men’s inferiority in the life of Christina of Markyate

Christina of Markyate in St. Albans Psalter

The twelfth-century Life of Christina of Markyate encompasses vignettes of Christina’s relationships with men. The men are morally and intellectually inferior to Christina. The narrative progresses from men who are obviously stupid and morally defective to men who reflect subtle and pervasive forms of masculine failings. While the Life of Christina of Markyate is commonly thought to be unfinished, the last relationship in the surviving text makes a suitable end for the narrative. The eminent Abbot Geoffrey of St. Albans provides material resources to Christina of Markyate, and she instructs him morally. That remains to our day a paradigmatic gender relation.

Shortly after Christina vowed to God to remain a virgin unlike “all them that go a-whoring,” she entered Ranulf Flambard’s bedroom. Ranulf Flambard was a rich, powerful man. Then a leading bishop, he had been the chief financial and legal agent and personal chaplain to the English King William II. Ranulf was regarded as an energetic, courageous, cunning, and very worldly official.[1] He had taken Christina’s maternal aunt Alveva as his concubine and had several children with her. He subsequently permitted Alveva to marry another man. Alveva’s new husband probably helped to provide for Ranulf’s children with Alveva. Ranulf maintained cordial relations with Alveva and her family and frequently visited them.[2] Since Christina’s family frequently visited Alveva’s family, Ranulf and Christina could come to know each other. Knowing Ranulf would offer Christina considerable worldly advantages.[3]

The Life of Christina Markyate shows Ranulf to have been stupid and morally defective in relation to Christina. Rejecting his extensive worldly experience, Ranulf acted out the part of the impulsive, devious, evil man in the fantasies of romance:

It happened that the bishop {Ranulf} gazed intently at Auti’s beautiful daughter {Christina of Markyate}. Straightaway Satan, that songster of voluptuousness, put into his heart an evil desire for her. Busily seeking some trick whereby to get her into his clutches, Ranulf had the unsuspecting girl brought into his chamber where he slept at night, a room handsomely decorated with hangings, the only others present with the innocent maiden being members of his retinue. Her father and mother and the others with whom she had come were on their own in the hall, enjoying too much drink. As night fell, the bishop gave a secret sign to his retinue and they went off, leaving their master and Christina, that is to say, the wolf and the lamb, together under the same roof. For shame! The shameless bishop indecently seized the maiden by one of the sleeves of her tunic, and with the mouth which he used to consecrate the holy sacrament he urged her to commit a wicked deed. What was the poor girl to do in such straits? [4]

The poor girl might well have followed the propitious example of her aunt Alveva, who had been Ranulf’s concubine. Alternatively, she might have prudently left the bishop’s bedroom before she found herself alone with him late at night. Such thoughts are now regarded as morally offensive. Anyone who thinks such thoughts, or even worse, expresses them, faces harsh condemnation and punishment.

Ranulf then attempted to rape Christina, according to orthodox scholarship. Poor Christina, alone with the bishop in his bedroom late at night, suddenly was propositioned by him:

Should she call her parents? They had already gone to bed. To consent was out of the question, but she did not dare to resist him openly for had she done so she would certainly have been overcome by force. [5]

Anyone who wonders why she didn’t just walk out of the room is a rape apologist. Careful study of romantic conventions provides a guide to prudent action in the bedroom of a cunning, worldly bishop:

Hear, then, how prudently she acted. She glanced back at the door, and saw that though it was closed it was not bolted. So she said, “Allow me to fasten the bolt, for even if we do not fear God at least we ought to fear men, lest they should catch us in this act.” He demanded an oath from her that she would not  deceive him but that she would do as she said and bolt the door. And she made the oath to him. And so, being released, she darted out of the room, bolted the door firmly from the outside, and hurried quickly home.

For good triumphing over evil, a false oath and bolting the door from the outside makes a much better story than simply walking out. Ranulf had deceived a whole army of men to collect a levy from them. He had also managed to escape from imprisonment in the tower of London.[6] Nonetheless, Christina fooled Ranulf with a false oath.

Stopping by again on the return leg of his journey, Ranulf offered Christina “silken garments and precious trinkets of all kinds.” She looked on those goods with utter contempt. That’s impressive, yet why was Ranulf seeking Christina’s favor? Surely if a medieval man in his position had wanted a beautiful concubine, he could have gotten one other than Christina with little effort and without being charged with rape in modern literary scholarship.[7] In the Life of Christina of Markyate, Ranulf Flambard is a fool.

Displaying the psychology of men who lack confidence with women, Ranulf responded with an act of “revenge” for Christina’s rejection, rather than with lack of concern. Ranulf urged the young nobleman Burthred and Christina’s parents to seek marriage between Burthred and Christina. Christina rejected that proposition. She insisted that she wanted to remain a virgin. In contrast to currently prevailing mis-education, a daughter was not merely her father’s property, to be given to any man he chose.[8] Burthred and Christina’s parents had to convince Christina to consent to marriage:

They gave her presents and made lavish promises. She refused. They cajoled her. They threatened her. She would not yield. Eventually they coaxed a young woman by the name of Melisen, one of her peers and a close friend, into whispering incessant blandishments in her ears, so that by her insistent chatter she would arouse a desire in the heart of her listener for the dignity and status of matrimony. … she was quite unable to extort one word of consent, even though she spent a whole year trying out stratagems of this kind. But sometime later, on a day when they had gathered together at church, everyone quite out of the blue accosted the girl. What more is there to say? I do not know how, all I do know is that with God’s consent Christina gave in to this chorus of haranguing voices. And in the same hour Burthred was betrothed to her. [9]

Burthred, seeking to provide better materially for his wife Christina, built a new, bigger home near the home of Christina’s parents. Ranulf’s vengeful marital act toward Christina is one that many women undoubtedly would have welcomed. Perhaps that explains Christina “giving in” and consenting to marriage.

As many men now sadly understand, a woman consenting to marriage doesn’t mean her consenting to have sex. Although Christina and Burthred as betrothed persons could licitly have sex, Christina publicly expressed her refusal “to be defiled by submitting herself to the carnal embraces of a man.” Christina’s parents diligently sought to stimulate in Christina desire to have sex with her husband. They flattered her and taunted her, gave her presents, and made promises to her. They isolated her from pious persons and surrounded her with “people given to jesting, boasting, and world amusements.” They insisted that she go partying:

they took her against her will to banquets, where an excellent variety of dishes was served with various kinds of drink, where the alluring melodies of singers were accompanied by the sounds of the zither and the harp, so that by listening to them her strength of mind might be sapped and in this way she might finally be brought to take pleasure in the world.

Christina’s loving parents even arranged for her to serve wine while dressed alluringly as the cup-bearer at the Gild merchant festival. Nonetheless, Christina retained her determination to remain a virgin even after she had consented to marriage. Burthred thus faced many more years of sexless marriage than Margery Kempe’s husband did.

After failing to arouse sexual desire in Christina, her parents tried a more forceful approach. They arranged to let Burthred into Christina’s bedroom secretly at night. They hoped that Burthred would find Christina sleeping and would “suddenly violate her.” That’s not how a normal man enjoys having sex, especially for the first time with his wife. In any case, the conspiracy failed. Entering Christina’s bedroom secretly at night, Burthred found Christina dressed and awake. She welcomed him “joyfully as if he had been her brother”:

She sat on the bed with him and strongly encouraged him to live chastely. … {She told him} “Do not feel shame that I have spurned you. So that your friends will not taunt you with having being rejected by me, I will go to your house and we will live there for a while ostensibly as husband and wife but in reality living chastely in the sight of the Lord. But first, let us join hands in agreement that neither meanwhile will touch the other unchastely, neither will one look upon the other except with a pure and angelic gaze, promising God that after three or four years, we will receive the religious habit and offer ourselves … to whichever monastery providence chooses.” [10]

After enduring talk of this sort for the greater part of the night, Burthred left, probably stunned and dazed. Surely he had a much different vision of his marriage to Christina when he build a big, new house for her near her parents’ house. He must have realized how stupid he was to get married to Christina.

Christina’s family and Burthred’s friends taunted Burthred with his failure to have sex with his wife. They perceived the problem to be his lack of manliness:

When those that had got him into the room {Christina’s bedroom} heard what had happened, they joined together in calling him a spineless and useless fellow. With many reproaches they goaded him on again, and on another night thrust him forcefully into the bridal chamber, warning him neither to be misled by Christina’s deceitful tricks and naive words nor to let her unman him. He was to get his way either by force or entreaty, and if neither of these sufficed, he was to know that they were standing by to help him. He must just remember to act the man. [11]

Not acting like a man tends to dry up heterosexual women’s sexual desire. Burthred apparently lacked advantage in both physical force and entreaty in seeking sex with his wife Christina. His friends “standing by to help him” have sex with his wife suggests pathos, brutality, and comedy.

Burthred’s second secret entrance into his wife’s bedroom combined romance, horror, and comedy. Sensing that Burthred was coming into her bedroom, Christina jumped out of bed and hung on a nail, hidden between the wall and the curtain. That strongly protruding nail provides a counterpoint to questions about Burthred’s masculinity. Soon Burthred approached his wife’s bed:

Not finding what he had hoped, he gave the signal to those waiting by the door. They immediately burst into the room, and with lights in their hands ran here and there looking for her, all the more eagerly since they were sure she had been in the room when he entered it and that she could not escape without them seeing her. What, I ask you, do you suppose were her feelings at that moment? How she trembled in fear for her life as they noisily sought her! Was she not faint with fear? She imagined herself already dragged out in their midst with them all surrounding her, leering at her, threatening her, abandoned to the violation of her seducer. [12]

Presenting a woman in danger and prompting sympathy for her is a core strategy in communication that seeks attention, e.g. contemporary mass media. The Life of Christina of Markyate adds a touching, dramatic gesture:

Finally, one of them by chance touched and held her foot as she hung there, but since the curtain between them deadened his sense of touch, he let it go, not knowing what it was.

That would make a winning scene in a Hollywood blockbuster movie about a strong, independent woman who prevails over her husband seeking to rape her. Events the next day provide another propitious Hollywood movie scene:

as he came in one door she fled through another. In front of her was a kind of fence which, because of its height and the sharp spikes on top of it, was calculated to prevent anyone from climbing over it. Behind her, almost on her heels, was the young man, who at any moment might catch hold of her. With amazing ease she jumped over the fence, and looking back in safety from the other side she saw her pursuer standing there unable to get across. [13]

Christina then identified her husband with “a devil of horrible appearance, with blackened teeth.” Men and women who internalize such mass-media representations of men become morally broken.

Archbishop Thurstan of York, who was a close friend of the Bishop of Durham Ranulf Flambard, intervened to help Christina after she fled from her home and her marriage. Thurstan met privately with Christina for a long time. That was foolish in light of the subsequent literary history of Ranulf being accused of attempting to rape Christina. But Thurstan probably couldn’t have imagined such a development. He served Christina well. He promised to annul her marriage, confirm her vow of virginity, and permit her husband, by apostolic indult, to marry another woman. He fulfilled his promises.[14]

With Christina desperately seeking a safe place to live, Thurstan also arranged for her to live with a cleric who was a close friend of his. That was foolish:

certainly at the beginning they had no feelings for each other, except chaste and spiritual affection. But the devil, the enemy of chastity, could not for long bear this situation. And he took advantage of their close companionship and feeling of security to infiltrate himself stealthily and with guile, then later on, alas, to assault them more openly. Loosing fiery darts, he pressed his attacks so vigorously that he completely overcame the man’s resistance. But the devil could not wrest consent from the maiden, even though he titillated her flesh and put ideas in her head. [15]

The man, blessed with naturally potent masculinity, suffered terribly from the carnal allure of Christina:

Sometimes the wretched man was so aroused that he came before her naked, burning with lust and quite beside himself, and behaved in such a shocking way that I cannot make it known lest by such shamefulness I pollute the wax by writing about it or the air by saying it. Sometimes falling on the ground, he implored and beseeched her to have pity upon him and to have compassion on his wretched state.

The ideology of courtly love valorizes men begging women for love and sex. Men who act like courtly lovers are dupes. Begging women for sexual pity, or pity generally, seldom works. So it was with Christina:

as he lay there she upbraided him for showing so little respect for his calling, and she dismissed his advances with harsh reproaches. And though she herself was struggling with this wretched passion, she wisely pretended that she was untouched by it.

Men are far inferior to women in guile. Moreover, because the man lacked enlightenment about seducing women, his very presence chilled Christina’s sexual desire:

Only one thing brought her respite {from her sexual passion}: the presence of her patron {the man sexually impassioned for her}. For then, her passion cooled; for in his absence she used to be so inwardly inflamed that she thought the clothes which clung to her body might catch fire! Had this happened while she was in his presence, the maiden might well have been unable to keep herself in check. [16]

The cleric unknowingly spurred Christina’s sexual desire in a way that her parents had never been able to do for her with respect to her husband. However, the cleric’s sexual self-abasement and ignorance of women’s guile saved him from sexual sin. A dream of stern admonishment from Mary Magdalen, a renowned holy harlot, ultimately cured his lust. Married men wanting sex with their wives should seek much different blessings.

After Christina became the prioress of a woman’s hermitage at Markyate, she established a paradigmatic gender relation with Abbot Geoffrey of St. Albans. Geoffrey promised to be the patron of her hermitage and provide for its material needs. She in turn provided him with moral instruction and served his spiritual needs.[17] Christina became his super-ego:

the abbot, whether near or far away, could not offend God either in word or deed without her immediately knowing it in the spirit. Nor did she make a secret of reproving him harshly in his presence whenever she knew that in his absence he had gravely sinned … Whenever Geoffrey was sorely tempted to sin, he imagined Christina to be present, for he knew that scarcely anything was hidden from her, and so he easily repelled temptation. [18]

Christina was credited with saving Geoffrey’s life and knowing what color cape he was wearing before she saw him. She also advised him about whether he should accept particular ecclesiastical travel assignments. In short, Christina was Geoffrey’s moral superior, and Geoffrey was Christina’s material provider. Christina and Geoffry, in addition to not having sex, related to each other in ways similar to that of many wives and husbands today.[19]

Men should read the Life of Christina of Markyate. That story can help men to understand their need for sexual self-confidence. It might also inspire men to reject the oppressive material-provider gender role and assert their moral equality with women.

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[1] Reviewing Ranulf Frambard’s life in detail, Southern described Ranulf as “the first outstandingly successful administrator in English history.” Southern noted:

he was a new phenomenon in English government. This son of an obscure priest in the diocese of Bayeux was the first man of ignoble birth in English history to climb from the bottom to the top of the social scale by the backstairs of the royal administration.

Southern (1970) pp. 188, 186. More generally, id. pp. 183-205. King William II is also known as William Rufus.

[2] Life of Christina of Markyate 5, from Latin trans. Talbot, Fanous & Leyser (2008) pp. 6-7. I reference the text with the Latin section numbers and the page in the English translation of id. Talbot (2002) provides the Latin text. The Anglo-Saxon form of Alveva’s name is Ælfgifu. The subsequent two quotes are from Life of Christina of Markyate 5-6, pp. 7-8.

The Life of Christina of Markyate has survived in only one manuscript, British Museum MS. Cotton Tiberius E.1., f. 145r–167v.

[3] Ranulf had at least five sons and helped his family to achieve eminent offices and statuses. Southern (1970) p. 201 and Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, entry for Flambard, Ranulf (c.1060–1128).

[4] Life of Christina of Markyate 5, p. 7. Christina’s baptismal name was Theodora. She adopted the name Christina to indicate her vow of virginal fidelity to Christ. I refer to her as Christina throughout for clarity.

[5] Christina’s consideration of consent indicates that Ranulf sought her consent. With respect to the relational discourse of sexual consent, see my post on Calisto and Melibea.

[6] See entry for Ranulf in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Earlier in his life, Ranulf had shrewdly secured by himself his freedom from kidnappers. Southern (1970) p. 187.

[7] A papal legate reportedly visited Ranulf in 1125 to deliver a disciplinary measure for his incontinence. Ranulf arranged for a women to spend the night with the legate. Ranulf and his associates then burst into the legate’s room when he was in bed with the woman. The legate quickly left Durham without further annoying Ranulf. Southern (1970) p. 203. If Ranulf could arrange an appealing woman for a papal legate, surely he could do so for himself.

Moore notes scholarly references to Ranulf’s bedroom incident with Christina as “attempted rape.” Moore convincingly argues that such a phrase “is a stronger description than the text will support.” Moore (2005) p. 139. Jaeger (2005) p. 101 perceives in the Life of Christina of Markyate an instance of rape. Leading newspaper reporting on rape provides important context for that perception.

Brooke suggests that some stories within the Life of Christina of Markyate have “a quality of fantasy about them.” He asserts that Alveva may actually have been a concubine to Ranulf “even if the account of his efforts to seduce Christina has an element of fantasy in it.” Brooke (1989) p. 145. It’s reasonable to think that the account of Christina’s interaction with Ranulf has even more than one element of fantasy in it.

Patrolling against perceiving even one element of fantasy in that fantastic story, Stanton declares, “Yet more troubling is Brooke’s use of the term ‘fantasy,’ which he repeats in the following paragraph.” Stanton evokes the horror of Brooke implying a “rape fantasy” and declares that the text “leaves no doubt about the threat of rape.” Stanton (2002) pp. 262-2. Such remarks provide context for dominant mendacity in public discourse about rape and domestic violence.

[8] Among social scientists, Margo Wilson and Martin Daly have been highly successful in propagating the view that women, until the recent glorious age, have been universally the property of men. See notes [3] and [4] in my post on primatology and vegetarianism.

[9] Life of Christina of Markyate 8, p. 9. The subsequent two quotes are from id. pp. 9-10. Burthred is the Latin form of the Anglo-Saxon name Beorhtred. I have replaced Anglo-Saxon names with the more common Latin names for consistency and ease of identification.

Ranulf’s conception of revenge was for a man to auferret Christine florem pudicicie (remove from Christina the flower of modesty / deflower Christina). That language reflects deeply rooted social hostility to male sexuality.

With respect to Christina’s betrothal, the Latin text used the term desponsavit:

Desponsavit is often translated ‘betrothed’, but it was the common, indeed the normal, word for the exchange of promises which formed the core of matrimonial consent. It is clear that what is described here is a marriage ‘at church door’.

Brooke (1989) p. 146. For convenience of reference, I use the terms wife and husband in referring to Christina and Burthred in relation to each other prior to when their marriage was annulled.

[10] Life of Christina of Markyate 10, pp. 11-2.

[11] Id. The underlying Latin for “spineless and useless fellow” is ignavum ac nullius usus. These terms hint of male erectile failure.

[12] Life of Christina of Markyate 11, pp. 12-3. The subsequent quote is from id.

[13] Life of Christina of Markyate 12, p. 13.

[14] On Thurstan’s friendship with Ranulf, see the entry for Ranulf in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Christina was under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Lincoln, not under that of Thurston, the Archbishop of York. Thurstan’s particular concern for Christina is further expressed later:

The archbishop of York {Thurston} in particular tried very hard to honour her {Christina} by making her superior over the virgins whom he had gathered together under his name at York, or as an alternative to send her over the sea to Marcigny or at least to Fontevrault. But she preferred our monastery {St. Albans}

Life of Christina of Markyate 50, p. 52.

[15] Life of Christina of Markyate 43, p. 46. In ancient Greco-Roman literature, Cupid rather than Satan would shoot passion-inducing fiery darts. The subsequent two quotes are from id.

[16] Life of Christina of Markyate 44, p. 47. Regarding her virginity and her desire to be a consecrated virgin, the text observes:

she remembered the forcefulness of the thoughts and stings of the flesh with which she had been troubled and even though she was not aware that she had fallen either in deed or desire, she did not dare assert that she had escaped unscathed from such great storms.

Life 51, p. 53. The earlier text clearly indicates that she had fallen “in desire.”

[17] The hermit Roger of Markyate was more subtly depicted as morally inferior to Christina. Roger chastised himself severely for initially not recognizing Christina’s worthiness to be a hermit even though she was fleeing from a marriage. In her living arrangements with him, she suffered greater bodily hardships. That signals superiority among hermits.

The election of Christina as Roger’s successor at the Markyate hermitage also indicates Roger’s moral inferiority to Christina. Roger considered making Christina his successor. He discussed the matter with her. She neither refused nor consented. Instead, she entrusted the matter to the authority of the Lord and the Virgin Mary. The Queen of Heaven (the Virgin Mary) subsequently gave Roger’s hermitage to Christina at her explicit request. Christina’s actions indicate her belief in Roger’s lack of authority to choose a successor for his hermitage. Christina’s actions also underscore Roger’s initial failure to recognize her virtue. Life of Christina of Markyate 38-42, pp. 38-46.

Jaeger perceives the Life of Christina of Markyate to be “structured as a series of relationships with men, which rise from rape and seduction to a deep spiritual love.” Jaeger (2005) p. 101. Jaeger highlights the romantic convention (exchange of glances) in the development of Christina and Roger’s relationship and ignores the construction of Roger’s spiritual inferiority to Christina. Id. p. 102. Jaeger views the cleric with strong, independent sexuality to be an aberration in his scheme of man’s moral progression under woman’s instruction. Id. p. 112. While both Roger and Geoffrey are represented as morally inferior to Christina, Roger’s moral inferiority to Geoffrey is far from clear.

[18] Life of Christina of Markyate 58-9, p. 60. Before taking a trip to Rome, Geoffrey requested from Christina two undergarments (interulas) to “mitigate the hardship” of the journey. Jaeger (2005), pp. 109-10, perceptively interprets the undergarments as contact relics of Christina.

[19] In addition to viewing men’s abasement in courtly love as “ennobling,” Jaeger celebrates Christina’s relationship with Geoffrey:

The structuring idea of Christina’s friendship with Geoffrey is that the love reaches ever higher stages, consistent with the abbot’s rise in spirituality through Christina’s efforts to improve him. It is rich in reverberations with courtly love themes. The reward of love is given in accordance with the man’s improvement. The woman becomes the moral force which ‘educates’ him and assures him of God’s favour.

Jaeger (2005) p. 111. This view reflects unlimited public latitude for man-degrading gender-equality double-talk.

[image] Christina of Markyate petitioning Jesus on behalf of monks of St. Albans. The illuminated initial letter begins Psalm 105 in the St. Albans Psalter (page 285). Above the letter in Latin is the petition “Spare your monks I beseech you, o merciful kindness of Jesus.” Here’s an excellent online explication and presentation of the St. Albans Psalter. That site regrettably and shamefully claims copyright on reproduction of images from the St. Albans Psalter. The image above is thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Brooke, Christopher N.L. 1989. The medieval idea of marriage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fanous, Samuel, and Henrietta Leyser, eds. 2005. Christina of Markyate: a twelfth-century holy woman. London: Routledge.

Jaeger, C. Stephen. 2005. “The loves of Christina of Markyate.” Ch. 6 (pp. 99-115) in Fanous & Leyser (2005).

Moore, R. I. 2005. “Ranulf Flambard and Christina of Markyate.” Ch. 8 (pp. 138-42) in Fanous & Leyser (2005).

Southern, R. W. 1970. Medieval humanism. New York: Harper & Row.

Stanton, Robert. 2002. “Marriage, Socialization, and Domestic Violence in the Life of Christina of Markyate.” Ch. 11 (pp. 242-71) in Salisbury, Eve, Georgiana Donavin, and Merrall Llewelyn Price, eds. Domestic violence in medieval texts. Gainesville: University Press of Florida

Talbot, C. H. 2002. The life of Christina of Markyate: a twelfth century recluse. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Talbot, C.H. trans, Samuel Fanous and Henrietta Leyser, rev. and ed. 2008. The life of Christina of Markyate. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

courtly love ideology leaves bitter men with only fantasies

courtly love failure

In medieval Latin love lyrics, courtly lovers yearn for carnal love. They praise women’s bodily beauty, they beg for love and pitifully lament being rejected, and they plaintively foretell their death through lovesickness. Medieval clerics, white knights, and courtiers are standard-bearers of courtly love. They display ignorance, dogma, and fantasy that endures to our day as an alternative to the empirical science of seduction.

For long now I have shown myself
to be a devoted soldier of Love,
at whose bidding I rushed headlong
to commit foolish, daring deed,
loving at great hazard
one who never casts a kindly eye on me.

If I now entirely ceased,
I would serve myself well,
But only the inferior man
flees the clamor of battle.
Let it be, as I will!
Carelessly I offer my life to fortune’s hazards.

She must know of my soul’s greatness,
greater than my bodily form,
for I climb the loftiest bough
seeking for fruit on the tree
and claiming: guile
has no place in a lover who knows no fear.

{Iam dudum Amoris militem
devotum me exhibui,
cuius nutu me precipitem
stulto commisi ausui,
amans in periculo
unam que numquam    me pio respexit oculo.

Si adhuc cessarem penitus
michi forte consulerem,
sed non fugat belli strepitus
nisi virum degenerem.
fiat, quod desidero!
vitam fortune    casibus securus offero.

Me sciat ipsa magnanimum
maiorem meo corpore,
qui ramum scandens altissimum
fructum queram in arbore,
allegans: ingenio
non esse locum    in amante metus nescio.} [1]

Soldiers of love are men who believe in the ideology of courtly love. They are men such as Ulrich von Liechtenstein, Suero de Quinones, and Nitin Nohria. Living in fantasies, they are generally not successful in love with women. They commonly became bitter men who hate themselves and other men. They tend to marry as beta-provider hubbies. They face a high risk of sexless marriage and being cuckolded. You don’t want your son, if you have one, to become that kind of man.

In the Middle Ages, just as in our current Dark Age, a few transgressive poets challenged the benighted scholars, gynocentric apparatchiks, and sophistic social-climbers that construct and re-enforce the ideology of courtly love. Drawing upon the full resources of classical, biblical, and contemporary culture, these poets offered a messianic secret. Their secret is accessible only to those who read medieval Latin poetry knowingly.

If I were to speak with angelic and human tongues,
I could not describe the prize, no worthless one.
By that I am rightly set above all Christians,
while unbelieving rivals envy me.

Sing, my tongue, therefore of causes and effects!
Yet keep the lady’s name cloaked,
so that it isn’t spread widely among the people,
and the secret is kept apart and hidden from the masses.

{Si linguis angelicis loquar et humanis,
non valeret exprimi palma, nec inanis,
per quam recte preferor cunctis Christianis,
tamen invidentibus emulis profanis.

Pange, lingua, igitur causas et causatum!
nomen tamen domine serva palliatum,
ut non sit in populo illud divulgatum,
quod secretum gentibus extat et celatum.} [2]

The medieval Latin poem Si linguis angelicis, written in a Latin meter associated with satire, subtly mocks the delusions of courtly love. The lover’s case history begins with plausible circumstances of despair:

In a beautiful, flowering bush I stood,
turning around in my heart this: “What should I do?”
I hesitate to plant seeds in infertile soil.
Loving the flower of the world, behold, I am in despair.”

{In virgultu florido    stabam et ameno,
vertens hec in pectore:    “quid facturus ero?
dubito, quod semina    in harena sero;
mundi florem diligens    ecce iam despero.} [3]

This stanza thoroughly mixes sexual and biblical imagery: standing erect in a beautiful bush, God from a burning bush instructing Moses, sexual intercourse not propitious for creating descendants as numerous as the sand on the seashore, and the microcosm-macrocosm flower of the world / vulva of God. Life is wonderfully complex. The question in despair for every man conscious of his human nature: “what should I do?”

In the context of deeply rooted social hostility toward men’s sexuality, men increasingly are choosing to do nothing. As an alternative to life in the flesh, historically much more prevalent than pornography has been fantasies of courtly love:

I saw a blossoming flower, saw the flower of flowers,
saw a May rose more beautiful than all others,
saw a shining star brighter than the rest,
by which I passed into the experience of love.

{Vidi florem floridum, vidi florum florem,
vidi rosam Madii cunctis pulchriorem,
vidi stellam splendidam, cunctis clariorem,
per quam ego degeram sentiens amorem.}

The experience of courtly love centers on other-worldly idealization of the beloved woman. The deluded lover, feeling ineffable joy from this imaginary woman, rushes to her and greets her on bended knee:

Hail, most beautiful one, precious jewel!
Hail, glory of virgins, maiden glorious,
hail, light of lights, hail, rose of the world,
A Blanchefleur and a Helen, a noble Venus!

{Ave, formosissima, gemma pretiosa,
ave, decus virginum, virgo gloriosa,
ave, lumen luminum, ave, mundi rosa,
Blanziflour et Helena, Venus generosa!} [4]

Yes, even in medieval times, most women would regard this guy as creepy. She doesn’t even know him. He had seen her at a summer feast, fully five or six years ago. Since then, he has been suffering grievously from lovesickness. He has never spoken to her, but he thinks of her:

Drink, food, and sleep have deserted me,
By medicine I am unable to be healed.

These privations and many more have I endured,
No consolations fortify against my cares,
except repeatedly in the darkness of night
I am with you in forms shaped by the imagination.

{Fugit a me bibere,    cibus et dormire,
medicinam nequeo    malis invenire.

Has et plures numero    pertuli iacturas,
nec ullum solacium    munit meas curas,
ni quod sepe sepius    per noctes obscuras
per imaginarias    tecum sum figuras.}

Offering a fantastic alternative to the folklore motif “man gets sex without paying for it,” the imaginary woman declares:

So tell me, young sir, what you have in mind;
do you ask for silver, so as to enrich yourself,
or for precious stones to adorn yourself?
For if it be possible, I will give you whatever you seek.

{Dicas ergo, iuvenis, quod in mente geris;
an argentum postulas, per quod tu diteris,
pretioso lapide an quod tu orneris?
nam si esse poterit, dabo quidquid queris.}

Imagine — while he was secretly pining for her, she was also secretly in love with him! Even better, she wants to give him expensive gifts. Needless to say, real life five or six years after seeing a beautiful woman, but not speaking to her, isn’t like this. Continuing more realistically, the man dallies further verbally. Recognizing that he needs additional, explicit instruction, as many students do after being terrified in mandatory affirmative-consent classes, the loving woman declares:

Whatever you want to do, such I cannot foreknow,
however to your entreaties I desire to consent.
Therefore, what I have, sedulously investigate,
undertaking, if you can find it, whatever you seek.

{Quicquid velis, talia nequeo prescire;
tuis tamen precibus opto consentire.
ergo, quicquid habeo, sedulus inquire,
sumens si quod appetis, potes invenire.}

She speaks like a true scholastic. She even offers a hint of now-fashionable gender ambiguity. The lover throws his arms around her neck and kisses her a thousand times. As Ovid said after hugging his mistress Corinna’s lovely, naked body, who doesn’t know what then ensued?[5] Men bitter with the failures of courtly love will find pleasure in this fantasy. They must not lose heart, but have stronger hope that repeated failures of courtly love indicate forthcoming success.[6] Can anyone doubt that triumph in courtly love comes from fantasy, not empirical science?

Medieval Latin poetry shows a still more excellent way. With guile, amused mastery, and fear for his holiness, a man can aspire to be like God to the woman he wants to love:

Game, he may game, you all game! In your jesting now listen,
the sweet joys of the present life soothe and make merry:
the player roles the dice,
the student by his embraces
would delude women.

Love must be sung in sweet melodies;
It should not be held back in the shackles of grave homilies.
A little maiden should pledge her hand,
she flowering like a rose,
overcome by pious words.

She should say “yes!” readily, not refusing when asked,
Not inquiring of the aforesaid man’s standing.
She should do what is asked;
what is neglected to be requested,
the lauded young woman should provide.

{Lude, ludat, ludite!    iocantes nunc audite,
quos presentis gaudia    demulcent leta vite:
histrio tesseribus;
clericus amplexibus
deludat mulieres.

Amor est iam suavibus    canendus melodiis,
qui non tardet gravibus    detentus homiliis.
spondeat puellula
florens quasi rosula,
verbis devicta piis.

Dicat “ita!” facile,    nil deneget rogata,
non viri notitiam    rimetur prenotata.
faciat, quod petitur;
quod prece negligitur,
prestet virgo laudata.} [7]

The Virgin Mary said yes to the mysterious words of the angel Gabriel. About two millennia later, the Mystery Method has been extensively field-tested. Among all possible outrages —  and medieval Latin provided now inconceivably broad latitude for outrageous words — the greatest of these is love.

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[1] Carmina Burana 166 (Iam dudum Amoris militem), from Latin my English translation, with borrowings from the English translations of Marshall (2014) p. 205 and Walsh (1993) p. 187. In the final Latin line, Walsh replaces non from the manuscript with nunc and translates the last two lines thus:

claiming that in a lover who knows no fear there is now a role for native talent.

Perhaps climbing trees is a “native talent,” but that makes little poetic sense in context. For the original manuscript text, Walsh provides the alternate translation:

in a lover who knows no fear, there is no place for the crafty approach.

Id. pp. 187-8. My translation is similar, but makes more clear that the relevant craft is social ingenuity (ingenio): guile.

The phrase amoris militem (soldier of Love) “sounds the keynote of the poem; this is to be the proclamation of the courtly lover.” Id. p. 187. Ovid explored that theme, but with much more insight and sophistication.

[2] Carmina Burana 77 (Si linguis angelicis loquar et humanis) st. 1-2, from Latin my English translation, with borrowings from the English translations of Marshall (2014) p. 101-5 and Walsh (1993) pp. 65-8. Here’s a complete Latin text of the poem from Biblotheca Augustana. Above I provide the Latin text from id. pp. 62-65. That Latin text has some small differences from Bibliotheca Augustana‘s Latin text. All the subsequent quotes above, except the final one, are similarly from Si linguis angelicis, stanzas 3, 6, 8, 20 (ll. 1-2) & 21, 26, and 28. This poem has survived only in the Carmina Burana manuscript (Bavarian State Library, Munich, clm 4660/4660a).

The opening line of Si linguis angelicis cites 1 Corinthians 13:1. The next three lines are boastful and arrogant. Cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4. Robertson (1976/1980) p. 141 insightfully notes:

the assertion of that self-esteem after the suggestion of charity in the first line is more than a little ridiculous and hence humorous. I do not mean that it produced loud laughter, but I am confident that it did produce a smile.

The reference in the second line to the prize (palma) plausibly derives from Apocalypse 7:9. Id.

The second stanza’s first two words Pange, lingua evoke the crucifixion hymn of Venantius Fortunatus. Fortunatus wrote that hymn for the presentation of a cross relic to Queen Radegund at Poitiers in 570. It subsequently was commonly used in the Christian liturgy for Good Friday. Robertson provides a learned exegesis of the phrase causas et causatum:

The rare participle causatus (from causo rather than the usual Classical causor) used substantially occurs prominently in only one familiar {sic} work: the translation of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics by Boethius. It appears in 1.7 toward the close in the clause “cum non ex causatis sciat causis,” which forms part of an argument to show that demonstrative principles appropriate to one discipline cannot be used for demonstration in another discipline unless the axioms of the two are the same, or unless one discipline can be thought of as being logically subordinate to the other.

Without being able to draw upon insights from the subsequently developed body of seduction field reports, Robertson makes a false distinction:

Divinity and seduction do not have the same axioms, since it is an axiom of Divinity that fornication is forbidden. For the same reason Divinity cannot be subordinated to seduction. The two are incompatible, and our lover is speaking foolishly.

Id. p. 142. On the messianic secret, Mark 8:29-30 and Romans 16:25-6. On men’s love for women in relation to crucifixion, Ephesians 5:25. The issue of divinity and seduction is further elaborated in the discussion of Lude, ludat, ludite! above.

The satire on courtly love in Si linguis angelicis hasn’t been recognized within Latin literary scholarship that largely celebrates man-oppressing courtly love. Considering Si linguis angelicis, Dronke declares:

The poet makes constant liturgical allusions — yet these are not in any way parodistic or blasphemous: they are not to establish an incongruity but to overcome one.

Dronke (1965) p. 318. The poem is written in a “goliardic” meter. That form is commonly associated with “satirical or jocular purposes.” Walsh (1993) p. 69. The poem has technical similarities with the immediately preceding poem in the Carmina Burana, Dum caupona verterem. Id. pp. 59-60. Dum caupona verterem is about a man of distinction who spent three months in a brothel having sex with Venus. He left as a pauper with fantastic memories. In contrast to Dronke’s and Walsh’s views, both poems seem to me to ridicule men’s ignorance and folly in love.

[3] The phrase in harena more literally means “in sand.” Cf. Mark 4:5-6. Ovid, Heroides 5.115 associates sowing seed in sand with prophecy of death. The context is Paris leaving Oenone for Helen. Walsh (1993) p. 70, which notes that reference, observes “the crudity of this double entendre is lightened by the literary reminiscence.” Male sexual function isn’t crude; it’s natural, beautiful, and in some instances fruitful. In context, the reference to sand evokes barrenness. The reminiscence of Helen and the Trojan War adds a dark note of brutal violence against men.

[4] The first three lines of the above stanza evoke Marian hymns. The fourth line refers to a secular romance and traditional Roman myth. Walsh (1992) p. 197 observes:

The identification of the loved one with Helen, who is cited as an exemplum of peerless beauty without animadversion to morals, should not have troubled Dronke, since it is a prominent feature in other lyrics and is recommended in the rhetorical handbooks.

Robertson offers broader insight:

Although it is true that in the twelfth century after it became commonplace to see the bride in the Canticle as Mary, the attractiveness of her physical attributes was sometimes indicated in very frank terms, and love for her was often expressed in what is today startling imagery, no one would seriously have sought to combine the Blessed Virgin, Blanchefleur, Helen and Venus in the same person. To deny that the effect of this line is humorous seems to me to be insensitive. Whatever we may think of Blanchefleur, Helen had an unsavory reputation in the twelfth century; and it would hardly have been possible for a girl to be a “virgo gloriosa,” which Helen certainly was not, and a “Venus generosa” at the same time.

Robertson (1976/1980) p. 145. Being humorous doesn’t exclude the serious purpose of challenging the dominant ideology of courtly love.

Medieval writers fearlessly combined sacred and profane themes. Carmina Burana 215 (Lugeamus omnes in Decio) uses the form of the Mass as a disparaging liturgy against the god of dice. The mid-fifteenth-century Middle English poem Kyrie, so kyrie rewrites Jankyn’s subordination to Alisoun. The Arundel Lyrics is a wide-ranging collection that evokes the extraordinary mixture of the Incarnation. Boncompagno da Signa (c. 1170- c. 1240) in his Rhetorica novissima declared:

A certain man who had had carnal knowledge of a nun said: “I did not defile the divine bed, but since the Lord had favored me in his words, I wished to raise his horn.” Moreover, a nun could say to her lover: “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

From Latin trans. Huot (1997) p. 67. Cf. on Boncompagno, Dronke (1965) p. 318.  Luke 2:23 offered possibilities for celebrating the sacredness of men’s sexuality. For relevant discussion, Huot (1997) p. 67.

[5] Ovid, Amores 1.5-23-24.

[6] Cf. the last two stanzas of Si linguis angelicis. Those stanzas offer platitudinous inspiration for courtly lovers:

So let every lover be mindful of me. He must not lose heart, though at that point his lot is bitter. For certainly some day will dawn upon him at which he will later triumph over his troubles.

Indeed it is from bitterness that pleasant joys are sprung; the greatest gains are not won without toils. Those who seek sweet honey often feel the sting, so those whose lot is more bitter should maintain the stronger hope.

Trans. Walsh (1993) p. 68. A later hand inserted amara (bitternesses) to make the first line of the final stanza to be in part “it is from bitterness that bitternesses are sprung.” With some dissent, modern scholars have tended to amend amara to grata (pleasant joys). Id. p. 73.

Interpretations of Si linguis angelicis have varied considerably within common respect for courtly love. Walsh declared:

The poem is serious insofar as the poet enthusiastically associates himself with the courtly experience, but the theme is handled wittily as a literary mode rather than with deep emotional involvement. In short, the composition is a stylized exercise

Id. p. 68. Robertson didn’t take the poem seriously. He speculated its “original purpose may have been to serve as a grammatical exercise for students.” Robertson (1976/1980), p. 150. Dronke read the fantasy of courtly love in Si linguis angelicis to cover seriously amour courtois generally:

‘Si linguis angelics’ draws together some of the poetically most notable attitudes of the twelfth-century courtois love-lyric. … In many ways I am tempted to see this poem almost as an emblem of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century European poetry of amour courtois.

Dronke (1965) p. 330. The above quote is part of the concluding paragraph for the whole interpretive volume of Dronke’s learned and influential work on medieval Latin love lyric.

Scholars haven’t recognized the seriousness of the parodic critique of courtly love in Si linguis angelicis. Courtly love ideology has deep psychological roots among elite men. Walsh’s view of twelfth-century clerics probably applies more accurately to many leading modern scholars of medieval literature: their understanding of seduction is “filled in imagination by love encounters with the pen rather than by personal approaches to ladies in real life.” Walsh (1992) p. 203. The modern empirical science of seduction and online documentary field reports enable much better appreciation for extraordinary medieval Latin love poetry.

[7] Carmina Burana 172 (Lude, ludat, ludite!), from Latin my English translation, with borrowings from the English translations of Marshall (2014) p. 210. Flowering like a rose, interpreted as blushing, suggests an erotic aspect of pious words. Marshall, id., entitles the poem Magicians of Love. Mystery, the eponym of the Mystery Method, seduced women under the persona of a magician.

Dronke declares:

All mankind {humanity} is one in love, all aspects of love are linked. This is the basic assumption of a poem such as ‘Si linguis angelicus’. It is grounded in a unity of experience which can affirm divine love and every nuance of human love without setting up dichotomies: all are involved together in the ‘Rota Veneris’.

Dronke (1965) p. 318. Those abstract assertions, which have little connection to the text of Si linguis angelicus, can be given considerable textual and practical meaning with respect to Lude, ludat, ludite!

[image] Knight knocked off his horse. From Kottenkamp, Franz, and Friedrich Martin von Reibisch. 1842. Der Rittersaal, eine Geschichte des Ritterthums, seines Enstehens und Fortgangs, seiner Gebräuche und Sitten. Stuttgart: Carl Hoffmann. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the rise of European love-lyric. Vol. 1 — Problems and interpretations. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Huot, Sylvia. 1997. Allegorical play in the Old French motet: the sacred and the profane in thirteenth-century polyphony. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Marshall, Tariq. 2014. The Carmina Burana: Songs from Benediktbeuren: a full and faithfull translation with critical annotations. 3rd edition. Los Angeles: Marshall Memorial Press.

Robertson, D. W. 1976/1980. “Two Poems from the Carmina Burana.” American Benedictine Review 27 (1): 36-59, reprinted pp. 131-50 in Robertson, D. W. 1980. Essays in medieval culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press (cited to  pages in 1980 reprint).

Walsh, Patrick Gerard. 1992. “Amor Clericalis.” Ch. 12 (pp. 189-203) in Woodman, Anthony. J., and Jonathon G. F. Powell, eds. Author and audience in Latin literature. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Walsh, Patrick Gerard. 1993. Love lyrics from the Carmina Burana. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

horse saves foolish, slumbering Raso in De Nugis Curialium

Raso's horse Walraven

Medieval Latin literature recognized that a dog is a man’s best friend. But horses too can be worthy companions for men. Consider the story of Raso in Walter Map’s twelfth-century Latin work De Nugis Curialium.

Raso was a Christian knight. A Muslim emir ruling a neighboring city threatened Raso’s castle. Although the emir had more wealth and men than Raso, through superior fighting spirit Raso and his son successfully defended their castle. They were like the Greeks who beat back the Persians in ancient history.

Raso, an aging widower, married again for strategic advantage. He married a wealthy woman with many allies. She was also very beautiful. Raso loved her dearly and completely trusted her claims of fidelity. He gave his new wife total freedom and total rule over her step-son and his band of skillful fighting men.

One day, the emir and a large number of his knights attacked Raso’s castle. Raso and his son vigorously fought against the emir’s force and took the emir and others as prisoners. With the look of his eyes, the emir, an attractive Muslim youth, captured the love of Raso’s wife. She guilefully took charge of maintaining him in captivity:

She assigned him a separate cell, dark and strongly built, and hung the key of it at her own girdle. She tamed her prisoner by scant measure of food and drink, and the little she thought fit to allow him she cast in to him through the window as if he were a bear. She allowed no one access to him, as if she trusted no one; she knew well that all pride is tamed by hunger. [1]

The Muslim emir, betraying his beliefs, agreed to love Raso’s Christian wife. Raso believed in his wife’s fidelity, but he should have been an unbeliever. The emir and Raso’s wife together fled to the emir’s city. They rode away on Raso’s favorite horse.[2]

Raso realized he had been foolish. He exclaimed:

I am the worst befooled, that in defiance of tales and of history and of the advice of all wise men from the beginning, I trusted myself to a woman.

Raso lost the emir as a prisoner, he lost his wife, and he also lost goods those two had taken with them. But what Raso mourned endlessly without consolation was the loss of his beloved horse.

Seeking to recover his horse, Raso disguised himself as a beggar and sneaked into the emir’s city. Raso’s wife, however, recognized him and betrayed him to the emir. At his wife’s urging, the emir arranged to execute Raso. But Raso’s son learned of the planned execution. From ambush, Raso’s son and his men attacked the execution party, slaughtering many. Raso’s son killed the emir, but his step-mother escaped on his father’s beloved horse. Raso, although saved from death, was disconsolate. He longed to recover his horse.

Again Raso disguised himself as a beggar and entered the city. He overheard a rich knight propositioning Raso’s wife and proposing that they flee. She agreed to meet the rich knight an hour before dawn at the southern gate of the city. Raso went back to his castle, put on his knight’s armor, and took up watch at the southern gate of the city. His wife, sleepless from desire for the rich knight, arrived in the pre-dawn darkness with Raso’s horse. She mistook Raso for her rich knight. Raso mounted his horse and gave her the horse he had brought. He then merrily set off with his horse and his wife.

Unfortunately, Raso was so tired from his long night that he fell asleep on his horse. Leaning on his spear and sleeping, he started to snore. His wife recognized his snore. She also saw the rich knight and his force of men off in the distance. She urgently gestured them to come to her and the snoring Raso. When the rich knight and his force closed in, Raso’s horse, not willing to be taken without a fight, raised his head, neighed, and dug his hooves against the ground. Raso then awoke. He bravely confronted the attack and called to his son, who was patrolling nearby. Raso and his son devastated the rich knight’s force. His son beheaded his step-mother and rode off in triumph. Raso happily returned home on his horse.

A husband must do more than just love his wife. He cannot know for certain what his wife will do. He should always take care to preserve his relationship with his dog or his horse.[2]

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[1] De Rasone et eius uxore (Of Raso and his Wife), in Walter Map, De nugis curialium, Dist. 3, c. 4, from Latin trans. James (1983) p. 265. The text notes, “The emir she thought could give her all that an old husband could not.” The subsequent quote is from id. p. 267. The Latin and English translation of this story span id. pp. 262-71. The story of Zetus in Petronius Redivivus (piece VII, Analecta Dublinensia), written in England late in the twelfth or early in the thirteenth century, has considerable similarities with the story of Raso in De nugis curialium. Colker (2007) p. 3.

[2] Cooper (2011), pp. 103-4, comments:

These adventures {of Raso} … are recounted without humour or a sense of irony, but do allow a modern reader — although this is certainly not Map’s intention — to gain a great sympathy for the wife’s decision to run away while perhaps feeling frustrated at so useless a story.

Most modern readers lack sympathy for violence against men or men being incarcerated for nothing more than having consensual sex and being poor. Walther Map had a better sense of humor and irony than have many modern readers.

[image] Elisabeth’s horse Walraven. Horses can be worthy companions for women, too. Thanks to Elisabeth for sharing the image of her horse under a Creative Commons By-2.0 license.


Colker, Marvin L. ed. 2007. Petronius Rediuiuus et Helias Tripolanensis: id est Petronius Rediuiuus quod Heliae Tripolanensis videtur necnon fragmenta (alia) Heliae Tripolanensis. Leiden: Brill.

Cooper, Alan. 2011. “Walter Map on Henry I: The Creation of Eminently Useful History.” Pp. 103-14 in Juliana Dresvina, Nicholas Sparks, and Erik Kooper, eds. 2011. The medieval chronicle VII. International Conference on the Medieval Chronicle. Amsterdam: New York.

James, M. R. trans., C. N. L. Brooke, and R. A. B. Mynors, eds. 1983. Walter Map. De nugis curialium {Courtiers’ trifles}. Oxford, Oxfordshire: Clarendon Press.

Resus saves medieval Rollo, ignorant of feminine imperative

knight greeting others

The medieval Rollo, an eminent, prosperous knight but ignorant of the feminine imperative, had a beautiful wife. His neighbor, a youth named Resus, fell madly in love with her. She strongly rebuffed his amorous entreaties.

Realizing that he had a much lower sexual market value than Rollo, Resus resolved to improve himself. Ignorant men in the Middle Ages believed in courtly love and ideals of chivalry. Men foolishly thought that valiant acts of violence against other men intrigued women more than jerk-boy attitude towards them. Resus thus proceeded ignorantly:

Now with breathless speed he sought out warfare, took part in all encounters everywhere, learned well the tricks, changes and chances of battle and received the knighthood from Rollo himself … where he {Resus} found a quarrel slackened or slumbering he stirred it up and brought it to a head, or where he did not, he was still the foremost and strongest of all. Superior to all, he soon went beyond the praises of his own neighborhood, and, unsurpassed, burned to attain wider fame. [1]

Despite his impressive feats, his inner man was weak. He wept and mourned and pined for the woman who rejected him. Nothing he did could outweigh his self-degrading, self-pitying attitude toward women. In response, Rollo’s wife repelled and spurned him. She thrust him further down in despair.

Significant developments ignited Rollo’s wife’s love for Resus. One day Resus happened to meet Rollo, his wife, and other eminent persons journeying. Resus briefly joined the traveling party. He conversed courteously with the men. He gave no indication of caring about Rollo’s wife. When he rode away from them, he didn’t look back. Rollo for a long time gazed after him in silent contemplation. Rollo’s wife asked why he was so preoccupied with the departing figure of Resus. Rollo said to her:

I looked with delight on what I wish I could always see, the noble wonder of our time, a man distinguished for birth, beauty, character, wealth, renown, and every earthly gift, and what the book could not find  — at all points blessed.

Love for Resus welled up in Rollo’s wife. When she returned home, she rushed into an inner room. There she wept for having rejected Resus.

Rollo’s wife resolved to seek a tryst with Resus. She sent a messenger to him with her proposition. Inflamed with desire, he came to her. They stole into a secret chamber prepared for their love-making. She said to him:

You are wondering, perhaps, dearest one, what it is that has made me yours all at once after so many harsh repulses. Rollo was the cause: I had not believed common report, but his words — for I know him to be most truthful — persuaded me that you, as far as time, place, and means allow, are wiser than Apollo, kinder than Jove, more lion-like than Mars; nor is there any blessing enjoyed by the gods save immortality which he omitted in your praises. I believed, I confess it, and surrendered, and here with joy I offer you the pleasure you covet. [2]

In other words, she believed that Resus was even more of an alpha male than her husband. She lay down on the bed and beckoned Resus. He, however, suddenly restrained himself. He admired the goodness of Rollo. He recognized that Rollo had in effect given him his wife. Now enlightened, he refused Rollo’s unknowing gift. He refused to cuckold the good man Rollo.

The medieval “good man” was a euphemism for a man who got cuckolded. Some would say today’s Rollo, who seeks to educate men about the feminine imperative, isn’t a good man. Judge for yourself.

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[1] De Rollone et eius uxore (Of Rollo and his Wife), in Walter Map, De nugis curialium, Dist. 3, c. 5, from Latin trans. James (1983) p. 273, with my non-substantial adaptations.The subsequent two quotes are similarly from id. pp. 273, 275. The Latin and English translation span id. pp. 270-7.

Walter Map wrote De nugis curialium in the court of Henry II, probably in the early 1180s. The text apparently didn’t circulate. It survives in only one manuscript, Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Bodley 851 (3041). Id. pp. xxvi, xlv.

Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) in his Gemma ecclesiastica (Jewel of the church). 2.12, tells a similar story about the French knight Reginald de Pumpuna. Hinton (1917) p. 208. Gerald of Wales presented a copy of Gemma ecclesiastica to Pope Innocent III. Id. Gerald of Wales told a second version of the story of Rasso and Resus. Opera 2.226-8, as noted in James (1983) p. 270, n. 3.

[2] Walter Map, with his keen appreciation for interpersonal relations and feminine psychology, has the lady read the knight’s mind (“You are wondering, perhaps, …”). In Gerald of Wales’s version, the knight explicitly asks the lady why her attitude toward him has reversed. That explicit question also occurs in the similar version in Ser Givoanni Fiorentino’s Il Pecorone (The Blockhead), 1.1. Il Pecorone is a collection of fifty short stories written in Italian between 1378 and 1385. So too for the version in Il Novellino 3.1 (21st novel). Il Novellino, by Masuccio Salernitano (1410–1475), was first published in Naples in 1476. For the text of all these versions, Hinton (1917).

A common feature across all these versions is men’s ignorance of women, women’s privilege in love relations, and the importance of men’s solidarity with each other for constraining women’s dominance. Cf. Mann (2001) pp. 106-7.

[image] Re-enactor in armour at the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, 13 July 2008. Image by Andy Dolman, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Hinton, James. 1917. “Walter Map and Ser Giovanni.” Modern Philology. 15(4): 203-9.

James, M. R. trans., C. N. L. Brooke, and R. A. B. Mynors, eds. 1983. Walter Map. De nugis curialium {Courtiers’ trifles}. Oxford, Oxfordshire: Clarendon Press.

Mann, Jill. 2001. “Wife-Swapping in Medieval Literature.” Viator. 32: 93-112.

Gyges & Candaules: controlling men’s sexuality and seduction

Candaules covertly shows wife to Gyges

“When a woman takes off her clothes, she takes off her modesty.” That was an old saying in Greece about 2,500 years ago.[1] Ancient authors discussed it with respect to wives’ behavior in the marital bedroom. Yet in its context in the ancient Greek story of Gyges and Candaules, that aphorism concerned controlling men’s strong, visually stimulated sexual desire and seductive power.

A man seeing naked a woman other than his wife was primarily a violation of the social order. In the story of Gyges and Candaules, King Candaules arranged for his favorite bodyguard Gyges to see his queen naked in their bedroom at night. When that occurred, the queen sensed Gyges covertly looking at her. According to an ancient Greek tragedy, the next morning the queen woke the king early and sent him out to provide law for the people. She simultaneously rationalized presenting Gyges with a murderous ultimatum:

when arose the brilliant star, forerunner of the dawn of the first gleam of day, I roused {King} Candaules from bed and sent him forth to deliver law to his people. Ready on my lips was persuasion’s tale, the one that forbids a king, the guardian of his people, to sleep the whole night through. And summoners {have gone to call} Gyges to my presence [2]

She told Gyges to either kill Candaules, seize the throne, and marry her, or be himself killed. Since she proposed that Gyges marry her, the queen wasn’t horrified by the act itself of Gyges seeing her naked. Her concern, like concern about men having sex without being subject to forced financial fatherhood, was that Gyges saw her naked without being married to her. Her concern was to uphold the law controlling men’s sexuality.

Another ancient Greek account of Gyges and Candaules similarly concerns control of men’s sexuality. In Plato’s Republic, an ancestor of Gyges acquired a golden ring of invisibility.[3] He then subverted the sexual-political order:

he immediately contrived to be one of the messengers to the king. When he arrived, he committed adultery with the king’s wife and, along with her, set upon the king and killed him. And so he took over the rule. [4]

Plato undoubtedly knew the story of Gyges seeing the queen naked. The implicit story in Plato’s account is that the ancestor of Gyges saw the queen naked, desired her, and seduced her. Control of what men can see is presented as necessary to control men’s sexuality.[5]

Fear of men’s sexuality informs the aphorism about women’s clothing in Herodotus’s story of Gyges and Candaules. According to Herodotus, an ancient Greek reporter-historian, Candaules continually praised the beauty of his wife’s body. He wanted Gyges to know without doubt the truth of that beauty. Candaules thus urged Gyges to contrive to see her naked. Gyges protested:

Master, what a sick word you have spoken, in bidding me to look upon my lady-lord naked! When a woman takes off her clothes, she takes off her modesty. Men of old discovered many fine things, and among them this one, that each should look upon his own, only. Indeed I believe that your wife is the most beautiful of all women, and I beg of you not to demand of me what is unlawful. [6]

Other authors interpreted the saying about a woman taking off her clothes to be about women’s behavior. Writing in the third century of the Roman Empire, Plutarch, a biographer of Greek philosophers, declared:

Herodotus was not right in saying that a woman lays aside her modesty along with her undergarment. On the contrary, a virtuous woman puts on modesty in its stead, and husband and wife bring into their mutual relations the greatest modesty as a token of the greatest love. [7]

Yet Diogenes Laertius, an influential Greek historian writing in the early years of the Roman Empire, presented a much different judgment. To the wife of Pythagoras, a leading Greek thinker who preceded Herodotus by about a century, Diogenes Laertius attributed contrasting advice:

she recommended a woman, who was going to her husband, to put off her modesty with her clothes, and when she left him, to resume it again with her clothes [8]

Within the story of Gyges and Candaules, the issue isn’t the behavior of a woman. Gyges and Candaules expected that Candaules’s wife wouldn’t perceive that Gyges viewed her naked. In that context, the aphorism about a woman taking off her clothes must relate to a man illicitly and covertly seeing a woman naked. Plato’s account points to a plausible concern. If a man illicitly and covertly sees a naked woman, he will desire her, seduce her, and overturn the sexual-political order. Gyges was self-conscious of his own potential weakness.

In Herodotus’s story, the queen validated legal control of men’s sexuality. Perceiving that Gyges had seen her naked, she responded with emotionless concern for punishment:

though she was so shamed, she raised no outcry nor let on to have understood, having in mind to take punishment on Candaules. [9]

Delivering her murderous ultimatum to Gyges, she declared:

either he that contrived this must die, or you, who have viewed me naked and done what is not lawful {must die}.

The queen could have sought to have both Gyges and Candaules killed. Such vengeance would have detracted from the structure of Greek law controlling men’s sexuality. In ancient Greek understanding, Candaules being killed is the natural result of Gyges seeing Candaules’s wife naked. If law is to prevent that killing, Gyges must be killed.

Although scarcely recognized, social and legal control of men’s sexuality has been harshly oppressive. Men throughout history have been highly vulnerable to charges of rape. Punishment of men for illicit sex has historically been brutal and even included castration. Criminalizing men seducing women has encompassed behaviors far beyond any reasonable understanding of violent threats and acts. Current “child support” laws force enormously oppressive financial fatherhood on men who explicitly consent to nothing more than consensual sex. Broad trends point to even more oppressive social and legal control of men’s sexuality. That will affect significantly the course of human history.

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[1] The saying about a woman taking off her clothes occurs within Herodotus’s story of Gyges and Candaules, Histories 1.8.3-4. For detailed philological analysis of that saying, Cairns (1996). My translation of the saying is consistent with a variety of highly knowledgeable translations.

Herodotus describes the saying as one of the fine things that men of old discovered. Id. 1.8.5. Herodotus wrote his Histories in the mid-fifth century BGC. The saying, and the story of Gyges and Candaules, subsequently becoming a common text in Roman rhetorical schools. Smith (1920). For the relation of the story of Gyges and Candaules to folktale motifs, Cohen (2004).

[2] P.Oxy. XXIII 2382, from Greek trans. Page (1951) p. 3. I’ve made insubstantial changes to lessen the awkwardness of dangling phrases. The text is on a re-used papyrus dating to 200 BGC. An alternative translation:

When the radiant dawn arrived
the courier of the day’s first glimmer,
I woke him and from the bedchamber sent him,
to judge the people’s affairs — I had a plan
worthy of consideration, which would not allow
the king to sleep the entire [night …
[to] Gyges’ herald …

Kotlinska-Toma (2015) p. 127, which also provides the Greek text. The translation “I had a plan / worthy of consideration, which would not allow / the king to sleep the entire {night}” seems to me less plausible than “Persuasion’s tale was ready on my lips, the one that forbids a king, the guardian of his people, to sleep the whole night through.” The latter is the verbatim relevant translated text from Page (1951) p. 3. Page’s translation makes sense in the context of the queen waking the king and sending him out to judge the people’s affairs. It also provides a rationalization for the queen having the king killed. In Kotlinska-Toma’s translation, the queen describes to herself obliquely her plan to have the king killed. That seems inconsistent with the queen’s emotional turmoil and her strong actions.

[3] Plato, The Republic Bk. II, 360a-b. The ancestor of Gyges took the golden ring from the finger of a naked corpse lying inside a hollow bronze horse revealed through a thunderstorm and earthquake. Corpse-stripping in the context of these ominous portents suggests a bad man and ill fortune. Plato’s story seems to paint with ill fortune Gyges’s similar, but externally motivated acts.

[4] Plato, The Republic Bk. II, 360a-b, from Greek trans. Bloom (1968) pp. 37-8.

[5] Nicolas of Damascus, perhaps conveying a report from the fifth-century historian Xanthus of Lydia, provides another version of the story of Gyges and Candaules. In Nicolas’s version, Gyges goes to fetch the bride of King Adyattes (King Candaules). The bride is Toudo, daughter of Arnossus, king of the Mysians:

Gyges fell in love with Toudo, lost his head, and tried to force his attentions on her. She declined his advances, threatened him, and told all when she reached the king’s presence.

Nicolas of Damascus, FGRHist 90 F 47, from Greek epitomized in Pedley (1972) p. 16 (no. 35). Candaules then resolved to kill Gyges. But with the help of a female slave in love with him, Gyges killed Candaules in his bedchamber before Candaules could kill Gyges. Gyges then became king, married Toudo, and thus made her his queen.

While Nicolas of Damascus’s version of the story of Gyges and Candaules doesn’t involve a man seeing a woman naked, it does involve a man sexually desiring a young woman after seeing her. Seeing her prompts him to attempt to seduce her. Ultimately, his actions overturn the sexual-political order.

In Xenophon’s Cyropaedia 5.1, Cyrus avoids gazing upon a beautiful woman so as not to be induced to neglect his duties. In Greek myth, men illicitly seeing females naked suffered harsh punishments, e.g. Teiresias blinded for seeing Athena naked, Actaeon tore apart by his hounds for seeing Artemis bathing, Erymanthos blinded for seeing Aphrodite having sex with Adonis. Cohen (2004) Appendix.

[6] Herodotus, Histories 1.8, from Greek trans. adapted from Grene (1987) p. 36. Other translations of the story of Gyges and Candaules (including the above quote) are available here and here.

[7] Plutarch, Moralia, Conjugalia Praecepta 10.1 (Loeb Classical Library, 1928), trans. from Latin, probably originally written in Greek.

[8] Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinion of Eminent Philosophers, Life of Pythagoras 22, from Greek trans. C.D. Yonge. Diogenes attributes the advice to Theano, wife of Pythagoras.

[9] Herodotus, Histories 1.10, trans. Grene (1987) p. 37. The subsequent quote is from id. 1.11, p. 37. Herodotus offers a rationalization of the queen’s action apart from specific law:

For among the Lydians and indeed among the generality of the barbarians, for even a man to be seen naked is an occasion of great shame.

1.10.3, trans. id. In Greece, men were commonly naked in public baths and gymnasiums. The queen responds to being seen naked not with passion, but with a rational plan consistent with the law controlling men’s sexuality.

Flory (1987), Ch. 2, interprets the story of Gyges and Candaules as representing accident and unpredictable passion in contrast to Persian reason for war. However, contrast between passion and reason is a fundamental element within the story of Gyges and Candaules itself.

In Herodotus’s Histories, the Persians are generally associated with externalized values — countable objects. Internal values of honor, shame, and culture drive the Greeks. Konstan (1987). Yet men illicitly seeing naked women seems for the Greeks to be primarily a rational matter of maintaining the visual-political order.

[image] Gyges sees Candaules’s wife naked. Painting by William Etty, 1830. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Cairns, Douglas L. 1996. “‘Off with her ΑΙΔΩΣ’: Herodotus 1.8.3–4.” The Classical Quarterly. 46 (1): 78-83.

Cohen, Ivan M. 2004. “Herodotus and the Story of Gyges: Traditional Motifs in Historical Narrative.” Fabula. 45 (1-2): 55-68.

Flory, Stewart. 1987. The archaic smile of Herodotus. Detroit: Wayne State university press.

Grene, David trans. 1987. Herodotus. The history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Konstan, David. 1987. “Persians, Greeks and Empire.” Arethusa. 20(1): 59-73.

Kotlinska-Toma, Agnieszka. 2015. Hellenistic tragedy: texts, translations and a critical survey. London: Bloomsbury Academic,

Page, D. L. 1951. A new chapter in the history of Greek tragedy. London: Cambridge University Press.

Pedley, John Griffiths. 1972. Ancient literary sources on Sardis. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Smith, Kirby Flower. 1920. “The Literary Tradition of Gyges and Candaules.” The American Journal of Philology. 41 (1): 1-37.

don’t believe your wife if she tells you you’re dead

peasant with questioning look

Many husbands believe whatever their wives tell them. That’s a mistake. Husbands should learn from a peasant living in Bailleul in thirteenth-century France. His wife told him he was dead. He believed her. As a result, he was cuckolded before his very own, living, seeing eyes.

While the husband was out working in the fields, his stay-at-home wife planned an amorous engagement with a local pastor. She cooked a chicken, baked a cake, and readied some wine for romancing. Unfortunately, her peasant husband returned home early, tired and hungry. His wife’s joyful meal seemed to be spoiled.

Women, however, are far superior to men in guile. Acting out her wish that her husband were dead, to him she said:

Milord, God bless my soul,
How weak and pale you seem to me!
I swear you’re only skin and bone.

Her husband, without understanding, said that he was starving. She responded:

I know for sure you’ll soon be dead;
a truer word you’ll never hear.
Now go to bed; you’re dying, dear.
Oh, woe is me! When you are gone,
I’ll lack the will to carry on,
because you’ll be away so far.
Oh sire, how very pale you are!

She prepared for him a bed of straw and hay in a corner of their one-room home. Then she undressed him, had him lay down with his mouth and eyes closed, and covered him with a sheet. She then lay on top of him and lamented that he was dead:

May God have mercy on your soul!
Oh, how can a wretched wife console
herself, and keep from dying too?

The peasant believed his wife. He believed that he was dead.

His wife then fetched her lover-priest. He came and read some psalms. She beat her palms against her breast, but didn’t manage to weep. The priest then undressed her and laid her down on some straw:

the two of them were soon enmeshed,
with him above and her below.
The peasant saw the whole tableau
while lying underneath the covers;
open eyed he watched the lovers,
clearly saw the straw-sack jumping,
saw as well the chaplain humping,
knew it was the chaplain too,
and raised an awful hullaballoo.

The peasant shouted that if he weren’t dead, he would pummel the priest to hell. The priest sternly instructed the peasant that since he was dead, he should keep his eyes closed. Understanding, but not, the peasant then tried to act dead. Meanwhile, his wife and the priest continued with the activity that creates new life.

Like the peasant from Bailleul, men in general are too willing to accept being consigned to death. In the Middle Ages, stories helped to enlighten men about real life. Those stories are too important to be suppressed today.

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The story above recounts Jean Bodel’s thirteenth-century French fabliau, The Peasant from Bailleul (Le vilain de Bailleul). The quotes above are from the Old French translation of Harrison (1974), pp. 391-9. For an alternate translation, Dubin (2013) pp. 497-502. The Old French text is available online. Here’s a bibliography about The Peasant from Bailleul.

[image] Peasant with questioning look. Detail from the painting The Baker’s Cart. Jean Michelin, 1656. Held in Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), accession no. 27.59. Thanks to the Met and Wikimedia Commons.


Dubin, Nathaniel. 2013. The fabliaux. New York: Liveright.

Harrison, Robert L. 1974. Gallic salt: eighteen fabliaux translated from the Old French. Berkeley: University of California Press.

witch-hunt and gender: when women are executed like men

men lynched

The witch-hunt is a revealing social construction. Consider the prestigious Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, published in 2013. It includes a chapter on witchcraft and gender. The concluding sentence of that chapter declares:

As long as the overall power of patriarchy remained firm, ruling male elites could countenance the executions of a minority of men, along with a much greater number of women, in their endeavour to rid society of witches. [1]

Is society now firmly under the power of patriarchy? Has society now rid itself of witches? What does the firmness of the power of patriarchy have to do with executing “a minority of men” and ridding society of witches? These questions point to fundamental failings of much scholarly work on witchcraft and gender. As an insightful witch-hunt scholar observed, “for over a century scholars have been explaining a phenomenon that never existed.”[2]

Men leaders ordering men to be executed has been the overwhelmingly dominant gender structure of capital punishment throughout history. Violence against men was so prevalent in medieval Europe that among the high nobility, men’s lifespans were on average twelve years shorter than women’s lifespans. In England and Wales since 1715, about 12,500 persons have been executed. Nineteen times more men than women have been executed. In the antecedent colonies and the U.S. since 1608, about 15,400 persons have been executed. Forty-two times more men than women have been executed.[3]

In early modern Europe, capital punishment was less gendered toward men. The sex ratio of executions depends on how gender differences in actions relate to the criminal code. The issue is much broader than the criminal difference between a woman inciting a man to kill a man, and a man actually killing a man. Petty theft, horse theft, poaching, apostasy, sodomy, bestiality and many other offenses carried the death penalty in particular jurisdictions. In England in 1800, 220 offenses under what came to be known as the Bloody Code carried the penalty of death. A broader scope of capital offenses tends to be associated with a lower sex ratio of executions. In early modern Europe, the available evidence suggest that roughly five times more men than women were executed.[4]

Executions of witches reversed the overall pattern of executing many more men than women. In early modern Europe, about three times more women than men were executed as witches.[5] Execution of persons as witches seems to have occurred opportunistically within complex, highly localized configurations of power and interests. Given that much of medieval criminal justice is now regarded as irrational, brutal, and oppressive, the distinctive historical narrative of the witch-hunt rests largely on its extraordinary gender structure. Instead of men leaders ordering executed many more men than women, for medieval crimes associated with witchcraft, men leaders ordered executed many more women than men. That gender reversal came to define extraordinarily irrational justice — the witch-hunt.

Across centuries, the number of persons executed as witches were a small share of persons executed for any reason. In early modern Europe, the share of persons executed as witches was probably less than 10% of persons executed for all reasons across long periods. A plausible rough estimate for persons executed for any charge in England and Wales from 1400 to 1700 is 30,000. The total number of witches executed in England and Wales was about 1,500.[6] During the seventeenth century in the colonies antecedent to the U.S., about 36 persons were executed as witches. Among those executions, 20 resulted from the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693. The total number of persons executed for any reason in the colonies antecedent to the U.S. in the seventeenth century was 162.[7]

Since the eighteenth century, influential writers have greatly exaggerated the number of persons executed as witches. In the mid-eighteenth century, a Catholic priest stated that 30,000 witches were executed in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Voltaire about that time put the number at 100,000.  However, in 1784, the German scholar Gottfried Christian Voigt sought to promote Enlightenment ideals and prevent a resurgence of ignorance, barbarism, and shameful superstition. To promote that effort, he estimated that 9,442,994 persons were executed as witches in Europe from the seventh century to the end of the seventeenth century. He extrapolated that estimate from his estimate that 40 executions of witches occurred in a particular German town between 1569 to 1589.[8] Voigt’s extrapolation is completely unreasonable. So too is the precision with which he reported his result. Drawing upon extensive historical research, the best estimate is now that about 50,000 witches were executed in Europe (including Russia) since 1400.[9]

Other writers have used Voigt’s unreasonable estimate opportunistically. In a book published in 1893, a American women’s rights activist and proponent of matriarchy declared:

It is computed from historical records that nine millions of persons were put to death for witchcraft after 1484, or during a period of three hundred years, and this estimate does not include the vast number who were sacrificed in the preceding centuries upon the same accusation. The greater number of this incredible multitude were women. [10]

A German populist leader, who was an early German supporter of Adolf Hitler and the wife of a German general, cited the estimate of nine million witches executed in her 1934 pamphlet, Christliche Grausamkeit an Deutschen Frauen (Christian cruelty against German women). The myth of enormous historical persecution of women witches became an important element of Nazi propaganda.[11] After World War II, U.S. feminists took up the figure. An influential U.S. feminist declared:

It is hard to arrive at a figure {the number of witches executed} for the whole of the Continent and the British Isles, but the most responsible estimate would seem to be 9 million {italics in original}. It may well, some authorities contend, have been more. Nine million seems almost moderate when one realizes that The Blessed Reichhelm of Schongan at the end of the 13th century computed the number of the Devil-driven to be 1,758,064,176. A conservative, Jean Weir, physician to the Duke of Cleves, estimated the number to be only 7,409,127. The ratio of women to men executed has been variously estimated at 20 to 1 and 100 to 1. Witchcraft was a woman’s crime. [12]

Promoting the myth of an enormous historical gynocide — the witch-hunt — is a potent tool for promoting man-hating. That obvious reality is scarcely acknowledged among scholars who continue to take seriously such work and its associated ideology.

Witch-hunt history has tended to naturalize the vastly gender-disproportionate punishment of men. Could three times more women than men have been executed in early modern Europe without a “witch-hunt”?

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[1] Rowlands (2013) p. 466. Risibly pretending to report with objective detachment, Rowlands states:

The antipathy many academic historians feel towards feminism in general and radical feminism in particular can be counterproductive, however, as it discourages them from engaging with any helpful insights feminism offers into the gendering of witchcraft prosecutions, particularly in relation to the analysis of patriarchy.

Id. p. 453. The only interesting aspect of that statement is the dubious claim that many academic historians feel antipathy “towards feminism in general and radical feminism in particular.” Prudent academics today surely wouldn’t express such antipathy. Highly successful academics know to declare, “we are all feminists now.” See note [3] in my post on sex, violence, and the Enlightenment’s failure.

Drawing upon Rowlands’s logical structure, a more interesting statement can be constructed:

The antipathy many academic historians feel towards meninism in general and radical meninism in particular can be counterproductive, however, as it discourages them from engaging with any helpful insights meninism offers into the gendering of witchcraft prosecutions, particularly in relation to the analysis of gynocentrism.

If A Voice for Men is considered to represent radical meninism, it is much less hateful and attracts much more antipathy than the radical feminists that Rowlands chose to review and reviews in matter-of-fact style at id. p. 451.

[2] Nenonen (2014) p. 17.  Nenonen insightfully observes:

How is it possible that a central question in witchcraft research {the question of gender} had been handled so badly as late as the end of the twentieth century? In much of the research the very idea of male witches in the early modern period had been considered almost a categorical impossibility. If such a huge mistake could be made about such a simple question by several researchers, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that other ideas based on preconceptions were also followed without any attempt at a critical analysis. And this is indeed the case.

Id. pp. 18-9.

[3] See executions by sex in antecedent colonies and U.S. since 1608, and executions by sex in England and Wales since 1715. Rowlands (2009) concludes:

We need to know more about … the mentalities and masculinities of the witch-hunters.

Id. p. 24. She also seeks to explain, “why many men found it hard to oppose the horrors of witch-hunting, either in writing or reality.” Id. p. 23. The witch-hunters were largely the same group of men who directed the execution of many more men than women. Why do many persons show so little concern about men’s deaths?

[4] See, e.g. Evans (1996) p. 44, and the execution statistics for England and Wales.

[5] See data and citations in note [1] of my post on Malleus Maleficarum.

[6] Executions in England and Wales from 1715 to 1790 averaged 106 per year. The historian J.S. Cockburn opined that the execution rate varied little from 1560 to 1790. At an average of 100 executions per year for three centuries, executions totaled an estimated 30,000.

According to William Harrison’s preface to the Holinshed’s Chronicles (published in 1577), Henry VIII (reigned 1509 to 1547) had 72,000 thieves and rogues hung. Holinshed’s Chronicles, Bk. 2, Ch. 11:

It appeareth by Cardane (who writeth it vpon the report of the bishop of Lexouia) in the geniture of king Edward the sixt, how Henrie the eight, executing his laws verie seuerelie against such idle persons, I meane great theeues, pettie théeues and roges, did hang vp thréescore and twelue thousand of them in his time.

The Bishop of Lisieux actually claimed that Henry VIII had 72,000 thieves executed during the last two years of his reign. Harrison & Edelen (1968) p. 193, ed. fn. 8. That claim isn’t credible, but acceptance of it suggests recognition in the sixteenth century that Henry VIII executed an extraordinarily large number of persons.

For the estimate of 1,500 witches executed in England and Wales since 1400, Hayton (2011), data appendix. Other sources have similar estimates.

[7] For the number of witches executed in the seventeenth century in the colonies antecedent to the U.S., Godbeer (2013) p. 393. Executions for all causes are totaled from U.S. execution statistics compilation.

[8] All the information on the eighteenth-century witch execution estimates is from Behringer (1998).

[9] Behringer (2004) pp. 149-51, Briggs (2006), Hayton (2011). Briggs (2006) notes:

Although a margin of error must always remain, it is hard to see how the figures could be plausibly increased {from 50,000} by more than 20–30 percent on the most generous assumptions about missing evidence.

Executions for witchcraft in Europe were most common between 1570 and 1630. Very few executions for witchcraft occurred after 1780 in Europe and in areas of European settlement in North America. Hence witch execution estimates for 1400 to 1780 apply equally well for 1400 to the present.

[10] Gage (1893) p. 247.

[11] Behringer (2004) pp. 234-7.

[12] Dworkin (1974) p. 130. Dworkin further states:

The literal text of the Malleus Maleficarum, with its frenzied and psychotic woman-hating and the fact of the 9 million deaths, demonstrates the power of the myth of feminine evil, reveals how it dominated the dynamics of culture, shows the absolute primal terror that women, as carnal beings, hold for men.

Id. p. 136. Dworkin’s projection of hate onto the other is paradigmatic. She invokes “9 million” deaths a third time at id. p. 141. Her disengagement from reality is also apparent in her historical fantasies about the Malleus Maleficarum:

It {Malleus Maleficarum} had been read by every judge, each of whom would know it chapter and verse. The Malleus had more currency than the Bible. It was theology, it was law. To disregard it, to challenge its authority … was to commit heresy, a capital crime.

Id. p. 129. Another scholar added a patriarchal-conspiratorial twist: “The massacre of millions of women as witches is erased in patriarchal scholarship.” Daly (1978) p. 8. Such hate-inspiring falsehoods have persisted. The top-ranked article on Google for the search “how many witches were killed” is Greg Laden’s highly unscientific Scienceblogs post on the subject. His opinion: “I think 9 million is high but 1 or 2 million would not surprise me too much.” Such views of the witch-hunt aren’t surprising given current public ignorance about interpersonal violence.

Hateful claims about the witch-hunt against women parallel modern hateful claims about domestic violence against women and rape of women.

[image] Three men lynched: Jim Redmond, Gus Roberson, and Bob Addison. May 17, 1892, Habersham County, Georgia, U.S. Image thanks to Wikimedia Commons.  In the U.S. from 1882 to 1930, 4,585 persons were lynched. Men lynching victims outnumbered women lynching victims by a factor of thirty-four to one. Lynching isn’t generally described like the witch-hunt.


Behringer, Wolfgang. 1998. “Neun Millionen Hexen. Enstehung, Tradition und Kritik eines populären Mythos.” Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 49: 664–85.

Behringer, Wolfgang. 2004. Witches and witch-hunts: a global history. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Briggs, Robin. 2006. “Number of Witches.” Entry in Golden, Richard M., ed.  Encyclopedia of witchcraft the Western tradition. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO.

Daly, Mary. 1978. Gyn/ecology: the metaethics of radical feminism. Boston: Beacon Press.

Dworkin, Andrea. 1974. Woman hating. New York: Dutton.

Evans, Richard J. 1996. Rituals of retribution: capital punishment in Germany, 1600-1987. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gage, Matilda Joslyn. 1893. Woman, church and state: a historical account of the status of woman through the Christian ages, with reminiscences of the matriarchate. New York: Truth Seeker Co.

Godbeer, Richard. 2013. “Witchcraft in British America.” Ch. 22 (pp. 393-411) in Levack (2013).

Harrison, William, and Georges Edelen, ed. 1968. The description of England: the classic contemporary account of Tudor social life. Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library.

Hayton, Darin. 2011. “How Many Witches Were Executed?!?” Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine blog (, Oct. 27 (data appendix).

Levack, Brian P., ed. 2013. The Oxford handbook of witchcraft in early modern Europe and colonial America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nenonen, Marko. 2014. “The Dubious History of the Witch-Hunts.” Ch. 2 (pp. 17-40) in Nenonen, Marko, and Raisa Maria Toivo, eds. Writing witch-hunt histories: challenging the paradigm. Leiden: Brill.

Rowlands, Alison. 2009. “Not ‘the Usual Suspects’? Male Witches, Witchcraft, and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe.” Ch. 1 (pp. 1-30) in Rowlands, Alison, ed. Witchcraft and masculinities in early modern Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rowlands, Alison. 2013. “Witchcraft and Gender in Early Modern Europe.” Ch. 25 (pp. 449-67) in Levack (2013).