Robert redeemed his mother’s prayer to Satan to conceive child

Medieval women and men who didn’t identify with consecrated religious life typically desired intensely to have children. For them, to be barren, to have no heir, was a miserable condition. In The Romance of Robert the Devil {Le roman de Robert le Diable}, composed about 1300, the Duchess and Duke of Normandy across seventeen years of marriage longed fruitlessly for children. The Duchess subsequently prayed to Satan that she would conceive. She thus conceived Robert the Devil.

In the relatively enlightened medieval period, adults understood how babies are made. Medieval adults didn’t believe that women just found themselves pregnant. Medieval adults even honestly acknowledged the problem of husbands being cuckolded. For example, in the late-fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman, Friar Flatterer and Sir Penetrans-Domos came to offer medical care at the home of the sick Conscience. Peace, however, held them at the door:

Unless you’re competent in some craft, you’re not coming in here.
I knew such a one once, not eight winters ago,
who came in thus coped to a court where I lived,
and served as surgeon for both our sire and our dame.
And at the last this low friar, when my lord was out,
he salved our women so till some were with child.

{ But thow konne any craft, thow comest nought herinne!
I knew swich oon ones, noght eighte wynter passed,
Coom in thus ycoped at a court there I dwelde,
And was my lordes leche — and my ladies bothe.
And at the laste this lymytour, tho my lord was oute,
He salvede so oure wommen til some were with childe. }[1]

Wrath, who served as a cook at a convent, stirred trouble with gossip:

I prepared stews for the prioress and other poor ladies
and served them juicy suggestions — that Dame Joan was a bastard,
and Dame Clarice a knight’s daughter, but her daddy was a cuckold,
and Dame Parnel a priest’s wench — “She’ll never be prioress
for she had a child in cherry-time. Our whole chapter knows it!”
With vicious verbiage I, Wrath, cooked their vegetables
till “You lie!” and “You lie!” leapt out at once,
and each hit the other under the cheek.
Had they had knives, by Christ, they’d have killed each other.

{ I was the prioresse potager and other povere ladies,
And maad hem joutes of janglyng–that Dame Johane was a bastard,
And Dame Clarice a knyghtes doughter–ac a cokewold was hir sire,
And Dame Pernele a preestes fyle–Prioresse worth she nevere,
For she hadde child in chirie-tyme, al oure Chapitre it wiste!
Of wikkede wordes I Wrathe hire wortes made,
Til “Thow lixt!” and “Thow lixt!” lopen out at ones
And either hitte oother under the cheke;
Hadde thei had knyves, by Crist! hir either hadde kild oother. }[2]

Being born outside of wedlock, having a father who was a cuckold, carrying on an affair with a priest — these were common occurrences. Nonetheless, most persons in medieval Europe regarded such situations as involving sin, or at least not being ideal.

Praying to Satan to have a child takes sinfulness to a diabolical level. In Le roman de Robert le Diable, the childless Duchess of Normandy lost her faith through self-pity and grief:

“God, you must hate me!” she cried.
“Fruitless is how you want me to be!
To a powerless pauper, oh Lord,
you will give a child in no time,
while I, who have riches and wealth,
it seems clear, must live on, deprived.
What a powerless God you are, Lord,
unable to grant what I ask.” She paused.
“Satan,” she cried, “to you I pray,
may you now turn your attention to me
so that you give me a child,
such I pray to you from this hour forward.”

{ “Dieu,” fait ele, “com me haés.
Que fruit doner ne me volés!
Une caitive non poissant,
Donés vous, sire, leus enfant;
Et moi qui tant ai, sire, avoir
Ne puis, che m’est vis, nul avoir.
Espoir que nul pooir [n’]avés,
Que vous, sire, nul me donés.
Diable,” fait el, “je te proi
Que tu entenges ja vers moi:
Se tu me dones un enfant,
Che te proi dès ore en avant.” }[3]

Soon the Duke returned to their castle and found his wife in bed. She looked beautiful, and he desired her. Immediately he delighted her in marital sexual intercourse. There’s nothing devilish about that, usually. This occasion, however, was different. The devil had used the Duke and Duchess as tools to engender a devilish child: Robert the Devil.[4]

From a vicious, bawling, and biting baby, Robert grew to be a tall, handsome, and strong young man. He was also thoroughly wicked. Everyone at the Duchess and Duke’s palace fled from him for fear of Robert beating or killing them. Robert then went into the forest and became the leader of a band of brigands. They killed many merchants and pilgrims and set fire to abbeys and granges. Any beautiful woman Robert encountered, he raped. One day he went into an abbey, raped and killed fifty nuns, and then burned the abbey to cinders.

Conscious of his own wickedness, Robert thought that he must have been stained from birth. He went to his mother. He threatened to kill her unless she explained to him why he was so wicked. She told him the truth about her childless despair and her prayer to Satan for a child. Robert indeed was a child from Hell by Satan’s intervention in his conception.

Robert the Devil seeking penance from the Pope

Robert then resolutely rejected his devilish birth identity. He began his transition by throwing away his sword and having his head shaved. He changed into a rough, old cloak and discarded his shoes. He then walked as a pilgrim to seek penance from the Pope. The Pope directed him to a holy hermit living alone deep in a forest called Marabonde.

Robert’s penance, which the hermit learned through a divine message, was horrific. The hermit hesitated to impose such a harsh penance. Robert insisted:

“Sir,” said Robert, “Know now:
there is nothing in the world that I would not do
so as to recover my soul
from the devil, who claims to have birthed it.

{ “Sire,” dist Robers, “or sachiés:
N’est riens el mont que ne feïsse,
Por coi je m’arme rescoussisse
Al diable, qui part i claime.” }[5]

For Robert’s penance, he was to act like a madman and allow all, without retaliation, to insult him, chase him, throw stones at him, and beat him. He was also required to remain silent. Moreover, he could eat only food that he wrestled away from dogs.

Robert the Devil receiving his penance from the hermit that the Pope reveres

Robert performed his penance on the streets of Rome and then in the Roman Emperor’s palace. Three times an envoy of God brought him armor and a white charger so that he could defend the Emperor from a Turkish attack. In the massive battles, Robert killed tens of thousands of men as an unknown white knight of extraordinary prowess. Robert kept hidden that he was that white knight. He thus disassociated himself from violence against men, even when it was necessary for defense of the realm.

Most importantly, Robert subverted the devil by identifying with dogs. Although he wrestled his food away from dogs as his penance required, Robert then fed dogs with food from his own mouth. He also slept with dogs under the stairs of the Emperor’s palace. Men have long been disparaged as dogs for their vibrant and dynamic sexuality. In the end, the beautiful, compassionate, and wise daughter of the Roman Emperor sought to marry Robert. If Robert had married her, he would have become the Emperor’s successor and eventually ruled the whole realm next to his wife. Robert instead became a disciple of the hermit in the forest. The devil was thoroughly defeated. Robert had shown to all that men are not merely dogs.[6]

The moral lesson of Le roman de Robert le Diable is fundamentally biblical. It highlights under-appreciated aspects of the life of the prophet Elisha. Following God’s command, the great prophet Elijah anointed Elisha as his successor when he found Elisha plowing with twelve pairs of oxen.[7] Elisha was thus engaged in extraordinarily vigorous plowing. With his mantle, Elijah engulfed Elisha to signify his anointing. Elisha then sacrificed his oxen and used the wood of his plow to cook the meat and share it with the people. The symbolism of Elisha’s change in station subverts castration culture to celebrate a man’s freely given gift of himself in service to the people.

Elisha subsequently engaged in miraculous deeds distinguishing him from the stereotype of men as dogs. Late in spring in Shunem, a wealthy married woman came to him and gave him food. She was childless and longed to have a child. She offered Elisha food whenever he was in Shunem. Eventually she said to her husband:

Let us make a small room on the roof with walls and put for him there a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp. Whenever he visits us, he can stay there.

[8]{ נַעֲשֶׂה־נָּא עֲלִיַּת־קִיר קְטַנָּה וְנָשִׂים לֹו שָׁם מִטָּה
וְשֻׁלְחָן וְכִסֵּא וּמְנֹורָה וְהָיָה בְּבֹאֹו אֵלֵינוּ יָסוּר
שָׁמָּה׃ }

Why wouldn’t a husband want a strange man whom his childless wife has been feeding to sleep in their home at night? The husband supported his wife’s desire. Elisha stayed in their house overnight. The next spring, about a year later, the wife gave birth to a son. No one believes that Elisha cuckolded the Shunammite woman’s husband. Elisha was not a devilish dog, but a man of God. The Shunammite couple gained a child as a blessing from God for their hospitality to Elisha.

Women desiring the blessing of children need not pray to Satan nor cuckold their husbands. Laughably improbably wonders are possible. Moreover, not having children doesn’t necessarily imply a barren life. Robert the Devil was childless and an evil-doer. He transitioned to a new identity as a hermit devoted to God. That devotion was fruitful:

For his sake God made many miracles
in this world before Robert died,
not just after his life had ended.

{ Por lui fist Dieus mainte miracle
En cest siècle, anchois qu’il finast
Ne que sa vie aterminast }[9]

Even childless persons can do worldly good and thus be fruitful.

* * * * *

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[1] William Langland (attributed), Piers Plowman / William’s Vision of Piers Plowman {Visio Willelmi de Petro Ploughman} 20.343-8, Middle English text (B version) from Schmidt (1978) via Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, English modernization (modified slightly) from Donaldson, Kirk & Anderson (1990).

The Middle English word “leche” referred to a physician and is a near-homonym for the Middle English “lechour,” which means “lecher / man engaged in inappropriate sexuality.” To “salve” means both to treat medicinally and to greet. It also ironically alludes to Mary’s conception of Jesus. This wordplay is discussed in Schmidt (1995), p. lii.

The friar called Sir Penetrans-Domos has a name that comes from Latin words in the Vulgate translation of 2 Timothy 3:6. Speaking of the godless, Timothy declares:

Among them are those who penetrate into households and captivate little women weighed down with sins, women led by various desires, always learning and never coming to true knowledge.

{ ex his enim sunt qui penetrant domos et captivas ducunt mulierculas oneratas peccatis quae ducuntur variis desideriis, semper discentes et numquam ad scientiam veritatis pervenientes }

2 Timothy 3:6, Latin text of the Vulgate, my English translation.

I used the phrase “low friar,” with the low for alliteration and to express disrepute, where the text refers to a “limiter.” The term “limiter” refers to a friar holding a license to beg in a limited area. Donaldson, Kirk & Anderson (1990) pp. 252-3, gloss for “friar.”

[2] Piers Plowman 5.155-63. sourced as previously. Dame Clarice apparently was the same woman as “Clarice of Cock’s Lane {Clarice of Cokkeslane}” in Piers Plowman 5.311. Cock’s Lane was a street in London on which were legal brothels. On Parnel’s fiercely sinful flesh, Piers Plowman 5.62-5. Although nuns, Clarice and Parnel apparently also were prostitutes. On striking on the cheek, cf. Matthew 5:39, Luke 6:29.

[3] The Romance of Robert the Devil {Le roman de Robert le Diable} vv. 37-48, Old French text from Löseth (1903), my English translation, benefitting from that of Rosenberg (2018).

Commerce with the devil is a motif in medieval literature. In a sixth-century Byzantine story, Theophilus transferred his soul’s allegiance to the devil in exchange for worldly status and wealth. In a miracle of Saint Basil composed between the seventh and ninth century, Proterius gave his soul to the devil in exchange for a woman’s love. In Le roman de Robert le Diable, it’s not that a “childless duchess makes a pact with the devil to conceive a child.” Hahn (2019) p. 887. The duchess merely prayed to the devil.

Irregularities in conceiving a child are also a motif in medieval literature. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain {Historia regum Britanniae}, the wizard Merlin was born of a woman who never had sex with a flesh-and-blood man. She was thought to have coupled with a daemon. The Scottish saint Kentigern reportedly was the son of a virgin mother. A lady in Marie de France’s lai Yonec became pregnant with a hawk transformed into a knight. In the lai Tydorel, a queen likewise became pregnant with an otherworldly knight.

Le roman de Robert le Diable survives in two manuscripts, conventionally denoted A and B. They are A: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25516 (written about 1280) and B: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 24405 (written in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century). The primary text in Löseth (1903) comes from MS. A.

Le roman de Robert le Diable was widely distributed and adapted. The Dominican monk Étienne de Bourbon / Stephen of Bourbon {Stephanus de Borbone} included an abridged retelling of the story in his Treatise on Various Preachable Materials {Tractatus de diversis materiis praedicabilibus}, which he composed in the 1250s. Jean Gobi the Younger similarly included a retelling in his Ladder to Heaven {Scala coeli}, an exempla collection that he wrote between 1327 and 1330. A short version was included in the thirteenth-century Chronicle of Normandy {Chronique de Normandie}. In the fourteenth century, a short version was included in the Large Chronicle of Normandy {Grande Chronique de Normandie}. The fourteenth century also saw a poetic adaption for moral instruction, Song of Robert the Devil {Dit de Robert le Diable}, and a play Miracle of Robert the Devil {Miracle de Robert le Diable} included in the collection Miracles of Our Lady through other persons {Miracles de Nostre Dame par personnages}. Many other adaptations in a variety of languages have occurred right through to the present. For a brief review of the reception history, Rosenberg (2018) pp. 2-4.

[4] Without textual warrant, Rosenberg’s translation brutalizes the Duke’s sex with the Duchess after she had prayed to Satan for a child:

No word did he utter as she lay there in bed,
He rushed and thrust until he was spent.

{ Que il l’enporte sor son lit
Tantost, et en fait son délit. }

Le roman de Robert le Diable vv. 61-2, Old French text from Löseth (1903), English translation from Rosenberg (2018). Rosenberg thus perpetuated the terrible social injustice to men that Ausonius parodied with his fourth-century Wedding Cento {Cento nuptialis}. Weiss (2018) courageously pointed out Rosenberg’s failing here. A much better translation for those verses:

When he had carried her onto their bed,
immediately with her he did her delight.

{ Que il l’enporte sor son lit
Tantost, et en fait son délit. }

Le roman de Robert le Diable vv. 61-2, Old French text from Löseth (1903), my English translation. The pronoun “son” can also mean “his,” but in v. 62 it’s best translated as “her” in appreciation for the sexual pleasure that men give to women.

Robert the Devil was distinctive in that he not only engaged in violence against men, but he also was violent toward women, even his mother and his nurses. Even as a baby, Robert was vicious:

Not for feeding nor for nursing
did he wish to give up his cruelty
but howled and wailed and loudly cried.
All the time fussing about this life,
all the time vicious and angry,
he was always swinging around with his feet.
And when they came to nurse the demon,
he all the time bit his nurses,
all the time howling, all the time attacking,
he was never at ease without screaming.
His nurses were averse to him,
fearing so much to nurse him,
that they prepared for him a tube
so that they would never have to nurse him directly.
Much they feared him, because he bit
each one when she lifted him.
When he could not bit or scratch them,
then he would go bash them with his feet.

{ Por paistre ne por alaitier
Ne vaut sa cruaité laissier
Ains hule et brait et forment crie.
Tos tans demaine ceste vie;
Tous tans est il fel et iriés,
Il regibe toudis des piés;
Et quant li malfés alaitoit,
Sa noriche tous tans mordoit,
Tous tans hule, tous tans resquinge,
Ja n’ert a aisse s’il ne winge.
Les noriches cel aversier
Redoutent tant a alaitier
Que un cornet li afaitierent,
Que onques puis ne l’alaitierent.
Mout le redoutent, qu’il mordoit
Cascune quant el le levoit.
Quant il ne pot mordre et grater
Dont les va il des piés bouter. }

Le roman de Robert le Diable vv. 99-116, Old French text from Löseth (1903), my English translation, benefiting from that of Rosenberg (2018). Rosenberg’s translation is quite loose here. It even uses a negative metaphor with a dog in translating v. 101: “He brayed like a beast; he barked like a dog.” Dogs, however, have a redemptive function relative to Robert the Devil.

Sir Gowther, a Middle English adaptation of Le roman de Robert le Diable, accentuates the violence of baby Robert the Devil into killing his wet nurses:

He sucked them so that they lost their lives —
soon he had slain three!
The child was young and he grew quickly.
The Duke had sent for six more wet nurses —
pay heed, gentle audience —
before twelve months had passed
nine nurses had he slain,
ladies fair and free-born.

{ He sowkyd hom so thei lost ther lyvys,
Sone had he sleyne three!
Tho chyld was yong and fast he wex –
The Duke gard prycke aftur sex –
Hende harkons yee:
Be twelfe monethys was gon
Nine norsus had he slon
Of ladys feyr and fre. }

Sir Gowther vv. 113-20, Middle English text from Laskaya & Salisbury (1995), my English modernization. For a modernization of the whole poem, Scott-Robinson (2016).

[5] Le roman de Robert le Diable vv. 830-3, Old French text from Löseth (1903), my English translation, benefiting from that of Rosenberg (2018).

Other medieval romances feature knights undergoing extended penance. For discussion of the Middle English penitential romances Sir Gowther, Sir Isumbras / Sir Ysumbras, Guy of Warwick, and Robert of Cisyle, Hopkins (1990).

[6] Robert’s redemption in relation to dogs has attracted considerable attention in the context of Sir Gowther, a fourteenth-century Middle English adaptation of Le roman de Robert le Diable. These studies have ignored the masculine gendering of dogs and historical disparagement of men as dogs. See, e.g. Huber (2015) and Zacher (2017). Disparaging men as dogs associates them with religious others. Resnick (2013).

A dog brings the penitent Gowther (the figure of Robert the Devil) in the forest a loaf of bread to eat three times on each of three successive days. That specific act of canine compassion, associated by the number three with Christian salvation, isn’t in Le roman de Robert le Diable. On its significance, Zacher (2017) pp. 284-5. Canine compassion for the repentant Robert the Devil echoes the compassion of dogs for the exiled Tristan in the Iseut-Tristan story corpus.

Le roman de Robert le Diable differs significantly from Sir Gowther. Robert the Devil doesn’t marry the Roman Emperor’s daughter or any other woman in Le roman de Robert le Diable, but the man-devil figure Gowther marries the princess in Sir Gowther. Le roman de Robert le Diable thus more directly challenges medieval gynocentrism.

Scholars writing in the misandristic tradition have obliterated the meninist perspective in both Le roman de Robert le Diable and Sir Gowther. For example, one such scholarly article begins with platitudes of dominant gender ideology:

The sensationalist opening sequence of the late Middle English poem Sir Gowther (c. 1400) reveals a pattern of male violence and abuse, which locates power in the patriarchal structures of the court, even when it insinuates the destructive and sometimes sterile consequences of hyper-masculinity.

Adler (2017) p. 49. Such intellectual work is so barren that one might rightly wonder whether it arises from prayers to Satan for scholarly publications under today’s dominant interests.

Underscoring the problem of men being falsely accusations of rape, both Huber and Zacher claim that the devil raped the duchess in Sir Gowther. Huber (2015) p. 289, and Zacher (2017) p. 432. There’s no clear textual warrant for that grave charge of rape. Even the devil deserves her due.

[7] 1 Kings 19:19-21 (Elijah anointing Elisha as his prophetic successor).

[8] 2 Kings 4:8-17 (Elisha ministers to the childless Shunammite woman). With his body Elisha was able to enliven even dead boys. By laying on the widow of Zarephath’s dead son three times, Elisha brought him back to life. 1 Kings 17:17-24. Elisha similarly resurrected the Shunammite woman’s dead son, with this instance specifying that Elisha put his mouth on the boy’s mouth. 2 Kings 4:32-37. Elisha’s action suggests an ancient form of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. As the story of David and the Shunammite woman Abishag underscores, one should not presume sexual conduct.

[9] Le roman de Robert le Diable vv. 5042-4, Old French text from Löseth (1903), my English translation, benefiting from that of Rosenberg (2018).

[images] (1) Robert the Devil seeking penance from the Pope. Illumination in instance of Le roman de Robert le Diable. On folio 177v of Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25516 (made about 1280). (2) Robert the Devil receiving his penance from the hermit that the Pope reveres. Robert carries a club. That club associates him with the wildman Rainoart in Aliscans, a chanson de geste in the Cycle of William of Orange {Cycle de Guillaume d’Orange}. Similarly from folio 180v of Français 25516. (3) Robert the Devil receives a knight’s armor and equipment from an angel. The Roman Emperor’s daughter, who came to love Robert, looks on. Similarly from folio 186v of Français 25516.


Adler, Gillian. 2017. “Canine Intercessors and Female Religious Metaphor in Sir Gowther.” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies. 48: 49-71.

Donaldson, E. Talbot, trans., Elisabeth D. Kirk, and Judith H. Anderson, eds. 1990. William Langland. Will’s Vision of Piers Plowman. New York: W. W. Norton.

Hahn, Stacey. 2019. ‘Review. “Robert the Devil”: The First Modern English Translation of “Robert le Diable,” an Anonymous French Romance of the Thirteenth Century by Samuel N.Rosenberg.’ Speculum. 94(3): 886-888.

Hopkins, Andrea. 1990. The Sinful Knights: A Study of Middle English Penitential Romance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Huber, Emily Rebekah. 2015. “Redeeming the Dog: Sir Gowther.” The Chaucer Review. 50(3-4): 284–314.

Laskaya, Anne and Eve Salisbury, eds. 1995. The Middle English Breton Lays. Kalamazoo, MI: Published for TEAMS (the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Löseth, Eilert, ed. 1903. Robert le Diable: Roman d’Aventures. Paris: Firmin Didot. Alternate source.

Resnick, Irven M. 2013. “Good Dog/Bad Dog: Dogs in Medieval Religious Polemics.” Enarratio: Publications of the Medieval Association of the Midwest. 18: 70-97.

Rosenberg, Samuel N. 2018. Robert the Devil: The First Modern English Translation of Robert le Diable, an Anonymous French Romance of the Thirteenth Century. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press. Reviewed by Hahn (2019) and Weiss (2018).

Schmidt, A. V. C., ed. 1978. William Langland. The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Complete Edition of the B-Text. London: J.M. Dent.

Schmidt, A. V. C., ed. 1995. William Langland. The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Critical Edition of the B-Text Based on Trinity College Cambridge Ms B.15.17. 2nd ed. London: J.M. Dent.

Scott-Robinson, Richard. 2016. Sir Gowther: A modern English translation. eleusinianm. Online.

Weiss, Judith. 2018. “Review. Rosenberg, Samuel N. Robert the Devil: The First Modern English Translation of Robert le Diable, an Anonymous French Romance of the Thirteenth Century. University Park: The Pensnylvania State University Press, 2018.” The Medieval Review. Online 18.11.02.

Zacher, Samantha. 2017. “Sir Gowther’s Canine Penance: Forms of Animal Asceticism from Cynic Philosophy to Medieval Romance.” The Chaucer Review. 52(4): 426–55.

Gregory the Great’s aunt Gordiana loved man like Piers Plowman

Amid the ruins of Rome in the sixth century, Gregory the Great preached on Jesus’s parable that begins:

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man, a king, who gave a wedding feast for his son.

{ ὡμοιώθη ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ βασιλεῖ ὅστις ἐποίησεν γάμους τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ }[1]

A proponent of Christian asceticism, Gregory the Great explicated this parable in part with a story about his aunts Tarsilla, Gordiana, and Aemiliana. These three high-born, wealthy sisters as young women consecrated themselves apart from men in devotion to God. Gordiana, however, eventually left this consecrated life to get married. Gordiana’s desire for a man came to be interpreted in medieval Latin literature as her desire for a “plowman.” The great fourteenth-century Christian vision Piers Plowman figured the plowman as Christ. In the reception of her story, the married Gordiana became an exemplar of incarnating the seminal blessing with a husband.

Gregory the Great / Pope Gregory I seated with his bishop's staff

While condemning Gordiana’s infidelity to consecrated life, Gregory the Great also disparaged Gordiana as “destined to be among unconsecrated women {inter laicas deputata}.” In Gregory’s account, Tarsilla and Aemiliana contrasted with Gordiana as good with bad:

My father had three sisters. All three were consecrated virgins. One was named Tarsilla, the other Gordiana, and the third Aemiliana. They were all transformed by one passion, and they were all consecrated at one time. They led life in common in their own home under strict, regular discipline. When they had been so converted for a long time, Tarsilla and Aemiliana began to grow daily in love for their Creator. Only their bodies remained here. Their souls by day crossed to the eternal. In contrast, Gordiana’s soul through daily harms to the innermost love began to become lukewarm and to return little by little to love of this world.

{ Tres pater meus sorores habuit, quae cunctae tres sacrae virgines fuerunt: quarum una Tharsilla, alia Gordiana, alia Aemiliana dicebatur. Uno omnes ardore conversae, uno eodemque tempore sacratae, sub districtione regulari degentes, in domo propria socialem vitam ducebant. Cumque essent diutius in eadem conversatione, coeperunt quotidianis incrementis in amorem conditoris sui Tharsilla et Aemiliana succrescere, et, cum solo hic essent corpore, quotidie animo ad aeterna transire. At contra Gordianae animus coepit a calore amoris intimi per quotidiana detrimenta tepescere, et paulisper ad hujus saeculi amorem redire. }[2]

Gordiana was a young woman like most other young women:

She enjoyed the society of young, worldly women, and to her, being a woman not dedicated to this world was very burdensome.

{ Puellarum gaudebat societate laicarum, eique persona valde onerosa erat quaecunque huic mundo dedita non erat. }

Love of the world is not bad in itself. Christians are called to love God and love their neighbors in this world.[3] Different Christians can pursue that dual commandment in different ways — including through living consecrated religious life and in living ordinary life within the world.

Tarsilla and Aemiliana were saintly consecrated women. Before she died, Tarsilla received a vision of Jesus summoning her to him. A delightful smell of perfume accompanied her death. When her body was washed for burial, her knees and elbows were found hard with calluses from constant prayer on the ground. A few days after she died, Tarsilla appealed from Heaven for her sister Aemiliana to join her there. With heart-warming sisterly solicitousness, Aemiliana was reluctant to leave her wayward sister Gordiana alone. But Tarsilla declared that Gordiana was going to the world, so Aemiliana shouldn’t hesitate to leave her for Heaven. A few days later, Aemiliana died and joined Tarsilla in celebrating the Epiphany of the Lord in Heaven.

As Tarsilla foresaw, Gordiana went into the world. Gregory colored Gordiana’s new direction as evil:

Gordiana in contrast soon found herself thus alone and left behind. Her vices increased, and what earlier was concealed in the desire of her thought she afterward occupied herself with accomplishing in wicked action. Thus having forgotten fear of the Lord, having forgotten chastity and self-respect, having forgotten her consecration, she later married the steward of her agricultural estates.

{ Gordiana autem mox ut solam remansisse se reperit, ejus pravitas excrevit, et quod prius latuit in desiderio cogitationis, hoc post effectu pravae actionis exercuit. Nam oblita dominici timoris, oblita pudoris et reverentiae, oblita consecrationis, conductorem agrorum suorum postmodum maritum duxit. }

In Latin grammar, a man typically leads a woman into marriage. The steward, however, was Gordiana’s social inferior. Gregory represented that status difference grammatically in having Gordiana lead her steward into marriage.[4] Gregory summarized his story of his aunt Gordiana:

Behold, my brothers, how Gordiana, of whom I spoke earlier, falls from the excellence of the holy life into torture.

{ Ecce, fratres mei, Gordiana, quam superius dixi, a sanctimonialis habitus excellentia corruit ad poenam }

Marriage can be torture, but it’s not always that. Marriage to her steward evidently was an arrangement that Gordiana ardently sought. Gregory meant his story of the three sisters to illustrate Jesus’s epimythium to his parable about the Kingdom of Heaven and the wedding feast: “Many are called, but few are chosen {πολλοὶ γάρ εἰσιν κλητοὶ ὀλίγοι δὲ ἐκλεκτοί}.” Two of the sisters, Tarsilla and Aemiliana, died young and became saints. The third sister, Gordiana, married and lived longer in this world. With respect to these three sisters, Gordiana was in the life-course minority. She literally maps to the few.

With a story about the death-bed repentance of a dissolute man, Gregory in this same homily emphasized that the fate of one’s soul is never certain at any point in one’s earthly life. That lesson also applies to Gordiana.[5] Only God knows whether she went to Hell after she died. Subsequent literary history strongly suggests that she didn’t.

Egbert of Liège’s early eleventh-century schoolbook, The Well-Laden Ship {Fecunda ratis}, shows a significant change in the story of Gordiana. Egbert’s motley collection of one-verse proverbs includes a verse about Gordiana:

O wicked deed! Gordiana has followed in marriage a plowman!

{ O malefactum, Gordiana secuta bubulcum }[6]

The Latin bubulcus is “from bōs (“ox”) +‎ -bulcus (“-herd”), likely by analogy of subulcus {swineherd}.”[7] Medieval farmers used oxen for plowing. The meaning of bubulcus thus readily encompassed “plowman.” Rather than leading her steward into marriage, Gordiana in this proverb followed a plowman into marriage. That linguistic construct lowers Gordiana’s social status and highlights her natural sexual desire for a man. If Gregory the Great’s aunt Gordiana had any pride in her lofty birth, that pride was utterly destroyed in the medieval reception of her life.

medieval plowman plowing with oxen

The fourteenth-century Christian masterpiece Piers Plowman supports Gordiana’s choice to marry. Piers Plowman through the voice of Wit affirms marital sexuality as providing pleasure and realizing the seminal blessing in children:

It is an uncomely couple, by Christ, I think,
when a young wench is wedded to a worn-out gaffer,
or any widow wedded for the wealth she possesses,
who will never bear a baby unless it be in her arms.
In jealousy, joyless, and in jangling abed,
many a pair since the pestilence have pledged their vows.
The fruit that they bring forth are foul words.
They have no children but chafing and exchanges of blows.

Therefore I counsel all Christians not to crave to be married
for a fat fortune or family connections.
But virgins and virgins should make vows with one another,
and widowers and widows should wed in the same way.
For no lands but for love look to it that you marry,
and then you’ll get the grace of God and goods enough to live with.

{ It is an uncomly couple. by Crist! as me thynketh —
To yeven a yong wenche to an [y]olde feble,
Or wedden any wodewe for welthe of hir goodes
That nevere shal barn bere but if it be in armes!
In jelousie joyelees and janglynge on bedde,
Many a peire sithen the pestilence han plight hem togideres.
The fruyt that thei brynge forth arn.[manye] foule wordes;
Have thei no children but cheeste and chopp[es] hem bitwene.

Forthi I counseille alle Cristene coveite noght be wedded
For coveitise of catel ne of kynrede riche;
Ac maidenes and maydenes macche yow togideres;
Wideweres and wodewes, wercheth the same;
For no londes, but for love, loke ye be wedded,
And thanne gete ye the grace of God, and good ynough to live with. }[8]

Disparaging marriages between young women and weak, worn-out old men suggests appreciation for vigorous plowing. Piers Plowman more crudely recognizes men’s sexual desire:

And every manner of secular man that cannot remain continent
wisely go wed and ward off sin,
for fantasies of the flesh are the Fiend’s lures.
While you’re young and yeasty and your weapon yet keen,
work it out in wiving if you would be excused.
While you’ve strength galore, don’t waste it on a whore.
For o’er the door is writ this lore: “A call girl’s death’s door.”

{ And every maner seculer that may noght continue,
Wisely go wedde, and ware hym fro synne;
For lecherie in likynge is lymeyerd of helle.
Whiles thow art yong, and thi wepene kene,
Wreke thee with wyvyng, if thow wolt ben excused:
Dum sis vir fortis, ne des tua robora scortis.
Scribitur in poriis, meretrix est ianua mortis. }

In circumstances of true love between spouses, “that deed done in the dark … it delights God Almighty {that ilke derne dede … it liketh God almyghty}.”

In Piers Plowman, the plowman is a figure of Christ. Amid vices tumultuously attacking, corruption among priests and friars, and many persons losing a sense of sin, the figure of Conscience begins a long journey to seek redemption through Piers the Plowman:

Sloth saw that, and so did Pride,
and came to attack Conscience with keen will.
Conscience cried again to Clergy to help,
and bade Contrition to come to keep the gate.
“He lies drowned in dream,” said Peace, “and so do many others.
The Friar with his physic has enchanted the folk here,
and given them a drugged drink. They dread no sin.”
“By Christ,” said Conscience then, “I will become a pilgrim,
and walk as wide as the world reaches
to seek Piers the Plowman, who might expunge Pride,
and see that friars have funds who flatter for need
and contradict me, Conscience. Now Kind avenge me,
and send me heart and health till I have Piers the Plowman.”
And Conscience cried for Grace until I became wakeful.

{ Sleuth seigh that, and so dide Pryde,
And comen with a kene wille Conscience to assaille.
Conseience cryed eft [Clergie come] helpe hym,
And [bad] Contricion [come] to kepe the yate.
“He lith adreynt,” seide Pees, “and so do manye othere;
The frere with his phisyk this folk hath enchaunted,
And plastred hem so esily [that hii] drede no synne!’
“By Crist!” quod Conscience tho, “I wole bicome a pilgrym,
And walken as wide as the world lasteth,
To seken Piers the Plowman, that Pryde myghte destruye,
And that freres hadde a fyndyng, that for nede flateren
And countrepledeth me, Conscience. Now Kynde me avenge,
And sende me hap and heele, til I have Piers the P1owman!”
And siththe he gradde after Grace, til I gan awake. }

Gordiana didn’t merely seek a plowman. She married one. In doing so, she gave up her pride. From the perspective of Piers Plowman, Gordiana’s marriage to the plowman looks redemptive.

Piers Plowman disparages chastity without earthly love. “A lady lovely of look {a lovely lady of leere},” a figure for the holy Mother Church, declared:

For though you are true of your tongue and truly earn your profits
and are as chaste as a child crying at a church service,
unless you really love and relieve the poor
and share in a goodly way such goods as God sends you,
you have no more merit in Mass nor in Hours
than Malkin for her maidenhead that no man desires.

{ For though ye be trewe of youre tonge and treweliche wynne,
And as chaste as a child that in chirche wepeth,
But if ye loven leelly and lene the povere
Of swich good as God sent, goodliche parteth,
Ye ne have na moore merite in Masse ne in houres
Than Malkyn of hire maydenhede, that no man desireth. }

Malkin was a traditional English name for a promiscuous woman. Here Malkin is so unattractive that no man desires to have sex with her. Her chastity is not to her spiritual credit. The same goes for those who are chaste without being charitable:

Let chastity without charity be chained in Hell!
It’s as lifeless as a lamp that has no light in it.
Many chaplains are chaste, but their charity is missing.

Love is Life’s doctor, and next our Lord himself,
and also the strait street that goes straight to Heaven.

{ “Forthi chastite withouten charite worth cheyned in helle;
It is as lewed as a lampe that no light is inne.
Manye chapeleyns arn chaste, ac charite is aweye;

Love is leche of lif and next Oure Lord selve,
And also the graithe gate that goth into hevene. }

In Jesus’s parable about the king’s wedding feast, both good and bad persons attend the wedding feast. One guest is thrown out. That guest isn’t characterized as good or bad, but as not wearing a wedding garment. Gregory the Great interpreted the wedding garment to mean charity.[9] Was Gordiana charitable toward her plowman husband? Sex with one’s spouse in some circumstances can be a charitable act. Gordiana with her land and wealth could have been materially charitable to others. Gregory said nothing about whether Gordiana wore the wedding garment of charity.

Piers the Plowman holding a three-pronged plow-handle

The Kingdom of Heaven is like an all-encompassing royal wedding feast. A chaste life in devotion to God and in charity to one’s neighbors is holy. Yet in Christian understanding, Jesus, the son of a carpenter and a young, provincial woman, turned the world upside down with his fleshly life. God so loved the world that he entered into it. Jesus’s first miracle in the presence of others was turning water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana. Drink some wine and celebrate the elite Roman virgin Gordiana enjoying a plowman as her husband!

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Matthew 22:2. Gregory the Great in his homily quoted a Latin translation of this scripture:

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man, a king, who made a wedding feast for his son.

{ Simile est regnum coelorum homini regi qui fecit nuptias filio suo }

Jerome’s Vulgate translation adds dynamism to the simile with the inserted word factum: “The making of the Kingdom of Heaven {Simile factum est regnum coelorum}…”

Jesus’s parable of the wedding feast is Matthew 22:1-14. Cf. Luke 14:15-24. Gregory associated the parable in Matthew with nuptials in the temporal church. The parable in Luke he associated with the final banquet of eternity.

[2] Gregory the Great {Gregorius Magnus} / Pope Gregory I, 40 Homilies on the Gospels {Homilae xl in Evangelia}, Homily 38 on Matthew 22:1-14, section 15, Latin text of Migne (1849) in Patrologia Latina 76.1075-1181, my English translation. Here’s an English translation of the whole homily. The subsequent three quotes above are similarly from this homily, sections 15-6.

Gregory the Great was chosen Pope Gregory I on September 3, 590. He delivered this homily at the Basilica of Blessed Clement in Rome on Sunday, February 10, 592.

Gregory had one of the most distinguished lineages of his time. Gregory’s great-great-grandfather was Pope Felix III (the pope from 483-492). Gregory’s mother Silvia was a noble woman honored as a saint soon after her death. Gregory’s father Gordianus was a patrician who served as a Roman Senator and Prefect of the City of Rome. Gordianus owned a luxurious villa on Rome’s Caelian Hill and large estates in Sicily. Gregory himself served as Prefect of Roman in 574, when he was about 33 years old. Gregory’s aunts Tarsilla, Gordiana, and Aemiliana followed an elite life-course in becoming consecrated women:

Gregory’s aunts, then, belong to a line of women of the Roman senatorial aristocracy that can be traced back to the second half of the 4th century, who lived mainly in the family home in a monastic fashion under a private or public vow.

Müller (2013) p. 83. Tarsilla (also called Trasilla) and Aemiliana (also spelled Emiliana) came to be honored as saints, as did Gordianus, Silvia, and Gregory himself. On Gregory’s life and his use of saints, Lupton (2013) chapters 1-2.

Gregory became a strong supporter of Christian monasticism. In 574, he experienced “the grace of conversion {conversionis gratia}” to monastic life after difficult public service. He then founded six monasteries in Sicily. He also converted his family home on Rome’s Caelian Hill into a monastery dedicated to Saint Andrew the Apostle. Gregory himself entered that monastery. He remained there until 579. Then he was appointed as the papal ambassador to Constantinople. He returned to St. Andrews monastery in 585. He remained there until 590, when he was appointed pope.

[3] Matthew 22:37-40.

[4] Latin for a man marrying typically is ducere uxorem (literally “to lead a wife”} while Latin for a woman marrying is typically nubere (to wed). Gregory, in contrast, used the unusual construction maritum duxere, where maritus means “husband.” In sixth-century northern European / Anglo-Saxon languages, cognates with “husband” were associated with managing or farming land.

[5] The dissolute man was the brother of a monk living in Gregory’s monastery of Saint Andrews on Caelian Hill. Gregory’s story of the dissolute man, like his story of his three aunts, is personally connected to him.

Gregory acknowledged sexual passion even in extremely unpropitious circumstances of marital life. Specifically, Gregory heard from Abbot Stephen of Rome that a married man in Norcia was ordained a priest. After his ordination, the priest of Norcia ceased to have sex with his wife. He wouldn’t even go near her. The reason for his reticence subsequently became clear:

After a long life, forty years of which he spent in priestly ministry, he was seized with a severe fever and brought to the point of death. When his wife saw him lying there half-dead, with all the strength of his body wasted away, she put her ear to his face and tried to catch the least sound of breath.

When he sensed her presence, he mustered all his strength and with the little breath that was still in him, he rasped in a hoarse whisper, “Go away from me, woman. The fire still lives. Take away the tinder.”

{ Hic ergo venerabilis presbyter cum longam vitae implesset aetatem, anno quadragesimo ordinationis suae inardescente graviter febre correptus, ad extrema deductus est. Sed cum eum presbytera sua conspiceret solutis jam membris, quasi in morte distentum, si quod adhuc ei vitale spiramen inesset, naribus ejus apposita curavit aure dignoscere.

Quod ille sentiens, cui tenuissimus inerat flatus, quantulo adnisu valuit, ut loqui potuisset, infervescente spiritu collegit vocem atque erupit, dicens: “Recede a me, mulier, adhuc igniculus vivit, paleam tolle.” }

Gregory the Great, Dialogues about the lives and miracles of the Italian fathers {Dialogi de vita et miraculis patrum Italicorum} 4.12, Latin text of Migne (1849) from Patrologia Latina 77 (Books 1, 3, 4) and 66 (Book 2), English translation (modified slightly) of Zimmerman (1959) pp. 203-4. Medieval men were very lively in their ardent love for women.

Gregory emphasized mutuality in marital relations. A husband or wife couldn’t refuse to have sex with a spouse even to enter religious life:

Thenceforth when good spouses either wish to increase merit or to eliminate the sins of a former life, let them be allowed to bind themselves to continence and to strive for a better life. But if a wife does not follow the continence that a husband desires or the husband rejects that which the wife desires, the marriage cannot be separated because it is written: “The wife does not have power over her own body, but the husband does; and the husband does not have power over his own body, but the wife does.”

{ Proinde cum boni coniuges aut meritum augere desiderant aut anteactae vitae culpas delere, ut se ad continentiam astringant, et meliorem vitam appetant, licet. Si vero continentiam quam vir appetit uxor non sequitur aut quam uxor appetit vir recusat dividi coniugium non licet, quia scriptum est: “Mulier sui corporis potestatem non habet, sed vir; et vir sui corporis potestatem non habet, sed mulier.” }

Gregory the Great, Register of Letters {Registum Epistolarum} 11.27, “Gregory to the patrician Theoctista {Gregorius Theoctistae Patriciae},” letter dated February, 601, Latin text from Ewald & Hartmann (1887-91), English translation of Ashleigh Imus on Epistolae. Gregory quotes in Latin translation 1 Corinthians 7:4. See similarly Gregory, Registum Epistolarum 11.30 (wrongly numbered 11.50), “Gregory to Adrian, Notary of Panormus {Gregorius Adriano notario Panormitano},” dated Febrary 601, Latin text and English translation.

For the current best Latin edition of Gregory the Great’s letters, Norberg (1982). Here are selected letters of Gregory in English translation. For a more recent translation of all of Gregory’s letters, Martyn (2004). For a review of Gregory’s thoughts and actions in relation to women, Wilkins (1991). Writing within the you-go-girl scholarly tradition, Wilkins lamented, “Gregory was certainly no feminist in his thoughts and actions.” Id. p. 594.

[6] Egbert of Liège, The Well-Laden Ship {Fecunda ratis} 1.562, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Babcock (2013).

[7] Etymological note for bubulcus on Wiktionary, citing De Vaan (2008) p. 75 (entry for “bōs”), with my added gloss for subulcus.

[8] William Langland (attributed), Piers Plowman / William’s Vision of Piers Plowman {Visio Willelmi de Petro Ploughman} 9.165-71, 9.176-81, Middle English text (B version) from Schmidt (1978) via Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, English modernization (modified slightly) from Donaldson, Kirk & Anderson (1990). Subsequent quotes from Piers Plowman are similarly sourced.

The Northern Homily Cycle / The North-English Homily Collection, written early in the fourteenth century, includes a version of Gregory’s story about his aunts Tarsilla, Gordiana, and Aemiliana. Gerould (1902) p. 89. The English homily story states only that Gordiana took a husband. The fourteenth-century Ethical Mirror {Speculum morale}, which was added to Vincent de Beauvais’s thirteenth-century Greater Mirror {Speculum maius}, followed Gregory more closely in specifying that Gordiana married “the custodian of her agricultural estates {custos agrorum suorum}.” Id. Both The Northern Homily Cycle and Speculum morale are far less sophisticated literary works than is Piers Plowman.

Subsequent quotes above from Piers Plowman are similarly sourced. They are Piers Plowman 9.182-85c (And every manner of secular man…), 9.192-3 (that deed done in the dark…), 20.373-86 (Sloth saw that, and so did Pride…), 1.3 (A lady lovely of look), 1.179-84 (For though you are true of your tongue…), 1.188-90, 1.204-5 (Let chastity without charity be chained in Hell…).

[9] Gregory the Great, Homilae xl in Evangelia, Homily 38, section 9.

Thomas Aquinas’s sequence for the Mass of Corpus Christi likens eucharistic communion to the wedding feast of Matthew 22:1-14 in being morally inclusive:

The good enter, the evil enter,
with end so unequal:
eternal life or eternal destruction.

{ Sumunt boni, sumunt mali:
sorte tamen inaequali,
vitae vel interitus. }

Aquinas, “Praise, O Zion, your Savior {Lauda Sion Salvatorem},” 9.1-3, Latin text from the Roman Missal, my English translation.

[images] (1) Gregory the Great {Gregorius Magnus} with staff seated on bishop’s chair. From twelfth-century manuscript containing excerpts from Gregory’s works. Illustration from folio 1v of Bibliothèque municipale de Douai, MS. 315, tome II. (2) Medieval plowman plowing with oxen. Illumination in Psalter (“The Luttrell Psalter”) made between 1325 and 1340. From folio 170r of British Library, Add MS. 42130. (3) Piers the Plowman holding tri-pronged plow-handle. Illumination (color-enhanced) on the margin of folio 35r of Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Douce 104. This manuscript was made 1427-8. Scott (1990), pp. 38-9, describes Piers the Plowman as holding a plow-handle (“stiua”) in his right hand. She doesn’t comment on its triune character. With the face of contemplation drawn above this figure, Piers could be interpreted as contemplating the Trinity.


Babcock, Robert Gary, ed. and trans. 2013. Egbert of Liège. The Well-Laden Ship {Fecunda ratis}. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 25. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

De Vaan, Michiel. 2008. Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the Other Italic Languages. Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series, 7. Leiden: Brill

Donaldson, E. Talbot, trans., Elisabeth D. Kirk, and Judith H. Anderson, eds. 1990. William Langland. Will’s vision of Piers Plowman. New York: W.W. Norton.

Ewald, Paulus and Ludovicus Hartmann, eds. 1887-91. Gregorius Magnus. Registrum Epistularum. MGH Epp. in Quart 2: Gregorii papae registrum epistolarum. Berlin: Weidmann.

Gerould, Gordon Hall. 1902. The North-English Homily Collection: A Study of the Manuscript Relations and of the Sources of the Tales. Bachelor of Arts Dissertion, University of Oxford, 1901. Lancaster, PA: New Era Printing.

Lupton, Brendan P. 2013. St. Paul as a Model and Teacher in the Writings of St. Gregory the Great. Dissertation for Sacred Theology Doctorate, Catholic University of America.

Martyn, John R. C., trans. 2004. The Letters of Gregory the Great. 3 volumes. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Müller, Barbara. 2013. “Gregory the Great and Monasticism.” Ch. 4 (pp. 83-108) in Bronwen Neil and Matthew Dal Santo, eds. A Companion to Gregory the Great. Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition, Volume 47. Leiden: Brill.

Norberg, Dag, ed. 1982. S. Gregorii Magni: Registrum Epistularum. Turnhout: Typographi Brepols Editores Pontificii.

Scott, Kathleen L. 1990. “The Illustrations of Piers Plowman in Bodleian Library Ms. Douce 104.” The Yearbook of Langland Studies. 4: 1–86.

Schmidt, A. V. C., ed. 1978. William Langland. The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Complete Edition of the B-Text. London: J.M. Dent.

Wilkins, Walter J. 1991. “‘Submitting the Neck of Your Mind’: Gregory the Great and Women of Power.” The Catholic Historical Review. 77(4): 583–94.

Zimmerman, Odo John, trans. 1959. Dialogues: Saint Gregory the Great. Fathers of the Church, a New Translation, vol. 39. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.

conflicts and death don’t part Josiane & Boeve

In the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman romance Boeve de Haumtone, the English boy Boeve of Hampton was sold to traveling merchants. He was lucky. His mother wanted him dead after he complained about her arranging to have his father killed. In a slave market far from England, King Hermin of Egypt bought Boeve. In Egypt, Boeve grew to be an excellent young knight. He helped King Hermin to repel the attacking king of Damascus. King Hermin then urged his beautiful young daughter Josiane to help Boeve undress and to serve him food in his room.

After helping Boeve to remove his armor, the Saracen princess Josiane brought him meat. She herself cut and served him meat. After he had eaten all that he wanted, she said to him:

Beautiful sir Boeve, I won’t seek to hide it from you —
love for you has made me weep many tears
and many nights made me lie awake with too much breath,
and for that reason, beautiful sir, I would like to beg you
that you would not refuse my love.
If you refuse it, I will not be able to endure any longer,
I must die and perish of grief.

{ Beau sire Boefs, ne vus en quer celer,
vostre amour me ad fet meint lerme plurer
e meint nuit me ad fet so vent trop veiller;
e pur ceo, beau sire, jeo vus voil prier
que vus ne voillez mie ma amour refuser;
si vus la refusez, ne purrai plus durrer,
de doel me covent morer e afiner. }

In medieval Europe, lovesickness was regarded as a grave medical condition. Moreover, medieval women were strong, active leaders in love with men. Men, however, have long suffered from lack of self-esteem. So it was with Boeve:

“My beautiful young lady,” so said to her Boeve,
“by God, let this great folly cease.
Already King Bradmund has asked for you in marriage.
There isn’t a king, so I believe, in the entire world,
nor prince, emir, count, or baron,
who would not desire you, if he would see your face.
I am a poor knight from another land.
I have not yet seen my fief nor my house.”

{ “Ma bele damoisele,” ceo li dist Bovoun,
“pur dieu lessez ester ceste grant folesoun,
ja vus ad demaundé le roi Brademound;
il n’i ad roi, ceo crei, en tretut le mound
ne prince ne admiré ne counte ne baroun,
que il ne vus desirrunt, si il veient vostre fasoun;
jeo sui un povere chevaler de un autre regioun,
jeo n’i vi unkes uncore mon fu ne ma meisoun.” }

Too many men don’t understand their intrinsic worth. Josiane declared to Boeve that she loved him more in his tunic than she would a king with ten kingdoms. She again asked for his love.

Boeve again rejected Josiane’s love. She blushed, felt profound grief, and wept. Then she said:

By God! Sir Boeve, you tell the truth.
In our age there isn’t a king, prince, or emir who doesn’t admire me,
who wouldn’t willingly take me, if he came to please me.
You’ve refused me like a depraved peasant.
You’d be better off mending ditches,
and rubbing down saddled horses with straw,
and running like an errand-boy crudely on foot,
than being a knight in an honored court.
Go to your own country, you wretched, proven low-born man!
May Mahomet, who made us all, destroy you!

{ Par dieu! sire Boefs, vus dites verité:
el secle n’i ad roi ne prince ne admiré
ke ne me preist volunters, si me venist a gre.
Vus me avez refusé cum velein reprové
Meuz vus avenist redrescer ceo fossés
e torcher a un torchoun ceo chevaus selés
e coure cum coursseler vileinement a pe
ke estre chevaler ou en court honuré.
Alez en vostre pais, truaunt vil prové;
Mahun vus confoundue, ke tuz nus ad formé! }

Josiane’s harsh words caused Boeve to feel slandered and insulted. He said he would return to his country, and she would never see him again for the rest of her life. He also said that he would return the magnificent horse Arundel that she had given him. She fell in a faint. He swiftly left the room.

Later Josiane sent a messenger to ask Boeve to come to her. Boeve told the messenger that he wouldn’t go to her. However, he gave the messenger a silk tunic ornamented with gems as a reward for his service. Josiane was impressed with Boeve’s generosity. Not wearing a cloak, she herself went to Boeve, He saw her coming and pretended to be asleep and snoring. She came and stood before his bed:

“Wake up, beautiful, sweet, dear friend,” she said.
“I would like to talk a little to you in person.”

{ “Enveilez vus,” fest ele, “beau duz amy cher,”
un petitet vodrai a vus ore parler.” }

He wearily told her to let him rest. Then she began to weep. She begged for his pity, promised to make amends for the wrong she had done him, and said she would become a Christian for his sake. Boeve understood that she valued him highly. He forgave her for her nasty words to him. They kissed lovingly.

Boeve then suffered a characteristically gendered false accusation. Two knights falsely reported to King Hermin that Boeve had slept with his daughter Josiane. Those knights didn’t even falsely claim that Boeve had raped her. Without hearing from Boeve or Josiane, the king sent Boeve to convey a letter to the King of Damascus. That letter instructed the King of Damascus to imprison Boeve for life.

Boeve of Hampton imprisoned by King Bradmund of Damascus

Josiane, in contrast, wasn’t punished for allegedly having sex with Boeve. Her father arranged for her to marry King Yvori of Munbraunt. Because she loved Boeve with all her heart, she felt wretched to be marrying King Yvori. She resolved to maintain her virginity even after marrying:

She had learned some kind of enchantment,
and she made a very tight belt of silk.
The belt was made by such a technique
that if a women wore it underneath her clothes,
there wasn’t a man living in the world
who would have any desire to sleep with her,
nor to approach the bed there where she had reclined.
The young woman girded herself very tightly with the belt
so that Yvori of Munbraunt wouldn’t be able to touch her.

{ Ele out apris aukes de enchantement,
une ceinture fist de seie bien tenaunt,
la ceinture fu fete par tele devisement,
se une femme le ust ceinte desuz son vestement,
il n’i avereit homme en secle vivant
ki de cocher ove li avereit accun talent
ne aprucher au lit la ou ele fu gisaunt.
La pucele se ceint mult estreitement,
ke il ne la dust tocher Yvori de Munbraunt. }

With this magic man-repellent, Josiane remained a virgin through seven years of marriage to King Yvori. He must have wondered about his lack of sexual desire for his beautiful, young wife. Perhaps he felt that he was tragically impotent.

After seven long years of brutal imprisonment, Boeve escaped. Disguised as a holy pilgrim, he made his way to Munbraunt. There he entered the palace and sought a meal from Queen Josiane. She was still weeping and lamenting for her lost beloved Boeve:

“Alas,” she said. “Sir Boeve, I used to love you so much.
Indeed my love for you will make me insane.
Since I lost you, I no longer seek to live.”

{ “Hai!” dist ele, “sire Bores, tant vus solai amer,
ja me fra vostre amur afoler;
kant je vus ai perdu, vivere mes ne qer.” }

Josiane asked the pilgrim where he was born. When he said England, she asked if he knew a knight named Boeve. He said that Boeve’s father was his kin, and that he had seen Boeve perform mighty deeds. He further said that Boeve had returned to England, killed his stepfather, and married a beautiful woman. Josiane fell to the ground in despair when she heard that Boeve had married another woman.

Boeve disguised as pilgrim meets Queen Josiane at Munbraunt

Josiane looked at the pilgrim. He looked like Boeve. When she asked him if he was Boeve, he lied and then changed the subject:

“Certainly not,” he said. “Don’t even begin to talk of such nothingness.
But I have often heard talk of a warhorse.
Do you have him within this place? I’d like to see him.
I would be pleased to see if he is as fierce as is said.”

{ “Nanal certis,” dist il. “de nent comencez parler.
Mes jeo ai oy sovent parler de un destrer;
le avez vus seyns? Jeo lui voil ver;
volunters verrai, si il est si fer.” }

Josiane’s squire Bonefey then came forward and said that this pilgrim looked just like Boeve. When the warhorse Arundel heard his beloved knight’s name, his heart was filled with joy. He broke his chains and ran through the court neighing. The pilgrim said that he wanted to mount the horse. Nobody could do that but Boeve. When he mounted, Arundel pawed the ground proudly and began to gallop. Everyone then knew that the pilgrim was indeed Boeve.

Josiane wasn’t going to take any more nonsense. She gave Boeve his prized sword named Murgleie to complement his prized warhorse Arundel. Boeve then said that he would go to England by himself to fight for his inheritance. But first he would have to defeat Josiane. She declared:

“By God,” said the young woman, “you will not do it!
You will bring me with you when you go there.”

{ “Par deu!” dist la pucele, “nun freyz!”
Vus me amenerés o vus, kant vus en alez.” }

Boeve objected that she was a noble queen and he was merely a young man. Moreover, her father had caused him to be imprisoned for seven years. In addition, Boeve had recently made confession to the Patriarch, who ordered him not to take a wife “unless she was a virgin without falsification {si ele ne fust pucele sanz fauser}.” Boeve said that Josiane couldn’t be a virgin since she was married to King Yvori for seven years. She, however, was eager for him to test her:

“Boeve,” said Josiane, “let all that be,
because, by that God that I must honor,
I can show you and well assure you
that Yvori was never able to touch my body.
Let’s go to England. I want to implore you,
when I have been baptized,
that if I’m not a virgin when it comes to the test,
then you can send me back here
naked in my tunic, without penny or nickel.”

{ “Boves,” dist Josian, “tut ceo lessez ester;
ke, par cele deu ke dei honurer!
jeo vus pus mustrer e ben assurer
ke unkes Yvori ne pout mun cors tocher.
Alum en Engletere, jeo vus voile prier,
kant jeo me averai fet baptizer,
si jeo ne sey pucele, kant vent al prover,
ke vus me facez arere enveyer
nue en ma cote, sanz maile ou dener.” }

Josiane prevailed. Boeve agreed. They embraced joyfully.

Before Josiane and Boeve could go to England, they had to escape from King Yvori at Munbraunt. Josiane wanted to take ten horses laden with gold. Boeve was aghast at traveling with so much baggage. Josiane, however, insisted that they needed it. Boeve agreed. That was much less difficult than attempting to fight with her. With the help of Josiane’s faithful squire Bonefey, they drugged their guards and left secretly at night.

When Yvori’s men awoke, they realized that Boeve had left with Josiane. A large, armed party set out in pursuit. Seeing that pursuit, Bonefey advised hiding in a cave. Josiane, Boeve, and Bonefey hid in the cave, but they had no food. Josiane complained that she was hungry. Boeve left to search for food, while Bonefey stayed to protect Josiane.

Then two lions attacked Josiane and Bonefey. Bonefey attempted to protect Josiane, but the lions tore him to pieces. The lions dragged Josiane to the top of a rock. They didn’t eat her because she was a princess. Like a princess, Josiane cried out in complaint to Boeve:

Alas, sir Boeve, you delay too long!
Now these beasts want to kill me.
Never again will you see me healthy and whole.

{ Hai! sire Boves, trop fetes demorer!
ore me vodront ceo bestes estrangler,
james ne me veras sen ne enter. }

Boeve returned carrying a stag that he had killed for food for Josiane. He saw parts of Bonefey’s body scattered around. Then he saw the two lions guarding Josiane:

Josiane saw Boeve and started to shout,
“Come avenge the death of Bonefey the squire!”
“So I will,” said Boeve, “you can be well sure
that by my two hands I will come to meet with them.”
The two lions heard him and started to rise.
Josiane held on to one of them, so it could not go.
By the skin around its neck she seized it,
and so firmly she held it that it couldn’t move.
Boeve told her to let it go.

{ Josian veyt Boun si comensa a crier:
“Venez venger la mort Bonefey l’esquier,”
“Si frai,” dist Bores, “beu poez saver,
par me deus mains les covendra passer.”
Les deus lions li oyerunt si comencent lever;
Jusian tint li un, ke ne put aler,
par le pel li prist entur le coler,
ausi ferme le tint com out le pouer;
Boves la dist ke le lessa aler. }

When the medieval Lombard husband confronted a snail in his field, he also had to deal with his wife’s advice about fighting it. Confronting two raging lions, Boeve also had to fight with his beloved:

He gripped his strong shield and took his steel sword.
“Let the other raging lion come.”
“No, I won’t,” said Josiane, “so help me God!
Not until you have killed the other one.”
“By God,” said Boeve,”that would be dishonesty,
for if I were in England, which is my kingdom,
and before my barons I boasted
that I had killed two lions,
you would come forward and swear by God,
that in truth you held one
until I had killed the other one.
But I don’t want to hear that for all Christendom.
Now let the lion go, or if you don’t wish to do that,
I will go from here, and you will remain.”

{ Le forte escu enbrace e prist le branc asseré.
“Lessez vener l’altre lion aragé.”
“Nun frai,” dist ele, “si me eyde de!
jekes a tant ke vus eyez l’altre tué.”
“Par deu!” dist Boves, “ceo sereit fauseté;
ke si jeo fuse en Engletere, mun regné,
e jeo me avantas devant mon baroné
ke jeo avai deus lions tué,
vus vendrés avan e jurez par de,
ke vus tenistis l’un pur verité,
tant ke jeo use l’altre tué;
mes ceo ne vodray pur tut cristienté.
Ore ly lessez aler, ou si ne le volez,
jeo m’en iray e vus remeyndrez.” }

For once Josiane relented in a fight with her beloved. She let the raging lion go. She prayed, “May Jesus Christ, who was born of a mother, protect you {Jhesu Crist vus garde, ke de mere fu ne}.” Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the most powerful figure in medieval Europe. Josiane wasn’t about to allow Boeve to be without a woman’s protection.

The two lions then attacked Boeve. He struck one with a strong sword-blow, but couldn’t penetrate the lion’s tough hide. When the lion opened its mouth to swallow Boeve, he thrust his sword within and pieced its heart. When he withdrew, the lion died. The other lion rushed at Boeve, raised its front feet, and began to tear at him. Boeve cut off the lion’s feet. It fell to the ground, snarling fiercely. Boeve then killed it. He thus managed to rescue Josiane from two raging lions without her direct help.

Boeve (Bevis of Hampton) killing two lions

Josiane could be compassionate to a foe. After the Saracen giant Escopart attempted to seize her for King Yvori, Boeve’s horse Arundel knocked Escopart to the ground and sat on him. Boeve then sought to cut off Escopart’s head. But Josiane urged Escopart to become a Christian and Boeve’s vassal. Boeve wondered whether he could trust the Saracen giant. Josiane declared that she would stand surety for him. Escopart then did homage to Boeve and served him well for awhile. But Escopart eventually betrayed Boeve and abducted Josiane. Her guidance of Boeve turned out to be faulty in this instance.

If necessary, Josiane could deal with dangers herself. One day in Cologne, the count Miles captured Josiane and married her against her will. That night he took her to bed:

Before Miles could come into their bed,
the beautiful Josiane took her belt.
Without doubt she wrapped it around Miles’s neck.
The bed was high where he slept,
and the count Miles sat himself on one side,
and the young woman jumped on the other side,
pulled him to her, and broke his neck.

{ Avant que Miles poit vener en son lit,
Josian la bele sa seynture prist,
outre le col Miles le gita tot de fist.
Le lit fu haut ou il gist,
e li quens Miles de une part se sist,
e la pucele de altre part sailist,
a sey le tret e le col li rumpist. }

Miles was found dead the next morning. Josiane had killed him with the same silk belt that she had used to prevent her husband King Yvori from having sex with her through seven years of marriage. Yvori should have been grateful that, rather than depriving him of sex, she didn’t kill him.

Despite Josiane’s domineering personality and serious conflicts between her and her beloved Boeve, they married and had three children. Their oldest son Gui became a king. When his mother was seriously sick, Gui sought to comfort her. She had only one request:

“Beautiful son,” she said, “call Boeve to me.”
The young man called Boeve, and Boeve came running.
When he saw his lady-lord, he took her into his arms
and commended Gui, their child, to the Lord God.
Then the lady-lord died, and Boeve too.
Angels carried their souls to the blessed.

{ “Beau fiz,” dist ele, “apellez Boun avant”
Li enfes Boim apele, e il vint corant.
Kant veit la dame, entre ses bras la prent,
a dampnedeu command Gui, lur enfant.
Ja morust la dame e Boves ensement;
les almes aportent les angles as innocens. }

Arguments and conflicts don’t necessarily compel persons to separate. They might remain together in a relationship of love, without even death parting them.

Boeve and Josiane traveling by boat to England

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The above story of Josiane and Boeve of Hampton is from the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman work Boeve de Haumtone, also known as Beuve de Hamptone. Just as Boeve is also known as Beuve, Josiane is also known as Josian. Whether Boeve de Haumtone is a medieval romance or a “song of deeds {chanson de geste}” is a matter of scholarly controversy. Ailes (2008). The story is set during the reign of King Edgar of England, who reigned 959-975.

The Egyptian princess Josiane was a Saracen, a medieval Christian term for Muslim. On the cultural geography of the story, Blurton (2019). Like the Saracen princes Guiborc, Josiane is both a domineering and loving woman. Her dramatic initiative in grabbing hold of the lion to lessen the risk to Boeve’s life puts her in the line of proto-meninist women who act to lessen violence against men. Cf. Waugh (2018). Boeve’s remarkable willingness to defy his beloved Josiane’s will points to medieval Christian understanding of an equal conjugal partnership. Cf. Saunders (2008). Nonetheless, violence in Boeve de Haumtone is overwhelmingly violence against men. Many unnamed, voiceless men are brutally killed in this story.

Boeve’s father was Count Gui of Hampton. As an old man, he was disparaged for never having married. To quell such criticism, he married the young, beautiful daughter of the king of Scotland. They had the son Boeve. When Boeve was about ten years old, his mother sent a message to Doon, Emperor of Germany, promising to marry him if he killed her husband Gui. When Doon agreed, she sent Gui into an ambush, where Doon beheaded him. She married Doon the day after he killed her husband.

The story of Boeve and Josiane was widely distributed. The Anglo-Norman version is the oldest surviving version, while continental Old French and Franco-Italian versions also exist. The Anglo-Norman version apparently was adapted into Middle English and gave rise to the surviving text known as Bevis of Hampton, dating about 1324. For an edition, Herzman, Drake & Salisbury (1999) and for a modernized English version, Scott-Robinson (2019). For an edition and English translation of a fifteenth-century Irish version, Robinson (1907). Medieval prose translations also exist in Dutch, Romanian, Russian, Welsh, and Yiddish.

The above quotes are from the Anglo-Norman Boeve de Haumtone, Old French (Anglo-Norman) text from Stimming (1899), English translation (modified) from Weiss (2008). The current best edition, Martin (2014), wasn’t readily available to me. The above quotes are vv. 670-7 (Beautiful sir Boeve, I won’t seek to hide it…), 680-7 (“My beautiful young lady,” so said to her Boeve…), 695-705 (By God! Sir Boeve, you tell the truth…), 756-7 (“Wake up, beautiful, sweet, dear friend,”…), 999-1007 (She had learned some kind of enchantment…), 1390-2 (“Alas,” she said…), 1428-31 (“Certainly not,” he said…), 1467-8 (“By God,” said the young woman…), 1477 (unless she was a virgin without falsification), 1480-8 (“Boeve,” said Josiane…), 1675-7 (Alas, sir Boeve, you delay…), 1696-1704 (Josiane saw Boeve and started to shout…), 1707-20 (He gripped his strong shield…), 1722 (May Jesus Christ, who was born of a mother, protect you), 2110-6 (Before Miles could come into their bed…), 3831-6 (“Beautiful son,” she said, “call Boeve to me.”…).

[images] (1) Boeve of Hampton imprisoned by King Bradmund of Damascus. Illumination from instance of Beuve de Hantone made about 1280 in northern France. From folio 18r of Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Français 25516. (2) Boeve disguised as pilgrim meets Queen Josiane at Munbraunt. Similarly from folio 24v of Beuve de Hantone, MS. Fr. 25516. (3) Boeve (Bevis of Hampton) killing two lions. Boeve (Bevis of Hampton) killing two lions. Illumination in The Taymouth Hours (Book of Hours, Use of Sarum) made in the second quarter of the fourteenth century in England. From folio 12r (via Wikimedia Commons) of British Library MS. Yates Thompson 13. (4) Boeve and Josiane traveling by boat to England. Similarly from folio 50r of Beuve de Hantone, MS. Fr. 25516.


Ailes, Marianne. 2008. “The Anglo-Norman Boeve de Haumtone as a chanson de geste.” Chapter 1 (pp. 9-24) in Fellows & Djordjević (2008).

Blurton, Heather. 2019. “‘Jeo Ai Esté a Nubie’: Boeve de Haumtone in the Medieval Mediterranean.” Neophilologus. 103: 465–77.

Fellows, Jennifer and Ivana Djordjević, eds. 2008. Sir Bevis of Hampton in Literary Tradition. Woodbridge UK: D.S. Brewer.

Herzman, Ronald B., Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury. 1999. Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelok the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelston. Kalamazoo, Mich: Published for TEAMS (the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Martin, Jean-Pierre, ed. 2014. Beuve de Hamptone: Chanson de geste anglo-normande de la fin du xiie siècle, édition bilingue établie, présentée et annotée. Paris, France: Honoré Champion. Review by Claude Lachet.

Robinson, Frank N., ed and trans. 1907. The Irish Lives of Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton. Halle a.S: M. Niemeyer.

Saunders, Corinne. 2008. “Gender, Virtue and Wisdom in Sir Bevis of Hampton.” Chapter 10 (pp. 161-175) in Fellows & Djordjević (2008).

Scott-Robinson, Richard, trans. 2019. Sir Bevis of Hampton. eleusinianm. Online.

Stimming, Albert, ed. 1899. Der Anglonormannische Boeve De Haumtone. Halle: M. Niemeyer.

Waugh, Robin. 2018. “Josian and the Heroism of Patience in Bevis of Hampton.” English Studies. 99(6): 609–23.

Weiss, Judith, trans. 2008. Boeve de Haumtone and Gui de Warewic: Two Anglo-Norman Romances. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 332; The French of England Translation Series, 3. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

greedy, deceitful & corrupt elites: a medieval perspective

Writing about 1020, the medieval schoolteacher Egbert of Liège contrasted the austere, pious lives of ancient Christian hermits with modern Christian bodily indulgence:

After a hard life, they deserved blessed rest.
But we, stuffed on fowl and fatty game,
are like filthy pigs, such as those who are Epicureans.
False Christians, called Christian in name only,
deviants in our deeds, we care only for our bodies,
not for our souls, made by bowels and lethargy.

{ Duram post vitam requiem meruere beatam.
At nos altilibus pleni pinguique ferina,
porcis inmundis similes, ut sunt Epycuri,
Christicolae falsi, solo de nomine dicti,
factis digressi, curamus corpora tantum,
non animas matie confectas atque veterno. }[1]

Too much food and too little activity make for neither a healthy body nor a healthy soul. Priests and bishops were supposed to instruct and guide medieval Christians in care for their bodies and souls. Some medieval priests and bishops, however, were greedy, deceitful, and corrupt.

making a boy abbot: twelfth-century simony

Drawing upon a homily that Pope Gregory I preached in 591, Egbert denounced bad priests and bad bishops. The Gospel of Luke describes the first Christian missionaries as being sent to be like lambs among wolves. That mission of self-sacrifice was subject to change:

God does not endure a greater injury, I think
than what they do, they whom he appointed to be teachers —
I speak about priests sent widely among the sheep
and to whom has been entrusted correction of their people.
They offer themselves as depraved examples of evil deeds,
when they sin, they who should be restraining others’ faults.
And what is even more serious, frequently they seize others’ goods,
they who should be distributing their own. What will happen to the flocks,
tell me, when the shepherds have become wolves?
We priests are not seeking profit for any souls,
but, intent on our concerns, we void our hearts.

{ Non preiuditium tolerat deus, ut puto, maius,
Quam fatiunt, quos constituit superesse magistros
(Dico sacerdotes late per ovilia missos
Et quibus est permissa suae correctio plebis):
De se prava operum prebent exempla malorum,
Dum peccant, qui debuerant compescere culpas;
Et plerumque, quod est gravius, rapiunt aliena,
Qui sua debuerant dare. De gregibus quid agatur,
Dicite, quando lupi pastores efficiuntur?
Lucra sacerdotes non querimus ulla animarum,
Intenti ad studium nostrum sed mente vacamus. }[2]

A shepherd not being a wolf isn’t enough for him to be a good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. The bad shepherd looks after his own interests. Drawing upon the work of the fifth-century Christian priest Julianus Pomerius, Egbert reproved priests for not reproving sins:

O you prelates, not in caring but in name only!
Seeing those entrusted to you struggling and downcast,
for love of filthy money you don’t reprove them when they slip.
You will be purified when God the Avenger hastens torments upon you.

A thousand coals will burn up your neglected acts
and in vain you will beg for the comforts of dripping water.

{ O vos prelati, non cura at nomine solo!
Commissos vobis niti per prona videntes,
Turpis amore lucri non corripitis labefactos.
Inproperante deo poenas ultore luetis,

Neglectus vestros carbonos mille cremabunt,
Et frustra stillantis aquae fomenta petetis. }[3]

Reproaching others is often an unpleasant endeavor. Here in this world, one gets along better by going along.

What can one do besides wait for God’s justice? Medieval authors wrote vigorous satire against greedy, deceitful, and corrupt elites. A twelfth-century cleric observed:

So as to allow their mortal mouths to be set against Heaven,
the people’s elders, the fathers, and rulers
to pleasures and corruption devote
time that they should be spending in contemplation.

Because our holy teachers are not occupied with good acts,
but are quick to wickedness and prone to self-indulgence,
deferring neither to God nor to religion,
what would you agree a tender beginner should do?

{ Ut mortale liceat os in caelum poni,
seniores populi, patres et patroni
quae deberent tempora contemplationi,
deputant deliciis et corruptioni.

Cum non bonis actibus studeant rabboni,
sed in scelus celeres et in luxum proni
neque Deo deferant nec religioni,
quid agendum censeas tenero tironi? }[4]

Drawing in part on the classical Roman satirist Juvenal, the medieval cleric contrasted God’s cosmic justice with pandering and hypocrisy:

When subordinates flatter their prelates with their tongues,
offering gifts with their hands, and seeking favor with their deeds,
subordinates share a role with Simon,
while the prelates follow Gehazi in seeking gifts.

Cautiously but illicitly they are preoccupied with selling.
The need is that they finally divest themselves of this work.
If they delude us in this, they will not mock God,
to whom those who conceal their crimes will reveal their secrets.

To speak about virtue after wriggling one’s buttocks
is sufficiently far removed from earning salvation.
The Lord indeed knows who, on the inside and the outside,
has the character of a well-ordered mind.

{ Cum praelatis subditi lingua blandiuntur,
manu dona porrigunt, factis obsequuntur,
subditi cum Simone partem sortiuntur,
praelati post Giezim munera sequuntur.

Caute sed illicite licitari student.
Opus est ut opera tandem se denudent:
si nos hi deluserint, illi non illudent,
cui, qui celant scelera, clausa tunc recludent.

Agitatis clunibus loqui de virtute
promerenda satis est procul a salute;
novit enim Dominus intus et in cute
cui sit mentis habitus bene constitutae. }[5]

Human beings are essentially ridiculous. The world has been going to Hell for a long, long time.

sixteenth-century corruption in acquiring a benefice

Nonetheless, today one can still see green trees and blue skies. Many human beings do many good deeds. While criticizing greedy, deceitful, and corrupt priests and bishops, Egbert, himself a priest, followed the biblical Letter of James and Saint Augustine in advocating mercy:

By no moral activity is the enemy so defeated
as when a person is warmed with the spark of a merciful heart.
In Judgment, one will be sentenced without any pity
if here he is not clement and pardoning of faults.
The clemency of a brother overcomes the fearsome Judgment.

{ In nullo morum studio sic vincitur hostis,
Quam cum quis caleat miserentis fomite cordis.
Iuditio multabitur absque ulla pietate,
Si non hic fuerit clemens culpaeque remissor;
iuditium superat pavidum clementia fratris. }[6]

To be merciful and to pardon sins, one must be able to recognize them. The medieval schoolteacher Egbert of Liège taught that forgiving wrongs isn’t the same as ignoring them. In this specific respect, he certainly should be regarded as a proto-meninist.

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[1] Egbert of Liège, The Well-Laden Ship {Fecunda ratis} 2.566-71, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Babcock (2013). These verses are titled “About Hermits {De heremitis}.” Subsequent quotes from Egbert’s Fecunda ratis are similarly sourced. Babcock’s Latin text is nearly substantively identical to that of Voigt (1889).

[2] Fecunda ratis 2.333-43, from poem titled “About any bishop you choose {De quolibet episcopo}.” Cf. Luke 10:3, Matthew 7:15.

For this poem Egbert evidently drew upon Pope Gregory I, 40 Homilies on the Gospels {Homilae xl in Evangelia}, Homily 17 on Luke 10:1-9, sections 14-18. Gregory wrote, “Consider therefore what would become of flocks when shepherds turn into wolves {Considerate ergo quid de gregibus agatur, quando pastores lupi fiunt}.” Latin text of Migne (1849) in Patrologia Latina 76.1075-1181, my English translation. Here’s an English translation of the whole homily. For English translations of all of Gregory’s homilies on the gospels, Hurst (1990).

Egbert elsewhere complained that men were becoming priests and bishops through bribes:

Some are ascending to the pulpit and ecclesiastical rank
not by merits, but indeed by money’s curse, I fear.

{ Orcestram aecclesiaeque gradus ascendere quosdam
Non meritis, immo dampnata per aera pavesco. }

Fecunda ratis 1.949-50.

[3] Fecunda ratis 2.36-9, 45-6, from poem titled “About those who don’t reprove those persons entrusted to them {De his, qui non corripiunt commissos}.” On the good shepherd laying down his life for his sheep, John 10:11. On a man in Hell begging for drops of water, Luke 16:24 (from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus).

Egbert here drew upon Julianus Pomerius, About the contemplative life {De vita contemplativa} 1.20. For an English translation, Suelzer (1947).

[4] Twelfth-century poem, incipit “Talking about the poor is a sign of an impoverished pen {Loqui de pauperibus pauperis est styli},” no. 4 in Chartres Anthology (MS. VAt. lat. 4389), stanzas 2-3, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Traill & Haynes (2021) p. 123.

This poem in written in Goliardic stanzas. Goliardic poetry came mainly from the highest institutions of medieval learning:

Goliardic poetry was written in a time frame between circa 1115 and 1255 in the school system of secular clergy between Loire and Somme, and mainly in the cathedral schools of that region

Weiß (2018), abstract.

[5] “Loqui de pauperibus pauperis est styli,” stanzas 9-11 (of 11), sourced as previously. Simon Magus attempted to purchase the early Christian apostles’ ability to confer the Holy Spirit. Acts 8:9-24. Simon’s commercial orientation originated the term “simony.”

Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, sought money from Naaman the Syrian for Elisha having cured Naaman of leprosy. 2 Kings 19-27.

In denouncing hypocrisy, Juvenal scornfully declared, “they talk of manliness / after wriggling their buttocks {de virtute locuti / clunem agitant}.” Juvenal 2.20-1, cited in Traill & Haynes (2021) p. 173, n. 33. Walter of Châtillon similarly used Juvenal’s phrase. Id.

Jerome castigated the Deacon Sabinianus for his lechery: “like a glutton you ran through filthy whorehouses {per lupanaria inpurus et helluo cucurristi}.” Jerome, Letter 147, “To Deacon Sabinianus exhorting him to penance {Ad Sabinianum Diaconum cohortatoria de paenitentia},” section 4, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-1918) p. 319, my English translation. Freemantle (1892) has an English translation of Jerome’s letter to Sabinianus.

About 1050, the Benedictine monk Peter Damian in his Book of Gomorrah {Liber Gomorrhianus} condemned simony, priests maintaining women as concubines, and priests having sex with men and boys.

[6] Fecunda ratis 2.187-91, poem “On mercy {De misericordia}.” Cf. James 2:13 and Augustine of Hippo, Expositions on the Psalms {Enarrationes in Psalmos} 144 (143) 2.

[images] (1) Making a boy abbot: twelfth-century simony. From a twelfth-century instance of Gratianus’s Decretum. On folio 59v of Douai, Bibliothèque municipale, MS. 0590. (2) Corruption in acquiring an ecclesiastical benefice: Cardinal Marco Corner making the young boy Marco the abbot of Carrara. Girolamo Corner, the boy’s father and Cardinal Corner’s young brother, observes the transaction. Painting by Titian, c. 1520/1525. Preserved as accession # 1960.6.38 in the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC). Credit: Timken Collection. The seven-year Marco Corner received this benefice in 1519. The National Gallery’s overview for this painting observes, “The Corner family was one of the wealthiest and most influential in Venice.”


Babcock, Robert Gary, ed. and trans. 2013. Egbert of Liège. The Well-Laden Ship {Fecunda ratis}. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 25. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Hilberg, Isidorus, ed. 1910-1918. Sancti Eusebii Hieronymi Epistulae {Letters of Saint Eusebius Hieronymus (Jerome)}. Vindobonae: Tempsky. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) 54 (Epistulae 1-70), 55 (Epistulae 71-120), and 56 (Epistulae 120-154).

Hurst, David, trans. 1990. Gregory the Great. Forty Gospel Homilies. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.

Suelzer, Mary Josephine, trans. 1947. Julianus Pomerius: The Contemplative Life. Ancient Christian Writers, 4. Westminster, MD: Newman Press.

Traill, David A and Justin Haynes. 2021. Education of Nuns, Feast of Fools, Letters of Love: Medieval Religious Life in Twelfth-Century Lyric Anthologies from Regensburg, Ripoll and Chartres. Leuven: Peeters. Latin text and English translation, with commentary.

Voigt, Ernst, ed. 1889. Egberts von Lüttich Fecunda Ratis, zum ersten Mal herausgegeben, auf ihre Quellen zurückgeführt und erklärt von Ernst Voigt. Halle A.S.: M. Niemeyer. Online presentation.

Weiß, Marian. 2018. Die mittellateinische Goliardendichtung und ihr historischer Kontext: Komik im Kosmos der Kathedralschulen Nordfrankreichs {Medieval Latin Goliardic Poetry and its Historical Context: Comical Elements in the Cosmos of the Cathedral Schools of Northern France}. Inaugural-Dissertation zur Erlangung des Doktorgrades der Philosophie des Fachbereichs 04 der Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen.

Floretta and Maugalie fought for Floovant in medieval epic

Amid the massive violence against men in epic literature, women seldom are killed. Women predominately fight not enemy soldiers, but women-rivals in love for a particular man. In the twelfth-century “song of deeds {chanson de geste}” Floovant, the Alsatian princess Floretta and the Saracen princess Maugalie fought fiercely for the love of the French knight Floovant. The woman who prevailed rescued her beloved man from prison while engaging in what’s now recognized as criminal sexual behavior. Most importantly, she showed compassion for his feelings.

Exiled from his father’s realm and journeying in hope of serving King Flores of Alsace, Floovant saw three Saracen knights abusing a young woman. As men have done throughout the ages, Floovant risked his life to save the damsel in distress. He learned after rescuing her that she was Princess Floretta, the daughter of King Flores.

King Flores held a feast to celebrate the return of his daughter Floretta to his palace at Belfort. She sat across from Floovant. Unlike many self-fashioned princesses today, the actual medieval princess Floretta was a strong, assertive woman. She spoke her mind to Floovant:

“Do kiss me, beautiful sir,” said Floretta known for her prized body.
“There isn’t a man in this world whom I desire so much.”

{ “Car me baisiez, bau sire,” dit Florote au cors gant;
“Il n’ai ome an cest segle que je dessiere tant.” }

Floovant didn’t crudely say “no,” and then “no means no.” He begged her to stop her amorous pleading. He explained that he was merely a poor, traveling knight. He worried that her love for him would cause nobles of her palace to accuse him of doing wrong. Floretta ultimately respected his love choice, but chided him:

Now so be your desire.
It’s for Maugalie that you would talk such.
I think well that you love her, because she has a prized body.
But for her body would yet be another 100 men like you.
All of them torment themselves for her, and they are there serving her.
And if one of them died, the others would be still living.
The grief that is her domain isn’t at all worth death.

{ … Or soit vostre talant.
Ce est por Maugalie où vos parlestes tant.
Bien la devez amer, car elle ai le cors gant;
Mas de tex com vos estes en aurai ancor .c.
Tut se penent por li et i sont atandanz,
Et se li uns est mors li autres sunt vivanz.
Le doel que ele demoine ne vaut à mor néant. }

Floovant perceived Floretta’s enmity toward Maugalie, but apparently he didn’t know who that woman was. He sensed that Maugalie had wronged Floretta, but he didn’t know how. Men are oblivious to competition among women for men’s love.

Floovant and Alsatian knights subsequently captured Maugalie when they took the castle at Avenant from the Saracen king Galeen. Maugalie was Galeen’s daughter. She saw Floovant vigorously thrusting in battle before the Alsatian force captured her. She was a beautiful young woman. She yearned to have Floovant in love.

After the battle for Avenant Castle, Maugalie and Floretta argued viciously. Maugalie stood next to Floretta as Floovant divided the spoils among the knights. A strong, assertive woman, Maugalie spoke her mind aloud:

If it were pleasing to Mahomet, who established the world —
this French soldier, who is valiant and loyal,
he would marry me as his principal wife.
If he kept me, my father, the rich Emir,
would give me more land than the Roman Empire could want.

{ Car plaüst à Maon, qui le segle estora,
Ce soudoiiers de France qui prouz est et loiaus,
Qu’i m’éut prisse à famme, à moilier principel.
Si me tenist mes pères, li riches amiraus,
Plus me donroit de terre Romenie ne vaut. }

Floretta turned to Maugalie and chided her, “You have too intense passion {vos avez trop grant chaut}.” Floretta then crassly said that Floovant would get Maugalie pregnant and then have sex only with his three other wives. Some Christian men aspired to have multiple wives as some Muslim men did, but some Christian men soon realized they lacked the necessary sexual stamina. Maugalie fiercely counterattacked Floretta:

By my faith, young lady, very base are your jibes.
Not yet one month has passed since you spoke totally other.
I saw you at the court of my father the Emir,
and to a hundred or to fifty knights you were very intimate,
each for one dollar, like a common whore.

{ Por ma foi, damoiselle, moult sont vilains vos gas.
N’ai pas ancor .I. moi, vos parlates tot d’aul:
Je vos vi à la court mon pere l’amiraur
A .c. et à .L. trestote communaul,
Chacuns por .I. denier, comme fanme venaul. }

Floretta in response insisted on her chastity. Deriding Maugalie’s fidelity, she pointed out that Floovant had killed Maugalie’s brother and her lover:

Now you wish to marry the man who has killed them!
So you would have thirty men, if they would be given to you.
Cursed be one who believes you, and never will I believe you!

{ Or volés celui panre qui ocis les vos ai!
Si ferïés vos .xxx., si fust qui vos donast.
Dahez ait qui vos croit ne qui jai vos crorai. }

Like the quarreling sisters Rose and Lily, Maugalie and Floretta fought more and more viciously:

Strongly they argued about this and that.
They would have struck each other if one hadn’t separated them.

{ Formant se contralient a deçai et délai;
Jai venisent ansanble quan l’on les desservrai. }

The job of separating arguing women should be taken up by women. Men shouldn’t be burdened with that additional, very dangerous combat task.

two women fighting with each other

The Saracen princess Maugalie ultimately won her fight with the Alsatian princess Floretta. In a reversal of fortune, the Saracens liberated Maugalie and captured Floovant. From her dominant position relative to the captive Floovant, Maugalie coerced him into marrying her. In short, she raped him as rape is now defined in at least one gender direction. Then, with Floovant and other escaping captives, Maugalie left the Saracen palace.

During their escape, Maugalie disguised herself as a knight. Floovant jokingly called her “Forqueres,” which could mean “Strong Heart.” When Floovant asked her why she didn’t wear armor or carry a sharp sword, Maugalie explained:

“Sir,” said the young woman, “I don’t seek any arms.
I have my other arms that aren’t so large,
and other arts that I have I’ll need at Belfort,
there where the daughter of the rich King Flores is.
In the hostilities, sir, I must be very strong.
One Saturday morning she said to me such shots
at Avenant Castle where I had come, as you heard.
I wouldn’t wish that for anyone alive.
It was for me then very difficult, because she has a prized body.
And so I turned my eyes and put a smile on my mouth.
If you want to do her, sir, I would have no thought of it.
Two times, or three, or four, then let her alone,
and I will move well for the goods in the marital chase for you.”

{ “Sire,” dit la pucelle, “je ne an quier néant;
Mes autres armes c’ai ne sont mie si granz:
Mestier m’auront ancores à Biaufort çai devant,
Lai où la file est au riche roi Floran.
Des contraïres, sire, me dot je mout formant:
.I. sanbadi matin m’an dit ele jai tant
Au Nof Chatel où je iere, vos ouroiles oiiant,
Je ne vosise mie por nule riens vivant.
Mult durement m’an pois, car ole ai le cors gant,
Et si ai vars les iauz et la boiche riant.
Se vos li faites, sire, moi n’an pese néant,
.II. foiz ou .III. ou .IIII., puis la lasiez atant,
Et je an irai bien lou marchié porchaçant.” }

The Saracen princess Maugalie was extraordinarily generous and compassionate toward the man she loved. Even with just a little generosity and compassion toward a beloved man, a woman typically can tower above her love rivals for him.

The battle between Maugalie and Floretta back at the Avenant Castle went as would be expected. Floretta acted vigorously as soon as she saw the beautiful Maugalie:

She ran and came to Floovant’s villa.
Here where she saw him, with her arms around his neck she pleaded:
“Do kiss me, lovely sir, you noble, valiant knight.
I have no man in the whole land whom my heart loves so much.”

{ Corant i est venue à l’ostel Floovant.
Lai où elle le vit, ses braiz au coul li pant:
“Car me baisiez, bau sire, frans chevaliers vailanz;
Ja n’ai il ome an terre que mes cours amoit tan.” }

Floovant again claimed that he wasn’t worthy to love Floretta. He urged her to stop pursuing him. She saw right through his excuse:

She responded to him, “Sir, as you desire.
This is because of Maugalie, the daughter of the Emir.
Well you are insanely in love with her, because I’ve heard of her prized body.
There isn’t such a beautiful lady-lord here in the West.
Gladly I would have wed you, if you had the desire.
Since it cannot have you, my heart has grief.”

{ Elle li respondi: “Sire, à vostre talant.
Ce est por Maugalie, la file l’amiram;
Bien la devez amer, car oie ai le cors gant:
Il n’ai tant baie dame deci en Ocidam.
Volontiers vos préise, si vos fut à talant;
Quant ne vos puis avoir, le cour an ai dolant.” }

Like most men, Floovant surely appreciated Maugalie’s beautiful body. Yet she won his heart with what she did for him. Floretta never had a chance in her love battle with Maugalie:

“Lady-lord,” said Floovant, “Cease now to fight further.
Maugalie is my beloved, or the fitting heart.
That would not change with limbs lost,
because she saved me from extraordinary torment,
and I will wed her to everyone’s praise as my prize.”

{ Dame, dit Floovanz, dès or poignez avant,
Maugalie est ma drue, o le cors avenant,
Ne li faudroie mie por les manbres perdanz,
Car ole m’ai gari de mervoilous tormant,
Et je l’esposerai por lou los de ma gant. }

Floretta left weeping. She went to see her father King Flores .

King Flores was deeply distressed to see his daughter weeping. He immediately, urgently summoned Floovant. He ordered Floovant to marry Floretta and promised to bequeath to him the whole kingdom. But no earthly authority could overturn Floovant’s promise to marry Maugalie. Floovant told this father-king seeking to fulfill his daughter’s desire in love:

Sir, that cannot be, as I know for certain.
There is a young women, with a fine body,
who from prison has delivered me and all the other French
where we were to be hung by the order of the Emir of Persia.
A young woman saved us from death and from torment.
All my men saw that I have pledged my faith
that I will marry this woman, if God be pleased to consent.
I will not renege on my pledge even if I were to be beheaded.

{ Sire, ce ne pout estre, sachez certenemant.
Ci ai une pucelle, o le cors avenant,
Qui m’ai mis fors de chartre et toz ces autres Frans;
Lai où nos devoit pandre l’amiraus des Persam,
Nos gari la pucelle de mort et de tormant.
Ma foi li ai plevie, voiant tote ma gant,
Que fanme la prandroie, se Dex lou me consant;
Je ne l’an matiroie por la teste perdant. }

A woman can’t always get what she wants, even if her father is a king. But surely she can get what she needs.

Floovant suggested that Floretta marry his kinsmen Richier, a vigorous knight. Floretta agreed to this proposition. As for Richier, Floovant treated him as if he were merely a commodity to be offered in an exchange to serve a woman’s interest. Richier said that he would do whatever Floovant ordered. Floretta and Richier thus married. Despite the lack of textual respect for Richier as an individual human being, perhaps Floretta didn’t willfully deny him the medieval debt to one’s spouse and treated him with respect as an equal conjugal partner.

Women fighting against women for men’s love doesn’t effectively function to make men’s lives matter. Men that women fight over as prizes tend to be deprived of their humanity and individuality. Women should unite to move forward in the progressive meninist project of promoting appreciation for men as human beings, not dogs or pigs. Social justice for men begins with women’s compassion for men.

* * * * *

Read more:


Floovant is a chanson de geste composed by an unknown author towards the end of the twelfth century. The quotes above are from the Old French text of Michelant & Guessard (1859) and my English translation, benefiting from the poetic translation of Newth (2014). The current best edition is Andolf (1941). That edition wasn’t readily available to me.

Newth translated the name for Maugalie dressed as a knight, “Forqueres,” as “Sir Faucon.” In Old French, “faucon” means “falcon,” but can also be interpreted as “false cunt.” Although Maugalie disguised herself as a knight to escape from her father’s palace, she was a loyal woman in love with Floovant. She was also a big-hearted woman. She undoubtedly would forgive Newth for his offensive name for her.

The quotes above are Floovant, vv. 506-7 (Do kiss me, beautiful sir…), 514-20 (Now let that be your desire…), 643-7 (If it were pleasing to Mahomet…), 648 (You have too intense passion), 655-9 (By my faith, young lady…), 667-9 (Now you wish to marry the man…), 670-1 (Strongly they argued…), 1792-1804 (“Sir,” said the young woman…), 2185-8 (She ran and came to Floovant’s villa…), 2202-6 (She responded to him…), 2222-9 (Sir, that cannot be…).

[image] Two women fighting with each other. Photo by Mark Bonica. Generously shared on flickr under a CC By 2.0 license. Also on Wikimedia Commons. Some medieval Viking women-warriors fought against men.


Andolf, Sven, ed. 1941. Floovant: Chanson de Geste du XIIe Siècle, Publiée avec Introduction, Notes et Glossaire. Uppsala, Sweden: Almquist & Wiksell.

Michelant, Henri and François Guessard, eds. 1859. Floovant, chanson de geste publiée pour la première fois d’après le manuscrit unique de Montpellier. Les anciens poètes de la France, 1. Paris: Jannet. Digital edition of Jean-Baptiste Camps; alternately on Github.

Newth, Michael, trans. 2014. Heroines of the French Epic: A Second Selection of Chansons de Geste. Woobridge: D. S. Brewer.