metatextual irony follows Gemmata, Pietro and Donno Gianni

Read literally, the preface to the Decameron indicates that it was written for ladies.  Boccaccio and a lady reader of Decameron IX.10 are laughing still at today’s learned literary scholars’ will to believe that fiction.

Gray Arabian broodmare

In Decameron IX.10, Donno Gianni, a priest serving an impoverished church, garnered a living by trading at fares.  Donno Gianni became friends with a fellow trader named Pietro.  Pietro lived in a poor little cottage and had only one ass.  When Donno Gianni visited, he had to sleep in the stable on straw next to his mare and Pietro’s ass.  Pietro’s wife Gemmata offered to sleep at a neighbor’s so that Donno Gianni could have her place in bed with Pietro.  Donno Gianni declined that offer.  He told Gemmata:

don’t trouble yourself about me.  I’m doing just fine, because whenever I like, I change this mare into a beautiful gal and pass the time with her.  Then, whenever I want to, I turn her into a mare again. [1]

While a priest, Donno Gianni evidently was also a man with keen heterosexual animal instinct.

Gemmata believed Donno Gianni’s tale.  Eager for greater earnings from trading, she urged her husband to have Donno Gianni turn her into a mare to work with his ass transporting trading goods.  When Pietro returned home, he could have Donno Gianni turn her back into a woman.

Pietro pleaded with Donno Gianni to fulfill his wife’s rich plot.  Donno Gianni tried to decline, but Pietro insisted.  Finally, Donno Gianni agreed to perform his magic in their cottage just before daybreak.  He explained that if they wanted his performance to succeed, they had to obey his every order and not say a single word, no matter what.  They eagerly agreed.

To perform his magic in their cottage just before daybreak, Donno Gianni order Gemmata to take off all her clothes and get on her hands and knees in the position of a mare.  Then Donno Gianni began touching her and invoking a bodily transformation:

“Let this be a fine mare’s head.” Then stroking her hair, he said: “Let this be a fine mare’s mane.” Next, he touched her arms, saying: “Let these be a fine mare’s legs and hooves.” [2]

Just as for the monk Rustico and the young girl Alibech, events led to a rising of the flesh:

When he came to her breasts, he found they were so firm and round that a certain uninvited something or other awoke and stood erect, and he said: “And let this be a fine mare’s chest.”

He then did the same thing to her back, her stomach, her hindquarters, her thighs, and her legs.  Finally, having nothing left to take care of but the tail, he whipped up his shirt, grabbed hold of the stick he used for planting men, and quickly stuck it into the furrow that was designed for it, saying: “And let this be a fine mare’s tail.”

Pietro then interrupted, saying he didn’t want a tail there.  After the “vital fluids that all plants need to take root” had come, Donno Gianni pulled out of his magic performance.  He declared that Pietro’s words had broken the spell.  Pietro explained his interruption:

“I didn’t want that tail there, no, not me.  Why didn’t you tell me, ‘Do it yourself’?  And besides, you were sticking it on too low.”

“I didn’t tell you because it was your first time,” replied Donno Gianni, “and you wouldn’t have known how to stick it on as well as I do.”

Pietro seemed to have preferred putting the tail on the mare in the ass position.  Gemmata turned on Pietro, called him a dope, and blamed him for ruining their chance to earn more money.  Pietro was left to continue doing his work only with the ass.

Dioneo, who understood Ovid’s teachings on love, told this story.  He first praised the ladies’ superior virtue.  He then summarized the story’s moral teaching:

{this story} will teach you how carefully one must follow the instructions of those who do things by means of incantations and how making even one tiny mistake will ruin everything the magician has done.

The conclusion for Day 9 offers a higher metatextual commentary on this story:

How the company laughed at this story, which the ladies understood better than Dioneo had intended, can be left to the imagination of that lady who has read it and is laughing at it still.

At those who read the Decameron without a hearty sense of irony, she is laughing still.[3]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 9, Story 10, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 745.  All subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 746-8.

[2] The original Italian sounds more like an incantation:

“Questa sia bella testa di cavalla ” … “Questi sieno belli crini di cavalla” … “E queste sieno belle gambe e belli piedi di cavalla.”

[3] Most Boccaccio scholars today apparently believe that the Decameron actually was written for ladies. See, e.g. Houston (2010) p. 120.

[image] Gray Arabian broodmare.  Thanks to Lovely Little Girl and Wikimedia Commons.

References:

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

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

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Heloise loved Abelard with a big-hearted love

Heloise departing from Abelard

Everyone today should listen attentively to the voice of the learned, articulate medieval woman Heloise writing about Abelard.  Medieval scholars, who have historically been predominately men, have under-appreciated Heloise just as they have under-appreciated the medieval woman writer Marie de France.  Heloise, like Marie de France, spoke out with a strong, independent voice in love for men in the fullness of their persons.[1]

Heloise understood that hypergamy tends to characterize women more than men.  Aspasia, a friend of Socrates, the mistress-master of Pericles, and perhaps also a brothel-keeper, declared:

Unless you come to believe that there is no better man nor worthier woman on earth you will always still be looking for what you judge the best thing of all — to be the husband of the best of wives, and the wife of the best of husbands. [2]

While Heloise appreciated Aspasia’s wisdom, Heloise better understood the truth about women’s and men’s love.[3]  As a young woman, Heloise fell in love with her older, eminent tutor-scholar Peter Abelard.  Abelard had taken the initiative to establish a relationship with her.  While most men find most attractive in women youth, beauty, and warm receptivity, Abelard had broader interests in Heloise:

In looks she did not rank least, while in the abundance of her learning she was supreme.  A gift for letters is so rare in women that it added greatly to her charm and had made her very famous throughout the realm. … Knowing her knowledge and love of letters I thought she would be all the more ready to consent, and that even when separated we could enjoy each other’s presence by exchange of written messages in which we could write many things more boldly than we could say them, and so need never lack the pleasures of conversation. [4]

Abelard’s broader interests in Heloise did not mean that she was his social and intellectual equal.  He was her tutor.  He was probably more than ten years older than her.  Heloise’s description of Abelard’s social standing implies that he was much more eminent than she:

What king or philosopher could match your fame?  What region, city, or village did not long to see you?  When you appeared in public, who (I ask) did not hurry to catch a glimpse of you, or crane her neck and strain her eyes to follow your departure?  Every wife, every young girl desired you in absence and was on fire in your presence; queens and great ladies envied me my joys and my bed.

You had beside, I admit, two special gifts with which you could at once win the heart of any woman — the gift of composing verse and song. … You have left many songs composed in amatory verse and rhyme.  Because of the very great sweetness of their words as much as their tune, they have been repeated often and have kept your name continually on the lips of everyone.  The beauty of the melody ensured that even the unlettered did not forget you; more than anything this made women sigh for love of you.  And as most of the songs told of our love, they soon made me widely known and roused the envy of many women against me. For your manhood was adorned by every grace of mind and body …. [5]

Abelard didn’t love Heloise because there was no worthier woman, as the worth of women was commonly judged among men of his time.  Heloise’s love for Abelard was love for a man who had leading sexual market value among men of his time.[6]  Aspasia’s sexually symmetric proposition about wive’s and husband’s love failed to recognize important differences in women’s and men’s natures.  In terms of the fundamental model of sexual selection, men desire youth and beauty.  Women desire social status.[7]  Heloise implicitly recognized those differences.

While Abelard’s social and intellectual eminence made him powerfully attractive to Heloise and other women, Heloise in intimate relationship with Abelard valued greatly his physical masculinity.  Heloise could not suppress, years after the acts, delightful memories of “our lust”:

The lovers’ pleasures we enjoyed together were so sweet to me that they cannot displease me and can scarcely fade from my memory.  Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies which will not even let me sleep.  Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold on my most unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness rather than on prayer.  I, who should be grieving for the sins I have committed, am sighing rather for what I have lost.  The things we did and also the places and times we did them are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live though them all again with you.  Even in sleep I know no respite. [8]

Heloise described Abelard as her “one-and-only.”  Among the things Heloise and Abelard did was have sex in her uncle Fulbert’s house.  They also had sex in the rectory of the convent in which Heloise later lived.  They had sex “during the day’s of Our Lord’s Passion” and during other holy days.[9]  Abelard took the most egregious fault upon himself:

Even when you were unwilling, resisted to the utmost of your power, and tried to dissuade me, as yours was the weaker nature I often forced you to consent with threats and blows.  So intense were the fires of lust which bound me to you that I set those wretched, obscene pleasures, which we blush even to name, above God as above myself [10]

Based on her own description of her lust, the occasions on which Heloise was unwilling to have sex with Abelard were probably quite rare.  In the ancient and medieval world, women’s lust was thought to be more fiery than men’s.  The configuration of sexual desire and punishment for sexual acts are much different today than they were then.  Yet today one might still dare to recognize and celebrate Heloise’s profoundly humanistic appreciation for Abelard’s physical masculinity.

Adding to the horrific historical record of violence against men, Abelard suffered castration for his relationship with Heloise.  Involuntary bodily punishment wasn’t imposed on Heloise.  Heloise sorrowed deeply for the punishment that Abelard received as a result of their relationship.  Heloise and Abelard together resolved to become, respectively, a nun and a monk.

While Abelard’s punitive castration prevented him from further providing Heloise with the delights of his physical masculinity, Heloise also cherished Abelard’s emotional and intellectual support for her.  Heloise assigned to Abelard the task of writing hymns, sermons, and other liturgical, regulatory, and exegetical texts to serve her and the nuns of her convent.  Abelard completed many of those assignments with outstanding work.[11]  Nonetheless, in Heloise’s view, Abelard was deficient in providing emotional support to her.  She wrote to him:

While I am denied your presence, give me at least through your words — of which you have enough to spare — some sweet semblance of yourself.  … Remember, I implore you, what I have done, and think how much you owe me.  … I beg you to restore your presence to me in what way you can — by writing some word of comfort … I beg you, think what you owe me, give ear to my pleas, and I will finish a long letter with a brief ending: farewell, my one-and-only. [12]

Heloise’s insistence, “you owe me,” has a cutting resonance.  Heloise and Abelard were married before Abelard was punitively castrated. In medieval Christian understanding, husband and wife were required to fulfill each other’s sexual needs, irrespective of their own desires.  That requirement was known as the “marital debt.”  Because he was punitively castrated, Abelard could not fulfill his marital debt.  Heloise insisted that he had other debts that he could fulfill.

Heloise loved Abelard with a woman’s big-hearted love.  Heloise was a deeply humanistic, flesh-and-blood woman.  Heloise’s love for Abelard cries out to be adequately appreciated.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] The primary collection of surviving letters between Heloise and Abelard has recently been edited and translated in Luscombe & Radice (2013).  A more accessible version is Radice (1974).  An version of Hughes (1714) is available online.  Radice (1974), p. 52, describes that text as a “travesty.”  Ziolkowski (2008) includes additional letters from Abelard to Heloise.  An additional letter from Heloise to Abelard is included in the preface to Problemata Heloissae, 42 biblical-textual questions that Heloise sent to Abelard and he answered.  Epistolae duorum amantium, a letter collection that has been ascribed to Heloise and Abelard, doesn’t provide a reasonable basis for such an ascription. Close textual study suggests that Abelard did not write the letters in Epistolae duorum amantium that the man wrote.  Ziolkowski (2004).  Many other letters that Heloise and Abelard exchanged apparently have been lost.  A fine example of male scholars’ lack of appreciation for Heloise’s voice is Alexander Pope’s lengthy poem, Eloisa to Abelard (1717).  The poem inspired Angelica Kauffman’s painting above, “The Parting of Heloise and Abelard” (1780).

[2] As quoted in Heloise to Abelard, Letter 2.11, from Latin trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) p. 135.  Heloise took this quote from Cicero, De inventione, i.31, 51-2.  The context in Cicero includes some sex differentiation.  Aspasia had the wife of Xenophon express her desire for better gold and more valuable dresses and ornaments for women.  Aspasia had Xenophon express his desire for a better horse and a better farm.  On Aspasia, see Plutarch, Lives, Pericles 24, 32.  Pericles, enamored of Aspasia, reportedly waged war against the Samians at Aspasia’s behest.  Hypergamy has attracted considerable reasoned analysis in today’s New Renaissance.

[3] Heloise also wisely and nobly rejected the men-oppressing formal institution of marriage.

[4] Abelard, A Letter of Consolation from Abelard to a Friend (Historia calamitatum), Letter 1.16, from Latin trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) p. 25.  Heloise’s fame for learning may have arisen in part through her relationship with her tutor Abelard.  Heloise told Abelard, “your many songs put your Heloise on everyone’s lips, so that every street and house resounded with my name.” Letter 2.16, id. p. 141.  Writing years after their relationship, Abelard may have projected to some extent Heloise’s fame backward in time.

[5] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 2.12-13, id. pp. 135, 137.  Heloise perceived herself to be socially exalted through her relationship with Abelard:

The higher I was exalted when you preferred me to all other women, the greater was my suffering over my fall and yours as much, when I was flung down; for the higher the ascent, the heavier the fall.  Has Fortune ever set any great or noble woman above me or made her my equal, only to be similarly case down and crushed with grief?  What glory she gave me in you!  What ruin she brought upon me in you!

Letter 4.7, id. p. 165.  The parenthetical “and yours as much” interrupts Heloise’s line of self-concern about Abelard’s castration.

[6] Heloise disparaged women who married men for their wealth or power:

For a person’s worth does not rest on wealth or power; these depend on fortune, but worth on his merits.  And a woman should realize that if she marries a rich man more readily than a poor one, and desires her husband more for his possessions than for himself, she is offering herself for sale.

Letter 2.11, id. p. 135.  Abelard was neither wealthy nor politically powerful.  His extremely high sexual market value was a result of his social status.  As Heloise’s attraction to Abelard makes clear, a man’s worth to women depends on his social status.  That can but does not necessarily follow from wealth or (political) power.

[7] Of course, real life is more complicated than abstract models.  Women often desire as lovers “bad boys,” who have high social status in a transgressive or brutish sense.  Many older husbands remain deeply attracted to their wives, whom they still remember as young, beautiful women.  Men even have other reasons for being sexually attracted to old women.

[8] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 4.12,  id p. 171.  For one of Heloise’s references to “our lust,” see her letter to Abelard, Letter 2.16, id. p. 141.

[9] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 2.16, id p. 141 (“my one-and-only”); Abelard to Heloise, Letter 5.17, id. p. 197 (sex in convent refectory and in Fulbert house) , Letter 5.20, id. p. 199 (sex during days of Our Lord’s Passion and other holy days).

[10] Abelard to Heloise, Letter 5.20, id. p. 199.

[11] Ziolkowki (2008) pp. 3-132.  Id. p. xlii observed:

The standard translation of the earlier correspondence {between Heloise and Abelard} may leave an unsuspecting reader with the misimpression that once Heloise ha taken the veil, Abelard has no interest in communicating with her.  He may come across as being coolly logical and as having no niche for her in his mind and even less in his heart, now that he has been castrated and has turned to religion.  Such a construction would be badly misguided.  These later letters and the long writings that they accompanied bear witness to an altered but continued devotion to Heloise and thus complicate our understanding of their relationship as it evolved after the affair.

[12] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 2.16, id. p. 141.

[image] Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807) , The Parting of Heloise and Abelard.  Oil on canvas, 1780. Thanks to Wikipedia.

References:

Hughes, John. 1714. 4th ed. 1722, reprinted 1901, Honnor Morten, ed. The love letters of Abelard and Heloise. London: J.M. Dent and Sons.

Luscombe, David, and Betty Radice, ed. and trans. 2013. The letter collection of Peter Abelard and Heloise. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

Radice, Betty, trans. 1974. The letters of Abelard and Heloise. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2004. “Lost and Not Yet Found: Heloise, Abelard, and the Epistolae duorum amantium.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 14 (1): 171-202.

Ziolkowski, Jan. M., ed. and trans. 2008. Letters of Peter Abelard, beyond the personal. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.

men’s studies: academic struggling against patriarchal prison

Despite the high value of bringing men’s perspectives to academia, men’s perspectives haven’t been welcomed.  Consider the experience of a U.S. professor who in 1988 wrote an “emancipatory reading of selected works of contemporary American popular men’s art.”  It was finally published in 1994.  In a preface to that book, the professor explained:

{this book} has had a spotty history since I first wrote it in the fall of 1988: enthusiastically embraced by a series of editors at university presses (six or seven of them, I think), who sent it out for external evaluation to feminist scholars of American popular culture and social history; returned by almost all those scholars with recommendations not to publish, despite a determined sympathy with my project that was invariably eroded by anxiety, even anger.[1]

This book in men’s studies considered Spencer, hero of Robert B. Parker’s series of detective novels and subsequently the protagonist of the late 1980’s television series, Spenser: For Hire.  It considered Rambo, the hero of David Morrell’s novel First Blood and the 1982 blockbuster movie starring Sylvester Stallone.  It also considered Bruce Springsteen, “the Boss,” a rock star since the 1970s.  It’s not as if the struggling professor was writing about the global conspiracy to obscure the gender protrusion in men’s mortality.  He didn’t expose deep anti-men sexism in the World Values Survey.  He didn’t ridicule sexist social-scientistic studies of sexism.  Why would this professor’s work on “popular men’s art” provoke anxiety and even anger?

The problem seems to have been that he tried to be the one good man.  In his book, he identified the hegemonic forces of patriarchal society:

It is essential, certainly, as a first step in a project of emancipation, to identify the forces that hold you fast, to explore the prison block in which you are incarcerated; but to dwell on incarceration exclusively seems to me ultimately counterproductive, leading to an overwhelming sense of your powerlessness before the hegemonic forces of patriarchal society. [2]

Identifying himself and his readers as “us counterhegemonic few,” he set out a master narrative of modern history:

The emergence and establishment of the middle classes in the modern era has meant the progressive feminization of Western society, the gradual displacement of medieval masculinity, with its reptilian territorialism, by humanizing feminine voices and values. That history has been punctuated, however, by recurrent periods of remasculinization, periods in which patriarchy, as it were, has panicked at social change and slammed on the brakes.

Within this deeply sexist master narrative, he recognized two types of critical tasks:

For the ideological critic, the pressing task is to map every square inch of the jailcells in which we are currently trapped; for the utopian critic, the crucial task is to engineer a jailbreak.

Despite these concrete images, the fundamental problem seems to be unconscious, abstract ideas and evil voices generated within persons’ bodies:

An emancipatory gender politics requires, it seems to me, a relaxation of the programmed suspicions that keep us in thrall to patriarchy. The sheer unconscious effectiveness of patriarchal ideology makes this possibility seem so utopian as to be virtually {un?}attainable …. If men can’t relax the inner patriarchal voice that objectifies and demonizes women, and women can’t relax the inner patriarchal voice that objectifies and demonizes men, we’ll all remain in the same trap.

The professor proposed a “transformative engagement” with feminism to liberate women and men from the patriarchal prison:

I take feminism to be a transformative engagement with the patriarchal prison that attempts to liberate the women incarcerated there. I assume that a healthy feminism will naturally work to help men liberate themselves from the same prisons (possibly from trusteeships in that prison – we have more power and greater rewards, but we are no less incarcerated.)

The professor seemed to understand his work as a contribution to the profeminist men’s movement, “dedicated to the liberation of men from patriarchal gender programming.” At least among professors, this is much more respectable than “whiny men jumping on the victimization bandwagon or playing cowboy and Indians at warrior weekends and beating drums in sweat lodges.”[3] The professor explained:

my primary audience is male, other men like me who have begun to detonate the patriarchal walls that have hemmed us in.

Yet for all the high talk about patriarchal prisons and liberating men, the professor showed no awareness that among persons held in real prisons, men outnumbered women by a factor of twenty.[4]  Men are vastly more likely to be imprisoned than are women.  Efforts to vastly increase the number of men imprisoned have intensified in recent years.

circus elephants doing tricks

Despite this professor’s apparent capacity for tending and befriending fashionable thought, he found himself acutely stressed in circumstances he perceived as highly antagonistic.  He explained:

In her Presidential address to the women’s breakfast at the 1987 American Studies Association Convention in New York, … Lois Banner took issue with the very idea of “men’s studies,” denying the need for men to study masculinity on our own terms. “I think it is time for all of us to use the term ‘feminist’, ” Banner said. “This term encompasses the rest: thus we have the feminist study of women, of men, and of gender.”

This address acutely distressed him:

When I first read Banner’s speech in the ASA {American Studies Association} Newsletter, I thought my chest would burst with pent-up anxiety; I felt small, infantile, powerless, faced with an all-powerful mother who was telling me exactly how to behave so as to please her. I was five years old, about to burst into tears – or, since both of my parents always ridiculed me for crying, into a more “masculine” display of anger. I remember pacing restlessly around our bedroom with the text of Banner’s speech in my hand, reliving all those childhood fears and frustrations, wondering what to do.

Finally, he wrote a response that he described as “calling for a kind of truce … {for} relaxation of the polarized recriminations that drive the battle of the sexes.”  Unfortunately, his response, printed on the back page of a subsequent ASA Newsletter, did not have that effect.  Along with his response the newsletter printed a reply from the Lois Banner, President of the ASA:

“Professor Robinson’s remarks sadden me,” she wrote. “They seem hysterical and overblown and filled with ageism. I’m tempted to say that they sound like a small boy having a tantrum, but to do so would be only to engage in the kind of name-calling in which Professor Robinson indulges.”

The distress the professor felt from this response was even more acute:

Hysterical: because I admitted my feelings, I suppose. I had thought “hysterical” was patriarchy’s name for women (especially, since the 1960s, feminists) who do not toe the official line by repressing rebellious impulses; now established feminists accuse “rebellious” men of the same? What does this say? Overblown: out of all proportion to the real hurt suffered, this seems to mean. Men can’t be hurt; they’re oppressors. Stop whining and melodramatizing your “plight.” Ageist: because I spoke of her as an established feminist, someone my mother’s age in a position of power in the academy. And then that last sentence, which really pulls the iron band tight around my chest – that subtly extended and quickly withdrawn insult, that infantilization that I can analyze, intellectually, as fear-driven maternal rhetoric, but without much impact on my somatic response: halfway into my analysis my neocortex is shut down by my own fear, that infantile terror of mommy’s anger.

That’s a glimpse into intellectual life in a dark age of ignorance, bigotry, and superstition.  Humane civilization and human reason become astonishingly tenuous as human institutions age and stagnant.

*  *  *  *  *

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Notes:

[1] Robinson (1994) pp. 12, 5.

[2] Id. p. 17.  Subsequent quotes above are from id. pp. 13, 20, 22, 23, 26, 6, 27, 28.

[3] Id. p. 25 notes that many academic men, in response to this unattractive image, began “calling what they do men’s studies, rather than the men’s movement – some even swearing off men’s studies, for fear of association with drumming.”  Non-institutionalized men have taken other paths.

[4] See U.S Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 1994, Table 10.

[image] Ansar Shrine Circus, Oct. 28, 2007.  Thanks to Katherine Johnson.

Reference:

Robinson, Douglas. 1994. No less a man: masculist art in a feminist age. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

Wednesday’s flowers

dead sunflowers, Washington Monument

violence against men in Boccaccio’s Decameron

Since men have the social status of relatively disposable human beings, violence against men tends to be taken as natural in life and literature.  Violence against men is prevalent in Boccaccio’s Decameron.  Yet that imaginative masterpiece provides an inner, critical perspective on violence against men.  Readers fail to recognize the Decameron’s ethical critique of violence against men because they are complicit in their own culture of demeaning violence against men.

Violence against men tends to be associated with men’s natural sexual rivalry for women.  In Decameron IV.4, Gerbino attacked a Saracen ship to capture his beloved, the daughter of the King of Tunis.  She was being conveyed to marriage with the King of Granada.  Many of Gerbino’s men and many of the men in the other ship were killed.  After the Saracens’ killed the woman rather than be forced to give her up, Gerbino, acting the part of the courtly hero, climbed onto the enemy ship:

Just like a starving lion who falls upon a herd of bullocks, slashing this one with his teeth and that one with his claws, intent on satisfying his anger rather than his hunger, so Gerbino, sword in hand, cut down one Saracen and then another, slaughtering a host of them without mercy. [1]

Gerbino’s grandfather, the King of Sicily, subsequently had Gerbino beheaded for attacking the ship in violation of his promise of safe passage.  The “gallant” Gerbino had an “exalted reputation for courtesy and valor.”  He caused many men to be slaughtered.  The same literary pattern occurs in Decameron V.1 when Cimone is transformed into a courtly lover:

like a ferocious lion, he fell upon his enemies {men} in an amazing display of force, and sword in hand, struck them down one after the other, slaughtering them like so many sheep. [2]

Boccaccio justly had contempt for the idiocy of men acting the script of courtly loversDecameron II.7, understood more than superficially as the story of Alatiel, makes clear Boccaccio’s concern for the reality of men’s deaths in sexual rivalry.  Sexual rivalry among men is natural.  But the extent of slaughter of men it produces depends on specific social conventions and circumstances.

blinding and castrating King William III of Sicily

Punishment of men for illicit sex is a specific social construct.  In the U.S. today, men are jailed for doing nothing more than having consensual sex of reproductive type and then becoming poor.  In Decameron IV.1, a father kills a man for having consensual sex with his daughter.  In Decameron IV.5, brothers kill a man for having consensual sex with their sister.  In Decameron IV.9, a husband kills a man for having consensual sex with his wife.  Men traditionally have been socially assigned the task of killing other men.  The effect of being dead, however, doesn’t depend on who does the killing.  In domestic relations and in supportive social circumstances, women can and do physically attack men.  In Decameron IX.5, Monna Tessa caught her husband Calandrino in flagrante delicto:

Before Calandrino could get up, Monna Tessa ran at him with her nails and clawed him all over this face.  Then she seized him by the hair and started dragging him up and down. “You damned filthy dog, you!” she said to him.  “So this is how you treat me?  You old fool ….”  {Calandrino} did not have the courage to do anything to defend himself against her.  But later, all scratched and scraped and disheveled, he gathered his cloak, got to his feet, and began humbly begging her not to shout, unless she wanted to see him all cut up into little pieces, because the woman who had been with him was the wife of the master of the house. [3]

Engaging in physical violence against other men as a heroic courtly lover was largely an elite ideal.  Like punishing men for consensual sex in the U.S. today, punishing men for illicit sex was in Boccaccio’s Florence much more significant in the lives of ordinary men.

Boccaccio makes clear that women are agents, both socially and individually, for violence against men.  In Decameron VII.4, Monna Ghita encouraged her husband Tofano’s abuse of alcohol in order to enable her to have an affair.  When Tofano caught on to his wife behavior and locked her out of the house, she trumped his trick and contrived to have her family beat him:

they grabbed Tofano and beat him until he was completely covered with bruises.  Then they went into the house, gathered up all the lady’s belongings, and took her back home with them, threatening Tofano with even worse to come. … Tofano, who was really very fond of his wife, got some friends to act as intermediaries, and thanks to them he managed to make peace and arranged for her to come back home.  And not only did he promise her that he would never be jealous again, but what is more, he gave her permission to do whatever she liked, as long as she was so discreet that he never found out anything about it. [4]

In Decameron VII.7, Madonna Beatrice encouraged her lover to give her husband Egano a beating:

“Sweet lips,” she said. “I want you to get yourself a stout stick and go down to the garden.  Then, pretending that you’d asked me to go there in order to test me, I want you to heap abuse on Egano just as if you thought you were talking to me, and after that, I want you to play a nice tune on him with your stick for me.  Just think of the amazing pleasure and delight we’ll get out of that!” [5]

Madonna Beatrice’s lover carried out her request and beat Egano “black and blue” with a stick.  Women’s dominance over men allows them to persuade men to carry out violence against other men.

Men’s social inferiority to women supports violence against men.  Women tend to suppress socially stories of women’s guile.  Men often don’t even understand their social position with respect to women.  In Decameron VII.9, Lidia yanked out one of her husband’s healthy teeth to demonstrate her loyalty to her lover.  Her husband never suspected that his wife might betray him.  Violence against women generates much more social concern than violence against men.  Many men and women don’t suspect that violence against men is much frequent and severe than violence against women.

Boccaccio challenges readers to reject trivialization of violence against men.  In Decameron VIII.9, Master Simone wanted to join Bruno and Buffalmacco’s company of privateers.  As part of a mock initiation ritual, they threw him into a ditch filled with feces.  Such light-hearted violence against men is now associated with fraternity hazing rituals.  Decameron II.1, however, indicates the broad social base for violence against men.  Martinello pretended to be crippled in order to mock popular veneration of a saint’s body.  An onlooker recognized the ruse and alerted the crowd:

the grabbed him {Martinello} and dragged him down from where he has standing.  Holding him by the hair, they tore all the clothes off his back and started punching and kicking him.  … although he did his best to defend himself, it was no use, and the crowd on top of him just kept getting bigger and bigger. [6]

In Decameron IX.8, Messer Filippo falsely believed that Biondello had made fun of him:

he smashed in Biondello’s face with his fists, which seemed to made out of iron, and did not leave a single hair on his head in place.  Then he rolled him over in the mud and ripped all the clothes he had on to shreds, applying himself to all these tasks with such zeal that after Biondello’s first utterance, he was unable to say another thing, let alone ask Messer Filippo why he was doing all this to him. [7]

Messer Filippo perceived an insult in nonsense words that he didn’t understand.  Ciacco had set Biondello up for this beating in revenge for Biondello setting him up for a disappointing dinner.  That incredible disproportion signals the trivialization of violence against men.

Violence against men in the Decameron has been unremarkable only because violence against men is so deeply embedded in human culture.  Boccaccio, with his keen ethical sense, provided a critical inner understanding of violence against men.  Readers of the Decameron have an ethical obligation to seek that understanding.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 4, Story 4, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 342-3.  Saracen was the medieval European term for Muslims. Id. n. 4, p. 894, suggests that this epic simile comes from Virgil, e.g. Aeneid 9.339-42.

[2] Id., Day 5, Story 1, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 394.  The lion simile here is connected to the slaughter of sheep.  The latter has anti-heroic biblical resonances.  Romans 8:36, Acts 8:32.

[3] Id., Day 9, Story 5, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 723.

[4] Id., Day 7, Story 4, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 541.

[5] Id., Day 7, Story 7, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 561.

[6] Id., Day 2, Story 1, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 79.

[7] Id. Day 9, Story 8, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 736.

[image] Blinding and castrating King William III of Siciliy, apparently from Boccaccio, trans. into French by Laurens de Premierfait, Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Français 227Thanks to Wikipedia.

Reference:

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

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Galen engaged in anatomical displays and patient care

The second-century physician Galen wrote a massive corpus of scholarly works.  These texts shaped medicine in western Eurasia for more than a millennium.  Along with prodigious scholarly work, Galen was also a physician in bloody, strenuous, and difficult engagements with living bodies in anatomical displays and patient care.

As a young physician in his hometown of Pergamum, Galen performed anatomical displays.  Galen disemboweled a living monkey, emptied its intestines, and then challenged observing physicians to replace the intestines.  According to Galen, none stepped forward to do so.  Galen then surmounted the challenge himself.  Galen similarly would sever a monkey’s artery and challenge rival physicians to stop the bleeding.  Galen would demonstrate that, unlike other physicians, he knew how to stop the bleeding.[1]

At the age of twenty-seven, Galen in 157 was appointed physician to the gladiators in Pergamum.  Just like players in major-league team sports today, gladiators were valuable assets to their promoter-owners.  Galen made ointments and bandages for gladiators’ wounds.  He himself applied and monitored daily the wound treatments.  He sutured deep-tissue wounds and performed abdominal surgery on gladiators.  Galen’s care for the gladiators was much more successful than that of his predecessors.  He served five successive terms as physician to the Pergamum gladiators through the year 161.[2]  Galen subsequently left for Rome.  Rome offered a successful and ambitious physician much greater opportunity for achievement.

Galen gained famed in Rome through amazing anatomical displays.  Galen became friends with Flavius Boethus, a Roman senator and ex-consul who was an avid fan of anatomical displays.  Galen dissected pigs, goats, cattle, monkeys, cats, dogs, mice, snakes, fish, and birds.  He also dissected an elephant at least once.  Dissecting living pigs and goats in front of elite spectators, Galen demonstrated the function of the recurrent laryngeal nerve:

“the finest nerves, a pair of them like hairs,” as he writes, proud of his ability to locate minute anatomical structures.  They were his own discovery, unknown to his predecessors, and he also emphasizes the startling power of these delicate threads: for when they were cut, they would silence the animal without damaging it in any other way. [3]

By ligating the laryngeal nerve with needle and thread, Galen could silence and restore the animal’s voice at will.  In the ancient world, oratory was a primary source of public power.  Galen demonstrated that he could exert precise control over voice.

Galen performed many other types of difficult, bloody anatomical displays.  He vivisected pregnant goats and displayed the fetus breathing and moving.  He cut open living animals’ skulls and showed how pressing on different areas of the brain would change the animals’ physical capabilities, e.g. blind it.  He also cut open living animals to show their beating heart.  He would show that the animal could run, eat, and drink while having its beating heart exposed to view.[4]

Galen’s anatomical displays helped him to provide care for patients.  In one case, a slave boy of Maryllus the mime-writer suffered a wrestling injury.  An abscess formed in the boy’s sternum.   After several months, the boy was in danger of death:

Maryllus called together several physicians, including Galen, to consult on the case.  They all agreed that the affected part of the sternum needed to be cut out; no one, however, dared to perform the operation, knowing that the slightest error would result in catastrophic perforation of the pleural membrane.  But Galen had vivisected hundreds of animals.  He had held their beating hearts in his fingers.

Galen attempted the operation:

The operation went well at first — the infection had spared the veins and arteries around the wound — but when Galen removed the affected bone, he saw, to his despair, that part of the pericardium beneath had putrefied and disintegrated, forcing him to excise it.  Then, “we saw the heart as clearly as we see it when we deliberately lay it bare during {animal} dissection.” [5]

The boy recovered and subsequently lived for many years. Galen probably performed the operation without the use of anesthesia.

surgical treatment of skull fracture

Galen’s strenuous, life-long project was not just knowledge-seeking.  A fine recent biography of Galen observed:

Despite the energy he devoted to dissecting, writing, and showing off, Galen never lost sight of the idea that medicine is about treating patients; and he treated all kinds of patients.  His anecdotes, although personal in tone, betray barely a hint of condescension toward any patient except for one silly rich man.  He would root around in a farmer’s yard for a suitable ingredient for a plaster.  He would wheedle information from a chambermaid if it helped him to make a better diagnosis.  He would perform insanely risky surgery on the slim chance of saving a slave boy’s life, with professional disgrace as the price of failure. [6]

Galen, like Paul of Tarsus, was both a highly learned thinker and a person passionately involved in ordinary life.

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Notes:

[1] Mattern (2013) pp. 83-4.  By today’s standards, Galen’s anatomical displays involved grotesque cruelty to animals.  But in the Roman Empire, watching gladiators grievously wound or kill each other was a popular activity.  Galen’s treatment of animals wasn’t much crueler than prevalent treatment of humans in his time and place.

[2] Id. Ch. 3.

[3] Id. p. 148.

[4] Id. pp. 142-4.  These anatomical displays involved flailing animals, cries of pain, and flows of blood.  They were sensually the elite equivalent of gladiator shows.

[5] Id. pp. 184-5 (including previous quote).

[6] Id. pp. 288-9.

[image] Medieval treatment of compound skull fracture. From Roger Frugard of Parma, Chirurgia. France, N. (Amiens); 1st quarter of the 14th century.  f. 2 of Sloane 1977, thanks to British Library.

Reference:

Mattern, Susan P. 2013. The prince of medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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oxytocin & testosterone underlie male disposability

Sex-differentiated physiological responses to stress favor male disposability.  Oxytocin, a neuroactive hormone linked to maternal behavior and enhanced by estrogen, facilitates approach behavior and more generally, social affiliation. Oxytocin has been found to increase trust in mammals.[1]  Oxytocin is more up-regulated in women’s stress response than in men’s.  In response to stress, women tend-and-befriend in-group members and rally social antagonism toward out-group individuals.  Men’s response to stress tends toward decreasing trust, indiscriminate avoidance, and isolation.  Men’s behavioral response to stress is associated with down-regulation of oxytocin.[2]

Compared to women, men have on average about a ten times higher level of serum testosterone.  Increases in testosterone suppress immune system functioning and are correlated with competing for dominance.[3]  The large difference in males’ and females’ basal testosterone levels is also correlated with greater male risk of predation, greater male susceptibility to infectious diseases, much higher male suicide rates, and increased male-female mortality protrusion under conditions of chronic stress.

Gender protrusion in male mortality is common across animals and is linked to stress.  Among 26 mammalian species for which data are available, the median male/female predation death ratio is about 1.7.[4]  Death from parasites (infectious disease) is also male-biased.[5]  In the U.S., the male/female suicide mortality ratio is 3.9, the highest sex ratio among enumerated causes of death.  Under conditions of chronic stress, male testosterone levels typically fall while female testosterone levels rise.  Russia from 1990 to 2000 provides a historical example of significant, sex-differentiated effects of chronic stress.  Across those years, the gender protrusion in mortality grew from 10 years shorter expected lifespan for males to 13 years shorter expected lifespan for males.[6]

A man’s physiological response to stress tends to separate him from others and increase his mortality risk.  A woman’s physiological response to stress tends to integrate her with others and socialize concern about risk to her.  Social effects of those biological mechanisms of male disposability are starkly evident in the sex-differentiated social response to interpersonal violent injury and to rape.

*  *  *  *  *

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Notes:

[1] Anacker & Beery (2013), Curley & Keverne (2005), Lieberwirth & Wang (2014).  As Lieberwirth & Wang (2014) p. 8 observes, sex differences in hormonal response have been relatively under-studied.

[2] Taylor et al. (2000), Tamres, Janicki & Helgeson (2002), De Dreu et al. (2011), Palgi, Klein & Shamay-Tsoory (2014).  Estrogen strongly increases oxytocin’s effects.  Taylor (2006) p. 276.

[3] Grant (2005) p. 2.  In males, testosterone is secreted primarily from the testes.  In females, testosterone originates in peripheral tissues.  On behavioral effects of sex differences in testosterone, Klein (2000), Grant (2005) pp. 3-11, Lamason et al. (2006), and Edwards (2006).  Grant convincingly argues that dominance, understood as “acting overtly to change the views or actions of another” is not the same as aggression.  She also documents that dominance is more closely correlated with testosterone differences than is aggression.  The hormone arginine vasopressin (AVP) also has sex-differentiated activity:

In men, AVP stimulates agonistic facial motor patterns in response to the faces of unfamiliar men and decreases the perceptions of the friendliness of those faces. In contrast, in women, AVP stimulates affiliative facial motor patterns in response to the faces of unfamiliar women and increases perceptions of the friendliness of those faces.

Thompson et al. (2006) p. 7889.  In males, AVP is associated with the formation of bonds with female mates, as well as territorial marking and aggression. Curley & Keverne (2005) p. 562.

[4] Christe, Keller & Roulin (2006).

[5] Lamason et al. (2006).

[6] See workbook Male-Female Gender Protrusion in Mortality in Russia (Excel version).  That data come from World DataBank Gender Statistics.  The WorldBank’s summary page for the Russian Federation reflects now-dominant anti-men gender bigotry.  Shkolnikov & Meslé (1996) Table 4.1 provides a century-long perspective.

References:

Anacker, Allison M. J., and Annaliese K. Beery. 2013. “Life in groups: the roles of oxytocin in mammalian sociality.” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. 7.

Christe, P., L. Keller and A. Roulin. 2006. “The predation cost of being a male: implications for sex-specific rates of ageing.” Oikos 114(2): 381-384.

Curley, James P. and Eric B. Keverne (2005). “Genes, brains and mammalian social bonds.” Trends in Ecology and Evolution 20(10): 561-567.

De Dreu Carsten K.W., Lindred L. Greer, Gerben A. Van Kleef, Shaul Shalvi, and Michel J.J. Handgraaf. 2011. “Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108 (4): 1262-6.

Edwards, David. 2006. “Competition and testosterone.” Hormones and Behavior 50: 681-3.

Grant, Valerie J. 2005. “Dominance, Testosterone and Psychological Sex Differences.” Pp. 1-28 in Janice W. Lee, ed. Psychology of Gender Identity. New York, Nova Science Publishers: 1-28.

Klein, Sabra L. 2000. “Hormones and mating system affect sex and species differences in immune function among vertebrates.” Behavioural Processes 51(1-3): 149-166.

Lamason, Rebecca, Po Zhao, Rashmi Rawat, Adrian Davis, John C. Hall, Jae Jin Chae, Rajeev Agarwal, Phillip Cohen, Antony Rosen, Eric P. Hoffman and Kanneboyina Nagaraju. 2006. “Sexual dimorphism in immune response genes as a function of puberty.” BMC Immunology 7(2): 1-14.

Lieberwirth, Claudia, and Zuoxin Wang. 2014. “Social bonding: regulation by neuropeptides.” Frontiers in Neuroscience. 8 (4).

Palgi, Sharon, Ehud Klein, and Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory. 2014. “Intranasal administration of oxytocin increases compassion toward women.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. (5).

Shkolnikov, Vladimir M. and France Meslé. 1996. “The Russian Epidemiological Crisis as Mirrored by Mortality Trends.” In Julie DaVanzo and Gwen Farnsworth, eds. Russia’s Demographic “Crisis”. RAND Conference Proceedings CF-124-CRES.

Tamres, Lisa K., Denise Janicki, and Vicki S. Helgeson. 2002. “Sex Differences in Coping Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review and an Examination of Relative Coping.” Personality and Social Psychology Review. 6 (1): 2-30.

Taylor, Shelley E., Laura Cousino Klein, Brian P. Lewis, Tara L. Gruenewald, Regan A.R. Gurung and John A. Updegraff. 2000. “Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females: Tend-and-Befriend, not Fight-or-Flight.” Psychological Review 107(3): 411-429.

Taylor, Shelley E. 2006. “Tend and Befriend: Biobehavioral Bases of Affiliation Under Stress.” Current Directions in Psychological Science. 15 (6): 273-277.

Thompson, R. R., K. George, J. C. Walton, S. P. Orr and J. Benson. 2006. “Sex-specific influences of vasopressin on human social communication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 103(20): 7889-7894.

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Wednesday’s flowers

red flowers like flames amid bright green

The Corbaccio: our heartless, dark age of literary criticism

Corbaccio: big crow bearing unpleasant news

Leading Boccaccio scholars have produced the authoritative tome Boccaccio: A Critical Guide to the Complete Works.  The prestigious University of Chicago Press published it this year.   This work could have been vitally important to compassionate women and men pondering Boccaccio’s complex masterpeice Il Corbaccio.  Today compassionate women and men are urgently seeking new ethical language and narratives to protest incarcerating men for doing nothing more than having consensual sex, to summon concern about raping men, and to denounce punishing men for being raped.  The Critical Guide, however, offers only a place to sit and sip scholarly status amid heartless ethical darkness.

In our desperate circumstances, the subversive literary genius of Il Corbaccio offers strong imaginative resources and a critical measure of literary culture.  Men, seeking directions, need good guides.  Here are the first two sentences of the Critical Guide on Il Corbaccio:

On its surface, Boccaccio’s Corbaccio reads as a misogynistic blast with insults added to injuries, scurrilous terminology, imagery descending to the pornographic, bad puns, and unrelenting lists of female vices far beyond the limits of decency or plausibility.  The two main characters in dialogue are sour aging men on whom no modern women in her right mind would wish to waste a word, let alone seek their company. [1]

Apparently the women who lived before the era of “modern women” were compassionate and sophisticated enough to talk with such men, to seek their company, and to try to understand their concerns.  In our heartless, dark age of literary criticism, many critics are incapable of sympathetically considering literature of men’s sexed protests.  They misandristically label it misogyny and dismiss it with superficial, contrived analysis.

For these critics, Boccaccio’s masterpiece Il Corbaccio is just another piece to be processed in tallying the literary wrongs done to women and men, respectively, since the invention of writing.  Criticizing women, or disciplinary norms forbid, making fun of women, is always wrong.  Since Il Corbaccio is superficially classified as invective, it thus adds many points to the tally of literary wrongs done to women.  Fortunately, hard-working literary scholars have dug up Lucrezia Marinella’s 1601 treatise entitled, with uncanny literary sophistication, The Nobility and Excellence of Woman and the Defects and Vices of Men.  The Critical Guide’s article on Il Corbaccio declares approvingly:

Lucrezia Marinella sized up Il Corbaccio‘s repulsiveness with a meaty chapter titled “Boccaccio’s Opinion Adduced Here and Destroyed.”  She understood the rhetoric of invective perfectly and righted the imbalance by praising women’s virtues and condemning men’s far more numerous and serious faults. [2]

Of course Lucrezia Marinella didn’t “right the imbalance” in 1601.  Tally-keepers believe it’s necessary to continue to emphasize violence against women even though in the U.S. today four times as many men die from violence as do women.  Reading Boccaccio on the governance of friendship thus naturally means directing attention to violence against women.

Boccaccio’s trangressive Il Corbaccio cannot be adequately appreciated without deep appreciation for men’s position within a culture that produced Ulrich von Liechtenstein and Suero de QuinonesIl Corbaccio combines comic realism with great literary sophistication:

Boccaccio, having destabilized the character of the guide through the conflating of specific Dantean intertextualities, warns the reader that the guide holds a less than authoritative position.  The misogynistic diatribe that spews forth from the guide serves as a further indication of the demented state of the guide’s intellect.  Boccaccio must have really enjoyed composing this section; rare indeed is the opportunity for an author to assume the voice of an almost comically deranged mind; such was also the case for Ovid in his Ibis. [3]

Ovid unquestionably was deeply hurt by his exile.  Men unquestionably suffer deep wounds from women.  Nether Ovid’s Ibis nor Boccaccio’s Corbaccio can be adequately read merely as playful invective.  In contrast to superficial readings of its preface, Boccaccio’s Decameron was written for men to instruct them in the comic reality of love for flesh-and-blood women.  With that same fundamental ethical concern Boccaccio also wrote Il Corbaccio.[4]  Il Corbaccio outrageously imagines the comic reality of love as a new Vita Nuova.  Our culture desperately needs that humane vision.

That humane vision doesn’t require great literature insightfully read.  One summer during my college years, I got a job in a large corporation focused on engineering and technology.  Most of the employees in my department were middle-aged career men.  One secretary was a young, beautiful, curvy woman who emphasized her sexual power with provocative dress.  A relatively old co-worker, perhaps noticing my vulnerability, said to me, “Yeah, but imagine how she looks bent over taking a shit.”  Scholars who dismiss Il Corbaccio as misogynistic would probably also dismiss that comment as misogynistic.  That comment highlights that the young, stunningly attractive woman was a flesh-and-blood human, just like us men.  That’s a much different view of a woman than Dante’s view of Beatrice in Dante’s Vita Nuova.

In the relatively illiberal and oppressive historical circumstances of our intellectual life, Boccaccio offers an inspiring monument of ethical concern and intellectual courage.  A scholar recently recognized Boccaccio’s under-appreciated contemporary importance:

My most sincere hope is that the reader will, when walking the streets of Florence with the tourist hordes, look at the many monuments to Dante and Petrarca in that once lovely city and remember one name: Giovanni Boccaccio. [5]

Remembering Boccaccio’s name isn’t enough.  We should also remember Boccaccio’s use of Jerome’s artful literary construction, Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage.  To foster for men and women a more pleasurable life without trespassing the sign of reason in any way, we must adequately appreciate Boccaccio’s Corbaccio.

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Notes:

[1] Panizza (2014) p. 183. Id. goes on to declare that the Corbaccio “has its fascinations” for relatively unimportant reasons, ending with “it offers a therapy for dealing with immoderate sexual passions.”  That latter reason follows Solomon (1997)’s deeply misandristic analysis of Alonso Martínez de Toledo’s Archpriest of Talavera and Jaume Roig’s Spill.

[2] Id. p. 193.  The most well-known medieval author of this sort of work is Christine de Pizan.

[3] Houston (2010) p. 116.

[4] Within circumstances of narrow and strongly constrained male self-consciousness, academics continue to fail to appreciate the Corbaccio.  In a recent example, a literal reading of the Decameron’s Proem revealed that it was written for “gentle ladies of Florence’s salons.”  In addition:

The message in the Corbaccio could not be more opposed to the Decameron; so too Boccaccio aims these two works at different audiences, confirming his tendency to target specific audiences for his writings.

Houston (2010) p. 120.  Houston suggests that the Corbaccio “can be made to support any reading” and offers a highly contrived reading of the Corbaccio as “a satire against the critics of vernacular poetry with an embedded parody of the Dominican preachers {specifically Bartolomeo di San Concordio and Jacopo Passavanti}  and their limited view of literature.”  Id. p. 122, see in general pp. 100-23.

[5] Id. p. 11.

[image] American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), Singing Sands, Bruce Peninsula National Park, Ontario, Canada.  June, 2007.  Thanks to Wikipedia.  Panizza (2014) p. 184 states:

The title itself, Il Corbaccio, offers a typical medieval play on Boccaccio’s name.  It inverts the first part, turning bocca, “mouth,” into corba, “crow” or “raven,” and keeps -accio as a suffix qualifying the noun, suggesting something huge, ugly, coarse, or unpleasant.  Boccaccio playfully inverts his name, transforming a “big, vulgar writer of novelle” into a “big, ugly, coarse crow/raven” bearing harsh news.

Crow as a verb can mean “to shout in exultation or defiance; to brag” and “to utter a sound expressive of joy or pleasure.”  Those additional verbal meanings provide insight into Il Corbaccio’s perspective on men’s courtly fantasies about women.

References:

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

Panizza, Letizia. 2014. “Rhetoric and Invective in Love’s Labyrinth (Il Corbaccio).”  Pp. 183-93 in Victoria Kirkham, Michael Sherberg, and Janet Levarie Smarr, eds. 2014. Boccaccio: a critical guide to the complete works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Solomon, Michael. 1997. The literature of misogyny in medieval Spain: the Arcipreste de Talavera and the Spill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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scholarly literature on sex differences in communication

Studying scholarly literature on sex differences in communication is insightful.  Popular books on sex differences usually lack solid scientific support but appeal to common sense.  They are easily understandable and occasionally amusing.  Reading excruciatingly detailed technical analysis of the scholarly weaknesses of these books indicates contrasting values in the scholarly marketplace.  For example, in an article entitled “‘You Just Don’t Have the Evidence’: An Analysis of Claims and Evidence in Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand,” two communication scholars noted:

there is widespread agreement that gender differences in communication are typically small. This pattern is evident in the foregoing review of research in various areas {of communication} and has also been noted by other authors who have conducted similar reviews. For example, Canary and Hause (1993) reviewed 15 meta-analyses on various communications topics, summarizing more than 1,200 studies of gender differences in communication. The average effect size is small (average weighted d = .24) and accounts for about 1% of the variance. [1]

Effect sizes and shares of variance depend strongly on experimental design.[2]  Effect sizes and shares of variance from unnatural, laboratory experiments are thus difficult to interpret in relation to the ordinary behavior of men and women in ordinary life.  The cited meta-analysis, Canary and Hause (1993), summarized the scholarly situation in 1993:

The problem is that fifty years of research on the topic of sex differences in communication have provided no clear findings. … Is there any reason to research sex differences in communication? On both empirical and conceptual levels the answer is “no,” assuming current practices continue. [3]

This scholarship carefully preserved the possibility of doing further academic work in this area:

We believe there are sex differences in communication, but they are eluding us. Perhaps a definitive answer to the question of sex differences in communication will arrive within the next fifty years. [4]

This scholarly work also lamented the influence of sexual stereotypes on scholarly work, the polarization of the sexes in scholarly deliberation, scholars’ failure to distinguish clearly between sex (nature) and gender (nurture), a dearth of theory about gender, and excessive scholarly enthusiasm for studying sex differences.  As the popular adage goes, if what you’re doing isn’t succeeding, keep doing it until it succeeds.

stack of scholarly papers on sex differences

Meta-analysis and moving to a higher level of abstraction is a common scholarly tactic.  A communication scholar subject to harsh criticism for her view that women and men communicate differently declared:

The pervasiveness of agonism, that is, ritualized adversativeness, in contemporary western academic discourse is the source of both obfuscation of knowledge and personal suffering in academia. Framing of academic discourse as a metaphorical battle leads to a variety of negative consequences, many of which have ethical as well as personal dimensions. [5]

Recent scholarship has emphasized sex differences in competitiveness.  With a striking mix of positive and normative phrases, an economics article published in 2007 was entitled, “Do Women Shy Away from Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much?”[6]  Consider an alternative title of similar form: “Do Men Compete Vigorously? Are Women Too Averse to Competition?”  The latter title probably wouldn’t have been published, and almost surely wouldn’t have scored as many subsequent citations exploring the roots of gender inequality.  Another social scientist has queried:

What kind of motives are more likely to lead to good science: Competitive motives, like the motive J. D. Watson described in The Double Helix, to get the structure of DNA before Linus Pauling did? Or nurturant motives of the kind that Doug Melton has described recently to explain why he’s going into stem cell research: to find a cure for juvenile diabetes, which his children suffer from? [7]

Scholarly attempts to evaluate this question are likely to be less successful that past scholarly attempts to evaluate sex differences in communication.  Appealing to care for children, however, is a propitious social-rhetorical strategy.

Communication scholars need not step far from calculations of effect sizes in laboratory communication experiments to find more meaningful evidence of sex differences in communication.  From the 1970-1 to the 2010-11 academic years, the sex ratio of students receiving bachelor degrees in “communications, journalism, and related programs” in the U.S. rose from 0.55 women per man to 1.67 women per man.  Bachelor degrees awarded in communications, journalism, and related programs grew about seven times as rapidly as did bachelor degrees in all fields.  That rapid growth was relatively women-biased: the sex ratio in bachelor degrees conferred in communications, journalism, and related fields (1.67 in the 2010-11 school year) is much higher than the sex ratio for all bachelors degrees (1.34).[8]  In short, the academic discipline of communication has grown relatively strongly to serve predominately female students.  Communications scholars pondering sex differences in communication should consider those real-world facts.

In a jazz club the waitress recommended the crab cakes to me, and they turned out to be terrible. I was uncertain about whether or not to send them back. When the waitress came by and asked how the food was, I said that I didn’t really like the crab cakes. She asked, “What’s wrong with them?” While staring at the table, my husband answered, “They don’t taste fresh.” The waitress snapped, “They’re frozen! What do you expect?” I looked directly up at her and said, “We just don’t like them.” She said, “Well, if you don’t like them, I could take them back and bring you something else.” [9]

You should be able to enjoy the food you ordered in a restaurant.  You must be really upset.  You were so right to send those crab cakes back!

The evidence for sex differences in communication is voluminous, socially significant, and willfully disparaged.

*  *  *  *  *

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Notes:

[1] Goldsmith & Fulfs (1999) p. 26, footnote omitted.  Id., p. 2, noted that Tannen (1990) had achieved huge market success:

The cover of the 1990 paperback edition proudly proclaims that the book has appeared on the New York Times best-seller list for more than 4 years, generated more than 1.5 million copies, and received favorable reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and San Franscisco Chronicle. The book has been excerpted and cited for millions of readers in such popular magazines as Newsweek, Time, Redbook, Reader’s Digest, Working Woman, Ladies’ Home Journal, and People and in newspapers such as the Christian Science Monitor and USA Today.

Following the success of the book, Tannen has made numerous television appearances and has written articles and book reviews in a wide variety of publications with large circulation, including Reader’s Digest, the Washington Post, McCall, USA Today, and New York Times Magazine, to name only a few.

[2] The effect sizes calculated in meta-analyses of social-scientific experiments typically depend on variables that are defined conventionally and that have little ecological significance. The variance observed depends greatly on the specific variable description. Consider, for example, a study of sex differences in height. If the study includes women and men both standing and mounted on horseback, then the effect size of sex on height will be much less than if just height standing is measured. MacGeorge et al. (2004) p. 148, Fig. 1, demonstrates the significance of this issue.  If the message type “change the subject” was not included in the experiment, the variance of “likelihood of use” would be much smaller, and the effect size of sex in the experiment would be much larger.  Moreover, sex differences in variance can be significant. Walker et al. (2006) documents cross-cultural sex differences in height, weight, and in the variance in bodily growth trajectories.  Using the “average within-sex standard deviation” (e.g. Hydep (2005) p. 582) in calculating effect sizes makes effect sizes even less interpretable in relation to actual human behavior in ordinary circumstances.

[3] Canary & Hause (1993) pp. 129, 141.

[4] Id. p. 141.

[5] Tannen (2002) p. 1651. Cf. Goldsmith & Fulfs (1999).

[6] Niederle & Vesterlund (2007).

[7] Spelke in Pinker & Spelke (2005).

[8] U.S. Dept. of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics: 2012, Tables 348 and 310.  The sex ratio of female to male communications bachelor degree recipients peaked at 1.83 in the 2003-04 school year.  Across the seven years prior to that peak, communications degrees conferred grew much faster than all bachelor degrees conferred, with growth rates of 52% and 19%, respectively.  In the subsequent seven years, communications degrees conferred grew slightly slower than all bachelor degrees, with growth rates of 21% and 23%, respectively.  Thus the ratio of females to males receiving communications degrees has become less unequal as communications, journalism, and related fields have become much less attractive to students.  These data are gathered and summarized in the Communications Degrees Sex Bias Workbook (Excel version).

[9] Tannen (1990) p. 29.

References

Canary, Daniel J. and Kimberley S. Hause. 1993. “Is There Any Reason to Research Sex Differences in Communication?” Communication Quarterly 41(2): 129-144.

Goldsmith, Daena J. and Patricia A. Fulfs. 1999. “”You Just Don’t Have the Evidence”: An Analysis of Claims and Evidence in Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand.” Communication Yearbook 22: 1-49.

Hyde, Janet Shibley. 2005. “The Gender Similarities Hypothesis.” American Psychologist 60(6): 581-592.

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

Niederle, Muriel, and Lise Vesterlund. 2007. “Do Women Shy Away from Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much?“. Quarterly Journal of Economics. 122 (3): 1067-1101.

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

Tannen, Deborah. 1990. You just don’t understand: women and men in conversation. New York, NY: Morrow.

Tannen, Deborah. 2002. “Agonism in academic discourse.” Journal of Pragmatics 34: 1651-1669.

Walker, Robert, Michael Gurven, Kim Hill, Andrea Migliano, Napoleon Chagnon, Roberta De Souza, Gradimir Djurovic, Raymond Hames, A. Magdalen Hurtado, Richard Kaplan, Karen Kramer, William J. Oliver, Claudia Valeggia and Taro Yamauchi. 2006. “Growth Rates and Life Histories in Twenty-Two Small-Scale Societies.” American Journal of Human Biology 18: 295-311.

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