ancient Greek epitaphs: Herais & Sozomene for their husbands

Given the prevalence of anti-men gender bigotry, some may wonder: do women truly love men?

man alone, beseeching

Ancient Greek epitaphs show the long history of women’s love for men. Here’s an epitaph from the second or third century:

I Herais lie here, stranger, five times seven {years old}
And I urge you, my husband,
Not to keep weeping. For the thread of the Moirai calls everyone. [1]

The epitaph begins with a conventional first-person address to the conventionally anonymous passerby (“stranger”). The first verse provides information that remains conventional on gravestones to this day: the name of the deceased (Herais) and her age at death (five times seven = thirty-five). The epitaph’s second verse, however, suggests that Herais selected/dictated her epitaph just before her death.[2] Herais personally addresses her weeping husband. She urges him to move beyond his grief at her death.

Personal words from women are relatively rare in the ancient historical record. The long-established, long-misinterpreted literature of men’s sexed protests describes suffering and injustices that men have endured from women and within marriage. But not all men were like that. Some men wept when their wives died. Moreover, some women did not relish their husbands’ weeping. Herais didn’t want her husband to be weeping. After expressing that concern, so poignant to readers today, Herais returns to conventional expression in ancient Greek epitaphs. Ancient Greeks commonly attributed the course of persons’ lives to fate (the Moirai). The distinctive, personal words in Herais’s epitaph are her words of comfort for her grieving, weeping husband.

Another ancient Greek epitaph provides women’s words with more subtle poetry. In the second or third century, Sozomene had inscribed for her husband Crispinus this epitaph:

Here is the tomb of swift-fated, mindful Crispinus
For whom no stock of children will later appear.
A destructive Ker overcame them both before him.
So his wedded wife Sozomene inscribed his gravestone
For mortals still to be born to learn from. [3]

The term “swift-fated” suggests that Crispinus died young. He lived long enough, however, to have two children. Those children predeceased him. With bracketing of the first verse, the subsequent verses are a chiasma of thematic contrasts. A destructive Ker (death-spirit) killed their children. Sozomene in response inscribed stone. For Crispinus “no stock of children will later appear.” But Sozomene’s inscription offers teaching “for mortals still to be born to learn from.” A teacher gives birth to knowledge in students. His students are like children to him. The first verse describes Crispinus as “mindful” with a Greek word associated with the philosophical ideal of prudence. With her epitaph, Sozomene lovingly provides for Crispinus to have more children in the life of the mind.

Women have long loved men and cared for men’s welfare. Men are more responsible for anti-men gender bigotry than are women. Men seeking compassionate help would best look to women.

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[1] Epitaph (gravestone inscription) from Amorgus, among the southeastern Greek islands. From Greek trans. Hansen (1998) p. 336, from Greek text in Peek (1955) p. 93, no. 372. Some epitaphs were composed as a literary pieces and never actually engraved on gravestones.

[2] Widespread conventions in gravestone epitaphs suggests that engravers offered customers choices among standard verses. A common verse: “It is not dying that is grievous, since it is destined for all, … {continued in various ways, e.g. but that I died before the journal completed the review of my article, etc.} Id. pp. 329-332.

[3] Epitaph (gravestone inscription) from Berrhoea. Βέρροια, now commonly transliterated as Veria, is in northern Greece. From Greek trans. Hansen (1998) p. 335, from Greek text in Peek (1955) p. 33, no. 107. The Greek word translated as “mindful” is πινυτου (pinytou).

[image] Southern Barbarians in Japan. Painting, ink, color, and gold on paper. Edo period (1515-1868), Japan. Accession number F1965.22-23. Thanks to Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.


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

Peek, Werner. 1955. Griechische Vers-Inschriften. Band I, Grab-Epigramme. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.

women and men on medieval women writers

A free, online book, Medieval Women Writers’ Loving Concern for Men, is now available worldwide. This book shows the public importance of medieval women writers’ outstanding work. For teachers of medieval literature, this book can usefully serve as a supplement to Peter Dronke’s erudite and influential book, Women Writers of the Middle Ages.

ghostly representation of women medieval writers

While Dronke’s book was published in 1984, women writers of the Middle Ages still have not been adequately appreciated.  Dronke in the preface described his book as:

an affirmation of the intrinsic value of writings that have been — I believe quite unjustly — undervalued in the past. It is not necessary here to dwell on the history and causes of this, or on the diverse attempts to belittle the rare women whose writings did achieve fame. [1]

The term “rare” applied to women has roots in the Latin phrase rara avis (“rare bird”) in Juvenal’s widely and unjustly disparaged Satire 6.[2] Belittling women implies not taking women seriously and not recognizing their power and importance. Juvenal’s Satire 6, in contrast, fully recognizes the enormity of women’s importance. While Dronke doesn’t dwell on belittling rare women, he provides sufficient examples:

It will suffice to recall, by way of illustration, that in 1867 Hrotsvitha’s works were alleged to be a hoax perpetrated by the humanist Conrad Celtes, who first edited the principal manuscript, and that this ‘discovery’ gave rise to some coarsely mocking verses; or that till quite recent times, notwithstanding Hildegard of Bingen’s meticulous account of her method of composition, scholars exaggerated the role of her men secretaries to the point of implying that they were the real begetters of her works; again, speculations about male authorship of some of Heloise’s letters are still with us, and are still treated much more seriously — there’s the rub — than for instance the suggestion that Bacon, or Marlowe, wrote the works of Shakespeare. [3]

Today, men die from violence four times more frequently that women do. Men are incarcerated for doing nothing more than having consensual sex and being too poor to pay for state-forced financial fatherhood. If humanistic scholars don’t care about those facts, they might consider: the share of men who have read a work of literature in the past year is only 68% of that for women. Men earn only 56% of the women’s advanced degree earnings in study of literature and the humanities.[4] Adequately appreciating medieval women writers depends on adequately appreciating these realities.

Scholars have not adequately recognized the importance of medieval women writers for men. Of the seven English-language scholarly reviews of Women Writers of the Middle Ages, six were written by women. One reviewer, who is now recognized as one of the most eminent medieval historians, wrote:

Dronke still speaks of women writers too much in the context of their relationship to men. … his choice of which passages and texts to emphasize still focuses more than the nature of women’s writing itself warrants on the ways in which women perceive men and their relationship to men. [5]

As Medieval Women Writers’ Loving Concern for Men makes clear, Dronke wrote relatively little on medieval women writers’ relationships with men. The way that medieval women writers perceived men and showed concern for men is an outstanding feature of their work. Much scholarship doesn’t recognize that medieval women writers didn’t write just for women. Medieval women writers wrote for men in ways that should not remain beyond understanding today.

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[1] Dronke (1984) p. ix.

[2] Juvenal, Satire 6.165: rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cycno (“a rare bird on earth and most similar to a black swan”).

[3] Dronke (1984) p. ix, omitted footnote scornfully cites Georges Dubay questioning attribution of work to Marie de France (such as this) and Heloise (such as this). Dubay, like others, evidently lacked appreciation for medieval women writers’ concern for men. Questioning attribution of work to women writers now tends to generate intense hostility. Consider, for example, the question of whether Mary Shelley actually authored Frankenstein. See Lauritsen (2007) Preface, Ch. 5 & Ch. 7. Here’s some online discussion of the handwriting-authorship fallacy with respect to Frankenstein and prefaces to the 1818 and 1831 versions of Frankenstein. Stevenson’s massive tome on women Latin poets states, “Mary Shelley read Latin and Greek as well as French and Italian.” Stevenson (2005) p. 425. That statement doesn’t fairly represent Mary Shelley’s classical learning.

[4] U.S. masters and Ph.D. degrees conferred, 2010-11, compiled from U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Educational Statistics, 2012. The compiled data and calculations are available in the humanities gender protrusion spreadsheet (alternate Excel version).

[5] Bynum (1985) p. 328. Bynum is now Professor emerita of Medieval European History at the School of Historical Studies at the Institute of Advanced Study in  Princeton, New Jersey. The single man reviewer was Ralph Hexter. He is now Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor of the University of California, Davis. For the names of all seven reviewers, with institutional affiliations at the time of review and journal in which the review appeared, see the Dronke reviewers spreadsheet (alternate Excel version).

[image] Soft Bathtub (Model) — Ghost Version. Claes Oldenburg, 1966. Canvas, wood, acrylic paint, and mixed media. Item 1998 (98.18), Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC.


Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1985. Review. “Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua († 203) to Marguerite Porete († 1310).” Modern Language Quarterly. 46 (3): 326-329.

Dronke, Peter. 1984. Women writers of the Middle Ages: a critical study of texts from Perpetua († 203) to Marguerite Porete († 1310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lauritsen, John. 2007. The man who wrote Frankenstein. Dorchester, MA: Pagan Press.

Stevenson, Jane. 2005. Women Latin poets: language, gender, and authority, from antiquity to the eighteenth century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dafydd ap Gwilym’s penis under law in medieval Welsh poetry

The fourteenth-century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym addressed his penis in poetry. If even noticed, the criminalization of men’s sexuality tends to be seen as a bizarre aberration of twenty-first-century elite culture. Yet that tendency in law can also be perceived in this penis poem from fourteenth-century Wales. Dafydd ap Gwilym began his penis poem with forthright recognition of the force of law on his penis:

By God, cock, there’s need to keep you
Under guard with eye and hand,
Stiff-headed pole, with this law-suit,
Even better from now on.
Cunt’s net-float, because of complaint,
Needs must your snout be snaffled
To keep you from being indicted
Again. [1]

Old French fabliaux disparage and devalue men’s genitals. The thirteenth-century account of the nun of Watton shows relatively little concern about viciously castrating a man for nothing more than having consensual sex. Embracing social disparagement and legal suppression of men’s genitals, Dafydd ap Gwilym subtly creates a counter-melody proclaiming the value of his penis:

You’re a loathsome rolling-pin,
Scrotum’s horn: don’t rise, don’t waggle,
Noble ladies’ New-Year’s-gift

You’re longer than a large man’s thigh,
Long night’s roving, hundred nights’ chisel,
Auger like the signpost’s pillar,
Leatherhead that’s called a shaft.
You’re a sceptre that causes lust,
A girl’s bare arse’s lid-bolt.

The phrase “loathsome rolling-pin” explicitly signals contempt and implicitly vicious violence. Horns are associated with the devil and cuckoldry. But horns are also associated with strength and plenty. A sceptre is a kingly sign, while a lid-bolt performs a common function. For noble women, men’s sexuality is a New Year’s gift.

Noble women eagerly waiting for the movement of a New Year must fight against disparagement and criminalization of men’s sexuality. Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poem ends with poignant irony in addressing his penis:

You are a trouser-problem personified,
suede-necked, gander-glide,
congenital liar, pod from which indecency has sprung,
nail on which injunctions are hung.

Now you’re once more been brought to book
you should bow your head, you children’s dibbling-hook.
It’s so hard to keep you in check,
you pathetic little pecker-peck.
Your master will stand in the dock because of you,
because you’re rotten through-and-through. [2]

Universities’ star-chamber proceedings on claims of sexual assault stage obtuse, ignorant readings of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s penis poem.

tide comes in on vagina

Gwerful Mechain’s medieval Welsh vagina poem shows sharply contrasting public values. She begins by complaining that poets praise all of a woman’s body except “the place where children are conceived.”[3] That’s because most men lack the boldness to affirm the center of their sexual interest. Predating the Vagina Monologues by nearly half a millennium, Gwerful Mechain’s poem lavishly praises the vagina:

You’re a piece with unfailing power,
a faultless court of fat’s plumage,
Here’s my credo: the quiff is lovely,
Circlet of broad-edged lips,
Dingle deeper than hand or ladle,
Trench to hold a two-handed prick,
Cunt there next the full-cheeked rump,
Songbook with red facing pages. [4]

Gwerful Mechain ends her vagina poem by invoking God’s protection for the flawless vagina:

Noble forest, flawless gift,
Soft frieze, fur for fair bollocks,
Girl’s thick grove, precious welcome’s round,
Splendid bush, may God preserve it.

Gwerful Mechain’s vagina poem isn’t famous. It doesn’t need to be. Versions of it run naturally through primates’ minds.

In a poem complaining about jealous wives, Gwerful Mechain declares women’s sexual interest in a “bigger than average cock.” She boasts, “every big-cocked lover is after me.”[5] Then she complains that women with such men value them too highly. According to Mechain, a wife values a “big prick” more than her father, her wealth, her clothes and jewelry, her mother, her brothers, her sister, and all her possessions. Old French fabliaux describe men being valued merely for their penises.  Mechain’s poem emphasizes that demeaning of a man’s person. She doesn’t praise even just the penis. She complains that other women value men-penises too highly.  In broad historical and evolutionary perspectives, her claim isn’t credible.

Creating public value for the penis equal to that of the vagina is probably beyond the power of poets. But reducing the vastly disproportionate imprisonment of men should be attempted.

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[1] Dafydd ap Gwilym, Cywydd y Gal (Penis Poem), from Welsh trans. Clancy (2003) p. 192. The subsequent quote is from id. The Welsh text, an audio of a Welsh reading, an English translation, and additional information are available on the Swansea University’s excellent Dafydd ad Gwilym site (see entry 85 -Y Gal on the choose-poem dropdown box). Dafydd ap Gwilym wrote Cywydd y Gal probably in the period 1330-1350. Johnston (1991) p. 29.

[2] Trans. Muldoon (2009) p. 113. Muldoon’s translation is livelier than Clancy’s. Johnston claims in his preface to the poem that it is “in fact an elaborate means of boasting the poet’s sexual process.” Johnston (1991) p. 29. That perspective lacks appreciation for the legal context of the poem. Johnston’s introduction makes clear that he is a modern-day Suero de Quinones.

[3] Gwerful Mechain, Cywydd y Cedor (Vagina Poem), from Welsh trans. Johnston (1991) p. 41. Here’s the full English translation of Cywydd y Cedor, as well as the Welsh text. Clancy (2003) p. 339 has “the place where children are bred.” That translation is less consistent with the wondrous, laudatory tone of Cywydd y Cedor. Cywydd y Gal and Cywydd y Cedor commonly occur together in medieval manuscripts, with both poems attributed to Gwerful Mechain. But there is strong textual and stylistic evidence that Dafydd ap Gwilym authored Cywydd y Gal.

[4] Id. trans. Clancy (2003) p. 339. Id. titles this poem Vivat Vagina and the previous poem, Reproach to his Penis.  The actual Welsh titles are symmetric and less descriptive. For clarity, I’ve replaced above the second line in id., “The feathered crutch’s flawless court,” with the corresponding verse translation from Johnston (1991) p. 43.

[5] Gwerful Mechain, I Wragedd Eiddigeddus (To Jealous Wives), from Welsh trans. Johnston (1991) pp. 37, 39. Johnston, underscoring the women-are-wonderful effect, laughably declares that the poem is “a subtle but clear proclamation of female sexuality.”

[image] Tide {detail}. Jan Dibbets, 1969. Gelatin silver prints. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 2007. The Panza Collection (07.43). Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC.


Clancy, Joseph P., trans. 2003. Medieval Welsh poems. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Johnston, Dafydd. 1991. Canu Maswedd yr Oesoedd canol = Medieval Welsh erotic poetry. Grangetown: Tafol.

Muldoon, Paul. 2009. Dafydd ap Gwilym. “Y Gal.” Irish Studies Review. 17(1): 111-113.

Candace & Alexander the Great: from cunning to inwardness

Candace taking Alexander into her chamber

Alexander the Great ventured toward the territory of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia and former ruler of Egypt. Queen Candace was “a woman of remarkable beauty, in her middle age.” She was wary of Alexander the Great. She wrote to him:

Do not despise us for the color of our skin. In our souls we are brighter than the whitest of your people. We have eighty flame-throwers ready to do harm to those who would attack us. [1]

To dissuade hostility from Alexander, Candace sent him a lavish array of gifts: 500 young Ethiopians, 100 solid-gold ingots, ivory, pearls, elephants, chimpanzees, and many other precious goods. With additional cunning, Candace sent one of her courtiers, a Greek painter, to infiltrate Alexander’s camp and secretly paint a portrait of him. The painter succeeded in his covert mission. He gave the portrait of Alexander to Candace.

Alexander, with his own cunning, infiltrated in disguise Candace’s palace. Candace alone saw through Alexander’s ruse. When they were together in private, she addressed him as Alexander. He insisted that he was Antigonus, Alexander’s messenger. But Candace showed him the portrait by which she recognized him to be Alexander. Alexander the Great, knowing that he had been caught in the power of Candace, trembled. With wisdom she counseled him:

You who have destroyed the Persians and the Indians, who have taken trophies from the Medes and Parthians, who have subdued the whole East — now, without a single battle, you have become the prisoner of Candace. Know this then, Alexander, that no matter how clever a man may be, another will be able to outwit him. Now Candace’s cunning has outstripped even Alexander’s intelligence. [2]

Alexander was furious. Candace taunted him:

What can you do? You who were such a great king have now fallen into the hands of a single woman.

With the motherly address, “do not fret, child Alexander,” Candace promised to preserve Alexander’s disguise. When Candace’s men wanted to kill Alexander disguised as the messenger, she and the disguised Alexander together arranged to trick the men. After spending some time with Candace, Alexander moved on to other adventures.[3]

In France about the year 1300, the Mirror of Simple Souls adapted the story of Queen Candace and Alexander the Great. The middle-aged Queen Candace became a damsel, a king’s daughter. This damsel was “great-hearted and noble and worthy of heart.” But she wasn’t clever. She was status-seeking and self-centered:

this damsel heard tell of all the graciousness and nobility of King Alexander, and at once she wanted to love him for the great fame of his gentle breeding. [4]

His fame alone was sufficient for her. But there was a difficulty with this love:

this damsel was so far off from this great lord, on whom of her own will she had set her love, that she could neither see him nor possess him; and because of this she was often sad at heart, for no other love than this sufficed for her.

The damsel couldn’t have the man she wanted. So she created an image of the man:

she thought to herself that she would comfort her sorrowful heart by making some imagined likeness of her loved one, for love of whom her heart was many a time sorely wounded. So she had a picture painted to represent the likeness of the king whom she loved, as near as she could to the appearance under which she loved him, by the affection of the love by which she was overcome; and by means of this picture and of her other rites of love she could imagine that the king himself was present.

A teen-aged girl in love would understand this tale.[5] The story of Candace and Alexander became in the Mirror of Simple Souls an allegory for the simple soul’s simplicity and self-absorption.

Love by hearsay was a common motif in European courtly literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It had an influential source in Cicero’s De Amicitia:

there is nothing more lovable than virtue, nothing that more allures us to affection, since on account of their virtue and uprightness we feel a sort of affection even for those whom we have never seen. [6]

In Candace’s love by hearsay for Alexander, the Mirror of Simple Souls substitutes for virtue abstract ideas of nobility (“graciousness,” “gentle breeding”). Love by hearsay with this substitution becomes less connected to acts and more connected to being within the lover’s own imagination.

Stories of cunning have been more popular historically than stories of imaginative self-absorption. The story of Queen Candace and Alexander the Great in the Alexander romance evoked the cunning of Odysseus in Homer’s hugely influential epics. The trickster motif more generally is attested in popular tales throughout history and around the world. In medieval France, fabliaux recounted cunning across a wide range of circumstances. Boccacio’s Decameron with more literary sophistication celebrated similar character.

The Mirror of Simple Souls, in contrast, anticipated the imaginative self-absorption of early nineteenth-century Romantic poetry. The Mirror’s theological ideas are common. The Mirror doesn’t reveal any particular mystical experience.[7] With aggressive self-promotion, the Mirror achieved considerable distribution. Dozens of manuscripts of it were probably produced, with fourteenth-century translations into at least three languages.[8] What makes the Mirror of Simple Souls interesting is others’ interests in it.

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[1] Greek Alexander Romance III.18, trans. Stoneman (1991) p. 136. Flame-throwers would blacken the skin of attackers in a deadly way. On Candace’s skin-color, see above illumination in a European manuscript.

[2] Id. III.22, p. 140. The subsequent quote is from id.

[3] Alexander had a close relationship with his mother. Candace, however, did not always remain a mother figure to Alexander. Various medieval versions of the Alexander Romance adapted the relationship of Candace and Alexander in various ways. The ninth-century Byzantine chronicler George the Monk (George Hamartolus) had Alexander marry Candace in appreciation for her “cunning and devious intelligence.” Trans. Stoneman (2012) p. 30. In the twelfth century, Alexander of Paris (Alexander of Bernay) wrote a romance of Alexander in French verse. In that romance, Candace and Alexander spent half a day of pleasure together in bed. Then Alexander left. Thomas of Kent (Eustache Kent) in the twelfth century also wrote an Alexander romance, Roman de toute chevalerie. That version features a love affair between Candace and Alexander, but includes warnings in the tradition of the literature of men’s sexed protests. Roman de toute chevalerie was the basis for the thirteenth-century Middle English romance Kyng Alisaunder.

[4] Mirror of Simple Souls, Prologue, from Old French trans. Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999) p. 10. The subsequent two quotes are from id. pp. 10-11.

[5] Kocher (2008) struggles to find complex significance in this prologue:

the Prologue is, for all its complexity, a deceptively small and easily opened door into the vast edifice of the text. … It is a modest, somewhat cautious beginning to a text whose later wording is not so cautious. The Prologue makes no attempt to introduce features of the Mirror that are controversial or difficult to understand

Id. p. 90.

[6] Cicero, De Amicitia, 8.20, from Latin trans. Falconer (1923). On love by hearsay (amour lointain, amor de lohn), Jaeger (1999) pp. 122-7, Asaro (2013). According to the thirteenth-century vita of the troubadour Jaufré Rudel, he fell in love with the countess of Tripoli after hearing travelers’ reports of her.

[7] Kocher (2008) observes of the Mirror:

if the text is read aloud, listeners will hear most of its central ideas in virtually any thirty-minute period. … The major points appear over and over, in varying formulations and metaphors.

Id. p. 54

[8] The Mirror has survived in “at least sixteen complete or partial versions”; “it appears as if dozens of copies of the Mirror were bobbing up continually in the seas of late-medieval western Europe like unsinkable corks.” Kocher (2013) p. 25; Lerner (2010) p. 116. Dronke (1984), p. 202, called Marguerite Porete, to whom the Mirror has come to be attributed, “the most neglected of the great writers of the thirteenth century.” In the past three decades, many scholarly articles have addressed Marguerite’s work.

[image] Candace taking Alexander into her chamber. Illumination for Historia de proelis in a French translation (Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre), France, c. 1420, Royal 20 B XX,  f 71v. Thanks to the British Library.


Asaro, Brittany. 2013. “Unmasking the Truth about Amor de Lonh: Giovanni Boccaccio’s Rebellion against Literary Conventions in Decameron I.5 and IV.4.Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies. 44 (1): 95-120.

Colledge, Edmund, J. C. Marler and Judith Grant, ed. and trans. 1999. Margaret Porette {Marguerite Porete}. The mirror of simple souls. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1984. Women writers of the Middle Ages: a critical study of texts from Perpetua († 203) to Marguerite Porete († 1310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Falconer, W.A. ed. and trans. 1923. Cicero. De amicitia (On Friendship). Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, vol. XX.

Jaeger, C. Stephen. 1999. Ennobling love: in search of a lost sensibility. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kocher, Suzanne. 2008. Allegories of love in Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of simple souls. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols.

Kocher, Zan. 2013. “The Apothecary’s Mirror of Simple Souls: Circulation and Reception of Marguerite Porete’s Book in Fifteenth-Century France.” Modern Philology. 111 (1): 23-47.

Lerner, Robert E. 2010. “New light on The Mirror of Simple Souls.” Speculum. 85 (1): 91-116.

Stoneman, Richard, trans. 1991. Pseudo-Callisthenes. The Greek Alexander romance. London, England: Penguin Books.

Stoneman, Richard, trans. 2012. Legends of Alexander the Great. London: I.B. Tauris.

no Juvenal kidding: Milesian tales, Asinarius & Brothers Grimm

With the exasperated exclamation “if only this were nonsense,” the first-century Roman author Juvenal in Satire 6 brushed aside criticism that he was letting satire put on the high boots of tragedy. Apuleius, writing about a century later, prefaced a story of a step-mother falsely accusing her step-son of rape and poisoning by declaring that he wasn’t telling a tale (fabula), but was moving from the soft shoe of comedy to the high boots of tragedy.[1] Juvenal and Apuleius’s indications of tragedy extend to historical understanding of the sexuality of donkeys and men. From ancient Milesian tales to the medieval written Latin fabula Asinarius to the Brothers Grimm, masculine sexuality has been historically devalued.

asinarius updated

Ancient authorities wrote of women seeking to have sex with male donkeys. Juvenal explained that, without willing men, a sexually excited woman will turn to a male donkey for sexual pleasure.[2] A recently discovered fragment of third-century papyrus, probably from a Milesian tale, narrates a women’s sexual encounter with a donkey:

Kissing the donkey, who was in {love} pain as soon as she had fallen down with him, and beseechingly she says: “Wow, it’s fat and big as a roof-beam. Wait! Little by little. Don’t put it all the way in.” [3]

A notable aspect of this text is the woman’s appreciation for the wondrous physical dimensions of the donkey’s erect penis. The fragmentary text ends with a sense that the woman wasn’t satisfied. She came to realize that she wanted it all.

In Apuleius’s Golden Ass, a woman had it all. A married woman fell passionately in love with a donkey. She purchased from his keeper a tryst. In a luxuriously arranged bedroom to which the donkey was led, the woman got naked. She then anointed herself and the donkey with perfume. While neither party continually and affirmatively consented to sex, the woman encouraged the donkey sexually:

she kissed me ardently, yet gently, not such kisses as are usually given in a brothel, the prostitutes’ kisses-at-a-price or their customers’ kisses-with-a-hand-on-the-purse — no, she bestowed pure, sincere kisses and the most flattering words on me: “I am in love with you,” and “I want you,” and “I love you alone,” and “I can no longer live without you,” and the other phrases that women use both to lead others on and also to express their own desires [4]

The male donkey, as men commonly do, showed concern for the woman and fear of punishment predominately directed at men:

But I felt quite anxious, reflecting with great fear how, with so many and such huge legs, I would be able to mount the delicate lady, or embrace her body of milk and honey, so translucent and so tender, with my hard hooves, and kiss her dainty lips, gleaming red and ambrosia-bedewed, with such a large mouth, so enormous and misshaped because of its rock-like teeth; and finally, how the woman, even if she was titillated from top to toe, could receive such a formidable penis. Woe is me, when I have broken this well-born woman apart, I will be thrown to the beasts [5]

The woman, however, comforted the male donkey suffering from male bodily anxiety and fear of unjust punishment:

she redoubled her tender words and continuous kisses and gentle cries with gazes that touched me to the quick — in short, she said: “I have you, I have you, my fond dove, my sparrow,” and as she spoke she demonstrated that my worries had been unfounded and my fear foolish. For she clung to me very tightly and received me entirely, but fully and entirely. [6]

The woman left the donkey, exhausted from hours of male sexual work, just before the light of dawn. Before she left, she arranged to pay the donkey’s keeper again for another night of similar pleasure.

Subsequent stories of women and donkeys depreciate the physicality of masculine genitals and the pleasure that male sexuality offers. The medieval Latin Asinarius (Donkey Tale), written about 1200, provides key insights into that transformation over the long duration. Asinarius probably drew upon a Sanskrit donkey tale that traveling musicians helped to transmit orally from India to western Europe.[7] Asinarius also contains literary associations with ancient Greco-Roman epic texts concerning the Trojan War.[8] But the oral and literary streams that flowed into Asinarius are even richer. In that work, when a king asks a little donkey, “Do you like our daughter?” the donkey, apparently indignant with the suppression of male sexuality, responds:

Amazing! Why do you ask? O king, why do you labor to know? Why ought I not like her? [9]

Like the donkey in Apuleius’s Golden Ass, the donkey in Asinarius appreciates the physical beauty of women:

I like her, I like her, I like her very much. … Certainly the man who does not like her at all is made of iron. Her fair face, suffused with rosiness, brings delight, as if I should contemplate lilies mixed with roses. And I like her hair; her ivory-white neck brings delight; and I confess that I like her whole body. [10]

The donkey and the daughter get married. When night comes and the couple goes to their marital bedroom, the bridegroom inexplicably “puts off his donkey garb.” To all who have read the Golden Ass or its Greek source Onos, the bride’s reaction represents a complete reversal:

The maiden, seeing the noble body of a handsome man whose appearance previously had been repulsive, having marveled before long at the unbelievable charm of her spouse, rushed headlong into the bond of lovemaking. [11]

The maiden’s reaction represents the accumulation of more than a millennium of Christian doctrine and ideology of sexual renunciation. As male animals, a man and a donkey have similar genitals, but a donkey’s penis is typically much larger. In the sexual context of Asinarius, the man is now characterized as noble, handsome, and charming, and the male donkey, repulsive. The fundamental biological form of the male reproductive organ was celebrated in ancient sculpture, public parades, and literature. By the European Middle Ages, the phallus had been devalued relative to cultural constructions of nobility, appearance, and charm. A leading scholar of Asinarius has described it as emphatically misogynistic.[12] It is also deeply misandristic.

By the nineteenth century with the Brothers Grimm, the situation had become far worse. The Brothers Grimm created a fairy tale from the medieval Latin text Asinarius. While Asinarius drew upon the ancient idea of a woman and donkey mating being an interesting spectacle, the Brothers Grimm sent a servant to watch secretly because “the king wanted to know whether the donkey would behave himself really nicely with courtesy and good manners” in having sex with the princess.[13] As Apuleius’s Golden Ass makes clear, males are worthy of trust in their mating with females. In addition to casting off the form of a male hung like a donkey, the Brothers Grimm added as sexual foreplay the little man seeking the woman’s approval of his being:

he then cast off his donkey skin all at once and stood there as a handsome, royal youth, who said: “You see who I am and that I have been worthy of you.

That sort of male approval-seeking typically doesn’t give women sexual tingles. The new fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm continues without any sexual vigor. The bride relates to her new husband, that fairy-tale descendent of Apuleius’s fully pleasing ass, just like she would relate to her dear mother:

the bride was overjoyed, kissed him, and loved him with all her heart. [14]

Fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and their cultural followers have prompted many women today to relish Fifty Shades of Grey. More importantly, fairy tales have prompted initiatives to suppress men’s sexuality in harshly unjust, trust-smashing, pleasure-destroying ways. Now more than ever, Western culture desperately needs more appreciation for classical and medieval literature.[15]

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[1] Juvenal, Satire 6.434: altum satura sumente coturnum (“letting satire put on the high boots of tragedy”). Apuleius, Golden Ass, 10.2.14: non fabulam legere, et a socco ad coturnum ascendere (“you aren’t reading an amusing story, but are rising to a higher level, exchanging the low slipper of comedy for the high boot of tragedy,” trans Zimmerman (2000) p. 68). In id. 10.2.1, the narrator offers the story ut uos etiam legatis, ad librum profero (“in order that you too may read it, I will put it on the record”). The unusual phrase ad librum profero (“put it on the record”) suggests both book and legal/theatrical performance.

[2] Hildegard of Bingen, on the other hand, expressed concern that sexually desperate men were fornicating with cattle. See appreciation for men’s sexuality in Hildegard’s Causae et curae, particularly note [8].

[3] From Greek trans. May (2010) p. 63.

[4] Apuleius, Golden Ass 10.21, from Latin trans. Zimmerman (2000) p. 275.  All subsequent quotes from the Golden Ass are from id., unless otherwise noted. In the misnamed spurcum additamentum to the Golden Ass 10.21, the woman cleans the donkey’s penis before sex:

And, by Hercules, she cleaned my round scrotum, my balls, with perfumed wine and rosewater of Chios. And then with her fingers, thumb, forefinger, middle finger, ring finder and little finger, she withdrew the foreskin, and cleared the shaft of my penis of the plentiful whitish dirt.

Id p. 434. The donkey enjoyed this action:

And when the beautiful woman arrived very soon at the top of my penis from my testicles, braying and lifting my teeth toward the sky, I got, through the regular friction, an erection of the penis, and while it moved up and down I often touched her belly with it.

Id. The spurcum additamentum is generally thought to be not original and to date perhaps from the twelfth century.

[5] 10.22. Onos, a Greek source for the Golden Ass, similarly shows the donkey’s concern for the woman. After stating that he had never before had sex with a woman, the donkey remarks:

this fact aroused in me an excessive fear that the lady could not accommodate me and she would be torn apart and I would have a harsh penalty to pay as her slayer.

Onos 51, from Greek trans. May (2010) p. 68, adapted slightly. In the Golden Ass, 7.21, a slave boy falsely accuses the donkey of rape and attempted rape. The slave boy claims that the donkey would have split a woman in two:

if the clamor of her womanly wailing and weeping hadn’t brought at a run the assistance of fellow-travelers, if she hadn’t been snatched from between that ass’s hooves and set free, that poor, pitiable woman would have been rammed and split in two

Trans. Relihan (2007) p. 149. The mendacious slave boy evidently lacked appreciation for women’s sexual capacities. Relihan mis-inflates his translation of the donkey’s concern in 10.22:

how in the world will this woman, even if she has the itch all the way to her fingertips, receive an organ as Brobdingnagian as mine? Curses!

Id. p. 222. Regarding the donkey’s vastum genitale, Zimmerman (2000), p. 284, notes, “the narrator uses a polite word {genitale} for his large penis.” Genitale is a biological term without any connotations of boasting.

[6] Zimmerman (2000), p. 284, has the woman’s words as: “I’ve got you, I’ve got you, my little dove, my sparrow.” The corresponding text above is from the translation of May (2010) p. 69. The latter seems to me a better translation.

[7] Ziolkowski (2007) pp. 219-25. Id. relates Asinarius to The Story of Vikramaditya’s Birth. The latter is attested no earlier than in a thirteenth/fourteenth-century manuscript, but plausibly dates from much earlier.

[8] Praet (2013).

[9] Asinarius, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2007) pp. 345-6. The subsequent three quotes are from id. pp. 346. 348.

[10] In Asinarius, the donkey’s description of the king’s daughter is a “classical descriptio puellae (‘description of a girl’) so typical of the lyric and poetry of the courtly fin’amors.” Praet (2014) p. 209. The Golden Ass similarly includes a descriptio puellae. See above. Apuleius’s Golden Ass isn’t well attested in Europe about the time Asinarius was written (c. 1200). But it may have been known. Carver (2007) p. 78.

[11] The Latin refers to novus homo: Extemplo sponsus asinium ponit amictum; / Exposita veteri pelle novus fit homo (“Presently the groom laid down his asinine cloak. / His old skin shed, he became a new man.” Asinarius, ll. 309-310, trans. Praet (2010) p. 210). Cf. Ephesians 4:24. In Christian understanding, the new man is the spiritual man succeeding the carnal man in the renewal of creation. Discussing the Biblical references in Asinarius, Praet concludes:

Incongruently enough to bring a smile to the reader’s lips, noble man’s quest for God through Wisdom is thus humorously juxtaposed with the basest of animals finding his way into an eager princess’ bed. In the end, no spiritual conversion or unfolding takes place; the Prince is not created a new man in Christ, he merely drops his trousers.

Praet (2014) p. 219. But what that act reveals lacks the massive significance it had in earlier Latin literature.

[12] Ziolkowski (2007) p. 208.

[13] Brothers Grimm, The Donkey (Das Eselein), based primarily on 1819 edition, from German trans. id. p. 354. The subsequent two quotes are from id.

[14] In the ancient Greek Onos, after the donkey becomes the man Lucius again, he arranged another tryst with the married woman, his former donkey-lover. In the bedroom with her, Lucius:

took off all my clothes and displayed myself in the nude, fondly imagining that compared with a donkey I should be quite irresistible. But she was so disappointed to find that I was in every respect a normal human being, that she actually spat in my face. … “O, for God’s sake, don’t you understand?” she exclaimed, “It was the donkey I fell in love with, not you! And I did so hope that there’d be one thing left, at least, to remind me of that splendid great animal — but just look at you — you’re nothing but a wretched little monkey!”

From Greek trans. Paul Turner in Hansen (1998) p. 104. That’s a strident affirmation of the raw physicality of the masculine member. It’s inconceivable in today’s culture.

Praet traces the donkey-tale transformations to recent decades. His insightful analysis indicates that Erich Ackermann’s “Das Eselchen,” in Märchen des Mittelalters (2007), and M. Jean Craig’s The Donkey Prince (1977) further diminish masculine sexuality even relative to the Grimm’s tale. At the donkey’s transformation into a dandy in a private screening of the film La Belle et la Bête (directed by Jean Cocteau, 1946), Greta Garbo reported yelled out, “Give me back my beast!” Praet (2014) pp. 357-376.

[15] Literary learning involves being able to interpret stories other than as literal instructions for action. For those lacking in literary learning, here’s a plain message: having sex with a donkey can be deadly. For further instruction, consult the famous thirteenth-century Persian Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Muhammad Balkhi, commonly known among English-speakers as Rumi. Rumi’s masterpiece Masnavi describes, in verse, two women who had sex with a donkey. One woman cleverly placed a gourd with a hole in it over the donkey’s penis to lessen risk of damage to her body. The other woman, ardently seeking pleasure with the donkey, didn’t have the donkey use the gourd. The donkey’s penis tore into her intestines. She died. See Rumi, Masnavi, Bk 5, ll. 1333-1364, trans. Nicholson (1930). Nicholson switched from English to Latin in translating the verses on sex between the women and the donkey.

Concerned readers should also know that having a larger penis does not necessarily provide more sexual pleasure. The leading early-modern German surgeon Guilhelmius Fabricius Hildanus (1560-1634) confronted the case of a woman suffering serious pain and wounds from her husband’s too-large penis. Hildanus developed an ingenious device for shortening the operational length of the penis. The device worked much like the gourd for the donkey in Rumi’s Masnavi. It allowed the woman and her husband to enjoy, without adverse effects, sexual intercourse of reproductive type. See Kompanje (2006).

[image] Illustration from Crane & Evans (1874) p. 6.


Carver, Robert H. F. 2007. The Protean ass: the Metamorphoses of Apuleius from antiquity to the Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crane, Walter, and Edmund Evans. 1874. Beauty and the Beast. London & New York: George Routledge and Sons.

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

Kompanje, Erwin. 2006. “Painful Sexual Intercourse Caused by a Disproportionately Long Penis: An Historical Note on a Remarkable Treatment Devised by Guilhelmius Fabricius Hildanus (1560-1634).” Archives of Sexual Behavior. 35 (5): 603-605.

May, Regine. 2010. “An Ass from Oxyrhynchus: P. Oxy. LXX.4762, Loukios of Patrae and the Milesian tales.” Ancient Narrative. 9: 59-83.

Nicholson, Reynold Alleyne. 1930. The Mathnawí of Jaláluʼddín Rúmí: edited from the oldest manuscripts available with critical notes, translations and commentary. London: Luzac.

Praet, Stijn. 2013. “The Trojan Ass: Asinarius as Mock Epic.” Viator. 44 (3): 157-173.

Praet, Stijn. 2014. Fairy Tales and the Latin Tradition: A Literary-Contextualising Approach. Ph.D. Dissertation. D. Litt. Faculty of Arts and Philosophy. Universiteit Gent.

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

Zimmerman, Maaike, ed. and trans. 2000. Apuleius. Metamorphoses {The Golden Ass}, Book X: Text, Introduction and Commentary. Groningen: E. Forsten.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2007. Fairy tales from before fairy tales: the medieval Latin past of wonderful lies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Mirror of Simple Souls, rationalization, and the Virgin Mary

The late-thirteenth-century Mirror of Simple Souls is an extraordinary document of rationalization. Humans alone among animals have the capability and propensity to rationalize their actions. Losing yourself in the love of God isn’t enough. You want to explain and justify your nothingness. That’s what the Mirror of Simple Souls does. Nothing to humans becomes much better when others understand how good it is.

The Mirror of Simple Souls features long arguments with personified reason. That’s much different from acting apart from reason or with indifference to reason. In the Mirror, the soul kills reason with an argument about the impossibility of limits on love.[1] Putting reason to death with argument is the ultimate in rationalization.

Virgin Mary enthroned

Taking seriously concern for reason in the Mirror of Simple Souls provides insight into its complicated manuscript history. In a chapter considering the Virgin Mary, the Mirror states:

I considered this lady {the Virgin Mary} at the Cross, present at the death of her child {Jesus}, there where the Jews were crucifying him all naked before her face. … Lady, truly, if there had been need, at that very hour you would have given your life, if they might have had forgiveness from God for this misdeed, but there was no necessity, for Jesus Christ was reconciling them so fully and with such anguish that he sufficed for everything. [2]

The Virgin Mary here appears willing to lay down her life to save the Jews. The scribe of the Chantilly manuscript, written about 1500, added in the margin, “Alas, note well, you proud ones.” The scribe’s point seems to be that vindictiveness is associated with the sin of pride. At the same time, the Mirror of Simple Souls emphasizes transcending the virtues. Within the primary message of the Mirror, the Virgin Mary would lay down her life to save the Jews because her worldly life was nothing, and she was one with Jesus.

Within the Mirror’s chapter on the Virgin Mary is another hypothetical, one concerning Mary’s virginity. The Mirror states:

I considered her {the Virgin Mary} in respect of her virginity; but I believe of her that if the whole world could have been saved by her means, if she renounced her state of virginity, she would have never thought for one instant of consenting, since Jesus Christ, in his goodness, by means of his death could do that.

That’s mystifying in comparison to the Virgin Mary’s willingness, in the Mirror, to die to save the Jews. The scribe of the Chantilly manuscript added in the margin, “Note well, good virgins.”

The original text of the Mirror of Simple Souls probably had the Virgin Mary willing to sacrifice her virginity. In comparison with the text concerning the Virgin Mary and saving the Jews, the most plausible text for the Mirror’s author would be:

I believe of her that if the whole world could have been saved by her means, if she renounced her state of virginity, she would have in an instant consented, but that was never necessary, since Jesus Christ, in his goodness, by means of his death could do that.

The Chantilly manuscript has been recognized to include changes that make it more doctrinally orthodox.[3] One Latin manuscript and the Italian manuscripts of the Mirror omit the clause “since Jesus Christ, in his goodness, by means of his death could do that.”[4] The Mirror, on the whole, gives no reason for attaching importance to the virginity of Mary. In the context of cherished beliefs about the Virgin Mary, scribes plausibly found reason to change the text of the Mirror.[5]

The interplay of love lyrics and simple theological ideas drives the Mirror of Simple Souls. Its last chapter declares:

Sometimes indeed it does happen that in the whole of a kingdom one could not find two creatures who were of one spirit, but when by chance it happens that two such creatures find one other, they declare themselves one to the other, unable to disguise themselves, for even if they wished to they could not, such is their state of spirit, their constitution, their way of life to which they are called, if they have not attained the peak or perfection of freedom. [6]

The sentiment “we were meant for each other” is not seriously theological. It’s a common love rationalization. It’s like imagining an excuse to lose your virginity. The Mirror of Simple Souls can be understood better if it’s read with less scholarly piety.

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[1] Mirror of Simple Souls, Ch. 87, from Old French trans. Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999) p. 112.

[2] Id. Ch. 126, titled “The fourth consideration is of the Virgin Mary,” p. 160-1. The subsequent quote is from id. p. 159. The scribe’s notes are given in footnotes in id.

[3] Lerner (2010) pp. 101-3.

[4] Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999) p. 159, n. 3.

[5] Kocher (2011) provides a case study of a particular crux in the manuscripts. Lerner (2010) and Kocher (2011) judge that the Middle English text is closest to the original. Id. p. 13 notes that the Middle English manuscript contains “patent misinterpretations of the French.” Doctrinal corrections in details are plausible in the Middle English manuscript, as in the other manuscripts.

[6] Mirror, Ch. 139, trans. Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999) p. 175.

[image] Madonna with child, enthroned. Giotto, c. 1310. Uffizi Gallery, Italy. Thanks to Wikipedia.


Colledge, Edmund, J. C. Marler and Judith Grant, ed. and trans. 1999. Margaret Porette {Marguerite Porete}. The mirror of simple souls. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

Kocher, Zan. 2011. “The Virgin Mary and the perfect meulequin: Translating a textile analogy in Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls.” Philological Quarterly. 90 (1): 1-19.

Lerner, Robert E. 2010. “New light on The Mirror of Simple Souls.” Speculum. 85 (1): 91-116.

The Mirror: actively promoted, long book on doing nothing

Porete painted into corner

The Mirror of Simple Souls, a book probably written about 1300 in France, exalts noble Souls. These Souls have taken leave of reason and works of virtue. They have relinquished completely their will. Annihilated, they seek nothing. This book’s author, now commonly regarded as Marguerite Porete, seems to have understood herself to be a noble Soul.[1] She thus struggled to explain why she wrote (and actively promoted) a long book on the noble way of doing nothing.

Porete declared that her work as an author was base. In an exculpatory chapter entitled, “How the Soul who caused this book to be written excuses herself for having made this so long-winded, this book which seems so small and short to the Souls who dwell in nothingness…,” Porete wrote:

I excuse myself, says this Soul {“who caused this book to be written”}, before all you who dwell in nothingness … for I have made very big with my many words this book, which yet will seem very small to you, if I know you rightly. [2]

To those who dwell in the greatness of nothingness, Porete’s book is “very small” because it’s a worldly work. Addressing noble Souls, Porete made conventional excuses and declared her book to be base:

Now by your gracious leave excuse me, for necessity knows no law. I did not know to whom to make my intention known. But now I know, to set you at peace and to tell the truth, that it is base. It was Cowardice who guided it, and who surrendered this intention to Reason through Love’s replies to Reason’s questions [3]

She pleaded that she had to write the book. She pleaded that she was too cowardly not to write the book. She elaborately explained that she didn’t cause the book to be written:

Love caused it to be written by human knowledge, and by the will of the transformation of my understanding, with which I was burdened down, as it appears in this book; for Love has made it by unburdening my spirit through these three gifts of which we have spoken. And so I say that it is base and very little, however great it seemed to me when I began to make this state of being known.

After declaring her book to be “base and very little,” Porete turned to lyrical poetry. Her poetry affectively argues that her writing isn’t base.

Porete actively promoted her book. Sometime after she wrote the first version of her book, she added to the prologue blurb-like endorsements. In one, the Cisterian monk Dom Frank fully endorsed it: “it is all truth that this book says.”[4] The theological scholar Master Godfrey of Fontaines lavishly praised it:

the soul never comes to divine usages until she has this usage, for all other human usages are beneath these usages. This is divine usage and none other but this. [5]

The Friar Minor John of Querayn affirmed its divine inspiration: “this book is made by the Holy Ghost.” Porete, making clear that The Mirror of Simple Souls should not be understood as her personal expression, explained: “through me, the creator has created out of himself this book.”[6] The puffery that Porete collected and incorporated into her book is as actively and willfully promotional as blurbs associated with aggressive book marketing in modern, highly competitive scholarly book markets. That’s something.

Porete actively promoted her book even in circumstances that strongly favored doing nothing. Sometime before 1306, Guido of Colmieu, Bishop of Cambrai, condemned Porete for “a certain pestiferous book containing heresy and error.” Guido ordered Porete to watch her book be publicly burned.[7] Porete was additionally admonished:

You were expressly prohibited by this bishop, under pain of excommunication, from composing or having again such a book, or using it or one like it. The same bishop added and expressly stated in a certain letter sealed with his seal that if you should again use the aforesaid book, or if you should attempt again by word or in writing those things that were contained in it, he was condemning you as heretical and relinquishing you to be judged by secular justice.

Porete, however, refused to do nothing. Two years later, a new Bishop of Cambrai accused her of distributing her book and teaching her views.[8] The official inquiry addressing her activity recounted:

After all these things, against the said prohibition, you several times had and several times used the said book, as is evident in your acknowledgements, made not only in the presence of the inquisitor of Lorraine, but also in the presence of the reverend father and lord, Lord Philip then bishop of Cambrai and now archbishop of Sens. After the aforesaid condemnation and burning, you even communicated the said book, as though good and licit, to the reverend father Lord John, bishop of Châlons-sur-Marne, and to certain other persons [9]

For almost a year and half, Porete refused to testify under oath to the official inquiry into her activity. She refused opportunities for absolution and reconciliation. Perhaps Porete was eagerly seeking the self-annihilation that she celebrated in her book. In any case, she was burned as a heretic in 1310.[10]

The scholastic officials of her time had Porete burned for actively promoting her path of doing nothing. In our enlightened age, we should better recognize that leaving behind reason and virtue and embracing nothingness are bad ideas.

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[1] Lydia Wegener and Elizabeth A.R. Brown, who are highly knowledgeable, truth-seeking scholars, have recently questioned whether Marguerite Porete authored The Mirror of Simple Souls and whether the text condemned in Paris in 1310 was that text. Wegener (2010) and Brown (2012) pp. 27-9. In this article, I assume both those claims to be true. In any case, the difficulties with the authorial position within The Mirror of Simple Souls don’t depend on who authored it and whether it was officially condemned.

Within the now standard view of Mirror authorship, Lerner (2010), pp. 92-3, points out that Porete was probably a nickname rather than a cognomen. He states:

I would also add my subjective judgment that referring to this remarkable woman as “Marguerite,” rather than “Porete,” places her fittingly in the company of Hadewijch, Mechthild, and Eckhart.

On the other hand, Porete has become the standard surname. It is more distinguished among names than is simply Marguerite. In any case, careful evaluation of the historical evidence of authorship is surely more interesting than pondering conventions of reference.

[2] Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls brought to nothingness and who live only in the will and desire for love, Ch. 119, from Old French trans. Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999) p. 146. All subsequent quotes from Porete’s The Mirror of Simple Souls, unless otherwise noted, are from id.  Field briefly observed:

Marguerite’s story contains its share of contradictions. She was a theologian of nonaction and nothingness, yet consistently active in seeking approval for these ideas. … These contradictions and complexities only add to the extraordinary nature of her life and death.

Field (2012) p. 164. Rationalization and hypocrisy, like court poets delivering eulogies for the reigning lords, isn’t extraordinary. It’s commonplace. In highly developed cultures, it can take striking meta-forms, e.g. entrenched authorities praising mythic marginal-transgressive heroes and shunning real, contemporary transgressive work.

[3] Id., also for subsequent quote. The excuse “necessity has no law” (necessitas legem non habet) was well-established in late-thirteenth-century France. It’s found in the ninth-century Pseudo-Isidore and the twelfth-century Decretum Gratiani (C.1 q.1 dictum post capitulum 39). Professor Ken Pennington’s site provides a citational history for the phrase. Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999) p. 146, n. 2, states, “The proverb is older than Christianity.” I haven’t found evidence supporting that statement.

[4] This and the subsequent two endorsement blurb quotes are from M.N.’s Middle English translation of the Mirror, literally trans. into modern English in Field (2012) pp. 51-2. The Middle English source text, which Lerner (2010) regards as the best witness to the original, is available in Doiron, Colledge & Guarnieri (1968). The dating of when Porete sought the endorsement blurbs is a matter of scholarly controversy.  Field (2012) pp. 277-8, n. 31.

[5] Mirror, Middle English translation, literally trans. into modern English in Field (2012) p. 52. An alternate modern English translation taking into account the Latin manuscript evidence is:

the soul will never attain to divine practices until she has acquired this practice, for all other practices, inferior to this, that teacher said, are human practices. This practice is divine, and no other except it.

Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999), Appendix 1, p. 181. This text doesn’t occur in the late fifteenth-century French Chantilly manuscript of The Mirror of Simple Souls. Field (2009) provides detailed analysis of evidence concerning the intellectual and practical relationship between Porete and Godfrey of Fontaines. Id. doesn’t consider the broader question of whether Porete was actually the author of The Mirror of Simple Souls. Cf. Wegener (2010) and Brown (2012) pp. pp. 27-9. Field (2009) also doesn’t evaluate the possibility that the author of The Mirror fabricated the endorsement blurbs, perhaps after Godfrey of Fontaines death. Such action would help to explain the inconsistency between Godfrey being a leading theologian and the weak theological content of The Mirror. Dom Frank and Friar Minor John of Querayn, quite unlike Godfrey of Fontaines, are completely unknown other than in The Mirror.

[6] Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999), Appendix 1, p. 180, modern English translation based on M.N’s Middle-English translation. The Mirror‘s Prologue declares that “a most mighty king … gave me this book.” Id. p. 11. Following Dronke, Field states:

Marguerite did not claim that God spoke through her or that what she knew came from a mystical access to the divine that others lacked. In fact, she did not deign to explain how she knew what she knew at all.

Field (2012) pp. 7-8. See also Dronke (1984) p. 203. Claiming that God spoke through her was necessary for Marguerite to rationalize her action as author of The Mirror. Claiming divine authorship was also an important aspect of marketing and promoting The Mirror.

[7] Evidence suggests that the burning of her book occurred in Valenciennes, which was probably about where Porete lived. Porete appeared before the Dominican Inquisitor in Paris, William Humbert, also known as William of Paris.The quotes in the above paragraph are from French National Archives Box AN J.428, document no. 15b, dated 31 May 1310, William of Paris’ sentencing of Marguerite Porete and Guiard of Cressonessart, from French trans. Field (2012) p. 228. Id., Appendix A, provides a thorough description and painstakingly accurate English translation of all the relevant trial documents. Appendix A is based on fresh transcriptions of the original records. Prior printed versions of the trial documents, both the original texts and translations, are not fully reliable and have created factual mistakes in historical accounts. Id. pp. 3-6. Id., Appendix B, provides English translations of other contemporary sources as given in printed editions. Richard Burton has provided online English translations of some trial documents and contemporary sources based on printed editions. That’s very helpful for general public understanding. Field’s book, however, should now be regarded as the authoritative source for detailed scholarly work with the trial documents.

[8] Field (2012) p. 59. The new Bishop of Cambrai was Philip of Marigny. Id., pp. 54-61, provides a plausible summary chronology prior to William of Paris taking up the case in the autumn of 1308.

[9] The canon lawyers’ summary, dated 9 May 1301, AN J428 no. 19bis, states that Porete communicated the book not only to Lord John, Bishop of Châlons-sur-Marne, but also “to many other simple people — begardis and others — as a good book.” Trans. Field (2012) p. 225. The inquisitor from Lorraine was almost surely Brother Ralph of Ligny. Id. p. 58.

[10] William of Paris publicly read Porete’s sentence on May 31, 1310, at the Place de Grève in Paris. She was burned on the next day, probably also at the Place de Grève. Id. p. 159.

[image] Corner Piece. Lynda Benglis (1969). Latex. Item 05.30, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC.


Brown, Elizabeth A. R. 2012. “Moral imperatives and conundrums of conscience: reflections on Philip the Fair of France.” Speculum. 87: 1-36.

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