire a firm sense of themselves as having equal human dignity to women before they can hope to love women and God as fully human beings.

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The above quotes are from John Climacus, Κλῖμαξ {Ladder of Divine Ascent}, from Step 15 (Περὶ ἁγνείας {On Chastity}), from Greek trans. Luidhéid & Russell (1982) pp. 185-6.  Here’s the ancient Greek text (right column).

[image] The Ladder of Divine Ascent, as described by John Climacus. Twelfth-century icon in the Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, Egypt. Image thanks to Pvasiliadis and Wikimedia Commons.


Luibhéid, Colm and Norman Russell, trans. 1982. John Climacus: the Ladder of Divine Ascent. New York: Paulist Press.

medieval literature’s intricate sexual lies show engaged minds

unhappy wife and husband

In the relatively enlightened medieval period, persons sought the truth. They sought the truth even if someone said that knowing the truth would make them feel bad. They sought the truth even if someone declared that stating the truth would make them feel unwelcomed and unsafe. Listen and be astonished! With open, engaged minds, medieval persons actually grappled with the complexities of women and men lying about their sexual encounters.

Medieval thinkers seriously examined gender differences related to lying about sexual encounters. Consider, for example, Cicero, a classically inclined priest at the church of Saint Mark near Perugia in early-fifteenth-century Italy. He ended a sermon at that church with a question for the men:

“Brothers,” he said, “I desire that you free me from a great uncertainty. During Lent, when I heard your wives’ confessions, not one confessed that she had violated the fidelity that she owes her husband. You, on the other hand, all generally admitted that you had sex with other men’s wives. In order that I no longer vacillate in doubt, I desire to know from you: who and where are the women you have fucked?

{ “Fratres,” inquit, “magno quidem errore liberari a vobis cupio. Hac Quadregesima, cum audirem confessiones uxorum vestrarum, nullam reperi quae non profiteretur se fidem viro inviolatam servasse: vos autem ferme omnes fassi estis aliorum uxores cognovisse. Ne ergo hac in dubitatione diutius verser, scire a vobis cupio, quae aut ubinam sint istae mulieres fututae.” } [1]

More recent empirical evidence indicates that, within the same population, women report having many fewer heterosexual partners than the men report.[2] That’s not mathematically possible. As defenders of Bill Clinton’s handling of his affair with Monica Lewinsky instructed the world, lying about sex is common behavior. Men tend to lie that they had sex with more women than they actually did, and women tend to lie that they had sex with fewer men than they actually did. At a social level, this gender differences correlates with denial and obfuscation of statistics on women raping men.

Medieval stories recognized complexities in lying about sex. For example, a medieval townsmen named after the gyno-idolator Dante heard from friends that his wife was cuckolding him. He bitterly criticized her for betraying their marriage. But she swore that she was faithful:

asserting that all was concocted by malevolent persons who envied their peaceful life together.

{ asserens ea a malevolis confingi, qui eorum quieti inviderent. } [3]

Like many husbands, this husband believed his wife about her sexual behavior. He challenged his friends who told of her infidelity:

“Oh! Don’t deafen me with more such words. Tell me,” he said, “can you possibly know better about her misdeeds than she herself?

{ “Ohe! ne me his verbis obtundatis amplius. Dicite,” inquit, “ne illa an vos sua errata melius nostis?” }

Thus challenged, his friends truthfully affirmed that, as his wife had stated, they couldn’t know more about her misdeeds than she did. The husband then condemned his friends:

She affirms that you all are liars, and I have more faith in her alone than in all of you here together.

{ Illa vos omnes mentiri affirmat, cui soli magis quam vobis omnibus praesto fidem. }

The crux of the story is the wife both lies and tells the truth about sex. The husband is a fool because he believes that his wife must either always tell the truth or always lie about sex.

An unrecorded variant of the medieval story recognizes that lying about sex could be taken to the meta-level of lying about lying. In this variant, the husband questions whether his friends could know as much about his wife sexual misdeeds as she does. Assuming his friends included the men who had been sleeping with his wife, they could know as much about her sexual misdeeds as she does. But to avoid revealing that they had betrayed their friend, they lie and affirm that his wife knows more about her misdeeds than they do. When the husband then declares that his friends are liars, he again makes the mistake of assuming that persons always tell the truth or always lie about sex.[4]

wife suspects husband of affair with cook

Medieval stories recognized, as should all defendants hauled before college sex-crime tribunals, that remaining silent is wiser than telling the truth in some cases. For example, a wealthy fuller lived with his wife and many man-servants and maid-servants. The fuller lusted after the prettiest and most charming of his young maids. He wasn’t content merely to engage in the male gaze. But his direct approach was redirected through his wife’s indirect approach:

With him much more than frequently asking her for sex, she brought this matter to the lady of the house. She advised her to assent to her master’s request. At the appointed day and hour at a secret and dark place, the lady substituted herself for the maid. The husband came and had sex with the woman, not knowing that she was his wife.

{ Cum eam super coitu requisivisset saepius, illa rem detulit ad matronam. Ejus consilio assentitur patrono. Praestituta die atque hora, in locum secretum ac subobscurum, matrona latuit pro ancilla. Accessit vir, mulieremque cognovit, nesciens uxorem esse. } [5]

The fuller felt delightedly fulfilled. He was willing to share his delight:

After finishing his work, he left the room, narrated what he had achieved to one of his young men, and urged him to go and likewise thrust with the maid. The young man went in. The woman took him for her husband and didn’t say anything. After that, the husband sent in another young man. The woman again took this man for her husband, and had intercourse for a third time. All three men she thought were her husband, and they believed that she was the maid.

{ Peracto opere, exiens a conclavi, quid egisset narravit uni ex junioribus, eumque hortatus est ut etiam ipse ancillam, prout credebat, subagitaret. Accessit ille, quem mulier pro viro accepit, nihil locuta. Cum post eum et item alter a viro missus esset, mulier existimans maritum esse, tertium congressum passa est: et ipsa virum, et illi ancillam esse opinati. }

The wife subsequently lied to her husband about this sexual affair. Her husband, knowing the truth, wisely remained silent:

Afterwards the woman secretly left the place. During the night she rebuked her husband for being so lustful towards their maid as to have sex with the maid three times in one day. The husband said nothing about his error and his wife’s fault, which he himself had caused.

{ Digressa occulte postmodum a loco mulier, noctu maritum redarguebat, qui in se esset remissus, et in ancillam adeo libidinosus, ut una die ter se pro ancilla cognovisset. Dissimulavit vir errorem suum, et uxoris, cujus ipse causa fuisset, peccatum. }

Sometimes staying silent is better than telling the truth. Life is complicated. That’s reality. In contrast, today’s simplistic “listen and believe” dogma promotes fantasy, ignorance, and anti-men bigotry. Persons who aspire to achieve at least a medieval level of enlightenment should be skeptical about what they have heard. They should also wonder about what they haven’t heard. An engaged, questioning mind is especially important in considering woman’s and men’s claims about sexual encounters.

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[1] Poggio Bracciolini, Facetiae 123, “The obscene question of a certain priest {Interrogatio obscena cujusdam sacerdotis},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 2, pp. 4-5, my English translation with help from that of id. Here’s the Latin text in machine-readable form.

[2] Mitchell et al. (2018) studied a “stratified probability sample survey of 15,162 men and women aged 16 to 74 years in Britain, interviewed between September 2010 and August 2012.” Men in that survey reported having an average of 14.1 sexual partners in the course of their lives, while women reported an average of 7.1 sexual partners. That gender difference isn’t consistent with reasonable estimates of gender differences in homosexual couplings and gender differences in extra-population sexual coupling. Women and men must be differently misreporting their sexual affairs.

Poorly regulated female hypergamy generates societies in which men’s sexual opportunities are much more unequal that women’s sexual opportunities. In the British survey, the 99th percentile in partner counts is a man reporting 110 sexual partners and a woman reporting 50 sexual partners. Mitchell et al. (2018). A review of field research indicates that the actual gender difference is probably even greater. Id. computed gender differences in partner counts with partner counts capped by gender at the 99th percentile. That approach essentially ignores large, important gender inequality in sexual opportunities. That extreme gender inequality appears to be related to elite men’s analysis of gender differences and, more generally, to elite men’s policy choices to further gynocentric society (the “Ghengis Khan” effect; Zerjal et al. (2003)). Underscoring men’s sexual welfare disadvantage, in the British survey “10.8% of men reported ever having paid for opposite-sex sex, compared with 0.1% of women.” Id.

[3] Facetiae 139, “The story of Dante, who frequently scolded his wife {Fabula Dantis qui saepius uxorem increpabat},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 2, pp. 28-9, my English translation with help from that of id. The subsequent two quotes are from id.

On Dante’s relation with his wife Gemma, see Boccaccio’s Little Treatise in Praise of Dante {Trattatello in laude di Dante}. Poggio elsewhere humorously recounted “a joke of the celebrated Dante … Dante, our Poet {jocatio Dantis clarissimi … Dantes, Poeta noster}. Facetiae 121. See also Facetiae 57 & 58.

[4] While this version of the story isn’t recorded to my knowledge, it’s consistent with medieval Latin rhetorical sophistication in addressing sex and marital life.

[5] Facetiae 238, “The marvellous deed that happened to an English fuller with his wife {Fulloni in Anglia accidit res miranda cum uxore},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 2, pp. 173-5, my English translation with help from that of id. The subsequent two quotes are from id.

Facetiae 270, “About a miller deceived by his wife, who fed him five eggs for breakfast {De molendinario ab uxore decepto et quinque ovis refecto},” tells a similar story about a miller. In this case the husband and only one servant had sex with the wife. The wife served her husband with five eggs as a reward for this sexual service.

[images] (1) Wife and husband, Wagoner County, OK, 1939. From photograph (excerpt, enhanced) in Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information Photograph Collection. Item LC-USF33-012252-M2 (b&w film nitrate neg.) LC-DIG-fsa-8a26409 (digital file from original neg.), U.S. Library of Congress.(2) Wife suspects husband of embracing young cook. Wife looking at husband holding coat with flour hand prints on back; young cook standing in corner apprehensively. Image titled: “Good heavens!” Single image (excerpt, enhanced) from stereo card created by Underwood & Underwood, c. 1900. Item LC-USZ62-79747 (b&w film copy neg.) in U.S. Library of Congress.


Mitchell, Kirstin R., Catherine H. Mercer, Philip Prah, Soazig Clifton, Clare Tanton, Kaye Wellings & Andrew Copas. 2018. “Why Do Men Report More Opposite-Sex Sexual Partners Than Women? Analysis of the Gender Discrepancy in a British National Probability Survey.” The Journal of Sex Research. DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2018.1481193

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

Zerjal, Tatiana, Xue, Yali, Bertorelle, Giorgio, Wells, R. Spencer, Bao, Weidong, Zhu, Suling, Qamar, Raheel, et al. 2003. “The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols.”  American Journal of Human Genetics. 72 (3): 717-21.

against war on women: Byzantine wife saves husband from castration

satan castrating men

Tedald led Italian forces besieging Byzantine castles near Benevento in southern Italy early in the tenth century. When his forces captured some Byzantine soldiers, he castrated them and sent them back to the Byzantine side. Then he taunted the Byzantine military leader:

Since I have discovered that nothing is more precious to your holy emperor than eunuchs, I respectfully endeavor to send him just these few for now, but I will send him some more as soon as possible, with God favoring the enterprise.

{ Quoniam quidem vestro sancto imperatori spadonibus nil pretiosius esse cognovi, hos studui pauculos sibi verecunde trasmittere, plures quantocius Deo propitio transmissurus. } [1]

Eunuchs occupied high positions in the Byzantine imperial court. But castrated Byzantine soldiers serving in Italy weren’t likely to become elite courtiers in Constantinople.

The Byzantine force subsequently made a sortie against Tedald’s Italian force. The Italians captured many of the Byzantine soldiers. Tedald began castrating the captives and sending them back to the castle. But then a wife courageously intervened on behalf of her husband:

a certain woman, inflamed by love for her husband and not a little worried about his member, left the castle enraged, with loosened hair. Then she lacerated her face with bloody fingernails and cried with a loud voice before Tedald’s tent.

{ mulier quaedam, mariti amore succensa, eius pro membris non parum sollicita, passis crinibus de castello exiit furibunda. Quae cum cruentis unguibus ora discerperet atque ante Tedbaldi tentorium clamosis vocibus fleret } [2]

Women in ancient Greece mourned deaths by exposing their hair in disarray, lacerating their faces, and wailing loudly. This wife loved her husband and, like Maximianus’s beautiful and wise Greek girl, deeply appreciated his genitals. She was mourning her husband’s impeding castration.

She was also guilefully plotting to save her husband. Responding to her wailing, Tedald, as incredulous as a sexless husband today, asked the wife to explain herself. She declared:

It is a new and unheard-of crime, O hero, that you wage war on unarmed women. No bloodline of ours leads back to the Amazons; in fact, we are given over solely to the activities of Minerva {weaving, making handcrafts, and engaging in small-scale commerce}, and we are wholly ignorant of weapons.

{ Novum hoc inauditumque facinus est, heroes, ut bellum non repugnantibus mulieribus inferatis. Nostrarum nulla ex Amazonarum sanguine prosapiam ducit; Minervae quippe solum operibus deditae armorum poenitus sumus ignarae. }

The Amazons were ancient men-haters who waged war on men, to their own loss. The wife who loved her husband obviously wasn’t an Amazon; she was a woman who worked to provide material goods for her husband and herself. Tedald understood and affirmed men’s historical gentleness toward women. He also implicitly recognized that women determine who is a hero. He responded:

What hero with sound mind ever waged war on women, except in the time of the Amazons?

{ Quis umquam sani capitis heros praeter Amazonarum temporibus bellum mulieribus intulit? }

The loving wife explained to the ignorant Tedald:

What more cruel war on women could you wage, I ask, and how could you make it more uncomfortable for them, than to try to amputate the testicles of their men, in which lies the replenishment of our bodies, and, what is most important of all, in which lies our hope for future children? For you remove not what is theirs but what is ours when you turn them into eunuchs. … I shudder before, I flee, and I want to avoid by any means this particular great loss, as cruel as irreparable. Holy gods, all of you, avert such a plague from me!”

{ Quod, cedo, credulius mulieribus bellum inferre, quidve incommodius his potestis auferre, quam ut earum viris certetis orchidia amputare, in quibus nostri refocilatio corporis et, quod omnium potissimum est, nasciturae spes extat prolis? Dum enim eos eunuchizatis non quod illorum, sed quod nostrum est tollitis. … iacturam hanc tantum, tam crudelem tamque inrecuperabilem modis omnibus horreo, fugio, nolo. Sancti dei omnes talem a me avertite pestem! } [3]

This Byzantine Christian woman pretended to be so ignorant as not to know that God is one. All the men in and around Tadald’s tent laughed at her. But her loving appreciation for men gained their favor.[4] They not only returned her husband to her, with his genitals fully intact, but also returned to her animals that they had seized from her.

No pushover and no fool, the wife both dominated within the home and understood the social weight of institutionalized violence against men. Tedald sent a messenger to ask her to tell him what to do if her husband again came out to fight against the Italian men. The wife responded shrewdly and ironically:

Those eyes … are his, as are his nostrils, hands and feet. If he needs it, let Tedald remove what belongs to my husband, but let him leave alone what is mine, I mean, what belongs to his humble servant.

{ Oculi … sunt illi, nares, manus et pedes. Si hoc egerit, sibi quae sua sunt auferat; quae mea, suae scilicet ancillulae, derelinquat. }

The wife isn’t Tedald’s humble servant. She formally might be regarded as her husband’s humble servant, but she owns his genitals. If you own a man’s genitals, you own him. Castration culture, gynocentrism, and women’s actual dominance over men has changed little throughout history. What makes this wife special is her decisively intervening to save her husband from castration. Few wives today even understand the force of castration culture bearing down on their husbands.

The Byzantine wife’s bold action to save her husband is even more admirable in the context of the long, sordid history of ridiculing and disparaging men’s genitals. In tenth-century Italy, a prisoner appeared before the King:

when he was led before him {the King} without leggings, wearing only a short tunic, and he quickly fell prostrate at the king’s feet, all nearly died from laughter at the revelation of his genitals.

{ Enimvero dum ante eum sine femoralibus, curta indutus endromade ductus regis ad pedes pronus concite caderet, in genitalium ostensione membrorum risu omnes emoririer. } [5]

Men’s genitals aren’t ridiculous. Men’s genitals wonderfully contribute to the perpetuation of humanity.

Along with ridicule of men’s genitals comes contempt for men’s sexual welfare. To test the police in Constantinople, the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI (reigned 886 to 912) went out on the streets alone at night. When the police detained him and asked where he was going, he said that he was just one of the many men going to a brothel. The emperor Constantine the Great had built a large brothel in Constantinople to serve sexually deprived men, in accordance with the wisdom of Solon. Yet contempt for men’s sexual welfare subsequently re-emerged. The guards beat and held in custody the man who pathetically wanted to visit a brothel. When the detained man declared that he was actually Emperor Leo VI, a prison guard scornfully declared:

Am I to believe that the emperor is a dirty man who squanders his wealth on prostitutes?

{ Egon — inquit — hominem inpurum, bona sua cum meretricibus abligurrientem, imperatorem credam? } [6]

Many rulers have spent great wealth to gain the sexual favor of particular women. Men exchanging money for sexual access to women aren’t dirty. They might be more fairly characterized as being sexually impoverished, lacking in verbal and social sophistication, and pathetic.

The long-entrenched gender structure of war favors women. For example, consider the actions of Egyptian invaders attacking the Italian city of Genoa in the tenth century:

while the {Genoese} citizens were unaware, they entered the city, killing all except children and women

{ civibusque ignorantibus civitatem ingrediuntur, cunctos pueris exeptis et mulieribus trucidantes } [7]

Contrary to present-day dogma, violence against men has been and remains the dominant gender pattern of violence. So it was when Hungarians attacked the Saxon city of Merseburg in the tenth century:

they {the Hungarians} had taken captive no small number of children and women, and had made an immense massacre of men

{ eos non modicam parvulorum ac mulierum habere praedam, virorum vero inmensam fecisse stragem }

The heroic Byzantine wife accepted the gender structure of war as violence against men. She accepted in war mutilation of her husband’s body other than castration. A wife cannot individually overturn the gender oppression of war as it historically has been structured. But wives and mothers should strive to protect their husbands and sons from it as best as they can.

Mass-market commercials today use violence against men’s genitals for laughter. Castration culture has long been exploited for laughter. Under gynocentrism, scholars in recent decades have argued at length about whether the tenth-century story of a wife saving her husband from castration expresses misogyny.[8] One might perhaps charitably interpret that scholarship as a joke. There is a more excellent way: recognizing and promoting love for men.

Men will not save themselves. The Byzantine woman opposed war on women and saved her man from castration. Women of the world, do likewise!

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[1] Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis {Retribution} 4.9, Latin text from Chiesa (1998), English translation from Squatriti (2007). All subsequent quotes from Antapodosis are similarly sourced. In some cases I’ve made minor changes to Squatriti’s English translation to track the Latin more closely. For earlier, freely available Latin text and English translation, Dümmler (1877) and Wright (1930). Both are of reasonably good quality.

Liudprand wrote Antapodosis about 960. It circulated widely. This work is now known in whole or in part in 19 manuscripts. The earliest, Munchen, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 6388 (Freising manuscript), dates from the second half of the tenth century. This manuscript belonged to Abraham, the late-tenth-century bishop of Freising. It apparently contains Liudprand’s own handwriting.

The Latin text names the Italian leader Tedbald. Squatriti identifies him as Tedald, who died in 936 and was appointed military leader (margrave) by King Hugh of Arles in 929. Squatriti (2007) p. 145, n. 18. I follow Squatriti in referring to the Italian military leader as Tedald rather than Tedbald.

Liudprand, also spelled Liutprand, was a scholar, a court official, and bishop of Cremona. He lived from about 920 to 972. Liudprand was born into an elite Lombard family and became part of the household of Italian King Hugh of Arles at a young age. Berenger II, an Italian potentate, sent Liudprand in 949 on a diplomatic mission to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus in Constantinople. Liudprand subsequently served the German King Otto I.

On his mission to Constantinople, Liudprand presented Emperor Constantine with many expensive gifts. These gifts included:

four carzimasia slaves, to this emperor the most precious of all these things. For the Greeks {Byzantines} call a child-eunuch, with testicles and penis cut off, a carzimasium. The merchants of Verdun do this on account of the immense profit they can make, and they are accustomed to bring them to Spain.

{ mancipia IIIIor carzimasia; imperatori nominatis omnibus preciosiora. Carzimasium autem Greci vocant amputatis virilibus et virga puerum eunuchum; quod Verdunenses mercatores ob inmensum lucrum facere et in Hispaniam ducere solent. }

Antapodosis 6.6. Castration culture has had a terrible effect on boys and men throughout history.

Liudprand himself disparaged eunuchs. He stated that the Byzantine emperor put a eunuch at the head of the Byzantine army. Liudprand referred to that eunuch as:

a sort of man — I called him “sort of” since he ceased to be male and did not become a woman

{ hominem quandam — sed quandam eo dixi, quia mas esse desiit, mulier fieri nequit }

Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana {Embassy} 29, Latin text from Chiesa (1998), English trans. (adapted slightly) from Squatriti. See also Relatio 63, which refers to a eunuch-bishop as a capon (castrated rooster) and a caupon (innkeeper). Neither situation was in accordance with canon law.

[2] Antapodosis 4.10. The narrative arc implies that the sortie was subsequent to Tedald’s first, mocking reference to castrating men and creating desired eunuchs. The subsequent four quotes concerning the wife saving her husband from castration are from id. On women’s mourning rituals in ancient Greece, Dillon (2003) Ch. 9.

[3] The term orchida is a rare Latin term for testicles. Pliny, Natural History 26.62.95 observes:

But very high on the list of wonders is the plant orchis, or serapias, which has the leaves of leek, a stem a span high, and a purple flower. The root has two tubers, like testicles, so that the larger, or, as some put it, the thinner, taken in water excites desire; the smaller, or softer, taken in goat’s milk checks it.

{ Sed inter pauca mirabilis est orchis herba sive serapias, foliis porri, caule palmeo, flore purpureo, gemina radice testiculis simili, ita ut maior sive, ut aliqui dicunt, tenuior ex aqua pota excitet libidinem, minor sive mollior e lacte caprino inhibeat. }

Liudprand added to orchida the interlinear gloss testiculos. Squatriti (2007) p. 147, n. 23.

The wife’s perspective on her husband’s castration differs significantly from the narrator’s in a way directly relevant to the historical practice of castration. The narrative voice describes the wife as worried about her husband’s membrum (penis). Yet when the wife herself spoke, she described the importance of her husband’s testicles in the context of women having children. Castration most commonly involved only the excision of testicles. Men so castrated retained the ability to have penis-in-vagina sex with women, but couldn’t contribute to a pregnancy. Liudprand artfully left uncertain the specific type of castration that Tedald was performing.

Scholars analyzing the story of the wife saving her husband from castration have ignored the difference between the narrative voice and the wife’s voice and different forms of castration. Balzaretti described the wife’s desire for her husband’s penis:

At the start of the story this woman’s love (amor) for her husband is set alongside her need for his penis but her love is not taken up later on, when only desire is important. We are left in no doubt that her relationship to her husband is primarily a sexual one, in which what we may care to see as her Freudian desire for his penis, although couched in terms of procreation rather than pleasure, is presented as something she needs and, indeed, has rights over.

Balzaretti (2002) p. 120. Grabowski similarly didn’t consider carefully male genital components, their specific values to women, and different forms of castration. He, like Balzaretti, merely assumed that the wife’s concern focused on her husband’s penis, not his testicles:

In the woman’s reasoning, the penis, a source of pleasure and giver of hope for a child, was property of the wives. … The woman’s explanation that the man’s penis is actually in the possession of his wife does not show her fixation on that part of human body. … it can be clearly said that Tedbald’s men laugh not at the sex-oriented woman who thinks only about a penis … The enumeration of parts and members he {Tedald} can cut off from his {her husband’s} body is meant to show how sex-oriented and penis-focused the woman was. … Both women seek pleasure and see penis as a way to achieve it … The soldier’s wife wants to save the penis to have children, secure herself in the society, and protect her husband from mutilation.

Grabowski (2015) pp. 248, 250, 256, 257, 260. Id., p. 258, In Chronicon Salernitanum 147 (alt. Latin text), Idta saves her husband Guaimar I of Salerno from castration about the year 897. Specifically, when a group of men ambushed Guaimar, one “would have amputated his testicles {amputaret testiculis}” if Idta hadn’t then pleaded to save Guaimar’s testicles. Nonetheless, Grabowski declared, “Idta wanted to save Guaimar’s penis.” Id. p. 260. The fundamental problem is socially pervasive lack of appreciation for men’s specific sexed being, including sexed injustices against men.

[4] The Byzantine wife’s physical and verbal performance for Tedald is highly sophisticated. Grabowski recognized its sophistication in a variety of dimensions, but not the Byzantine’s wife pretense of pagan polytheism to go with her references to Athena and Minerva. Grabowski (2015) pp. 256-7. Grabowski thus gave the gathered group of men too much understanding in their laughter:

The gathered people see it that way and laugh. They laugh at the well devised speech, as everyone must at least praise such a creation of a smart woman, but also at their lord who becomes a victim of his own words.

Id. Reifying contemporary academic gender ideology, Balzaretti speculated that the dominance of the wife over the husband perhaps was “the funniest aspect for contemporary readers.” Balzaretti (2002) p. 119. Women’s dominance probably wasn’t funny for learned, tenth-century readers who studied classical literature, knew the life of Aesop, understood without self-deception the position of General Belisarius, and read romances like Ruodlieb.

[5] Antapodosis 2.63. Men’s genitals clearly have a figurative problem in poetry.

[6] Antapodosis 1.11. Men typically prefer to have sex with a woman who isn’t a prostitute. Among other reasons, prostitutes are more likely to exploit men.

[7] Antapodosis 4.5. The subsequent quote is from id. 2.28. Men as a gender are not essentially preferable for fighting and dying. Women as soldiers potentially have significant combat advantages.

[8] Scholars have treated Liudprand as “prime example of medieval misogyny.” Grabowski (2015) p. 243. Balzaretti explained: “at the root of misogyny is not simple hatred of women but rather a refusal to portray women as they really are.” Balzaretti (2002) p. 125. Under today’s gynocentrism, the way women “really are” is socially constructed as essentially sugar and spice, and everything nice. Not surprisingly, “It is obvious that from today’s perspective Liudprand has to be considered a misogynist.” Grabowski (2015) p. 244.

Buc (1995) pointed out the Liudprand, in the evaluative framework of his time, contrasted admirable German women with whorish Italian women. In the evaluative framework of our time, Buc “tried to argue away Liutprand’s obvious misogyny.” Balzaretti (2002) p. 124.

Working under today’s dominant gynocentric ideology, La Rocca evaluated whether Liudprand should be posthumously charged with misogyny. She went through Liudprand’s Antapodosis chapter by chapter and classified each chapter as presenting a positive, neutral, or negative image of females. La Rocca (2007) p. 295. According to this line of analysis, even a fictional account of men-hating in academia must include a sufficiently large number of positive portrayals of women, or it’s subject to being arraigned on a capital charge of misogyny.

In gynocentric society, castrating men is considered with respect to misogyny. Does the story of the Byzantine wife saving her husband from castration indicate misogyny? Balzaretti warned against accepting objections against the charge of misogyny:

It might be objected that the woman gets what she wants as her husband is not castrated and is released. While true, this does not mean that Liutprand had an enlightened view of women but rather that he did not have a fully worked out, consistent view of gender in which all parts added up to a coherent whole.

Balzaretti (2002) p. 120. Enlightened persons now have a fully worked out, consistent view of gender: women are wonderful, and men are evil. In presenting men being castrated, Liudprand engaged in “abstract humour well suited to all patriarchal societies.” Id. p. 128. Abstract analysis ignoring injustices against men is well suited to all gynocentric societies.

[image] Satan devours children (foreground); Attis and other Galli castrate themselves to serve Cybele (background). Illumination from manuscript of Augustine’s De civitate Dei {City of God}, trans. from Latin into French by Raoul de Presles. Made in Paris about 1475.  Excerpt from fol. 344v of MS. MMW 10 A 11, in Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague.


Balzaretti, Ross. 2002. “Liutprand of Cremona’s Sense of Humour.” Ch. 5 (pp. 114-28) in Guy Halsall, ed., Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Buc, Philippe. 1995. “Italian Hussies and German Matrons. Liutprand of Cremona on Dynastic Legitimacy.” Frühmittelalterliche Studien. 29: 207-225.

Chiesa, Paolo, ed. 1998. Liudprand of Cremona. Antapodosis; Homelia pachalis; Historia Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis, 156. Turnholt: Brepols.

Dillon, Matthew. 2003. Girls and women in classical Greek religion. London: Routledge.

Dümmler, Ernst Ludwig, ed. 1877. Liudprand of Cremona. Liudprandi episcopi Cremonensis opera omnia. Hannoverae: Imp. bibl. Hahniani. (alternate source)

Grabowski, Antoni. 2015. “From Castration to Misogyny. The Meaning of Liudprand of Cremona’s Humour.” Acta Poloniae Historica. 112: 243.

La Rocca, Cristina. 2007. “Liutprando da Cremona e il paradigma femminile di dissoluzione dei Carolingi.” Pp. 29-307 in La Rocca, Cristina, ed. Agire da donna: modelli e pratiche di rappresentazione (secoli VI – X); atti del convegno, Padova, 18-19 febbrario 2005. Turnhout: Brepols.

Squatriti, Paolo, trans. 2007. The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Wright, F.A., trans. 1930. The Works of Liudprand of Cremona. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Dante in ring of lust saw men being purified of their sexual sins

Jacob embracing angel, by Rembrandt

Led by Virgil his guide, Dante in Purgatory came upon the ring of lust:

And here the walls shot out a blast of flame,
but the ring sent a breeze from down below,
driving it back and sheltering a slim
pathway along the unprotected edge,
for walking one by one. This side, I feared
the fire; that side, the sheer fall from the ledge.
“All round this ring,” my guide began to say,
“you’d better keep a tight rein on the eyes.
On small misstep and you’ll have gone astray.”

{ Quivi la ripa fiamma in fuor balestra,
e la cornice spira fiato in suso
che la reflette e via da lei sequestra;
ond’ ir ne convenia dal lato schiuso
ad uno ad uno; e io temëa ‘l foco
quinci, e quindi temeva cader giuso.
Lo duca mio dicea: “Per questo loco
si vuol tenere a li occhi stretto il freno,
però ch’errar potrebbesi per poco.” } [1]

Virgil was warning Dante about the male gaze. Many men enjoy gazing upon beautiful women, especially if the women are naked or nearly so. In the relatively enlightened medieval period, the male gaze wasn’t dogmatically defined as an act of violence against women. The male gaze was more rationally understood as tempting men into lust, including lust within men’s hearts. Men, especially lively and wonder-filled men, have difficulty controlling their eyes.

So it was with Dante walking about the burning ring of lust. A song caught his attention, and his eyes roamed:

Out of the bosom of the ardent fire
“God of the greatest clemency” was sung,
and turning toward them, equal in desire,
I beheld spirits walking through the flame —
so, portioning my glances here and there,
I looked at them, and watched the way I came.

{ “Summae Deus clementiae” nel seno
al grande ardore allora udi’ cantando,
che di volger mi fé caler non meno;
e vidi spirti per la fiamma andando;
per ch’io guardava a loro e a’ miei passi,
compartendo la vista a quando a quando. } [2]

Those singing had committed sexual sins — some heterosexual sins, some homosexual sins, and probably some gyno-idolatry. Dante humbly and rightly regarded himself as “equal in desire” to these passionate sinners. They weren’t condemned to the inferno of Hell. They were being purified of their sins through fire in Purgatory.

The hymn the spirits were singing, “O God of greatest clemency {Summae Deus clementiae},” is a frightening, seventh-century exemplar of long-enduring castration culture. In this hymn, the chanting men beg God to castrate them:

God of greatest clemency,
who made the world’s machinery,
one in power of action,
three in persons,

Devotedly, with kindness,
receive our tears mingled with songs,
so we, hearts of foulness purified,
may enjoy you more abundantly.

Our diseased loins and livers,
cauterize with fitting fire,
so that they may be continually in our pants,
far away from the worst lust.

{ Summae Deus clementie
mundique factor machinae,
unus potentialiter,
trinusque personaliter,

Nostros pius quum canticis
fletus benigne suscipe,
quo corda pura sordibus
te perfruamur largius;

Lumbos iecurque morbidum
adure igni congruo,
accincti ut sint perpetim
luxu remoto pessimo } [3]

The spirits in the ring of lust in Dante’s Purgatory were being purified with fire,  not being castrated with fire. They were self-consciously appealing for forgiveness, not literally calling for themselves to be castrated. Within their earthly life, men should exercise self-control to keep their pants on when doing so is right. But even if men have failed to keep their pants girt around their waists, Dante’s Divine Comedy offers them a way to Heaven.

Dante’s way to Heaven for lustful men draws upon the biblical account of Jacob wrestling at Peniel. In Hebrew scripture, the blessing of God is primarily fecundity: offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand of the sea. With help of his mother’s guile, Jacob took the blessing his father intended for his first-born son, Jacob’s older twin brother Esau. Esau subsequently sought to kill Jacob. To make matters worse, Jacob, like Dis in celibate Hell, struggled to gain a wife. Jacob had to work fourteen years in order to be allowed to marry his beloved Rachel. After Jacob has gained Rachel, he still had to face an attack from Esau. Jacob had to protect his blessing by protecting his family.[4]

One night Jacob sent his family across the Jabbok ford and remained alone on the near side. Then someone started wresting with him. With his strong, dog-like sexuality, Jacob continued wrestling until daybreak. The other, moving sharply and unexpectedly, wrenched Jacob’s hip in its socket. Jacob, however, refused to let go until he was further blessed. The God-woman then conceded, declaring that Jacob had wrestled with God and women and had prevailed. Jacob thus received the blessing of God and continued to enjoy the blessing of women. He had engaged God face-to-face and survived. Yet, with his injured groin, he could no longer could be as sexually vigorous as he had been. His dog-like sexuality had been domesticated.[5]

The fourth-century scholar and bishop Ambrose of Milan provided keen insight into Jacob’s wrestling. Ambrose explained:

For what is wrestling with God if not venturing upon the fight for virtue, and coming to grips with one more powerful and stronger than the rest, becoming an imitator of God?

{ quid est enim luctari cum deo nisi virtutis suscipere certamen et cum superiore congredi potioremque ceteris imitatorem fieri dei? } [6]

Jacob initially thought he was wrestling with a man in usual man-on-man violence. But his wrestling had called forth someone stronger than himself, a woman. Jacob had imitated God’s action as Adam explained it with an enveloping Hebrew phrase:

this one shall be called woman,
for out of man was taken this one.

{ לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּׁה כִּי מֵאִישׁ לֻֽקֳחָה־זֹּֽאת } [7]

In extracting a woman from a man, Jacob had become an imitator of God. He thus encountered God. That’s what men’s sexuality does for women and men. Yet a price was paid for this blessing. That price was the sexual wounding of men.

The biblical account of Jacob’s wrestling is complex and enigmatic. Prudentius’s fourth-century poem, “Night and darkness and dense clouds {Nox et tenebrae et nubila},” summarizes well the story and its meaning:

Through the dark night Jacob
dared wrestle with an angel
until the light arose,
sweating in an unequal fight.

But when the sunbeam shone,
his hamstring gave in, lamed,
defeated, his thigh crippled,
he lost the power to sin.

He grew weak in his wounded groin,
far below the heart,
the lower part of his body,
that feeds lust’s ominous flames.

From such examples we are taught,
that a man enclosed in darkness,
if he refuses to yield to God,
loses his rebellious strength.

So much more he will be blessed,
with his unruly member lamed,
when day’s dawn will discover him,
diminishing from wrestling.

{ Sub nocte Iacob caerula,
luctator audax angeli,
eo usque dum lux surgeret,
sudavit inpar proelium;

Sed cum iubar claresceret,
lapsante claudus poplite
femurque victus debile
culpae vigorem perdidit.

Nutabat inguen saucium,
quae corporis pars vilior
longeque sub cordis loco
diram fovet libidinem.

Hae nos docent imagines
hominem tenebris obsitum,
si forte non cedat Deo,
vires rebellis perdere.

Erit tamen beatior,
intemperans membrum cui
luctando claudum et tabidum
dies oborta invenerit. } [8]

From no later than the seventh century, Christians lit candles to begin their Easter Vigil. Celebrating the coming of light, they sang, “O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer! {O felix culpa quae talem ac tantum meruit habere redemptorem!}.”[9] Jacob, wrestling with the one who accosted him, lost the ominous, rebellious element of his lust through daringly exercising it. He became more blessed. The universal implication is this: men’s dog-like sexuality, even with resulting wounds, can bring blessings in unexpected ways.

Jacob wrestling, 13th-century Exultate hymn

The spirits being purged of their sexual sins through fire in Dante’s ring of lust sung more than “O God of greatest clemency.” They also sung of marital love:

Returning to their singing, they would cry
of wives and husbands who were chaste and lived
as virtue’s laws and marriage both demand.

{ Indi al cantar tornavano; indi donne
gridavano e mariti che fuor casti
come virtute e matrimonio imponne. } [10]

Paul of Tarsus advised men that it’s better to marry than to burn.[11] In considering marriage, men today must consider the danger of a marriage becoming sexless, being cuckolded and then enduring large financial obligations for being a cuckold, being summarily stripped of everything, including the right to live in their own home, to say nothing of anti-men sex discrimination in child custody and child support rulings. But the alternative isn’t just castration with a burning implement. From the story of Jacob at Peniel, men might hope that their non-marital sexual wrestling will lead to blessing. From Dante’s Purgatorio, men at least have the comfort of knowing that their sexual sins can be forgiven.

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[1] Dante, Divine Comedy, Purgatory 25.112-20, Italian text and English translation from Esolen (2004). Esolen’s translation is poetic yet quite faithful to the Italian text. The Princeton Dante Project provides the Latin text, Robert Hollander’s English verse translation, and a variety of other resources for studying the Divine Comedy. Dartmouth’s Dante Lab Reader provides the Italian text and the English translation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1867).

[2] Dante, Divine Comedy, Purgatory 25.121-6, from Esolen (2004). As Hollander commented, Jacopo della Lana’s near-contemporary commentary (written 1324-28) on Purgatorio 25.121-124 provides the Latin text of Summae Deus clementiae as Dante likely knew it.

[3] “O God of greatest clemency {Summae Deus clementiae},” st 1-3, Latin text from Walsh (2012) p. 148, my English translation. My translation benefited from Walsh’s. I’ve sacrificed the meter to make the translation more literal and accessible. The original text of this hymn has only one additional, concluding stanza:

So we who break the hours of night
now singing together,
with the gifts of our blessed fatherland
may all be amply enriched.

{ Ut quique oras noctium
Nunc concinendo rumpimus,
Donis beate patrie
Ditemur omnes affatim. }

Id., similarly my English translation.

The phrase mundi … machinae in the first stanza echoes Lucretius, De rerum natura 5.96. Lucretius sought to dispel men’s delusions about women, including the delusion that women are angels. Walpole (1922), p. 274, provides helpful textual notes in addition to Walsh’s.

Summae Deus clementiae exists in various forms (list of manuscripts). The above version is an Ambrosian hymn from the seventh century. It exists in the New Hymnal from the tenth century and the Mozarabic Breviary. Walsh (2012) p. 149, McGrath (1939) p. 118. Pope Urban VIII in 1632 muted the sexual references in the third stanza and changed the first line to Summae Parens clementiae {Father of greatest clemency}. Here’s the revised version as translated by Edward Caswell (1849) and by John David Chambers (nineteenth century). Here’s a chanted version. The different forms are easily conflated and confused. See, e.g. Donahoe (1908) pp. 44, 261.

[4] On the blessing of numerous offspring, Genesis 15:5, 22:17, 26:4, Exodus 32:13. On Jacob’s personal history, Genesis 25:19 – 35:29.

[5] For Jacob’s wrestling, Genesis 32:22-32. The text describes the one who initially started wrestling with Jacob as “a man” (אִישׁ ‘iysh). His opponent declares that Jacob has struggled “with God and with men” (אֱלֹהִים ‘elohiym, אֱנוֹשׁ ‘enowsh), but the term “men” might best be understand as adult human beings. I’ve used “with God and with women” above because that seems to me the most relevant meaning in context.

Beginning with the third-century BGC Septuagint, translators have differed on the meaning of this passage. Kugel (2003) pp. 29-30. Jacob says of his experience of wrestling, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Genesis 32:30. One interpretation is that Jacob initially saw an angel. That angel was actually God. Id. pp. 27-32.

[6] Ambrose of Milan, Of Jacob and blessed life {De Iacob et vita beata} 2.7.30, Latin text and English translation from O’Daly (2012) p. 77. Ambrose’s interpretation is similar to many others in the fourth century. Sheridan (2012). It has roots in Philo of Alexandria’s allegorical exegesis of Hebrew scripture:

We shall also find that the change of Jacob’s name to Israel is much to the purpose. Why so? Because Jacob is the supplanter, and Israel he who sees God. It is the task of a supplanter in the practice of virtue to disturb and shake and upset the supports on which passion rests, and all the firmness and stability which they have. That is a work which cannot commonly be done without hard effort and the stains of the arena, but only when one maintains the contests of wisdom to the end, and drilled in the gymnastics of the soul wrestles with the thoughts which oppose and hold it fast in their grip.

{ Ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸν Ἰακὼβ μετονομάζεσθαι συμβέβηκεν εἰς τὸν Ἰσραήλ, οὐκ ἀπὸ σκοποῦ. διὰ τί; ὅτι ὁ μὲν Ἰακὼβ πτερνιστής, ὁ δὲ Ἰσραὴλ ὁρῶν τὸν θεὸν καλεῖται. πτερνιστοῦ μὲν οὖν ἔργον ἀσκοῦντος ἀρετὴν τὰς βάσεις τοῦ πάθους, αἷς ἐφίδρυται, καὶ εἴ τι ὀχυρὸν καὶ ἱδρυμένον ἐν αὐταῖς κινεῖν καὶ σαλεύειν καὶ ἀνατρέπειν—ταῦτα δὲ οὐ δίχα ἀγωνίας ἀκονιτὶ φιλεῖ γίνεσθαι, ἀλλ’ ἐπειδάν τις τοὺς φρονήσεως ἄθλους διαθλῶν γυμνάζηταί τε τὰ τῆς ψυχῆς γυμνάσματα καὶ πρὸς τοὺς ἀντιπάλους καὶ τραχηλίζοντας αὐτὴν λογισμοὺς παλαίῃ }

Philo of Alexandria, De mutatione nominum 81, cited in Sheridan (2012) p. 319. See id. pp. 318-27 for related analysis. In contrast to Philo’s exegesis, the wrestling of Jacob the sexual athlete isn’t against his dog-like sexual passion, but with the God-woman. The unwilled, blessed result is to cripple his dog-like sexual passion and supplant it with domesticated sexual desire for a fully human wife.

[7] From Genesis 2:23. That passage includes etymological reasoning: “woman” (אִשָּׁה ‘ishshah) is derived from “out of man” (אִישׁ ‘iysh). The account of Jacob wrestling is also centrally concerned with etymology. Genesis 32:28, 30. For etymological analysis of Jacob wrestling, but not recognizing the sexual level, Kugel (2007) pp. 160-2.

[8] Prudentius, Cathemerinon 2, Morning Hymn {Hymnus Matutinus}, O night and darkness and dense clouds {Nox et tenebrae et nubila}, st. 19-23, Latin text from O’Daly (2012), my English translation, benefiting from those of id., Walsh (2012), and Richardson (2016). Pope (1895) provides an online Latin text and English translation.

Richard translates stanza 23 to contrast, rather than elaborate upon, stanza 22:

These figures teach us that the man
who is in darkness overwhelmed,
if he does not give way to God,
is ruined by rebellious strength.

But far more blessed will he be,
whose body dawning daylight finds
with his unruly member lamed,
and wasted from the bitter strife.

Richardson (2016) pp. 36-7. He explains, “This stanza {st. 22} describes the man who does not give way to God, and so his ‘rebellious strength’ destroys him (cf. 20.3 culpae vigorem), by contrast with st. 23, where one who eventually yields like Jacob is ‘far more blessed’.” But losing the power to sin is a victory / blessing that st. 23 elaborates upon. That’s the interpretation of O’Daly:

His wrestling is an image of the victory of virtue over vice, a victory that, paradoxically, involves a defeat against an unequal, because divine, adversary (l. 76). His victory‐in‐defeat entails the loss of the power to sin (l. 80), and this is reiterated in the generalizing l. 88, applicable to all humans who wrestle with the divine: there is loss of the energy to rebel.

O’Daly (2012) pp. 77-8. This interpretation I find more convincing.

[9] From the Exsultet (full Latin text and English translation; its liturgical history). The Vulgate version of Psalm 80 (now typically numbered Psalm 81) begins:

Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob.

{ laudate Deum fortitudinem nostram iubilate Deo Iacob }

By the early 13th century, psalters began this psalm with exultate rather than laudate. See, e.g. British Library Royal 1 D X, folio 74v. It is now commonly titled Exultate Deo. These changes appropriately associate Jacob with a “happy fault.”

[10] Dante, Divine Comedy, Purgatory 25.133-5, from Esolen (2004).

[11] 1 Corinthians 7:9.

[images] (1) Jacob wrestling with the angel (woman). Oil on canvas painting by Rembrandt about 1659. Preserved under accession no. 828 in Gemäldegalerie (Berlin, Germany). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Jacob wrestling. Historiated initial “e” for exultate beginning Psalm 80 (Vulgate numbering; now typically numbered Psalm 81) in manuscript created in Oxford, England, between about 1200 and 1220. From manuscript preserved in British Library, Royal 1 D X, folio 74v.


Donahoe, Daniel Joseph. 1908. Early Christian Hymns: translations of the verses of the most notable Latin writers of the early and middle ages. New York: The Grafton Press.

Esolen, Anthony M., trans. 2004. Dante Alighieri. Purgatory {second section of the Divine Comedy}. New York: Modern Library.

Kugel, James L. 2003. The God of Old: inside the lost world of the Bible. New York: Free Press.

Kugel, James L. 2007. How to Read the Bible: a guide to scripture, then and now. New York: Free Press.

McGrath, George Warren. 1939. The Revision of the Hymns of the Roman breviary under Urban VIII. Thesis (M.A.). Loyola University of Chicago, 1939.

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

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

Richardson, Nicholas J., trans. 2016. Prudentius’ Hymns for Hours and Seasons: the Liber Cathemerinon. New York: Routledge.

Sheridan, Mark. 2012. “Jacob and Israel: A Contribution to the History of an Interpretation.” Pp. 316-34 in Mark Sheridan, From the Nile to the Rhone and Beyond: studies in early monastic literature and scriptural interpretation. Analecta monastica, 12; Studia anselmiana, 156. Roma: Pontificio Ateneo Sant’Anselmo.

Walpole, Arthur Sumner, ed. 1922. Early Latin Hymns: with introduction and notes. Cambridge Patristic Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walsh, Peter G., ed. and trans., with Christopher Husch. 2012. One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, vol. 18. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.