Boccaccio protested men’s subservience to women

woman holding child and grimacing

In his fourteenth-century Latin humanist work The Downfall of Illustrious Men, Boccaccio vehemently protested against men’s subservience to women.  Boccaccio counseled men:

if you will control the unrestrained passion which you have within you, then women will set their net and try their wiles in vain.  Even if they have the grace to want children (which is not often the case), it is not necessary to be their slaves. [1]

From Roman love elegy to all-powerful ancient caliphs to Dante’s dolce stil novo in his Vita Nuova, men have made themselves into slaves to women.  Men who make themselves subservient to women hope to be loved like children.  Men have mythically exaggerated women’s love for children.  Men don’t understand that women typically won’t love men who act like children.

Boccaccio’s reference to “unrestrained passion” is misunderstood simply as sexual passion.  In the European Middle Ages, women’s passion was commonly recognized to exceed that of men’s and be more difficult to restrain.  A key challenge for a husband was to be always ready to satisfy his wife’s sexual urges.  To Boccaccio, unrestrained passion meant men acting like children toward women.

Boccaccio’s figure of women setting their net was well-established in the literature of men’s sexed protests.  A Latin text of men’s sexed protests, probably from the eleventh century, concluded:

Woman overcame man living without pain.
Freedom lacks foul, tight reins.
Not entombed, not paying for their chains,
Happy are they not caught in this net. [2]

Boccaccio did not favor men going their own way apart from women.  Boccaccio celebrated heterosexual relations.  He imagined men living freely and happily in love with women.

While he described men cast down by forces beyond their control, Boccaccio emphasized women’s skills in self-fashioning.  Boccaccio observed:

they {women} consult one another, and anything about their person which seems excessive, they reduce, and any defect they patch with marvelous skill.  A woman who is too thin will eat sweets and pastries, and a fat one get thin by fasting and exercise.  Women are busy keeping their curves from fading, lowering their shoulder line, bracing whatever has sagged, extending their necks, heightening themselves if short, and even correcting a limp. [3]

Women fashioning themselves into whom they want to be represents a humanistic ideal.  Women’s humanistic merit, however, doesn’t depend on classical scholarship.  Boccaccio noted that “without calling in the learned Hippocrates“:

women obtain waters to make black hair golden, curling irons to make straight hair ringed and wavy; they make their forehead higher by pulling out their hairs; eyebrows that are too big and joined together they separate with pincers making the arc less thin.  Any teeth which by chance have fallen out, they replace with ivory.  What hair they cannot remove from their face with a razor, they remove with nitre, and they scrape away skin that is too thick.  By these techniques they remake themselves so that if you thought before they were unattractive and shapeless, now you think them Venus herself.

The Downfall of Illustrious Men emphasizes the power of Fortune over men’s status.  Women dominate Fortune and determine their own status.  If a tooth falls out, a woman will replace it with a tooth of ivory.  She will make herself by force of her own will to look like Venus.

Women’s relatively good access to riches aids their self-fashioning.  With rhetorical sophistication, Boccaccio declared:

Need I mention the flowers, garlands, fillets, or coronets decked with gold and gems they decorate themselves with?  It is as if they took off their clothes and dressed themselves in a little of the thinnest gold.  How can I describe these clothes?  They are robes glittering with gold and precious stones fit only for a king.  This woman dresses herself like the Narbonnese, that one like one from the Cote d’Or, this one like the Cyprians, others like the Egyptians, Greeks, or even the Arabs.  It is no longer sufficient to be dressed like an Italian.

The unmentionable and indescribable is easily known.  Only one man is king.  Ordinary men in Bocaccio’s time and place dressed like Italians.  Women’s dress represented women’s privileged status relative to men.

Reason cannot free men from subservience to women.  Cultivating reason was central to the humanistic project.  But reason doesn’t enable men to live freely and happily in love with women:

The reason of man is blinded by feminine wiles, for women know just how to walk, just when to show a little of their alluring breasts or their legs, how they ought to use their eyes in looking at a man, what fleeting gesture will attract, what laugh is most appealing, and (this they know best) when it is the moment to show that they want what they really do not want.  But how can I attempt to list their secrets?  It would be easier to count the grains of sand by the seaside.

The grains of sand by the seaside figure in the biblical promise of being blessed with numerous descendents.[4]  Believing that one can know God completely and make God do one’s own bidding was at the core of the medieval understanding of hubris.  Within his rhetorical game of reticence and disclosure, Boccaccio had no illusions that men, even experts like him, could dominate women:

I think it is more courteous to keep undisclosed how well every woman knows those mysterious, honeyed words, those enticements, those seductions, those opportune tears which men find very moving.  It is by such tricks as these that the most expert observers of women are most often captured.

Men’s desire for women in necessary for the blessing of numerous descendants.  Men’s reason is no match for women’s ability to manipulate men’s desire.

To free men from subservience to women, Boccaccio emphasized the medieval virtue of self-mastery over the humanist expedient of self-fashioning.  The virtue of self-mastery differs from the humanist expedient of self-fashioning.  The virtue of self-mastery depends on a sense of true, best nature.  The humanist expedient of self-fashioning is merely instrumental.  It is directed to ends that Fortune whimsically chooses for societies under the ideological guise of subjectivity, boundlessly socially constructed.  With a sense for their own true, best nature as humans with equal dignity to women, men must master their passion for importuning women, supplicating to women, and slavishly serving women.[5]

Confronting artfully the question of men’s relation to women and protesting against men’s subservience, Boccaccio built a new synthesis of medieval virtue and humanistic reason.  Boccaccio’s protests against women tend to be misandristically dismissed as misogyny.  Using reason provides more fecund understanding.  Men excel in instrumental reason.  Men’s skillful use of tools has largely built the material structure of human civilization.  Men’s reason, however, is no match for women’s skill in self-fashioning and in controlling men’s desire.  Men remain subservient to women unless they achieve virtuous self-mastery within the everyday world.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, The Downfall of Illustrious Men (De Casibus Virorum Illustrium), Bk. 1, penultimate section, “The tricks women use to capture the reason of men are many and varied.”  From Latin trans. Hall (1965) p. 45.  De Casibus Virorum Illustrium is commonly translated as The Fates of Illustrious MenThe Downfall of Illustrious Men is a more accurate translation.  The work, which consists of nine books, was composed about 1358 and revised in 1373.  Marchesi (2014) p. 245.  The work includes profiles of women, e.g. Jocasta, Queen of Thebes; Dido, Queen of Carthage; Olympiade, Queen of Macedonia.  In 1361, Boccaccio wrote a similar volume of exclusively female biographies, Famous Women (De mulieribus claris).  Both works attracted in the subsequent two centuries much more attention than did Boccaccio’s Decameron.  In recent decades, Famous Women has attracted much more critical interest than The Downfall of Illustrious Men.

[2] From a manuscript (Gudianus 192) of a poem in Latin leonine hexameters, incipit Arbore sub quadam dictavit clericus Adam.  See post on medieval men protesting devaluation of masculine love.  The relevant Latin text and English translation is at the bottom of column 5 and 3, respectively, in the online version of Arbore sub quadam dictavit clericus Adam.

[3] Boccaccio, The Downfall of Illustrious Men, Bk. 1, penultimate section, trans. Hall (1965) p. 42.  The subsequent quotes above are from id. pp. 42-3.

[4] Genesis 22:17.

[5] In the subsequent section of The Downfall of Illustrious Men, Boccaccio wrote that he had written enough about “those who carry love to foolish extremes.”  Trans. Hall (1965) p. 46.  Dante’s relationship to Beatrice and Petrarch’s relationship to Laura fit that description.

[image] Woman holding child and grimacing, from the Helen Richey Collection of the San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives.


Hall, Louis Brewer, trans. 1965. Giovanni Boccaccio. The fates of illustrious men. New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co.

Marchesi, Simone. 2014.  “Boccaccio on Fortune (De Casibus Virorum Illustrium).” Pp. 245-254 in Victoria Kirkham, Michael Sherberg, and Janet Levarie Smarr, eds. 2014. Boccaccio: a critical guide to the complete works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


self-fashioning in late twenthieth-century academia

My subject is self-fashioning from Greenblatt to Brown; my starting point is quite simply that in twentieth-century academia there were both selves and a sense that they could be fashioned.  Of course, these is some absurdity in so bald a pronouncement of the obvious: after all, there are always selves — a sense of personal order, a characteristic mode of address to the world, a structure of bounded desires — and always some elements of deliberate shaping in the formation and expression of identity.  One need only think of Housman’s extraordinary subtle and wry manipulations of persona to grasp that what I propose to examine does not suddenly spring up from nowhere when 1899 becomes 1900.   Moreover, there is considerable empirical evidence that there was may well have been less autonomy in self-fashioning in the twentieth century than before, that family, state, and religious institutions now impose a more rigid and far reaching discipline upon their middle-class and aristocratic subjects (the lower classes are preserved from these effects).  Autonomy is an issue but not the sole or even the central issue: the power to impose a shape upon oneself is an aspect of the more general power to control identity — that of others at least as often as one’s own.

What is central is the perception — as old in academic writing as al-Jahiz and al-Farazdaq — that there is in the early modern period a change in the intellectual, social, psychological, aesthetic, social-intellectual, psycho-social, and social-psycho-aesthetic structures that govern the generation of identities.  This change is difficult to characterize intelligibly because it is not only complex but resolutely unintelligible. If we say that there is a new stress on the executive power of the will, we also say that there is the most sustained and relentless assault upon the will; if we say that there is a new social mobility, we also say that there is a new assertion of power by both family and state to determine all movement within the society; if we say that there is a heightened awareness of the existence of alternative modes of social, theological, psychological, social-theological, social-psycho, and theo-social organization, we also say that there is a new dedication to the imposition of control upon those modes and ultimately to the destruction of alternatives, most importantly, the alternative of forming a broad-based coalition of progressive organizations to struggle for the liberation of men from gynocentric microcapillaries of power in the fashioning of human beings from the cradle to primary school.

Perhaps the simplest observation we can make is that in the late-twentieth-century there appears to be increased self-consciousness about self-consciousness of fashioning of human identity as a manipulable, artful process.  Such self-consciousness about self-consciousness appears in Brown’s 1988 preface to The Body and Society:

I have begun to benefit, slowly, from the gains of a remarkable recent development in the study of the religious world of women, most especially from the chastening sophistication of {feminist} viewpoint that this study can now offer.  At a crucial moment in my own work, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to take heart from the humbling serenity and unaffected craftsmanship of Michel Foucault, in what I was not to know were his last years.

Foucault and his crazy-cult followers fashioned The Body.  Before The Body became fashionable, there was only my body, your body, and that pile of bodies that were buried there.  Brown’s preface concludes with a most un-Foucauldian eulogy:

No one known to me has maintained with such unremitting vigor the necessity of truth in historical studies than has Arnaldo Momigliano.  It is to his sense of truth, as well as to the magnificently unconstricted range and human warmth of his concern for the role of Judaism and Christianity in the history of the ancient world, that I have turned, for all of thirty years now, as a model and inspiration.  It is an honor for me to make clear, through the dedication of this book to him, the fact that he has been my teacher and my friend.

Brown’s new introduction to the twentieth anniversary (2008) edition of The Body and Society mentions in the first paragraph “guides as different from one another as Michel Foucault, Caroline Bynum, and Arnaldo Momigliano.”  The new introduction ends not with a eulogy to a champion of historical truth, but with an invocation of poetry:

It is easy to make rhetoric (indeed, polemic) out of the pros and cons of a Christian past when we do not attempt to make its living texture our own but are content to sit in judgment on it.  But to make this past part of ourselves, if only for a moment, is, perhaps, the best way to make poetry from it.

Plato wept.  The French Revolution failed.  Arnaldo Momigliano turned over in his grave.  Monkeys in a cage pissed on a typewriter.  And a bird shat on a stone statue of Byrd.

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A model for this post is Greenblatt (1980), Introduction, pp. 1-2.  In a new preface to the 2005 edition, Greenblatt states “Renaissance Self-Fashioning was the book in which I first found my own voice.” (p. xi)  The publisher’s blurb declares that this book “spawned a new era of scholarly inquiry” and is now “a classic text in literary studies.”

A good of example of continuing self-fashioning is this passage from the preface Greenblatt added to the 2005 edition of Renaissance Self-Fashioning:

Because Renaissance Self-Fashioning has often been characterized as a grimly pessimistic account of the containment of subversion, a sour recognition that what looks like free choice is actually institutionally determined, a disenchanted acknowledgment of the impossibility of apocalyptic change. (“There is subversion, no end of subversion, only not for us.”)  It is true that the end of the war {Vietnam War} did not usher in the millennium.  The year that my book came out was the year that Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter.

Connecting apocalyptic change to the election of one U.S. presidential candidate rather than other indicates poetic historicism detached from ordinary persons’ experiences of everyday life.  Greenblatt goes on to declare that “coursing through these chapters is an eradicable principle of hope, hope in many different forms, often crushed but then springing up again in spite of everything.”  One can still hope for better poetry and a new enlightenment.

A.E. Housman is probably now most famous for the concluding sentence of his 1921 essay, “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism“:

Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary; and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders and brains, not pudding, in your head.

That leading twentieth-century academics had powerful brains in their heads seems to me to be beyond question.


Brown, Peter. 1988. The body and society: men, women, and sexual renunciation in early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press.

Greenblatt, Stephen J. 1980. Renaissance self-fashioning: from More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

women and men belong to different communication cultures?

Olmec Head

Some communications scholars have argued that men and women belong to different communication cultures.  A scholar who both achieved considerable mass-market success and gained a prestigious academic position stated:

boys and girls grow up in what are essentially different communication cultures, so talk between women and men is essentially cross-cultural communication. [1]

A scholarly review of this work noted:

Many best-selling books aimed at the general public have propounded this “different cultures” thesis in recent years… . The idea that men and women belong to different communication cultures has also gained wide acceptance in academic circles. …In brief, the different cultures thesis maintains that gender-specific socialization of boys and girls leads to different masculine and feminine speech communities. [2]

This review indicated that the different cultures thesis has great importance:

The pragmatic implications that follow from the different cultures thesis are just as far reaching as its theoretical and methodological consequences. The remedy for the “cross-cultural” misunderstandings that plague communication between men and women is to increase “multicultural” awareness and sensitivity. Educators are encouraged by proponents of the different cultures perspective to develop programs that foster “multicultural awareness” of stylistically different, but functionally equivalent, approaches to communication events such as “troubles talk.” [3]

The idea that women and men belong to “different communication cultures,” like the idea of cultural cognition, avoids questions of biological reality.  Sex differences in communication that evolve through differential reproductive success in evolutionary time apparently are beyond the boundaries of acceptable academic research and study.

Despite widespread elite support for multiculturalism, communication unicuturalists have vigorously attacked communication multiculturalists.  The issue is clearly cultural.  Five communication scholars earnestly reasoned within the social-scientistic standards of their discipline:

A reasonable question is: “How big a difference does there need to be between groups to be indicative of a ‘cultural’ difference?” Although any answer to this question necessarily contains an arbitrary element, the question remains an important one. … We suggest that the degree of nonoverlap in group distributions should exceed the degree of overlap on relevant variables (i.e., that Cohen’s U > .50). This corresponds to a standardized mean difference of d > 0.87 (and to r2 or η2 > .16). This appears to be a reasonable criterion; if there is not at least this much separation in the two distributions, it is hard to see how a claim of “cultural” (or even subcultural) difference can be maintained. [4]

Based on this difficulty in seeing how claims of cultural (“or even subcultural”) differences could be made, these scholars forcefully rejected multiculturalism as unsubstantiated, irresponsible, and potentially harmful:

the substantive claims of the different cultures myth lack an appropriate evidentiary foundation. Thus, there is no reasonable basis for entertaining its theoretical, methodological, or practical implications. … The mythical status of the different cultures thesis is now so evident, especially with respect to supportive communication, that we believe it is, henceforth, inappropriate (and irresponsible) for authors of textbooks, self-help books, and similar publications to feature favorably this thesis or leading statements of it. … it is past time for the myth of gender cultures to lose its narrative force, as well as its privileged place in the professional and popular literatures, for it has been shown to be a story that is false and potentially harmful. [5]

The unicultural thesis holds that women and men have common standards of communication skill. In addition, on at least one important measure of communication skill, proponents of this thesis found that women are more skilled than men:

although men and women exhibit differential skill with respect to the provision of supportive communication, they are not members of different cultures. …On average, however, women are more adept than men at providing sensitive emotional support. This finding may explain why – contrary to predictions of the different culture thesis – both men and women largely prefer to seek and receive emotional support from women. … We underscore, however, that these skill differences are inconsistent with the different cultures thesis, which holds that there are different standards for what counts as skillfulness in feminine and masculine speech communities. [6]

Uniculturalist proponents suggest that gender differences in socialization and gender roles among adults account for differences in male and female communication skills:

Perhaps gender-linked socialization experiences, such as the extent to which caretakers talk about feelings with boys and girls, as well as the different roles that men and women fill in post-industrial Western societies, lead women, as a group, to be somewhat more skilled {than men} at the complex psychological and communicative tasks associated with providing emotional support to distressed others. [7]

For both multiculturalists and uniculturalists, gender-specific socialization explains sex differences in communication.  Those scholars, however, do not connect gender-specific socialization of children to knowledge about genetics, behavioral patterns in non-human animals, and the social circumstances in which humans evolved.

Gender-specific socialization of children implies nothing about nature versus nurture.  Human nature might imply particular patterns of nurture, e.g. care for helpless young.  Without such nurture, humans would naturally die or fail to achieve their natural level of human functioning.  Moreover, gender patterns of socialization of children cannot simply be changed so as to change gender-associated behavior in the desired way.  In humane societies, parents typically have considerable freedom to decide how to raise their children.  Children, of course, often have a strong sense of their own interests.  Parental attempts to mold their children into persons that parents want their children to be are often remarkably unsuccessful.  Social policies on gender socialization of children are likely to be even less successful.

Nonetheless, gender socialization of children remains a focus of elite concern about gender inequality.  In 2005, a prominent gender scholar declared:

We should allow all of the evidence that men and women have equal cognitive capacity to permeate through society.  We should allow people to evaluate children in relation to their actual capacities, rather than one’s sense of what their capacities ought to be, given their gender. [8]

Allowing every person to freely realize her or his capabilities, irrespective of gender, is admirable.  Allowing all of the evidence that men and women have equal communication capabilities, and all of the evidence that they don’t, to permeate through society would be reasonable and democratic.  The specific form of the prominent gender scholar’s proposal indicates the direction of failure.

Describing sex differences in communication as cultural has little scientific significance.  Male and female humans undoubtedly have shared considerable common culture since the beginning of humanity.[9]  Human living-groups are typically mixed-sex.  Contemporary democracies embrace both men and women in common public deliberation.  At the same time, sex-differentiated bodily relations to offspring and sex-differentiated social environments are human universals highly relevant to the evolution and development of human communication capabilities.  The gender socialization of children and adult gender roles are not merely arbitrary social constructions.  They likely have elements essential to humane flourishing of humans, male and female.

Understanding sex differences in communication is crucial for understanding stark sex differences in social concern.  Perhaps that’s why serious discussion of sex differences in communication is suppressed.

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[1] Tannen (1990) p. 18.  Tannen is a professor at Georgetown University.  Her biography states:

she is one of only two in the College of Arts and Sciences who hold the distinguished rank of University Professor. She has been McGraw Distinguished Lecturer at Princeton University, and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, California, following a term in residence at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. She has published twenty books and over 100 articles and is the recipient of five honorary doctorates.

With her idea of gender-based communication cultures, Tannen has achieved extraordinary success in the extremely competitive U.S. intellectual marketplace.

[2] MacGeorge et al. (2004) pp. 143, 144.

[3] Id. 145.

[4] Id. 145-6, ft. 6.

[5] Id. pp. 72, 173.  Robert Sapolsky, a highly regarded academic and scientist (see notes [6]-[8] here), declared:

For a wonderful overview of gender differences in emotional expressivity, see Deborah Tannen’s 1990 book, You Just Don’t Understand (New York: Morrow). I firmly believe this should be required reading for all newlyweds.

Sapolsky (1997) p. 173.  Only seven years later, in a remarkable slide into totalitarian thinking, the academic communication authorities warned that Tannen’s views are inappropriate, responsible and “potentially harmful.”

[6] MacGeorge et al. (2004) p. 171, references omitted.  MacGeorge, as an Assistant Professor at Purdue University, received for this article the 2005 Distinguished Publication Award from the Association for Women in Psychology.

[7] Id. Despite the reference to “post-industrial Western societies,” this scholarship analyzes communication with terms such as “provision of support,” “message units,” “support messages,” and “responses to supportive messages.”  These terms have their conceptual roots in mechanized production and information transfer.  Much of what persons value in communication cannot be well understood within a model of message production and transfer.  See Sense in Communication.

[8] Spelker, in Pinker & Spelke (2005).  How such evidence is not allowed to permeate through society and how people are not allowed to evaluate their children in that way is not clear. To find out the effects of discrimination and social biases on the highly disproportionate violence against men, one might like to use the procedure that Spelke proposes, “We need to do the experiment, getting rid of discrimination and social pressure, in order to find out.”  However, getting rid of social pressure probably would not be a feasible social experiment even within the most authoritarian society.  Eliminating social pressure seems not feasible even in deliberation among scientists.

[9] Boehm (1999) argues that a hunter-gatherer egalitarian political lifestyle shaped human nature. Women are thought to have participated fully in the moral life their communities:

One area in which women seem to enjoy a far more equal footing politically, is in holding down male upstarts of whom we have been speaking. My main hypothesis is that egalitarian societies are created and maintained by moral communities, and women participate quite fully in the moral life of their community.

Id. p. 8.  Experimental evidence on strong reciprocity in humans shows similar behavior among men and women, but it has fundamental weaknesses.

[image] Colossal Head 4 (replica) of Olmec ruler, Olmec Culture, San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, Veracruz, Mexico, date 1200 – 900 B.C.E.  Located outside of the Smithsonian National History Museum, Washington, DC.


Boehm, Christopher. 1999. Hierarchy in the forest: the evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

MacGeorge, Erina L., Angela R. Graves, Bo Feng, Seth J. Gillihan and Brant R. Burleson. 2004. “The Myth of Gender Cultures: Similarities Outweigh Differences in Men’s and Women’s Provision of and Responses to Supportive Communication.” Sex Roles 50(3/4): 143-175.

Pinker, Steven, and Elizabeth Spelke. 2005. “The Science of Gender and Science: Pinker vs. Spelke.”  Edge The Third Culture.

Sapolsky, Robert M. 1997. The trouble with testosterone: and other essays on the biology of the human predicament. New York, NY, Scribner.

Tannen, Deborah. 1990. You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New York, William Morrow and Co.


Wednesday’s flowers

baby yellow flowers

Boccaccio criticized Petrarch and Dante with Theophrastus

Petrarch teaching Boccaccio

In fourteenth-century Florence, Boccaccio worked in the shadow of his great predecessor Dante.  Boccaccio figured Dante as an excellent father who called Boccaccio “my son.”  Boccaccio also worked amid great regard for the European-wide celebrity Petrarch.  Petrarch, a classical humanist writing Latin poetry, was crowned a new poet laureate of Rome (the first since the fall of the Roman Empire) in a ceremony at the Roman Capitol in 1341.  Boccaccio referred to Petrarch as “my excellent and reverend teacher.”[1]  Despite his high regard for Dante and Petrarch, Boccaccio with subtle irony used Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage to criticize both.

Boccaccio ironically praised Dante for achieving literary greatness despite being married.  As imagined in his Vita Nuova, Dante at age nine fell madly in love with Beatrice.  He may not have seen her again for another nine years.  In any case, Dante’s parents arranged a marriage for him at age twelve to Gemma Donati.  Dante and Gemma had four or five children.  Beatrice died young.  Dante never mentioned his wife Gemma in his writings.  Beatrice, in contrast, was a major presence in Dante’s work, particularly his Commedia.  From a literary perspective, Dante might as well have been unmarried.

Boccaccio deployed Theophraastus’ Golden Book on Marriage in playful appreciation for Dante’s achievement.  Writing in praise of Dante in a literary construction of his life, Boccaccio declared:

Academic endeavors (and especially those of philosophy, to which our Dante, as has been shown, devoted himself), usually require solitude, freedom from anxiety, and tranquility of mind.  Instead of this serene retirement and quiet which Dante almost from the beginning of his life and up to the day of his death searched for, he had to endure an uncontrollable passion of love, a wife, familial and civic responsibilities, exile, and poverty, not to mention other special troubles which naturally arise out of these.  I will explain all of them one by one, so that their burden may become more evident. [2]

In describing the burden of having a wife, Boccaccio lifted text nearly verbatim from Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage.  Amid reciting from that well-known text, Boccaccio expressed concern about giving “too long a sermon.”[3]  Then he wittily expanded upon a point in Theophrastus’ Golden Book:

it is enough to discuss one matter that pertains to almost all women: they believe that doing a good job always keeps the lowliest servant in the household, while doing the opposite leads to dismissal.  As a result, they feel that if they themselves do their work well, they are simple acting like menials; they can remain great ladies only when they do their jobs poorly, but avoid the fate of the dismissed servant.

Boccaccio then winked at the reader:

But why should I want to keep on proving in detail what most of us already know?  I believe it is better to hold my tongue than to offend our lovely ladies by my talk.

Many men are deathly afraid of offending women.  Boccaccio wasn’t.  He went on to cite another point from Theophrastus’ Golden Book.  Boccaccio concluded with a classical invocation of the highest love:

Let no one believe that I am suggesting, from what I have stated, that men should not take wives.  In fact, I recommend this highly, but I must say that it is not for everyone.  Permit philosophers to leave marriage to wealthy fools, to noblemen and peasants, and let them take their delight with Lady Philosophy, who is a far better bride than any other. [4]

The list “wealthy fools, noblemen, and peasants” light-heartedly casts a net over the major classes of medieval society.  Philosophers, in contrast, remain apart from wealth, the world, and flesh-and-blood women.  Boccaccio in the outrageous comic realism of his Corbaccio mocked the courtly love fantasy of Dante’s Vita Nuova.  Boccaccio found inspiration in flesh-and-blood ladies, not the Muses on Mount Parnassus.  Boccaccio admired and valued Dante’s civic engagement.[5]  Boccaccio idealized the solitary, disengaged philosopher only to praise Dante’s achievement in real life.  That real life was not with Beatrice, but with his flesh-and-blood wife Gemma.

In emphasizing the burden of having a wife, Boccaccio elevated Dante relative to Petrarch.  Petrarch did not marry, stood apart from contemporary civic concerns, and took delight in Lady Philosophy and a Laura no more real that Beatrice.  Boccaccio wrote:

What will those say now whose houses are not sufficient for their studies and who thus seek solitude in the forests?  Or, those who have complete repose, and whose ample facilities without any anxiety are supported by every opportunity?  Or those who, free from wife and children, have as much leisure as they desire?  Many of those are such that, if they were not sitting in comfort, or if they were to hear a murmur, they would not be able to read or write, let alone reflect, if their elbows were not at rest. [6]

Scholars have suggested that, “whether deliberate or unintentional,” Boccaccio is describing Petrarch.[7]  Boccaccio was from the merchant class in which persons kept their elbows moving and sharp.  Men from that class also had wives and were aware of women’s guile.  Boccaccio followed Petrarch in recovering classical learning and creating new humanist literature in Latin.  At the same time, Boccaccio was critical of Petrarch’s disengagement from everyday life.

Boccaccio further used Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage to assert his own sense of humanism against Dante’s theological ascent and Petrarch’s classical models.  In Canto XVI of Dante’s Inferno, Jacopo Rusticucci, suffering in Hell, complained, “it is my fierce wife who pains me most of all.”[8]  Boccaccio provided a conventional literal exposition of that line: Rusticucci’s shrewish wife drove him to seek satisfaction in sodomy to his eternal perdition.  Then Boccaccio provided a round-about introduction to Theophrastus’ Golden Book:

St. Jerome writes in one of his books called Against Jovinianus the Heretic that Theophrastus, who was a venerable philosopher and student of Aristotle, composed a book that is called De nuptiis {On marriage}.  In a part of that work, he questions whether a wise man should take a wife. [9]

Boccaccio then copied into his work the text of De nuptiis (Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage), which he silently translated from Latin into Italian.  The only significant change Boccaccio made to De nuptiis was to excise these two outrageous sentences about the wife:

You have to show deference to her nurse and her maid, the servant from her father’s house, and her foster-child, and her handsome attendant and her curly-haired “assistant,” and her eunuch, gelded to prolong her pleasure and to make it safe: behind these titles there is an adulterer hiding.  Upon whomever she sets her heart, they must have her love though they want her not. [10]

Boccaccio wasn’t afraid to write about women’s sexual eagerness and women’s guile.  The problem with the above text for a learned, free-writing person is that eunuchs did not exist in Theophrastus’ Athens.  The eunuch reference signals to the learned that Theophrastus’ De nuptiis is a post hoc literary artifice.[11]  Boccaccio seems to have been in on Jerome’s ruse.  Boccaccio concluded his account of De nuptiis and its relevance to Dante’s account of Jacopo Rusticucci with artful, more general moralizing:

Let those who prepare to take a wife, then, be alert and let them keep an eye on others, for all too rarely does it happen that a man gets a Lucretia, a Penelope, or someone of like ilk.  As I have heard many men say, although they seem like angels in the daylight, they are devils in your bed at night. [12]

A woman who is a “devil in your bed at night” isn’t a conventional figure of a shrewish, domineering, selfish, and unsatisfying wife.  In the Decameron‘s story of Alibech and Rustico, Rustico urged Alibech to “put the Devil back into Hell” as means to have sex with her.  With sound literary insight, the translator of Boccaccio’s text noted that a woman who is a devil in your bed at night “may not seem in modern times to be so bad.”[13]  The classical heroines Lucretia and Penelope don’t represent true, humanistic understanding of men imagining wives.  “Oh, my little devil” is a universal fantasy of real men throughout history.[14]  More in the fullness of the real world than his father Dante, Boccaccio outwitted his teacher Petrarch in humanistic understanding.

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[1] Filosa (2014) p. 220, citing Boccaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium 8.16 and 9.23.7.

[2] Giovanni Boccaccio, Trattatello in laude di Dante (Little Treatise in Praise of Dante, also know as Life of Dante), s. 3, from Italian trans. Bollettino (1990) p. 10, adapted slightly.  The text has survived in three version, which apparently do not differ in this passage.  In a letter on Dante to Boccaccio (Familiares 21.15), Petrarch declared:

my father, compelled by other matters and by concern for his family, resigned himself to exile, while his friend {Dante} resisted and began devoting himself all the more vigorously to his literary pursuits, neglecting all else and desirous only of glory.  In this I can scarcely admire and praise him too highly when nothing — not the injustice suffered at the hands of his fellow citizens, not exile, poverty, or the stings of envy, not his wife’s love or his devotion to his children — diverted him from his course once he had embarked upon it, when many other great talents, being weak of purpose, would be distracted by the least disturbance.

From Latin trans. Bernardo (2005) v. 3, p. 203.  Petrarch seems to have rewritten Boccaccio’s text into a veiled critique of Dante.  Cachey (2009) pp. 25-8.

[3] Expressing concern about prolixity follows Jerome’s rhetorical strategy in Adversus Jovinianum.

[4] Boccaccio, Trattatello in laude di Dante, trans. Bollettino (1990) pp. 16-7 (previous three quotes above).

[5] Houston (2010).

[6] Gloss that Boccaccio added to shortened Chigi version of Trattatello in laude di Dante.  From Italian trans. Filosa (2014) p. 219.

[7] Filosa (2014) pp. 219-20.

[8] Dante, Inferno, XVI.44-5, cited by Boccaccio, from Italian trans. Papio (2009) p. 577.

[9] Boccaccio, Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante, “Canto XVI: Literal Exposition,” s. 28, from Italian trans. Papio (2009) p. 578.

[10] Liber De Nuptiis (Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage), from Latin trans. Hanna & Lawler (1997) p. 152, with amended as described in note [12] here.  Boccaccio replaced those two sentences with relatively bland sentiment:

indeed, more than any other person, he must show that the loves her father — and any other relative or person whom she holds dear.

Boccaccio, Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante, “Canto XVI: Literal Exposition,” s. 34, from Italian trans. Papio (2009) p. 579.

[11] Scholars who have discussed the reference to eunuchs have rationalized it as later interpolation.  The truth seems to be simpler: Jerome brilliantly created Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage.

[12] Boccaccio, Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante, “Canto XVI: Literal Exposition,” s. 46, from Italian trans. Papio (2009) p. 580.

[13] Id., notes, n. 16, p. 707.   That text adds a cautionary reference to Boccaccio’s exposition of Canto XV (15.83).  There Boccaccio refers to the sin:

committed when a man and a woman (even a husband and a wife) come together in a fashion that is less than moral or against the rule of Nature or, indeed, against canon law.

Trans. id. p. 568.  That’s the literal level of understanding “my little devil.”  It’s inner meaning in life can be recognized in the sly gusto of Decameron 9.10 and innuendo Boccaccio made in the conclusion to the Decameron.  See note [4] in post on masculine love.  While devilish behavior has its attractions, medieval men also considered heterosexual intercourse preoccupied with intercourse of non-reproductive type to be oppressive, demoralizing, and wrong.

[image] Petrarch teaching Boccaccio, illumination in Giovanni Boccaccio, De casibus virorum illustrium in French translation (Des cas des ruynes des nobles hommes et femmes), translated by Laurent de Premierfait, France, Central (Paris?), 1st quarter of the 15th century.  British Library, Royal 20 C IV f. 269.

[14] Men’s fantasies about their wives and lovers are not equivalent to men admiring sluts or desiring a long-term relationship with such women.  In Famous Women (De mulieribus claris), Boccaccio described the life of Leontium, a famous Greek female literary scholar:

prompted either by envy or feminine temerity, she dared to write an invective against Theophrastus, a famous philosopher of that period {late-fourth-century BGC Macedonian, about the time of Alexander the Great}.

Boccaccio condemned Leontium’s sexual behavior:

What disgraceful behavior!  Living in the brothels among pimps, vile adulterers, and whores, she was able to stain Philosophy, the teacher of truth, with ignominy in those disgraceful chambers, trample it with wanton feet, and plunge it into filthy sewers — if indeed the splendor of Philosophy can be dimmed by the infamous action of an unchaste heart.  We must certainly bewail the fact that so brilliant a talent, bestowed as a sacred gift from heaven, could be subject to so filthy a way of life.

Boccaccio, Famous Women (De mulieribus claris), Ch. LX, from Latin trans. Brown (2001) pp. 251-2.  Boccaccio may have invented this whole biography to provide an opportunity for him to defend Theophrastus and philosophy.  Boccaccio’s criticism of Dante and Petrarch shouldn’t be interpreted to imply contempt for philosophy and endorsement of licentiousness.


Bernardo, Aldo S., trans. 2005. Francesco Petrarca. Letters on familiar matters = Rerum familiarium libri. New York: Italica Press.

Bollettino, Vincenzo Zin, trans. 1990. Giovanni Boccaccio, the life of Dante (Tratatello in laude di Dante). New York: Garland.

Brown, Virginia, trans. 2001. Giovanni Boccaccio. Famous women {De mulieribus claris}. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Cachey, Theodore J. “Between Petrarch and Dante: Prolegomenon to a Critical Discourse.” Pp. 3-49 in Zygmunt G. Barański and Theodore J. Cachey. 2009. Petrarch & Dante: anti-Dantism, metaphysics, tradition. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

Filosa, Elsa, 2014.  “To Praise Dante, To Please Petrarch (Trattatello in laude di Dante).” Pp. 213-220 in Victoria Kirkham, Michael Sherberg, and Janet Levarie Smarr, eds. 2014. Boccaccio: a critical guide to the complete works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hanna, Ralph and Traugott Lawler, eds. 1997. Jankyn’s book of wikked wyves. Vol. 1: The Primary Texts (with translations). Walter Map’s Dissuasio; Theophrastus’ De Nuptiis; selections from Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum. University of Georgia Press: Athens.

Houston, Jason M. 2010. Building a monument to Dante: Boccaccio as Dantista. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Papio, Michael, trans. 2009. Boccaccio’s Expositions on Dante’s Comedy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


strong, independent Kenyan rejects Unbound gender bigotry

pith helmet in the style of 2nd French Empire

Like most cutting-edge international development organizations, the sponsorship organization Unbound has been attacking failures in poor communities to conform to world-elite standards of gender equality.  In a recent mailing to  Unbound sponsors, an article entitled online “Bank accounts offer independence and opportunity to families” got an extra super-title and cover billing: “MOTHERS KNOW BEST.”  This article explains:

In countries such as India and Kenya, sponsorship benefits are distributed to families through individual bank accounts.  With the assistance of Unbound staff members, the mothers of sponsored children manage the accounts until the children are of age.  These bank accounts are created to empower mothers to decide how to best use the sponsorship funds for the development of their families. [1]

Notice how “distributed to families” is equated to “distributed to mothers.”  Contrary to gender lies  propagated through leading educational institutions and powerful media, males across all primates commonly have been excluded from equal relationships with their children.  In the U.S., men face huge gender discrimination in decisions about child custody and child support.  Nothing has been done to address that gender inequality.  Unbound and many other international development organizations are perpetuating and worsening gender inequalities against men worldwide.

Unbound’s literature provides a fine case study in the soft power of cultural imperialism in spreading gender bigotry.  A recent edition of an Unbound magazine had 12 pages (about half the total pages in the magazine) devoted to “girls and women.”[2]  That’s a conceptual category largely unknown in relatively high-income, cosmopolitan cities and poor rural villages only a few decades ago.  Are women really more akin to girls than boys are to girls?  If you doubt that conceptual doctrine, then you aren’t fully educated to today’s world-elite standards.

Unbound’s literature aggressively disseminates cultural constructs of gender bigotry.  Here are some more examples:

  • Article titled “GIRL POWER / sponsorship provides opportunities for girls, women.”  The phrase “girl power,” like “girls rule” and “boys are stupid, throw rocks at them,” now appear on girls’ t-shirts in the U.S.  You can count on Unbound to bring these phrases to girls living in material poverty in villages around the world.  After all, persons in high-income countries have an abundance of spiritual poverty.  They can contribute their spiritual poverty to persons living in material poverty.
  • Article titled “Women in India establish identity.”  Western experts in lack of identity ask poor, under-educated others whether they have an identify.  The other responds with a look of complete bewilderment.  The Western expert records that the other does not have an identity.  Western expert then helps the other “establish identity.”
  • Article titled “Giving Girls the Power to Dream.” How can girls dream without the help of highly developed teen-girl magazines (“polish your nails with the color of your dreams!”) and specially designed go-girl video programming (“Glamor and Drama in STEM — the adventures of supergirl hero who works 80 hours a week as a computer programmer at Facebook”)
  • Another article featuring the exemplary indoctrination of Sonia in Guatemala.  The article begins:

    “I have so many dreams!” Sonia said as her mother looked on proudly. “I see myself graduating from the university as a business administrator or an auditor.  I dream of working in a big company and doing important things.”

    Sonia has thus received outstanding preparation for joining the global workforce of corporate drones.  I’m sure when she’s fifty years old, shuffling papers and counting the days until she can retire and spend more time home alone with her cats, she’ll look back fondly on her original and truly inspiring childhood dreams.

  • Article titled “Challenging Traditions.” This article describes how Sophia, a Greek-named woman living in “the traditional Maasai community in southern Kenya,” plans to “continue her education.”  Making clear that Sophia has been well-educated, the article reports:

    “I have learned that girls are equally as important as boys,” Sophia said. “I have been empowered to fight for the rights of the girls who are suffering in my community.”

    How generous, empathetic, and community-spirited!  To better understand how to serve her community, Sophia might examine how her values relate to sexist values in the World Values Survey.

  • Article titled “Staff member sees effects of gender inequality.” Unbound staff member Sara Asmussen answers questions about “gender inequality.”  Here’s a typical question, “How does {Unbound} help to empower women and their families?” Asmussen says nothing about gender inequalities disadvantaging men or disadvantaging boys.  A reasonable inference is that Unbound doesn’t care about inequalities hurting men or hurting boys.
  • Pull quote from Unbound founder Bob Hentzen: “My joy and inspiration is to work with strong, independent women.  They are my heroes and I love them.”  Unbound apparently is rooted in fashionable, old-fashioned, insipid sexism.  Parroting the women-are-wonderful effect is not inspiring. [3]

Culturally dominant persons offering the poor desperately needed material resources and gender bigotry are an enormously powerful force worldwide.  But heroic acts of resistance are possible.  For example, David, a strong, independent Kenyan, stood up to Unbound’s gender-biased programming:

One requirement of {Unbound} sponsorship is the family taking an active part in the program. In some projects this can include being part of a mothers group.  As the name implies, these small groups are typically made up of mothers.  A main goal is to empower members to become economically self-sufficient through microlending.

Because Caroline {David’s wife) spent so much time at the market, she couldn’t attend the group meetings. So David went instead. “I am a member of a support mothers group, although I am a man,” David said. “My group is called Nguono group, and we have 30 members. It is from this group that I was able to grow and come up with the idea of starting my welding workshop.” [4]

Women and men worldwide should look for inspiration to courageous persons like David.  The future of civilized life depends on such action.

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[1] From feature article, p. 4, in Unbound’s publication Impact, Spring 2014 issue, cover title: “MOTHERS KNOW BEST / Celebrating mothers around the world.”

[2] Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, renamed CFCA, renamed Unbound, publication sacredground (vol. 32, no. 2, fall/winter 2013), pp. 10-19, 22-23.

[3] All these examples are from sacredground, id.

[4] From feature article, p. 5, in Unbound publication Impact, Summer 2014 issue, cover title: “A FIRE WITHIN / Sponsorship sparks opportunities for fathers full of potential.”  That title is misleading.  One father’s refusal to accept being excluding by gender from Unbound’s programming allowed him to acquire resources to open his own welding shop.  Here’s an online version of the article.

[image] Pith helmet in the Second French Empire style, worn by soldiers in the army of Madagascar Queen Ranavalona III (reigned 1883 – 1897).  Thanks to Rama and Wikipedia.


virilocality & polygyny in evolution of communicative sex differences

wedding party at wife's family's home: no virilocality

Virilocality and polygyny probably have been common features of human groups across evolutionary time.  Virilocality means heterosexual mates tend to establish a home near the man’s kin.  Uxorilocality is the corresponding term for locating near the woman’s kin.  Polygyny means one man tends to have concurrently either no or multiple heterosexual mates.  Polyandry is the corresponding term for women.  Among about 330 societies that European anthropologists have described at early dates of European contact, 70% were virilocal, 10% bilocal, and 20% uxorilocal.  About 80% practiced polygyny to some extent.[1]  Among societies classified as foragers, residence patterns have been summarized as flexible.[2]  The independence and representativeness, over an evolutionarily relevant time scale, of the data points underlying these statistics are highly problematic.[3] The expansion of agricultural societies has strongly affected the distribution and ecology of hunter-gatherer societies and plausibly their residence arrangements as well.[4] More sophisticated phylogenetic comparative analysis indicates that Proto-Indo-European social organization was virilocal and Proto-Malayo-Polynesian, uxorilocal.  Virilocality appears to be more stable than is uxorilocality.[5]

More interpretive social-geographic analysis associates key developments in human communication with virilocal and polygynous societies.  Research systematically analyzing ethnographic data from around the world for patterns in social structure identified Middle Old World social structure:

The Middle Old World includes North and Northeast Africa, the Middle East, South and Central Asia, most of China, and the Vietnamese. … for most of history the economic center of Eurasia was in this region. … The Middle Old World has a combination of two kinds of constraints – it is constrained both to being unilineal and to being patricentric.

The ecology of the Middle Old World favored competition for assets – domesticated animals, pasture land, and other capital and land associated with capital-intensive agriculture.  Probably driven by the interests of dominant, asset-rich men, social life in the Middle Old World strongly limited men’s and women’s freedom of association and freedom of sexual interaction:

the Middle Old World shows a strong tendency for women to be restricted from public roles, with little political or economic autonomy. Purdah, veiling of women, foot-binding, infibulation, the suttee, and the honor-shame complex, all originated within the Middle Old World.

The Middle Old World also was the locus of significant developments in human communication:

Most of the earliest Eurasian civilizations are in the Middle Old World – Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and China. Most of the important empires of Old World history were in the Middle Old World, and all of the major world religions originated in this region, as did many of the world’s writing systems.[6]

Significant communicative developments thus occurred in social environments favoring virilocality and polygyny.

Virilocality and polygyny bias men’s communication toward kin and women’s communication toward non-kin.  Virilocality implies men’s continuing communication with kin.  Women, in contrast, under viriloclity have to establish intensive communicative relationships with new, non-kin.  Under polygyny, men’s mate-typical communication occurs across multiple mates.  Those mates, living in a common familial space, have more complex communicative relationships among each other.  The human evolutionary history of virilocality and polygyny together suggests that social communication has been more evolutionarily significant for women than for men.

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[1] Based on data and coding for Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas, as reported in Burton et al. (1996), Table 1.  Number of societies: 311 coded for marital residence, 348 coded for mating (marriage) type.  The societies are almost exclusively non-European societies that European-oriented anthropologists described at early dates of European contact.

[2] Alvarez (2004) and Marlowe (2004).

[3] Marlowe (2004) uses the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS), which he describes as “186 societies with good ethnographic coverage that have been chosen to create an unbiased sample of the world’s societies with respect to geographic region, language family, and cultural area.”  However, the definition of society is highly problematic and not external to the SCCS.  In addition, geographic region, language family, and cultural area do not together define a consistent, well-defined sampling frame that would make the statistical concept of “unbiased sample” meaningful.  Id. p. 278,  ft. 4, notes:

North America is overrepresented among foragers (83% in the EA {Ethnographic Atlas}, 50% in the SCCS {Standard Cross-Cultural Sample}) because there were many foragers there when ethnographies were first written, while the Circum-Mediterranean region is completely absent because foragers had disappeared there before ethnographies were written.

Even in geographic regions where foraging societies exist, the advance of agricultural societies has strongly affected the distribution of foraging societies.  Alvarez (2004) analyzes fifty hunter-gathering societies selected from the Ethnographic Atlas.  The relevance of this sample to general patterns of human social organization is unclear.

[4] For example, starting from about 4000 years ago, Bantu farmers from southern Cameroon spread across sub-equatorial Africa and displaced foragers living in locations propitious for agriculture.  Wood et al. (2005).  The social organization of ethnographically described hunter-gather societies may not be more evolutionarily relevant than the social organization of non-human great apes, or the social organization of ethnographically described humans in non-hunter-gatherer societies.  Given human-Neandertal interbreeding, dispersed development of agriculture prior to 11,000 years ago, and relatively rapid genetic evolution, significant human evolution may have occurred in social circumstances different from those of current (marginalized) human foraging societies.

[5] Fortunato & Jordan (2010).  Copeland et al. (2011), using much different methods, finds evidence of virilocality in ancient hominin species.

[6] Burton et al. (1996) pp. 100-1 (previous three quotes).

[image] wedding of Miss Watts of Bonmahon, Co. Waterford, Ireland, on 29 Apr. 1907 at Watts family home.  From original glass plate negative. Thanks to National Library of Ireland and flickr Commons.


Alvarez, Helen Perich. 2004. “Residence Groups Among Hunter-Gatherers: A View of the Claims and Evidence for Patrilocal Bands.” Pp. 420-441 in Bernard Chapais and Carol M. Berman, eds. Kinship and behavior in primates. Oxford: Oxford University Press: .

Burton, Michael L., Carmella C. Moore, John W. M. Whiting and A. Kimball Romney. 1996. “Regions Based on Social Structure.” Current Anthropology 37(1): 87-123.

Copeland, Sandi R., Matt Sponheimer, Darryl J. de Ruiter, Julia A. Lee-Thorp, Daryl Codron, Petrus J. le Roux, Vaughan Grimes, and Michael P. Richards. 2011. “Strontium isotope evidence for landscape use by early hominins.” Nature. 475 (7357): 532.

Fortunato Laura, and Fiona Jordan. 2010. “Your place or mine? A phylogenetic comparative analysis of marital residence in Indo-European and Austronesian societies.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences. 365 (1559): 3913-22.

Marlowe, Frank W. 2004. “Marital Residence among Foragers.” Current Anthropology 45(2): 277-284.

Wood, Elizabeth T., Daryn A. Stover, Christopher Ehret, Giovanni Destro-Bisol, Gabriella Spedini, Howard McLeod, Leslie Louie, Mike Bamshed, Beverly I. Strassmann, Himla Soodyall and Michael F. Hammer (2005). “Contrasting patterns of Y chromosome and mtDNA variation in Africa: evidence for sex-biased demograhic processes.” European Journal of Human Genetics 13: 867-876.


Wednesday’s flowers

tulip landscape

shipwreck beggars: popular pictorial communication in ancient Rome

shipwreck victims

In ancient Rome, shipwreck victims begged for money using pictures.  A Roman satirist who died in the year 62 wrote:

am I going to part with a penny if a shipwreck victim sings a song?  Are you singing with a picture of yourself in a shattered ship on your shoulder?  The person who wants to bend me with his sorry tale will utter a genuine lament, not one concocted overnight.

So break off a portion of your green turf {land in the country} and give it to the penniless man, to stop him wandering around with his picture painted on a sea-blue placard. [1]

Another Roman satirist, who wrote no later than in the second century, described a shipwreck survivor:

satisfied with rags covering his freezing crotch and with scraps of food, while he begs for pennies as a shipwreck survivor and maintains himself by painting a picture of the storm. [2]

These passages attest to the prevalence of pictures in ancient Rome.  A Roman poet who died in 15 BGC complained:

The hand that first painted obscene pictures and set up disgraceful things to view in innocent homes corrupted the unknowing eyes of young girls, and denied them ignorance of sin itself. [3]

Another Roman poet from about the same time pleaded ironically:

Now, goddess, help me now (since the many pictures in your temples witness that you can heal) [4]

Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried in ashes with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 GC, contained many frescoes, including erotic frescoes.   A tavern in Ostia Antica from about that time include an extensive scheme of low-culture frescoes.  Shipwreck victims begging for money had little money to commission or purchase pictures.  If shipwreck beggars in ancient Rome used pictures, pictures were accessible to everyone.

Shipwreck beggars may have used pictures to overcome language barriers in cosmopolitan Rome.  In addition to Latin and Greek, Rome contained many uneducated persons who probably understood mainly only local, ethnic languages.  One small picture of a shipwreck probably didn’t support pictorial storytelling.  Such a picture might have identified a beggar cross-linguistically as being particularly worthy of sympathy.

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[1] Persius, Satires 1.89-90 (picture reference: “cantas, cum fracta te in trabe pictum / ex umero portes?”) and 6.31-3 (picture reference: “ne pictus oberret caerulea in tabula”) from Latin trans. Braund (2004).

[2] Juvenal, Satires, 14.300-2 (picture reference: “mersa rate naufragus assem / dum rogat et picta se tempestate tuetur.”) from Latin trans. id.

[3] Propertius, Bk. II.6, from Latin trans. A.S. Kline.

[4] Tibullus, III. Illness in Phaecia, from Latin trans. A.S. Kline.

[image] La Balsa de la Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa), Théodore Géricault, 1818-19. In the Louvre, Paris.  Thanks to Wikipedia.


Braund, Susanna Morton, trans. 2004. Juvenal and Persius. Loeb Classical Library 91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Saint Jerome’s corpus of letters shows concern for women

Saint Jerome was a leader in orienting his life toward women.  Of Jerome’s 123 surviving letters, 36% are addressed to women.  Jerome in his surviving letters addressed by name 20 different women.  Jerome’s letters to women have less diverse types and are more personal than his letters to men.[1]  In a scholarly letter to the learned woman Principia, Jerome stated that he was censured by many for writing to women and preferring women to men.[2]

Jerome wrote many more letters to women than have survived.   In one of his works, Jerome referred to “volumes of letters which I have written to Paula.”  He also noted, “how many letters I have written to Paula and Eustochium I do not know, for I write daily.”[3]

Jerome closely associated with women.  In Rome, Jerome was frequently surrounded by women. Women and Jerome were comfortable discussing scripture and Christian living with each other.  Jerome observed of his relationship with women:

Study had brought about constant companionship, companionship comfortableness, and comfortableness a sense of mutual trust. [4]

The patrician Roman women Fabiola, Paula, and Eustochium followed Jerome from Rome to Jerusalem.   Jerome toured monasteries in Egypt with Paula in the winter of 386/6.[5]  Both Paula and Eustochium financially supported Jerome and lived next to him in Bethlehem.   Jerome eulogized Lea, Blesilla, Fabiola, Paula, and Marcella after their deaths.[6]  They probably would have done the same for him.

two women, Saint Paula and Saint Eustochium, with Saint Jerome

Because Jerome loved women, he told them what they needed to know, not what men thought women wanted to hear.  Jerome was far from the self-abasing, desperately love-seeking man of Roman love elegy.  Rather than keeping women ignorant, Jerome told women directly what men want.  Men debated among themselves about whether men should marry.  They assumed that women should marry.  Jerome, in contrast, strongly supported women not marrying.  Few men have cared as much for women as Jerome did.  Only persons who don’t understand women and don’t truly love them cannot understand why women loved Jerome.

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Data: Letters of Jerome Dataset (Excel version)

Read more:


[1] See the summary statistics sheet in the Letters of Jerome Dataset.  Saint Jerome is also known as Jerome of Stridon and as Hieronymus.  His full Latin name is Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus.

[2] Jerome, Letter 65 (to Principia, dated 397), from Latin trans. by Medieval Women’s Latin Letters.  In this letter, Jerome refers to women as the “weaker sex.”   That was a conventional term associated with women’s less powerful physical stature and more powerful communication capabilities.  Jerome uses that conventional term in high rhetoric replete with irony.  A simpler presentation is in Jerome’s Letter 126.  Freemantle (1892), p. 601, describes that letter as addressed to “Marcellinus, a Roman official of high rank, and Anapsychia his wife.”  Jerome addresses the husband of high public rank and his wife equally as students of scripture:

Our reverend brother Oceanus to whom you desire an introduction is a great and good man and so learned in the law of the Lord that no words of mine are needed to make him able and willing to instruct you both and to explain to you in conformity with the rules which govern our common studies, my opinion and his on all questions arising out of the scriptures.  In conclusion, my truly holy lord and lady, may Christ our God by his almighty power have you in his safekeeping and cause you to live long and happily.

Letter 126, s. 3, trans. Freemantle (1892) p. 602.

[3] Jerome, De viris illustribus (On Illustrious Men, dated 393), s. 54, 135.  Cain (2009), p. 220, observes:

Considering Jerome’s otherwise prolific literary output and the size of his social network, his 123 extant letters are bound to represent only the tiniest fraction of all of the letters he wrote during his long career.

[4] Jerome, Letter 45 (to Asella, dated 385) s. 2, from Latin trans. Cain (2009) p. 107.  Freemantle (1892) provides an alternate translation of the full letter.

[5] Cain (2009) p. 155.

[6] Lea (Letter 23), Blesilla (Letter 39), Fabiola (Letter 77), Paula (Letter 108), and Marcella (Letter 127).  Freemantle (1892) has English translations.

[image] Saint Paula and Saint Eustochium with Saint Jerome, Francisco de Zurbarán and Workshop, c. 1640/1650, oil on fabric, Samuel H. Kress Collection, U.S. National Gallery of Art, 1952.5.88, thanks to Wikipedia.


Cain, Andrew. 2009. The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford 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.


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