Wednesday’s flowers

Washington Monument surrounded by cherry blossoms

frame tales: comparison of Decameron and 1001 Nights

Boccaccio’s Decameron is a frame tale with death set outside the frame.  In the Decameron, seven women and three men (the brigata) leave plague-stricken Florence for country estates.  There they enjoy telling each other stories.  The transition from story to story in a matter of civilized, turn-taking within the brigata.  In 1001 Nights, Shahrazad tells the King stories to forestall being executed.   That’s similar to the Sindibad frame tale in which a king’s advisers tell stories to forestall the king from executing his son on a false rape charge.  Other ancient frame tales such as the Panchatantra and the Sukasaptati are not generated against the threat of death.  Story-telling creates imaginary lives.  The threat of death highlights the creativity of story-telling.  In contrast to the 1001 Nights’ frame, the Decameron’s frame doesn’t make the creativity of story-telling directly ward off death.  Story-telling in the Decameron shares pleasure in the face of death.

basmala in pear-shaped calligraphy

Both the 1001 Nights and the Decameron have highly conventional frames.  The 1001 Nights repeats day after day:

But morning overtook Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence.  Then Dinarzad said, “Sister, what a strange and entertaining story!” Shahrazad replied, “What is is this compared with what I shall tell you tomorrow night if the king spares me and lets me live!”

The following night Shahrazad said: [1]

The continuing story indicates that the King has spared Shahrazad.  The Decameron repeats not frame text, but motifs.  Days begin with a description of the natural scenery, eating a meal together, singing and dancing.  From one story to the next within a day, the brigata reacts briefly to the story.  Then the King or Queen for the day instructs another to tell a story.  The day ends with appointing a new ruler, adopting a new theme, supper, more singing and dancing, and an elegiac love song explicitly set out in verse.  The conventions of the frames give the stories considerable independence.  In the 1001 Nights, the stories merely have to be good enough for the King to want them to be continued.  In the Decameron, stories subtly hint of interactions and characterizations among the brigata.  Those subtleties are submerged in the direct action of individual stories.

The Decameron’s stories are more regularly structured within the frame than are the stories of the 1001 Nights.  Days necessarily interrupt stories in the 1001 Nights, and the stories are many fewer than the days.  Stories get nested within stories and are continued with a statement of a narrative chain:

I heard, O happy King, that the Christian broker told the king of China that the young man said: [2]

The Decameron, in contrast, consists of ten days of story-telling, with exactly ten stories told on each day.   While characters in the stories manipulate and deceive each other with stories, characters don’t narrate stories.  The narrator is always implicitly a member of the brigata.  Unlike in the 1001 Nights, the frame participants in the Decameron are directly responsible for the surface meaning of the stories and their inner or allegorical meanings.

The Decameron’s ending gives its stories more independent social significant than the stories of the 1001 Nights.  The 1001 Nights, or more literally translated from the Arabic, a thousand nights and one night, is plausibly interpreted to mean an innumerably large number of nights.  The fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript of the 1001 Nights has no narrative ending.  The Egyptian recession published in the early nineteenth-century ends with the King pardoning Shahrazad.  In either case, the stories have the effect of keeping Shahrazad alive.  The Decameron, in contrast, ends with no significance for the brigata.  For no good reason, the members of the brigata merely go home.[3]  Their lives don’t seem to be permanently affected by the stories they told.   Each story in the Decameron is prefaced with a plot summary positioned outside of the frame tale.  The significance of the Decameron‘s stories can be only for its readers.

Structural differences between the frame tales of the Decameron and the 1001 Nights plausibly relate to differences between oral tales and written literature.  The 1001 Nights seems to have arisen as a continually generated oral tale.  Its frame structure supports continual modification, elaboration, and extension.  The Decameron’s frame, in contrast, presents a regular, complete, encompassing order.  It presents the stories’ surfaces for literary interpretation and encourages allegorical interpretation of members of the brigata.  Boccaccio used the established oral tradition of frame tales in a new literary way.

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[1] From the 14th-century Syrian manuscript of 1001 Nights, 97th Night, trans. Haddawy (2010) p. 197.  Many other nights have the same text.

[2] 114th Night, id. p. 216.  Such chains are similar to isnad that support the authority of particular sayings in the Muslim world.

[3] At the conclusion of the Decameron’s tenth day, the King said:

to keep things from becoming tedious because of an established custom too long observed, and to prevent people from being able to raise frivolous objections to our having stayed here all this time, I think it proper, since all of us have had a day’s share of the regal honour I still possess, that with your approval we should go back to the place from which we came.

That statement wasn’t mean to be reasonably convincing.  Ten days of story-telling hardly makes “an established custom too long observed.”  There’s no indication of persons objecting to the brigata’s presence at the country estates and no reason why the brigata should care if persons did object.   That each has been ruler for a day is irrelevant and ironic in the context of the ruler seeking everyone’s approval for his proposal.  The ruler goes on to declare:

Furthermore, if you examine the matter carefully, there is also the fact that our company has already become known to many people around here, with the results that our numbers could increase to such an extent that it would take away all our pleasure.

This concern runs opposite the concern that persons would object to the brigata‘s continuing presence.  That an onrush of persons would occur and prevent the brigata members from enjoying each other’s company cannot be taken seriously.  Like Boccaccio’s claim to have written the Decameron for women, the motivation for going home requires a literary rather than literal interpretation.  Quotes above trans. Rebhorn (2013) pp. 851-2.

[image] Basmala in pear-shaped calligraphy by Shaykh Aziz al-Rufai.  Thanks to Nevit Dilmen and Wikipedia.  The basmala is an Arabic text that can be translated as “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.”  The basmala begins every sura of the Qur’an except Sura 9.  On the basmala in relation to the 1001 Nights, Saleem (2012) pp. 37-42.


Haddawy, Husain, trans. and Muhsin Mahdi, ed. 2010. The Arabian nights. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

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

Saleem, Sobia. 2012. “Never trust the teller,” he said. “Trust the tale”: Narrative technique from the “Arabian Nights” to postmodern adaptations by Rabih Alameddine and Pier Pasolini. Thesis (M.A.)–University of California, Santa Cruz, 2012.


Roman epitaph to Julia Galbina

Roman epitaph to Julia Galbina

Above is a photograph of a Roman epitaph from the second century GC.  Translated from Latin, it states: “To the sacred memory of Julia Galbina; she lived 45 years. Gnaeus Haius Iustus, to his most devoted wife.”

In the U.S. in 1790, expected lifespan at birth was 44 years for white females and white males.  Now it’s 79 years for females and 74 years for males.  You can now expect to live longer than Julia Galbina.  But will you be remembered 1800 years from now?

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[image] My photograph of marble stone on display at the Portland Art Museum.  Sally Lewis Collection of Classical Antiquities 26.68.


anisogamy and sex inequality: the communicative connection

Anisogamy — sex dichotomy in gamete size — does not imply that the sperm must assume responsibility for moving to the egg.  Evolution of sexual reproduction has consistently generated a size dichotomy in gametes.  The larger-size gamete (“egg”) is the female gamete.  The smaller-sized gamete (“sperm”) is the male gamete.[1]  Because sperm are typically much smaller than eggs, sperm are biologically less costly to produce and move.  Sperm typically are more numerous and more mobile than eggs.  However, reproductive competition generally is most significant at the level of the organism.  For organisms of different sexes (organisms differentiated by egg production and sperm production), relative organism value and relative mobility does not necessarily follow from the relative production costs and relative mobility of eggs and sperm.  Anisogamy is not destiny.

Communication has high value for sexually reproducing organisms.  Sexually reproducing organisms must solve the problem of getting male and female gametes physically together.[2]  Organisms must also solve other problems, such as securing food and avoiding predators.  In addition, the time and place of the union of the male and female gametes greatly affects the probably of generating reproductively successful offspring.  Behavior that brings male and female gametes together at a relatively good time and place, while imposing relatively weak constraints on solutions to other problems that organisms must solve, provides an evolutionary advantage.  Communication is a powerful tool for bringing male and female gametes together propitiously.  Sexual reproduction drives the development of communication capabilities.

sex differences in family portrait

Anisogamy provides little insight into sex differences in communication.  One scholar described the situation thus:

Sexual selection theory also teaches that because eggs are larger and more expensive to produce, females must conserve this resource by playing hard to get.  Conversely, because sperm are small and easy to manufacture, males can spread them around with little loss on investment.  But in fact, sperm are not cheap.  The relevant comparison is not between individual sperm and egg, but between ejaculate and egg.  An ejaculate often has a million sperm, making the mating investment of both male and female about the same. [3]

More broadly influential is a different view expressed in a recent scholarly review of sex in evolution:

At the biological heart of sex differences lies anisogamy – the vastly unequal size (and consequent energetic cost) of gametes contributed by male and female in sexual reproduction.  As Williams (1996, p. 118) points out, anisogamy marks the start of male exploitation of females.  “When egg-producers reproduce, they must bear the entire nutritional burden of nurturing the offspring.  By contrast, the sperm-makers reproduce for free.  A sperm is not a contribution to the next generation; it is a claim on contributions put into the egg by another individual.  Males of most species make no investments in the next generation, but merely compete with another for the opportunity to exploit investments made by females.”  When combined with internal fertilization, the stage is set for an even greater inequality in parental investment [4]

In the next paragraph of the quoted text, Williams, a leading evolutionary theorist, declared that ethnic and religious traditions, which are built upon human communication capabilities, reverse the the ultimate sex inequality:

The biology of reproduction forms a basis for ethnic and religious traditions that facilitate the oppression of women by men and of children by both, with everything arranged so that the men end up the biggest losers. [5]

That’s an important insight.  Anisogamy and other figures of female disadvantage get magnified in social discourse to obscure the reality of over-all male disadvantage.  That explains lack of concern about the gender protrusion in mortality.  It explains why men have no reproductive rights and are incarcerated for having consensual sex and being poor.  It explains why enormous sex discrimination against men in child custody and child support attracts little concern.  Sex differences in communication, not anisogamy, are the biological root of sex inequality.

Anisogamy does not necessarily imply the social devaluation of men.  A leading biological anthropologist has declared:

our species possesses the capacity to carry sexual inequality to its greatest known extremes, but we also possess the potential to realize an unusual social equality between the sexes should we choose to exercise that potential. [6]

Another scientist concerned about sex inequality has pointed out:

the most distinctive genetic trait of homo sapiens – the source of their greatest evolutionary advantage – is their ability to intentionally and radically change their environments. [7]

Overcoming sex inequality requires changing the environment of social communication.  Men need to start speaking up about the reality of their lives as demonized men.

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[1] The primary advantage of combining DNA from separate organisms via sexual reproduction is an issue of lively research and debate.  By creating genetic diversity across offspring, sex might allow better exploitation of different local resources.  It might limit the effects of harmful genetic mutations.  Alternatively, genetic diversity might produce faster adaptation to changing environments or to rapidly evolving parasites and diseases.  Among multi-cellular organisms, sexual reproduction is much more common than asexual reproduction.

[2] Bringing male and female gametes together doesn’t necessarily require bringing male and female organisms together.  For example, marine broadcast spawners use water current to carry sperm to eggs.

[3] Roughgarden (2005) p. 3.

[4] Campbell (2006) p. 70, quoting from the original British edition of Williams (1997).  The original British edition was published in 1996 and entitled Plan and purpose in nature.

[5] Williams (1997) p. 84.

[6] Hrdy (1981) p. 14.

[7] Alison Gopnik, comments, in Re: The Science of Gender and Science — Pinker vs. Spelke — A DebateEdge: The Reality Club, 2005.

[image] McGinnis famly in Laird, Colorado, 1899.  Thanks to the Denver Public Library.


Campbell, Anne. 2006. “Feminism and Evolutionary Psychology.” Pp., 63-100 in J.H. Barkow, ed. Missing the revolution: Darwinism for social scientists. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1981. The woman that never evolved. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Roughgarden, Joan.  2005.  “The Myth of Sexual Selection.” California Wild. Summer edition.

Williams, George C. 1997. The pony fish’s glow: and other clues to plan and purpose in nature. New York, NY: BasicBooks.

Wednesday’s flowers

cherry blossoms blossoming

Teodoro sets men free and returns them home happily

Boccaccio’s Decameron tells the epic history of Teodoro.  That history combines strands from the life of Joseph, as reported in the biblical book of Genesis; the union of Dido and Aeneas, from Virgil’s Aeneid;, and recognition scenes from ancient Greek novels.  The history of Teodoro creates a new future.  Men will be freed from brutal captivity and will live long, happy lives in love with women.

Teodoro overcomes punishment for sex

Teodoro was born of high parentage among an ancient Christian people living in Cilicia, just north of the Holy Land.  Italian pirates captured Teodoro and sold him into slavery to the wealthy Amerigo household in the Sicilian town Trapini.  As a slave, Teodoro was renamed Pietro.  Teodoro experienced personally the institutional capture of god’s service by corrupt successors of Peter, the first bishop of Rome.  Yet hope remained for Teodoro, because what happened to him was like what happened to Jacob’s son Joseph, sold into slavery and taken west to Egypt.  Amerigo freed Pietro and put Pietro in charge of all Amerigo household’s affairs.  God was with Teodoro as he followed the experience of Joseph.

Through the happy fault of Amerigo and the actions of Fortune, Pietro secured the love of Amerigo’s beautiful young daughter Violante.  Amerigo did not hurry to arrange a marriage for Violante when she became eligible.  As a result, Violante happened to fall in love with Pietro.  Pietro was already in love with her.  Fortune acted according to the plot that brought together Dido and Aeneas in the Aeneid.  While Pietro and Voilante were out in the countryside, a sudden, heavy storm compelled the pair to take shelter in an old, abandoned church.  Huddling together there under a roof, they expressed their love to each other and became physically intimate.

Violante and Pietro’s love led to the threat of violent death.  The natural effect of sex became a serious problem:

things went on until the girl became pregnant, much to the dismay of both parties, and although she took a number of measures to resist the course of Nature and produce a miscarriage, none of them had any effect.

Afraid for his life, Pietro made up his mind to flee and told her so.  But on hearing this, she said, “If you leave, I’m going to kill myself for sure.”

To this remark, Pietro, who was deeply in love with her, replied: “O my lady, how can you possibly want me to stay here?  Your pregnancy will reveal our offense, and although you may be easily forgiven for it, I’m the poor wretch who’ll have to pay the penalty for both your sin and my own.”

Just as the social punishment for the pregnancy would be directed at Teodoro, so too today the socially constructed punishment for unplanned parenthood falls heavily on men.  Violante promised not to reveal that Teodoro was the father of the child.  Fictional claims about fatherhood have long been socially sustained.  In response to Violante’s promise, Teodoro agreed to stay.

Violante’s mother accepted her fictional story of fatherhood, but Violante’s father reacted violently.  When Violante began to show her pregnancy, she told her mother “a tall tale containing a disguised, garbled version of the truth.”  Her mother accepted that tale and hid Violante away in a country estate for the remaining duration of her pregnancy.  Just as Violante was about to give birth, her father happened to stop at the estate.  Her mother told her father the pregnancy tale and tried to persuade him to believe it.  But her father, enraged by the fictional story, demanded to know the truth:

Drawing out his sword, he rushed over in a towering rage toward the girl, who had, in the meantime, while her mother was talking with her father, given birth to a baby boy.  “Either tell me who fathered this child,” he exclaimed, “or you’re going to die right now.”

Violante told of her affair with Pietro.  Because Pietro had the status of a freed slave, Violante’s father, the noble Amerigo, did not want Pietro to marry Violante.  Pietro having sex with Violante was socially interpreted as a crime that Pietro committed against Amerigo.  Amerigo immediately reported that crime to the head of the local militia.  That official tortured Pietro and extracted a full confession.  He sentenced Pietro “to be whipped through the city and then hanged by the neck.”

Having Pietro executed wasn’t enough to satisfy Amerigo.  He ordered that his daughter Violante choose suicide by dagger or by poison, or be publicly immolated.  Amerigo also ordered one of his servants to “take the child she gave birth to a few days ago, smash its head against a wall, and throw it away to be eaten by dogs.”  This extravagant, fanciful brutality came with the new ending.

Pietro being recognized by his true, long-lost father saved him and Violante from violent deaths.  Pietro’s father Fineo, traveling to Rome as an ambassador from the Armenian King of Cilicia, just happened to be in Trapini.  Fineo recognized the red birthmark on Pietro’s chest as Pietro walked by being whipped.  Fineo called out to him, “O Teodoro!”  After a brief exchange in Armenian, the two were certain that they were father and son.  That was a recognition scene like recognition scenes in ancient Greek novels.  Overjoyed to find his son who had been lost, Fineo took off his silk cloak and wrapped it around Pietro.  That was just as the father had done upon the return of the prodigal son.  Fineo went to the official who had sentenced Pietro and declared:

the person you’ve condemned to death as a slave is actually my son, a free man, and he’s ready to marry the girl he is said to have robbed of her virginity.  Therefore, I beg you to delay his execution until we can find out whether she’ll accept him as her husband, because that way, if she does want him, you won’t find that you yourself have gone and broken the law.

Pietro apparently was falsely accused of raping Violante, just as Joseph was falsely accused of raping Potiphar’s wife.  Teodoro’s re-union with Fineo encompassed more human difficulties than the prodigal son’s re-union with his father in the Gospel of Luke.  The re-union of Teodoro and Fineo was also more conditional.  Fineo said to Amerigo:

I fully intent to have my son marry your daughter.  And if he doesn’t want to, then let them carry out the sentence that has been passed upon him.

Teodoro wanted to marry Violante.  Violante wanted to marry Teodoro.  Fineo’s recognition of Teodoro enabled Teodoro and Violante to marry within the prevailing social order.  Amerigo reversed his order of death for Violante and her son, and gave Violante in marriage to Teodoro.  Along with their newly born son, Teodoro and Violante returned to Cilicia with Fineo.  Using the happy ending of recognition plots in ancient Greek novels, there they lived in peace and tranquility for the rest of their days.

Joseph did not return alive to the Holy Land.  Dido did not enjoy a long, happy marriage with Aeneas.  Ancient Greek novels weren’t historical.  The epic history of Teodoro solved those historical problems.

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The history of Teodoro occurs as Day 5, Story 7 (told by Lauretta) in the Decameron.  All the quotes above are from that story, as translated in Rebhorn (2013) pp. 437-44.  Teodoro is a Greek name meaning “gift of God.”  The life of Joseph is in Genesis 37-50.  The story of Dido and Aeneas’ union is in Virgil’s Aeneid, 4.105-172.  The most famous identifying bodily mark in Greek literature is Odysseus’s scar in Homer’s Odyssey, Bk. 19.  Recognition scenes are common in the ancient Greek novels.  For analysis, Montiglio (2013).  On Boccaccio’s knowledge of myths and his use of them in constructing new social understanding, see Gittes (2008) and Lummus (2012).

[image] Virgil and Dante entering the eighth circle, holding adulterers, seducers, and flatterers.  Illustration of Dante’s Commedia, Inferno, Canto XVIII.  Painted by Priamo della Quercia between 1442 and 1450 in north Italy for an edition of Dante’s Commedia. Folio 32, Yates Thompson 36, held in the British Library.


Gittes, Tobias Foster. 2008. Boccaccio’s naked muse: eros, culture, and the mythopoeic imagination. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Lummus, David. 2012. “Boccaccio’s Poetic Anthropology: Allegories of History in the Genealogie deorum gentilium libri.” Speculum. 87 (03): 724-765.

Montiglio, Silvia. 2013. Love and providence: recognitions in the ancient novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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


the question of masculinism in Aucassin et Nicolette

Masculinist literary criticism of the social erection of gender has complicated sexual/textual scenarios of hegemonic negative images of the masculine.  Lack of attention to masculine difference has contributed to a dry gap in medieval literary studies directed toward overcoming traditional forms of gender domination.  I want to situate my work in masculinist readings that validate the multiplicity of voices within the fluid system of gender that throughout history has always been a long hard shaft on men’s bodies.  Unpacking the complicated rhetoric that has always oppressed men requires questioning overdetermined universalizing claims of idyllic innocence, ideologically (im)posed.  Masculinist study of the singular medieval French chantefable Aucassin et Nicolette can contribute to complicating the essential ambiguity of gender.  It serves as a necessary first step for opening the question of masculinism, not just to secure better public appreciation for medieval literature, but also to advance the more general literary project of human emancipation.

Aucassin et Nicolette signifies the merely titular social position of men with its ironic epideictic gesture of supporting class hierarchy through social titles.  In contrast to the obvious performative context of the text, when the parole became the embodied langue in the manuscript materiality, it acquired the title C’est d’Aucasin et de Nicolete (This is of Aucasin and Nicolet).  The acquisition of titles participates in the social process of generating and supporting class structures.  The Lacanian deictic “this” slips the signifier of the manuscript materiality into longer chains of social domination.  The body of the text reveals the inscribed marking of socially constructed gender order in the separate circuit of social performance quite apart from the commodified circulation of textual artifacts:

De deus biax enfans petis,
Nicholete et Aucassins

{Of two small, fair children,
Nicolette and Aucassin}

The bodily characterization of stature, widely mis-interpreted as essentially a biological measurement, floats dialectically against the textual construction of Nicholete and Aucassins as young adults.  That complicating of representation signifies the ensuing inversion of titular positions of Aucassin and Nicolette, refashioned with the violent transformation and displacement of the soft breathing h into the coronal-dental stopped t and terminated with the slippery, unitary-marked s.  These transformations, suppressed in non-masculinist ethics of reading subservient to the capitalist production of standard texts from the multiplicity of individual, personal manuscripts, represent the negative and positive fetishizations of gender polarity and the material imbrication of gyno-primacy.

The displacement and Othering of men as persons to be attacked and laid low, represented in the cultural violence of naming, is embodied in men’s captivity in sickness to be cured only at the effortless whim of the master-woman.  Consistent with the history of oppressive displacement of men from their homes and alienation of men from their children, Aucassin is named as a Muslim Other to be driven from the European home and subject to violent attack.  He is permitted within the home only within conditions of cultural-colonial subservience that produce human psycho-somatic sickness.  That, like everything else, is gendered.  The unknowable gender domination, so difficult to extirpate precisely because of its liminal ontological status in non-masculinist discourse, is evident in the Kristeva-Irigaray reversal of abnegation merely through the presence of the master-woman Nicolette:

On a bed a pilgrim lay,
Who of Limousin was bred,
Sick with fever of the head.
Very sore was he in pain,
With most grievous sickness ta’en.
By his bedside thou didst fare,
And thy long train liftedst there,
And thy dainty ermine frock,
And thy snowy linen smock,
Till thy white limbs he might see,
Straight the pilgrim healed was he.

This ideological cure, figured as a brief displacement of Nicolette’s material wealth in attire, parallels the racist coloring of European racism historically and textually linked to the straight-jacket of hetero-normativity ideologically constructed as healing.  The masculinist work of loosening the tightly bound bindings of these representations is the liberating task of the critical scholar confronting the horrors of imaginative literature.  Much work remains to be done.

The wounding of men is wound within the clash of subordinated signified and signifier in men-on-men violence institutionalized as war.  In Aucassin et Nicolette, war is mediated through universal gender signifiers obscure to the unknowing masculine observers:

“Sir,” said Aucassin, “now take me to where your wife is with the army!” “Sir, willingly!” said the King.  He mounted a horse, and Aucassin mounted his, and Nicolete remained behind in the queen’s chambers.  And the King and Aucassin rode on till they came to where the Queen was, and they found the battle was with roasted crab-apples, and eggs, and fresh cheeses.

Separated from Nicolette who has been left behind in a traditional position of gender power, Aucassin’s request, “take me,” and the King’s response, “willingly,” show the promise of non-hierarchical affiliation among men, underscored in the King’s rejection of his gender-normative role as subject and object of violence in war.  But that gesture is complicit with dominance as seen through the reversed plot trajectory and the symbolic media of war: roasted crab-apples, indicating the expulsion of Adam from Eden and the gender structure of mass incarceration; eggs, implicitly subordinating male homosexual affiliation with a socially constructed signifier of male biological insufficiency; and fresh cheese, which of course is made with richly gendered milk.  Institutional and representational support for violence against men is woven throughout the imaginative terrain of the stories we tell ourselves, reproducing our selves and our reality, as Foucault has shown, in accordance with micro-structures of power and gender oppression.

Continuing along the reversed plot trajectory, the reader immediately recognizes the violence that supports the traditional gender hierarchy within the capillaries of men subordinated into the position of the Other as subject-object of violence.  The King was in bed, having rejected war and instead embracing labor to give birth to a new social order of non-violence, non-subordination, and communal production.  But under the capitalistic order already well-developed in the commercial society of medieval France through to the present, men’s work isn’t recognized as work if it doesn’t serve the traditional gynocentric order of violence against men and alienation of men from their children and homes.  Aucassin, with the false consciousness endemic among oppressed classes exposed through masculinism theory, responds violently to the King’s initiative to overturn the traditional gender order:

When Aucassin heard the king speak thus, he took all the clothes which were on him and flung them down the room.  He saw behind him a stick. He took it and turned and struck him, and beat him so that he nearly killed him. “Ah, fair sir,” said the king, “what do you demand of me? Have you lost your wits, you who beat me in my own house?” “By God’s blessed heart,” said Aucassin, “foul son of a whore, I will kill you, if you do not promise me that never again shall any man in your land lie in bed to give birth!”

Aucassin strips the King naked to present as text the male biology that traditionally has justified men’s subordination and the social system of violence against men, including domestic violence, that denies men even their homes as safe places.  A new social order that liberates men from gender will not be born until men recognize that they as a gender must take the lead in producing that liberating birth.  That means rejecting the hatred of men coded within the gender-educational system that colonizes men’s self-consciousness and even directs them to violence against themselves at the service of gynocentric social values.  The non-masculinist alternative is continuing the regime of personal and civilizational self-destruction resulting from obliteration of men’s independent self-worth:

once you have lain in another man’s bed than mine, think not that I should wait till I found a knife, with which I might strike me to the heart and kill myself! Nay, verily, so long would I not wait; but I would fling myself toward where I might see a wall or a grey stone, and there would dash my head against it so hard that I should make my eyes spurt out and beat my brains out altogether.

This reversed micro-plot trajectory in Aucassin et Nicolette is the historically situated master narrative that masculinist literary understanding, or any literary understanding, must confront.

The question(s) of masculinism should no longer be questioned.  Masculinist literary criticism can push beyond complicating the ambiguities that protrude from the textual body of Aucassin et Nicolette.  Moistening the ground of literary receptivity and planting seeds of literary understanding amid a multiplicity of texts and interpretations is necessary to reproduce a literary civilization and to emancipate men from traditional gender domination in the long history of gynocentrism.  That’s a responsibility that everyone should enjoy.

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The surviving manuscript of Aucassin and Nicolette is Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Fonds Français 2168, ff 70-80.  The Umilita website has an excellent page on Aucassin and Nicolette.  That page includes the Old French source text (from the late-twelfth or early-thirteenth century) and an English translation.  I’ve used that English translation above, with some corrections and adaptations.  Bourdillon (1887) includes the Old French text, an English translation, and a glossary of relevant Old French terms.  Other English translations freely available on line are Lang (1895), Mason (1910), and Kline (2001).  Bourdillon (1887), writing after proliferation of (realistic) novels and widespread commercialization of photography, lamented “these photographic days” in describing Aucassin and Nicolette:

we occasionally turn with relief from the wit and insight and subtlety of our modern novelists to the old uncomplicated tales of faerie or romance, and find them after all more moving, more tender, even more real, than all the laboured realism of these photographic days.  And here before us is of all pretty love-stories perhaps the prettiest.

Lang (1895) hints at mixed genre in Aucassin and Nicolette:

charming medley of sentiment and humour, of a smiling compassion and sympathy with a touch of mocking mirth.  …  What lives in it, what makes it live, is the touch of poetry, of tender heart, of humorous resignation

Mason (1910) describes Aucassin and Nicollete as a lyrical flower of love that miraculously bloomed within the Dark Ages:

The most lyric and lovely of early French romances is preserved to us by a single copy in the National Library of Paris.  Without that one ill-written manuscript the world would have been poorer by how exquisite a dream!  Had not this unique bloom remained, it would have been impossible to imagine so rare and delicate a flower could have sprung in the unsheltered fields of mediaeval France.  … in it he has caged his dream of love, and has revealed so delicate a sense of beauty, as would not have seemed possible to a strolling player of mediaeval France.

Aucassin and Nicolette seems to me to have some similarities with the story of Aziz and Aziza in 1001 Nights.  Harden (1966) and Sargent (1970) provide insightful literary analysis.  In considering Aucassin and Nicolette, Gilbert (1997) describes the dominant, “generally accepted” view of gender among literary scholars:

It has been pointed out repeatedly in recent decades that our society grounds its folk conceptions of gender in a notion of “sexual biology”. Foucault showed how the modern western concept of sex as “before and beyond” culture – untouchable, unchanging, universal – is only a mythologisation of our native notions of gender. In other words, the old distinction between biological Sex and cultural Gender is an unsustainable ideological construction: the whole notion of biological sex is itself a product of the modern West, designed to shore up our gender system. We cannot, therefore, expect other cultures to join us, either in recognising the same “biological facts” of sex as we do, or in giving those “facts” any particular cultural significance.

Gender scholarship within this dominant ideology has utterly failed to understand men being incarcerated for doing nothing more than having consensual sex and being poor, the overturning of the French Revolution’s promise of planned parenthood for men, the naturalization of men’s lifespan shortfall, the social construction of objective measurements of sexism, and many other significant aspects of our gender system.


Bourdillon, Francis William, ed. and trans. 1887. Aucassin et Nicolete: an old-French love story. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co. (revised English translation)

Gilbert, Jane. 1997. “The practice of gender in Aucassin et Nicolette.” Forum for Modern Language Studies. 33 (3): 217-228.

Harden, Robert. 1966. “Aucassin et Nicolette as Parody.” Studies in Philology. 63 (1): 1-9.

Kline, A.S., trans. 2001. Aucassin and Nicolette.  Poetry in Translation, online.

Lang, Andrew, trans. 1895. Aucassin & Nicolette. Portland, Me: T.B. Mosher.

Mason, Eugene, trans. 1910. Aucassin & Nicollete, and other mediaeval romances and legends. London: J.M. Dent & Sons. (more accessible pdf of translation)

Sargent, Barbara Nelson. 1970. “Parody in Aucassin et Nicolette: Some Further Considerations.” The French Review. 43 (4): 597-605.

men are biologically inferior to women in communication

Men’s biological inferiority to women in communication is well-documented and relatively uncontroversial.  A neuropsychiatrist who’s an expert on male and female brains explained:

Males’ and females’ brains are different by nature.  Think about this.  What if the communication center is bigger in one brain than in the other?  What if the emotional memory center is bigger in one than in the other?  What if one brain develops a greater ability to read cues in people than does the other?  In this case, you would have a person whose reality dictated that communication, connection, emotional sensitivity, and responsiveness were the primary values. This person would prize these qualities above all others and be baffled by a person with a brain that didn’t grasp the importance of these qualities.  In essence, you would have someone with a female brain. [1]

A leading psychologist also found significant gender differences in brains:

The female brain is predominately hard-wired for empathy.  The male brain is predominately hard-wired for understanding and building systems. [2]

This biological sex difference is not merely defined by nature, genes, or sex chromosomes, as a crude biological determinist would believe.  The environment plays a crucial role in gender development:

Until eight weeks old, every fetal brain looks female – female is nature’s default gender setting.  If you were to watch a female and a male brain developing via time-lapse photography, you would see their circuit diagrams being laid down according to the blueprint drafted by both genes and sex hormones.  A huge testosterone surge beginning in the eighth week will turn this unisex {female} brain male by killing off some cells in the communication centers and growing more cells in the sex and aggression centers.  If the testosterone surge doesn’t happen, the female brain continues to grow unperturbed.  The fetal girl’s brain cells spout more connections in the communication centers and areas that process emotion. [3]

The criminalization of males is based on biological processes that begin before males are born.

men biologically inferior to women

Although the female brain has developmental priority, genetic sex differences are significant.  Males have only a Y chromosome, rather than a double dose of the larger X chromosome that women have.  This difference has communicative implications.  A male geneticist on the faculty at a leading British university explained:

The chromosome unique to men {Y} is a microscopic metaphor of those who bear it, for – in spite of determined attempts to retain its identity – it is the most decayed, redundant, and parasitic of the lot. [4]

This scholar also revealed that the Y chromosome is associated with lack of useful information, baldness, and bad temperament:

Masculine decadence is such that on the Y, a mere one part in thousands contains useful information. … To half the human race it is the prince of chromosomes, for it commands the testes. That in turn directs those who bear it to their bald, bibulous, and bad-tempered destiny. [5]

Another prominent scientist has supported that finding:

I have a genetic abnormality generally considered to be associated with high rates of certain socially abhorrent behaviors: I am male. Thanks to an array of genes that produce some hormone-synthesizing enzymes, my testes churn out a corrosive chemical and dump the stuff into my bloodstream, and this probably has behavioral consequences. We males account for less than 50 percent of the population, yet we generate a huge proportion of the violence. [6]

However, the problem is not simply male genetics or male hormones:

“Testosterone equals aggression” is inadequate for those who would offer a simple biological solution to the violent male. And “testosterone equals aggression” is certainly inadequate for those who would offer the simple excuse that boys will be boys. Violence is more complex than a single hormone, and it is supremely rare that any of our behaviors can be reduced to genetic destiny. [7]

Life undoubtedly is complex.  By age 45, this scholar had become a high-ranking male in the academic dominance hierarchy.  His ethical guidance for men is remarkably simple and sex-typed:

What’s clear to me now at 45 is, screw the alpha male stuff. Go for an alternative strategy. Go for the social affiliation, build relationships with females, don’t waste your time trying to figure out how to be the most adept socially cagy male-male competitor. Amazingly enough that’s not what pays off in that system. Go for the affiliative stuff and bypass the male crap. I could not have said that when I was 25. [8]

Men’s recognition of their biological nature can help to motivate them to try to act like women.

But biological knowledge should not be sought without first considering the effects of that knowledge on women.  The leading neuropsychiatrist’s book on the female brain promised on its book jacket:

Women will come away from this book knowing that they have a lean, mean communicating machine.  Men will develop a serious case of brain envy. [9]

Nonetheless, a popular weekly U.S. news magazine reported cause for concern about this book’s effect on women.  It reported that a Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at a large mid-western university stated:

she’s disgusted by scientists, writers and publishers who exploit trivial differences between the genders.  Books like this “are bad for my blood pressure,” she says. [10]

The news magazine also quoted another psychiatrist who’s a neuroimaging expert at a large mid-western medical school.  According to the news magazine, she declared:

Nurture plays such a huge role in human behavior that focusing on biology is next to meaningless.  “Whatever measurable differences exist in the brain,” {she says}, “are used to oppress and suppress women.” [11]

A leading biological anthropologist recognized this sort of risk over two decades ago.  She noted:

Biology, it is sometimes thought, has worked against women.  Assumptions about the biological nature of men and women have frequently been used to justify submissive and inferior female roles and a double standard in sexual morality. [12]

Insinuations of inferiority and double standards hurt women, including hurting their self-esteem and discouraging them from seeking high-powered scholarly careers.  Nonetheless, this influential scholar argued that refusing to talk about biology is a mistake:

by refusing to talk about biology, we effectively hide the fact that there are important ways in which human females are in a worse position than are females in other species. [13]

Despite concern about the risks to women, talk about biology has flourished.  Moreover, women have been leaders in talking about biology.

An important book entitled The First Sex documents areas of women’s biological superiority to men.  This book, published in 1999, was authored by a well-regarded woman anthropology professor.  A review of the book in BusinessWeek gushed:

In the past two months, four books have appeared extolling the evolutionary and biological underpinnings that make women equal – nay, superior – to men. … the best of the bunch is The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They are Changing the World. [14]

Over 300 news articles have cited The First Sex since its publication in 1999.

The First Sex made shocking claims.  It declared:

discrimination is only one of the reasons why women are not achieving parity with men at the highest-ranking jobs of the traditional corporate world.  I suspect there is a biological component to this complex situation: as testosterone and other male hormones contribute to men’s drive to reach the top of the business ladder, estrogen most likely contributes to women’s drive to take time out to rear their children – undermining their ability to achieve high-status jobs.

But this author is not a biological determinist.  She also identifies different tradeoffs that males and females make in the social circumstances that shape career success:

Unquestionably, many, many women are ambitious. …

But as a rule, women are not as willing as men to stay late in the office, travel constantly, skip school events, entertain clients in the evening, or relocate, sacrificing their family lives and their personal interests for their careers.

These social circumstances reveal the relative value of women’s and men’s lives, at least from a women’s perspective:

So I am not convinced that women will ever reach parity with men in the highest echelons of the traditional corporate world.  Not because women lack the education or the intelligence.  Not because women fear failure.  Not because men will monopolize these trophy jobs.  But because fewer women are willing to work long hours, take job risks, transfer to other cities, and jeopardize their family and personal lives in other ways to gain the summit.  They feel they have something more important to do. [15]

The expression of such views may hurt women’s self-esteem, discourage them from elite scholarly careers, and contribute to women’s oppression and the perpetuation of patriarchy.  Even if not causing physical harm to women, such as high-blood pressure or nausea, expression of such views might be considered to be verbal violence.  A professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine has declared:

In my view, when faculty tell their students that they are innately inferior based on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, they are crossing a line that should not be crossed – the line that divides free speech from verbal violence – and it should not be tolerated at Harvard or anywhere else. [16]

The First Sex doesn’t state that women are innately inferior.  It declares that women’s under-representation at the top of corporations is because women “feel they have something more important to do.”  The author probably isn’t guilty of verbal violence against women and thus shouldn’t be arrested.

The First Sex describes numerous, communication-related biological advantages of women.  Important points include:

  • At talking, women have the edge.
  • Women are, on average, more articulate at saying what they say.
  • Specific genes may also enable some women {about 50%} to speak more effectively than men
  • Women’s voices are more variable, more musical, and more expressive than men’s – traits shared with other female primates.  Female apes and monkeys produce a larger array of whimpers, coos, barks and other middle-range “social” calls, while male primates have a more restricted repertoire of growls and roars, aggressive strident sounds. [17]

Both nature and environment are important in determining the differences between females and males.  The author explains that the structure of men’s brains favors (small) “step thinking,” while the structure of women’s brains favors “web thinking”:

women, on average, take a broader perspective than men do – on any issue.  Women think contextually, holistically.  They also display more mental flexibility, apply more intuitive and imaginative judgments, and have a greater tendency to plan long term – other aspects of the contextual perspective. [18]

The web, meaning the Internet-based global mesh of information and communication technologies, is becoming hugely important.  This environmental change naturally favors women, since they have an innate advantage in “web thinking.”

Scholars have also documented that women have additional innate communication advantages.   Under-appreciated communication industry analysis suggests that sense of presence, working across all sensory modalities, is an important source of value in communication.  Compared to men, women have biologically superior sense:

  • Women are, on average, more sensitive to touch.
  • Women, on average, also have superior hearing.
  • Women, on average, can taste sweet, sour, salty, and bitter flavors in lower concentrations {than can men}.
  • Women are generally superior at noticing and remembering physical contexts.
  • In the dark woman have superior eyesight.  Women adjust their vision faster to the dark and see more accurately in the dead of night.
  • Women also have keener peripheral vision. …Women literally see the “bigger picture.”
  • women usually distinguish colors, particularly the various shades of red and green, more accurately {than men}. … This feminine talent for perceiving shades of red and green is genetically determined.  The genes for red/green color vision and all combinations of these colors lie on the X chromosome.
  • Women can also remember shades, tones, and color values more accurately than men. [19]

It should come as no surprise to learn that women “live in a richer olfactory world” than men.  Despite some evidence to the contrary, scientific studies also indicate that women “recognize odors more accurately than men.”[20]

Women also have documented superiority in interpersonal sensitivity.  Having a sense for the response of an imaginary reader, listener, viewer, or dialogue partner is important for success in many forms of communication.  Women’s innate advantages encompass that sense:

  • Touch, hearing, smell, taste, night vision, peripheral vision, color vision: women’s sensory acuities give them a remarkable advantage in any occupation where understanding and getting along with people is required.  Yet women have even more arrows in their social quiver.  They have an outstanding ability to read facial expressions.
  • Women are also more skilled at reading all of the nonfacial bodily clues that we unthinkingly transmit.
  • Dozens of psychological tests show that women are, on average, more skilled at what psychologists call interpersonal sensitivity. [21]

Overall, the innate sensory advantages of women foster “an uncanny ability to read your mind, then tell you what you want to hear.”[22]

The innate advantages of women fundamentally affect public communication.  Women’s innate communicative superiority was predicted to make women dominant in communication and education industries:

  • As we move further into the Information Age, it seems likely that women will have an innate advantage in any career that depends on words – particularly in the communications industries and in all of our educational fields.
  • I contend that women will come to dominate many sectors of the communications and education fields. [23]

Echoing such claims, a popular weekly news magazine published an article headlined “La difference: How women won the sex war;  Larry Summers may well have been right, but men are done for anyway.”  The news article explained:

Technology and globalization are undermining the usefulness of male skills.  … Modern professional life is dominated by emotional intelligence, empathy and communication. … It’s a girlie man’s world [24]

The dominance of women in communication and education industries is already obvious.  That’s especially true in public discussion of sex differences and sexism.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Brizendine (2006) p. 13.  Louann Brizendine is a medical doctor and practicing clinician at the University of California, San Francisco. She founded and directs the Women’s and Teen Girls’ Mood and Hormone Clinic. Brizendine is a graduate of the Yale University School of Medicine and has been on the faculty at Harvard Medical School.

[2] Baron-Cohen (2003) p. 1.  Simon Baron-Cohen is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge.  Some of the responses to his work have been funny.  His cousin is Sacha Baron Cohen.

[3] Brizendine (2006) p. 14.  Brizendine and Baron-Cohen’s work is criticized in Fine (2010).  Fine describes her book thus:

The main message of the Delusions of Gender is that our comforting beliefs about gender – that everything’s fair now, that sex inequality can be blamed on ‘hardwired’ differences between the sexes, and that our failure to rear unisex children just points the same way – just don’t bear up to scrutiny.

Men imprisoned for doing nothing more than having consensual sex, or men facing acute sex discrimination in child custody awards, surely don’t believe that everything’s fair now.  As for rearing unisex children, parents can run their own tests.  But of course, like communism, rearing unisex children is never actually tried and get never gets a true test.

[4] Jones (2003) p. 4.  Steve Jones is a professor of genetics at University College, London.  In 1996, he won the Michael Faraday Prize for “wide ranging contributions to the public understanding of science.”

[5] Id. pp. 4-5.

[6] Sapolsky (1997).  Robert Sapolsky is the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University and a MacArthur Fellow.

[7] Id.

[8] Sapolsky (2003). Urging men to act like women is also a policy direction that has emerged from a scholarly study recognizing that men’s violence-related death rate is about four times that of women’s. However, a sophisticated interpretation of this alpha-male’s advice to young betas is that he’s seeking to forestall them from challenging him for his position at the top of the academic dominance hierarchy.

[9] Brizendine (2006).

[10] Tyre (2006), quoting Janet Hyde, Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

[11] Tyre (2006), quoting Dr. Nancy C. Andreasen of the University of Iowa Medical School.

[12] Hrdy (1981) p. 1.

[13] Id. p. 8.

[14] Arnst, Catherine, “Will the 21′st Century Be a Woman’s World?BusinessWeek, June 14, 1999.

[15] Fisher (1999) pp. 47-9 (previous three quotes).

[16] Barres (2006) p. 135.  Ben Barres is a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine.  On Jan. 14, 2005, Harvard University President Larry Summer gave remarks at an NBER conference on diversifying the science & engineering workforce.  The Boston Globe reported:

The president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, sparked an uproar at an academic conference Friday when he said that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Summers also questioned how much of a role discrimination plays in the dearth of female professors in science and engineering at elite universities.

Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, walked out on Summers’ talk, saying later that if she hadn’t left, “I would’ve either blacked out or thrown up.” Five other participants reached by the Globe, including Denice D. Denton, chancellor designate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, also said they were deeply offended, while four other attendees said they were not.

The above quote is the first two paragraphs in Marcella Bombardieri, “Summers’ remarks on women draw fire,” Boston Globe, Jan. 17, 2005.

[17] Fisher (1999) pp. 58, 62, 64 (bullet points are textually separate quotes).  In a comment in Genome Biology, Petsko (2005), p. 105.2, noted the importance of voice tone:

It’s a pity there isn’t a recording of his speech {Larry Summer’s remarks made to a National Bureau of Economics Research conference}, because tone of voice can make a big difference in matters like this.

Fisher’s findings on the strongly gendered importance of voice tone is consistent with that claim.

[18] Fisher (1999) p. 4. Id., p. 94, reports:

{Employers} will also hire women if they need employees who can use the Net effectively. This feminine edge was demonstrated recently by managers at the {now defunct} telecommunications company MCI. Using its own Web site, MCI asked tens of thousands of male and female computer users to answer five “general interest” questions about the Net. Women, they discovered, use the Web faster and more efficiently than men do.

[19] Id. pp. 85, 86, 89, 94, 90-1 (bullet points are textually separate quotes).

[20] Id. p. 88.

[21] Id. pp. 91, 93, 96 (bullet points are textually separate quotes). Brizendine (2006) Ch. 6 makes similar claims.

[22] Fisher (1999) p. 102.

[23] Id. pp. 65, 57 (bullet points are textually separate quotes). Id. p. 288 declares:

We are inching toward a truly collaborative society, a global culture in which the merits of both sexes are understood, valued, and employed.

Fisher’s The First Sex was not the first book with that title.  Elizabeth Gould Davis in 1971 wrote a book entitled The First Sex.  Like Fisher, Davis presented an optimistic vision of the future:

The ages of masculism are now drawing to a close. Their dying days are lit up by a final flare of universal violence and despair such as the world has seldom before seen. …

In the new science of the twenty-first century, not physical force but spiritual force will lead the way. Mental and spiritual gifts will be more in demand than gifts of a physical nature. Extrasensory perception will take precedence over sensory perception. And in this sphere women will again predominate.

Davis (1971) p. 339.

[24] “La difference: How women won the sex war; Larry Summers may well have been right, but men are done for anyway,” The Economist, Aug. 3, 2006.

[image] Sugar cane workers resting at the noon hour, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, in Dec. 1941.  From Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs.  Thanks to the Library of Congress.


Baron-Cohen, Simon. 2004. The essential difference: male and female brains and the truth about autism. New York, Basic Books.

Barres, Ben A. (2006). “Does gender matter?” Nature 442: 133-136.

Brizendine, Louann. 2006. The female brain. New York: Morgan Road Books.

Davis, Elizabeth Gould. 1971. The first sex. New York: Putnam.

Fine, Cordelia. 2010. Delusions of gender: how our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. New York: W. W. Norton.

Fisher, Helen. 1999. The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They are Changing the World. New York: Random House.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1981. The woman that never evolved. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Jones, Steve. 2003. Y: the descent of men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Sapolsky, Robert. 1997. “Testosterone Rules.” Discover 18(3).

Sapolsky, Robert. 2003. “A Bozo of a Baboon: A Talk with Robert Sapolsky.” The Third Culture. Edge Foundation.

Tyre, Peg and Julie Scelfo. 2006. “Why Girls Will Be Girls.” Newsweek, July 31.


Wednesday’s flowers

western or wild bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa)

Boccaccio’s Ovid wrote the Decameron for men

Boccaccio's Decameron written for men

In the Decameron’s preface, Boccaccio declares that he wrote this book for charming ladies suffering from lovesickness.  The Decameron’s critics, who typically have not closely considered its preface, have tended to take the Decameron’s declared audience literally.  That’s a fundamental mistake.  In writing the Decameron, Boccaccio adopted the literary position of Ovid and wrote Ovidian instruction in love for men.[1]

The Decameron’s preface begins with the author ironically describing himself as lovesick unto death.  A specific description isn’t necessarily, because the author has a classic case of courtly love:

I have been enflamed beyond measure by a most exalted, noble love, which, were I to describe it, might seem greater than what is suitable for one in my low condition.  Although I was praised and held in high regard for that love by those discerning individuals to whose attention I had come, it was nevertheless extremely painful to endure [2]

Unlike the ideal courtly lover, the author doesn’t pursue onerous works of love servitude or organize a wide-ranging contest of men-against-men violence.  The author simply gets over it: “my love abated in the course of time of its own accord.”  Getting over it, not death, is a low-realistic resolution of lovesickness.  It sets an Ovidian tone of irony.

The author then ironically claims to offer a remedy to women in love.  The women in love are women of courtly imagination: charming women who “keep the flames of love hidden within their delicate breasts.”  They are subjugated by men and confined with the home.  That’s an elite fable.  Plain-speaking ordinary folk know better.  Listen to the maid Licisca.  She interrupts the introduction to Day 6 of the Decameron and declares:

this guy is such an ass that he really believes young women are all so foolish that they’re willing to waste their time waiting around for their fathers and brothers to marry them off, which six times out of seven takes them three or four years longer than it should.  Brother, they’d be in a fine state if they postponed it that long!  I swear to Christ — and I should really know what I’m talking about when I swear like that — I don’t have a single neighbor who was a virgin when she got married, and as for the married ones, I sure know about all the different kinds of tricks they play on their husbands and how often they play them.  Yet this muttonhead wants to teach me about women as if I were born yesterday!

Underscoring its literary irony, the Decameron’s preface adapts a passage from Ovid’s Heroides to describe activities that distract men from melancholy and burdensome thoughts.[3]  The courtly ideal of love did not admit such distractions.  Such distractions did not help Ovid to overcome the despair of his exile.  Love and despair debilitate men more than they do women.  Boccaccio taunts men’s unwillingness to acknowledge their weakness by ironically directing the Decameron’s preface to women.

Other parts of the Decameron’s meta-frame also indicate that the Decameron was intended for men.  The Decameron ends with a direct address to ladies and its dual title:

As for you, charming ladies, may His grace and peace be with you always, and may you remember me if perhaps any of you have benefited in any way from having read these stories.

Here ends the Tenth and final Day of the book called Decameron, also know as Prince Galeotto.

In Dante’s Commedia, Francesca declared “a Galeotto was the book and he that wrote it” that caused her and her lover Paolo to fall into the circle of Hell for adulterers.[4]  The author’s plea to be remembered in the context of a blessing jars ironically with the alternate title of his book, Prince Galeotto.

Galeotto, the final word of the Decameron, points to its actual audience of men.  Galeotto is the Italian word for the character Gallehault in the early thirteenth-century French prose romance Lancelot.  In that work, the noble knight Gallehault was lovingly devoted to the noble knight Lancelot.  Boccaccio, writing a highly learned response to Dante, subverted Francesca blaming Gallehault and the author of the book for her fall.  The Decameron, Prince Gallehault, serves its readers, actually gendered as Lancelot.  Boccaccio’s Decameron, like his Corbaccio, presents to men the comic realism of women and their relationships with men.  The Decameron, like the Corbaccio, instructs men in the Ovidian art of love for flesh-and-blood women.

Other parts of the Decameron‘s meta-frame place men in the social position of its readers.  In the introduction to Day 4 and in the Author’s Conclusion, the author addresses five objections to the Decameron from men and women, respectively.  The women’s objections concern the style of the book: too licentious, some stories should have been omitted, some stories were too long, the book is too frivolous and insubstantial, and it shouldn’t have told the truth about the friars.  The women’s objections arise from within the text of the Decameron.  They are not anchored in social reality.  The men’s five objections, in contrast, come from the world outside the text: the author is too devoted to women and thereby neglects men, the author is too old to be orienting his life to women, the author could better enhance his reputation by writing in a high style on lofty matters, the author’s writing won’t earn money, and the stories the author wrote didn’t actually happen.  These objections are anchored in the real social position of men.  Historical evidence indicates that the readers of the Decameron were primarily men in Boccaccio’s social class.[5]

Boccaccio as Ovid, instructing men in love, is evident in the concluding play of the Decameron’s preface.  The preface refers to readers in the second person (“you”) and ladies in the third person (“by the ladies I mentioned”; “the ladies of whom I have been speaking”).  The preface concludes:

I believe that as they read them, their suffering would come to an end.  Should this occur — and may God grant that it should — let them thank Love who, in freeing me from from his bonds, has granted me the ability to attend to their pleasures.

In the context of the preface, attending to the ladies’ pleasures most literally means relieving their lovesickness.  The Decameron’s stories are filled with sexual intrigue.  That’s not sensible medicine for curing lovesickness.  Thanking Love for being cured of lovesickness adds to the irony.

Pressing from behind Boccaccio’s ladies are men.  They are Boccaccio’s you, and Boccaccio’s you becomes they.  Men read women with the useful instruction of the Decameron, and then women’s suffering in lovesickness comes to an end.[6]  Boccaccio more than Ovid makes clear his concern for more than superficial linguistic brilliance.  Boccaccio’s magnanimously uses his freedom from courtly love to attend to women and men’s pleasures of flesh-and-blood love.  Boccaccio seeks to be a blessing.  May God grant through Boccaccio that men and women will be thankful for that love.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Hollander (1997) p. 89 describes the Proemio (preface) as “probably the most neglected part of the Decameron.”  Id. p. 90 further declares that the Decameron is “one of the worst read masterpieces that the world possesses.”  Hollander insightfully relates the Proemio to both Dante and Ovid:

If Boccaccio is Ovid, he is also Dante.  … The sense of an author-protagonist who has recently escaped from a life-threatening situation pervades both proemial passages {of Dante’s Commedia and Boccaccio’s Decameron}.  … In their former difficulty each is aided by the counsel of a ‘friend’: in Dante, this was Virgil, sent by Beatrice; in Boccaccio, as I have proposed, the adviser is Ovid.

Id. p. 101.  Id., pp. 93-100, associates the second part of the Proemio with Ovid’s Remedia amoris.  Hollander seems to me to under-estimate both Boccaccio’s Ovidian irony and his Dantean moral seriousness.

[2] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Preface, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 290.  All subsequent quotes from the Decameron are from Rebhorn’s translation.

[3] Presented and discussed in Hollander (1997) p. 99.  The relevant passage in Ovid is Heroides 19.5-16.

[4] Dante, Inferno 5.137.

[5] Kirkham (1993) pp. 118-9.  In 1373, Boccaccio wrote to Maghinardo Cavalcanti with consternation that “honorable ladies of your household” were reading the Decameron.  Id., p. 121, observes:

Courtly and stilnovistic conventions, which make it de rigueur to privilege woman, easily account for the sex of Boccaccio’s readers.

The privileging of women goes far beyond stilnovistic conventions.  Boccaccio formally writing for women is a far more sophisticated literary move than a mere literary convention.

[6] In the cant of contemporary criticism, the above is a unified reading.  Migiel (2003) and Sherberg (2011) put forward readings of the Decameron unified by contempt for men and ignorance of the realities of men’s lives throughout history.  Both cap their works with misandristic, injury-obscuring invocations of men’s violence against women.  The best response to such oppressive, soul-deadening criticism is to skip the class.

[image] Jean, Duke of Berry, receiving the book from the translator, Laurent de Premierfait; Royal 18 D VII f. 2, from Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by Laurent de Premierfait, De casibus virorum illustrium (Des cas des ruynes des nobles hommes et fammes).  France, c. 1440.  Thanks to the British Library.


Hollander, Robert. 1997. Boccaccio’s Dante and the shaping force of satire. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Kirkham, Victoria. 1993. The sign of reason in Boccaccio’s fiction. Firenze: L.S. Olschki.

Migiel, Marilyn. 2003. A Rhetoric of the Decameron. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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

Sherberg, Michael. 2011. The governance of friendship: law and gender in the Decameron. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.


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