abusive expression less repressed in ancient Islamic world

Galen watching dispute between two men

Western societies today sternly condemn verbal expression labeled abusive, harassing, hateful, racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise popularly recognized to be repugnant. The lines defining such expression are far from clear. The chilling effects on public discussion are obvious. Yet particularly if the matter is publicly framed as men attacking women, democratic ideals, basic principles of fairness, and law are easily trampled in publicly applauded crusades to control and punish. A leading medieval scholar has suggested that medieval Europe repressed obscenity less than Western countries do today.[1] Both obscenity and abusive expression surely were less repressed in the ancient Islamic world than in the United States today.

Because claims that men are committing sexual violence against women is a potent tool for inciting men to anger and action, such claims function effectively as tools of abuse. Late in the first century of Islam (the seventh century in the Gregorian calendar), the eminent Arabic poet Jarīr attacked the eminent poet al-Farazdaq. Jarīr publicly claimed that al-Farazdaq had failed to protect his sister Jiʿthin from being raped. Jarīr declared in the poetic public sphere:

Al-Farazdaq’s sister, daughter of his father and mother,
spent the night going along in a fast gallop.
The cowards surely knew that their girl
was being trodden upon like a main road.
Will you not be angry with the heroes of Muqāʿis,
when they hurried to bring humiliation upon you?
I have been told that Jiʿthin defended herself against them with her arse,
since she did not find anyone from Mujāshiʿ to defend her. [2]

Jarīr repeated his rape claim in many poems and elaborated on it in various ways. In invective against al-Farazdaq, Jarīr wrote:

Did you not see Jiʿthin among the men of Saʿd,
called ‘the broad’ after her virginity?
She wiggled her rump when he went beyond her knees
and shook towards her a mighty dong, which subsequently disappeared.
When the girl of the Banū Tamīm coughs,
the gate of her perineum is fed with dust.
One can see a white leprous spot where her labia are joined,
like the tuft of hair on al-Farazdaq’s lower lip when it is grey. [3]

There’s no question that Jarīr’s claims of rape were lies: “Jarīr was obviously lying in his verse on Jiʿthin and everyone knew it.”[4] The point wasn’t the truth of the rape claims, but Jarīr’s poetic skill in publicly humiliating al-Farazdaq. Jarīr’s verbal abuse of al-Farazdaq drew admiration from the literary elite. They studied this poetry and anthologized it. Jarīr’s obscene, abusive verses became part of the corpus of classical Arabic poetry.

Invective (hijāʾ) was a well-recognized genre of classical Arabic poetry. An Arabic poet of the pre-Islamic period verbally attacked a well-known, noble man to gain social status. The poet explained, “I wanted to put my poetry in its proper place.”[5] Similarly, a young poet verbally attacked the eminent poet Jarīr, evidently hoping to draw a counterattack and engagement at a high poetic level. Jarīr, however, ignored the attack. The young poet lamented, “If he had answered, I would have been a great poet.”[6] Another famous poet of Jarīr’s era observed:

How many an ignoble one would like me to abuse him,
even though my abuse on him should be as {bitter as} colocynth!
But generously refraining from abusing an ignoble one
harms him more than abuse when he is abused. [7]

Far from being condemned, harsh verbal attacks were a conventional way to attract attention, demonstrate poetic skill, and make a name for oneself.

Rather than seeking authoritative means to punish Jarīr for his verbal abuse, al-Farazdaq responded with skilled poetic abuse of Jarīr. For example, al-Farazdaq claimed to have raped Jarīr’s mother:

They brought Ḥiqqa {Jarīr’s mother}, having stuffed her perineum,
while a hireling, saddler of beasts, was singing to make the she-ass go.
She stopped to scold me but I said to her, ‘On your knees,
Ḥiqqa, you and your collected works will be underneath!’
And I bared my prick to her. She cowered,
just as a she-ass in heat cowers.
She found someone with a hard-on, who had changed into easy clothes;
and someone who does scandalous things will change into easy clothes.
And I left your mother, Jarīr, as if she were,
kneeling, for the people a well-trodden road. [8]

Al-Farazdaq then went on to claim that Jarīr got pregnant and had an unusual daughter:

Ḥiqqa, I have never heard about a man with
two testicles who got pregnant, except al-Marāgha’s son {Jarīr}.
He drank the sperm and in his belly there grew
an uncircumcised woman whose clitoris is itching at the end. [9]

This isn’t a dirty tale told by peasants lounging in the barnyard. Al-Farazdaq was an acclaimed, widely anthologized, classical Arabic poet. He contributed to establishing the language of classical Arabic literature.

Al-Farazdaq himself incorporated appreciation for an eminent classical Arabic poetic form in a line of invective. Al-Farazdaq wrote of Jarīr:

He is crying on the dungheaps of the abandoned campsites, while his mother, on the tips of the slaves’ penises, is going up and down. [10]

In this poetic line, al-Farazdaq conflates two section of the classical Arabic qasīda. The qasīda begins with a section, called the nasīb, in which the man poet weeps nostalgically at the abandoned campsite of his beloved. In the second section of the qasīda, the rahīl, the man poet journeys on a she-camel to a new place. Al-Farazdaq mocks the elegiac tone of the nasīb with the smell of dungheaps. He transforms the rahīl into Jarīr’s mother riding up and down on slaves’ penises at the same campsite at which Jarīr is weeping. Tweeting something like al-Farazdaq’s venerated line of classical Arabic poetry would probably get a person banned from Twitter, at least if such invective were directed at a woman.

Words of individuals are much less dangerous than acts of totalitarian institutions. Failure to appreciate the difference between an individual’s words and acts of powerful institutions is an ominous sign.[11] Obscene, abusive words, preserved for centuries as classical Arabic literature, can open minds and open societies if those words are heard.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Ziolkowski (1998) pp. 3-4.

[2] From Arabic trans. van Gelder (2015) p. 179. “Trodden upon” is an disparaging metaphor for a man having sex with a woman. Jarīr ibn ʿAṭiyya (died c. 728) was a “giant of Arabic literary history … universally lauded as a poet excelling in delicate love lyrics.” Id. p. 176. Hammam ibn Ghalib, Abu Firas, known as al-Farazdaq (died c. 729) was a “famous poet … one of the great poets of the Umayyad period.” Id. p. 175. Al-Farazdaq wrote a sophisticated critique of the famous muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays.

[3] From Arabic trans. id. p. 181. The last two lines above (a single line of Arabic verse) was “often quoted by the critics and anthologists … they mention it for its ‘wonderful comparison.’” Id.

[4] Id. p. 188. Acclaimed invective poetry (hijāʾ) from the Umayyad period shows “complete indifference to truth.” Van Gelder (1988) p. 33. Both rape and false accusations of rape have throughout history generally been taken very seriously when interpreted literally. In Islamic law, “false accusation of illicit sexual intercourse” (qadhf) is a wrong with an explicitly prescribed punishment. Van Gelder (2015) p. 188. Poets, however, were only rarely punished for invective. Van Gelder (1988) pp. 30-1.

[5] Durayd Ibn al-Simma (died 629) regarding his invective (hijāʾ) on ʿAbd Allah Ibn Judʿān. From Arabic trans. van Gelder (1988) p. 131, n. 130.

[6] Bashār ibn Burd (died 783), from Arabic trans. id.

[7] Al-Muʾammal Ibn Umayl (died c. 806), from Arabic trans id. This is an early statement of what has now become known as the Streisand effect. A similar effect concerns legal remedies. Law addresses rights and obligations, while invective concerns honor and shame. An invective target who seeks legal recourse can increase his shame through public acknowledgement of harm and personal weakness. Id. p. 130.  That effect is likely to be much stronger for men targets of invective than for women targets.

[8] From Arabic trans. van Gelder (2015) p. 185.

[9] From Arabic trans. id. p. 186.

[10] From Arabic trans. id. p. 184. Laylā l-Akhyaliyya’s praise poem for Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan also modifies the qasīda, but trespasses upon the form to a lesser extent. See al-Sajdi (2000).

[11] Solterer (1995) illustrates well gynocentric scholarship making absurdly broad claims about men “verbally injuring” women in medieval Europe. In the U.S. today, four times more men than women are victims of fatal physical violence. Ten times more men than women are being forcefully held in the violent circumstances of prisons and jails. Those life-breaking gender inequalities are much easier to understand than any aspects of medieval discourse. They are also much more important, and largely ignored.

[image] Galen watching a dispute, detail of folio from a Gulistan (Rose Garden), illumination from early 16th century, Mughal dynasty.  Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, F1998.5.60, Gift of the Art and History Trust in honor of Ezzat-Malek Soudavar. Thanks to the Freer | Sackler for making its art widely accessible on the web. Galen was a pugnacious physician and scholar in second-century Rome.


Al-Sajdi, Dana. 2000. “Trespassing the Male Domain: the Qasīdah of Laylā Al-Akhyaliyyah.” Journal of Arabic Literature. 31 (2): 121-146.

Solterer, Helen. 1995. The master and Minerva: disputing women in French medieval culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Van Gelder, Geert Jan. 1988. The bad and the ugly: attitudes towards invective poetry (hijāʼ) in classical Arabic literature. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Van Gelder, Geert Jan. 2015. “Sexual Violence in Verse: The Case of Jiʿthin, al-Farazdaq’s Sister.” Pp. 175-90 (ch. 11) in Gleave, Robert, and István Tamás Kristó Nagy. 2015. Violence in Islamic thought from the Qur’an to the Mongols. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1998. Obscenity: social control and artistic creation in the European Middle Ages. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Carfania & Marcolf: different positions for mooning judges

Mooning an authority — publicly presenting one’s ass to her or him — signifies both submission and rebellion. Along with a reference to legal pleadings of the “shameless” woman Carfania, a Roman law barred women from advocating on behalf of others in court.[1] European medieval literature imagined that Carfania had mooned the court. In the popular medieval work Solomon and Marcolf, the peasant Marcolf mooned Solomon, the eminent judge and king. Carfania and Marcolf, while commonly associated with mooning, had much different social positions in gynocentric society. Today law holds behind bars about fifteen times as many men as women. The different literary treatments of Carfania and Marcolf reflect nearly unremarkable disparate punishment by gender under law.

Carfania had much higher social status than Marcolf. Carfania was the wife of a Roman senator. She was prominent enough to be publicly recognized for repeatedly appearing in court. She also had enough education to know how to speak in court.[2] Marcolf, in contrast, was a peasant. He spoke in figures of the barnyard and bodily functions. Marcolf being a man also mattered. Because women’s physical violence is commonly trivialized or ignored, a lowly woman can threaten to give a male official a black eye and gain advantage from that threat.[3] If Marcolf made such a threat, he would be beaten or locked up.

Calefurnia (Carfania) before judge

Medieval images of Carfania and Marcolf evince starkly contrasting statuses. A description of Germanic customary law in 1274 referred to Carfania as displaying her “rear pudenda” to the court.[4] Beginning about 1300, illustrated books of German law included images of Carfania addressing a judge. She is well-dressed and not depicted as ugly. She stands in front of the judge and addresses him with a pointing gesture and leaning-in aggressiveness. Her mooning the judge is represented with a piece of bushy, black hair attached to her waist like a ring of keys. Her genitals aren’t associated with a position of submission.

Marcolf mooning Solomon

Marcolf, in contrast, is illustrated in a position of complete submission. He is bent over or down on hands and knees like an animal. Marcolf’s buttocks are bared, visible to the viewer, and positioned for Solomon to penetrate.[5] At least two images obscure Marcolf’s face in an earthen cave. In any reasonable societal scale of dominance and subordination, Marcolf would rank far below a woman like Carfania. The medieval images of Marcolf are extraordinary depictions of the publicly unrecognized position of many, ordinary men.[6]

Marcolf mooning Solomon

Marcolf challenged authoritative malice toward men. He deconstructed Solomon’s famous split-the-baby judgement. Marcolf demonstrated that Solomon’s judgment was based on ideological up-valuing of women.[6] Marcolf addressed justice more generally with two proverbs:

ibi est mala curia ubi non est iustica
{there is a bad court where there is no justice}

ubi non est lex, ibi non est rex
{where there is no law, there is no king} [7]

The proverbs poetically echo the first line of an early Christian hymn, slightly condensed:

ubi caritas, Deus ibi est
{where there is charity, there is God} [8]

God is closely associated with ideas of justice, law, and charity. Justice, law, and charity have not historically encompassed equally women and men.

Marcolf mooning Solomon

Carfania mooning judge

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Ulpian 6 Digest (early third century GC):

On the grounds of sex, he forbids women to make applications on behalf of others. There is a reason for this prohibition, to prevent them from involving themselves in the cases of other people contrary to the modesty in keeping with their sex and to prevent women from performing male duties. Its introduction goes back to a shameless women called Carfania who by brazenly making applications and annoying the magistrates gave rise to the edict.

From Latin trans. McGinn (2012) p. 239.

[2] Valerius Maximus in Facta et dicta memorabilia 8.3.2. states:

Caia Afrania, the senator of Licinius Bucco’s wife, against whom a lawsuit was pending, always spoke for herself personally before the praetor, not because she did not have a lawyer, but because she had a lot of impudence. Thus, she kept bothering the courts with her barking, unusual in court, and she became a well known example of female pettifoggery, until the name of C. Afrania was used to refer to the crime of women with impudent habits. She lived until the end of the second consulate of Caius Caesar and Publius Servilius {48 BGC}: in fact, for such a monster it is the moment of her death rather than the moment of her birth that one has to remember.

From Latin trans. Rodger et al. (2013) p. 149. Caia Afrania is generally identified with the Carfania cited in the Ulpian Digest. Carfania’s self-representation versus the Ulpian Digest’s prohibition on women representing others is an unresolved interpretive issue addressed in various ways. Marshall (1989) p. 43-5. Licinius Bucco is not otherwise known. It seems to be ridiculing nickname. It has been translated as “Dummy” and “Fat-Face.” Id. p. 43, n. 23.

While women were formally barred under Roman law from representing others in court, women actively appealed to Roman courts. About a fifth of the responsa preserved in the Codex Justinianus and the Fragmenta Vaticana are replies to libelli that women submitted. Roman legal texts warn men officials about women’s legal calliditas (craftiness). Id. p. 48.

[3] That’s the best interpretation of Luke 18:2-5, according to Cotter (2005) pp. 336-43.

[4] Schwabenspiegel (Landrecht 245) “has her scolding the king and showing him her ‘hindere scham,’ i.e. her ‘rear pudenda.'” Nelson & Caviness (1998) in description of Heidelberg Sachsenspiegel (Heidelberg University Library, MS. cod. pal. ger. 164).  The Schwabenspiegel was written about 1275. Illustrated Sachsenspiegel created from about 1300 show the mooning. See “Group I: Women denied right to advocate or plead in court, Landrecht II,63,1,2” in id. In the German legal texts, the women’s name is written as Calpurnia or Calefurnia.

Discussing Calefurnia (Carfania) in the Sachsenspiegel, a scholar declared:

She assaults the view of her baseness and her sexual difference. She is seen to condemn herself. her quarrel produces not fame but infamy, and it taints every woman now and forever through the universalizing power of theory. … the law that protects the Law, so to speak, is the law of gender.

Westphal (2005) pp. 172, 174. Gender usually protects such analysis.

In loosely translating the Latin poem Lamentationes Matheoluli, Jehan Le Fèvre included a claim about Carfania mooning the court:

Cafurne en fu bien accroupie,
Plus jangleresse qu’une pie,
Car pas ne plaida sagement;
Son cul monstra en jugement.

{Cafurne well dishonored herself,
More gossipy than a magpie,
since she didn’t plead wisely,
her decision was to show her ass.}

Les lamentations de Mathéolus, ll. 183-6, in Van Hamel (1892) p. 52 (translation is mine). Le Fèvre wrote that work from 1380 to 1387. Carfania mooning the court has been described as Le Fèvre’s creation:

Le Fèvre’s self-created embellishment on the exemplum of a certain Carfania … “the picturesque detail of her mooning the judge” was invented by Le Fèvre.

Burke (2013) p.18, p. 30, n. 93. Taylor (2005) p. 204, n. 3913, states that Le Fèvre added this detail. That’s true, but it’s not true that Le Fèvre was the first to invent it. The Schwabenspiegel and Sachsenspiegel make clear the existence of a prior mooning tradition. Le Fèvre probably drew upon that tradition.

Jehan Le Fèvre wrote Le Livre de Leesce as an original companion work to Les lamentations de Mathéolus. Le Livre de Leesce has been literally interpreted as a “defense of women.” Its treatment of Carfania, however, suggests that Le Fèvre wasn’t a narrow-minded, humorless gender ideologue. Carfania was criticized for excessive pleading.  Le Livre de Leesce concludes its lines on Carfania with an appeal to the example of a fourteenth-century French woman:

The daughter of Master Jehan Andrieu, who read the cases and the laws, got up one morning to show publicly in open audience through her great learning that woman is equal to man, and set forth many a good argument to guard the honor of women and protect them from blame. Her lecture lasted all day, almost until the dark of night. She put forth more than sixty reasons, and even, I believe, more than seventy, and she argued her case so well there that no man could refute it.

l. 1140-1154, from French trans. Burke (2013) p. 84. The daughter of Master Jehan Andrieu apparently pled in the long-winded, insistent manner attributed to Carfania. Jehan Andrieu was a famous professor of canon law at Bologna and Padua. His daughter Novella, born in 1312, reportedly followed her father in becoming a professor of canon law. She reportedly gave lectures while hidden behind a curtain so that students wouldn’t be distracted by her beauty. Id. p. 116, n. 167, Van Hamel (1892) v. 2, p. 241 (pdf page 807).

The adversary in Le Champion des Dames (written 1440-42) also described Carfania mooning the judge:

“Of Calpurnia will you speak
Who to the judge her arse exposed,”
said the other, full of cheek,
“And why no woman has since proposed
A pro, or a contra in court deposed?
If she’d speech pleasant, I don’t know.
But so badly her robe she closed
That her de profundis she did show.

Martin le Franc, Le Champion des Dames, Bk. IV, l. 3913-20 (s. 490), trans. Taylor (2005) p. 130. Le Franc’s book presents itself as a response to the Romance of the Rose and Les lamentations de Mathéolus.

[5] The text of Solomon and Marcolf makes clear Marcolf’s abasement:

Marcolf was lying bent over with his head downward and had pulled down his breeches, and his buttocks, asshole, penis, and testicles were revealed.

Ch. 19.9, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2008) p. 99.

[6] Id. p. 237 reports that mooning is “rife in medieval literature as in folk literature.” Randall (1966) #528, 533-42, shows medieval images of mooning. Id. pp. 192-3 provides additional mooning manuscript citations. Most of the mooning figures are men. In Boccaccio’s Decameron VIII.5, three men protest against ignorant, corrupt judges by contriving to pull down a judge’s pants during a public court proceeding. Showing ass, in one way or another, is a transgressive means to protest injustice. The literature of men’s sexed protest, however, is barely recognized. Men’s protest against gynocentric society have been largely trivialized or ignored. Much more mooning by men arguably is warranted than exists in the historical record.

[6] Solomon and Marcolf, Chapters 11-18, trans. id. pp. 89-9.

[7] Solomon and Marcolf, 8.9, Epilogue.11, Latin text and trans. id. pp. 84-5, 74-5, with minor changes to the translations.

[8] The hymn dates from the tenth century or earlier and was sung on Holy Thursday. Early manuscripts have “Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est,” but the line is more commonly known as “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.”


  1. Calpurnia (Carfania) before the judge. Heidelberg Sachsenspiegel (Heidelberg University Library, MS. cod. pal. ger. 164) f. 10v, detail. Thanks to Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.
  2. Marcolf mooning Solomon. Red vnd widerred Salomonis vnd marcolfy {Rar. 498#Beibd. 1}, Augsburg {14}90, page image 45. Thanks to the Bavarian State Library, Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum/Referat Digitale Bibliothek.
  3. Marcolf mooning Solomon. Woodcut from 1555 Strassburg edition of Solomon and Marcolf. From reproduction in Heitz (1922).
  4. Marcolf mooning Solomon. Collatio{n}es quas dicuntur fecisse mutuo rex Salomon sapientissimus et Marcolpus facie deformis {et}c. turpissimus ({Landshut} 1514), page image 22. Thanks to the Bavarian State Library, Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum/Referat Digitale Bibliothek.
  5. Carfania mooning judge. Illustration from Martin Le Franc’s Le Champion des Dames, incunabula printed by Jean du Pré (Lyon: 1488).  Thanks to gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliotheque nationale de France. The Newberry Library (Chicago, IL) holds an edition of the Lyon incunabula with colored illustrations. It includes an illustration of Carfania mooning the judge. Taylor (2005) p. 129.


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

Cotter, Wendy. 2005. “The Parable of the Feisty Widow and the Threatened Judge (Luke 18.1-8).” New Testament Studies. 51 (3): 328-343.

Heitz, Paul. 1922. Strassburger holzschnitte zu Dietrich von Bern.–Herzog Ernst.–Der Hürnen Seyfrid.–Marcolphus.  Strassburg, J.H.E. Heitz, 1922.

Marshall, Anthony J. 1989. “Ladies at Law: the Role of Women in the Roman Civil Courts.” Pp. 35-54 in Deroux, Carl. 1989. Studies in Latin literature and Roman History. Vol. 5 Bruxelles: Latomus.

McGinn, Thomas A. J. 2012. Obligations in Roman law: past, present, and future. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Nelson, Charles G., and Madeline H. Caviness. 1998. Women’s Bodies, Women’s Property: German Customary Law Books Illustrated in the Fourteenth Century.  Electronic exhibit, Tufts University.

Randall, Lilian M. C. 1966. Images in the margins of Gothic manuscripts. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rodger of Earlsferry, Alan, A. S. Burrows, David Johnston, and Reinhard Zimmermann. 2013. Judge and jurist: essays in memory of Lord Rodger of Earlsferry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, Steven Millen. 2005. Martin Le Franc. The trial of womankind: a rhyming translation of Book IV of the fifteenth-century Le champion des dames. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.

Westphal, Sarah. 2005. “Calefurnia’s Rage: Emotions and Gender in Late Medieval German Literature.” Pp. 164-190 in Perfetti, Lisa Renée. 2005. The representation of women’s emotions in medieval and early modern culture. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

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

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

Calabre of Paris, woman physician of the 14th century


Medieval women had loving concern for men. In a work he wrote about 1385, Jehan Le Fèvre highlighted the woman physician Calabre of Paris:

I call to witness Calabre of Paris, who with herbs or with plants, by resin or other skill, which she well knows how to practice, has made many a vagina small again and perked up the breasts, to be more pleasing to men and to appease the jealous. [1]

Medieval men jealously competed to have sex with the most pleasing women. Even more shocking from today’s perspective, medieval women sought to please men sexually. Medieval women physicians such as Calabre of Paris helped women to be more pleasing to men. She apparently was even famous enough for Jehan Le Fèvre to expect readers to know her name.

Women physicians also treated men. In an early-twelfth-century Latin poem, a woman physician explained to her husband that she had cured a youth of a serious illness:

So! With God’s help, and my medicine,
The sick boy who was afflicted with a serious disease has returned to the living.
I only felt the wretch’s pulse, checked his high fever,
And when I touched him, his fever quickly subsided.
Because of me, a single spell put everything injurious to flight. [2]

The poet wondrously declared:

you give him that remedy well known to you doctors.
Thus you console the sick one, thus you doctor him,
Thus you alleviate the youth’s illness with sweet medication. [3]

These women physicians worked late hours and had tiring work. After many years of hard work with many different patients, they needed to heal themselves. That’s how “physician, heal thyself” became a well-known proverb in the ancient world.[4]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Jehan Le Fèvre, Le livre de Leesce, ll. 3778-3785, from French trans. Burke (2013) pp. 105-6, with a substitution for the final noun. The French for the last four clauses is: A fait maint con rapeticier / Et les mamelles estrecier, / Pour estre aux hommes plus plaisans, / Pour les jalous faire taisans. Id. p. 71. Id., p. 106, has for the final clause “to please the jealous husbands.” But there’s no reference to husbands in the French text. The previous clause refers to men (hommes). The broader context is a comparison between women and men. Burke’s interpolation of “husbands” is thus unwarranted. In the English translation above, I’ve replaced “the jealous husbands” with “the jealous.”

The French word con is commonly a scurrilous term for vagina and thus often translated as “cunt.” Id. n. 466, pp. 129-30, argues convincingly for translating it here as “vagina.”

[2] De matronis (On Married Women) ll. 43-7, from Latin trans. Wolterbeek (1991) p. 223. The poem, written in leonine hexameters, is questionably attributed to Peter the Painter. He came from Flanders and wrote about the year 1100. He wrote another poem entitled De muliere mala (On the evil woman).

[3] De matronis ll. 39-41, id. p. 221.

[4] Cf. Luke 4:23.

[image] A view of Dark Star Park in Rosslyn, VA. Photo by Douglas Galbi.


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

Wolterbeek, Marc. 1991. Comic tales of the Middle Ages: an anthology and commentary. New York: Greenwood Press.

Queen Sheba & King Solomon on riddle of too many cooks

many cooks on British Navy ship

Dating from no later than the seventh century, Syriac and Armenian texts of Queen Sheba’s questions to King Solomon include five riddles. One riddle concerns the modern English proverb “too many cooks spoil the broth.”[1] The ancient texts reject the modern “too many cooks” wisdom with sophisticated understanding of reception.

Queen Sheba’s statement of the riddle implicitly contains its answer. She presented King Solomon with a conundrum:

The head-cook of the king multiplies the cooks, and in order to create various tastes he labors and makes others labor, yet the taste is one. [2]

King Solomon responded:

If you have an excellent cook from your country, add him to our thousands. However, as you say, the taste is one. Nevertheless, the wicked is bitter and far from my Lord , and remains in judgment. [3]

The obscure phrase “the taste is one” makes sense in reference to the king. The many cooks make food for the one king. No matter how many cooks are in the kitchen, the king’s taste remains one. Too many cooks don’t create a problem.

This reception interpretation of the “too many cooks” riddle provides insight into the final sentence of Solomon’s answer. That final sentence introduces a contrasting claim with the adverb “nevertheless.” That claim seems to generate a contrasting allegorical interpretation of the king receiving food that many cooks make. In a plausible allegorical interpretation, the king is God. The many cooks are the many persons making lives in the world. The wicked isn’t incorporated into the oneness of God. The wicked is subject to condemnation (judgment). The king’s food has one, good taste, but the wicked remains apart with a different, bitter taste.

The “too many cooks” riddle allegorically addresses cultural diversity and divine unity. Humans differ in culture. That’s obvious in the daily matter of food. Too many cooks might well be a problem in a kitchen for a family or group, especially if the many cooks pursue their own preferred taste. But too many cooks isn’t a problem for serving God. Human wickedness is the problem in serving God. That’s the wisdom of Queen Sheba and King Solomon.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] The Syriac and Armenian texts begin with seven questions formally similar to the Problemata Aristotle, but encompassing theological concerns. The subsequent five riddles that Queen Sheba addresses to King Solomon concern:

  • the burning bush that Moses saw
  • Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah and mother of two of his children (Genesis 38)
  • a menstruating woman
  • too many cooks
  • a bridegroom who didn’t show up for his wedding

The Armenian text concludes with Solomon posing to Sheba an allegorical riddle about a temple. The Syriac and Armenian texts are generally similar. The Syriac text appears to be a seventh-century translation from a Greek text. The Armenian text seems to be seventh-century translation from a Syriac text. Hovhanessian (2013) pp. 328, 332, 334.

The classical Armenian version of the Chronicle of Michael the Great includes an account of Queen Sheba’s questions and King Solomon’s answers. Here’s Robert Bedrosian’s translation of the relevant text. Hovhanessian (2013) is based on numerous, stand-alone Armenian manuscripts of the questions.  That textual tradition, thought to be older, expands question 2, includes praise of Queen Sheba after question 8, and doesn’t have praise of the Queen after question 13. Otherwise, the questions/riddles appear to be nearly identical in the Chronicle version and the free-standing version.

Elyse Bruce at Historically Speaking traces instances of “too many cooks spoil the broth” historically. The earliest instance she finds is a 1575 text that states “the more cooks the worse potage.”

[2] From Armenian trans. id. p. 342. The Syriac text is similar but adds the detail “through labour he changes fine food.” Id. p. 345 (Sebastian Brock’s translation of the Syriac).

[3] From Armenian trans. id. p. 342. The answer in the Syriac text:

Then Solomon laughed (and) said to her: If you have from your own country the fine food of your parable, then add our cook, that he may be filled with a thousand women, for in truth the species is the same.

Id. p. 345 (Brock’s translation). Id. p. 342  notes:

The Syriac answer is totally different and does not make sense. Brock suggests that it must be corrupt.

[image] Cooks in galley of British ship on a Malta convoy, 21 August 1942, while being attacked. By Hampton, J A (Lt), Royal Navy official photographer, Russell, J E (Lt). I’ve cropped the original, which is thanks to the Imperial War Museum (UK) and Wikimedia Commons.


Hovhanessian, Vahan S. 2013. “Questions of the Queen of Sheba and Answers by King Solomon.” Pp. 326-45 in Bauckham, Richard, James R. Davila, and Alexander Panayotov. 2013. Old Testament pseudepigrapha: more noncanonical scriptures. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

learning & castration: crimes of the penis and the pen

writing with pen

In the eighth century, the caliph was enjoying the company of a slave girl in a desert camp. He noticed that the girl, even in that pre-iPhone era, wasn’t paying attention to him. She was listening intently to a far-away singer. The caliph recognized the fundamental biological problem:

the he-camel brays, and the she-camel comes running; the male goat cries out, and the female goat becomes sexually receptive; the male pigeon coos, and the female struts; a man sings, and a woman swoons. [1]

Recognizing biological reality is an important first step in formulating good public policy.

Scholarly failure, however, produced horrendous violence against men. Seeking to ascertain the population of men singers, the caliph, evidently a proponent of data-based policy-making, dictated an order: “count them.” Inscribing the caliph’s order, his secretary with a faulty action of the pen added a dot under an Arabic letter in the word for “count.” That dot changed the order from “count them” to “castrate them.”[2] An orthographic mistake produced mass castration of men singers in the early Islamic world.

Folk literature contested the value of scholarly learning in relation to castration. The 1001 Nights includes a story about a school teacher. The school teacher was cultured and sophisticated. He had knowledge of grammar, philology, jurisprudence, and poetry. Undoubtedly he was also an expert in orthography. One night, a guest at the teacher’s home discovered him in the wives’ quarters. He was unconscious and bleeding profusely. The guest revived the teacher and inquired about what happened. The teacher explained:

My brother, after I left you, I sat thinking about the works of Almighty God, and I said to myself: “Everything that God has created for man serves a useful purpose. He has made hands to apply force, feet for walking, eyes for seeing, ears for hearing, the penis for copulation and so forth and so on. These two testicles, however, serve no useful purpose for me.” So I took a razor that I had by me and cut them off, and this is what happened to me. [3]

The lesson is obvious: thinking too much can lead to castration. Even just attending college in the U.S. can now have that effect.

A companion of the Islamic prophet similarly jested about scholarly learning. A man asked this Muslim authority “whether touching the penis violates one’s pure state and obligates the devotee to perform ablutions.” The Muslim authority responded: “If you think it’s contaminating, cut it off!”[4] A penis is not intrinsically evil, dirty, or contaminating. Thinking otherwise is foolish and hateful. That was the point of the Muslim authority’s jest.

A pen and a penis differ significantly. Using a pen correctly requires learning. Using a penis correctly comes naturally. That’s good reason to fear wrongful learning and thinking more than sensational sex crimes.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] From Arabic trans. Rowson (1991) p. 690, modified slightly for clarity. The story exits in al-Jahiz’s Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of Animals), written in the ninth century; see edition Cairo, 1969, vol. 1, pp. 121-22. Versions of the story also exist in Abū l-Faraj’s Kitab al-Aghānī (Book of Songs), written in the tenth century; see edition Dar al-Kutub, Cairo, 1950, vol. 4, pp. 269 ff. The caliph is variously identified, most frequently as Sulaymān (reigned 715-17).

[2] The singers castrated were known as mukhannathūn (effeminates).Names of the castrated singers usually include al-Dalāl, who had considerable fame. The literature includes responding quips from the mukhannathūn:

  • We have become women in truth!
  • We have been spared the trouble of carrying around a spout for urine.
  • What would we do with an unused weapon, anyway?

Id. p. 691. In the Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed., the entry for Khāsī (by Charles Pellat) states of this story:

despite the traditions which tend to make it an historical fact, the whole account is, by all appearances, nothing other than a pleasing anecdote, forged to provide evidence of the inconveniences of the Arabic script

I’m grateful to Geert Jan van Gelder for pointing me to this story in response to my post on Sincopus’s story of castration.

[3] 1001 Nights (Calcutta II edition), Night 403, from Arabic trans. Lyons (2008) vol. 2, p. 219.

[4] Shams al-Din al-Sarakhsi (died about 1096), al-Mabsut (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1989) vol. 1, p. 66, from Arabic trans. Maghen (2008) p. 333. The first quote is from Maghen’s narration of the story, id. The Muslim authority was Sa’d ibn Abī Waqqās (died about 674), a companion of the prophet of Islam.

[image] Photograph by Douglas Galbi.


Lyons, Malcolm C. 2008. The Arabian nights: tales of 1001 nights. vols. 1-3. London: Penguin.

Maghen, Ze’ev. 2008. “The Merry Men of Medina: Comedy and Humanity in the early days of Islam.” Der Islam. 83 (2): 277-340.

Rowson, Everett K. 1991. “The Effeminates of Early Medina.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 111 (4): 671-693.

grammar of sex in marriage for Matheolus and Petra

Donatus, Ars Grammatica

Matheolus wished he had looked at Medusa rather than married Petra. A well-educated cleric in thirteenth-century France, Matheolus was learned in grammar and logic. Matheolus learned too late that his wife Petra was a superior subject. Even the great scholar Aristotle was subjected to a woman. Turning from laughter to tears, from joy to grief, Matheolus applied his learning to lamenting philosophy’s failure and the book of his life, now gray and sad.[1]

In his book, Matheolus described women’s power to teach. He headed the relevant section, “how a woman leads her husband to the goal of solecism.”[2] Medieval clerics studied exhaustively how to use Latin words correctly. Intentional solecism was a higher literary art in which women led. Citing the leading scholastic learning in medieval Europe, Matheolus declared:

What good is Perihermeneias, the Elenchi, or Prior Analytics
against her? What good is Posterior Analytics or
all of logic and everything in the school curriculum?
If one were to confess the truth, woman made both serve her.
She led Aristotle, the master of the five goals,
to solecism, with reins and halter [3]

Matheolus here referred to the figure of Alexander the Great’s mistress riding Aristotle like a mare. A man’s behavior is always predicated on women modifying it.

Matheolus vehemently protested husbands’ subjection to their unschooled wives. As Aristotle proved, the root of subjection is men’s physical desire for women. The beautiful maiden named Nature in Alan of Lille’s De planctu naturae described desire uniting opposites and up-ending normal order.[4] That’s what happened when Aristotle accepted a bridle in his mouth and lowered himself to his hands and knees to have a woman ride him like a mare. Matheolus protested:

It’s a shameful riding figure called solecistic;
It’s misuse of language, that clearly shows this displacement of tongue.
It’s incongruous, improper to be so ridden
Order is disorder, our signifying
offends in many ways. The art of grammar
is made dazed, the art of logic is embarrassed,
hence also Nature is astonished and in revulsion refuses to speak. [5]

Nature in De planctu naturae did speak. She observed:

Does not Desire, performing many miracles, to use antiphrasis, change the shapes of all mankind? … Here reasonable procedure is to be without reason, moderation means lack of moderation, trustworthiness is not to be trustworthy. He {Desire} offers what is sweet but adds what is bitter. He injects poison and brings what is noble to an evil end. He attracts by seducing, mocks with smiles, stings as he applies his salve, infects as he shows affection, hates as he loves. [6]

This great confusion is enough to baffle even the great scholar Aristotle:

He knew the power of Nature and Reason.
But why is Nature’s own minister of Reasoning
not being helped, is astonished, such a great master?
What we say logically with our words
Concludes like it did for this great scholar?
It’s embarrassing. What will philosophy say
when its great scholar is deceived by amphiboly? [7]

Husbands of ordinary learning are even less discerning. Wives can make husbands deny what their own eyes saw, disbelieve that they can distinguish between a man and an ass in bed, and affirm that anti-men gender bigotry advances gender equality.

Marriage is no longer a figure of the world overthrown, like Alexander the Great’s mistress riding Aristotle. Alan of Lille’s concern for the grammar of sex figured more than a person of one sex conjoined with a person of the same sex.[8] The conjunction of woman and man can also have more than a literal meaning. Using the clerical language Latin in thirteenth-century Europe, Matheolus counseled men not to marry:

Don’t take one woman, but, reader, have a hundred!
Women have bound thousands of persons together in chains.
If a man has a thousand women, none has him; he is his own man. [9]

For fear of violating the new grammar of sex, readers must read Matheolus literally. Now no one knows anything more than being his own person. The marital debt is no longer being paid. Marriage is bankrupt. If Abelard had listened to Heloise, he would have remained the man he was. And the world would have remained as it always was.

Men and women must find a new grammar of sex. Then they can form a new verbal bond of incarnation in which every rule is struck senseless.[10]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] On Matheolus wishing he had looked at Medusa before marrying Petra, Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 111-2:

Obvia cur pridem mihi non fuit ipsa Medusa,
Et licet in lapidem convertere visa sit usa?
{Why didn’t I meet Medusa herself,
And allow myself to benefit from being turned into stone?}

Klein, Rubel & Schmitt (2014) p. 53. All subsequent Latin text is from id., unless otherwise noted. Cited line numbers are the cumulative numbering across the four books of Lamentationes Matheoluli. For an online Latin text, based on just one, quite good manuscript, Van Hamel (1892). Lamentationes Matheoluli was written about 1290.

Matheolus was well-educated and well-connected in clerical circles. He studied law and logic for six years in Orléans. He studied under Jacques de Boulogne, who became Bishop of Thérouenne, and Nicaise, who became Canon of Fauquembergue. Matheolus spent many years living in Paris, practiced canon law as a cleric, and attended the Council of Lyon in 1274. Van Hamel (1892) pp. cx-cxii (pdf pages 578-80).

Matheolus began his Book IV (l. 3768) with:

Risus in lacrimas, in luctus gaudia verto
{I turn from laughter to tears, from joy to tears}

That’s quoting nearly verbatim from Alan of Lille, De planctu naturae I.1. Cf. James 4:9. Book III of Lamentationes Matheoluli draws extensively on De planctu naturae. Van Hamel (1892) pp. cxxxv (pdf page 603).

Matheolus’s section on wives leading their husbands to solecisms ends (l. 503):

Nec titulus minio nec cedro charta notetur.
{May your title not be written with red dye, nor your paper treated with oil of cedar.}

That quotes Ovid, Tristia 1.1.7. It indicates a book that doesn’t have colorful, luxurious materiality.

[2] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 459-503, headed “Quod mulier ducit virum suum ad metam solecismi.” On grammatical metaphors, Ziolkowski (1985).

[3] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 459-64:

Quid Perihermenias, quid Elenchi, quidve Priora
Prosunt adversus illam, quid Posteriora,
Totaque quid logica, trivium quid quadriviumque?
Ut verum fatear, mulieri servit utrumque.
Duxit Aristotilem metarum quinque magistrum
Ad solecismum, cui frenum sive capistrum

The cited works are works of Aristotle newly recovered in western Europe via the Islamic world. The five goals seem to be five categories of sophisms set out in Aristotle’s Elenchi I.3.

[4] De planctu naturae, Metre 5.

[5] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 473-9:

Est equitatura solestica dicta probrosa;
Est barbastoma, quod plane docet hic data glossa.
Est incongruus, est improprius hic equitandi
Ordo non ordo, qui nostros significandi
Offendit quoscumque modos. Ars grammaticalis
Istud posse stupet fieri, rubet ars logicalis,
Hinc etiam Natura loqui miranter abhorret.

Jehan Le Fèvre, responding to Lamentationes Matheoluli in Le Livre de Leesce (The Book of Gladness), interpreted Aristotle’s equine position much differently:

He {Aristotle} was full of great love; he always upheld the truth, for which we should praise him highly. And if he let himself be ridden like a horse, it was for joy and for pleasure. Love led him to do this by his great gentleness; so he ought not to be blamed. He clearly showed that we ought to love women, without slander or ill speaking, for they are not guilty at all for this

l. 885-95, from Latin trans. Burke (2013) p. 82. Le Fèvre’s figure of love lacks imagination. It’s just men as cats for women. Men loving women should not require them to be made like animals in subordination to women and silent about women’s faults.

[6] De planctu naturae, Metre 5, from Latin trans. Sheridan (1980) pp. 150, 152-3.

[7] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 490-6:

Qui vim Nature cognoverat et Rationis
Sed quare Natura suo Ratioque ministro
Non succurrerunt, miror, tantoque magistro.
Nostri verbosi quid dicent inde logiste,
Cum sic conclusus fuerit doctor suus iste?
Erubeo fari. Quid dicet philosophia,
Cum sibi doctorem deceperit amphibolia?

Roman rhetoricians strongly criticized amphibolia (grammatical ambiguity creating multiple possible meanings). Ziolkowski (1998) pp. 49-55. Matheolus himself utilized semantic ambiguity to make points memorable. Consider l. 1724-8:

Si plures tibi queris
Testes, testis in his textus datur Ovidianus:
“Feminee faciunt ad scelus omne manus.”
Quod facere ausa {sua} est, non ausa est scribere dextra;
Ergo, quod restat, hic nondum quere, sed extra!

{If you are seeking more
witnesses, witness what’s given in Ovid’s text:
“the hands of women are fitted for any crime.”
What they dared to do, I did not dare to write;
Therefore, to summarize, there is much more that women have done!}

The term witness could also be translated as testicles/balls, carrying the connotation of male boldness. Matheolus above generalized Ovid, Epistle 6.128: Medeae faciunt ad scelus omne manus.

[8] Ziolkowski (1985) makes clear Alan of Lille’s broad interpretive concerns. Subsequent scholarship has developed Ziolkowski’s insights to the point that “one might claim De planctu naturae as a queer text.” Johnson (2005) p. 189.

[9] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 2286-8:

Non unam capias, sed centum, lector, habeto!
Femina millenis hominem ligat una catenis.
Si quis habet mille, nullas habet; est suus ille.

In case his point isn’t understood, Matheolus goes on to counsel, “No uxorem, sed amicas, lector, habe” {Reader, have not a wife, but girlfriends!}. Id. l. 2297-8.

[10] Alan of Lille’s “De incarnation Domini” speaks of a new translatio (metaphor):

In hac Verbi copula
Stupet omnis regula.
{In this verbal bond
every rule is struck senseless.}

Cited and trans. Ziolkowski (1985) pp. 135-6.

[image] Page from Aelius Donatus, Ars grammatica, Ars minor. Xylographic book printed c. 1500. Thanks to Old Prints Department, University of Wrocław, Poland.


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

Johnson, Michael A. 2005. “Translatio Ganymedis: Reading the Sex Out of Ovid in Alan of Lille’s The Plaint of Nature.” Florilegium 22:171-90.

Klein, Thomas, Thomas Rubel, and Alfred Schmitt, eds. 2014. Lamentationes Matheoluli. Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann.

Sheridan, James J., ed. and trans. 1980. Alan of Lille. The plaint of nature {De planctu naturae}. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

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

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1985. Alan of Lille’s grammar of sex: the meaning of grammar to a twelfth-century intellectual. Cambridge, Mass: Medieval Academy of America.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1998. “Obscenity in the Latin Grammatical and Rhetorical Tradition.” Pp. 41-59 in Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1998. Obscenity: social control and artistic creation in the European Middle Ages. Leiden {The Netherlands}: Brill.

Matheolus: medieval Latin literature protesting church & wife

Christ suffering passion in Isenheim Altarpiece

Late in the thirteenth century, Matheus of Boulonge married the widow Petra. Matheus suffered double punishment for his marriage. Because the Council of Lyon in 1274 tightened regulations on clerics marrying, Matheus’s marriage destroyed his church career. Petra delivered a second blow by destroying his personal life. Matheus began referring to himself as Matheolulus — little, little Matheus. Despite Matheus’s reduced stature (his name is commonly reduced only to Matheolus in modern literary study), he retained enormous wit. Matheolus’s suffering from the rule of mother church and his wife prompted him to write Lamentationes Matheoluli. That work is a masterpiece of medieval Latin literature of men’s sexed protest.

While most men are rightfully fearful of criticizing women, Matheolus dared to criticize Christ himself. Matheolus in a dream declared:

Allow me to say — it’s on the tip of my tongue — it may be too bold — Christ, you don’t dare to get married. Why?  Because supposing that, that if you married, you would be expelled from paradise. [1]

Christ, however, had no need of marriage because he was already united to divinity. Ordinary men, in contrast, need marriage to provide for salvation and union with the divine. Christ in Matheolus’s dream explained:

Look, I don’t want sinners to die. I’m their redeemer. I fought for them. When you’ve paid a lot for something you don’t just throw it away, and so I’ve decided to make several purgatories for them to purge themselves in — treatment makes sick people better — and the best one is marriage. You’ve already experienced punishment. I needn’t reopen it; rather, I’d say that even those who have been toasted on a flaming gridiron don’t suffer as much punishment as those who are imprisoned in marriage. There is no greater martyrdom than the day-to-day punishment like yours, refined in the furnace of marriage. You are truly a martyr, and so if you take your suffering well have no doubt that after you die you’re coming straight to me. Nothing will stand in your way, no punishment will intervene. Why? Because you have already been purged under your wife. [2]

Speaking ideas of Genius, Christ instructed church leaders:

It’s necessary and right for cities and towns to be replenished with babies. If male hadn’t joined with female, there would be no religious orders now, no Peter to be keeper of the keys; and so would the clergy please stop contradicting me on this?

The clergy of Talavera with all their heart and soul and might strove to obey such urging.

Matheolus represented his own marital suffering in devotional and liturgical contexts. In the Christian liturgical week of Christ’s passion, the three days preceding Easter in medieval Europe included Tenebrae service. That’s a service of darkness and lamentations. Matheolus in marriage experienced Tenebrae daily all year long from his wife:

She changes the arrangement of the Litany, the word of God, and Mass, and sings Tenebrae to me daily. She curses on every canonical hour, cries and brawls, never holding back her reins. The wife daily chants her hours to everyone. The first response is growling, singing darkly. Then begins the antiphon: “Woe, woe, woe to you husband!” or there are her lamentations or her quarrelsome songs. [3]

The high culture of Latin and church liturgy became for Matheolus a rich resource for protesting his suffering in marriage.

Matheolus broadly considered spirituality and following Christ. Exhausted, wounded, and exasperated, he lamented:

No rest for the husband, when fifteen times night and day he is chosen for the passion. He is continually crucified. It is, my god Hercules! The torment of marriage is far worse than the torment of the Stygian abode. [4]

Matheolus’s lament alludes to the common medieval view of sexual deficit accounting. In that accounting, women when widowed became sexually voracious. Experiencing the passion refers in part to Matheolus’s responsibility to have sex with his wife.

Experiencing the passion fifteen times daily also suggests extreme devotion to Christ’s crucifixion. St. Francis of Assisi in the twelfth century made prominent the Stations of the Cross. In that devotion, the faithful represent Jesus’s condemnation, crucifixion, and burial through fourteen stages of visual representations, narratives, and prayers arranged around a church. Matheolus described his suffering as a crucifixion that occurred daily with one more stage than the Stations of the Cross.

Matheolus in his spirituality of marital suffering encompassed Greco-Roman traditional religion. The ejaculation “It is, my god Hercules!” starts with a statement of being that could be interpreted as a parody of the Mosaic god’s name “I am.” “My god Hercules” was a traditional Greco-Roman invocation that Jews and Christians would associate with following a false god. The Stygian abode similarly was the non-Christian, Greco-Roman underworld. Marriage had become a sacrament in the Christian church by the thirteenth century. In his invocation of god and by describing marriage as far worse than being in the Greco-Roman underworld, Matheolus was playing with Christian heresy.

Matheolus also protested against marriage in economic and legal terms. The conditions of Matheolus’s marriage naturally caused him to lose sexual potency. Unlike in marriage today, spouses in medieval Europe had a legal obligation to have sex with each other even if one of them didn’t want sex. That legal obligation was known as the marital debt. Matheolus lamented:

My wife wants it, but I can’t. She petitions for her right. I say no. I just can’t pay. [5]

Even given his sexual incapacity, Matheolus was subject to corporal punishment:

Acting as her own advocate, Petra {Matheolus’s wife} puts forward the law that if a shriveled purse {scrotum} can’t pay because it’s empty, under statute recompense for that injury is corporal punishment.

A fundamental principle of communication economics is the criminalization of men in relation to women. In this civil case, the injury wasn’t the effect of Petra and Matheolus’s marriage on Matheolus’s genital function. The injury was depriving Petra of sex that Matheolus was required under law to provide non-consensually and regardless of ability. Modern readers should be able to find some appreciation for Matheolus’s sexed protest.

Lamentationes Matheoluli deserves much more attention from scholars and the general public. For decades, scholars have associated Lamentationes Matheoluli with “tired old antifeminist commonplaces” and a “vast echo-chamber of antifeminist commonplaces.”[6] That greatly mischaracterizes the wide-ranging wit and creativity of Lamentationes Matheoluli . Moreover, dividing medieval literature into the binary categories “feminist” and “anti-feminist” is anachronistic and conceptually imperialistic.[7] Most importantly, injustices of institutionalized paternity deception, forced financial fatherhood, acute anti-men discrimination in family law, and social devaluation of men’s lives are important issues suppressed today under dominant ideology. Vibrant intellectual life needs open, diverse, fearless critical thinking. Rebirth of such thinking could start with medieval Latin literature.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 2393-7, from Latin, my translation, benefiting from that of Correale & Hamel (2005) p. 392. The Latin text is available in Klein, Rubel & Schmitt (2014) (preferred) and Van Hamel (1892). Jehan Le Fèvre loosely translated the work into French late in the fourteenth century. The English quotations are exclusively based on the original Latin version.

[2] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 3024-38, from Latin trans. Correale & Hamel (2005) p. 392, with some minor changes. The claim that marriage works like Purgatory is taken up in the 15 Joys of Marriage. Matheolus dreamed that, in recognition of their martyrdom in marriage, husbands earned a higher place in heaven than virgins and any conventional martyrs. That reversed common Christian understanding of holy status. Jerome influentially described the Christian status ranking in his work, Adversus Jovinianum. Matheolus is awoken from his dream by his wife’s nagging (l. 372-3767). The subsequent quote above is from l. 3518-18, trans. id.

[3] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 671-8 from Latin, my translation. Tenebrae is known from the ninth century. The underlying Latin:

Litania, Dei verbum versa vice, missa
Et tenebre mihi cottidie cantantur ab issa.
Hec maledicatur, quoniam sub qualibet hora
Flet vel rixatur, numquam retrahens sua lora.
Cottidie sponso canit horas femina quasque,
Primo reponso frendens, cantat tenebrasque.
Incipit antiphona sic: “Ve, Ve veque maritis!”
Vel sunt luctisona, vel sunt sua cantia litis.

Le Fèvre’s French version is translated in Blamires, Pratt & Marx (1992) p. 182.

[4] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 341-4, my translation. The underlying Latin:

Nullo vero requies, cum nocte dieque legatur
Passio quindecies illi: semper cruciatur.
Est, medius fidius, tormentum conubiale
Iam multo gravius quam tormentum Stygiale.

Here’s discussion of medius fidius as an oath/interjection to Hercules. The translation in Correale & Hamel (2005), p. 386, flattens the allusions and pagan references:

There is no rest for the husband, fifteen times a day and night passion is his lot; his is tortured continually. I swear, marital torment is a lot worse than the torment of hell.

Matheolus is far more interesting than merely as a source for Chaucer. Matheolus apparently also was a source for the 15 Joys of Marriage, written in French about 1400. More importantly, Matheolus’s text itself rewards careful study.

[5] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 577-8, trans. Correale & Hamel (2005) p. 388, modified slightly. The medicalized condition “erectile dysfunction” now supports highly profitable pharmaceuticals. The implicit biological norm seems to be that a properly functioning man should in the presence of a woman be able to get an erection on demand. Such medicine can abuse masculine biology like attention deficit medicine can abuse boys’ natural level of activity.

The subsequent quote above is from id. l. 582-4, trans. id. I’ve brought out the legal terminology obscured in the translation. The underlying Latin:

Intuor aspectus; allegat enim Petra pro se
Ius, quod, si nequeat inopis rugosa crumena
Solvere, pro noxa statuatur corpore pena.

[6] Mann (2002) pp. 28, 40. Among the rare scholarly works that mentions Lamentationes Matheoluli, it is commonly characterized as “antifeminist.” An anthology of texts declared:

Le Fèvre’s version {of Lamentationes Matheoluli} proved an effective propagation of the satire, ensuring that “Matheolus” continued to be a name to match Jean de Meun’s for brutal antifeminism in fifteenth-century debates about women.

Blamires, Pratt & Marx (1992) p. 177. Jean de Meun was an author of the literary masterpiece Romance of the Rose.

[7] After referring to the “monstrous bulk of antifeminist literature in the Middle Ages,” Mann added a footnote explaining:

Since I have recently encountered some misunderstanding of the term “antifeminism” among non-medievalists, I had better make clear that medievalists have traditionally applied it to literary expressions of hostility to women, and not hostility to feminism (which would clearly be anachronistic).

Mann (1991b) p. 2; p. 31, n. 3. Medieval tradition, or the tradition of medievalists, doesn’t provided reasoned justification for conceptual imperialism.

[image] Christ’s passion, detail of Isenheim Altarpiece. Painted by Matthias Grünewald in 1512–1516. On display at the Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace, in France.


Blamires, Alcuin, Karen Pratt, and C. William Marx. 1992. Men Impugned, Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: an anthology of medieval texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Correale, Robert M., and Mary Hamel. 2005. Sources and analogues of the Canterbury Tales. Vol. 2. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.

Klein, Thomas, Thomas Rubel, and Alfred Schmitt, eds. 2014. Lamentationes Matheoluli. Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann.

Mann, Jill. 1991a/ 2002. Geoffrey Chaucer. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International. Republished as Feminizing Chaucer. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Mann, Jill. 1991b. Apologies to women: inaugural lecture delivered 20th November 1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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