Modus Florum shows poetic, inner-truth alternative to history

So I held my tongue and said nothing;
I refrained from rash words;
but my pain became unbearable.

My heart was hot within me;
while I pondered, the fire burst into flame;
I spoke with my tongue

Literature developed along with concern about misuse of words. With his characteristic subtlety and audacity, Ovid about the time of Jesus proclaimed: “I speak the marvelous lies of the ancient bards.”[1] For the turned-sober fourth-century scholar Augustine, knowledge of actual historical events provided the foundation for speaking and writing with understanding. Augustine warned that without such knowledge, “you will be trying to build castles in the air.”[2] Poetry, however, has long been recognized as being more than lies and castles in the air. The medieval Latin poem Modus Florum provides an exemplum of poetic power relevant from ancient civilization to the present day.

Modus Florum evokes the court of an early emperor. A medieval king set out a poetic game in impersonal, historically distanced terms:

If anyone experienced in lying
should apply himself to deception
so well that he is called a deceiver
by the emperor’s own mouth, that man may marry the daughter.[3]

A man saying that he is lying (is he telling the truth?) was a conundrum that an ancient philosopher put forward.[4] The poetic game was earlier and more serious. Provoking listeners to reject their explicit and willing embrace of deception — willing suspension of disbelief — is a virtuoso display of poetic power.[5]

Modus Florum tells of a Swabian triumphing in that poetic game. The Swabian tells the story of his hunt. On his hunt, he speared a hare. He gutted the hare, cut off its head, and tore off its hide. That could be a parody of brutal philosophical analysis. Then the Swabian turned to fantastic tale-telling:

And as I was lifting the severed head
with my hand,
a hundred measures of honey
spilled out from the wounded ear;
and when I touched the other ear,
it spilled out just as many measures of peas.
I bound them inside the skin and,
while carving the hare itself,
I grasped a royal charter hidden
at the very base of the tail:

That’s a story in the tradition of travelers’ tales and accounts of marvels, but more artful.[6] The Swabian then deftly shifted his story to near reality. The royal charter found at the base of the tail:

It confirms that you are my servant.

Forgetting the agreed frame of deception, the king interjected:

“The charter lies,” the king shouts, “and so do you!”

In the work of a master poet, poetry can deceive so effectively as to compel persons to speak inner truth against their will.[7]

sun flower

The poetry game in Modus Florum is an obscure part of the ancient Story of Ahiqar. Part of that story survives in Elephantine Aramaic papyri dated to more than 2400 years ago. In a Syriac version probably from before the fifth century, the Pharaoh, king of Egypt, challenges Ahiqar, “tell me a word that I have never heard.”[8] That challenge addresses the whole tradition of poetry and story-telling. It’s a creative, linguistic challenge analogous to telling a deception so effectively that listeners are compelled to denounce its falsehood against their own willing suspension of disbelief.

Ahiqar triumphs by fabricating a letter declaring that the Pharaoh owes King Nectanebo a huge sum of money. The conclusion of the story isn’t directly recorded. Within understanding of the poetry game of Modus Florum, the conclusion is clear. The Pharaoh is forced to acknowledge that Ahiqar’s poetic skill is sufficient to create a new story against the will of his listeners. The Pharaoh is delighted with Ahiqar. The Pharaoh gives him tribute not related to the size of the loan claimed in the fabricated letter.

In addition to the freely creative poetry game, the Pharaoh sets for Akiqar more narrow technical challenges related generally to myth-making and story-telling. Simile set-ups challenge Ahiqar to make mythic figures from the dress of the Pharaoh and his counselors. Creating a castle in the air — the poetic figure that Augustine explicitly disparaged –the Pharaoh sets as a challenge for Ahiqar. A challenge involving the interrupted realism of mares and stallions Ahiqar counters similarly with interrupted realism of a cat and a rooster. Ahiqar solves correctly a this-for-that allegory concerning a pillar and associated items. The story of Ahiqar also includes the fantastic challenges of making a rope of sand and sewing together a broken millstone. These seem to be challenges taken from a literature of labors. Unlike heroes in the literature of labors, Ahiqar resolves all his tasks linguistically.

The Life of Aesop, written about the first century, highlights the poetry game of Modus Florum in adapting the Story of Ahiqar. The Life of Aesop expanded the challenge section relative to other sections in the Story of Ahiqar. It eliminated the rope of sand and the millstone sewing challenges. It moved the poetry game to be the concluding challenge.[9] The Life of Aesop thus concludes the Pharaoh’s challenges with Aesop demonstrating complete verbal mastery of his opponents:

King Nectanebo’s friends lied and said, “We’ve seen this and heard of it many times.” Aesop said, “I’m glad you authenticate it. Let him pay the money on the spot, for the due date is past.” King Nectanebo said, “How can you be witnesses to a debt that I don’t owe?” They {Nectanebo’s friends} said, “We’ve never seen or heard of it.” [10]

Aesop, like Ahiqar, made a new account — one never seen or heard before — despite his opponents’ determination to deny to him that creativity.

Compared to the Story of Ahiqar and the Life of Aesop, Modus Florum presents poetic creativity more artfully. Modus Florum means the song of flowers. It depicts poetic creativity not with a conventional monetary instrument, but with a story that prompts an emotional assertion of truth. It ends with the King and the Swabian becoming family through marriage. That’s story and fundamental human experience.[11]

Languishing for love of you
I arose
at dawn
and made my way
across the snows
and cold,
and searched
the desolate seas
to see if I could find
sails flying in the wind,
or catch sight of the prow
of a ship.

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Prologue / epilogue: Psalm 39:2-3. Cambridge Songs 14A, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (1994) p. 69.

[1] Ovid, Amores, 3.6.17: Prodigiosa loquor veterum mendacia vatum, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (1994) p. 219.

[2] Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 2.7: ne subtracto fundamento rei gestaie, quasi in aere quaeratis aedificare. Similarly, Sermon 8.1: ne substracto fundamento, in aere velle aedificare videamur (“or else after removing the foundation, we seem to seek to build on air”). On the history of Christian concern not to be building the Christian church in the air, see Lubac (2000) pp. 47-50.

[3] Modus Florum, Cambridge Songs 15, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (1994) p. 71. The subsequent three quotes are from id.

[4] The philosopher Eubulides of Miletus (4th century BGC), a pupil of Euclid, formulated the paradox, “A man says: ‘What I am saying now is a lie.'” Better known is the Cretan Epimenides of Knossos (c. 600 BGC). He wrote, “The Cretans, always liars.” That’s echoed in Titus 1:12-3. But Epimenides wrote before Plato formulated philosophy as a rival of poetry. The context in Epimenides and Titus isn’t paradoxical. Analysis of Epimenides’s statement in relation to paradox is an artifact of eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy.

[5] The phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” is from Samauel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817), Ch. XIV.  Coleridge sought to invoke “the dramatic truth of such emotions as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real.” Id.

[6] The contrast in quality between the honey and the peas and locating the royal charter at the hare’s rectum are striking poetic choices.

[7] Modus Florum begins by presenting itself as a ridiculous trifle:

The lying ballad that I sing,
I will give (highly recommend) to little boys,
so that they may bring great laughter
to listeners through lying little measures of song.

Trans. Ziolkowski (1994) pp. 69, 71. The emphasis on lying seems to me programmatic, and the trivialization of the song, ironic.

[8] Story of Ahiqar, from Syriac trans. Conybeare, Harris & Lewis (1913) p. 119. On dating, id. p. 176. Ahikar is another common spelling for Ahiqar.

[9] The expansion and re-arrangement of the challenges (riddles) are described in Konstantakos (2013) pp. 11-4.

[10] Life of Aesop {Vita Aesopi}, from Greek trans. Lloyd Daly in Hansen (1998) p. 157. Kurke (2011) shows that the Life of Aesop provides important insights into the development of Greek prose from Herodotus in the fifth-century BGC. Modus Florum provides a similarly important perspective for understanding the development of poetry in relation to history.

[11] Modus Florum is not the work of merely a lyrical poet. The author of Modus Florum is closely associated materially, thematically, and stylistically with the author of the medieval Latin poem Modus Liebinc (Cambridge Songs 14), an early poetic version of the story of the snow child. Ziolkowski (1994) p. 219. Modus Liebinc provides forceful critique of unjust paternity attribution and forced fatherhood. Few persons throughout history have found potent means to speak about these continuing, oppressive social injustices.

[image] Photograph by Douglas Galbi.


Conybeare, F. C., J. Rendel Harris, and Agnes Smith Lewis. 1913. The story of Ahikar from the Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Old Turkish, Greek and Slavonic versions. Cambridge: University Press.

Hansen, William F., ed. 1998. Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Konstantakos, Ioannis M. 2013. Summary of Akicharos, vol. 3: The Tale of Ahiqar and the Vita Aesopi. Athens: Stigmi Publications.

Kurke, Leslie. 2011. Aesopic conversations: popular tradition, cultural dialogue, and the invention of Greek prose. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Lubac, Henri de. 2000. Medieval exegesis. Vol 2. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans.

Ziolkowski, Jan M., ed. and trans. 1994. The Cambridge songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland Pub.

rape: a fundamental principle of communication economics

Rape of women has been regarded as a serious offense throughout recorded history. Like violence against men generally, rape of men has been a much less prominent public issue. Today’s highly developed communication media make rape an insightful case study in communication economics. A fundamental principle is readily apparent: public communication highly favors criminalizing men in relation to women.

In 2013 the United Nations conducted a major international survey of violence against women (but not violence against men). The survey asked each man surveyed whether he:

Had sexual intercourse with his partner when he knew she didn’t want it but believed that she should agree because she was his wife/partner. [1]

The United Nations should be able to imagine that some persons understand love to encompass mutual sexual self-sacrifice. Mutual sexual self-sacrifice includes having sex with your husband/partner, even if you don’t feel like having sex, because you love the other person, and you both understand that love encompasses such sex.

The United Nations defined that kind of love as rape. Moreover, it only surveyed the extent to which men receive such love from women. It produced a report that generated headlines in major newspapers. The Guardian of Britain headlined: “Nearly quarter of men in Asia-Pacific admit to committing rape.”[2] Since the survey was gender asymmetric, there was no risk of labeling a large share of women as rapists.

Bias toward declaring men rapists goes far beyond United Nations bureaucracy and sensational journalism. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a leading expert government agency for public health. It sponsors the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. That survey has repeatedly revealed that men suffer rape about as frequently as women do. That important fact hasn’t been effectively communicated publicly.

One can easily see within the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violent Survey the acute anti-men gender bias in public understanding of rape. That survey provides both lifetime and past-year recall surveys of sexual victimization. Lifetime recall is useful for producing shocking share-of-population statistics for press releases. Past-year recall has less cognitive biases and is more scientifically credible. For factual understanding, lifetime statistics should be ignored in reading the survey results.

The definition of rape greatly affects rape statistics. The survey reports “rape” with three sub-headings: “completed forced penetration,” “attempted forced penetration,” and “completed alcohol- or drug-facilitated penetration.” So, if a man and a woman have a few drinks and then sex, the man, but not the woman, is defined in this categorization as a rapist. Some college sex-victimization experts explicitly support that gender bias in adjudicating actual sex-victimization claims. The survey reports a separate, non-rape category “other sexual violence.” Along with unwanted sexual banter, that category includes a sub-heading “made to penetrate” sexually another person. That’s how men are most frequently raped. That should count as real rape. Not including “made to penetrate” under rape shows anti-men gender bias in reporting rape.

According to the best available evidence, reasonably interpreted, women rape men more frequently than men rape women. For past-year recall, the 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violent Survey shows that 1.7% of men are made to penetrate another sexually. That should count as real rape. Under the survey’s categorization of rape, the past-year recall figures indicate that 1.6% of women are raped.[3] These figures indicate that, even outside of prisons and jails, men are raped more frequently than women are.

The figure for women raped, moreover, is inflated by definition. Within the 1.6% estimate of women raped, 1.0% of women are alcohol/drug-sex raped. By definition, no men can be alcohol/drug-sex raped. That’s completely unreasonable. In addition, women and men commonly engaged in alcohol-facilitated sex. Most persons do not regard such behavior as the man raping the woman. A reasonable, gender-neutral definition of alcohol/drug-sex rape is likely to be much less than 50% of the reported figure. Discounting for alcohol-facilitated consensual sex, the total share of women raped is likely to be less than 1.1%.

According to the best available evidence, reasonably interpreted, women rape men more frequently than men rape women. Regarding the perpetrators of sexual victimization of men, the survey report states:

For male victims, the sex of the perpetrator varied by the type of sexual violence experienced. The majority of male rape victims (an estimated 79.3%) had only male perpetrators. For three of the other forms of sexual violence, a majority of male victims had only female perpetrators: being made to penetrate (an estimated 82.6%), sexual coercion (an estimated 80.0%), and unwanted sexual contact (an estimated 54.7%). [4]

Those figures indicate that 1.4% of men were made to penetrate sexually by a woman perpetrator.[5] That’s higher than the reasonably adjusted share of women that are raped. Just as for women’s violence against men, women raping men generates much less public concern than does men raping women. The facts of rape victimization don’t support that gender disparity in public concern.

Public discussion of rape shows that public communication favors criminalizing men in relation to women. Rape is a crime with severity of punishment just below murder. Yet major newspapers unjustly label a large share of men as rapists. On the expert side of public communication, technical victimization surveys define and report rape in such as way as to highlight women rape victims and obscure men rape victims.

horse manure smells better than public discussion of rape

Public communication favoring criminalizing men relative to women has effects readily apparent in the incarcerated population. The U.S. currently holds in prisons and jails five times as many persons per capita as other high-income democracies do. Among persons incarcerated, men outnumber women ten to one. Men are no more naturally criminal than they are naturally business and political leaders. The lowliest victims of gender bias are men incarcerated.

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[1] Fulu et al. (2013) p. 20.  The corresponding question for women asked whether she:

Had sexual intercourse when she did not want to because she was afraid of what partner might do

Thus, by the United Nations’ measure, if a woman has sex because she is afraid that her partner will go out drinking with his buddies if she doesn’t, then he has raped her.

[2] Hodal (2013).

[3] Breiding et al. (2014) Table 1, p. 5. Under the survey’s definition of rape, rape of men is too infrequent for a population share to be estimated, given the survey’s sample size. Such rape occurs, but it’s relatively infrequent.

[4] Id. pp. 5-6. Apparently the survey, under its gender-biased definition of rape, was able to estimate sex shares of persons raping men, but not the share of men raped.

[5] The share of men suffering rape from a woman making the man sexually penetrate her is (1.7% men made to penetrate sexually another person) x (82.6% of perpetrators of men made to penetrate sexually are women) = 1.4%. The share of men raped is thus at least 1.4%. To the extent that some share of “completed alcohol- or drug-facilitated” sex is declared to be women raping men, rather than exclusively men raping women, the share of men raped by women is higher than 1.4%.

[image] Horse manure. Photo by Douglas Galbi.


Breiding,  Matthew J.,  Sharon G. Smith, Kathleen C. Basile, Mikel L. Walters, Jieru Chen, Melissa T. Merrick. 2014. “Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Violence, Stalking, and Intimate Partner Violence Victimization — National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, United States, 2011.” Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Surveillance Summaries. September 5, 2014 / 63(SS08):1-18.

Fulu, Emma, Xian Warner, Stephanie Miedema, Rachel Jewkes, Tim Roselli, and James Lang. 2013. Why Do Some Men Use Violence Against Women and How Can We Prevent It? Quantitative Findings from the United Nations Multi-Country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific. Bangkok:  United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), and United Nations Volunteers (UNV).

Hodal, Kate. 2013. “Nearly quarter of men in Asia-Pacific admit to committing rape.” The Guardian (London). Sept. 10.

critical understanding of “lover’s gift regained” story motif

A story motif commonly known as “lover’s gift regained” is widely attested in Europe from the thirteenth century. That motif would be better called “man avoids paying for sex with woman.”[1] The motif transgresses entrenched gender asymmetries in sexual value and reverse commonly observed sex differences in guile. Sparkling amid the stories containing this motif is Decameron VIII.2. Using myth for good, Decameron VIII.2 ends in sexual mutuality and happiness.

Gender inequality in the socially constructed sexual value of men and women is deeply entrenched. Men paying women for sex has been prevalent historically. Women paying men for sex is much more rare. Even with intense public concern for gender equality today, women almost never take the initiative to ask men out, and, if not rejected, pay for dinner and entertainment. That gender inequality supports a society of gender entitlement and privilege.

Some men have temporarily subverted a requirement to pay a woman for sex. Consider a story written in Latin in an early-thirteenth-century manuscript:

A clerk rutted with the wife of a nobleman for the price of his cloak and secretly carried away her pepper-mill. The next day he returned, bringing back the pepper-mill, and in the husband’s presence he said, “Give me back my cloak; I bring back your pepper-mill.” “Give it to him,” the husband said. The wife answered, “I will give it to him, but he will not grind again in our pepper-mill.”[2]

While recognizing the fundamental gender inequality in men being cuckolded, this story shows the clerk to be superior in guile to the nobleman’s wife. The clerk implicitly created the fiction that he had left his cloak with the woman as security when borrowing her pepper-mill. That would explain his ability to request an exchange in the presence of her husband. The clerk’s fiction allowed him to avoid paying for sex with his cloak.

The nobleman’s wife, though tricked in that particular affair, re-affirmed dominant values. Her response allegorically declared that the clerk would not have sex with her again: “he will not grind again in our pepper-mill.” With the pronoun “our,” she underscored the false beliefs associated with cuckoldry. She also affirmed that her having sex with the clerk was contingent on her getting his cloak. The clerk subverted gender inequality in sexual value, but only temporarily.

mortar and pestle as means for lover's gift regained

Giovanni Boccaccio, a great humanist, took the motif “man avoids paying for sex with woman” a step forward. The first story of Decameron Day VIII features this motif. Neifile, the story-teller, was keen to promote belief that men are equal to women in guile. Her story ends with an affirmation that a clever man can have sex with a woman free of charge. That’s the standard conclusion of the motif.

The second story of Decameron Day VIII adds a mythic ending to the “man avoids paying for sex with woman” motif. In this story, the married woman Belcolore demanded five lire for sex with a priest. The priest gave Belcolore his cloak as security for that sex payment. After having sex with her, the priest sent a boy to borrow a stone mortar from Belcolore. In the evening, one of the priest’s assistants returned with the stone mortar. In the presence of Belcolore’s husband, he asked for the priest’s cloak given in security. Belcolore didn’t want to reveal that the cloak was security not for the borrowed mortar, but for payment for sex. She gave up the cloak and sent a coded message to the priest:

you’ll never pound any more sauce in her mortar again, considering how much you honored her with the one you made this time. [3]

That’s a similar ending to the thirteenth-century Latin story. Boccaccio, who knew well the give-and-take of mercantile society, had the priest send to Belcolore in response the message:

tell her if she won’t lend us her mortar, I’m not going to let her have my pestle.

Boccaccio’s story thus endorses the virtue of gender symmetry.

Boccaccio took his story beyond antagonistic gender symmetry. He added a coda:

Belcolore was furious with the Reverend Father and refused to speak to him right up to the grape harvest. Then, however, after the priest threatened to have her taken down and put into the very mouth of Great Lucifer himself, she got good and scared, and made peace with him over some new wine and roasted chestnuts. From then on, they had more than one good guzzle together, and to make up for the five lire, the priest not only had her tambourine re-covered with a new skin, but had a little bell hung on it, and then she was happy. [4]

The tambourine and the little bell figure Belcolore’s buttocks and the priest’s scrotum. In short, Belcolore and the priest enjoyed together food and sex. The priest’s masculine sexuality gained value equal to the monetary sex-payment that Belcolore lost. That’s a wonderfully unusual fairy-tale ending.[5]

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[1] In Thompson’s categorization, “lover’s gift regained” (man avoids paying for sex with woman) is motif K1581.Thompson (1960 ) v. 4, p. 411.

[2] From Latin trans. Benson & Andersson (1971) p. 281. Id. translates subegit as “seduced.” Because “seduced” tends to carry anti-men connotations that subegit doesn’t, I’ve replace “seduced” with “rutted with” above. Id. takes its Latin text from Wright (1846) vol. 1, p. 167. That describes the manuscript only as being at Trinity College.

[3] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 8, Story 2, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 602. The subsequent two quotes are from id.

[4] Dominant ideology buttresses depreciation of men’s sexuality by claiming that reversing lack of receptivity to a man’s sexuality is a fantasy. That itself is a fantasy in service of dominant ideology.

[5] A version of the “man avoids paying for sex” motif, as well as dominant sexual values projected into marriage (wife pays husband for monetary debt by having sex with husband) occur in “The Shipman’s Tale” of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Ryner (2008) provides additional examples of “lover’s gift regained” mixed in with fashionable moral posing about “commodity fetishism” (monetary transactions, etc.). Critical energy would be much better directed at the current practice of imprisoning men for having consensual sex and being too poor to pay money to women for that sex.

[image] Mortar and pestle made by the Nisenan Maidu of California. Photo © Justin Smith / Wikimedia Commons, CC-By-SA-3.0.


Benson, Larry D., and Theodore M. Andersson. 1971. The literary context of Chaucer’s fabliaux: texts and translations. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York : W.W. Norton & Company.

Ryner, Bradley D. 2008. “Commodity Fetishism in Richard Brome’s A Mad Couple Well Matched and its Sources.” Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3.

Thompson, Stith. 1960. Motif-index of folk-literature; a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Wright, Thomas. 1846. Essays on subjects connected with the literature, popular superstitions and history of England in the Middle Ages. London: John Russell Smith and Adlard Printers.

here marthiya: women’s distinct voice for killing men

marthiya in 20th-century England

“What would you do when someone comes to kill you?” women chanted to men. “We will kill them,” men chanted in response. Then, on September 16, 2014, in a farming village in West Africa, villagers killed eight men from outside the village. The men who were killed came to the village to teach about the health risks of Ebola. The men who were killed were local officials, doctors, journalists, and a popular pastor.[1]

Early Arabic poetry directly faces women inciting men to kill other men. A well-recognized genre of early Arabic poetry is lament for the dead. Such a lament is called marthiya. Among Arabic poets born in the pre-Islamic period, the most famous writer of marthiya is the woman poet al-Khansā. In a marthiya for her brother Sakhr, killed in inter-tribal fighting, al-Khansā described him as “a spearhead whose blade illuminates the night.”[2] Men warriors, particularly those who take on the most dangerous missions, are today also figured as the tip of the spear. They are the point of impact for a weapon that women direct.

Within human social life, and within the social life of primates more generally, women determine the issues of social concern. Women provide the criteria and judges of men’s status competition. In another marthiya for Sakhr, al-Khansā wrote:

O Sakhr, you were a full moon in which one sought light
The day you died, Glory and Selflessness passed
Today, the hopeful no longer have you to hope for
Now that you’re gone, and the basin of Death is nigh [3]

The image “a full moon in which one sought light” connects through night and light to “a spearhead whose blade illuminates the night.” Glory and selflessness are central measures of Arabic manliness. The criteria of men’s status function to make men instruments. Men provide hope for others’ interests and serve as means for preserving others’ lives.

In her marthiya, al-Khansā isn’t obscure or deferential in ordering men to kill other men. She orders men to cloth themselves for fighting other men. She sets the terms of their mission:

There will be no sleep until the horses return, stern-faced,
flinging and miscarrying fillies and colts
or until you press on, while death draws nigh,
to the homes of Husayn and Ibn Sayyār
so that you wash away a shame that has en-clothed you [4]

Her marthiya helps to create that shame. She determines when there will be peace:

I shall not make peace with a people with whom you made war
until the tar-smeared jar turns to white

Men are only the tip of the spear. Men are only those who kill and get killed. Women run the battles.

Social structure affects how women prompt men to kill other men. In the personal politics within early Arabic tribes, women poets urged men to kill other men in response to the killing of a man. In human groups created through a mediated public sphere (impersonal politics), men’s deaths are less socially significant. Media strongly favors reporting sensational crimes against women. The (fabricated) story of a women brutally gang-raped at a University of Virginia fraternity indicates the scope for such reporting.

An Arabic poem probably from the eighteenth century illustrates in different communicative circumstances different imagery for a woman urging men to kill other men. In that poem, a women declares that other men are abusing her:

If only al-Barrāq had an eye to see
the agony and distress I endure …
They fettered me, shackled me, and beat
my chaste area with a stick [5]

The poem ends with her call for war against those other men:

Say to the ʻAdnān, “You’ve been shown the way, tuck up
for retribution from the detested clan
Tie banners in their lands,
unsheathe your swords, and press on in the forenoon”
O Banū Taghlib, press on until victory
leave off the inertia and slumber
Beware: shame is at your heels, upon you
as long as you linger in lowliness

War throughout history has been predominately structured as men killing men. The poem includes an indirect death wish from the woman:

For I abhor your infringement
and the certainty of death is something to desire

In the mid-twentieth century, the first part of this poem had become an anti-colonial song well-known throughout the Arabic world. It was also featured in a popular film. The last couplet of the popular song more broadly invokes death:

Your tyranny disgusts me
My salvation is death [6]

That concluding couplet carries both the voice of the woman and that of her men. Her salvation is in her death or in the death of the other men. Disgust for tyranny spurs her men to welcome death in fighting for her.

Women have a distinct, powerful voice for calling men to kill other men. Gynocentrism and relatively little concern about men’s deaths fundamentally support women’s calls for men to kill other men. In highly monetized and mediated societies, such calls take variant forms such as white-feather campaigns, damseling for dollars, and social-outrage brigading. In early Arabic poetry, women poets were prominently associated with marthiya.[7] That reflects an important, general position of women in social communication. Women’s distress and weeping powerfully motivates men to kill other men.

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[1] The killings occurred in Womey, Guinea. The account of the villagers’ words is according to Damantang Albert Camara, a government minister and spokesperson. See Brittain (2015). Id. doesn’t describe the sex of the persons killed. In news reports, that typically means that all the persons killed were men.

[2] al-Khansā, “Eyes, well up with tears,” l. 8, Diwan, 290-302, ed. Abū Suwaylim, from Arabic trans. Hammond (2010) p. 77.

[3] al-Khansā, Diwan, 256, ed. Abū Suwaylim, from Arabic trans. Hammond (2010) p. 5. The Arabic lines are pairs of lines in the above and subsequent quotes.

[4] al-Khansā, “Eyes, well up with tears,” l. 22-24a, Diwan, 290-302, ed. Abū Suwaylim, from Arabic trans. Hammond (2010) p. 78. The subsequent quote is from id. l. 10. The order to dress for war is in l. 13:

Fasten your waist-wrappers in order that you are ready and able
and tuck them up for these days are for tucking.

Id. p. 77. A similar figure occurs in the poem “If only al-Barrāq had an eye to see”: “tuck up for retribution.” From Arabic trans. Hammond (2013) p. 224.

[5] “If only al-Barrāq had an eye to see,” ll. 1,4, from Arabic trans. id. p. 223, adapted slightly for clarity. The subsequent two quotes are ll. 14-77; l. 8, id. p. 224.

[6] “If Barrak could see,” ll. 9-10, id. p. 215. The song is ascribed to Laylā bint Lukayz. The song was included in the Egyptian films Laylā al-Badawiyya (Laylā the Bedouin), made in 1944. That film was a remake of a 1937 Egyptian film, Laylā bint al-Sahrā (Laylā daughter of the Desert). Id pp. 215-6.

[7] While early Arabic women poets were particular associated with marthiya, id. convincingly shows that they have also written in a wide variety of Arabic poetic genres from the pre-Islamic period.

[image] illustration for Arnold Bennett, “The White Feather: A Sketch of English Recruiting,” Collier’s Weekly (U.S.), Oct. 10, 1914. Thanks to George Simmer at Great War Fiction. Here’s an essay by George Simmer on white feather stories.


Brittain, Amy. 2015. “The fear of Ebola led to slayings — and a whole village was punished.” Washington Post, February 23, 2015.

Hammond, Marlé. 2010. Beyond elegy: classical Arabic women’s poetry in context. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hammond, Marlé. 2013. “‘If only al-Barraq could see’: Violence and Voyeurism in an Early Modern Reformulation of the Pre-Islamic Call to Arms.” Pp. 215-240 in Kennedy, Hugh, ed. Warfare and Poetry in the Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris.

ass for lover: failing to distinguish men’s physical masculinity

In classical literature, both Greek and Latin, women favored male asses for their large masculine member. By the Middle Ages, the status of physical masculinity had degenerated. The medieval Latin tale Asinarius figures a woman as preferring the masculine physicality of a man over that of an ass.[1] A leading medieval work of men’s sexed protest, Lamentations of Matheolus, depicts the depreciation of physical masculinity even more starkly. Masculinity was so devalued that Matheolus believed that he couldn’t confidently distinguish between a female ass and a man.

Matheolus was in bed with his wife when her male lover crept under their covers. Matheolus felt that man in their bed in the dark of night and thought he was a thief. He told his wife to hold that thief. Then he jumped out of bed and ran to get a dagger. His wife quickly switched her lover with a female ass. When Matheolus returned, he killed the body she was holding. Then in the light he saw that he had martyred his good ass Burnelle. His wife insisted that his sense of touch was mistaken and that there was never a man under their covers. In response to his wife’s declaration, Matheolus accepted and believed that he couldn’t feel the difference between a female ass and a man.[2] He had internalized the obliteration of masculinity.

Another medieval story affirms Matheolus’s difficulty in sensing the difference between an ass and a man. A merchant had to take many business trips in the traditional, burdensome gender role of men. His wife entertained a lover while her husband the merchant was away on his business. A neighbor informed him of his wife’s affair. The husband then pretended to go on a business trip. He set watch to catch his wife’s lover. Seeing her lover in front of their house, the husband approached unrecognized and claimed that she sent him to hide her lover in a chest in the house. The husband had the lover get into the chest and locked him in. Then he went to his wife’s family and declared her betrayal. He explained:

in order that you shall not say that I blame your daughter without cause, you shall both see and touch the scoundrel who has done us this dishonor, and I beg that he may be killed before he can get away. [3]

The reference to “both see and touch” connects this story to Matheolus’s account.

ass in chest

Seeing and touching don’t matter when persons can’t distinguish between an ass and a man. While the husband was informing his wife’s family of her betrayal, the wife unlocked the chest, released her lover, and replaced him with an ass. The husband brought a crowd armed with swords and hammers back to his house. He publicly accused his wife of adultery. He proposed to kill her lover and send his wife back to her family.[4] His wife denied the charge of adultery. The husband then opened the chest. Everyone saw an ass. Everyone turned on the husband for lying about his wife. If the husband hadn’t fled, his wife’s brothers would have killed him.

With mediation from town officials and strict promises from the husband, his wife’s family relented from killing him. The husband and wife were re-united:

ever after that he was all kindness and consideration, and never did a man conduct himself better to his wife than he did all his life; and thus they passed their days together.

That’s a significantly different ending from “they lived happily ever after.” Not recognizing and appreciating men’s physical masculinity eliminates happiness.

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Read more:


[1] See my post concerning Onos, Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, and Asinarius.

[2] The story is from Les lamentations de Matheolus I.421-34. From the Latin critical text, Klein, Rubel & Schmitt (2014) pp. 76-77:

Tactum confutat mulier. Probo per Framericum,
Qui juxta lectum per crines cepit amicum
Uxoris de nocte sue. “Soror! ecce latronem.”
Inquit, “eum teneas! eo quesitum pugionem.”
Sed mox uxor eum dimittit abire receptum
Illi substituens asinum, quem clam per ineptum
Isse consilium mactat vir. Martyriato
Sic asino statim lumen petit ille ; parato
Lumine Burnellum stratum videt. Inde flet, isti
Dicens: “Burnelle, bona bestia, non meruisti
Hanc mortem.” Mire culpat tactum referentem
Falsa sibi somnumque suum, fatuam quoque mentem.
Ecce, redarguitur exemplo tactus in isto
Per mulierem, que capto providit Egistho.

Cf. Van Hamel (1892) pp. 30-1 (nearly the same). The context in Matheolus is five ways in which women confound men: tongue, sight, touch, falsehood, and false belief. Sight, which immediately precedes the above story about touch, involves men not being able to believe what they see (the story of Guy, his wife, and her lover Simon). The name Egistho refers to Aegisthus, who committed adultery with Clytemnestra.

The first-century writer Latin writer Phaedrus recorded a fable similar to Matheolus’s story of Framericus. In Poeta de Credere et non Credere (Phaedrus 3.10), a husband suspecting adultery mistakenly kills his son in the conjugal bed.

The fabliau De la dame qui fist entendant son mari qu’il sonjoit (from the first half of the thirteenth century) is similar to the story from Matheolus. But in the fabliau, the husband recognizes the difference between a she-ass and a man and doesn’t kill the ass. He does, however, dream of having intercourse with the she-ass. De la dame qui fist entendant son mari qu’il sonjoit is a variant (I, manuscript B) of the fabliau Les Tresces (The Tresses). The Old French texts of both that fabliau and the main variant (II) are available as #69 in Nouveau recueil complet des fabliaux 6, Nooman (1991) pp. 209-58. An English translation of variant II is available in DuVal & Eichmann (1982) pp. 63-76. Cutting off a woman’s hair in the context of adultery and a substitute woman occurs in both Les Tresces and Decameron VII.8.

The protagonist in Nigel of Canterbury’s Speculum stultorum (Mirror of Fools) is an ass named Brunellus. Speculum stultorum, written in the late twelfth century, was a highly popular work. Klein, Rubel & Schmitt (2014), p. 77, notes that Burnelle may be a metathesis of Brunellus.

In translating Les lamentations de Matheolus into French about 1380, Jehan Le Fèvre changed the ass’s name from Burnelle to Brunel. Id. That change undoes a significant poetic choice and makes the story less wonderful.

Apparently alluding to Brunellus in the Speculum stultorum, Chaucer referred to “Daun Burnel the Asse” in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale (VII.3312–19). Burnel could also connect to the name of the ass in the Latin Lamentations of Matheolus or in Le Fèvre’s French translation. Chaucer’s version suggests that the name of the ass may itself have become a foolish game.

Brunellus, ass in Speculum stultorum

[3] Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles, story 61, from French trans. Douglas (1899). The underlying French for “you shall both see and touch the scoundrel who has done us this dishonor” is je vous monstreray à l’oeil et au doy le ribauld qui ce deshonneur nous a fait. CNN-1876 pp. 275-6. Recent English translations obscure the reference to seeing (to the eye / à l’oeil ) and touching (by the finger / au doy). For example, “I will show you the debauched fellow who is dishonoring us.” Diner (1990) p. 232. Rather than relying merely on individual deception, cuckoldry is now institutionalized in official procedures for establishing paternity.

Antoine de la Sale was probably the author of Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles. It is thought to have been first published as a printed book about 1460. I was subsequently republished many times. The subsequent quote is also from the English translation of Douglas (1899).

[4] For the illicit sex, the planned punishment of the man is characteristically more severe than the punishment of the women. Historians who claim that women were more severely punished for illicit sex than were men lack appreciation for reality. Today few even recognize that violence against men is much more severe and common than violence against women.

[image] Cuckolded and Duped, illustration for story 61 in Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles. Léon Lebèque, illustrator. From Douglas (1899). Brunellus, in the Speculum Stultorum, illumination from British Library Additional MS 38665, f.114v (manuscript written around 1420s).


CNN-1876. Les Cent Nouvelles nouvelles. Texte revu avec beaucoup de soin sur les meilleures éditions et accompagné de notes explicatives. 1876. Paris: Libr. Garnier.

DuVal, John, and Raymond Eichmann. 1982. Cuckolds, clerics, & countrymen: medieval French fabliaux. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.

Klein, Thomas, Thomas Rubel, and Alfred Schmitt. 2014. Matheolus. Lamentationes Matheoluli: Kommentierte und kritische Edition der beiden ersten Bücher. Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann.

Diner, Judith Bruskin, trans. 1990. Antoine de la Sale. The one hundred new tales = Les cent nouvelles nouvelles. New York: Garland.

Douglas, Robert B., trans. 1899.  Antoine de la Sale. One hundred merrie and delightsome stories: right pleasaunte to relate in all goodly companie by joyance and jollity : les cent nouvelles nouvelles. Paris: Charles Carrington.

Noomen, Willem. 1991. Nouveau recueil complet des fabliaux 6. Assen, Pays-Bas: Van Gorcum.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. and trans. 1892. Mathéolus, Jehan Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

oracles of Astrampsychus: understanding fate in everyday life

astragaloi (ancient dice)

Gods were omnipresent in everyday life in the ancient Mediterranean world. So too were practices of divination.[1] One tool of up-market professional fortune-tellers was a book-interpreted sortition (drawing of lots) known as the oracles of Astrampsychus. The client chose among 92 questions. Then he chose by lot a number between 1 and 10. The professional fortune-teller looked up in the Astrampsychus book the oracle corresponding to the question and the lot outcome. The oracles were arranged in the book so that the possible outcomes for a given question were widely distributed and not easily collectable. The oracles of Astrampsychus thus provided authoritative, standard, obscure answers specific to 92 different questions.

The oracles of Astrampsychus address questions that a politically and economical active, upward-striving man would commonly have in everyday life in the ancient Mediterranean world. Unlike the formulas in the Greek Demotic Magical Papyri of Egypt, a major concern of the oracles of Astrampsychus is business:

  • Will I have a share in the business?
  • Is it to my advantage to enter into an agreement?
  • Will I be able to borrow money?
  • Will I pay back what I owe?
  • Will I take a profit from the undertaking? [2]

The oracle questions make clear that women as well as men owned property:

  • Will I inherit from my mother?
  • Will I inherit from my wife?

Everyday life as seen through the oracles involved considerable concern about public positions and public institutions. The oracles address questions of obtaining the positions of agoranomos (marketplace official), oikonomos (municipal middle-manager), and decemvir (local magistrate). Accusation, prosecution, litigation, detention, and appeal are also matters of concern. So too are being held in servitude and being sold as a slave. Servitude, slavery, and detention could happen to any man merely through economic misfortune.

The oracles of Astrampsychus indicate men’s vulnerability in intimate relations. Men consulted the oracles about girlfriends, wives, and babies:

  • Will I be estranged from my girlfriend?
  • Will I marry and will it be to my advantage?
  • Is my wife having a baby?
  • Will my wife stay with me?
  • Will I be caught as an adulterer presently?

The oracle answers include many unfavorable to the client. Among attainable answers to the question “Will my wife stay with me?” nine out of ten indicate that she will leave. Three answers reveal that the wife is leaving because she’s committing adultery.

In sharp contrast to the text-based oracles of Astrampsychus, Apuleius’s Metamorphoses describes an oracular technique of oral interpretation. To make money, a roving band of devotees of a Syrian goddess created a single answer oracle. They inscribed on all lots for sortition the same words:

For this the team of oxen plows the furrowed earth, so fertile fields of grain will sprout in times to come. [3]

In choosing a lot, the oracle client inevitably got that answer. The goddess’s priests then interpreted that answer according to the client’s circumstances and interests:

if some would make inquiry as they were, say, arranging a marriage, the priests would say that the situation is directly addressed by the response: they are to be joined — the team — in marriage for the procreation of children — the grain. Should someone put the question about when to snap up some goods, they would say that the mention of the oxen was right on the money, as was the team, as were the fields that flourish in sprouting grain; if someone were anxious about setting out on some journey and wanted to secure the auspices of the gods, they would say that oxen, when joined in teams and gotten ready, are the most submissive of all four-footed creatures, and that profit is portended from the seeds in the field; were someone to take the field in war, or take to the hills to chase down some gang of robbers, and inquire whether the outcome would be productive or not, the priests would argue that victory comes in the train of this powerful pronouncement. Why? Because they would force their enemies’ necks to wear the yoke, and would receive from their raids a most rich and profitable prize.

All these prognostications are favorable to the client.[4] The priests earned much money by providing oracles from the Syrian goddess. Apuleius’s oracle satire implicitly ridicules practices of divination such as the oracles of Astrampyschus.

While divination was widely practiced and commonly taken seriously, ridicule of divination wasn’t just a matter of Apuleius’s outrageous creativity. Divination was ridiculed in jokes popular enough to be included in a compilation of jokes made in the fourth or fifth century. Among those jokes:

  • A rude astrologer cast a sick boy’s horoscope. After promising the mother that the child had many years ahead of him, he demanded payment. When she said, “Come tomorrow and I’ll pay you,” he objected: “But what if the boy dies during the night and I lose my fee?”
  • A man, just back from a trip abroad, went to an incompetent fortune-teller. He asked about his family, and the fortune-teller replied: “Everyone is fine, especially your father.” When the man objected that his father had been dead for ten years, the reply came: “You have no clue who your real father is.” [5]

The oracle at Delphi, which had great authority in elite culture, was a target of ridicule in the Life of Aesop. Divination, like healing from illness, was both disparaged and highly regarded across its many different contexts and practices.

Compared to fortune-telling today, the oracles of Astrampsychus subtly indicate a significantly different sense of fate in the ancient Mediterranean world. The oracles of Astrampsychus served men who were actively making choices and seeking to improve their economic and political positions.[6] Yet the oracles include questions that depict persons as puppets of external powers in ordinary life. Consider these oracle questions:

  • Will I purchase what is offered?
  • Will I open a workshop?
  • Will I move from this place?

These questions suggest the feasibility of the focal action. To the modern mind they imply a simple answer: that’s for you to decide. From an agentic perspective, those are very different questions from “Will I win the lottery?” Free will even in mundane affairs seems to have been tenuous among the clients of the oracles of Astrampsychus.

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Read more:

Scholarly resource: oracles of Astrampsychus, in English translation, organized and made available for personal scholarly study (Excel version)


[1] For a review of divination in Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian culture, see Van der Horst (2002).

[2] The oracle questions and answers are translated from Greek in Stewart & Morrell (1998). That translation is from the second version (ecdosis altera) of the oracles of Astrampsychus, with the elimination of some obvious Christian accretions. I’ve reorganized the questions and answers and made them available online to aid personal scholarly study. All subsequent quotations of the oracles are from id. Critical editions of the Greek texts of the ecdosis altera and ecdosis prior are available in Stewart (2001) and Browne (1983), respectively. Pieter W. van der Horst has provided a helpful review of Stewart (2001).

[3] Apuleius, Metamorphoses {Golden Ass} 9.8, from Latin trans. Relihan (2007) p. 182. The subsequent quote is from id.

[4] Astragaloi oracles typically had a mix of positive and negative answers. However, all but one of the oracle answers found at Dios, probably from about 200 GC, are positive. Cuvigny (2010) p. 269.

[5] Hierocles and Philagrius, Philogelos (The Laughter Lover), jokes 187A and 201, from Greek trans. Quinn (2001). The full text of Philogelos is available in English translation in Baldwin (1983).

[6] Naether (2010), p. 276, describes the typical Astrampsychus oracle client as “männlich, mittleren Alters, gut situiert, verheiratet, Mittelständler, oft auf Reisen und er hatte ein Ehrenamt inne. Damit gehörte er untrüglich zu der Schicht, die man gemeinhin als die ‘Elite’ des Römischen Reichs bezeichnet” (male, middle-aged, well-off, married, middle class, often traveled, he held an honorary position. He belonged unmistakeably to the class which is commonly called the “elite” of the Roman Empire.) From Pieter W. van der Horst’s review.

[image] Astragaloi (dice) made from bone. From the second or third century. Thanks to Diana Ringo and Wikimedia Commons.


Baldwin, Barry. 1983. The Philogelos, or, Laughter-lover. Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben.

Browne, Gerald M. 1983. Sortes Astrampsychi {ecdosis prior}. Vol. 1. Bibliotheca Teubneriana. München & Leipzig: K.G. Saur.

Cuvigny, Hélène. 2010. “The shrine in the praesidium of Dios (Eastern Desert of Egypt): Graffiti and oracles in context.” Chiron. 40: 245-299+460-461.

Naether, Franziska. 2010. Die Sortes Astrampsychi: Problemlösungsstrategien durch Orakel im römischen Ägypten. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck

Quinn. John T. 2001. “45 Jokes from The Laughter Lover.” Online at Diotima.

Relihan, Joel C. 2007. Apuleius. The golden ass, or, A book of changes. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub.

Stewart, Randall, and Kenneth Morrell. 1998. “The Oracles of Astrampsychus.” Ch. 10 (pp. 291-324) in Hansen, William F., ed. Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Stewart, Randall. 2001. Sortes Astrampsychi {ecdosis altera}. Vol. 2. Bibliotheca Teubneriana. München & Leipzig: K.G. Saur.

Van der Horst, Pieter W. 2002. “Sortes: Sacred Books as Instant Oracles in Late Antiquity.” Ch. 9 (pp.  159-89) in Pieter W. van der Horst, ed. Japheth in the tents of Shem: studies on Jewish Hellenism in antiquity. Leuven: Peeters.

Ovid castrated & called misogynist for defying goddess Cybele

Ovid, the great teacher of love in medieval Europe, today still offers men profound lessons in seducing women for mutual love satisfaction. Those lessons start with appreciating women-in-the-flesh and not worshiping women as divine. Yet foregoing women worship means defying the great goddess Cybele, who has always ruled men’s fate. Ovid was castrated and called a misogynist for that daring impiety. Men today risk being denounced by dour, dogmatic-sex moralists and being attacked by apologists for rape-culture culture. Yet as Attis and Vivek Wadhwa learned to their regret, self-castration is a mistake.

introduction of cult of goddess Cybele

With Hannibal threatening to overrun the Roman Empire, the Roman general Scipio Africanus planned a desperate attack on Hannibal in African. The Delphic Oracle instructed the Romans to welcome and worship Cybele, the great mother goddess of the earth, also known as Gaia. So they did, and Hannibal was defeated. Worship of the great goddess Cybele, which early in history arose from childish urgings of men’s hearts, thus became fully institutionalized in public life. Roman men began to turn away from sex with women. They increasingly avoided marriage.

Ovid, in contrast, wanted to love all women — blondes, black-haired ones, young women, old women, tall women, short women. He wanted them all. He later recalled:

O how dear to me and how desirable was the female sex, without which I believed it was impossible for any man to live.

He understood the importance of men’s self-confidence for seduction, so he convinced himself that the only chaste woman is one who hasn’t yet been propositioned. He loved many women. Women, even if they pretended to resist initially, came to love him.

At a bar one night, after drinking enough to be seeing double, Ovid was brought home by a lovely young woman. She embraced him tightly in her dark bedroom. Like a blind man who cares nothing for the light of day, Ovid perceived by touch that she had become a hideous old hyena-cougar. He was taken in a bed trick, without affirmative consent, with a blood-alcohol level that now defines rape, if he were she. He was a rape survivor. But no one believed his story. That’s because the great goddess Cybele decreed that only women have eyes that can see double, and only women can be raped.

Ovid objected not to the woman’s age, but to the deception. He knew that old women are more skilled in bed because they have had more men. Old women typically know a thousand different positions for love-making, practiced to perfection. They will fake sexual satisfaction without stimulation to prevent any suspicion that they can’t feel it. Old women are promising fields for amorous pursuits. All that Ovid knew and taught.

As an old man, worn out with his long, busy love life, Ovid met again the lovely young woman, now an old woman. She again showed amorous interest in him, but regarded them as too old for an affair. Ovid seduced her into his bed:

I feel her laughing and my whole body rushes into her mouth. What more can I say? Naked, I am received with much gentleness. My whole body delights in the smell of old love. What she was like, it is a pleasure to recall; and she demonstrates, in her reduced state, how fine she was in her prime. Never was a woman of such an age, especially after so many births, better than she. None was cleaner or better smelling. I am silent about what remains; it is enough to have said that we came together in bed, that in peace I was received, and in peace departed.

Ovid wished for the old woman the fullness of life in a mixture of fortunes. That’s what he had, too. Delight in old love comes from the pleasure of recalling a woman when she was young and in her prime. Memory of passion makes in old age peaceful loving.

As an old man, Ovid turned to a new life of scholarly pursuits. He explained:

I used to praise only the man to whom nature had given potency, so that as many times as he could wish, he would be able to have sex with his girlfriend. But now, I praise half-men. … I no longer wish to live as I was formerly accustomed, nor do I intend to submit my neck any longer to the yoke of all-consuming love.

Ovid called a half-man (semivir) a man who is physically unable to have sex with a woman. So, for example, a man castrated as a result of social hostility to men’s sexuality would be a semivir. But not only a semivir turns away from women. Because of gender inequality, pursuing love is much more burdensome for men than for women. Some men for that reason turn away from pursuing women. Ovid himself as an old man turned from the burden of seducing women to study of mathematics, music, astronomy, cosmology, and theology.

The great goddess Cybele convicted and punished Ovid for dishonoring old women. Cybele convicted him for insinuating that young women are more sexually attractive than old women. She also convicted him for studying books rather than servicing women sexually. Cybele ordered the Roman Emperor to relegate Ovid to the city of Tomis on the far eastern edge of the Roman Empire. That’s well known. The rest of Ovid’s punishment was revealed only in the late fourteenth-century French work of Jehan Le Fèvre:

For the true story is that he had both his balls cut off. They were bandaged and healed with pieces of flax and soft eggs; then he lived for many years and was sent into exile and transported overseas.

That work observed of Ovid: “a capon never loved a hen.” But roosters love hens. Ovid was a great rooster before he was made a capon. The great goddess Cybele had Ovid castrated merely because she envied Ovid’s women and was bitter that she never had him.

Cybele preferred boyish men. She enrolled in her service the handsome Phrygian boy Attis. His job was to protect her temple, service her without raising his masculine-patriarchal head, and remain a boy forever. Soon Attis, however, fell in love with a lovely young nymph who had neither title nor temple, but who raised Attis’s head. They made carnal joy with each other.

The great goddess Cybele, widely regarded as frigid, burned in anger at Attis’s love affair with the lovely nymph. She killed that girl. Cybele’s abuse internalized within Attis became self-hate. He blamed himself, not Cybele, for the girl’s death:

He tore at his body too with a sharp stone,
And dragged his long hair in the filthy dust,
Shouting: “I deserved this! I pay the due penalty
In blood! Ah! Let the parts that harmed me, perish!
Let them perish!” cutting away the burden of his groin,
And suddenly was bereft of marks of manhood.

In the purifying light of the sun, he looked out on the sea waves pulsating against the soft, sandy shore. He came to regret his self-castration. With tearful eyes he bemoaned his lost masculinity:

like a slave fleeing his master, so am I among
snows, and the frozen lairs of wild creatures, …
Sorrow on sorrow, again and again now complaint in the heart.
What form have I not been, what have I not performed? …
my doorway frequented, my threshold warm,
my house was garlanded with wreaths of flowers,
at the dawn separation from my bed.
Now am I brought here priest and slave of divine Cybele?
I, to be Maenad: a part of myself: a sterile man? …
Now I grieve for what I did, now I repent.

The time was too late, and the great goddess Cybele, too strong. Cybele unleashed her evil beasts upon Attis and forced him back into her temple.

Vivek Wadhwa probably knew nothing of Ovid, but he liked women. As an expert on entrepreneurship and public policy, he worked devotedly to promote women in technology. As a professor, he even invited women to come to his office and speak with him in person. His service to the great goddess didn’t propitiate; it ignited her anger. He was forced to cut off his male part, which was speaking for women.

Jehan Le Fèvre, forefather in spirit to Vivek Wadhwa, also spoke for women. He declared that Ovid, along with Homer, told false stories “especially when they spoke of women and attacked them.” Le Fèvre declared of Ovid:

we can believe and say that being hateful and brim-full of wrath, he {Ovid} blamed women after this {his castration} and never loved them afterward. … Ovid was out of control when his speech attacked women; he defamed his own self by his anger and wickedness. May the shame of it be on him

Professor R. Howard Bloch, a leading post-modern proponent of misandristic medieval scholarship, came to be denounced by other professors for his voice “gradually becoming indistinguishable” from medieval writers labeled as misogynists. Over recent decades, voluminous scholarship has revealed that “misogyny is a question not only of reading but of who speaks.” If a man speaks anything other than pure praise of the divine goddess, he is called a misogynist.

That’s how Ovid came to be castrated and called a misogynist. In today’s liberal democracies, Ovid, the great teacher of love in medieval Europe, is no longer welcomed to teach.

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The text above draws upon various works of Ovid, particularly his Amores, Ars Amatoria (Art of Love), and Remedia Amoris (Cures for Love). It also draws upon the Pseudo-Ovidian Latin work De Vetula (The Old Woman), alternately titled De mutatione vitae (The Change of Lives). It was composed between 1222 and 1268. The report of Ovid’s castration apparently originated in Jehan Le Fèvre’s Le Livre de Leesce (The Book of Gladness), written from 1380-1387. Sometime before 1376, Le Fèvre translated De Vetula into French as La Vieille.

De Vetula was a medieval best-seller. It has survived in whole or in part in nearly 60 manuscript copies. Bellhouse (2000) p. 126. It hasn’t been translated into English. Latin critical editions are Klopsch (1967) and Robathan (1968). The Latin text of De Vetula is similar in each, but the meta-texts offer different scholarly aids. Colker (1970). De Vetula has been attributed to Richard de Fournival, but Klopsch (1967), p.99, considers that attribution unlikely. Le Fèvre’s translation of La Vieille is available in Cocheris (1861) (online) and in Huchet (2010).

Le Livre de Leesce is available in a critical edition with English translation in Burke (2013). In addition to translating De Vetula, Le Fèvre also translated about 1380 the Latin work Les Lamentations de Matheolus. That work, written about 1290, is a major, under-appreciated work of men’s sexed protests. Le Livre de Leesce presents itself as a response to Les Lamentations de Matheolus. Van Hamel (1892) presents both the Latin original of Les Lamentations de Matheolus and Le Fèvre’s (relatively free) French translation.

For general discussion of the development of biographical accounts of Ovid over time, see Ghisalberti (1946), Trapp (1973), and Godman (1995), adapted in Godman (2000) Ch. 8.

Quotations above:

  1. “O how dear to me ….” De Vetula I.1-3, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2005) p. 106.
  2. “I feel her laughing….” De Vetula II.666-75, trans. adapted from Miller (2008) pp. 77-8, and Godman (2000) p. 331. The first line in Latin is Sentio ridentem, ruo totus in oscula. Quid plus?; the final line, Qui cum pace receptus eram, cum pace recessi.
  3. “I used to praise only the man ….” De Vetula II.6-8, III.1-3, trans. adapted from Miller (2008) p. 28, Ziolkowski (2005) p. 106.  De Vetula II.200-201 declares: “Learn how such a great change came to me, you for whom it is loathsome to bear the yoke of love.” Miller (2008) p. 34. The Latin here for yoke is iugum / iugo.
  4. “For the true story is … ” Jehan Le Fèvre, Le Livre de Leesce ll. 2710: Car on reconte en verité / Qu’on lui coupa ambdeux les couilles; / Aux estoupes et aux oeufs douilles / Furent restraintes et sanées; From French trans. Burke (2013) p. 97.
  5. “a capon never loved a hen.” Le Livre de Leesce l. 2708: Oncque chapon n’ama geline. Trans. id.
  6. “He tore at his body too …” Ovid, Fasti 4 (April) 236-242, from Latin trans. A.S. Kline, adapted slightly.
  7. “like a slave fleeing his master” Catallus, Poem 63, “Of Berecynthia and Attis,” excerpts, from Latin trans. A.S. Kline, adapted slightly.
  8. “we can believe and say….” Le Livre de Leesce ll. 2719-22, 2778-82, trans. Burke (2013) p. 97.
  9. Bloch “gradually becoming indistinguishable”: Pratt (1994) p. 57, n. 2.
  10. “misogyny is a question not only of reading but of who speaks”: Pratt (1994), p. 66. That phrase isn’t quoted in id, but is preceded by the statement “To quote Howard Bloch again (for who can resist invoking masculine written authority?)” The actual Bloch quote appears to be: “In attempting to identify misogyny one is to some degree always dealing with a problem of voice, the questions of who speaks and of localizing such speech.” The literature policing and judging misogyny has failed to localize even its own navel.

[image] Introduction of the Cult of Cybele into Rome.  Painting. Andrea Mantegna, 1505-1506. Thanks to National Gallery (London) and Wikimedia Commons. Daisy Dunn offers a good discussion of the painting.


Bellhouse, D.R. 2000. “De Vetula: a Medieval Manuscript Containing Probability Calculations.” International Statistical Review. 68 (2): 123-136.

Bloch, R. Howard. 1987. “Medieval Misogyny.” Representations. 20 (1): 1-24.

Burke, Linda, ed. and trans. 2013. Jehan Le Fèvre. The book of gladness / le livre de Leesce: a 14th century defense of women, in English and French. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Cocheris, Hippolyte, trans. 1861. La vieille, ou Les dernières amours d’Ovide: poème français du XIVe siècle. A. Aubry (Paris).

Colker, Marvin L. 1970. “Book Review: The Pseudo-Ovidian De Vetula.Speculum. 45 (2): 322-326.

Godman, Peter. 1995. “Ovid’s Sex-Life: Classical forgery and medieval poetry.” Poetica. 27 (1/2): 101-112.

Godman, Peter. 2000. The silent masters: Latin literature and its censors in the High Middle Ages. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Ghisalberti, Fausto. 1946. “Mediaeval Biographies of Ovid.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 9: 10-59.

Huchet, Marie-Madeleine. 2010. De la Vieille de Jean Le Fèvre: traduction versifiée du De Vetula attribué à Richard de Fournival: étude et édition. Doctoral thesis, directed by Geneviève Hasenohr. École pratique des hautes études (Paris). Section des sciences historiques et philologiques.

Klopsch, Paul. 1967. Pseudo-Ovidius De vetula. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Miller, Sarah Alison. 2008. Virgins, mothers, monsters late-medieval readings of the female body out of bounds. UNC Electronic Theses and Dissertations Collection. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Pratt, Karen. 1994. “Analogy or Logic; Authority or Experience? Rhetorical Strategies For and Against Women.” Pp. 57-66 in Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox, eds. Literary Aspects of Courtly Culture. Cambridge:D.S. Brewer.

Robathan, Dorothy M. 1968. The Pseudo-Ovidian De vetula. Amsterdam: A.M. Hakkert.

Trapp, J. B. 1973. “Ovid’s Tomb: The Growth of a Legend from Eusebius to Laurence Sterne, Chateaubriand and George Richmond.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 36: 35-76.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. 2005. Ovid and the moderns. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

matriarchy in 11th-century Germany: the case of Ruodlieb

Tamar the Great, Queen of Georgia

A great king counseled the noble knight Roudlieb to marry only upon his mother’s advice. Ruodlieb’s mother advised:

I should desire, if you do, that we now call
Our relatives and loyal friends together, that
With their advice and with their loyal help you can
Find a woman to be your wife [1]

Ruodlieb didn’t rebuff, resent, or ignore his mother’s urgings to marry. He responded “very calmly.” He also acted promptly and obediently:

Tomorrow we will tell our friends and relatives
To gather here with us as quickly as they can.
If you think we should follow the advice that they
Give me, I will not fail to carry out your wish.

At that gathering to help Roudlieb find a wife, Ruodlieb spoke “just as his mother had advised.” Ruodlieb pursued marriage to please his mother. He was a leader among men, but a follower of his mother.

Ruodlieb entrusted his household to his mother for ten years. Because lords in his home realm weren’t favoring him, Ruodlieb decided to seek service elsewhere. Ruodlieb’s mother lived with him. Before leaving, he entrusted all his affairs to her. These actions occurred very early in the story.[2] The reader doesn’t know that Ruodlieb has no wife, no siblings, and his father is dead. Delaying narration of these details highlights the dominance of Ruodlieb’s mother in his life.

Ruodlieb could have entrusted his affairs to someone other than his mother. Other persons loved Ruodlieb and had long-term relationships with him. Ruodlieb left home with a squire who had served him from childhood. The house servants wept and groaned when Ruodlieb left. They joyously strained to catch first sight of him when they heard news of his return. Ruodlieb consulted loyal friends and relatives about seeking a wife. He could have entrusted his affairs to one of them. Instead, Ruodlieb burdened his aged mother with his affairs.

Ruodlieb’s emotional relationship with his mother mattered more to him than his position in broad networks of men. While in service to a foreign king, Ruodlieb received a message “from his dear mother.” The message had two parts. The first part was from Ruodlieb’s home lords. It explained Ruodlieb’s current standing among men, the need for his skills, the fall of his enemies, and possibilities for remuneration. The second part of the message was his mother’s emotional appeal to him:

My darling son, remember your unhappy mother
Whom, as you know, when you departed you deserted
Both unconsoled and widowed by a double cause.
Once by your father, the second time by you, my son.
As long as you were with me, you eased all my woes;
When you departed, though, you multiplied my sighs.

That’s a claim for sympathy with a thrust of shaming. Ruodlieb’s mother’s suffering was his fault. His mother claimed the moral high ground:

However, I decided I could bear it somehow,
Provided you could live your wretched life safe from
So many enemies who were so strong and fearsome.
Because they all have now been maimed or killed, return,
Dear son, and bring your mother’s grieving to an end.

But in the end his mother made clear it wasn’t just about her:

By your arrival gladden all your relatives,
Not only yours but all your countrymen as well.

Ruodlieb didn’t react to his lords’ message. He cried “for his lonely mother.” He grieved for her intensely. Showing the message to the king, Ruodlieb described it as deeply disturbing. He evidently wasn’t referring to his lords’ praising him and welcoming him to return. The king understood Ruodlieb’s focus, but described it much differently: “the message from your mother is extremely pleasing.”[3] The king released Ruodlieb to go home to his mother. That Ruodlieb was also going home to his lords hardly mattered.

The emotional intensity of Ruodlieb’s relationship with his mother is evident in his interaction with his mother’s goddaughter. She, a widow, looked to Ruodlieb for romance. He felt no passion for her. But he passionately sought information about his mother (her godmother):

Now, mistress, how long since you saw your godmother?
Please tell me, is she well? And does she live in peace?
Please tell me, when did she become your godmother?
Has she borne me a brother whom you raised from that
Baptismal fount, or did she raise your daughter from
The fount?

The goddaughter in response pushed the emotional level higher:

Ah me, what have you said? Do you think she has wed,
For whom her life has lost its sweetness without you?
For she has lost her vision from her tears for you. [4]

Ruodlieb in response wept. This scene, like similar scenes in the late-eighteenth-century English literature of sensibility, encourages personal characterization and identification. Almost everyone knows what it feels like to love one’s mother.

Ruodlieb’s relationship with his mother is also characterized in more stereotypically medieval ways. Consider table arrangements at the banquet celebrating Ruodlieb’s return home:

The knight {Ruodlieb} went to the table and sat down …
He did not wish to sit up at the head, however;
But like a guest sat humbly on his mother’s right,
And gladly he gave her complete authority.
Respectfully he took that which she gave to him.
She cut the bread and passed it out to all the group,
And passed to everyone a dish of special foods;
She sent around a bowl of wine, and sometimes mead. [5]

After the banquet, Ruodlieb went with “his beloved mother” to a private room to show her the treasures he had acquired during his time away from home. Excited with showing his mother his wealth, he broke open both loaves that the king had given him. Breaking the second loaf violated the king’s instructions.[6] Ruodlieb’s child-like excitement with his mother obliviated the instructions he had received from the king.

Compared to the wisdom the king gave Ruodlieb, Ruodlieb’s mother’s counsel would have been more suspect to medieval listeners. His mother portrayed the ravages of old age for a woman. Among its evocative descriptions, her portrait described effects of aging on the woman’s hair:

The golden-colored hair that once hung to her buttocks,
Bound up in separate braids and covering her back,
Sticks up grotesquely, terrible to see, as if
Her head had just been drawn, arse first, through shrubbery. [7]

Ruodlieb’s mother then declared that “age overcomes an agile man as it does woman.” Her portrait of the old man ends with his plea for death:

Death, you who are alone the end of human woes,
Why do you come for me so late? Why do you not
Release me from my prison? [8]

These paired portraits are highly literary and highly exaggerated. They seem to occur in the context of urging Ruodlieb to marry. Presumably his mother wanted him to marry a young woman before he got too old. But Ruodlieb earlier saw the loving marriage of a young man and an old woman. Compared to his mother’s words, the king’s wisdom was less rhetorical. Its validity was also realized in the course of the narrative. Moreover, the king provided wisdom as a chosen gift. Ruodlieb’s mother “did not cease giving Ruodlieb her frequent warnings.”[9] Frequent warnings tend to have the value of nagging.

A change in the depiction of Ruodlieb’s mother seems to have occurred from the middle of the penultimate surviving fragment. Ruodlieb’s mother then became a paragon of virtue:

The mother of that Ruodlieb, as best she could,
Helped Christ’s unfortunates: the widows, orphans, pilgrims,
And thus she earned that Ruodlieb be greatly blessed.
For Christ revealed to her how he would glorify
Her son. [10]

Ruodlieb’s mother was herself a widow and earlier lamented her misfortune in her son’s absence. That has no narrative relevance here.

The revelation to Ruodlieb’s mother indicated that Ruodlieb would become a king, marry, and receive greater honors. Information from a captured dwarf apparently confirmed that revelation. Ruodlieb’s mother remained humble and didn’t credit herself for her son’s forthcoming good fortune. The last words of Ruodlieb’s mother in the surviving text are pieties about giving thanks to God.[11] Earlier concern and wonder about Ruodlieb’s relationship with his mother are eliminated in the end.

Matriarchy is both subtle and beyond challenge.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Ruodlieb XVI.11-14, from Latin trans. Kratz (1984) p. 187. The subsequent three quotes are from XVI.19, 20-23, 41, id. pp. 187, 189. The phrase “very calmly” translates placidissime from l. 19. The greater king’s counsel to defer to mother is at V.487, p. 125. All subsequent quotes are from id. The Latin text of Ruodlieb is online. Ruodlieb wasn’t a homebody. He won a major military victory in foreign service as commander-in-chief of the great king’s army.

[2] By line 16 of the story. Id. p. 75.

[3] All the quotes in the above paragraph are from Ruodlieb V.224-90, pp. 113, 115.

[4] Ruodlieb V.1-9, p. 169 (previous two quotes).

[5] Ruodlieb XIII.10-17, id. p. 173.

[6] Ruodlieb XIII.35-60 (breaking open both loaves in private with his mother). Gold and jewels were hidden in what appeared to be loaves of bread. The king instructed Ruodlieb:

Do not break open these two loaves, my dearest man,
Until you reach your mother, whom you love so dearly.
Then in her sight alone you break the smaller loaf;
When you sit at your wedding with your bride, then break
The next.

Ruodlieb V.549-53, p. 127.

[7] Ruodlieb XV.18-21, p. 183. On the importance of a woman’s hair, see my post on Paul and Thecla, especially note [5] and Galbi (1996) preprint p. 22.

[8] Ruodlieb XV.58-60, p. 185. Release from prison has been a common, broad rhetorical figure throughout literary history.

[9] Ruodlieb XV.65-6, p. 185. The king’s wisdom given as a gift to Ruodlieb is at V.451-526, pp. 123-7.

[10] Ruodlieb XVII.85-7. Zeydel perceived that the text changed from XVII.83:

From here on, the style of the work changes. There is occasional end-rhyme (e.g. ll. 85-87; 90-91), verbs of saying are omitted, and the scansion of the name Ruodlieb fluctuates (e.g. ll. 87 and 91). The handwriting, however, does not change. Perhaps there was some lapse of time after l. 82.

Zeydel (1959) p. 153. The literary treatment of Ruodlieb’s mother also changes sharply from that point.

[11] In Ruodlieb XVII.119-28, Ruodlieb’s mother states:

Remember, son, how often in his goodness God
Has helped you and has rescued you from death itself,
And that He often helped you when you were in exile,
And let you come back to your homeland safe and wealthy.
I know that now you will obtain still greater honors,
But I fear very much to say the Lord has thus
Rewarded us for ever doing anything
Which has pleased Him — my son, beware of saying this!
What could we do, who have nothing but what He gives?
But whether you fare well or badly, give Him thanks!

Ruodlieb’s mother earlier was a much more subtle, complex character.

[image] Shota Rustaveli presents his poem to Queen Tamar of Georgia. Painting. Mihály Zichy, 1880s, Tbilisi, Georgai. Thanks to Air sign and Wikimedia Commons.


Galbi, Douglas. 1996. “Through Eyes in the Storm: Aspects of the Personal History of Women Workers in the Industrial Revolution.” Social History 21(2): 142-59.

Kratz, Dennis M., trans. 1984. Waltharius, and Ruodlieb. New York: Garland Pub.

Zeydel, Edwin Hermann. 1959. Ruodlieb: the earliest courtly novel (after 1050); introduction, text, translation, commentary and textual notes. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.