damsel instructed hero on how to slay dragon

Digenis Akritis slays dragon

Dragon Castle was filled with gold, precious stones, and sumptuous furnishings. Yet the place seemed to be bereft of human beings. Amid all the splendor, Kallimachos felt lonely.

He entered a room made of gold. The gold and pearls of its ceiling depicted the heavens; the ruler Chronos, the father of castration culture; and the white planet of Zeus, Chronos’s son who would depose him. The star of Aphrodite glowed alluringly. The figure of Ares seemed to be frolicking with her. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, also appeared in the ceiling. Her figure apparently prompted the narrator only then to notice a solitary girl hanging from the ceiling by her hair.

My senses reel, my heart quivers! By the hair! Perverse invention of Fortune! She was hanging by the hair! Words fail me. I am speechless. I write this with a heavy heart. The girl in all her charms was hanging by the hair. [1]

After surveying the ceiling and upon seeing the girl hanging from her hair, Kallimachos froze in place like a stone. He was like a person viewing art:

He simply set his eyes on her and he stood there looking. He told himself that she too was one of the paintings. Such is the power of beauty to uproot the soul, to bewitch the tongue and voice, and to overwhelm the heart. Kallimachos stood gazing intently at the woman, at the many graces and great beauty of the maiden. His heart was wrenched. Saying nothing, he stood gazing at her with conflicting feelings. He was amazed at her beauty but he pitied her grief. In his shattered soul, he could only groan.

The girl hanging from her hair didn’t berate Kallimachos for the crime of the male gaze. She offered him practical, life-saving instruction:

This is the house, the abode of a man-eating dragon. Don’t you hear the thunder? Don’t you see the lighting? He’s coming! Go now, hide yourself. He is a dragon and he is strong. He is the offspring of a man-eater. If you conceal yourself in a hiding place and take care, with luck you will live. Look, you see the silver vessel lying there? Get down and crawl underneath it. Perhaps you may escape the dragon’s boundless strength. Go! Get down! Hide and keep quiet! He’s coming now!

As men generally do, Kallimachos followed the girl’s directions. From his hiding place, Kallimachos observed a fearsome dragon enter the room. The dragon flogged the girl from head to toe, ate a large, sumptuous meal, and then fell asleep.

Once the dragon was completely asleep, the damsel gave the hero further instructions. She spoke to the still-hiding Kallimachos:

Sir, are you still alive in your fear or are you dead? Do not be afraid! Show more courage! Come out. Abandon your fear if by chance you have survived the sight of my many tortures and the terror of the dragon. Come out now and quickly slay the beast.

The terrified Kallimachos emerged from his hiding place. He was silent and passive. The lady said to him:

Show no cowardice. This is your chance to kill the beast while it sleeps. and, for a start, to save your body and soul. You are wearing a sword. Draw it and strike the man-eater. Slay in your turn the one who has slain many human lives. Slay the bane of my entire heart.

Kallimachos followed the lady’s instructions:

Kallimachos stood up, sighed, and with a noble gesture valiantly raised his sword. He smote the sleeping dragon with all his might but the blow did not even wake him.

The maiden sighed disdainfully at the performance of Kallimachos’s sword. Then she gave him further instruction:

Throw away that wooden sword of yours or we’ll be slaughtered. Take the key on the pillow. You see the dragon’s cupboard there? Open it. You’ll find his sword. It has a magnificent ruby hilt. If you have the strength to draw it, if you do not tremble from fear but stand and strike with it, you will cut the monster in two.

Channeling his inner Odysseus, Kallimachos succeeding in drawing the dragon’s sword.[2] He struck the dragon with it and cut him in two. Kallimachos then freed the damsel hanging from her hair.

Kallimachos subsequently spent considerable time trying to chat up the girl. She, who was nude, was tearful and off-putting. Finally the lady said to him:

You see my poor body naked. First bring some of the clothes which the dragon hung up inside and kept after receiving them from my parents, and cover me with them. And carry out the greedy creature’s body as I hate to see its corpse even in death. Light a fire, turn it into fine ash, and then you will learn of my family, of my land and where I was born.

An enduring structure of gender oppression is requiring men to take out the trash, as if men as a gender are essentially connected to trash. Kallimachos lacked meninist consciousness. He thus followed the lady’s orders without a word of protest. With some additional seductive labor, Kallimachos eventually won the love of that damsel, the lady Chrysorroi.

The romance of Kallimachos and Chrysorroi probably was written in Constantinople between 1320 and 1340. Its story of Chrysorroi instructing Kallimachos on how to slay a dragon is obviously a romantic parody.[3] Its humor is heightened in contrast to the story of Digenis slaying a dragon in the Byzantine epic Digenis Akritis. The latter story probably dates from no later than the tenth century.[4] Digenis slaying a dragon would have provided well-known context for interpreting Chrysorroi instructing Kallimachos to slay a dragon.

For Digenis, slaying a dragon was merely a minor interruption to a mid-day nap. One day at noon, Digenis retired for a nap by a spring. His wife graciously sprinkled rose-water over him as nightingales and other birds sang. With Digenis sleeping soundly, his wife went to wet herself in the spring. A dragon attacked her and attempted to rape her. She shrieked, “Wake up, my lord, and rescue your dearest.” The sleeping hero responded to his damsel in distress:

The shriek rang in my heart,
and I promptly sat up and saw the intruder
(for the spring was straight in front of me on purpose);
I drew my sword and found myself at the spring,
for my feet ran swiftly like wings.
As I reached him he revealed a hideous apparition to me,
huge and terrifying to human eyes —
three gigantic heads, completely engulfed in fire;
from each it gushed out flame like lightning flashes;
as it changed its position it let out a thunderclap,
so that the earth and all the trees seemed to shake.
Thickening its body and drawing its heads into one,
growing thin behind and making a sharp tail,
at one moment coiling itself and then unfolding again,
it launched its whole attack against me.
But I, reckoning this spectacle as nothing,
stretched my sword up high with all my might
and brought it down on the ferocious beast’s heads,
and cut them all off at once. It collapsed on the ground,
twitching its tail up and down in its last spasms.
I wiped my sword and replaced it in its scabbard,
summoned my boys who where some way off
and ordered that the dragon be removed at once.
When this had been done at indescribable speed,
the boys ran back to their own tents,
while I went back to my couch to sleep once more,
for the sweet sleep I had been enjoying drew me back again
as I had not yet had my fill of it when I was first woken. [5]

As in Kallimachos and Chrysorroi, the dragon is associated with thunder and lightening. But unlike Kallimachos, Digenis responds quickly and acts on his own initiative. He slays the dragon easily, without the help of a woman’s instructions. He then directs a servant to dispose of the dragon’s body. Digenes wasn’t the sort of man who would act as woman’s servant in disposing of trash. Compared to Kallimachos, Digenis was a less modern sort of hero.

Men as a gender should not be assumed to have exclusive responsibility to slay dragons. The most dangerous dragons today are cultural. Women and men can best slay these dragons by recovering a sense of humor and being brave enough to laugh.

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[1] Kallimachos and Chrysorroi ll. 450ff, from medieval vernacular Greek trans. Betts (1995) p. 46. I’ve eliminated Betts’s parentheses and ellipses. Subsequent quotes are drawn from ll. 455-640, trans. id. 45-50.

[2] Cf. The suitors unable to string Odysseus’s bow in Odyssey, Bk. 21.

[3] Highly learned scholars have failed to recognize the parody. Cupane astonishingly declared, “Kallimachos is a hero and has to behave as one.” Cupane (2014) pp. 194-5. This misreading may have been driven by Manual Philes’s near-contemporary 161-verse allegorization of the story of Kallimachos and Chrysorroi. On that allegorization, id. pp. 196-7. Cupane more generally declared that the Byzantine vernacular romances are not parodies. Id. p. 193.

Byzantine literature has an undeserved reputation for tediousness. Kazhdan, Sherry & Angelidē (1999), Ch. 7, doesn’t do enough to dispel that misunderstanding. Alexiou (2002), pp. 129-48, on Ptochoprodromos provides better insight. Ptochoprodromos on an abused husband even rivals Lamentationes Matheolulus in raucousness and wit.

Haldon (2002) and Kyriakis (1973) provide more general reviews of the Byzantine comic sense. Haldon cites the Byzantine joke:

A man is walking down the street when a neighbour runs up to him and says, ‘Hey, your house is on fire!’ ‘Don’t worry,’ replies the man, ‘I’ve got the key.’

Haldon (2002) p. 64. Halsall, the editor of the associated volume of essays Humour, history and politics in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, declared:

This joke {is} possibly the best in this collection of essays (certainly that which got the biggest laugh at the conference where these papers were originally presented)

Halsall (2002) p. 1-21. Chrysorroi, while hanging by hair, instructing Kallimachos on how to deal with a dragon is surely funnier than that joke.

[4] The epic Digenis Akritis probably originated in an oral tale in Byzantium in the ninth or tenth centuries. The epic apparently never was established in a canonical text. Jeffreys (1998) pp. xxx-xli, lvi-lvii.

[5] Digenis Akritis (Grottaferrata ms.) 6.58-85, from medieval vernacular Greek trans. Jeffreys (1998) p. 157. The Grottaferrata manuscript of Digenis Akritis was written about 1300.

Kallimachos and Chrysorroi uses the word δράκων for the monster. Betts translates that word as “dragon.” For discussion of the translation issue, see Betts (1995) p. 35. For consistency in the above quoted translation of Digenis Akritis, I’ve substituted “dragon” for δράκον in place of Jeffreys’s “serpent.”

[image] Digenis Akritis fights dragon. Zeuxippus ceramic decoration, scratched on slip and under the glaze (sgraffito). Dated late-twelfth / early-thirteenth century. Found in Kherson, Ukraine. Preserved in Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia), inventory # X728. Image thanks to Qantara. I’ve modified the image to obscure some obtrusive photographic glare. Other images of Digenis fighting a dragon exist on a Byzantine dish and a Byzantine plate, both dating from the twelfth century.


Alexiou, Margaret. 2002. After antiquity: Greek language, myth, and metaphor. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Betts, Gavin. 1995. Three medieval Greek romances. Garland Library of Medieval Literature, vol. 98. New York: Garland Pub.

Cupane, Carolina. 2014. “Other Worlds, Other Voices: Form and Function of the Marvelous in Late Byzantine Fiction.” Pp. 183-202 in Roilos, Panagiotis, ed. Medieval Greek storytelling: fictionality and narrative in Byzantium. Wiesbaden : Harrassowitz Verlag.

Haldon, John. 2002. “Humour and the everyday in Byzantium.” Ch. 2 (pp. 48-71) in Halsall, Guy, ed. Humour, history and politics in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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

Kyriakis, Michael J. 1973. “Satire and slapstick in seventh and twelfth century Byzantium.” Byzantina 5: 291-306

Kazhdan, Alexander P., Lee Francis Sherry, and Christina Angelidē. 1999. A history of Byzantine literature. Vol. 1. 650-850. Athens: National Hellenic Research Foundation, Institute for Byzantine Research.

Livistros and Rhodamne shows men under despotic Eros in Byzantium

Eros and Psyche

In the mid-thirteenth-century Byzantine romance Livistros and Rhodamne, Rhodamne learns that her long-lost husband, the Latin knight Livistros, is alive. She exclaims:

My doubts are many and my disbelief great. A dead man come back to life — who will believe it? If he is really alive, which I doubt, how has he come to me? [1]

Byzantine writers could hardly express such doubts openly with respect to Christ in thoroughly Christian Byzantine society. That’s also true with respect to the legitimacy of gynocentrism. In Livistros and Rhodamne, Love (Eros) is God. He rules heaven and earth despotically. Men’s position of abjection within that despotism ineluctably inspires doubts.

Livistros and Rhodamne begins with the story of a MGTOW nightmare. Livistros recounted his original bliss as a single man:

Joy was my companion, serenity my friend. Never was there any happiness or pleasure which I lacked. And amid so much joy, amid so many pleasures, amid all my wealth and prosperity, amid the many luxuries and delights which I possessed and had at my command and in which I took pleasure, no concern for love ever came to me. My mind was completely free of passion. The thought of love did not enter my mind. I lived unsubdued, in freedom, without Love’s tortures, and beyond desire. [2]

One night, Livistros dreamed that a squadron of winged, armed men arrested him. They took him before the three-faced God Love, who sat on a throne flanked by two women. Love set before Livistros the choice of servitude or death: he could either become enslaved to Love, or have his head cut off.[3] Livistros begged Love for mercy. Forgiving Livistros for his prior life of bliss, Love gave Livistros passion for the beautiful princess Rhodamne, daughter of the Emperor Chrysos. Livistros did obeisance to Love and swore an oath of servitude. He thus was enthralled with love for Rhodamne.

Livistros went in search of Rhodamne just like a man would in today’s Dark Age of ignorance, bigotry, and superstition. He spent two years searching for her. After he finally found the Silver Castle where she lived, he didn’t just knock on the door and introduce himself. He camped outside her castle and wrote to her daily. He would tie his letters to arrows and shoot them over the castle wall. For six months she didn’t reply.

Modern master-teachers of love would probably grade Livistros’s love letters as meriting an omega grade for seductive savvy. Consider his first love letter to Rhodamne:

If your soul had learnt of me, if you knew who I am and for whom I suffer, if there were anywhere a person to tell you how much time I have spent for you, how many dangers I have run and woes I have endured, what manner of things have happened to me because of you — I think that if you had feelings of stone and a heart of iron you would take pity on me when you learnt what I suffer. I have no-one who could tell you of me. I have only Love and I have confidence in him. I hope that he puts concern for me into your heart. He is slow to act. He is sluggish in what he promised me. I have no-one to whom I can tell my sufferings. Believe me, my heart is being torn by my troubles. Here now is my letter, read what I suffer. Know whose message it is. Have mercy on him. Pity him. For two years now he has been wandering because of desire for you.

Is there any question about what would be most women’s reaction to this? Pathetic. Cringe-worthy. Ridicule him to your girlfriends. Livistros wrote like this daily for six months without a reply.[4] That shows as little empirical sense as believing that “violence against women is the most pressing human rights problem remaining in the world.” At least Rhodamne didn’t declare that she feared that Livistros was stalking her and have a restraining order imposed on him.

Rhodamne’s closest advisor, a eunuch, finally responded to Livistros’s letters. He represented the interest of scribes, but wrote with a frankness that few academics today would dare venture:

Know that the lady sighs with desire for you. She has fallen in love with you and suffers for your woes. But young women give themselves a haughty air. If she has not yet yielded to you, do not think that she does not desire you. This is through the haughtiness of the lady who was born of the sun. But write, write, Livistros, write. Do not be indolent. She has your earlier letters. She keeps them and reads them. She examines them word by word and her soul reflects on your misery of two years.

Livistros followed the eunuch’s advice and kept writing love letters to Rhodamne. Showing no understanding of biblical wisdom about the undesirability of a leaky roof, Livistros wrote:

They say that if a drop falls constantly on a rock, whatever the nature of the drop and the nature of the stone, the steady beating bores through the stone because the water’s dripping cannot be averted. I used to find this extraordinary. I was always amazed how a drop can pierce stone.

But when I examine the matter I do not believe what men say. I do not think that a drop can bore through stone. My passion, as it beat on the rock of your heart, should have worn it away. For drops my passion has these many letters, my messages, my words of love. I think that if my letters’ words had fallen on stone, even though it were rooted in Hades, the stone would have been wrenched up and would have come to understand my letter; however lifeless it was, it would have been transformed into intelligence.

So a drop is powerless against stone. It does not have the quality they say and their words are lies. A virtuous women’s heart surpasses a rock in hardness. The dew of my soul is now powerless and the spring of my heart cannot drip. It remains for me to beseech you, for me to confide my heart’s woes to you. It has submitted to the judgment of your love, my lady, and the courtesy of your mind. [5]

The lady finally wrote a reply letter to Livistros. He was overjoyed. He responded with a request for a token from the lady: “I shall regard it as I would you.”

Rhodamne, who lived long before the time of the Apocalypse Opener, was furious at Livistros’s effrontery. She responded:

It is enough that you have the letter which I wrote and that you have now bent an inflexible mind to desire. As for your eagerness to obtain a token as well from me and receive in your hands a pledge of my love, I am amazed that you feel no shame when you say so. In writing this to me the violence of your passion had led you too far. You will not see another letter from me. As long as you try to make me give you a token, you will die waiting as far as a letter goes. You will certainly not see one.

Livistros replied that, when he read her letter, “I saw death incarnate leap out and imperiously strike down my entire heart.” He complained that she was killing him. Perhaps with some awareness of men’s lifespan deprivation relative to women, Rhodamne in turn felt sorry for Livistros. She subsequently declared that in another letter from her.

In an uncharacteristic display of gender leadership, Livistros sent Rhodamne a ring. The ring had a ruby stone and layers of iron, gold, and lodestone forming the ring. Rhodamne was delighted with that token. She in turn sent Livistros a token of her. It was a ring of intertwined iron and lodestone “clasping each other so tightly as to be never wrenched apart.”

Livistros then wrote the lady with a request to meet with her. College sex-tribunal inquisitors today might classify such a letter as attempted rape. Rather than calling down authoritative punishment upon Livistros, Rhodamne merely replied and harshly dismissed his request as not worthy of a reply:

It did not befit my heart, it did not become my mind for me to write a reply to this last letter of yours. My hands should have cut it up and banished it from the world. You would have learnt from this that, even if you do love, you should not be so brazen in showing it. You should have counted the time, you should have watched the days and attended to what was happening. This alone would have sufficed. You must now realize that your letter made my heart angry with you, fearsomely angry, that your soul was impatient to receive another message or token of my love.

In his reply letter to her, Livistros described Rhodamne’s letter as an executioner. He exclaimed: “you have killed the man who is dying for you.” The lady didn’t reply. After three days, Livistros wrote another groveling letter. Again Rhodamne didn’t reply. After another four days, Livistros wrote another pathetic, self-abasing letter to her.

Rhodamne ultimately agreed to meet with Livistros. They met at dawn on a wooded hill with countless trees blooming with various flowers. The hill was across from a meadow. Livistros saw Rhodamne riding across the meadow to their appointed meeting-place in the woods:

The horse she rode was as white as snow and its forelock and mane were plaited with tassels of red silk which blazed like fire. Her dress was in the Latin fashion. Over a red and gold garment she wore a brightly coloured cloak which trailed far back over the ground. In one hand she held a tame parrot, which sat there without constraint and said in a human voice, “This lady makes slaves of souls not yet possessed by passion, and she shackles hearts still free; she subdues the senses of those reared in the mountains and desolate places.” And I paused from gazing at that wondrous lady with her rare beauty and indescribable appearance, and marveled at how the bird had been enslaved and was able to tell of its servitude with a human voice.

The bird of course was talking about Livistros. But at least the lady wasn’t satisfied with the company of cats. Rhodamne and Livistros united in love:

Ask not how we embraced and with what love, how long we talked and on how many subjects, nor is it fit for me to tell you.

As Ovid understood, explicitly telling isn’t necessary. Who doesn’t know the rest of what happened?

Rhodamne arranged to have Livistros engage in men-on-men violence and also incited him to murder an old woman. Verderichos, the king of Egypt, loved Rhodamne. Her father preferred Verderichos to Livistros for her husband. She proposed that the men fight for her. She told her father:

I prefer Livistros; you Verderichos. Tell them to mount their horses and joust. I shall take the one who conquers with his arms. Combat will decide what is best.

The men tore into each other with no consciousness of the pervasiveness of violence against men in gynocentric society:

His tongue screeched out, “Swine, now you die! And I replied, “Now you die, dog!”

Livistros won the combat and thus Rhodamne for a wife. More importantly, neither man was killed. An old woman, disparaged as a witch,  was less fortunate. Drawing upon the diction of a witch, Rhodamne incited Livistros to kill the old woman:

I conjure you by the misfortunes you have suffered for me, I conjure you by my love and my passion — kill this foul and evil woman. Her magic art exiled me from you and rendered you lifeless.

Acting according to his wife’s wishes, Livistros drew his sword and decapitated the old woman. Fortunately Livistros was not arrested and did not become another man in the vastly disproportionate incarceration of men.

Like Chrétien de Troyes’s twelfth-century French romance Lancelot, Livistros and Rhodamne subtly critiques social devaluation of men’s lives. Eros in Livistros and Rhodamne has three faces for the boy, adult, and old man of men’s lives. Those faces all speak as one in an over-representation of eros.[6] Yet the rule of eros doesn’t exclude other faces of love. Livistros’s relationship with his friend Klitovon is an example of mutual friendship (philia). Christian understanding of a freely given gift of self (agape) appears as a shadow in relation to Livistros’s needy, pathetic expressions of eros. Livistros and Rhodamne raises doubts about the rule of eros. This romance calls for additional faces of love for men.

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[1] Livistros and Rhodamne S2495f, from medieval vernacular Greek trans. Betts (1995) p. 170. Betts transliterates the heroine as Rodamni. The hero is also commonly transliterated as Libistros. Livistros and Rhodamne apparently was composed in the mid-thirteenth century (probably between 1248 and 1261) in the Laskarid court in Nicaea. Agapitos (1999) p. 112; Agapitos (2013) pp. 415-6.

Five manuscripts of Livistros and Rhodamne have survived. The manuscripts have corruptions and lacunae. In addition, they don’t seem to represent a common source text. Betts (1995) pp. 92-3 discusses the manuscripts. Agapitos (1999), Appendix, provides a preliminary critical edition of the dream sequence (N186 – N560). Bett’s translation represents the S manuscript, supplemented with other manuscripts where necessary.

For similar examples of provocative invocations of Christian concerns in twelfth-century Byzantine novels, Burton (1998).

[2] Livistros and Rhodamne N100ff, trans. Betts (1995) p. 96. Subsequent quotes, cited by approximate beginning text line and page in id., are: S160, p. 122 (If your soul has learnt…); S460, p. 128 (Know that the lady…); S520, p. 130 (They say that if a drop…); S660, p. 133 (It is enough…); S840, p. 136 (It did not befit my heart…); S1065, p. 141 (The horse she rode…); S1115, p. 142 (Ask not…); S1165, p. 143 (I prefer Livistros); E2312f, p. 144 (His tongue screeched…); S2760, p. 175 (I conjure you…).

[3] The two women personify Truth (socially constructed gynocentric truth) and Justice (men-criminalizing justice). On God providing a choice, cf. Deuteronomy 30:19.

[4] Men in love in Byzantium were astonishingly passive. In Belthandros and Chrysantza, the hero let two years and two months pass before he spoke to his beloved Chrysantza. He spoke to her only after she confessed aloud in a garden that she burned with love for him. Belthandros and Chrysantza l. 835ff, from medieval vernacular Greek trans. Betts (1995) p. 20.

[5] On biblical wisdom, cf. Proverbs 27:15.

[6] Livistros and Rhodamne N290, p. 104; P470, p. 105. In vernacular Byzantine romances, the God Eros is ideologically omnipotent like the Byzantine emperor. The God Eros is “lord emperor, master of all the earth, commander of the inanimate world, ruler of animate beings, examiner of every soul, judge of the law of desire, helper of love, friend of respect.” Livistros and Rhodamne N317-20, trans Agapitos (1999) p. 122. Betts (1995) p. 105 is similar. The depiction of Eros reflects contemporary imperial practice. Agapitos (2013) pp. 399-401.

Courtiers and patrons in the French court at Champagne and at the Laskarid court in Niceaea may have enjoyed and supported romances of men’s abjection in eros. Modern medieval scholars have celebrated men-abasing courtly love. Yet the abjection of men would have been significantly damaging to the lives of Byzantine men and women, just as it is today.

Christoforatou has recognized a critical perspective on eros:

we must allow for the possibility that the ongoing struggle between sovereign power {Eros} and human subject in the surviving {Byzantine} novels was seen for what it truly was: a shameless act of sovereign tyranny. … the authors of the Komnenian and Palaiologan novels manage to both condemn and justify the violent acts of their rulers through a dubious sovereign model that deprives the imperial figure of the most significant attributes of imperial governance: prudence (sophrosyne), temperance (phronesis), justice (dikaiosyne) and civility (eunomia). In so doing, they bring to the fore a sovereign figure that conflates the boundaries between the just and the violent, the private and the public, operating as a legitimate tyrant and basileus.

Christoforatou (2011) pp. 334, 337. That critical perspective becomes more focused when understood in terms of gynocentrism and men’s abjection in love.

[image] Eros and Psyche. Etching and aquatint. By Jean-Claude-Richard, Abbé de Saint-Non after François Bouche, 1766. National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), Accession No. 1984.57.3, Gift of Regina Slatkin.


Agapitos, Panagiotis A. 1999. “Dreams and the Spatial Aesthetics of Narrative Presentation in Livistros and Rhodamne.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 53: 111-147.

Agapitos, Panagiotis A. 2013. “The ‘Court of Amorous Dominion’ and the ‘Gate of Love’: Rituals of Empire in a Byzantine Romance of the Thirteenth Century.” Ch. 14 (pp. 389-416) in Beihammer, Alexander Daniel, Stavroula Constantinou, and Maria G. Parani, eds. Court ceremonies and rituals of power in Byzantium and the medieval Mediterranean: comparative perspectives. Leiden: Brill.

Betts, Gavin. 1995. Three medieval Greek romances. Garland Library of Medieval Literature, vol. 98. New York: Garland Pub. (review)

Burton, Joan B. 1998. “Reviving the Pagan Greek Novel in a Christian World.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies. 39 (2): 179.

Christoforatou, Christina. 2011. “Figuring Eros in Byzantine Fiction: Iconographic Transformation and Political Evolution.” Medieval Encounters. 17 (3): 321-359.

violence against man led to woman’s head crushed by stone

burning men: Old Believers

The extent of criminalization of men and violence against men easily prompts despair among the warm-hearted. In twelfth-century Byzantium, the eminent writer Theodore Prodromos apparently turned to macabre comedy as a remedy for despair. In his novel Rhodanthe and Dosikles, Prodromos described bizarrely reverberating violence and vindication through fierce inquisitorial fire.

Kratandros fell in love with his neighbor, the maiden Chrysochroe. He revealed his flame for her through a messenger. She agreed to marry him. They arranged secretly for him to come to her room on an appointed evening. Then they would give and receive pledges of love in person.

The lovers’ attempt to meet generated macabre comedy. With images used in figuring the seduction of a virgin, Kratandros reported moving forward:

when I approached the gate at the entrance,
I opened the doors that were shut,
drawing back their wooden bolt,
and putting forward a quiet foot
I hastened to make my way to Chrysochroe. [1]

Unfortunately the door-keeper noticed him. She called Chrysochroe’s father from bed and summoned fellow servants to violence against Kratandros. He was guilty of nothing more than loving Chrysochroe and acting to fulfill mutual arrangements for a meeting. Facts matter little in criminalizing men for loving women:

they all immediately rushed off to catch
the escaping intruder and kill him with clubs and stones.
One clasped in his hands a club
or rather one or other of the doorposts,
another dug up the house or tore it apart
and seized a hand-sized stone in both his hands,
all — armed with whatever they chanced on —
threatened noisy violence to this disturber of the night. [2]

Tearing down one’s house to attack, without questioning or immediate danger, a fleeing man represents a ridiculous over-reaction. It’s as ridiculous as claiming that nearly a quarter of men admit to being rapists. Yet many today respond to such literature only in the crudest of ways. A more humane response is laughter within a sense of despair and absurdity.[3]

Subsequent events heighten a comic sense of despair and absurdity. What happened, according to Kratandros’s telling, is inconceivable:

And nowhere chancing on Kratandros
(would that they had; what point is there in my continuing to live?)
their good aim was a mis-hit at the maiden.
For Lestias’ ill-judged fist,
hoping for Kratandros,
miserably slew — alas, alas — the miserable Chrysochroe,
shattering her head with a huge stone.

Misandary and violence against men has enormous, seldom-counted harm. Here, with Kratandros hidden outside, those social injustices register as a huge stone crushing an innocent maiden’s head. Those social injustices further register as Lestias and his fellow servants then claiming that Kratandros murdered Chrysochroe.

No one engaged reason to understand and judge the events. Chrysochroe’s father believed the false accusation and condemned Kratandros:

O accursed Kratandros, all-daring insolence,
implacable robber, savage-souled being,
how could you destroy such a maiden
by stealth, craftily, wilfully, heartlessly?
I am amazed and astonished
that the rock did not turn back on itself
(having acquired natural understanding)
to kill the thrower with a just judgment,
but it wilfully struck Chrysochroe.
And you, despoiler and slayer of the girl,
may you undergo a deserved death in the future,

and having slain my daughter
with a dreadful blow from a most accursed stone,
you — unhappy one — will expire pitiably, crushed by stones.

Like men who believe in patriarchy, Kratandros blamed himself for the terrible injustices:

Alas, wretched father of a wretched daughter,
it is I who have deprived your offspring,
your maiden, of life and dear existence.
Accuse me of your daughter’s death,
summon me to the tribunal and seek judgment,
drawing me, dragging me to the lawgivers’ houses,
demanding the penalty deemed right by the laws.
It is generally decreed, as you have just said,
that he who strikes with stones should be struck with stones.
I myself would yearn for death by stoning
since Chrysochroe died from a stone.
Let the hand of Lestias alone slay me,
which accursedly killed the maiden.
Do not be slow to charge me with murder;
for I long to go to where Chrysochroe is. [4]

That response is sadly characteristic of men. While men have no reproductive rights whatsoever, many men worry deeply about perceived threats to women’s reproductive rights. While four times more men than women die from violence, many men believe that violence against women is the most pressing human rights issue in the world today. Men don’t value their own intrinsic human being.

A fierce inquisitorial flame fantastically delivered justice to Kratandros. Chrysochroe’s father, probably urged on by his wife, had Kratandros summoned before the tribunal on a charge of murder. Chrysochroe’s father appealed to the court for Kratandros to “at least suffer a rock-borne death.” With Kratandros moving forward to plead guilty, his father, perhaps acting according to his wife’s order, intervened. He rightly called the murder charge “fabricated.” Given pervasive judicial bias against men, Kratandros’s father turned to the fantastic option of trial by fire.[5] Attendants of a goddess’s temple lit a fire “seven times more fierce than usual.” Kratandros recounted:

So the temple attendants lit the fire
and requested the murderer to enter it.
When I went into the middle of the flame,
I trod on the fire and stayed within it, unburnt.

Kratandros was thus found innocent of murder. As Kratandros’s dear friend Dosikles said, what a “strange and wonderful matter.”

The innocent maiden Chrysochroe had her head crushed by a stone intended for the head of an innocent, loving man. Perhaps eventually the rock of misandry will turn back on its throwers. That may be humanity’s best hope for justice.

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[1] Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles ll. 1.173-77, from Atticizing Greek trans. Jeffreys (2012) p. 25. Prodromos was “perhaps the most versatile, inventive, and prolific” writer in Byzantium in the first half of the twelfth century. He probably wrote Rhodanthe and Dosikles in Constantinople in the 1130s under Byzantine Emperor John II Komnenos. This novel imitates settings and plot elements of ancient Greek novels, particularly Heliodoros’s Ethiopika and Achilles Tatius’s Leucippe and Clitophon. Rhodanthe and Dosikles is in nine books of twelve-syllable iambic verse. Prodromos probably presented parts of it in oral performance at the imperial court’s theatron. Id., introduction, pp. 3-14.

A gate with shut doors poetically figures a virginal womb. In the Hebrew bible, a foot is a figure for a man’s penis. Byzantine novels include “clever genital innuendo.” Kaldellis (2007) p. 266.

[2] Rhodanthe and Dosikles ll. 1.182-9, trans. Jeffreys (2012) pp. 25-6. Subsequent quotes are (cited by line number in Book 1 and page in id.’s translation): ll. 190-6, p. 26 (And nowhere chancing…); ll. 252-62, 267-9, p. 28 (O accursed Kratandros…); ll. 293-306, p. 29 (Alas, wretched father…); ll. 386-9, p. 32 (So the temple attendants…). Short quotes within the text are from this range of line numbers and pages.

[3] Writing about Hellenism in Byzantium, Kaldellis observed:

In American public life, only comedians may hint at the truth. They are allowed this by the guardians of opinion because their apparent lack of seriousness places them outside the realm of consequential political discourse; it also transmutes our indignation into laughter, neutralizing it. So too with “Hellenic” satire in Byzantium. The fiction of rhetorical imitation and satire’s conciliatory foolishness diffused the implied challenge to Orthodoxy and the court.

Kaldellis (2007) p. 276. Prodromos was far more perceptive, daring, and sophisticated than popular comedians in American public life today. At the same time, orthodoxy today is more oppressive and more ridiculous than it was in Byzantium.

[4] In an astonishing analysis of these events, MacAlister declared:

Although technically innocent of Chrysochroe’s murder, Kratandros had expressed his responsibility for it and so, like certain characters in the ancient novel, had pleaded guilty at the subsequent murder trial in the expectation that the penalty would be death (1.347-49). But unlike the ancient novel situations where the pleading character provokes death and voluntarily pleaded guilty to a crime for which he or she is invariably totally innocent, the situation here is one in which the pleading character willingly pleaded guilty to a crime for which he does carry some guilt: had Kratandros not been secretly visiting the maiden, the uproar which had caused her death would not have taken place. Prodromos thus dispels any idea of voluntary provocation of death by the fact that, in the final analysis, Kratandros could be considered ultimately responsible for the murder.

MacAlister (1996) p. 122. With equally convincing reason, scholars such as MacAlister are ultimately responsible for vastly disproportionate violence against men and vastly disproportionate incarceration of men.

Dosikles latter echoes Kratandros’s unwarranted self-accusation of murder. After a storm in which the pirate ship carrying Rhodanthe captive vanished, Dosikles imagined that she was dead. He declared, “it is I who am your murderer, not the tempest.” Rhodanthe and Dosikles l. 6.350, trans. Jeffreys (2002) p. 107.

Prodromos may well be engaging in satire of Christian and imperial orthodoxy. Kaldellis (2007) pp. 270-6. But Prodromos’s satire of gynocentrism is more daring and more interesting. Prodromos’s novel “shows clearly with what artistry and subversive irony old topoi can be reinvented and presented.” Cupane (2014) p. 188.

[5] Trial by fire was not practiced in Byzantium. Jeffreys (2012) p. 31, notes 36-8, which cite Heliodoros 10.8-9 and Daniel 3.19-24 for comparison. Kratandros’s trial by fire differs significantly from the Heliodoros 10.8-9. The latter describes a trial of chastity by stepping on a burning gridiron. In Daniel 3.19-97, King Nebuchadnessar had Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship a golden statue. They walked around in the flames and remained unburned while joyfully praying to their god, the god of Jews and Christians. In context, Kratandros’s trial by fire functions within the twelfth-century Byzantine literary practice of “mixing the unmixable.” Roilos (2005) p. 237 (in Ch. 4, “Comic Modulations”), citing the late thirteenth or early fourteenth-century critique of Timarion by Konstantinos Akropolites.

[image] The Burning of Protopope Avvakum. Painting by Grigoriy Myasoyedov, 1897. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Cupane, Carolina. 2014. “Other Worlds, Other Voices: Form and Function of the Marvelous in Late Byzantine Fiction.” Pp. 183-202 in Roilos, Panagiotis, ed. Medieval Greek storytelling: fictionality and narrative in Byzantium. Wiesbaden : Harrassowitz Verlag.

Jeffreys, Elizabeth, trans. and notes. 2012. Four Byzantine novels: Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles; Eumathios Makrembolites, Hysmine and Hysminias;  Constantine Manasses, Aristandros and Kallithea; Niketas Eugenianos, Drosilla and Charikles. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

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

MacAlister, Suzanne. 1996. Dreams and suicides: the Greek novel from antiquity to the Byzantine Empire. London: Routledge.

Roilos, Panagiotis. 2005. Amphoteroglossia: a poetics of the twelfth-century Medieval Greek novel. Hellenic Studies Series 10. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

servants and eunuchs destroy joyful sexual fulfillment

Byazantine Empress Theodora (d. 548)

The King was away on business, fighting enemies abroad. His eunuch counselors wrote to him:

The lamentations, the suffering, the agony, the bewilderment, the restless petulance, and the terrible anxiety which you saw in our queen and mistress are at an end. They have settled, receded and passed away. Now come days of joy and happiness. Tears have stopped, grief is banished, and in their place come ease and freedom.

What seemed to have cheered Queen Chrysorroi was solitude in a curtained pavilion in the royal garden. In fact, what cured her misery was trysts with a laborer, an assistant gardener:

There she found the laborer and she played with him. He alone had won the queen’s love and they embraced with frequent kisses. The garden became the bridal chamber of Aphrodite, the mirror of the Graces and the dwelling place of Love. They spent the day in much happiness. The night returned with all its sweetness. On its arrival, winged Love again took the laborer and with every joy of desire brought him to the queen.

The laborer, who spent much time “digging in the garden,” was actually Queen Chrysorroi’s former and never-forgotten boyfriend Kallimachos.

After rescuing Chrysorroi from a dragon, Kallimachos had managed, with considerable effort, to persuade her to have sex with him. Their affair didn’t begin with a drunken hook-up or a casual Tinder bang:

After some time, after many days, they formed the wish to unite their souls and they joined their hearts in indissoluble links, duly binding their love with most terrible oaths. Love, the king, was present at their words, received their oaths himself and wrote the contracts; contracts for which he stood between them as guarantor.

Christian marriage requires publicly witnessed vows. No one witnessed the pseudo-marriage of Chrysorroi and Kallimachos. Love the king in the above text is a personification and a moral rationalization. Many persons today engage in similar conceptual strategies, but with rather less literary sophistication.

Chrysorroi and Kallimachos found great pleasure from successful seduction. They went to a private pool and bathed together:

Only the tongue of Aphrodite could describe the pleasure and charms of their bathing. … He {Kallimachos} looked at her and, as he looked, he reaped the sweet fruits of pleasure. I mean something sweeter than everything sweetest. Time alone saw the remarkable sight, the pleasure beyond words, which they enjoyed in the pool.

After bathing together, they enjoyed delights together on a couch near the pool. They subsequently lived a life of amorous passion and bliss in Dragon Castle.

An inadvertent sighting and a witch’s spells destroyed the happiness of Kallimachos and Chrysorroi. One day a king saw Chrysorroi and Kallimachos leaning over the wall of Dragon Castle and enjoying the wonderful view. The King was immediately struck with love for the beautiful Chrysorroi. Beautiful women have incredible power over men. The King became desperately lovesick. He was willing to try anything to gain the love of Chrysorroi. A witch offered him her services. She conjured a scene of a damsel in distress. Kallimachos foolishly rushed to rescue the damsel in distress. Then, with a magic apple, the witch put Kallimachos into a death-like state. When Chrysorroi came to mourn over Kallimachos’s body, the King abducted her to be his queen.

Servants and eunuchs conspired to expose Queen Chrysorroi and Kallimachos when they renewed their love affair. Kallimachos eventually regained life, found Chrysorroi, and took up a job working in the royal garden. Queen Chrysorroi’s many comforters and eunuchs wondered why the Queen seemed much happier. They instructed her maid to spy on her. The maid saw the Queen having sex in the garden with the laborer Kallimachos. The maid reported to the eunuchs:

I have seen her deceitful little game. The gardener’s laborer, the one who does the digging — she is embracing him, she is sleeping with him! I watched all this last night and I saw her playing  with him, kissing him, sleeping with him. O what a wicked and unnatural deed! But if you want to see the horror yourselves, spend this coming night in the garden. We shall sit together and wait. You will learn the tricks of this little whore.

The eunuchs hid themselves with the maid and saw Chrysorroi having sex with Kallimachos. They were horrified. The eunuchs reported their finding to the King. Chrysorroi and Kallimachos potentially faced severe punishment merely for resuming their passionate affair.

Beware of servants and eunuchs. Whether working in college administrations, human-resource departments, or departments of education or justice, servants and eunuchs lack appreciation for sexual pleasure. They destroy mutual joy.

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The above story is from the medieval Byzantine romance Kallimachos and Chrysorroi. It apparently was written in Constantinople between 1320 and 1340. The quotations above are from the translation of Betts (1995): l. 2125ff, pp. 78-9 (The lamentation…); l. 2155ff, p. 79 (There she found…); l.755ff, p. 52 (After some time…; Only the tongue of Aphrodite…); . 2210ff, p. 80 (I have seen…).

The text makes clear Chrysorroi’s wonderful beauty:

The lady was completely alluring. She inspired love. Her charms were beyond description, and her graces outdid those of the Graces themselves. Her hair flowed down in rivers of lovely curls and shone on her head with a gleam which surpassed the golden rays of the sun. Her body, which was whiter than crystal, beguiled the sight with its beauty as it seemed to blend the charms of roses with its color. Just the sight of her face alone shook your entire soul, your entire heart. Indeed, the lady seemed to be the image of Aphrodite and of every other beauty that the mind can conceive. But why prattle on? Why describe at length the beauty of her body? A few words would suffice to define it. All the women that the world has produced, whether before or after her — or her contemporaries — can only be compared to her charms as one might compare a monkey to Aphrodite.

Kallimachos and Chrysorroi l. 805ff, trans. Betts (1995) p. 53. That concluding comparison probably risked offending contemporary female auditors or readers. But Byzantium arguably had a more tolerant society than those in which the male gaze is disparaged, penalized, or criminalized.

Kallimachos’s bathing with Chrysorroi draws upon literary figures from the Greek Anthology. That bathing is not only pleasurable, but also therapeutic. Agapitos (1990).

Discovery of a queen’s trysts in a garden in Constantinople is an important element in Chrétien de Troyes’s twelfth-century French romance Cligès. Western European romances had considerable influence on later Byzantine romances. See Beaton (1996) Ch. 9. As Cligès suggests, Byzantine romances also influenced Western European romances. See also Jeffreys (1980) and Jeffreys (2013).

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


Agapitos, Panagiotis A. 1990. “The Erotic Bath in the Byzantine Vernacular Romance Kallimachos and Chrysorrhoe.” Classica et Mediaevalia 41: 257-73.

Beaton, Roderick. 1996. The Medieval Greek romance. 2nd ed., revised and expanded. London: Routledge.

Betts, Gavin. 1995. Three medieval Greek romances. Garland Library of Medieval Literature, vol. 98. New York: Garland Pub.

Jeffreys, Elizabeth. 1980. “The Comnenian Background to the romans d’antiquité.” Byzantion 50:455-86.

Jeffreys, Elizabeth. 2013. “Byzantine Romances: Eastern or Western?” Pp. 217-33 in Marina S. Brownlee and Dimitri H. Gondicas, eds. Renaissance encounters: Greek East and Latin West. Leiden: Brill.

conservative medieval women impeded progress toward gender equality

Pieter Bruegel, The Hay Chasing the Horse (engraving)

Whoever truly desires
Something is supposed to ask for it.
What? Shall I ask him to love me?
Never. And why? No woman
Makes the mistake of asking
A man for his love, unless
She’s totally out of her mind.
The world would know I was mad,
If I ever permitted my mouth
To speak such scandalous words. [1]

In addition to many other historical gender inequalities, men have long been disproportionately burdened with soliciting amorous relationships. Men are thus the gender that predominately experiences interpersonal rejection in love. Men’s disadvantage in love is deeply associated with sexual welfare inequality and men’s subordination to women. Chrétien de Troyes’s twelfth-century French romance Cligès shows the extent to which conservative medieval women resisted progress toward gender equality in love.

Gender inequality in love persists at least in part because it supports women’s rule. In Cligès, Fenice vigorously guarded the words of Cligès to her:

She kept rehearsing in her heart
Those moments when he’d said farewell,
How his color changed, and went pale,
His tears and his sorrowful face,
How he’d come before her, weeping,
And humbly fallen to his knees,
As if in adoration.

He’d told her he was hers to command.
How refreshing these few words!
They traveled straight from tongue
To heart; she set them in her mouth
To keep them forever safe,
Not daring to entrust this treasure
To some different hiding place.
Where could she hold them half
As well as deep in her heart?
She never allowed them out,
Fearing robbers and brigands. [2]

Where your treasure is, there your heart is also. Burying men’s subordination in love deep within women’s hearts prevents love from increasing.[3] That hurts women. As should also be said, that hurts men.

To achieve gender equality, the world must be set right. In Cligès, the narrator exclaims:

Tell me, oh Lord, where girls’
Timidity comes from, their frail,
Fearful, innocent silence?
I feel as if I’m seeing
Hounds fleeing a hare,
Trout chasing after beavers,
Lambs after wolves, pigeons
Pursuing eagles. Or peasant men fleeing
Their shovels, which earn them their weary
lives. Or ducks after falcons,
Storks after hawks, minnows
Splashing after pike,
Antelope hunting lions:
The world all upside down! [4]

Writers have long used the figure of the world upside down. In seventh-century BGC Greece, Archilochus imagined impossible reversals to marvel at the willingness of men to marry. In fourteenth-century GC Italy, Boccaccio used the figure of the world turned upside down as an opportunity to discuss women’s guile.[5] Chrétien de Troyes injected into the well-known figure of the world upside down a key figure of men’s oppression: peasant men fleeing from their burdensome physical labor. That’s a natural reaction of thinking men, quite unlike images of unnatural reversal such as pigeons pursuing eagles.

To perceive social injustices obscured under dominant ideology, one must distinguish between natural and unnatural impossibilities. Women desire amorous relationships as much as men do. Women soliciting amorous relationships and accepting rejection just as men do is a socially constructed impossibility. In reality, women pursuing men and being rejected is no more impossible than paternity certainty and reproductive rights for men. The gender system constructs men to be the rejected gender so as to support women’s command over men (women on top). Women on top was the preferred position of conservative medieval women and remains the preferred position of many women scholars today.[6]

Women pretend to live in “frail, fearful, innocent silence.” Men actually live that way. When men and women reject gynocentrism and insistently, to the point of raucous disorder, speak out about issues important to men’s lives, the world will be turned upside down. That will be all for the better.

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[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Cligès ll. 992-1001, from Old French trans. Raffel (1997) pp. 32-3. Sordamour is speaking about her love for Alexander. When citing Raffel’s translation, I cite the line numbers in his English translation. Those line numbers are close to line numbers in Old French editions (which have slightly varying line numbers by edition).

The mid-fifteenth-century Burgundian prose transmutation of Cligès seems to have recognized the injustice in Sordamour’s gender privilege. That prose account inserted the story of a young woman weeping sorrowfully in the woods. In solitude she cried out to herself:

I consider myself the most wretched and, among all those complaining about their misfortune and sorrowful life, the lady who most bitterly laments the loss of her dear beloved, who left her of late to go off in search of adventure. … Oh, if only he had know my desire when he left. Alas, if I had revealed it to him, he would not have gone away

Burgundian prose Cligès, Ch. 53, from French trans. Grimbert in Grimbert & Chase (2011) p. 125.

[2] Cligès ll. 4348-54, 4370-80, trans Raffel (1997) pp. 138-9. The text concerns Fenice and her lover Cligès.

[3] Cf. Matthew 6:21, 25:14-30.

[4] Cligès ll.3828-41, trans Raffel (1997) pp. 121-2. Id. has “Or peasants / their shovels, which earn them their weary / Lives.” The Old French text for the relevant lines (ll. 3834-5) is:

et si fuit li vilains sa maigle,
dom il vit et dom it s’ahane.

Ed. Harf-Lancner (2006) p. 268. These lines clearly refer to peasant men. I’ve made that explicit above. The verb fuit echoes the figure’s first verb foïr (“hounds fleeing a hare”). Making that echo explicit helps to indicate the importance of the lines about the peasant men.

Raffel insightfully translated ll. 3827-9 (the first three lines of the above quote). All other translations I’ve examined have obscured Chrétien’s critical subtlety. Here’s Raffel’s translation:

Tell me, oh Lord, where girls’
Timidity comes from, their frail,
Fearful, innocent silence?

In a recent authoritative edition, the Old French for those lines is:

Dex!, ceste crienme don li vient,
c’une pucele seule crient {tient A},
sinple et coarde, foible et quoie?

Harf-Lancner (2006) p. 266. While medieval manuscripts of Cligès differ significantly (see Sturges (1994) pp. 208-11), the above text captures all the relevant variation across manuscripts. Translators have wrongly assumed that the subject of these lines is Cligès. Some leading translations:

God! whence comes this fear, that he should shrink from a lonely girl, feeble and timid, simple and mild?

Trans. Owen (1987) p. 88.

God, whence comes his fear of a single maiden, simple and timid, feeble and shy?

Trans. Staines (1990) p. 133.

Dieu!, d’où lui vient cette crainte d’une seule jeune fille, modeste et peureuse, faible et silencieuse?

Harf-Lancner (2006) p. 267. These translations, while within the range of meanings of the text, don’t recognize Chrétien’s play with reversals across the text and the relevant context. They also don’t recognize reversal relevant to women’s dominant position within the men-degrading ideology of courtly love. Within that ideology, a woman ruled over the man who loved her. The man cringed in fear of her displeasure.

With fidelity to the text of the Old French manuscripts, a translation need not anachronistically add support for the currently dominant gender structure of amorous rejection. Rather than implying a prepositional phrase, c’une pucele seule is most directly translated as “She is a single young girl.” Both crient and the manuscript variant tient make sense as third-person intransitive verbs. The best literal English translation of the three lines seems to me to be:

God!, whence comes to her this fear,
She, a single, young woman, fears {holds back},
simple and timid, feeble and shy?

This translation is consistent with Chrétien’s subtle but significant critique of the degrading gender position of men. This translation is substantially the same as Raffel’s. He deserves credit for his superior insight.

Translations of Chrétien into English are relatively significant in education about medieval literature. Sturges observed:

Chrétien’s works, the first (and, for most readers, among the best) extant Arthurian romances, are taught in virtually every {U.S.} college and university-level course on Arthurian literature, whether it focuses on the Middle Ages exclusively or surveys the entire tradition.

Sturges (1994) p. 205. Id. provides a general review of English translations. For translations of medieval Arthurian literature more generally, Lacy (2006).

[5] Other ancient examples of the “world turned upside down” topos are Isaiah 11:6-8, Acts 17:6-7, and Virgil, Eclogues 8.53.7. On the “world turned upside down” topos more generally, Curtius (1953) pp. 94-8 and Kunzle (1978).

[6] See, e.g. Davis (1978). Kunzle appreciates “discontented, lower-class elements who sought or fantasized about the subversion of the existing order.” Yet he opines that, with respect to the domestic hierarchy, “there was no (male) popular desire to change.” Kunzle (1978) pp. 40, 42. That view reflects fundamental misunderstanding of literature of men’s sexed protest. Unlike such scholars, great medieval women writers showed generous and perceptive sympathy for men’s concerns.

[image] The Hay Chasing the Horse. Illustration of proverb. Engraving attributed to Pieter Bruegel, dated 1568/69. The circular caption (in Flemish) is in English translation:

For the hay to go after the horse, is perverted, mark this, you girls who offer yourselves up so shamelessly. It is not proper for you to court the young men; but it is proper for the horse to go after the hay.

Trans. Kunzle (1978) p. 69.


Curtius, Ernst Robert. 1953. European literature and the Latin Middle Ages. New York: Pantheon Books.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. 1978. “Women on Top: Symbolic Sexual Inversion and Political Disorder in Early Modern Europe.” Ch. 5 (pp. 147-92) in Barbara A. Babcock, ed. The reversible world: symbolic inversion in art and society. Cornell University Press.

Grimbert, Joan T. and Carol J. Chase, trans. 2011. Chrétien De Troyes in prose: the Burgundian Erec and Cligés. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Harf-Lancner, Laurence, ed. and trans. 2006. Chrétien de Troyes. Cligès: Édition bilingue, Publication, traduction, présentation et notes. Champion Classiques, Série Moyen âge 16. Paris: H. Champion.

Kunzle, David. 1978. “World Upside Down: The Iconography of a European Broadsheet Type.” Ch. 1 (pp. 39-94) in Barbara A. Babcock, ed. The reversible world: symbolic inversion in art and society. Cornell University Press.

Lacy, Norris J. 2006. “Translation of Medieval Arthurian Literature.” Pp.49-61 in Lacy, Norris J. A history of Arthurian scholarship. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Owen, D.D.R., trans. 1987. Chrétien de Troyes. Arthurian romances. Everyman’s Library. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Cligès. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Staines, David, trans. 1990. The complete romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Sturges, Robert S. 1994. “Chrétien de Troyes in English Translation: A Guide to the Issues.” Arthuriana. 4 (3): 205-223.

Chrysorroi described Kallimachos as deserving her love because of his labors

man earning love

In the fourteenth-century Byzantine romance Kallimachos and Chrysorroi, a maid and three royal eunuchs caught Queen Chrysorroi having sex in the garden with her dragon-killing lover Kallimachos. Eventually Chrysorroi and Kallimachos came before the King for judgment and punishment. Kallimachos telling the story of his strenuous effort to gain the love of Chrysorroi saved them from being executed for adultery. The underlying romantic ideal is that men, but not women, earn love through their labor.

Chrysorroi, a strong, smart woman, led the case for the defense. She used the well-established rhetoric of setting out a hypothetical case (declamation) and questioning the judge (anacoenosis):

A man plants a vine with his own hands, hoes it, prunes it, puts a fence around it, weeds it carefully, tends it, spends the whole day with a sling frightening away birds who wish to destroy it, walks around by night to guard it. He suffers hardship and agony. At harvest time another man comes and seizes possession of it for himself. He harvests it and eats its fruit. As for the previous owner who planted the vine  and labored over it, the second man wants to kill him. Do you consider this just, or do you consider that the first owner should enjoy the fruits of his labor? [1]

The King responded:

I judge that the previous owner should enjoy the fruit of his toil and that the evil robber and thief should be beheaded to frighten others who might wish to do wrong or steal.

The audience applauded the King’s judgment and “praised the beauty of justice.” Chrysorroi then identified Kallimachos as a king analogous to the laborer in her hypothetical story. She analogized herself as the vine that he tended. The King hearing the case was the new owner of the vine, that is of his Queen Chrysorroi.[2] But she declared Kallimachos’s right to enjoy the fruit of his labor:

This {Kallimachos} is the king whom the witch rendered a corpse with her spells. This is the king who rescued me from my woes, who killed the dragon, who is my true lord. Whom did he wrong in enjoying the fruit of his labor?

The King was silent and shuddered in amazement. He asked about Kallimachos’s story. Having heard it, he generously disposed of Kallimachos:

The King then freed Kallimachos from his chains and gave him to Chrysorroi. The King, I think, felt pity because of Fortune’s cruelty and, bestowing on them a not undeserved favor, he ordered a detachment of the army to escort them wherever they wished.

While Kallimachos earned the right to love Chyrsorroi, she wasn’t given to him as property that he acquired through labor.[3] The King gave Kallimachos to Chrysorroi as if he were property. Men earning love doesn’t necessarily raise men’s social status.

The moral economy of love in Kallimachos and Chrysorroi parallels that of virtue. Virtue has as a root the Latin term for man, vir. Yet men aren’t naturally credited with being virtuous. Men must perform acts according to socially sanctioned criteria to be credited with virtue. For Kallimachos and his two brothers, virtue determined who would inherit their father’s kingdom. Their father said to them:

The one who shows great military valor, strength, intelligence, and proper wisdom, the one who acts the most kingly way, and gains a great trophy with his mighty exploits, to him shall I give the command of the empire, him shall I crown and make king in my place. [4]

Men must develop a sense of entitlement. Only very few persons can be a king or queen. But every man is entitled to love as a human being. Support men’s entitlement to love!

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[1] Kallimachos and Chrysorroi ll. 2450ff, from vernacular medieval Greek trans. Betts (1995) p. 85. Subsequent quotes above are from ll. 2460-2600, id. pp. 85-7, and ll. 60ff, id. p. 38.

The Greek text (Καλλίμαχος καὶ Xρυσορρόη) is written in unrhymed political verse. External evidence indicates that Andronikos Komninos Vranas Doukas Angelos Palaeologos (Andronikos Palaeologos), a nephew of the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII, wrote it between 1320 and 1340. Kallimachos and Chrysorroi has survived in only one early sixteenth-century manuscript. Kallimachos and Chrysorroi engages in sophisticated intertextuality with Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe and is now appreciated as a “highly learned text.” Van Steen (1998); Agapitos (2015) p. 77.

The figure of a woman as a vine or garden has biblical roots. See e.g. Song of Songs 4:12-15. James 2:2-4 provides an example of a hypothetical case and ensuing question. Judicial rhetoric was a major field of study in Byzantium. Angelo (2010) p. 304.

[2] Merely from the sight of her, the King was struck with terrible lovesickness for Chrysorroi. With the help of a witch’s tricks, the King abducted Chrysorroi. He then made Chrysorroi his queen.

[3] The idea that women have been men’s property up until recent decades of liberation is a misandristic myth. Wilson & Daly (1992) has been influential work in such myth-making. See note [4] to my post on Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans.

[4] Kallimachos’s two brothers turned back from attempting to confront serpents at Dragon Castle. The second brother prudently and comically observed:

I too shall flee these serpents. Unnecessary fighting with wild beasts is forbidden by both convention and good strategy.

Kallimachos and Chrysorroi l. 225ff, trans. Betts (1995) p. 41. These considerations contrast sharply with social forces that promote highly disproportionate violence against men.

[image] Man earning love. Rice farmer in Sierra Leone showing a part of his harvest, 2006. Photo thanks to Laura Lartigue (USAID) and Wikimedia Commons.


Angelou, Athanasios. 2010. “Rhetoric and history: the case of Niketas Choniates.” Ch. 16 (pp. 289-305) in Ruth J. Macrides, ed. 2010. History as literature in Byzantium: papers from the Fortieth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham, April 2007. Surrey, England: Ashgate.

Agapitos, Panagiotis A. 2015. “Contesting Conceptual Boundaries: Byzantine Literature and Its History.” Interfaces: A Journal of Medieval European Literature. 1: 62-91.

Betts, Gavin. 1995. Three medieval Greek romances. Garland Library of Medieval Literature, vol. 98. New York: Garland Pub.

Van Steen, Gonda A. H. 1998. “Destined to Be ? Tyche in Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe and in the Byzantine Romance of Kallimachos and Chrysorroi.” L’antiquité Classique. 67 (1): 203-211.

Wilson, Margo and Martin Daly. 1992. “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Chattel.” Ch. 7, pp. 289-322, in J.H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, J. Tooby, eds. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. Oxford University Press. New York.

translatio studii et imperii: Chrétien de Troyes’ Ovidian Cligès


Ancient books tell us all
We know of ancient history
And what life was like, back then.
And we’ve learned from those books that in Greece
Knighthood and learning ranked
Above all other things.
Ancient learning, like knighthood,
Passed from Greece to Rome,
and has reappeared, now,
In France. [1]

Just as the New Yorker provides readers everywhere easy means to imagine themselves as citizens of the cultural capital, courtiers in twelfth-century France enjoyed imagining themselves as heirs to the martial prowess and literary learning of ancient Greece and Rome. That idea of historical and spatial succession has come to be known as translatio studii et imperii.[2] Chrétien de Troyes invoked that idea in the prologue to his twelfth-century French verse romance Cligès. He meant to ridicule intellectual and political pretensions.

Knighthood as understood in the European Middle Ages was unknown in ancient Greece and Rome. Men in ancient Greece and Rome typically fought as part of well-organized, well-trained groups of foot soldiers. Individual challenges were fought on foot. The difference between combat in ancient Greece and Rome and combat in medieval Europe rested in part on a technological difference. Stirrups didn’t exist in ancient Greece and Rome. A rider lacking stirrups and carrying heavy-weight armor and weapons could easily fall off his horse.[3] Not surprisingly, the understanding of chivalry prior to the European Middle Ages concerned a husband worthily serving his wife sexually. Chrétien probably understood this historical difference. His invocation of knighthood in ancient Greece and Rome is best understood as ridiculing the idea of translatio studii et imperii.

Cligès more directly treated translatio studii et imperii comically. For example, in Constantinople, the knight Cligès urged his beloved Fenice to flee with him to Britain. He said to her:

Don’t say you won’t go: please!
When Paris brought beautiful
Helen to Troy, her welcome
Was joyous, but not so splendid
As yours and mine will be,
All through the lands ruled
by King Arthur, my uncle. [4]

Helen and Paris brought a terrible war to Troy. Many Trojans undoubtedly came to hate Helen. She later called herself a “shameless whore” for going to Troy. Paris was killed in the Trojan War. Cligès figuring himself and his beloved Fenice as Paris and Helen shows comic ignorance of ancient Greek history.

Fenice further underscored lack of learning from ancient books. Fenice’s primary ethical concern turned on the medieval romantic tale of Tristan and Iseult. She didn’t want others to talk about Cligès and her being like the adulterous Tristan and Iseult. She told Cligès:

They’d call me
A shameless whore, and you
They’d call a fool. It’s better
To remember Saint Paul’s advice,
And follow it: he teaches that those
Who can’t remain chaste should always
Carefully arrange their affairs
So no one knows what they’re doing
And no one can criticize. [5]

Saint Paul didn’t teach that if you keep an affair secret it’s not a sin. Paul embraced being called a fool for Christ. Moreover, Fenice being called a “shameless whore” invokes Cligès’s reference to Helen of Troy in his immediately preceding words to Fenice. Both Cligès and Fenice ridiculously misunderstand ancient literature, even biblical literature deeply infused in life and thought in medieval Europe.

In the romance Cligès, a siege on behalf of an adulterer is averted only by the husband’s death from pain and grief. Cligès and his German princess lover Fenice plotted to deceive her husband Alis, Emperor of Byzantine, by faking her death. They arranged for her to live in a secluded, underground palace where they could safely have trysts. However, a knight named Bernard, perhaps after the renowned monastic reformer canonized in 1174, inadvertently discovered them sleeping naked together. He informed the Emperor. Fenice and Cligès then fled to Britain. There Cligès pleaded for help from his uncle King Arthur. King Arthur prepared a huge fleet to sail east to Constantinople and besiege the city on behalf of the adulterer Cligès. Only the Emperor’s death from pain and grief from Fenice’s betrayal avoided war. That plot makes a mockery of the matter of Troy.

Cligès invokes wide-ranging spatial references. Both Alexander and his son Cligès, described as Greeks, travel west from the Byzantine capital Constantinople to seek honor in the British court of King Arthur. They marry British and German princesses, respectively. Alexander’s father, the Emperor in Constantinople, is described as ruling Greece. Alexander’s brother, Emperor Alis, takes up residence in Athens.[6] These plot elements connect East and West.

The places and identities in Cligès don’t cohere within translatio studii et imperii. Britain isn’t the same as France or Germany. The leading centers of learning and the most powerful empire in western Eurasia after the fall of the Roman Empire were Islamic.[7] Moreover, the Byzantines called themselves Romans, not Greeks. Athens had become a city of the Roman Empire. After the fall of the western Roman Empire, Athens remained a city of the Roman Empire in Byzantine eyes. Cligès most directly invokes Rome in Chrétien’s claim in the prologue that he translated Ovid. Ovid fabricated involuted, ironic myths. So too did Chrétien de Troyes. In Cligès, the most important genealogy associated with translatio studii et imperii isn’t the father Alexander, but his wife Tantalis.

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[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Cligès ll. 27-36, from Old French trans. Raffel (1997) p. 2. I use line numbers from Raffel’s translation. They are close to the Old French line numbers. The Old French terms translated as knighthood and learning are chevalerie and clergie, respectively. Those words are rooted in the English words chivalry and clergy.

Many Old French editions of Cligès are freely available online. So too is the English translation of W.W. Comfort (1914).

[2] For an introduction to the idea of translatio studii et imperii, see Debora Schwartz’s webpage. McLoone (2012) provides extensive discussion. McLoone observes:

The most frequently cited medieval passage on translatio studii et imperii is found in the prologue to Chretien de Troyes’ Cliges. His explication of translatio has become something of a benchmark for modern understandings of this medieval trope as used in vernacular romances …. Chretien’s reading of translatio has become the modern reading, especially as regards the vernacular romance and lay traditions; it emphasizes the continuity of the transmission of knowledge (clergie) and power (chevalrie).

Id. p. 4. For discussion of translatio focused on Cligès, Kinoshita (1996). Just as with respect to courtly love, modern readers have failed to understand Chrétien’s sophistication in addressing translatio studii et imperii.

[3] Horses in ancient Greek and Rome were more commonly used to pull chariots. Among the Greeks, Alexander the Great pioneered riding horseback into battle (see mosaic of the Battle of Issus). Armed horseback riders (cavalry) called cataphracts were probably known in Persia from about 2600 years ago. Nonetheless, in ancient Greece and in the Roman Empire before the fall of the western part, foot soldiers predominated. The cost of horses and armor was also a factor limiting cavalry among the large armies of Persia and the Roman Empire.

[4] Cligès ll. 5281-7, trans. Raffel (1997) p. 167. Subsequent references will be by line number and page in id. Haidu (1968) takes seriously the comic in Clegès, but doesn’t appreciate the extent to which comic irony extends to ideology of courtly love and translatio studii et imperii.

[5] Cligès ll. 5304-12, p. 168. For Paul on being a fool for Christ, 1 Corinthians 4:10. Paul urged all to refrain from sex. He added as a concession:

But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

1 Corinthians 7:9. Fenice was acutely concerned about being people saying that Cligès and she were like Tristan and Iseult:

I’d sooner by torn apart
Than see Cligès and myself
Relive the love of Tristan
and Iseult, a shameful story
To tell, full of foolishness.

For however much I’ve suffered
For loving you, and being
Loved, no one can call you
Tristan or me Iseult:
Love is not worthy of its name
When it’s wrong, and people can say so.

Cligès ll. 3126-30, 5241-46, pp. 99, 166.

[6] For the Emperor in Constantinople ruling Greece, Cligès ll. 2374-5, p. 76. On Emperor Alis living in Athens, Cligès ll. 2429-31, 2449-50, p. 78. The Emperor is also described as ruling over “Greece and Constantinople.” Cligès l. 9, p. 3.

[7] Ninth-century Baghdad was the capital of the enormous, intellectually vibrant Abbasid Caliphate. Scholars in Baghdad drew upon Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Arabic, Syrian, and Indian learning. Consider, for example, al-Jahiz’s scholarship. In Central Asia in the eleventh century, al-Biruni had far more learning than anyone in Paris. Ibn Abi Usaibia surveyed vast learning in Damascus at the beginning of the thirteenth century.

Learning from the Islamic world entered western Europe through Sicily and Spain. Noting the importance of various cities around the Mediterranean in the twelfth century, Kinoshita observes:

At about the same time that Chrétien was narrating the Greek prince Alexandre’s chivalric pilgrimage westward to the Arthurian court, an English scholar named Daniel of Morley was setting out on his own pilgrimage — an intellectual quest, if you will, for the cutting-edge thinking of his day. Going first to Paris, he was quickly disillusioned by the quality of the scholarship he found there; then, hearing of Toledo’s reputation as a center for the ‘learning of the Arabs’ (doctrina Arabum), he hurried there ‘and was not disappointed’ — subsequently returning to England to share his enthusiasm with (among others) John of Oxford, the new bishop of Norwich.

Kinoshita (2008) p. 52.

[image] Tantalus. Oil painting by Gioacchino Assereto, 1630s-1640s. Held in Auckland Art Gallery. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Haidu, Peter. 1968. Aesthetic distance in Chrétien de Troyes: irony and comedy in Cligès and Perceval. Genève: Droz librairie.

Kinoshita, Sharon. 1996. “The Poetics of Translatio: French–Byzantine Relations in Chrétien de Troyes’s Cligés.” Exemplaria. 8 (2): 315-354.

Kinoshita, Sharon. 2008. “Chrétien de Troyes’s Cligés in the Medieval Mediterranean.” Arthuriana. 18 (3): 48-61.

McLoone, Katherine Ann. 2012. Translatio studii et imperii in medieval romance. Ph. D. Thesis, University of California, Los Angeles.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Cligès. New Haven: Yale University Press.

gender in evolutionary understanding of violence against men

dead and wounded men

Interpersonal violence among adults in human societies is highly disproportionately violence against men. For example, four times more men than women die from interpersonal violence in the U.S. today. In western Europe about 1400, the life expectancy of men at age 20 was 9.4 years less than the corresponding life expectancy for women. Violence against men accounted for a large share of that gender inequality. Any reasonable understanding of the evolution of violence must consider disproportionate violence against males.

Study of warfare among Turkana nomadic pastoralists in East Africa indicates that disproportionate violence against men spans a wide range of socio-political structures. With life primarily organized around small herds of cattle, goats, camels, sheep, and donkeys, the Turkana don’t have large, formal institutions:

The Turkana are a large ethnolinguistic group with the social organization of a small-scale society. They are politically uncentralized, egalitarian, and economically undifferentiated. They lack formal or centralized institutions of leadership or coercive authority. They reside in nomadic settlements comprised of households that disperse and aggregate seasonally. [1]

Turkana men come together to form raiding parties of several hundred warriors without kin or day-to-day community ties. The raiding parties attack neighboring ethnic groups to acquire cattle and to deter those groups from intruding upon Turkana territory. Such warfare gender-disproportionately shortens men’s life expectancy:

Between puberty and the start of their reproductive period, 14% of Turkana men die in warfare, accounting for 45% of mortality during that life stage. During their reproductive period, 9% of men die in warfare, accounting for 60% of mortality during that period. …  Twenty percent of all male deaths (including infants and children) are a result of warfare. [2]

Social control, including that exercised by women, supports men’s deaths in warfare:

When a warrior’s behavior in a raid deviates from that of his comrades, he is subjected to informal verbal sanctions by his age-mates, women, and seniors. If there is consensus in the community that the act merits more serious sanctions, corporal punishment is initiated. Corporal punishment is severe: the coward or deserter is tied to a tree and beaten by his age-mates. One participant had scars on his torso from being whipped by his age group more than a decade earlier. During this process the violator is told not to repeat this mistake. Corporal punishment often culminates with the violator pleading for forgiveness and sacrificing an animal from his herd. [3]

Third-party sanctions, or more generally culture, explain both disproportionate violence against men and lack of social concern about disproportionate violence against men.

In many societies, violence against men is formally taught to boys. Boys are oriented toward combat through training in military skills, warrior apprenticeship, games and contests to establish martial skills, pain endurance and other endurance tests, and recounting legends and stories to reinforce martial attitudes.[4] Among the nineteenth-centur, North American nomadic hunting-gathering Apache:

Boys are warned that girls will not marry a cowardly or lazy person. Youths are particularly trained in endurance and in running. One test involves running a course with a mouth full of water which may not be swallowed (if the boy swallows the water on the way, the trainer sees that he doesn’t do it a second time). They match youths of the same age and have them engage in running contests and fighting. They were even expected to take on known superior fighters. They also engage in mock fights with slings to learn both attack and defense. Later they fight in teams with bows and arrows, and though the arrows are small, they can inflict severe damage. Later still, they are trained in handling horses, and in long cross-country journeys without food or sleep. [5]

The Jivaro, an primarily agricultural people of northern Peru and western Ecuador, inculcate military duties in boys:

when a boy is about the age of six, he is instructed each morning {by his father} on the necessity of being a warrior and incited to avenge the feuds in which his family is involved. Such admonishment “is repeated every morning regularly for more than five years, until the parent sees that the son has been thoroughly inoculated with the warlike spirit and the idea of blood revenge.” From the age of seven, boys are regularly taken on war expeditions with their fathers and, though they do not actually engage in combat, they get accustomed to the methods of warfare, and learn to defend themselves and not to be afraid. At the age of 15 or 16 the Jivaro youth undergoes an initiation during which he must observe numerous taboos and in which he is given a narcotic drink and tobacco to smoke in order to transfer the power of the tobacco to him. “This power will automatically show itself in all the work and occupations incumbent on him as a male member of society. He will be a brave and successful warrior and be able to kill many enemies….” [6]

In some societies, men can opt out of the duties of war. Yet the pattern of selective service for war that continues in the U.S. today has been prevalent historically in large, culturally elaborate societies.

A recent study of vervet monkeys indicates that females play a key role in generating and supporting violence against males. Intergroup aggression in vervets consists of vocalizations, charging, chasing, and biting. Both females and males participate in such aggression. Females usually take the lead in organizing and instigating intergroup conflict. Adult males, which are about 1.5 times larger than adult females, are stronger fighters. Adult females prod adult males in their group into fighting with both rewards and punishments:

During pauses {in intergroup aggression}, females selectively groomed males that had participated in the previous aggressive episode, but aggressed male group members that had not. In subsequent (i.e. future) episodes, males who had received either aggression or grooming participated above their personal base-line level. Therefore, female–male aggression and grooming both appear to function as social incentives that effectively promote male participation in intergroup fights. [7]

Vervets are socially sophisticated primates. Group members observe males being rewarding for fighting and punished for not fighting. Those actions plausibly have broader social implications:

Grooming and tolerance (i.e. the lack of aggression) are important services exchanged in the formation and maintenance of social bonds in primates, and it is possible that punishment and rewards have a disproportionate impact on male behaviour because these social interactions influence the quality of male–female social relationships. That is to say, receiving punishment could  damage the target male’s social relationship(s), either with the female actor(s) directly (i.e. experience based) or with other female group members who have observed the social incentive (i.e. reputation or information based). Conversely, receiving rewards could improve bond strength and potentially signal to other female group members that the target male is a valuable social partner.

More elaborate culture in humans plausibly enables such social effects to be more powerful. Greater cultural development seems to be associated with more disproportionate violence against males relative to violence against females.

Human culture provides significant, under-appreciated evidence of women’s social power and its relation to violence against men. The 2009 elite scholarly study Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans and the current elite consensus that “violence against women is the most pressing human rights problem remaining in the world” cannot be understand apart from symbolic power. Pre-Islamic Arabic tahrid poetry and modern social shaming of men into combat provide close analogs to the behavior of female vervet monkeys. Given vastly increased human tools of violence, the fate of human civilization may rest on the possibility of developing sophisticated, humane self-consciousness of the social manipulation of men.

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[1] Mathew & Boyd (2011) p. 11375.

[2] Id. p. 11376. Id. defined “reproductive period” thus: “The reproductive period {for men} begins with marriage or the birth of a child and ends when a person no longer sires children.”

[3] Id. p. 11377-8. Inter-personal violence is much more common among humans than among other species of mammals and is deeply rooted in human evolution. Gómez et al. (2016). A set of human hunter-gather skeletons recovered from Nataruk, west of Lake Turkana, from about 10,000 years ago, indicates disproportionate violence against men. Out of nine securely sex-typed skeletons indicating evidence of having died violently, six were males. Mirazón et al. (2016).

[4] Goldschmidt (1988) p. 53. In Goldschmidt’s survey of the ethnography on 27 pre-state, non-literate societies, 12 reported pain endurance tests for boys.

[5] Id. p. 54, based on Opler (1941).

[6] Goldschmidt (1988) pp. 54-5, quoting Stirling (1938) p. 51 and Karsten (1935) p. 242.

[7] Arseneau-Robar et al. (2016) Abstract. The subsequent quote is from id. p. 6. The factual characterization of vervet monkeys in the above paragraph is also from id. On the social sophistication of vervet monkeys, Cheney & Seyfarth (1989).

[image] Gassed. Men killed and wounded in gas attack in World War I. John Singer Sargent, oil on canvas, 1919. Item Art.IWM ART 1460 in Imperial War Museum (UK). Thanks to Google Art Project and Wikimedia Commons.


Arseneau-Robar, T. Jean Marie, Anouk Lisa Taucher, Eliane Müller, Carel van Schaik, Redouan Bshary, and Erik P. Willems. 2016. “Female monkeys use both the carrot and the stick to promote male participation in intergroup fights.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 283 (1843): 20161817.

Cheney, Dorothy L. and Robert M. Seyfarth. 1989. “Redirected Aggression and Reconciliation Among Vervet Monkeys, Cercopithecus Aethiops.” Behaviour. 110 (1): 258-275.

Goldschmidt, Walter. 1988. “The inducement to military conflict in tribal societies.” Ch. 3 (pp. 47-65) in Rubinstein, Robert A., and Mary LeCron Foster, eds. The Social dynamics of peace and conflict: culture in international security. Boulder: Westview Press.

Gómez, José María, Miguel Verdú, Adela González-Megías, and Marcos Méndez. 2016. “The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence.” Nature. 538 (7624): 233-237.

Karsten, Sigfrid Rafael. 1935. The head-hunters of Western Amazonas. The life and culture of the Jibaro Indians of Eastern Ecuador and Peru. Commentationes humanarum litterarum, 7. Helsingfors.

Mathew, Sarah, and Robert Boyd. 2011. “Punishment sustains large-scale cooperation in prestate warfare.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108 (28): 11375-80.

Mirazón Lahr M, F Rivera, RK Power, A Mounier, B Copsey, F Crivellaro, JE Edung, et al. 2016. “Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya.” Nature. 529 (7586): 394-8.

Opler, Morris Edward. 1941. An Apache life-way; the economic, social, and religious institutions of the Chiricahua Indians. New York: Cooper Square Publishers.

Stirling, Matthew Williams. 1938. Historical and ethnographical material on the Jivaro Indians. Washington: U.S. G.P.O.