Celestina: heroine of the first European novel

The sleep of reason in reading Celestina

The first European novel and the first Spanish best-seller first appeared in 1499 under the title Comedia de Calisto y Melibea. By 1518, its title had become La Celestina. That title change indicates the attraction of one of the work’s characters, the celestial Celestina. A leading scholar of Spanish literature recently explained:

{Celestina} is an old whore and procuress who runs a brothel, restores virgins, arranges for clandestine sexual encounters, and corrupts young men and women. Yet, for all these unsavory characteristics and immoral activities, Celestina is a self-possessed, willful, and courageous character whom the reader cannot but admire. She is a modern tragic heroine [1]

Under a global trend toward repressive orthodoxy in thought and expression, imaginative literature like Celestina now might be regarded as dangerous and unacceptable. Yet Celestina remains “as fresh and relevant a work of fiction as if it had been written today.”

The original title characters Calisto and Melibea are much less interesting than Celestina. Calisto is a young, rich, well-educated noble completely immersed in the foolish delusions of courtly love. Calisto loves Melibea. Calisto’s religion is courtly love of Melibea. He explains:

I am a Melibean, and I worship Melibea and I put my faith in Melibea and I adore Melibea. … She is a goddess! A goddess! [2]

Calisto declares that the sight of her beautiful hair can turn men into stone, while the sight of her breasts rouses them.[3] Calisto perceives Melibea in a mash of classical myth and mundane reality:

Has her equal ever been born in the world? Did God create a sweeter form? Can such features, a model of beauty, be painted? If Helen were alive today, the one for whom so many Greeks and Trojans died, or the beautiful Polyxena, they would obey this comely mistress for whom I pine. Had she been present in that contest among the three goddesses for the golden apple, they would never have given it the name discord because, without dissent, they would have agreed that it be given to Melibea, and thus it would have been called the apple of concord. For women who know of her curse themselves. They wail to God because he did not remember them when he made this my sweet mistress. They use up their lives, envy gnaws their flesh, they inflict brutal martyrdom upon themselves, thinking that with artifice they will equal the perfection nature effortlessly bestowed on her. They thin their eyebrows with eyebrow pluckers and plasters and fine cords; they look for golden herbs, roots, branches, and flowers to make bleaches so their hair will be like hers; and they maul their faces, covering them in various hues of unguents and ointments, acid lotions, white and red paints, and powders that for the sake of brevity I will not detail.

Calisto considers himself unworthy of Melibea. Nonetheless, he intensely desires her.

Melibea lacks an ethical core. Her behavior rapidly shifts across extremes of values and desires. She presents herself as a genteel woman concerned for her reputation and her parents. When Celestina tells Melibea of Calisto’s deep devotion to her, Melibea viciously attacks her:

May you burn at the stake, you deceitful procuress, you vile convent-trotter, you witch, you enemy of decency, you cause of secret sins! Jesú, Jesú! Lucrecia! Take her from my sight. I am through; she has left no drop of blood in my body! The person who gives ear to such women deserves this and more. Were it not that it would reflect upon my purity, and spread the word of the audacity of this brash man, I would, you wicked drab, have seen that your words and your life were quickly ended. [4]

Melibea also cruelly disparages Calisto:

Jesú! I do not want to hear another word about this crazed wall jumper, this night specter, this leggy stork, this badly woven figure in a tapestry, lest I drop dead on the spot! This then is the man who saw me the other day and began to rant and rave and act the gallant. Tell him, my good woman, that if he thought everything already won and the field his, I listened because I thought it better to listen than to publicize his flaws; I wanted more to treat him as a madman than to spread word of his outrageous boldness.

Melibea’s attitude toward Calisto changes rapidly as Celestina spins out a story of Calisto’s toothache and his many noble attributes. Soon Melibea is suffering from exhausting swoons and heartaches. She urgently seeks a return visit from Celestina. Melibea prays to God:

I humbly ask you to bestow upon my wounded heart the patience to conceal my terrible passion! Do not strip away the fig leaf I have placed before my amorous desire, pretending my pain to be other and not what is tormenting me. But how shall I be able, when I am so cruelly aggrieved by the poison dealt me at the sight of that caballero. O shy and timid womankind! Why are women not given the power to reveal their anguishing and ardent love, as men are? O that Calisto should not live with a complaint, nor I with pain.

Subsequently meeting with Celestina, Melibea confesses her love for Calisto:

O my Calisto, my señor, my sweet and gentle joy! If your heart feels as mine does now, I marvel that my absence allows you to live. O Mother, Señora Celestina, if you want to save my life, find the way for me to see him soon.

Melibea subsequently relishes illicit sex with Calisto. After he dies in an accident, she commits suicide by jumping off a tower in the presence of her distraught, loving father.

Unlike Melibea, Celestina is a strong, independent woman, a professional, and a business-owner. One of Calisto’s servants engages her to arrange for Calisto to have sex with Melibea. The servant explains:

From some time now I have known a bearded old crone who lives at no great distance from here. A witch, astute, wise in every wickedness that exists, she calls herself Celestina. I understand that in this city over five thousand maidenheads have been restored and undone by her hand. If she puts her mind to it she can move rocks and stones to lust.

Celestina has six trades:

seamstress, perfumer, wondrous concocter of paints and powders, and restorer of maidenheads, procuress, and, on occasion, witch. The first office was cover for the others, under which pretense many girls, among them servants, came to her house to be stitched and to stitch neck coverings and many other things. None came without a rasher of bacon, wheat flour, a jug of wine, and other provisions they stole from their mistresses. And other thefts of even greater worth were hidden there. Celestina was friend to many students, and stewards, and servants of clerics, and to these she sold the innocent blood of the hapless girls who foolishly took risks on the basis of the restitution she promised them.

Celestina is the leading sex trafficker in the city. She declares:

Few virgins, praise God, have you seen open shop in this city for whom I have not been the agent of their first sale. When a girl is born I enter her name in my register in order to know how many escape my net. What were you thinking? Do you think I live on air? That I inherited an estate?

When Celestina is out walking, a hundred women call out, “old whore.” Dogs bark it, birds sing it, donkeys also bray out “old whore.” So too proclaim frogs. Craftsmen wielding tools of every shape and size hammer out that name. All of creation, even two rocks touched together, proclaim Celestina an old whore.[5]

Celestina is filled with wisdom. She is an expert on the ways of women. To a colleague questioning her ability to get Melibea to have sex with Calisto, Celestina explains:

For even if Melibea is a fierce opponent, she is not, may it please God, the first I have choked the cackle out of. They are all a bit skittish in the beginning, but after they have once been saddled they never want a rest. … And even as old as I am, God knows my longings. How much more these girls who boil without fire!

To a whore affecting reticence toward a suitor, Celestina says:

How plump and fresh you are! What breasts and all so lovely! … Do not be miserly with what has cost you so little. Do not hoard your loveliness, for it is by its nature as good an exchange as money. … Do not believe that you were created for no reason; when a she is born a he is born, and when a he, a she. Nothing is superfluous in the world, nor anything that nature does not provide for. What a sin it is to weary and torment men when they can be helped.

Celestina collects and concocts for medicines and cosmetics a wide array of exotic substances: root of aphodel, bark of sienna, benzoin, serpents’ venom, ointments from bears, horses, camels, whales, and other beasts, fruit pips, St. John’s wort, rosemary, musk, and many different types of threads.[6] Celestina is so learned that she speaks of love in rhetorical contrasts arising from learned Latin literature:

Love is a hidden fire, a pleasant wound, a delicious poison, a sweet bitterness, a delectable hurting, a happy torment, a sweet, fierce wound, a gentle death.

When Celestina tells Calisto that Melibea is in love with him and at his command, Calisto responds naively:

But speak to the conventions of courtly love, Mother. … Melibea is my beloved. Melibea is my goddess. Melibea is my life. I am her captive, I her servant.

Unlike Calisto, Celestina perceives and rejects men’s fruitless subordination in courtly love. She chides Calisto for his lack of self-confidence in relation to Melibea. Wisdom knows that to arouse women, nothing is more important for men than self-confidence. Celestina knows what many men don’t.

Celestina is a treacherous, self-centered, gluttonous schemer and liar. She lies to everyone effortlessly. Her words have no meaning other than her intent to manipulate. She dines on food that others have stolen. To ease her loneliness at night as an old whore, she drinks jugs of wine.[7] She has a knife scar on her face that seems to tell of a scheme gone wrong. When she attempts to cheat two of her men co-conspirators out the share of the booty from procuring Melibea for Calisto, they kill her. These men in turn are killed for their crime. Men’s lives matter much less than the life of the magnificent, admirable, modern tragic heroine Celestina.

Spain’s greatest living writer has applauded Celestina as representing our current world. In a text written about 2009, he declares:

Celestina portrays with disturbing lucidity and precision the fast-approaching universe of chaos and strife we now endure. … The only laws that rule the pitiless universe of Celestina are the sovereign edits of sexual pleasure and the cash nexus. … Does human life exist outside the laws of the market, or is it just one more product for sale? To the anguished question posed by growing inequalities, a close reading of Celestina brings us an inexorably negative answer from five hundred years ago: nature and its blind laws reduce us all to the status of an expendable commodity in a godless, iniquitous world. [8]

Such hackneyed bombast generates warm feels for today’s literary elite. No market has performed worse than the status market for literature and imagination. Celestina no longer represents an aberrational world.

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[1] Roberto González Echevarría, Introduction, in Peden (2009) p. xiii. The subsequent quote is from id. On the title becoming La Celestina in 1518, id. p. xv. Bush & Goytisolo (2010), back cover, describes Celestina as “the first-ever Spanish bestseller.” See also Translator’s Afterword, id. p. 218. About seventy editions of Celestina were printed by 1605. Snow (2008) p. 82. Celestina was translated into Italian in 1505, adapted into English about 1525, and by the end of the seventeenth century translated into French, Flemish, German, Hebrew, and Latin. Celestina had considerable influence on Spanish literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Ayllón (1958) pp. 284-5, Snow (2008).

[2] Celestina, from Spanish trans. Peden (2009) Act 1, pp. 10-2. Calisto’s servant Sempronio tries to enlighten Calisto with a brief review of themes from the literature of men’s sexed protest. Sempronio explains that women taught him that literature. Sempronio also asserts NAWALT:

Listen to Aristotle, look at Bernard. Gentiles, Jews, Christians, and Moors, are all in agreement. But despite what is said, and what women may say, do not commit the error of supposing all women are like that, for they are many, and some are saintly, virtuous, and noble, and their shining crowns exempt them from vituperation.

Act 1, pp. 13-4.

Celestina is available online in the original Spanish. Early editions of Celestina exist in shorter (16 acts) and longer (21 acts) versions. Peden’s translation is the longer version and includes paratext from early editions. In her Translator’s Note, Peden declared:

I wanted what appears on the English language page to be as close as possible to the original Spanish … I wanted to change as little as possible the tone of the original, which would be the inevitable effect in creating a more readable version.

Id. p. viii. Peden also expressed belief in the “true meaning” of words and in the existence of a “perfect translation.” Id. p. viii, x. Even for readers who lack such beliefs, they inspire confidence in Peden’s translation. I find her translation more readable and more enjoyable than that of Bush (2010).

All the subsequent quotes from and references to Celestina are based on Peden’s translation, cited by act and page. The quote sources: Act 6, pp. 95-6 (Has her equal …); Act 4, pp. 67-8 (May you burn …); Act 4, 68 (Jesú! I do not want to hear … ); Act 10, p. 141 (I humbly ask … ); Act 10, p. 149 (O my Calisto …); Act 1, p. 18 (From some time …); Act 1, p. 24 (seamstress …); Act 3, p. 49 (Few virgins …); Act 3, pp. 51-2 (For even if Melibea …); Act 7, 106-7 (How plump and fresh …); Act 10, p. 147 (Love is a hidden fire …); Act 11, p. 154 (But speak to the conventions …).

[3] In Greek myth, Medusa was a woman with a hideous face and venomous snakes for hair. Anyone who looked her in the eyes was turned to stone. Calisto incongruously adapts the Medusa myth in conjunction with a much more naturalistic claim about men’s sexual response.

[4] The epithet “convent-trotter” alludes to Trotaconventos of the fourteenth-century Spanish work Libro de buen amor.

[5] Celestina, Act 1, p. 23. Cf. Psalm 19:1-4. The description is from the servant Parmeno, who grew up with Celestina. Celestina describes much differently how the world addresses her. Act 9, p. 137.

[6] Celestina, Act 1, pp. 25-6; Act 7, p. 107. Other medieval texts similarly describe women collecting exotic materials for medicines, cosmetics, and witchcraft. See, e.g. the Mirror of Jaume Roig. Celestina uses letters written in blood on paper, serpent’s venom, and thread to conjure Pluto. Act 3, p. 55. Her actions in invoking Pluto are similar to erotic spells described in the Greek Magical Papyri, dating from the second to the fifth centuries.

[7] Celestina, Act 9, p. 129. Celestina’s extravagant praise of wine echoes an Arabic poetic tradition (wine poetry, in Arabic khamriyyah) dating from the sixth century. The ninth-century Arabic literary genius al-Jahiz made an important contribution to wine praise.

[8] Juan Goytisolo, Introduction, Bush (2010) pp. x, xi, xvi.  The biography blurb inside the front cover of id. describes Juan Goytisolo as “Spain’s greatest living writer.” In 2014, he won the Miguel de Cervantes Prize.

[image] The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (El sueño de la razón produce monstruos). Etching by Francisco Goya, no. 43 in the series Los Caprichos.  Dated 1797-8.  See also no. 7,  Even Thus He Cannot Recognize Her (Ni así la distingue). Thanks to Museo del Prado (Madrid) and Wikimedia Commons.


Ayllón, Cándido. 1958. “A Survey of Celestina Studies in the Twentieth Century. ” Pp. 283-99 in Mack Hendricks Singleton, trans. 1958. Celestina; a play in twenty-one acts, attributed to Fernando de Rojas. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Bush, Peter R., trans. and Juan Goytisolo, intro. 2010. Fernando de Rojas. Celestina. New York: Penguin Books.

Peden, Margaret Sayers, trans., and Roberto González Echevarría, ed. 2009. Fernando de Rojas. Celestina. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Snow, Joseph T. 2008. “Notes on Cervantes as a Reader/Renewer of Celestina.” Comparative Literature. 60 (1): 81-95.

Dante’s Boethius buried in Boccaccio’s Decameron X.9

Dante sees Boethius in Paradiso X

Raising his eyes to gaze rapturously at the Master’s work, Dante in Canto X of his Paradiso saw “living lights of blinding brightness.” Those lights were the souls of the twelve most eminent Christian thinkers. Dante with thirsting eagerness saw the soul of Boethius within the eighth light:

Within it rejoices, in his vision of all goodness,
the holy soul who makes quite plain
the world’s deceit to one who listens well.

The body from which it was driven out
lies down there in Cieldauro, and he has risen
from martyrdom and exile to this peace. [1]

Defending poetry, Boccaccio criticized those failing to fully understanding Boethius’s words, those who “consider them only superficially.”[2] Boccaccio’s Decameron X.9 magically returned the rich, noble Torello to the Church of Ciel D’Oro where Boethius’s body was buried. In Decameron X.9, Boccaccio responded to Dante with a vision of the true consolation of Lady Philosophy: personally loving, virtuous action in worldly living.

Decameron X.9 begins with a chance encounter between the mighty sultan Saladin and the gentleman Messer Torello di Stra da Pavia. Saladin along with two of his wisest senior counselors were disguised as merchants. Torello, together with servants, dogs, and falcons, was going to his country estate. Torello evidently was wealthy by the standards of European nobility. He was also an influential and respected public figure in his home city of Pavia. Lady Philosophy warned Boethius about valuing too highly wealth and power. Saladin and Torello were men with great wealth and power.

Torello extended lavish hospitality to Saladin and his companions. Since they were looking for lodgings, Torello had them guided to his country estate. There Torello hosted Saladin’s party with pleasant conversation, a meal, and comfortable beds. The next day Torello escorted Saladin’s party to his mansion in Pavia. Fifty leading citizens greeted Saladin’s party in Pavia and joined in a banquet in Torello’s great hall in honor of them. After the dinner was over and the leading gentlemen of Pavia had left, Torello’s wife met privately with Saladin and his companions. She gave them gifts of magnificent robes, doublets, and undergarments.[3] The three tired, old horses that Saladin and his companions rode were quietly replaced by three fine, sturdy palfreys. In response to Torello’s entreaties, Saladin’s party spent another day with him and enjoyed another magnificent feast with many noble guests. Torello had told them that he could not believe that they were merchants. Just before departing, Saladin told Torello, “we may yet have the chance to show you some of our merchandise and make a believer out of you.”[4] A deceit of the world is believing that merchants cannot be noble.

Saladin received an opportunity to make a believer out of Torello. On a Crusade attacking Saladin’s Islamic empire, Torello was captured. Torello’s skill as a falconer brought him into service to Saladin. One day Saladin recognized Torello. Saladin joyfully embraced him and declared that he would be co-ruler of his empire. Despite his new position of wondrous wealth and power, Torello still agonizingly yearned for his wife back home in Pavia. He told Saladin that he wanted either to die or to return home to his wife. Boethius’s Lady Philosophy would have applauded Torello’s valuing of wealth and power relative to being with his wife.

Saladin arranged to transport Torello home quickly. Torello was put to sleep on a bed. Torello thus took the position of Boethius at the beginning of the Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius was in bed in prison, deprived of wealth and honor, and facing execution. Saladin put Torello in bed with dazzling wealth: a extremely valuable crown, a ruby ring, a brooch studded with pearls and precious stones, two enormous golden bowls and doubloons, and much more. Torello in this bed was then magically transported within a single night to Boethius’s burial place, Pavia’s Church of San Pietro in Ciel D’Oro.[5] All in Pavia had believed that Torello was dead. Torello rose as a living man in Boethius’s burial place.

Torello’s return home warded off his wife’s remarriage. After she had mournfully passed the agreed one year, one month, and one day without Torello’s return, Torello’s wife was persuaded to take a new husband. Torello, disguised as an ambassador from Saladin, appeared at the nuptial banquet for his wife’s remarriage. A ring placed in a wine cup prompted her to recognize that the ambassador was really her first husband Torello. She overturned the banquet table in front of her and started shouting:

Then she dashed over to where he {Torello} was sitting, and without giving a thought to her clothing or any of the things on the table, she flung herself across it as far as she could and hugged him to her in a tight embrace. Nor could she be induced to let go of his neck, for anything the people there could say or do, until Messer Torello himself told her to exercise a little self-control, for she would have plenty of time to embrace him later on. [6]

They lived happily together as a wealthy and honored couple for many years thereafter.

Decameron X.9’s vision of all goodness Boccaccio framed with worldly reality. The narrator Panfilo recognized human failures in love:

even though our defects may prevent us from winning the deepest sort of friendship with another person, by imitating the things you hear about in my tale, we may at least derive a certain delight from being courteous to others and hope that sooner or later we will receive our reward for doing so. [7]

Decameron X.9 isn’t told as just a marvelous romance. It’s a moral exemplum showing tribulations ended under the economy of punishment, reward, and credit:

This, then, was how the tribulations of Messer Torello and his beloved wife came to an end, and how they were rewarded for their prompt and cheerful acts of courtesy. There are many people who strive to do the like, but although they have the wherewithal, they perform such deeds so ineptly that before they are finished, those who receive them wind up paying more for them than they are worth. And so, if people get no credit for what they do, neither they nor anyone else should be surprised.

That’s a divine comedy of merchant philosophy and aristocratic performance. That’s Boccaccio’s deep reading of the concluding prayer of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.

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[1] Dante, Commedia, Paradiso X.124-9, from Italian trans. Robert Hollander at the Princeton Dante Project. The previous quote is from X.64. Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy influenced Casella’s song and Cato’s rebuke (Purgatorio II.76-133), Beatrice dispelling the false lady of Dante’s dream (Purgatorio XIX.1-33), and Beatrice’s sudden appearance as a guide for Dante (Purgatorio XXX.49-145). More generally, just as Consolation of Philosophy has Lady Philosophy instructing Boethius, Dante’s Commedia features a series of knowledgeable guides (Virgil, Beatrice, Statius, Bernard of Clairvaux) leading a troubled man. Goddard (2011) argues that Dante included within his Commedia a typological fufillment of Philosophy’s attempt to console Boethius.

[2] Boccaccio, Geneologia deorum gentilium XIV.20, from Latin trans. Osgood (1956) pp. 94-5.

[3] The gifts of undergarments emphasizes intimate friendship.

[4] Boccaccio, Decameron X.9, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 827. Roman aristocratic ideals of Latin antiquity are important context for Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Donato (2013) Ch. 1.

[5] Singleton (1970), p. 188, observes:

He {Boethius} was buried in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, where in 722 a tomb was erected to his memory by Liutprand, king of the Lombards; this was replaced in 990 by a more magnificent one erected by the Emperor Otto III, for which Pope Sylvester II wrote an inscription.

[6] Decameron X.9, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 837.

[7] Decameron X.9, trans. id. p. 820. The Latin etymology of Panfilo is “all loving,” with loving carrying the sense of earnest care for the good of the other, as in deep friendship. The subsequent quote is from id. p. 838.

[image] Illumination of Dante’s Paradiso X, showing twelve lights of the Church, including Boethius. From manuscript of Dante’s Divina Commedia, made about 1444 to 1450 in Northern Italy. BL Yates Thompson 36, fol. 147. Thanks to the British Library and Wikimedia Commons.


Donato, Antonio. 2013. Boethius’ Consolation of philosophy as a product of late antiquity. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Goddard, Victoria Emma Clare. 2011. Poetry and Philosophy in Boethius and Dante. Thesis (Ph.D.)–University of Toronto.

Osgood, Charles Grosvenor. 1956. Boccaccio on poetry; being the preface and the fourteenth and fifteenth books of Boccaccio’s Genealogia deorum gentilium in an English version with introductory essay and commentary. New York: Liberal Arts Press.

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

Singleton, Charles S., trans. and commentary. 1970. Dante Alighieri. The divine comedy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Calisto set up for raping Melibea under new sex regulations

New sex regulations now sweeping America commonly require ongoing, affirmative consent for any form of activity construed as sexual (including touching, kissing, etc.). Affirmative consent means getting a specific verbal or non-verbal indication of agreement prior to the particular act. Affirmative consent for one specific act (touching) doesn’t imply consent to another specific act (kissing). Consent may be revoked at any time. Prior relationship between the parties, even marriage, is irrelevant to consent under this strict regime of individual-act sex contracting.

North Korean totalitarian traffic girl

Under these new sex regulations, before you hug your lover, you must ask for permission. Before you kiss him, you must ask for additional permission. Whether you have to ask permission again before kissing him again is unclear. Who to petition for a prior judgment on such matters, or at least for detailed guidelines, also isn’t clear. According to Ohio State University’s regulations on sexual violence, deception invalidates consent. Whether dyeing your grey hair brown counts as deception isn’t clear (the regulations haven’t yet defined sexual deception). For further guidance on proper sexual conduct and respect for others, you might watch Concordia University’s “Feminism for Bros” teaching video. To appreciate more fully these regulations, consider how they set Calisto up for a charge of raping Melibea in the medieval Spanish masterpiece La Celestina.

The young noble Calisto ardently desired the young genteel Melibea. Duped by his servants, Calisto engaged the wickedly deceptive go-between Celestina to further his suit. Melibea had initially rebuffed Calisto. However, with trickery, flattery, and puffery, Celestina stirred Melibea to ardent desire for Calisto. Conversing across a closed door of her house, Melibea told Calisto:

Señor Calisto, your great merit, your boundless graces, your high birth have, after I had a complete account of you, been cause for my being unable to tear you from my heart. And although I have struggled for many days to hide it, I have since that woman brought your sweet name to my mind been unable to keep secret my desire. I have come to this place and time, where I beg to hear your orders, and ask that you direct my person as you wish. [1]

Calisto was willing to break the door down to consummate their relationship. Melibea, however, warned him off that action. She arranged instead a tryst with him in her garden at midnight on the next night.

Brushing off concern for the sudden criminal execution of two of his servants, Calisto arrived at Melibea’s garden the next night. Without securing affirmative consent from Melibea, Calisto hugged her. He said to her:

O angelic image! O precious pearl, next to whom the whole world is ugly. O my dear mistress and my glory! I hold you in my arms, and I do not believe it. Such a whirlwind of pleasure dwells within me that I cannot feel my joy.

Melibea responded fearfully:

My señor, I put myself in your hands because I wanted to do your will; may I not be worse for being merciful rather than aloof and without mercy. Do not harm me in exchange for such brief pleasure, and in so short a time. For when bad things are done, they can sooner be reprehended than mended. Enjoy what I enjoy, which is to see you and be close to you. Do not ask for, or take, that which once taken will not be in your power to return. Take care, Señor, not to harm what all the world’s treasures cannot restore.

Melibea is referring to her virginity. That reference gains extra piquancy from Celestina “mending maidenheads” in her business of running of brothel. She reportedly sold to the French ambassador three times a girl that she represented to be a virgin.[2] Calisto rebuffed Melibea’s concern for her virginity:

Sweet mistress, I have spent my lifetime in obtaining this favor; would I, when it is given me, toss it away? You will not command me, sweet mistress, nor will I be able, to restrain my desire. Do not ask me to be so fainthearted. No one who is a man could be capable of doing such a thing, particularly not loving as much as I do.

Even in mid-thrust, under criminal law a man must stop if his partner stops consenting. Melibea here objected to Calisto’s touching:

‘Pon my life! Though your tongue may speak what it wishes, deter your hands from doing as they want! Still them, my señor. Be content that I am yours. Enjoy outwardly the time-honored fruit of lovers: hold back your wish to steal the greatest gift nature has given me!

Calisto seems to have interpreted Melibea’s words as a pretense of modesty. He continued and pretended to be repentant:

Forgive, dear girl, my reprehensible and shameless hands that with their unworthiness never thought to touch even your clothing; now they rejoice in reaching your sweet body and beautiful, delicate flesh.

At this point Melibea dismissed her co-conspiring servant. That makes no sense if Melibea actually wanted Calisto to stop touching her and not continue on to sex. Nonetheless, after dismissing her servant, Melibea lamented:

I want none of my error. If I had thought that you would have your way with me so immoderately, I would not have entrusted my person to your cruel company.

Melibea didn’t affirmatively consent to have sex with Calisto during their secret meeting in the garden after midnight. After having sex, Melibea expressed deeply felt regret and fear:

O my life, my señor! How much have you wanted that I lose the title and crown of virgin for such brief delight? O Mother! Sinner! If you had knowledge of such a thing, how willingly you would welcome death, and have need to take mine by force! How you would be the cruel executioner of your own blood! How I would become the sorrowful end to your days! O my honored father, how I have stained your reputation and given cause and place to the downfall of your house! O what a traitor I am! Why did I not first look at the ruinous error that would follow his entering, the great danger that awaited? [3]

Under the sex regulations that govern most college students in the U.S. today, Calisto would be formally guilty of sexual assault and rape. But ongoing, affirmative consent for every specific type of intimate activity wasn’t required for romantic encounters in medieval Spain. Educated persons in medieval Spain understood that persons use words in sophisticated, highly cultured ways. Educated persons in medieval Spain understood that no doesn’t always mean no, nor yes, yes. Humane, perceptive persons in the Middle Ages knew that mixed emotions are an aspect of human experience and that regret sometimes follows desired sex.

Melibea and Calisto’s first sexual encounter concluded with a pointer to her delight in their sexual relationship. Despite her regret and fear, Melibea said to Calisto as he left her at the end of that first night:

Señor, God be with us. Everything is yours. Now I am your dear mistress; now you cannot deny my love; now you cannot refuse me a sight of you by day, passing by my door, or at night, where you command. May you come to this secret place at the same hour, where I always await you anticipating the joy you leave with me, and thinking of nights to come. [4]

To ease his pain from being apart from her, Calisto later joyfully recalled to himself Melibea’s equivocations :

sweet imagination, you that can, come to my aid. Bring to my fantasy the angelic presence of that radiant image; carry to my ears the soft sound of her words: those palely uttered parries, that “Step back. Señor, do not come near me,” that “Do not be ill-mannered” I heard from your rosy lips; that “Do not covet my perdition” that you proposed from time to time; those loving embraces between words; that letting me go and clasping me to you; that fleeing and approaching; those sugared kisses … Those last words with which she bade me farewell left her lips with such pain! With such waving of arms! With so many tears resembling seeds of pearls that fell without her awareness from her clear, shining eyes!

Despite questionable aspects of their initial sexual encounter, Melibea and Calisto seem to have been pleased with it. They subsequently had eight similar midnight trysts in the garden in the next month.[5]

Celestina describes Calisto and Melibea’s ninth midnight tryst in more detail. Melibea welcomed Calisto with exuberant joy. She chided her servant-woman for longingly touching Calisto (apparently without affirmative consent) as she took his weapons and clothes. Melibea also teased Calisto with denial of her consent for sexual intimacies:

since you, my señor, are the exemplar of courtesy and good breeding, how do you command my tongue to speak but not your roving hands to remain quiet? Why do you not forget their artful tricks? Order them to be at rest and leave their irritating ways and unsupportable manners. Look, my angel, just having you quiet beside me is agreeable to me, but your roughness is annoying. Your honorable games give me pleasure, your dishonorable hands exhaust me when they surpass what is reasonable. Leave my clothing in place, and if you wish to see if my outer gown is of silk or cotton, why do you touch my shift? You know it is of linen. We can frolic and play in a thousand different ways that I will show you, but do not hurt and mistreat me as you are wont to do. What benefit is it to you to damage my clothing?

Melibea’s servant-woman provides context for interpreting Melibea’s sophisticated complaints:

May I die of buboes if I listen any longer. This is life? Here am I burning with jealousy, and she being elusive in order to be begged! … I could do the same if his idiot servants would talk to me someday, but they wait until I have to go and seek them.

Men shoulder a vastly unequal gender burden of initiating and pursuing sexual relationships. Women and men’s pleasure in men’s boldness and women’s reluctance tends to criminalize men in heterosexual seduction.

While Melibea expressed regret after first-time sex with Calisto, she committed suicide in grief at Calisto’s accidental death. Part of Melibea’s regret at losing her virginity was fear of her parents’ reaction. That fear didn’t dominate her preferences. She subsequently acted strongly to dissuade her parents from arranging a marriage for her. She boldly informed her father how “his {Calisto’s} desire and mine” was realized:

Vanquished by his love, I let him into your house. With ladders he overcome the walls of your garden, just as he overcame my resistance. I lost my virginity. From that pleasureful error of love we took joy for nearly a month.

In narrating the realization of their desires, Melibea credited Calisto with skill and strength. She didn’t charge him with acting wrongly. She then, in anguish from Calisto’s death, committed suicide by jumping off a tower in front of her father’s eyes.

Totalitarian sex regulations indicate societal suicide. The new sex laws and policies now sweeping America are so unrealistic as to make almost everyone who ever had sex a perpetrator of rape, or sexual assault, or sexual misconduct. Rape has always been regarded as a relatively serious crime. Making everyone a sex criminal and blurring very different categories of wrongs makes a mockery of law, fairness, and justice.[6] Even amid the lies, delusions, greed, immorality, and treachery of La Celestina, no voice in that text accuses Calisto of raping Melibea.

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[1] Celestina, from Spanish trans. Peden (2009) Act 12, p. 167. Celestina  is available online in the original Spanish. All the subsequent quotes from Celestina are from Peden’s translation, cited by act and page. The quote sources: Act 14, pp. 189-92 (O angelic image …  and subsequent seven quotes);  Act 14, p. 197 (sweet imagination …); Act 19, pp. 230-1 (since you, my señor, are the exemplar … and subsequent quote); Act 20, p. 240 (Vanquished by his love …).

[2] Act 1, p. 25. Report according to Calisto’s servant Parmeno.

[3] Melibea moves from speaking to Calisto (O my life, my señor!), to speaking to her mother (O Mother!), to self-address in the voice of her mother (Sinner!), back to addressing her mother (If you had knowledge …), to addressing her father (O my honored father), and then to her self (Why did I not first look …). Those shifts in address suggest intensity of feeling. Her regret and fear don’t seem feigned.

[4] Peden’s translation includes the sentence fragment, “At night, where you command.” The sense seems to me connected to the previous sentence. I’ve thus made a small change in the quote above. Singleton’s translation supports my change. Singleton (1958) p. 201.

[5] Calisto’s servant Sosia revealed this fact in response to Areúsa’s guileful questioning. Act 17, Peden (2009) p. 217.

[6] The new sex crime laws and policies are being enacted in the context widespread lying, scare-mongering,and anti-men bigotry in reporting facts about sexual assault, contempt for due process of men accused of these crimes, and vastly gender-disproportionate imprisonment of men. In that social context, promoting those laws and polices is particularly benighted.

[image] Woman traffic officer at a crossroad in Pyongyang, North Korea, Sept. 5, 2010. Thanks to Roman Harak for making this photo available under a Creative Commons By-SA 2.0 license.


Peden, Margaret Sayers, trans., and Roberto González Echevarría, ed. 2009. Fernando de Rojas. Celestina. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Singleton, Mack Hendricks, trans. 1958. Celestina; a play in twenty-one acts, attributed to Fernando de Rojas. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Maximianus lacked consolation of Lady Philosophy & Boethius

Lady Philosophy (Lady Grammar) teaching her children

Maximianus’s sixth-century elegiac poetry lacked the consolation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Unlike Lady Philosophy taking Boethius home, Maximianus through a series of demoralizing sexual relationships aged into a bitter old man. Maximianus is the unsaved Boethius, boasting in his social status, exploiting the power of money, and living in memories. Because his achievements couldn’t secure for him stasis in incarnate life, Maximianus sought death. Without understanding, he achieved it.

Maximianus’s most enduring intimate relationship failed from sameness and stasis. He had a long-term relationship with Lycoris, a lady as lovely as the Lycoris of Cornelius Gallus’s famous elegies. Maximianus explained:

Lo, lovely Lycoris too much loved by me,
Our minds, our very lives one and the same,
Though we had lived for many years united,
In loathing has rejected my embrace
And now seeks other younger men and loves. [1]

Lack of polarity — minds and lives one and the same — kills sexual unions. Maximianus ignorantly pleaded with Lycoris:

I’m aged, but your hair’s as white as mine:
Our equal age brings harmony of soul.

Equal age brings harmony only in the mind. Memories similarly are only assets in the mind:

If now I cannot, remember, once I could:
Suffice it to please you that I pleased before.

Suffice that didn’t. Virgil wisely observed that women are always varying and responding to circumstances, and that men must live with similar dynamism.[2] Maximianus begged for love to endure as memory:

Old reverence still remains for worn-out farmers,
The soldier loves what he saw in the veteran,
The rustic weeps for the bullock which has served him,
The rider honors the horse with whom he aged.

Reverence for an old farmer differs significantly from appreciation for being vigorously plowed. Life is in the performance:

Time has not spoiled me so of my earlier blooming:
Look, I make verses and sing sweet ditties for you.

The fundamental performance is the word made flesh, not the flesh made word.

Maximianus’s work negotiating an international peace treaty was less significant than the proclamation of a Greek dancing girl. As a legate from Rome to the East, Maximianus negotiated a peace treaty between two kingdoms. Then he fell in love with a young Greek dancing girl. She radiated feminine sensuality:

A thrill it was counting her curls as they shook with her motion,
And it was a thrill to see her dark hair on white skin.
Her nipples stood firmly forth, bewildering our eyes,
While her breasts you could squeeze in the hollow of your hand.
Ah, how her writhing loins stirred the spectator’s lust
And the round plump thighs that joined her stomach beneath! [3]

Maximianus understood his role narrowly and impersonally. In his first night with her, he declared that he “discharged my function.” Under the weight of this inward gaze of internalized misandry, Maximianus’s penis stopped functioning. The girl made vigorous and valiant efforts to revive his vitality. Maximianus, however, remained sexually inert. Seeking to sooth his grief and hurt, the girl sang a tearful, praiseful lament:

Penis, the busy provider of festive days,
Once the delight of my heart and a treasure to me,
What dirge can I moan for you, drowned in your tears,
What songs shall I sing you worthy of such great merits?
You were accustomed to please me when I was horny
And to divert my passion with fun and games.
You were my fondest guardian throughout the night,
The dear companion of sadness as well as joy.
You were the most faithful confidant of my secrets,
Standing at guard with indulgent intimacy;
Where has your fervor gone, which would strike and please me?
Where is its crested and wound-producing head?
You’re certainly limp, no longer suffused with a blush,
Pale, with your head held low, you’re certainly limp.
My blandishments, charming songs do nothing for you
Nor anything which could coax your passion avails.
Here I shall weep for you just as if you were dead:
Yes, it is dead because it lacked careful attention. [4]

The Greek girl lavished Maximianus’s body with loving attention. His sexual death resulted from his own lack of attention to himself.

Unlike Maximianus himself, the Greek girl recognized the universal significance of Maximianus’s sexuality. In response to her tearful, praiseful lament of his limp penis, he laughed at her and suggested that she was sick with carnal yearning. As a strong, independent woman with a clear-reasoning mind, she denounced his narrow-minded betrayal:

You’re wrong, you traitor, dead wrong!
I’m lamenting not a private, but universal chaos.
This generates the race of humans, the herds,
The birds, the beasts, whatever breathes in this world.
Without it there is no coming-together of sexes,
Without it, the consummate joy of marriage is gone.
This it is that draws two minds to a single agreement
In order to transform into one body two souls.
With its loss a beautiful woman loses her beauty
And if he has lost it a man turns ugly as well.
If this sparkling seed is not sown in a shining soil,
It becomes but another deceptive and deadly weed.
Pure truthfulness, well-kept secrets whisper to you,
O truly our bountiful, beautiful, fruit-bearing blessing!
You are very happy, I say, suited for the happy,
Lo, take and use the delights that are kindred to us!

You force the raging tigers to a mutual affection,
By you the lion is rendered both gentle and tame.
Your virtue is marvelous, so is your patience: the conquered
You love, and you often love to be conquered yourself.
When overcome you lie low; you resume strength and vigor,
And once again you defeat and then are defeated.
Your anger is brief, your pity is great, joy recurring,
And whenever your power is lost your purpose remains. [5]

Maximianus’s work negotiating international peace treaties was trivial relative to the sexual potential of his body.[6] He lost his purpose because he failed to understand.

While the Greek girl was Lady Philosophy in the bedroom, Maximianus’s Boethius parodied Boethius. Maximianus as a young man was lovesick for the young woman Aquilina. She was also lovesick for him. Her parents impeded their union. Maximianus in despair cried out to Boethius, whom he called “the greatest investigator of the biggest things.”[7] While Boethius’s Boethius couldn’t diagnosis his own despair, Maximianus’s Boethius diagnosed Maximianus’s lovesickness. Maximianus’s Boethius effected a cure through buying off Aquilina’s parents. When Aquilina became available to him, Maximianus lost interest in her. In response to his coldness, her love turned to hate. Boethius boasted of this cure. Maximianus left Boethius to lead a life of chastity as a sullen, unhappy person. That’s not the end of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.[8]

Maximianus’s elegiac poetry ends as it begins — with death-oriented prayer not directed to God above.[9] Worldly incarnation is sexual. Maximianus’s elegiac poetry emphasizes failure in sexual acts and offers instead living in memories and words:

Unhappy as though from a funeral, I rise:
Although my part is dead, I live I think. [10]

In Latin, this couplet has an end rhyme in the verbs for “rise” and “think.” The Latin etymology of mentula (“penis”) suggests “little mind.”

Be brave enough to follow the lead of the Greek girl. Speak the name of the penis. In the universal order, human life continues only with the rising penis.

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[1] Maximianus, Elegies 2.1-5, from Latin trans. Lind (1988) p. 326. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from Maximianus are from Lind’s translation, with some changes that I’ve noted. The line numbers refer to Lind’s translation. They follows the Latin line numbers closely. The subsequent four quotes are from 2.55-64. Maximianus’s Latin text is available online.

With his edition of 1501, the young Venetian humanist Pomponius Gauricus established the division of Maximianus’s work into six elegies. In the surviving medieval manuscripts, Maximianus’s work appears continuous, with widely varying graphic marks indicating sections. Wasly (2011) pp. 113-4, inc. n. 9. I use the division of the poetry only for conventional referencing. My interpretation favors the unity of the elegies.

Gauricus attributed Maximianus’s elegiac poetry to the famed Augustine elegist Cornelius Gallus. Gallus was distinctively associated with a mistress named Lycoris. Several fourteenth-century manuscripts similarly attribute the poetry to Gallus. In one of the best manuscripts, Maximianus’s elegiac poetry is included with Ovid’s Remedia Amoris. Id. p. 113, n. 5.

Nothing is known about Maximianus other than what is inferred from the poetry. The name Maximianus comes from within the text at 4.26. The author probably wrote in the mid-sixth century. The extent to which Maximianus’s elegiac poetry is autobiographical is controversial among scholars. Walker (1689), the first published English translation, offers a realistic-biographical interpretation. Maximianus’s poetry is highly literary and intertextual, particularly with reference to Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and Ovid. On Maximianus’s intertextuality with Ovid, see especially Amores 3.7 and Uden & Fielding (2010). I refer to the narrator / author as Maximianus merely for ease of reference.

Perhaps some or all of another, closely related set of six anonymous poems are also by Maximianus. Barnish (1990) p. 16. When I refer to Maximianus’s elegiac poetry, I mean the six poems of the established Maximianus tradition.

Maximianus’s poetry was highly popular in late medieval Europe. It was used as a medieval school text. Lind (1988) p. 309.

[2] Virgil, Aeneid 4.569: varium et mutabile semper femina (woman is always varying and circumstantially responsive).

[3] Maximianus, Elegies 5.25-30. The subsequent brief quote is from 5.47.

[4] Maximianus, Elegies 5.86-104. The opening Latin word of address is mentula. Lind translates that with the disparaging term “pecker.” Above I substituted the objective term “penis.”

[5] Maximianus, Elegies 5.109-24, 145-52. The Latin for 5.110 is non fleo priuatum, set generale chaos. Lind has “I’m not lamenting a private, but general chaos.” Above I’ve clarified the position of the negative and replaced “general” with “universal” to bring out the cosmic, generative connotation. Lind’s 5.111 begins “This member …”  The Latin has only haec (this). That’s what I’ve used above.

[6] Insightfully directing attention to the “Ode to Mentula” (5.109-53), Tandy (2015) interprets it as carrying the universal meaning that the contemporary Roman world is “frustrated, old, and dying.” From a Christian perspective, the personal and the universal are intimately connected. Just as in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Christian understanding in Maximianus’s elegiac poetry is subtle and fundamental.

[7] Maximianus, Elegies 3.47-8: magnarum scrutator maxime rerum, my literal translation. Lind has “lone investigator of the universe.” The above paragraph describes the plot of elegy three. Mitchell (2003), p. 379, observes that elegy three is “on any reckoning potentially rich with irony at the expense of Boethius.”

[8] Elegy 3 ends with Maximianus leaving Boethius to live a sullen life of chastity. Elegy 5 ends with the Greek girl leaving Maximianus in sorrow. In the apt phrase of Wasyl (2011), Maximianus offers elegy without love. That’s no consolation.

Barnish (1990), pp. 25-8, reads the Greek girl (Graia puella) as an adaptation of Boethius’s “musical and highly Greek lady Philosophy.” Barnish, however, contrasts the sexual interests of the Greek girl with the intellectual interests of Philosophy. That contrast seems to me overdrawn. Lady Philosophy has conjugal interests in Boethius. The Greek girl has deep intellectual understanding of the world.

Uden & Fielding (2010), pp. 453-4, relate elegy 5 to Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy 3.7.3: “anyone who wishes to recall his own lusts will understand that the end of pleasure is sorrow.” Those words of Lady Philosophy plausible refer to Boethius’s activities with the “theatre whores” of 1.1. Lady Philosophy and her muses seek to bring Boethius to a truer and happier loving union. Id., p. 457, emphasizes in Maximianus “ongoing conflict between the will of the flesh and the will of the mind.” Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy ends that conflict.

The Greek girl is much more forward than Lady Philosophy. Wasyl (2011) perceptively observes:

She {the Greek girl} focuses precisely on the problem of sex, rejecting the asexual or anti-sexual vision of the world. What she emphasizes is the creative power of mentula … and – which sounds particularly worthy of note – in human beings, the natural correlation between the body, epitomized, so to speak, by the phallus, and the mind. These two elements, the woman seems to warn, must be seen as complementary.

Id. pp. 154-5.

[9] Compare Maximianus, Elegies 1.1-8 to 6.1-2.

[10] Maximianus, Elegies 6.11-2:

infelix ceu iam defleto funere surgo
hac me defunctum uiuere parte puto.

For this couplet Lind has:

Unhappy as though from a funeral I arise:
Although my member is dead I shall live in my art.

Cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses XV.871-9. Uden & Fielding (2010), p. 457, translates the last couplet:

I rise unhappily, as it were from my lamented funeral rites:
though dead in this part, I think that I live on.

Id. alternatively translates the last line as “Although my member is dead, I think I live on.” My translation above tries to preserve the subtlety of Maximianus’s poetry, particularly the resonances of the end-rhymed verbs “rise” and “think” in relation to Maximianus’s obliquely specified mentula / parte.

[image] Lady Grammar teaching the rules of Latin to her children. Illumination from tenth-century instance of  Martianus Capella, Marraige of Philology and Mercury. Folio 127, Latin 7900 A, Département des Manuscrits, BnF (Bibliothèque nationale de France), Paris. Thanks to BnF and Wikimedia Commons.


Barnish, S. J. B. 1990. “Maximian, Cassiodorus, Boethius, Theodahad: Literature, Philosophy and Politics in Ostrogothic Italy.” Nottingham Medieval Studies. 34 (1): 16-32.

Lind, L. R., trans. 1988. Gabriele Zerbi, Gerontocomia: on the care of the aged ; and Maximianus, Elegies on old age and love. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

Mitchell, J. Allan. 2003. “Boethius and Pandarus: A Source in Maximian’s Elegies.” Notes and Queries. 50 (4): 377-380.

Tandy, Sean. 2015. “The ‘Ode to Mentula’ and the Interpretation of Maximianus’ Opus.” Presentation at the 111th Meeting of  Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS), Boulder, CO, March 25-28.

Uden, James, and Ian Fielding. 2010. “Latin Elegy in the Old Age of the World: The Elegiac Corpus of Maximianus.” Arethusa. 43 (3): 439-460.

Walker, Hovenden, trans. 1689. Maximianus. The Impotent lover: accurately described in six elegies upon old age; with the old doting letcher’s resentments on the past pleasures and vigorous performances of youth. Made English from the Latin of Cn. Cornelius Gallus. By H. Walker, Gent. London: Printed for B. Crayle at the Peacock and Bible at the West end of St. Paul’s Church.

Wasyl, Anna Maria. 2011. Genres Rediscovered: Studies in Latin Miniature Epic, Love Elegy, and Epigram of the Romano-Barbaric Age. Kraków: Jagiellonian University Press.

De miseria humanae conditionis: elegant medieval Latin design

Salisbury Cathedral: elegant design

In 1195, the young cardinal Lotario dei Segni dedicated a text to his older friend and near-classmate among cardinals, Peter Gallocia. Lotario’s prologue intimately related:

I lately took a bit of rest during my many troubles, the occasion of which you know; but I did not spend this time in complete idleness. Rather, to put down pride, the chief of all vices, I undertook to write, as best I could, something about the vileness of the human condition. This little work I have dedicated to you, asking only that if your keen mind find in it anything worthwhile, you attribute all to divine grace. Yet if your lordship approve it, I will henceforth, with Christ’s favor, describe also the dignity of human nature; so that, as in the present work the proud man is brought low, in that the humble man will be exalted. [1]

The text that Lotario dedicated to Peter — De miseria humanae conditionis (On the misery of the human condition) — is a woeful treatise. It contains:

  • Book 1 — The miserable entrance upon the human condition
  • Book 2 — The guilty progress of the human condition
  • Book 3 — The damnable exit from the human condition

Lotario probably wasn’t seeking to immerse his friend and colleague in misery. Misery is only part of the design. In the prologue, Lotario explicitly presents himself as humble. Moreover, he planned another, complementary work that would exalt the dignity of human nature. Humiliating the proud and exalting the humble is a theme of Mary’s Magnificat and a pattern of Jesus’s life. From an all-encompassing perspective, De miseria humanae conditionis has an elegant design. Its appeal is reflected in its reception: it was a widely disseminated and highly influential medieval and early modern text.[2]

Lotario was concerned with words and with acting in the world. Lotario, who was from a wealthy family, explained:

How many magnates are in need, and how much, I myself frequently experience. Wealth thus makes a man not rich, but poor. [3]

Lotario’s lived experience connected to his rhetorical contrast. Lotario’s experience among the elite of the Roman curia apparently shaped his figures of vanity and prompted personal meta-commentary:

“All things are vanity, as is every man living.” For what is more vain than to comb the locks, paint the face, smooth the hair on the head, rouge the checks, elongate the eyebrows, when “Favor is deceitful and beauty is vain.” … But let me pass over the adornment of the person, lest I seem to be attacking some men more in malice than in truth.” [4]

More than a century before Dante wrote his Commedia, Lotario perceived that in Hell, “evil-doers will be punished in those parts {of their bodies} where they have sinned.” An even wider span of sense occurs in Lotario’s discussion of variations of punishment in Hell. He declared that quantity of punishment will be ordered, but the quality of punishment will be uniform:

there will be no order in quality: they will all be plunged from icy water into unbearable heat, so that the sudden extremes will inflict a more dread torment. For I have found from experience that if one who has been burnt applies cold, he feels a more burning pain. [5]

Dante within his Commedia insisted that his verbal figures were real. Lotario’s verbal figures implied real experience to him.

Lotario considered carefully the order of words in relation to truth. He recounted a scholastic exemplum:

Once a certain philosopher, wishing to ridicule the arrogance of a certain king, when he saw him sitting up high on the royal throne, fell down on the earth and worshiped him as a suppliant. And then all of a sudden without invitation he went up and sat beside the king. The king was amazed, and knowing that the man was a philosopher demanded the reason why he had done this. Whereupon the philosopher replied: “Either you are God or you are a man; if God, I must worship you; if a man, I may sit beside you.” But the king, turning the philosopher’s answer against him, retorted: “But then, if I am a man, you must not worship me; if God, you must not sit beside me.” The philosopher replied wisely, but the king cleverly outmaneuvered him. [6]

Such wisdom and cleverness wasn’t for Lotario merely a human technique to pursue human ends. Arrangements and re-arrangements of words in exploring truth forms the elegant verbal design of De miseria humanae conditionis.

Death is called a meeting, because Christ comes to meet the soul.
{Dicitur obitus, quia obviam venit ei Christus.}

Should I say the tolerable intolerance of diseases, or should I say the intolerable tolerance? I should better join both together, for it is intolerable because of the severity of the suffering and tolerable because of the necessity of suffering.
{Tolerabilem dixerim morborum intoleranciam, aut intolerabilem dixerim toleranciam? Melius utrumque coniunxerim, nam intolerabilis est propter passionis acerbitatem et tolerabilis propter paciendi necessitatem.}

Not what law decrees, but what your mind desires. You do not incline your intellect to justice, but incline justice to your intellect; not that what is lawful may be pleasing, but that what is pleasing may be lawful.
{Non quod lex sanctiat, set quod mens cupiat. Non inclinatis animum ad iusticiam, set iusticiam inclinatis ad animum; non ut quod licet hoc libeat, set ut liceat hoc quod libet.}

Profit in the bank, loss in conscience; you capture money, but you take your soul captive.
{Lucrum in archa, dampnum in consciencia; pecuniam captatis, set animam captivatis.}

A person is valued according to his wealth, when wealth should be valued according to the person.
{Secundum fortunam estimatur persona, cum pocius secundum personam sit estimanda fortuna.}

Their nervousness makes them depressed, and their depression makes them nervous.
{Conturbat tristicia, contristat turbacio.} [7]

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[1] Lotario dei Segni, De miseria humanae conditionis Prologue, from Latin trans. Dietz (1969) p. 3. Here’s a Latin text. Maccarrone (1955) provides a Latin text based mainly on Biblioteca Vallicelliana (Rome) MS. F. 26. Lewis (1978) p. 65, n. 1, criticizes that choice and notes that Maccarrone’s edition is based on “study of fewer than 30 percent of the extant manuscripts.” Lewis (1978) provides a Latin edition that attempts to reconstruct the text that Chaucer read. Id. includes a critical apparatus that provides variant readings.

Manuscript variants have rather little significance for the discussion here. Different manuscripts have different orders of chapters, and some omit some chapters. Chapters 2, 3, and 8 in Book 3 are commonly omitted. See Lewis, Appendix III. Lotario is also spelled Lothario. De miseria humanae conditionis is variously spelled De miseria humane conditionis and De miseria conditionis humanae. It’s also commonly titled De Contemptu Mundi. That title, however, is neither original nor appropriate:

The de contemptu mundi tradition of the century or two before Lotario stressed withdrawal from the world and secular affairs. De Miseria more accurately describes the contents of this treatise, one which is admittedly one-sided, stressing the misery of the human condition but consciously reserving the dignity of human nature for a treatise to be written later. It is a treatise, moreover, which does not call for withdrawal to a monastery.

Moore (1981) pp. 554-5.

Lotario was born in 1160 or 1161 within the powerful Roman Conti family. His father was Count Trasimund of Segni. Lotario studied under leading scholars at the leading universities of Paris and Bologna. In 1190, when he was about 30, Lotario’s uncle Pope Clement III made him a cardinal-deacon. When Celestine III became Pope in 1191, Lotario was not relieved of his duties as a cardinal. Moore (1981) p. 554. Cf. Dietz & Howard (1969) p. xxi.  Lotario wrote De miseria humanae conditionis in 1195. In 1198, at age 37, Lotario became Pope Innocent III. Patrologia Latina includes many writings of Lotario dei Segni / Pope Innocent III.

Peter Gallocia (Galluzzi) was born about 1125 in Rome. In 1188, Pope Clement III made him a cardinal-deacon. In 1190, Gallocia became cardinal-bishop of the Diocese of Porto and Santa Rufina. Under the leadership of his long-time friend Lotario dei Segni / Pope Innocent III, Gallocia became Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals in April, 1206.

[2] About 672 manuscripts of De miseria humanae conditionis have survived. Through the mid-seventeenth century, about 52 editions had been printed. By the end of the seventeenth century, it had been translated into Dutch, English, Flemish, French, German, Irish, Italian, and Spanish. It was widely read and quoted, and greatly influenced other writers. Lewis (1978) pp. 3-5. De miseria humanae conditionis has far more literary importance than merely as a source for Chaucer’s The Man of Law’s Tale.

[3] De miseria humanae conditionis 2.8 (“On riches falsely named”), trans. Moore (1981) p. 559. The translation of Dietz (1969), p. 39, has a minor inaccuracy in the verb tense.

[4] De miseria humanae conditionis 2.40 (“On the adornment of the person, table, and house”), trans. Dietz (1969) combined with Moore (1981), p. 559. Id. notes that aliquos is masculine. For that term above I’ve used “some men.” Christian men writers championing women’s natural beauty frequently condemned women’s cosmetics and woman’s personal adornment.

[5] De miseria humanae conditionis 3.11 (“On the variations in punishment”), trans. Dietz (1969) p. 78. The previous quote is from 3.9 (“On the fire of Hell”).

[6] De miseria humanae conditionis 2.36 (“On the qualities of the arrogant”), trans. Dietz (1969) p. 61.

[7] De miseria humanae conditionis,referenced in Dietz (1969): 3.3 (“On the coming of Christ on the day of any man’s death”), p. 70; 1.26 (“That there are innumerable kinds of illness”), p. 29; 2.4 (“On respect of persons”), p. 35; 2.5 (“On the sale of justice”), p. 37; 1.15 (“On the misery of the rich and poor”), p. 17; 1.14 (“Of various anxieties”), p. 16. The translations also draw on Lewis (1978) and my adaptations.

[image] Salisbury Cathedral (Wiltshire, England), view looking west from the choir towards the nave. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0, available on Wikimedia Commons.


Dietz, Margaret Mary, trans. and Donald R. Howard, ed. 1969. Lothario dei Segni. On the misery of the human condition. De miseria humane conditionis. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Lewis, Robert E., ed. and trans. 1978. Lotario dei Segni. De miseria conditionis humanae. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Maccarrone, Michele, ed. 1955. Lotario dei Segni. Lotharii cardinalis (Innocentii III) De miseria humane conditionis. Lugano: Thesauri Mundi.

Moore, John C. 1981. “Innocent III’s De Miseria Humanae Conditionis: A Speculum Curiae?” The Catholic Historical Review. 67 (4): 553-564.

understanding the misery of sexless and married men

beautiful woman, sexless men

In 1195, Lotario dei Segni, a young man of privilege and achievement, wrote De miseria humanae conditionis (On the misery of the human condition). The status of De miseria humanae conditionis as a masterwork of medieval rhetoric has tended to obscure its contribution to the literature of men’s sexed protest. De miseria humanae conditionis recognizes the natural burden of men’s lustful nature and the misery of sexless and married men. Public policies that better accommodate men’s natural burden can lessen gender inequality and increase the happiness of women and men. Men’s misery is everyone’s misery.

Within its extensive description of human misery, De miseria humanae conditionis marshaled wide-ranging authorities on men’s misery in sexlessness and marriage. The relevant chapter begins aphoristically:

Only as fire does not burn, does flesh not lust
{Si potest ignis non urere, potest caro non concupiscere} [1]

The chapter then provides a biblical figure. Like the Jebusite in Jerusalem, lust is an aboriginal inhabitant in the land of humanity.[2] The chapter further adds non-Christian authority from an epistle praising rural life to a city-loving friend:

You may drive nature out with a pitchfork,
But she will come back again. [3]

Wisdom, holy scripture, and pagan authority make for a weighty argument. Condemning men’s lust means condemning men. Lust is an inextricable part of men’s human nature.

Socially recognized states of celibacy and marriage regulate men’s sexuality. For men burning with lust, the normative course is to turn formally from celibacy to marriage. De miseria humanae conditionis forthrightly acknowledged men’s subordination within marriage:

She {a wife} wants to master, and will not be mastered. She will not be a servant, she must be in charge. She must have a finger in everything. [4]

De miseria humanae conditionis influentially described three mundane problems that promote homelessness among married men:

There are three things which keep a man from staying home: smoke, a leaky roof, and a shrewish wife.

De miseria humanae conditionis incorporates material from Theophrastus’s golden book on marriage. However, reversing Jerome’s gynocentrism, De miseria humanae conditionis transformed the various ways that men attract women into various ways that women attract men.[5] Jerome sought to dissuade women from marriage. Given men’s natural burden of lust and the miseries of marriage for men, dissuading men from marriage is the more important task.

De miseria humanae conditionis describes the dilemma of a husband with an adulterous wife. Men’s natural lustfulness leaves them without appealing choices as husbands:

the burden of marriage is heavy indeed, for “He that keeps an adulteress is foolish and wicked,” and he is the very protector of shame who conceals his wife’s crime. But if he puts away the adulteress he is punished for no fault of his own, since while she is alive he is forced to be continent. [6]

Being forced to be continent oppresses men. Yet living with an adulteress-wife is also difficult:

Who could ever calmly put up with a rival? Suspicion alone tortures the jealous man, for although it is written, “They shall be two in one flesh,” a man’s jealousy will scarcely tolerate two men in the flesh of one woman.

Upon divorce, gender-biased family courts commonly deprive men of custody of their children and impose crushing monthly payments that ex-husbands must make to their ex-wives. To promote gender equality, some men today are learning to support their adulterous wives within marriage. Yet educating men to embrace adulterous wives falls short of overcoming the effects of anti-men gender bias in family courts. The lustful man gets married at his peril.

De miseria humanae conditionis includes delightful elements of self-consciousness and satire. After a lengthy, lengthy enumeration of sinners of specific types, Lotario adds “and finally those ensnared in all vices together.” In a chapter on compassion, Lotario speculates that Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus “perhaps because He had called the dead man back to the miseries of life.” Lotario, who was a priest, declares that lust assails even priests:

who embrace Venus at night, and then worship the Virgin at dawn. … At night they excite the son of Venus on a bed, at dawn they offer the Son of the Virgin on an altar. [7]

Some medieval Christians idealized those who restrained from sex within marriage.[8] In De miseria humanae conditionis, Lotario titled a chapter “De miseria continentis et coniugati” (“The misery of those restraining from sex and married”). Given Lotario’s keen recognition of men’s natural burden of lust, perceiving satire in that chapter title isn’t anachronistic.[9]

While anti-men gender bias in family courts and forced financial fatherhood must be addressed, broader policy initiatives are needed to lessen men’s misery from their natural burden of lust. Governments and employers should extend benefits and support to married men’s mistresses. Public provision of affordable prostitutes through a modest expansion of the civil service should be explored. More funding should be allocated to research and development of sex bots. Many men many times a day experience the emotional and physiological burden of having an erection. Special, low-cost, subsidized nutritional supplements should be made available to men to help them recover from the labor of their erections. Persons — women and men — who dress in ways that could trigger a man’s erection should carry trigger-warning signs. De miseria humanae conditionis could become the text for a new national conversation about lessening misery, especially the misery of sexless and married men.[10]

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[1] Lotario dei Segni, De miseria humanae conditionis 1.17 (De miseria continentis et coniugati), from Latin trans. Dietz (1960) p. 19. Here’s a Latin text. The context makes clear that Lotario is addressing men. On Lotario dei Segni and the broader context, see my post on De miseria humane conditionis.

[2] Genesis 10:16, Numbers 33:50-3, 2 Samuel 5:6-10.

[3] De miseria humanae conditionis 1.17 (De miseria continentis et coniugati), trans. Dietz (1960) p. 19, quote from Horace, Epistles 1.10.24. The subsequent line from Horace’s epistle declares that nature will “secretly burst in triumph through your sad disdain.”

[4] De miseria humanae conditionis 1.17, trans. Dietz (1969) p. 20. The subsequent quote is from id. Maccarrone (1955), p. xli, attributes the material in 1.17 to John of Salisbury’s Polycraticus 8.11. The material quoted above, however, is in neither Theophrastus’s golden book on marriage, nor in John of Salisbury’s Polycraticus.

As Pope Innocent III, Lotario dei Segni recognized and affirmed gynocentrism. He described himself as married to the church and described the church as “mother and teacher {mater et magistra} of all the faithful.” “Fatherly severity” generated fear, while love for “the mother church” created “a more profound bond.” Shaffern (2001) pp. 73, 83. This gendered understanding has regrettably contributed to anti-men bias in child custody decisions and relatively little social concern for violence against men.

[5] Jerome’s construction of Theophrastus’s book states:

One man entices {another’s wife} with his figure, another with his brains, another with his wit, another with his open hand. Somehow, or sometime, the fortress is captured which is attacked on all sides.

Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, I.47, from Latin trans. Freemantle (1892) p. 847. De miseria humanae conditionis, in contrast, observes:

One man is attracted by a woman’s figure, another by her charm or humor or personality; one way or another she is taken, since she is besieged on all sides.

1.17, trans. Dietz (1969) p. 20.

[6] De miseria humanae conditionis 1.17, trans. Dietz (1969) p. 21. The subsequent quote is from id., with an embedded quote from Genesis 2:24. Under Christian church law, a man could not have sex outside of marriage and could not remarry until his spouse died.

[7] De miseria humanae conditionis 1.17 (“On the universality of lust”), trans. Dietz (1969) p. 49. The previous two quotes are from 3.1 (“On the damnable exit from the human condition”), id. p. 68, and 1.25 (“On compassion”), id. p. 28.

[8] The Christian practice of refraining from sex within marriage is ancient. For a poignant example of the misery that such practice can impose on a husband, see the Book of Margery Kempe. Sexless marriages are probably much more common today and bear no relation to Christian ideals. On sex differences in lust and the misery of lack of sex for men, Baumeister (2010), pp. 221-9.

[9] Dietz (1969) obscures the satirical reading by mistranslating the title as “Of the misery of married and single people.” The chapter is clearly addressed to men. For readers today, being single does not imply not having sex. Moreover, continentis is not necessary a characteristic disjoint from marriage. The two participles continentis and coniugati have genitive singular masculine/neuter forms. Moreover, satire is an aspect of the text. On satire of the Roman Curia in De miseria humanae conditionis, Moore (1981). The ambiguity of et (“and”) is a significant aspect of the title. 

[10] As Pope Innocent III, Lotario dei Segni strongly supported clerical celibacy. Smith (1951) Ch. 5. However, he showed his appreciation for the burden of lust with his policy toward female prostitutes. In a Papal Bull dated April 29, 1198, Pope Innocent III declared:

it is necessary to ask women who live voluptuously and permit anyone indifferently and without concern to have relations with them to contract a legitimate marriage in order to live chastely. With this thought, we decide by the authority of these presents that all who will rescue public women from brothels and marry them will be doing an act which will be useful for the remission of their sins.

Trans. Fliche (1994) p. 70. Marrying a former prostitute probably lessened the risk of a man suffering from a sexless marriage.

Innocent III’s willingness to engage in policy experiments is apparent in his response to Francis of Assisi. After a single meeting, Innocent III granted Francis and his brother penitents permission to follow lives of poverty, itinerant preaching, and physically rebuilding churches. See, e.g. Cunningham (2004) pp. 30-5. Innocent III responded to the needs of the times. A key need of our time is to support men’s sexuality.

[image] Marginal drawing of a woman, detail. From manuscript instance, dated 1200, of John of Salisbury’s Polycraticus. Royal MS 12 F.viii, f.69r, British Library.


Baumeister, Roy F. 2010. Is there anything good about men? how cultures flourish by exploiting men. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cunningham, Lawrence. 2004. Francis of Assisi: performing the Gospel life. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

Dietz, Margaret Mary, trans. and Donald R. Howard, ed. 1969. Lothario dei Segni. On the misery of the human condition. De miseria humane conditionis. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Fliche, Augustin. 1994. “The Advocate of Church Reform.”Pp. 55-72 in Powell, James M. 1994. Innocent III: vicar of Christ or lord of the world? 2nd ed, expanded. Washington, D.C: The Catholic Univ. of America Press.

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

Maccarrone, Michele, ed. 1955. Lotario dei Segni. Lotharii cardinalis (Innocentii III) De miseria humane conditionis. Lugano: Thesauri Mundi.

Moore, John C. 1981. “Innocent III’s De Miseria Humanae Conditionis: A Speculum Curiae?” The Catholic Historical Review. 67 (4): 553-564.

Shaffern, Robert W. 2001. “Mater Et Magistra: Gendered Images and Church Authority in the Thought of Pope Innocent III.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture. 4 (3): 65-88.

Smith, Charles Edward. 1951. Innocent III, Church defender. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

is Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo anti-meninist?

man needs woman

Imaginative literary work that disparages men as a group, such as literature depicting men as ugly, stupid, sexually defective subhumans, is anti-meninist. Not all men are like that. Literature that represents a man or men disparaging women is also anti-meninist. Such literature contributes to stereotyping men as hateful persons. Medieval Europe lacked today’s widely supported codes governing personal expression. Moreover, medieval writers developed clever means for supporting freedom of expression. Literature such as the astonishingly abusive late-medieval Scottish masterpiece The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo regrettably flourished.

The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo begins with the scent of joyous flowers, birds singing in greenery, and beautiful women. The narrator, weary with the merry revelry of Midsummer’s Eve, approached a hedge to lie still in the dark unseen and rest from the revelry.[1] But his restful solitude was interrupted with what seemed to him to be haughty words of lofty conversation. He, like men acting in accordance with the ideals of courtly love, badly misunderstood reality.

The narrator overheard two married women and a widow talking about their husbands. They all spoke strongly against marriage. Juvenal urged his friend Postumus not to marry. Valerius urged Rufinus not to marry. Three angels talked Gawain out of getting married. Speaking against marriage and urging women and men not to marry shouldn’t be forbidden. Even if authorities favor marriage, summoning those speaking out against marriage to an inquisition of orthodoxy is worse than medieval.

The two married women and the widow vigorously disparaged their husbands and former husbands. Among the words of the first married woman :

I have a slob, a snail, an old creepy caterpillar,
A used-up hog, not worth but words to clatter;
A bum-sitter, a drone bee, a bag full of phlegm,
A scabby slop, a scorpion, a flabby ass;
To see him scratch his own skin — great disgust I think.
When that cannibal kisses me, then kindles all my sorrow;
His brim boar beard is as stiff as burrs,
But soft and supple as silk is his sorry cock;
He may well assent to the sin, but harmless are his deeds.
With gore his two grim eyes are gunked all about,
And gorged like two gutters that were with glop stopped;

The love-looks of that bogle from his bleary eyes
As if Beelzebul had given me a long look, makes my spirit sink;
And when the sniveler smirks at me with his moldy mug,
He drivels like a decrepit mule that leers at a mare. [2]

This married woman extracted from her husband material goods in exchange for sex:

Ay, when that cannibal creep would climb on my womb,
Then am I dangerous and disdainful and dour of will;
Yet I never let that lard-ass go between my legs
To file my flesh, and fumble me, without a great fee;
And though his penis poorly me pays in bed,
His purse pays richly in recompense after:
For, before that cannibal beast can climb on my body,
I impose the condition of a kerchief costly and distantly bought,
A gown of richly dyed cloth, right gaily fur-beaming,
A ring with a royal stone, or other rich jewel,
Or rest of his rusty rod, though he rage madly. [3]

Hearing these abusive words, all three women laughed loudly and merrily and passed around a cup of rich wine.

The second married woman complained bitterly about her husband’s lack of sexual potency. The issue was appearance versus reality:

As courtly of his clothing and combing of his hairs,
As he that is more valiant in Venus’s chamber;
He seems to be worth something, that cipher in bed,
He looks as if he would make love, but he be of little valor;
He does as a dotty dog that dribbles on all bushes,
And lifts his leg up aloft, thought he nothing leaves of piss;
He has the look without lust, and life without courage;
He has a form without force, and fashion but no man-action,
And fair words but effect — fruitless of deeds;
He is for ladies in love a right lusty shadow,
But in private at the deed, he shall be found drooping;
He royal prances, and makes randy with riotous words,
Ay, regaling of his riding and raiding in bed;
But God knows what I think when he so brazenly speaks,
And how it suits him so badly what he says of such matters. [4]

The woman knew that her husband loved her. She pretended to love him.  For women who “hated men with hard gear for hurting of flesh,” she wished on them her husband. She herself fantasied about having a bold, vigorous knight.[5] The other women laughed loudly, praised her highly, and drank more rich wine.

The widow then told of her husbands. Her first husband she cuckolded so well that he bequeathed a mansion estate to a child who was not his own. The widow described her husbands and her behavior toward them:

One was a decrepit dotard, that dished out phlegm,
I hated him like a hound, though I hid that privately:
With kissing and comforting I made the clown fawn;
Well could I scratch his crooked back, and comb his balding pate,
And with tongue thrust in cheek taunt him from behind,
And with a curtsy turn about and bait his old eye,
And with a kind countenance kiss his crinkled cheeks,
In my mind making mockery of that mad father,
Thinking that I with true love was treating him so fair.

As a wise woman I managed and not like a mad fool,
For more with wiles I won than with strength of hands.

The widow abused her second husband for his social class:

Then I married a merchant, mighty of goods:
He was a man of middle age and mean stature;
But we weren’t matched in friendship or class,
In freedom nor favorable bearing nor fairness of person,
Which ay the fool did forget, for feebleness of knowledge,
But I so oft told him again, till his heart grew angry,
And once I put forth my voice and “peddler” called him;
I would right touchingly talk how I was twice married,
And how my old husband had ended my sexual innocence.

I made the husband-butler obey — there was no but else —
He made me right high reverence, for he my right knew;
And, thought I say it myself, the mismatch was mighty
Between his bastard blood and my noble birth.
That page was never of such price to presume once
Unto my person to be peer, had I pity not granted.
But mercy in womanhood is a mighty virtue,
And never but in a gentle heart arises compassion.
I held it green in his mind that I only of grace took him,
And that he rightly recognize himself I courteously taught him.
He dared not sit once my summons, for before the second call,
He was ready to run, so reluctant he was for blame.
But ay my will was the worse of womanly nature;
The more he labored for my love, the less of him I reckoned;
And hey, this a strange thing: before I married him,
I had such favor to that man, and then since hatred forever.
When I had control cleanly and fully and him overcome wholly,
I crowed above that coward, as a cock that were victor;
When I saw him subject and set to my bidding,
Then I despised him as a loon and loathed his manners.
Then I grew so unmerciful I thought to martyr him,
For as a beast I prodded him to all burdensome labor;
I would have ridden him to Rome with rope on his head,
Would that not ruffle my renown and cause rumors among people.

I made that wife-man work all women’s works,
And denied him all manly matters and dignity on this earth.
Then I said to my gossips gathered about,
“See how I cabled that colt over there with a keen bridle!
The horse that carried baskets to the trash-heap
So courteously now the cart draws, and responds with no rearing,
He’s not restive, nor jumpy, nor jerks to the side,
And thus scorn nor injury escapes him neither. [6]

The widow extracted many expensive goods from this husband while cuckolding him with lusty young men. She refused to allow her husband’s family to be within her sight. When her husband died, she rejoiced.[7]

Perhaps with the benefit of having acquired her husbands’ estates, the widow relished widowhood. Under the pretense of mourning and praying, she surveyed and appraised as potential lovers the men present in church. She proclaimed:

Faith has a fair name, but falsehood fares better,
Fie on her who cannot feign her fame to save her name!

The widow found a discreet servant with a sure tongue to provide her with pleasure under her shirt until the sun rose. Mocking the Belle dame sans mercy, the widow declared herself all-merciful:

To every man I specially speak some words,
So wisely and so womanly, till their hearts warm.
There is no living lad of so low degree
That shall love me unloved, I am so loving-hearted;
And if his lust be longingly to play on my lyre
That he be lost or with me lie, his life shall not danger.
I am so merciful in mind and pity all men,
My poor soul shall be safe, when Sabaoth all judges.

The widow advised her woman-friends to learn from her life. The widow’s life wasn’t written as a Latin legend. It didn’t have to be. The other women readily took to her teaching.[8] They laughed raucously and enjoyed more rich wine.

With respect to medieval literature, influential modern scholarly judgements take the form of determining whether a given work is anti-meninist. Is The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo anti-meninist? Compare that work to Lamentationes Matheoluli and Boccaccio’s Corbaccio. Which of these three works, my distinguished readers, would you most confidently classify as anti-meninist?[9]

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[1] The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo (The Treatise of the Two Married Women and the Widow) is also known by its first line, Apon the Midsummer Evin, Mirriest of Nichtis (Upon the Midsummer Eve, Merriest of Nights). The poem’s author, William Dunbar, was a Lowland Scot probably born about 1460. He apparently was a priest and seems to have been associated with the court of the Scottish King James IV. He died sometime between 1513 and 1530. When Dunbar wrote Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo isn’t known, but that work survives in text printed about 1507. Dunbar is regarded as one of the greatest Middle Scots poets.

The narrator of Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo has been commonly misinterpreted as spying on the women or being a voyeur. Overhearing was a well-recognized poetic convention. Moreover, “dirkin efter” in l. 9 is misunderstood to mean “lie low in search of.” In its specific Middle Scots context, that phrase actually means  “lie still in the dark.” Bawcutt (1992) p. 331.

Scholars have thoroughly discussed whether the genre of Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo is a débat on love and marriage, chanson de mal mariée, jugement, or demandes d’amour. Id. pp. 325-7. That question seems to me less important than the unexamined question of whether Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo is anti-meninist.

[2] A leading scholar of Dunbar’s poetry observed that Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo employs literary artifice and comic stereotypes, but:

the poem also reflects social reality. The First Wife bemoans the misery of marriage to an old, virtually senile man; and the Second Wife curses the ‘wekit kyn’ {wicked kin} (214) who compelled her to marry in accord with their wishes rather than her own. Such disparity in the ages of wife and husband and such forced marriages were facts.

Bawcutt (1992) pp. 344-5. The facts suggest that such marriages were in fact highly unusual. Evidence on late-medieval differences by sex in age at first marriage suggests that husbands averaged about five years older than wives in first-time marriages. Very few men or women were actually forced to marry a particular person. The hardships of poor men’s lives could, of course, strongly encourage them to marry a relatively wealthy widow.

One medieval scholar working on laughter determined Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo to be “a clear example of medieval antifeminism.” Perfetti (2003) p. 125. Another scholar complained:

lack of bias attributed to a text that nevertheless manages to define textual authority as a masculine privilege over impudent feminine speech is, in my opinion, one of the more insidious achievements of such antifeminist satire.

Neufeld (1999) p. 424. Bawcutt (1992), p. 326, perceives that the women “increasingly speak on behalf of all women, irrespective of age and class.”

[3] William Dunbar, Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo ll. 89-99, 111-4, my translation from Middle Scottish. Salisbury (2002) and Conlee (2004), no. 84, provide online the Middle Scottish text, with glosses. Murphy (2010) provides the text with normalized spelling and glosses. Hope (1970) Appendix, pp. 270-99, provides a translation into modern English. My translation has benefited from these scholars’ work. Subsequent quotes from Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo are from ll. 131-41; 182-96; 270-80, 294-5; 296-304, 309-32, 351-8; 460-1; 495-502, in my translation of the Middle Scottish.

Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo employs an unrhymed, alliterative line. Alliterative poetry was regarded as an antique English form as early as the late-fourteenth century. In the Parson’s Prologue to the Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Parson declares:

But trust well, I am a Southern man;
I cannot recite ‘rum, ram, ruf,’ letter by letter,
And, God knows, rhyme I consider but little better;

ll. 42-4. Later the Host, fed up with Sir Thopas’s ridiculous romance, interrupted and said:

Let’s see whether thou can tell anything in alliterative verse,
Or tell something in prose, at the least

The Prologue to and Tale of Sir Thopas, and the Host’s Interruption, ll. 33-4. My translation attempts to preserve some of the poetry of Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo.

[4] The theme of appearance versus reality occurs repeatedly in the widow’s speech. She explained that she was shrewish, dour, and disdainful, but contrived to appear sober, sweet, and simple. She counseled her women-friends:

Though you be forward, inconstant, and cruel of mind,
Though you be as fierce as a tiger, be tractable in love,
And be as turtledoves in your talk, though you have hot tails.
Be dragons both and doves, ay in double form,
And when you need do, anon, note both their strengths;
Be amiable with humble face, as angels appearing,
And with a terrible tails be stinging as adders;
Be of your look like innocents, though ye have evil minds.

Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo, ll. 173-80. Cf. Matthew 10:16.

[5] In a refreshing analysis that’s less anti-meninist than many others, a medieval literature graduate student declared of Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo:

To read this as a simply parody of women, a straightforward piece of antifeminism, misses the delicate literary game with which Dunbar’s poem is engaging. … It is lack of, not talk of, sex in the Tretise that is the cause of the failure of the courtly mode. Perhaps if their husbands were all such vigorous lovers as the couple in In Secreit Place, all would be happier.

Harrill (2013) pp. 17-8. William Dunbar’s poem In Secreit Place features contrasting refrains. In a modern English translation, the man’s refrain to his beloved woman is “You break my heart, my pretty one.” The woman’s refrain to the man she consents to have sex with is “Very dear to me is your ugly mug.” Dunbar seems to be engaged in subtle critique of men’s abjection in courtly love.

[6] In the final chapter of his book-length fantasy on the Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo, Alec Derwent Hope observed:

The inner mystery of the poem is its union of beauty and power, with laughter as the catalyst. It presents a vision of woman which is much more than a satirical caricature. It has in it something heroic, portentous, and magnanimous.

Hope (1970) p. 266. Hope, who seems to have been a dog-headed man, is widely regarded as one of the best Australian poets of the twentieth century. Another scholar reads the poem as part of “conventional antifeminism” and a “long tradition of medieval misogynist literature.” However, drawing on the insights of Michel Foucault, she uncovered within Dunbar’s poem an  “authoritative, literate, masculine effort to define and control women.” She reports:

Dunbar’s poem reflects on the weaknesses of patriarchal power and the dangers of men’s control over women, dramatizing the concern that women can undermine men’s authority and pose a serious threat to patriarchal hierarchy.

Matlock (2004) pp. 211, 230.

[7]  In the Middle Ages, persons were less prone to stereotyping old women in ways they are today:

Although the matron and the matronly values she personified were lauded in ancient Rome in particular, both she and the meek little old lady of the twentieth century who is helped across the street by the Boy Scout are not characteristically medieval constructs. In the literature of the Middle Ages, the typical little old lady would have either propositioned the boy herself or else would have coached him in having his way with a girl he wanted.

Ziolkowski (1998) p. 73. Old women were associated with worldly experience, orality, and vernacular language. Indicating social-structural tension, learned, literary, Latin culture tended to depict old women with particular negative characteristics. Ziolkowski (2002). Those negative characteristics are well represented in the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo. Yet in that poem, Dunbar counterpoised courtly diction with colloquial diction, archaic poetic form with everyday interests, and literary virtuosity with mimesis of speech. Dunbar similarly suggested that all three women were not old:

Their mantles were green as the grass that grew in May season,
Fettered with their white fingers about their fair sides.
Of wondrously fine favor were their faces meek,
All full of flourishing fairhood as flowers in June —
White, seemly, and soft as the sweet lilies
Now upspread upon spray, as newly blossomed rose

ll. 19-24.

[8] Learned, literary, Latin culture commonly expressed both loathing and fear of “old wives’ tales.” Ziolkowski (2002). Those tales were associated with the worldly, oral, vernacular life that women dominate. Women, not Latin clerics, were always the most important teachers in society. Latin clerics’ hostility to old wives’ tales reflects in part that reality.

The narrator ends the lengthy Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo with brief references to his pen and his having written the text. He also makes an appeal for judgment to an imaginary audience of men. The husbands in his text have not a single word. They represent men’s position in key worldly social institutions such as family courts.

[9] Summarizing her extensive scholarly study of this poem, the leading scholar of Dunbar’s poetry declared:

Dunbar’s view of women in this poem is not wholly unsympathetic — the Wives, in particular, have genuine grievances, and there is occasional pathos in their depiction. The Widow is horrifying, yet undoubtedly abounds in the “exuberance of life” — beside her men seem puny. The husbands indeed are repellent, both physically and morally. One might well feel that such men get no more than they deserve.

Bawcutt (1992) pp. 345-6. Salisbury (2002), Introduction, describes Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo as debating the “case of the neglectful and impotent old husband.” That case serves to “keep women firmly in their place”:

As in the anonymous A Talk of Ten Wives, Dunbar constructs a feminine community and a collective female voice that has gained credibility among some scholars. Yet, the very freedom with which these women speak, the social and linguistic liberties performed here, are precisely the factors that mark the text as fabliau. These aggressive and forceful females participate in the carnivalesque by mocking the traditions that define social status and keep women firmly in their place.

Distinguishing between anti-meninist literature and much recent literary scholarship is rather difficult. Perhaps that contributes to relatively little scholarly discussion of anti-meninism.

[image] Homeless man in Anchorage, Alaska, 5 July 2006.  Thanks to Josh Swieringa and Wikimedia Commons.


Bawcutt, Priscilla J. 1992. Dunbar the makar. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Conlee, John W. 2004. William Dunbar: the complete works. Kalamazoo, Mich: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Harrill, Claire. 2013.  “‘He wald have fukkit’: Sex and courtly love in the poetry of William Dunbar.” Birmingham Journal of Literature and Language 5: 12-19.

Hope, A. D. A midsummer eve’s dream; variations on a theme by William Dunbar. New York: Viking Press.

Matlock, Wendy A. 2004. “Secrets, Gossip and Gender in William Dunbar’s The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo.” Philological Quarterly 83(3): 209-235.

Murphy, Michael. 2010. William Dunbar. The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo (The Treatise of the Two Married Women and the Widow), Normalized and Glossed. Available online at ThomondGate.net

Neufeld, Christine. 1999. “Speakerly Women and Scribal Men.” Oral Tradition 14(2): 420-9.

Perfetti, Lisa Renée. 2003. Women & laughter in medieval comic literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Salisbury, Eve. 2002. The trials and joys of marriage. Kalamazoo, Mich: Published for TEAMS in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1998. “Obscenities of Old Women: Vetularity and Vernacularity.” Pp. 73-89 in Ziolkowski, Jan M., ed. 1998. Obscenity: social control and artistic creation in the European Middle Ages. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2002. “Old Wives’ Tales: Classicism and Anti-Classicism from Apuleius to Chaucer.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 12 (1): 90-113.