Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum: method in madness about marriage

In 393, in his lengthy treatise Adversus Jovinianum, Jerome confuted Jovinian’s position on marriage for women.  Jovinian had declared that “virgin maidens, widows, and married women” have statuses of equal merit as Christians.[1]  Jerome fundamentally disagreed.  He strongly urged women not to marry and to remain virgins.[2]  Elite academic schools today have largely adopted a variant of Jerome’s position, with lesbianism understood to have no implications for the bodily integrity of virginity.  Nonetheless, the brilliance of Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum remains under-appreciated.

Jerome’s emphasis on urging women not to marry is a significant, largely ignored aspect of Adversus Jovinianum.  The literature of men’s sexed protests, which has existed since men learned to write, commonly urges men not to marry.  The Roman poet Juvenal urged his friend Postumous, and by extension men in general, not to marry.  Juvenal was well-known by the fourth century.[3]  The Roman Emperor Augustus passed specific laws to punish men unwilling to marry.  The prominence of literature and policies concerning men marrying contrasts with Jerome’s focus.  By focusing on urging women not to marry, Jerome pushed into virgin territory in elite Roman discourse.

Scholars have struggled to understand Jerome’s method in Adversus Jovinianum.  In a preliminary section of that work, Jerome declared:

we do not follow the {heretical} views of Marcion and Manichæus, and disparage
marriage; nor, deceived by the error of Tatian, the leader of the Encratites, do we
think all {sexual} intercourse impure … We are not ignorant of the words, “Marriage is honourable among all, and the bed undefiled.” … while we honour marriage, we prefer virginity, which is the offspring of marriage. [4]

Nonetheless, Jerome analogized marriage to excrement.[5]  Moreover, in a parody of the Pauline injunction, “it is better to marry than to burn {with lust},”  Jerome disingenuously praised Dido, the first Queen of Carthage, for preferring to burn rather than to marry.[6]  Jerome observed of Greco-Roman culture:

It is a proof of the little esteem in which they held marriage that among the scorpions, centaurs, crabs, fishes, and capricorn {the signs of the Zodiac}, they did not even thrust in a husband and wife. [7]

Jerome put forward transparently ridiculous reasoning:

“It is good,” he {Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:1} says, “for a man not to touch a woman.” If it is good not to touch a woman, it is bad to touch one: for there is no opposite to goodness but badness. [8]

Jerome was one of the most learned men of his time.  Nonetheless, a late-twentieth-century scholar complained:

Jerome proves himself again and again in Adversus Jovinianum incapable of sustained and systematic logical argumentation. … {in addition} He quite simply presents as historical fact a number of examples which he (or anyone conversant with Roman history) must have known were untrue. [9]

Jerome might produce another obscene gesture in response to such misunderstanding of what he was doing in Adversus Jovinianum.

bonobos mating

With Adversus Jovinianum, Jerome brilliant satirized Jovinian’s work supporting women marrying.  Jerome accused Jovinian of bombast, vile language, and not making sense.  Jerome reproduced and exaggerated those faults in Adversus Jovinian.  Jovinian wrote voluminously.  Adversus Jovinianum piled up a voluminous array of texts and examples from the Old and New Testaments and Greek and Roman literature.  At the same time, Jerome expressed concern about being tedious and claimed to be running quickly through his arguments and examples.[10]  In the context of women pressing him to authorize their second marriages, Jerome included a book he attributed to Aristotle successor Theophrastus.  Theophrastus declared that a wise man doesn’t marry.  Theophrastus described hardships of marriage from a male perspective.  Jerome’s ridiculous argument seems to be that out of Christian charity for men’s suffering in marriage, women shouldn’t seek to marry.[11]  In a letter defending Adversus Jovinianum against its many contemporary critics, Jerome wrote of one such critic:

he must condescend to send me his account of the matter, and to correct my
indiscreet language, not by censure but by instruction. … if he refuses to write, and fancies that abuse is as effective as criticism, then, in spite of all the lands and seas and peoples which lie between us, he must hear at least the echo of my cry, “I do not condemn marriage,” “I do not condemn wedlock.” Indeed — and this I say to make my meaning quite clear to him — I should like every one to take a wife who, because they get frightened in the night, cannot manage to sleep alone. [12]

That men should marry if they are afraid of sleeping alone at night should not be interpreted in its clear literal meaning.  Jerome was a highly satirical writer.  To read Jerome well, readers must appreciate his sophisticated satire.

grasshoppers mating

Jerome was deeply dependent on women who patronized and supported him.  These women evidently appreciated Jerome’s thinking and writing in a way hardly conceivable today.  Readers today might best understand Jerome’s outrageous, pugnacious satire by imaginatively inhabiting his circle of women admirers — Paula, Marcella, Lea, Eustochium, Blesilla, Asella, and undoubtedly others.[13]

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[1] Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, I.3, Jerome quoting Jovinian.  Jovinian explicitly specified all else equal: “if they are in par in other respects.”   The Latin text is “virgines, viduas, et maritatas.”  All three words are specific to women.

[2] Augustine of Hippo, while agreeing that virginity was superior in Christian merit to marriage, declared that readiness for martydom had superior Christian value.  Disposition to Christian martydom was less observable in the late fourth century than it was in earlier centuries.  Moreover, the problem of observability implied humility:

Since it is possible that a virgin may not be ready for martydom and that a married person may be, Augustine argued, no virgin could ever legitimately consider herself to be superior to a married person. … Augustine urged all Christians to meditate on the fact that they do not know the limits of their own virtues, nor do they know the hidden and, perhaps, superior virtues that other people may posses.

Hunter (2007) p. 280, citing Augustine, De sancta virginitate (Of Holy Virginity) 47.

[3] Jerome in his Epistle 50 (“To Dominio”) quoted Juvenal Satire I.15.  That epistle was written in 394 in response to criticism of Adversus Jovinianum.  On Jerome’s knowledge of Juvenal, Adkin (1994) and Adkin (2000).

[4] Id., from Latin trans. Freemantle (1892).  The quote is Hebrews 13:4.

[5] Id. I.7.

[6] 1 Corinthians 7:9, Adversus Jovinianum I.43.  In Virgil’s Aeneid, Dido intensely sought to marry Aeneas.  She committed suicide by sword and was immolated when Aeneas left her and Carthage.  Fraioli (1988), p. 178, observes that this quip apparently originated in Tertullian’s De exhortatione castitatis 13.3 and De Monogamia 17.2.

[7] Adversus Jovinianum I.41, trans. Freemantle (1892).

[8] Id. I.7.

[9] Hanna & Lawler (1997) pp. 18, 27.  On Jerome’s misuse of Greek and Roman history, Fraioli (1988) pp. 176-9.

[10] Adversus Jovinianum I.13 (“our author is so voluminous that we cannot linger over every detain”); I.6 (“I have perhaps explained his position at too great length, and become tedious to my reader”); I.21 (“my purpose is at full speed to touch lightly on each topic and to sketch the outline”); I.36 (“I shall briefly reply”); I.39 (“The day would not be long enough were I to attempt to relate all”), etc.  Trans. Freemantle (1892).

[11] Id. I.47.  Fraioli (1988), pp. 181-3, insightfully identifies this satire.  Theophrastus’ book is known as Liber aureolus de nuptiis (The Golden Book of Marriage).  No evidence exists of the book apart from Jerome’s inclusion of it.  Jerome probably composed Liber aureolus de nuptiis and falsely claimed it to be translated from a Greek work of Theophrastus.  Hanna & Lawler (1997) pp. 8-9.

[12] Jerome, Epistle 50 (“To Domnio”) s. 5, trans. Freemantle (1892).  Adversus Jovinianum is filled with Jerome’s abuse of Jovinian.  Weisen (1964), p. 261, states:

Jerome was fully aware that malice and acid bitterness have no place in the Christian heart.  He would hardly have mentioned the odiousness of invidia so frequently had he not felt deeply uneasy about his own penchant for malevolence.

Another possibility is that Jerome regarded himself as a highly sophisticated rhetorician battling for Christian ascetic values while otherwise living those values.

[13] On Jerome’s circle of elite Roman women interested in ascetic living, Cain (2009) pp. 35-37, 68-78.

[images] Bonobos mating, thanks to Rob Bixby and Wikipedia; grasshoppers mating, thanks to Crisco 1492 and Wikipedia.


Adkin, Neil. 1994. “Juvenal and Jerome.” Classical Philology. 89 (1): 69-72.

Adkin, Neil. 2000. “Jerome, Seneca, Juvenal.” Revue Belge De Philologie Et D’histoire. 78 (1): 119-128.

Cain, Andrew. 2009. The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford University Press.

Fraioli, Deborah A. 1988.  “The importance of satire in Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum as an argument against the authenticity of the Historia calamitatum.”  Fälschungen im Mittelalter Hannover: Hahn, Bd. 5, pp. 167-200.

Hanna, Ralph and Traugott Lawler, eds. 1997. Jankyn’s book of wikked wyves. Vol. 1: The Primary Texts (with translations). Walter Map’s Dissuasio; Theophrastus’ De Nuptiis; selections from Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum. University of Georgia Press: Athens.

Hunter, David G. 2007. Marriage, celibacy, and heresy in ancient Christianity: the Jovinianist controversy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Wiesen, David S. 1964. St. Jerome as a satirist: a study in Christian Latin thought and letters. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.

Frate Alberto, Filostrato, and Mary: ways of love

In Day 4 of the Decameron, the story of Frate Alberto displays extraordinary viciousness.  Filostrato in the preface to that story complained, “every hour of my life I die a thousand deaths without ever having received even a tiny morsel of pleasure.”[1]  He ordered Pampinea to tell “some savage tale that partly resembles my own predicament.”  Pampinea prefaced her story with a savage attack on the clergy.  She concluded her attack by declaring “may it please God that what happened to a Franciscan should happen to them {the clergy} on account of all their lies.”  The Franciscan, Frate Alberto, suffered brutalization.  He was smeared with honey, covered with feathers, had a chain put around his neck, and was publicly displayed for verbal and physical abuse.  He then was incarcerated.  Frate Alberto spent the rest of his life in utter misery.  Pampinea proclaimed that it will give her “the greatest pleasure” to tell the story of Frate Alberto.[2]  She concluded her story of Frate Alberto with a curse, “May it please God that the same thing should befall all the others like him.”

angel Gabriel greets Mary

The story of Frate Alberto, like many stories in the Decameron, describes guile and deception in sexual activity.  Hearing the confession of the married woman Madonna Lisetta, Frate Alberto asked her, unprompted, whether she had a lover.  That’s improper.  Madonna Lisetta responded with a declaration of chastity supported by extreme vanity:

Hey, Messer Friar, don’t you have eyes in your head?  Do you think my charms are just like everybody else’s?  I could have lovers to spare if I wanted, but my kind of beauty is not something for just anybody who happens to be attracted to it.  How many women have you seen whose good looks are anything like mine?  Why, I’d be counted a beauty even in Paradise.

Frate Alberto’s response figured passionate love as inversely related to personal merit:

Frate Alberto saw immediately that this one {Madonna Lisetta} was something of an idiot, and since she seemed like good soil for him to plow, he fell passionately in love with her then and there.

Frate Alberto subsequently told Madonna Lisetta that the angel Gabriel appeared to him, declared her “celestial beauty,” and ordered him to convey a message to her:

he’s sent me to inform you that he wants to come one night and spend time in your company, and because he’s an angel and you would not be able to touch him in that form, he says that for your pleasure he would like to come in the form of a man.  Therefore, you should let him know when you want him to be here and in whose shape, and he’ll do it.

Angels typically act as God’s messengers.  In this story, Madonna Lisetta employed Frate Alberto to send a message to the angel Gabriel about how he could best serve her sexual preferences.  Emphasizing her estrangement from personal reality, she expressed no preferences about the male body angel Gabriel will incarnate for her.  Frate Alberto then reasoned about costs and benefits to her:

you can do me a great favor that will cost you nothing, namely, you should have him use this body of mine when he comes to you.  Let me explain how you’ll be doing me a favor: the moment he enters my body, he’s going to remove my soul and place it in Paradise, where it will remain for as long as he’s down here with you.

Madonna Lisetta readily agreed to that favor.  Frate Alberto, dressed in angelic gewgaws, thus repeatedly enjoyed carnal intercourse with Madonna Lisetta.

The story leads to an extremely unhappy end for Frate Alberto.  Although she had promised secrecy, Madonna Lisetta eventually bragged to a lady friend about her affair with the angel Gabriel.  The lady friend spread that amusing gossip around town.  Madonna Lisetta’s in-laws soon caught her and Frate Alberto in bed.  Frate Alberto escaped with a leap from a high window into a river.  However, subsequently duped into playing the part of a wild man in a carnival, Frate Alberto was exposed, brutalized, and incarcerated.  The story describes no punishment for Madonna Lisetta.  Frate Alberto’s crime was having sex by means of an absurd delusion, like the delusion that a woman will stay young and beautiful forever, without makeup.

The story of Frate Alberto is more than just a story of sexual deception and vicious punishment of the man.  The story of Frate Alberto reconfigures the Christian story of incarnation.  In the Christian story of incarnation, the angel Gabriel came to Mary, who was engaged to Joseph.  The angel Gabriel told Mary that she had found favor with God.  The angel Gabriel told her that God would come to her and impregnate her.  She would become pregnant with a son.[3]  Is Frate Alberto’s story more ridiculous than the Christian story of Mary of Nazareth?  Was Boccaccio formally ridiculing a fundamental Christian belief?

Boccaccio wasn’t the first to present a story like the Christian story of incarnation.  The historian Flavius Josephus told the story of Mundus and Paulina.  Carrying out a scheme for Mundus, the eldest priest of the Temple of Isis in Rome informed Paulina that the god Anubis had fallen in love with her and wanted to have sex with her.  She came to the temple and had sex with Mundus, disguised as the god Anubis.[4]  In the Alexander romance, the last Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo fled Egypt and came to Macedonian.  He told Alexander the Great’s mother Olympias that she must have sex with the god Ammon incarnated as a serpent.  Disguised as that incarnation of Ammon, Nectanebo repeatedly had sex with Olympias.[5]  Boccaccio apparently read Josephus in Latin translation.[6]  He also knew the Alexander romance.  Boccaccio wrote that Alexander would have been more admirable if he hadn’t claimed that his mother had sex with “Jupiter” disguised as a serpent.[7]

Attending to the narrative framework transforms understanding of the story of Frate Alberto.  Filostrato ruled Day 4.  His name has the Greek etymology “lover of war.”  Frustrated with his rejection in love, Filostrato ordered stories of love leading to unhappiness.  To his companions, gathered in a refuge from the plague to enjoy imaginative pleasure, Filostrato explained:

Loving ladies, ever since I could distinguish good from evil, it has been my misfortune, because of the beauty possessed by one of your number, to be perpetually enslaved to love.  I have been humble and obedient and followed his rules, to the extent that I understood them, but all to no avail, for first I would be abandoned for another lover, and then things would always go from bad to worse for me — and I think they will continue to do so from now on until the day I die.  Consequently, it is my pleasure that the subject for us to talk about tomorrow should be none other than the one that fits my situation best, namely, those whose love came to an unhappy end.  For I myself expect a most unhappy one in the long run, and that is the reason why the name you use to address me was conferred on me by someone who certainly knew what it meant.[8]

Filostrato is an Ulrich von Liechtenstein, a Suero de Quinones, and an Elliot Rodgers, all of whom needed professional helpTrue love doesn’t lead to slavery, violence, and an unhappy end.

Providing a shining counterpoint to Filostrato, Boccaccio inserted in the introduction to Day 4 a vigorous, first-person affirmation of true love.  The imagined author of the Decameron declared:

no one can justly say anything about me or any of the others who love you except that we are acting naturally.  In order to oppose the laws of Nature, one has to have exceptional powers,and they are often employed not only in vain, but to to the greatest harm of the person who makes use of them.  Such strength I confess I lack, nor do I have any desire to acquire it for such a purpose.  In fact, even if I did possess it, I would lend it to others rather than use it myself.  Therefore, let my detractors be silent, and if they cannot find any warmth in themselves, let them live in their cold rancor, and while they pursue their own delights, or rather, their corrupt appetites, may they allow me to pursue mine during the brief life that is granted to us.[9]

Frate Alberto and Madonna Lisetta incarnated narrow, selfish love: corrupt appetites.[10]  Their story is narrated via Pampinea’s and Filostrato’s cold rancor.  The Christian story of Mary describes love incarnate joyously making God greater.  That, for Boccaccio, was love according to the laws of Nature.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 4, story 2, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 319.  All subsequent quotes from the story of Frate Alberto are from id. pp. 319-329.

[2] Pampinea included nasty characterizations not necessary to carry the plot.  She referred to Madonna Lisetta as a “frivolous, empty-headed young lady.”  She also called Madonna Lisetta names: Lady Pumpkinhead, Madonna Simple, and Madonna Noodlepate.  She described Frate Alberto as “a pimp, a forger, and a murderer.”  That’s characterization far beyond the story of a guileful seducer.  She declared that Berto della Massa, who became Frate Alberto, moved to “Venice, that receptacle of every sort of filth.”

[3] Luke 1:26-38.

[4] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.4.  The context in Josephus (immediately following his account of Jesus) and a fourth-century description of the text suggests that Josephus was mocking the Christian story of incarnation.  Bell (1976).

[5] Alexander Romance, Bk I.1-7, from Greek trans. Stoneman (1991) pp. 35-41.  A story of a man pretending to be an eminent religious figure in order to be accepted as a woman’s lover exists in an early eighteenth-century collection of Persians tales translated into French.  See François Pétis de La Croix, Les Mille et un jours (1710-1712), Days 109-115 (Historie de Malek).  In that story, the man pretends to the be the prophet of Islam.  A nineteenth-century English translation of the story (“The story of Malek and the Princess Schirine”) changed the religious figure to the King of the Genii.

[6] Kirkham, Sherberg & Smarr (2013) pp. 334, 340.

[7] Id. p. 243, citing Boccaccio, Genealogia deorum gentilium (On the Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles) 13.7.

[8] Decameron, Day 3, Conclusion, trans. Rebhorn (2013) pp. 296-7.  Id, note, and id. p. lxxviii states that Boccaccio thought that Filostrato means “he who is cast down or overcome by love.”  In the broad context of the Decameron, Boccaccio seems to me to have only pretended to be certain of that wrong etymology.

[9] Decameron, Day 4, Introduction, trans. id. p. pp. 306-7.

[10] Marcus (1979) focuses on Frate Alberto’s transgression:

Frate Alberto’s transgression is more than sexual. … When we examine the particular mode of the friar’s misconduct, we learn that his crime is a literary one — that he has appropriated for his own selfish uses the unique poetic strategies of Scriptures.

Separating “unique poetic strategies of Scripture” from myth-making generally is inconsistent with Boccaccio’s general approach to myth.  Gittes (2008).  In addition to uncritically accepting the story’s sexual balance of fault, Marcus (1979) doesn’t recognize the broader narrative connections of the story of Frate Alberto within and beyond the Decameron.

[image] Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo, Annunciation (angel Gabriel’s message to Mary), Spain, 1655.  Held in Hermitage Museum.  Thanks to Enrique Cordero and Wikipedia.


Bell, Albert A. 1976. “Josephus the Satirist? A Clue to the Original Form of the ‘Testimonium Flavianum.’” The Jewish Quarterly Review. 67 (1): 16-22.

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

Kirkham, Victoria, Michael Sherberg, and Janet Levarie Smarr, eds. 2013. Boccaccio: a critical guide to the complete works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Marcus, Millicent. 1979. “The Accommodating Frate Alberto: a Gloss on Decameron IV, 2.” Italica. 56 (1): 3-21.

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

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


hair samples from first 14 US presidents thanks to John Varden

hair samples from first 14 US presidents, collected by John Varden

Hard-headed practical types tend to question the value of work such as an analysis of the twelfth-century Syriac Book of Medicines.  What’s the point?  Who cares?  Of what use is that knowledge?  Enlightened persons know that pursuit of knowledge is based on faith.  True scholars must have faith in the value of knowing.

Consider the work of John Varden.  Varden was a leading nineteenth-century American promoter of public knowledge.  In 1836, he opened the Washington Museum, a one-room museum in his own home in Washington, DC.  Varden invited the public to view his collection of thought-inspiring artifacts such as ostrich eggs, the jaw bone of a porpoise, a stone in the shape of a potato, winged insects from India, etc.  In 1841, to gain the support of a much larger institution, Varden sold his collection to the National Institute for the Promotion of Science.  The National Institution for the Promotion of Science displayed its collection to the public at no charge in the palatial National Gallery of the US Patent Office.  Varden became an employee of the National Gallery of the US Patent Office.  Varden’s job title has been variously described as curator and janitor.[1]  Titles don’t matter to true scholars.

While working to maintain the collection at the National Institute for the Promotion of Science, Varden in 1850, on his own initiative, established a hair collection.  He collected hair samples from “persons of distinction,” including US presidents.  Varden’s hair collection includes hair from the first 14 US presidents, as well as hair from Senators Henry Clay and Jefferson Davis, Generals Winfield Scott and Sam Houston, Professor Samuel F.B. Morse, a telegraph pioneer, and sculptor Clark Mills.[2]  Others collected hair less systematically.  An author recently noted:

On one occasion in 1842, for example, {former President Andrew Jackson} entertained some two hundred schoolgirls, who according to one reporter, “procured so many of his snow white locks as to give his head the appearance of having just passed from the hands of the barber.” [3]

Most such hair samples probably have been lost.  Moreover, hair samples from historically important, well-defined populations are rare.

Varden’s collection of hair samples can now be recognized to be potentially an enormous contribution to knowledge.  With advances in molecular analysis, hair can provide important biological information.  Varden’s hair collection may enable study of the health of the first 14 US presidents.  Moreover, DNA may exists in small skin fragments attached to the hair.  Varden’s collection may enable DNA typing of the first 14 US presidents.  In addition, technologies for DNA transfer are advancing rapidly.  In the difficult and uncertain future that the US faces, bringing back to life George Washington may become feasible for next-generation US leadership.

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[1] Bird (2013) p. 19.  Other information about Varden in the above paragraph is from id. pp. 19-27.

[2] The hair of the presidents was originally included with the hair of persons of distinction.  On the back of a separate display of hair samples of persons of distinction is a note:

Hair of Presidents of the United States with other Persons of Distinction / Prepared and arranged by John Varden, February, 1853 / N.B. Those having hair of Distinguished Persons / will confere a Favor by adding to this Collection.

Id p. 173, note for p. 130.  Varden was thus a pioneer in crowd-sourcing.

[2] Id. p. 130 (doesn’t provide a specific reference for the quotation).  A framed lock of Andrew Jackson’s hair from 1845 exists.  Its provenance is better documented than Varden’s sample. Id. pp. 128-9.  A lock of Sir Walter Scott’s hair in 1832 is also available with specific information about provenance.  Id. pp. 94-5.

[image] Hair of the Presidents, Washington D.C., 1855, from the collection of the U.S. National Museum of American History.


Bird, William L. 2013. Souvenir nation: relics, keepsakes, and curios from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. New York: Princeton Architectural Press in association with National Museum of American History (U.S.).


ingegno and romance: tale of a wool-whacking pirate

ingegno doesn't make love

In the last story of Decameron Day 2, Dioneo fakes a fight about sexual symmetry.  Sexual symmetry characterizes ancient Greek romances.[1]  Championing sexual symmetry, Dioneo disparages the day’s previous story and objects to men pedestalizing women.  He points out:

the stupidity of Bernabò and of all those other men who believe the same thing that he apparently did, namely, that when they go about the world, enjoying themselves with one woman here and another there, they imagine that the wives they left at home are just sitting on their hands.  Albeit things turned out well enough for Bernabò, we, who are born and grow up and live our lives surrounded by women, know what it is they really hanker for. [2]

Shrewdness, opportunism, and guile in pursuing earthly desires (ingegno) is prevalent throughout the DecameronIngegno figures importantly in both the story involving Bernabò and the story Dioneo tells.  Rather than presenting a dispute about sexual symmetry, together those stories burlesque sexual symmetry as a generic convention.

In the day’s previous story, Bernabò and other Italian merchants were on a business trip in Paris.  Some of the merchants rationalized having extra-marital sex by believing that while they were on business trips, their wives similarly played around.  Bernabò did not express interest in an opportunistic sexual affair.  Moreover, he declared his wife’s virtue and her manly merits:

{Bernabò said his wife} possessed not just all the virtues that any woman should have, but even many of those that knights and squires must have. … it was impossible to find a squire or servant, as we would put it, who could wait at a gentleman’s table better or more skillfully than she could, for she was a model of intelligence, discretion, and good manners.  After this, he praised her for being better than any merchant at riding a horse, and at reading and writing and doing accounts.

Bernabò’s wife Madonna Zinevra was in fact chaste.  Moreover, she proved true Bernabò’s praise of her manly virtue.  In cross-dressed disguise, she distinguished herself in high-level manly service to the Sultan of Egypt.

The story involving Bernabò differs from an ancient Greek romance only in a few, significant details.  The story is largely derived from the literary tradition of romance and involves a typical courtly recognition scene.[3]  Boccaccio, however, substituted merchant men for the noble men in romance.[4]  In Boccaccio’s version of the tale, Bernabò’s fellow merchant Ambruogiuolo questioned Bernabò’s belief in his wife’s virtue.  Bernabò got angry.  His anger prompted him to accept a commercial deal.  Ambruogiuolo proposed that he would attempt to seduce Bernabò’s wife.  If he succeeded, Bernabò would pay him 5000 gold florins.  If he failed, he would pay Bernabò 1000 gold florins.  They wrote up a formal contract to this effect and signed it.  Tests of fidelity are common in romance.  But in romance, those tests never entail a monetary exchange written up in a commercial contract.  Ingegno inserted into romance is a distinctive feature of the story involving Bernabò.

Dioneo’s story is generically a mirror image of the story involving Bernabò.  Dioneo’s story turns on a beautiful young woman being abducted at sea by a pirate.  That is a typical plot element of romance.  The rest of the story, however, is completely unlike romance except for a narrow aspect of sexual symmetry.

Dioneo’s story emphasizes the understanding of chivalry before the rise of European romances.  Before European romances turned chivalry into men’s self-debasement and self-harm in service to women, chivalry meant a man always being ready and capable of satisfying his wife sexually.  In Dioneo’s story, a beautiful, young woman named Bartolomea was married to wealthy old man, Messer Ricciardo.  Messer Ricciardo was a judge and a scholar.  He lacked virility and only barely managed to consummate his marriage.  He used honoring saints as an excuse to shirk his chivalric duty to his wife.

After the pirate Paganino abducted Bartolomea, he easily gained her warm affection with his sexual vigor.  Paganino, whose name suggests pagan, treated Bartolomea honorably, like a wife.  He lived with her in his home in Monaco.  Paganino evidently was a pirate who enjoyed ordinary domestic life.  One day Messer Ricciardo appeared in Monaco to attempt to ransom his wife.  Bartolomea espied him and informed Paganino of how she planned to deal with her husband.  Bartolomea, like Bernabò’s wife, could deal with difficult circumstances.

Bartolomea behavior was a model of ingegno.  When her husband Messer Ricciardo appeared, Bartolomea pretended not to recognize him.  Messer Ricciardo then asked Paganino for permission to speak with her in private.  Paganino granted that request on the condition that he “not try to kiss her against her will.”  Messer Ricciardo, judge and scholar, addressed his wife in the style of a man with his head in his chest:

“Oh, sweetheart, my soul mate, my angel, do you still not recognize your Ricciardo now, your Ricciardo who loves you more than life itself?  How is it possible?  Can I have changed so much?  Oh, light of my life, just take another little look at me.”

The lady started laughing and cut him off.

Bartolomea told him how much more active she and Paganino were:

we’re always at work together, giving the wool a good whacking day and night.  In fact, from the time matins was rung early in this morning, I can’t begin to tell you how much wool we’ve whacked since we did it the first time. … Paganino holds me in his arms all night long, hugging me and giving me little love bites, and God alone can tell you how he services me.

She ridiculed Ricciardo’s sexual inadequacy and his promises to do more:

You say you’ll make a really big effort.  But how?  By coming up empty after three feeble bouts and having to give it quite a whacking to make it stand up?  … Go away, and put all that energy of yours into just staying alive, for it seems as if you’re barely hanging on there, that’s how run-down and droopy you look to me.  … if you were squeezed till you were dry, they couldn’t get a spoonful of sauce out of you.  My life with you amounted to nothing but one giant loss, including both principal and interest, so next time I’ll go looking somewhere else for my profit.

That’s the mercantile mentality closely associated with ingegno.  Bartolomea then told her husband to get out and threatened to falsely accuse him of rape:

good-bye, and go away as quickly as you can, because if you don’t, I’m going to scream that you’re trying to rape me. [5]

False accusations of rape have long been a highly threatening tactic.  Messer Ricciardo left.  He shortly thereafter died from resulting sorrow and madness.  Paganino and Bartolomea then wed and continued to whack wool vigorously.  They had “a jolly life together, working away at it as long as their legs could support them.”

Paganino and Bartolomea’s relationship highlights sexual symmetry in sexual desire.  But their relationship isn’t romantic in the sense of the medieval literary genre of romance.  The story of Paganino and Bartolomea reconfigures the merchant-romance of Bernabò.  It also does more than that.  Like the Arabic tale of Aziz and Aziza, it burlesques ancient Greek romance.

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[1] Konstan (1994).  In recent decades, scholars have disparaged sexual symmetry, particularly with respect to domestic violence.

[2] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 2, Story 10, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 188.  All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from id. pp. 188-195.

[3] At the Sultan’s court, Madonna Zinevra, who had been pretending to be the man Sicurano, bared her breast to show that she is a woman.  Ambruogiuolo had hidden in a chest placed in her bedroom.  He collected a few things as evidence that he was there.  He also uncovered her naked in bed and observed “a mole under her left breast.”  The mole was “surrounded by a few strands of fine, golden blonde hair.”  Using these artifacts and observations, Ambruogiuolo falsely claimed to have seduced Madonna Zinevra.  Shakespeare used a similar device in his romance Cymbeline.

[4] Id. notes, p. 881, n. 1.  Id. notes Boccaccio’s “celebration throughout the Decameron of the ingegno of his heroes and heroines.”

[5] Writing in the medieval genre of moralists supporting dominant social values within a uniform, universal narrative, Grudin & Grudin (2012), p. 40, declares:

The story of Ricciardo’s rebellious wife is the crowning example of the ingegno that has occupied Boccaccio’s attention since Day I.  Here for the first time, in the abducted wife’s brilliantly reasoned attack on cultural taboos, ingegno is allied with ragione (reason), a normative concept that figures importantly in the Decameron.

Rationalization also figures importantly in the Decameron.  Id., p. 38, declares that Bartolomea “diametrically reverse the conventional understanding of right and wrong.”  In Decameron 2.9, the merchants set out a long-established conventional understanding of right and wrong:

It’s a matter of tit for tat: when an ass bumps into a wall, the wall bumps him right back.

Trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 175.  As Dioneo’s burlesque of ancient Greek romances suggests, Boccaccio didn’t present Greco-Roman morality in the manner of a medieval moralist working for Cicero and the Emperor.

[image] Master of Guillebert de Mets (Flemish, active 1415-1460), c. 1425-30, Ghent, Belgium.  Walters Art Museum, W.166.118R.  The Walters Art Museum deserves high praise for its leadership in making art available to everyone on the web.


Grudin, Michaela Paasche, and Robert Grudin. 2012. Boccaccio’s Decameron and the Ciceronian Renaissance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Konstan, David. 1994. Sexual symmetry: love in the ancient novel and related genres. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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


Alatiel’s sexual experience, dead men: a limit of story-telling

Decameron II.7 has tended to be read as the story of Alatiel.  At a more sophisticated level, Decameron II.7 critiques gynocentrism and indicates a limit of socially constructed lies.  Despite Alatiel’s thousands of sexual encounters with eight men in the course of four years of travels, a socially accepted story transforms Alatiel into a virgin.  No socially accepted story, nor any scholarly work of post-modern social construction, can raise back to life the men who were killed about Alatiel during those four years.  Discursive power can only obscure men’s deaths.[1]

dead men

The action of Decameron II.7 begins with “a huge army of Arabs” attacking the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt.  The Islamic King of Algarve supported the Sultan.[2]  In men-on-men violence (traditional war) that undoubtedly involved killing many men, the Sultan of Egypt and the King of Algarve won a decisive victory over the Arabs.

The Sultan had a daughter named Alatiel.  She was renowned as the most beautiful woman in the world.  The King of Algarve asked for the hand of Alatiel in marriage.  In recognition of the King’s service in fighting and killing other men, the Sultan agreed that the King could marry Alatiel.  Sending Alatiel to the King controlled the lives of many men sailors, women servants to Alatiel, and much wealth:

after having seen her {Alatiel} aboard a well-armed, well-equipped ship and having provided her with an honorable escort of men and women as well as with many elegant and expensive trappings, he {the Sultan} commended her to God’s protection and sent her on her way.

The men working the ship taking Alatiel to marry the King had far less social privilege than Alatiel had.

In an incident that narratively functions mainly to kill off men, the men on the boat rebelled against their social subordination.  A storm encompassed the ship.  After three days of being storm-battered, the ship began to break apart.  None of the commanding officers issued a discriminatory “women and children first” order.  The men sought to save their own lives:

It now became a case of everyone thinking only of herself and not others.  The officers, seeing no other means of escape, lowered a dinghy into the water and jumped into it, choosing to put their faith in it rather than in the foundering ship.  Right behind them, however, came all the other men on board, leaping down into the boat one after the other, despite the fact that those who had gotten there first were trying, knife in hand, to fend them off.  Although they all thought this was the way to escape death, they actually ran right into it, for the dinghy, not built to hold so many people in such weather, went down, taking everyone with it. [3]

The men’s affirmation of their own lives’ worth led to disaster because of conflict between men.  Only Alatiel and three of her ladies-in-waiting survived the shipwreck.

Decameron II.7 continues with horrific tales of violence against men.  A nobleman named Pericone da Vislago found Alatiel and her three servant ladies amid the wreckage of the ship on the shore.  Pericone fell in love with Alatiel despite their lack of a common verbal language.  He treated her as a woman of high privilege and repeatedly had sex with her:

she would no longer wait for an invitation to enjoy such sweet nights, but often issued the invitation herself, not by means of words, since she did not know how to make herself understood, but by means of actions.

Unfortunately, Pericone’s brother Marato also fell in love with Alatiel.  Marato killed his sleeping brother Pericone and took Alatiel.  Soon she was regularly having sex with Marato and forgot all about Pericone.

Men being killed and Alatiel having sex with the killer of her former lover is the central pattern of Decameron II.7.   Here’s a catalog of the men killed in Decameron II.7, along with the circumstances of their deaths:

  • sailors taking Alatiel to King of Algarve (see above).
  • Pericone da Vislage, killed by his brother Marato for sexual access to Alatiel (see above).
  • Marato.  In order to gain sexual access to Alatiel, two young shipmaster killed Marato by throwing him into the sea.
  • young shipmaster.  The two young shipmasters who killed Marato attacked each other about sex access to Alatiel.  One died, and the other suffered many serious injuries.
  • Prince of Morea.  In order to have gain sexual access to Alatiel, the Duke of Athens knifed the Prince of Morea in the back and pushed his body out a high window.
  • servant man working for the Prince of Morea.  The servant man betrayed the Prince to help the Duke of Athens take Alatiel.  The Duke strangled the servant and throw him out a high window.
  • many men in Chios.  Osbech, the King of the Turks, learned that Constantine was leading a dissolute life with Alatiel and hadn’t prepared defenses for Chios.  Osbech attacked Chios and killed men running to get their weapons.
  • Constantine.  Apparently killed in Chios when Osbech attacked the town.
  • many men, including Osbech, in battle between Osbech and the King of Cappadocia.  The Byzantine Emperor sought to avenge the death of his son Constantine.  Resulting alliances led to battle.

Men being killed isn’t a notable feature of a story because men’s deaths are unremarkable.  Violence against men is pervasive in Old French fabliaux.  Violence against men is also pervasive around the world today.  Violence against men is publicly noticed much less than violence against women.

Decameron II.7 ends with an affirmation of social myth-making.  After the series of episodes in which a man is killed and Alatiel warms to enthusiastic sex with her former lover’s killer, Alatiel returns to her father the Sultan.  Alatiel told her father and his court a story affirming her virtue and chastity.  Everyone, including the King of Algarve, believed Alatiel’s story.  Decameron II.7 ends with Alatiel and her husband living happily ever after in make-believe:

although she {Alatiel} had slept with eight men perhaps ten thousand times, she not only came to the King’s bed as if she were a virgin, but made him believe she really was one, and for a good many years after that, lived a perfectly happy life with him as his Queen.  And that is the reason why we say:

A mouth that’s been kissed never loses its charm,
But just like the moon it’s forever renewed.

Rather than being a traditional folk saying, that concluding, carefully crafted poetic couplet Boccaccio himself probably constructed.[4]  Like Alatiel’s story of her virginity, it serves popular will to believe.

Decameron II.7 is a satire of social myth understood romantically.  Even if everyone would believe any story she told, Alatiel could not tell a story that would return to life all the men who died around her.[5]  As Boccaccio surely recognized, only the Gospels offered such a story.  In Christian understanding, the Gospels told a very special story.

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[1] All the subsequent quotes unless otherwise noted are from Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 2, Story 7 (Decameron II.7), from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013)  pp. 134-56.  For gynocentric readings of Decameron II.7, see, e.g. Marcus (1979) and Taylor (2001).

[2] The Islamic King of Algarve ruled the Mediterranean coast of North Africa and part of the Iberian peninsula (including part of present-day Portugal).  Rebhorn (2013) notes, p. 878, n. 4.

[3] Id., p. 136, translates the first sentence above with the sexist expression, “It now becoming a case of every man for himself ….”  The relevant original Italian, “avendo a mente ciascun se medesimo e non altrui ” (see Decameron II.7, s. 12 in the original Italian), is not sex marked.  I have substituted a modern non-sexist translation of that phrase above.

[4] The concluding couplet in Italian consists of end-rhymed hendecasyllabic lines.   That’s the rhyme scheme of Petrarchan sonnets and Dante’s Commedia.  Boccaccio’s story provides the first recorded instance of the couplet.  Rebhorn (2013) notes, p. 880, n. 20.  The couplet is highly unlikely to have been an established folk saying in Boccaccio’s time.   The couplet is surely part of the constructed satire of Decameron II.7.

[5] Marcus (1979), p. 11, declares:

By “undoing” all that has transpired since the initial shipwreck off Majorca, Alatiel returns the story to its starting point when a maiden set sail for the the kingdom of Algarve.  Thus, by means of her fiction, the lady is able to bring her saga full circle, giving the most perfect of all forms to her formless wanderings.  … The proverb {the concluding couplet} refers not only to Alatiel’s virginity, which is renewed with almost lunar regularity, but to this tale itself which is brought full circle by a convincing lie.

That’s forceful documentation of the invisibility of men’s deaths.  In an interesting article discussing how Decameron II.7 realistically reflects the economic and political complexity in the Mediterranean world in Boccaccio’s time, Kinoshita & Jacobs (2007) seeks to revivify “voices that have been lost, obliterated, or heavily overlaid.”  Exactly such an effort is needed for dead men generally.

[image] “Confederate soldiers as they fell near the Burnside bridge,” historic photograph of Alexander Gardner, taken just after the Battle of Antietam in the U.S. Civil War.  Thanks to the National Park Service.


Kinoshita, Sharon, and Jason Jacobs. 2007. “Ports of Call: Boccaccio’s Alatiel in the Medieval Mediterranean.” The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. 37 (1): 163-195.

Marcus, Millicent. 1979. “Seduction by Silence: A Gloss on the Tales of Masetto (Decameron III.1) and Alatiel (Decameron II.7).” Philological Quarterly 58: 1-15. (reviewer’s summary)

Taylor, Mark. 2001. “The Fortunes of Alatiel: A Reading of Decameron 2,7.” Forum Italicum: A Journal of Italian Studies. 35 (2): 318-331.

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


evolutionary psychology of women and misandry

Much evidence indicates that women are biologically superior to men in social communication.  Consider, for example, a leading female professor of evolutionary psychology at Britain’s Durham University.  In 2002, her book, A mind of her own: the evolutionary psychology of women, was published by the prestigious Oxford University Press.  Oxford produced a second edition of her book, with only minor changes, in 2012.  Here’s her scholarly analysis of the fundamental value of men:

we should bear in mind that they {men} are essentially freeloading on women’s effort.  Consider this: if we knew our planet was about to be struck by a meteor and only 100 people could be saved in an underground bunker, what proportion of men and women would you put down there?  My suggestion would be about 10 men and 90 women.  Ten should be able to do an adequate job of impregnating all the women and the fewer the men, the fewer the calories they would consume and the lower the competition between them would be.  … The fact is that the majority of men are, biologically speaking, dispensable but when the number of women drops too far, our future looks bleak. [1]

Who built those bunkers?  Who would be digging dirt and pouring concrete to maintain them? Who would be collecting the trash?  Who would be maintaining the information technology controlling life-support systems for the bunkers?  With any appreciation for the history of humanity, one can confidently state that the majority of men are dispensable only if humanity is willing to dispense with civilization.  This book fundamentally misunderstands the implications of anisogamy.  Its analysis of sexual selection is laughably inferior to that of uncredentialed field reports.  That a prestigious university press would publish this book, and republish it, is telling documentation of women’s superiority in social communication.  Superiority in social communication can transform misandristic nonsense into credentialed scientific scholarship.

snarling bitch: evolutionary psychology of misandry

The social problem is far worse that just one book worth ignoring.   At the fundamental level of evolutionary psychology, women predominately compete among women in social relations and social communication to gain sexual access to high-status men.  Men predominately compete among men to earn or fake high status (money, power, and org titles) to gain sexual access to beautiful, young women.[2]  In this sex structure of competition, high-status, ugly, old women get sexually frustrated and bitter.  They naturally turn to  the social demonization of men’s sexuality and spreading misandry.[3]

Spreading misandry is intellectually easy because public discourse provides little constraint on misandry.  Many ordinary men apparently think misandry doesn’t matter.  Many ordinary women apparently think misandry serves their interests.  Spreading misandry has developed into a key strategy for both women and men leaders.

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[1] Campbell (2002) p. 62.  In the 2012 edition, this passage occurs with insubstantial changes on p. 75.

[2] Resources and reproductive opportunities are typically much more differentiated intersexually than intrasexually.  With respect to survival resources, men and woman often pursue different patterns of resource acquisition (hunting versus gathering).  With respect to reproductive opportunities, competition for an opposite sex reproductive partner is typically much more intense than competition for same-sex reproductive helpers.  The charm of specific individuals can of course transcend these general forces of evolutionary psychology.  Old women can be sexually alluring to men.

[3] This problem has become particularly acute at universities.  That’s not surprising.  The incongruity between status achievement and mating interests is starkly apparent at universities.

[image] Snarling chihuahua. Thanks to David Shankbone and Wikipedia.


Campbell, Anne. 2002. A mind of her own: the evolutionary psychology of women. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Genius urges plowing to perpetuate the human species

Persecution of men’s sexuality is becoming more harsh.  The historically entrenched practice of men-on-men war threatens to engulf the world.  The cost-benefits of pornography relative to dating are stroking a dangerously solitary path.  The perpetuation of the human species is at risk.

wooden plough for medieval plowing

Opinion leaders should take a hand away from their current vigorous activities and use their head more effectively.  In medieval Europe, men had faith in reason.  Genius made a powerful, emotional appeal to men:

Plow, for God’s sake, my barons, plow, and restore your lineages.  Unless you think on plowing vigorously, there is nothing that can restore them.  … With your two hands quite bare raise the guideboards of your plows; support them stoutly with your arms and exert yourself to push in stiffly with the plowshare in the straight path, the better to sink into the furrow.

Man-degrading chivalry dominated western Europe in the thirteenth-century, just as it does in many places around the world today.  Genius recognized the original, true understanding of chivalry:

Remember your good fathers and your old mothers.  Conform your deeds to theirs, and take care that you do not degenerate.  What did they do?  Pay good heed to it.  If you consider your prowess, you see that they defended themselves so well that they have given you this existence.  If it weren’t for their chivalry, you would not be alive now.  They had great compassion for you.

Have compassion for humanity.  Throughout all of history, plowing has saved humanity from oblivion.  It’s our best hope for surviving into the future.

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The above two quotes are from the 13th-century French masterpiece, The Romance of the Rose, about ll. 19701-15 and 1780-90, trans. Dahlberg (1995).

The image is a medieval Japanese plow.  I’ve derived the image from one available on the Japanese Wikipedia.


Dahlberg, Charles, trans. 1995.  Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. The Romance of the Rose. 3rd ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

dream of Gender in the Romance of the Rose

One day I was in my bedroom sitting at my desk reading documents from the debate about The Romance of the Rose.  I might have fallen asleep, or maybe my mind was just wandering, and I thought of that time that Guy found his wife in their bedroom underneath Simon, pumping away.  Gender, who assiduously monitors my thoughts, suddenly appears.  She says authoritatively:

if he finds her even in the act, he should take care not to open his eyes in that direction.  He should pretend to be blind, or more stupid than a buffalo, so that she may think it entirely true that he could detect nothing.

Gender, I honor the astonishing and magnificent height of your social construction.  My power of communication is far inferior to yours.  But please, I humbly beg, do me the favor of explaining, out of compassion for my male ignorance, why you insist on teaching men and women to be blind to sex and more stupid than brood parasites like brown-headed cowbirds?  Silence, she commands.

Jean de Meun writing the Romance of the Rose

I say, with due respect to you, that you are committing a great wrong against freedom of thought and speech.  Men in the Dark Ages wrote all kinds of outrageously funny texts by candlelight.  I have a bright light humming with the power of electricity right above my desk.  Why can’t I write like men did in the Dark Ages?  Silence, Gender commands.  Anything you write rapes women.

That’s a most unfair, unreasonable, and prejudicial claim that does dishonor to your august academic high chair.  To prevent what you falsely call the violence of my words, will you have me shackled and starved like that poor farmer who found fish in his field?  At least in pre-Islamic Arabia, women’s calls to men to kill other men were poetic.  Your words are uncivil and ugly.  You describe as the criminal act of rape the natural and virtuous work of styluses writing on tablets.

You vile antifeminist!  You vicious misogynist! snarls Gender.  No women will ever sleep with you.  Your mother hates you.  I look around for a crowd coming to attack me, but only Gender is with me in my bedroom.  I remember reading:

If the woman beats the man or vilifies him, he should take care that his heart does not change.  If he sees himself beaten or reviled, even if she should pull out his nails alive, he must not take revenge, but rather thank her and say that he would like to live in such martyrdom all the time, as long as he knew that this service was pleasing to her, indeed that he would rather even quite freely die at that moment than live without her.

Gender, most cherished lord and master, wise in behavior, a lover of knowledge, immersed in academic learning and expert in rhetoric, I’m just a man of untrained intellect and uncomplicated sensibility.  I wish to state, proclaim, and maintain publicly that you have wrongly and without justification criminalized men.

Gender orders me to check my male privilege.  Men die on average five years younger than women.  Men die from violence-related injuries four times as frequently as do women.  Men die on sinking ships because men’s lives are categorically valued less than women’s lives.  Men have no reproductive rights and are imprisoned for doing nothing more than having consensual sex and being poor.  Upon divorce, men are deprived of custody of their children five times as frequently as women are and men are forced to make financial payments to the child’s mother eight times as often as the mother pays them.   I had gone only a short way down my checklist when Gender ungraciously interrupts me:

all men betray and deceive women; all are sensualists, taking their pleasure everywhere. …  All men are very expert liars.

She accuses all men without exception.  If she, venturing so far beyond the bounds of reason, took it upon herself to accuse men or judge them erroneously, blame should be imputed not to them but rather to the person who tells lies at such a distance from the truth and so lacking in credibility, inasmuch as the opposite is patently evident.  I declare that there already have been, are, and will be many men more worthy, more honorable, better trained, and even more learned and from whom greater good has resulted in the world than Gender ever accomplished.  One finds ample proof of this in the work of al-Harizi, Judah ibn Shabbetai, Jaume Roig, Giovanni Boccaccio, the Archpriest of Talavera, the Archpriest of Hita, and Budasf himself, not even to mention the illustrious teacher of love Ovid and the insightful and influential Matheolus.  Gender, do you even deny the existence of the One Good Man?

Gender is glaring at me with that womanly look that makes strong men wither in shame.  I remember:

if, without entreaty, she were to command him, “Jump, lover,” or “Give me that thing,” he would immediately give it and jump when she ordered him to.  In fact, whatever she might say, he would jump so that she might see him, for he had placed his whole desire in doing all her pleasure.

Must I jump to please Gender?  No I won’t.  Gender, you have no right to be offended that my voice is other than yours.  I will not let you dress me in women’s clothes, whether I am sleeping or awake.  I have certain knowledge of my own being.

You, Gender, look only from your woman’s perspective.  I have read enough recent scholarly studies to understand that Gender has become essential and cannot be changed.  Men are doomed to being socially dominated.  But until you burn my books, I will laugh uproariously with the jolly clerk Jankyn.

A man may now speak so boldly to a woman only in a dream.  Shaking uncontrollably and wet with tears, I awoke.

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The quotes above are from the mid-thirteenth-century popular masterpiece,  The Romance of the Rose, by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun.  Here’s the Old French source text.  The four quotes are from about ll.  9700,  9743, (13283, 13790), 9456, from French trans. Dahlberg (1995) pp. 173, 174, (229, 237), 170.  Some of the highly rhetorical and flaccid sentences above I adapted from texts of Christine de Pizan.  See Hult (2010).  The allusion to being dressed in women’s clothes is from Christine de Pizan, Book of the City of Ladies, I.2:

You resemble the fool who, as the joke tells, was dressed in women’s clothes while sleeping in the mill, and when he woke up, because men who were making fun of him assured him that he was a woman, he believed their deceptive words rather than the certain knowledge of his own being.

Trans. Hult (2010) p. 238.  For an insightful analysis of the debate on The Romance of the Rose in relation to censorship, see Hult (1997).  Here’s a recent, interesting unorthodox perspective on Christine de Pizan’s work.  It provides a refreshing contrast to the dominant presentist pieties on display in the series editors’ introduction to Hult (2010).

The image is Jean de Meun at his desk, from illuminated manuscript of The Romance of the Rose, N. France, c. 1340.  Royal 20 A XVII f. 35v.  Thanks to the British Library.


Dahlberg, Charles, trans. 1995.  Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. The Romance of the Rose. 3rd ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Hult, David F. 1997. “Words and Deeds: Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose and the Hermeneutics of Censorship.” New Literary History. 28 (2): 345-366.

Hult, David F., ed. and trans. 2010. Debate of the Romance of the Rose. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Barbara the chimpanzee learns to mother from youngster

chimpanzee mother with child

Particular social circumstances and communication can help bad mothers become good mothers.  Consider the case of a chimpanzee named Barbara.  Barbara came from a good, caring family:

She was born at the Yerkes Research Center of Emory University and raised by her mother, Sonia, who was born in Africa. Sonia, a gentle and extremely competent adult female, had been a good mother to Barbara.[1]

Nonetheless, Barbara herself was initially a complete failure as a mother:

when Barbara gave birth to her first infant, everyone expected that she would exhibit competent maternal skills, because Barbara was mother-reared, housed with other adult chimpanzees (an indication that she has good social skills), and she exhibited sufficiently sophisticated sexual behavior to become pregnant through natural means.  When Winston was born, however, Barbara attentively leaned over him but did not pick him up.  Barbara gave every indication of the best intentions toward her baby: She was disturbed by his crying and made herself available to him; she hovered close to him, and leaned more solicitously whenever he cried.  Barbara, however, had no maternal behaviors; she did not pick him up and did not cradle him.  After a few hours, Winston was placed in the nursery because he would not have survived if his mother did not pick him up.  Because Barbara was so solicitous but lacking in behavior, it was concluded that she did not know what to do with a baby.[2]

Communication with an older infant, however, stimulated Barbara to develop fully competent species-typical maternal behavior:

Conan, a 1-year-old chimpanzee infant, was temporarily moved to the great ape nursery at this time so that his mother would resume her menstrual cycle.  The veterinary staff at the Yerkes Center decided to introduce Conan to Barbara.  Barbara was as solicitous as she had been toward Winston, her biological offspring, but Conan, a more capable 1-year-old, initially avoided Barbara.  Finally after 2 to 3 days, Conan rushed into Barbara’s arms and accepted her as a mother substitute.  In the next 3 to 5 months, Barbara was observed cradling Conan, allowing him to nurse, and gathering him up before she moved. Because the experience was good for Barbara and Conan was receiving good care, Conan was allowed to remain with Barbara, his adopted mother, rather than disrupt him again with a return to his biological mother.  Three years later, Barbara gave birth to her second baby, Kevin, and exhibited the full range of appropriate species-typical maternal behaviors.[3]

Conan apparently recognized that Barbara was a female and behaved in a way dependent upon this recognition.  Barbara undoubtedly had hormonal mechanisms of mother-infant communication typical for female mammals.  At the same time, multi-sensory boot-strapped communication with Conan controlled Barbara’s maternal behavior in developmental time.

The unconditionally, naturally nurturing primate mother is a myth.  Maternal abuse of infants occurs among primates in the wild.[4]  It also occurs among primates in controlled environments.  Among the thirty female chimpanzees who gave birth at a primate research center from 1987 to 1992, eighteen did not provide sufficiently good maternal care to assure their infants well-being past three months of age.  Some of the chimpanzee mothers appeared to be frightened of their infants and never held them.[5]  Maternal competence in chimpanzees seems to depend on female chimpanzees having, as juveniles or adolescents, direct, hands-on experience with infants.[6]  Perhaps playing with dolls has some of the same effects.

Don’t forbid your daughters from playing with dolls.  That’s totalitarian and stupid.

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[1] Bard (1995) p. 28.

[2] Id. pp. 28-9.

[3] Id. p. 29.

[4] Maestripieri (2000), p. 895, credits Hrdy (1999) with “the creation of a new myth, that of the unconditionally nurturing primate mother.”  Id. has also contributed to the social construction of belief in male dominance.  For a discussion of a case of a chimpanzee mother who in the wild abandoned her 5-year-old son, see Hiraiwa-Hasegawa & Hasegawa (1988).

[5] Bard (1995) p. 47.

[6] Id. pp. 48-50.  For recent related findings, Bard et al. (2014).

[image] Chimpanzee mother with baby.  Thanks to Derek Keats for sharing his photo.


Bard, Kim A. 1995. “Parenting in Primates.” Pp. 27-58 in Bornstein, Marc H., ed. Handbook of parenting, Vol. 2: Biology and ecology of parenting. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bard, Kim, Bakeman, Roger, Boysen, Sarah T. and Leavens, David A.  2014. “Emotional engagements predict and enhance social cognition in young chimpanzees.” Developmental Science. ISSN 1363-755X 10.1111/desc.12145

Hiraiwa-Hasegawa, Mariko and Toskikazu Hasegawa. 1988. “A case of offspring desertion by a female chimpanzee and the behavioral changes of the abandoned offspring.” Primates 29(3): 319-330.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1999. Mother nature: a history of mothers, infants, and natural selection. New York, Pantheon Books.

Maestripieri, Dario. 2005. “Gestural communication in three species of macaques (Macaca mulatta, M. nemestrina, M. arctoides).” Gesture 5(1/2): 57-73.


Solomon’s wisdom on loving and serving in Decameron 9.9

As in Solomon and Marcolf, counterparts structure Decameron 9.9.  In Decameron 9.9, Solomon utters enigmatic wisdom on loving and serving.  Loving and serving were key issues in forming  the brigata, the group of women and men that tell the Decameron’s stories.  Solomon offers his wisdom to paired wisdom-seekers.  The counterpart to Solomon and to the brigata in fitting together loving and serving is the Decameron’s reader.

loving and serving: stone couple from Sierra Leone

In Decameron 9.9, two men, Melisso and Giosefo, happened to meet while traveling along a road.  They were both going to seek Solomon’s wisdom:

Solomon’s exalted reputation for miraculous wisdom had spread to practically every corner of the earth, and it was well known that he was incredibly liberal in sharing it with anyone wishing to verify it in person {and} many people would flock to him from all over the world in order to ask his advice about their most pressing and perplexing problems. [1]

Giosefo’s problem was with his wife:

{Giosefo} was off to seek Solomon’s advice on how to deal with his wife, for she was the most stubborn, most perverse woman alive, and he could not make her budge from her contrary ways by means of prayer or flattery or anything else.

Melisso’s problem was with his neighbors:

I spend my money giving banquets and entertaining my fellow citizens.  Any yet, the strange and curious thing about it is that despite all this, I’ve never found anyone who wishes me well.  And that’s why I’m going … to get advice about what can be done to make people love me.

Solomon dispensed wisdom like a busy professional seeking to maximize case processing fees.  Melisso entered Solomon’s office and briefly recounted his problem.  Solomon said “Love.”  Melisso was then immediately ushered out.  Giosefo was then processed similarly, except Solomon said “Go to Goosebridge.”  “Love” is abstract advice.  “Go to Goosebridge” is a highly particular directive.  Neither advice is closely related to either Melisso’s problem or Giosefo’s problem.  But Solomon’s paired advice is generally related to loving and serving, as are Melisso and Giosefo’s paired problems.

A pair of sayings in Solomon and Marcolf provides insight into the counterparts in Decameron 9.9.  The common context is agonistic, explicity in the former work and implicitly in the latter.  In Solomon and Marcolf, Solomon challenged Marcolf to a contest of wisdom.  In Decameron 9.9, Solomon welcomed persons seeking to “verify” his wisdom.  In Solomon and Marcolf, Solomon declares:

The Lord gave me wisdom in my mouth, such that no one is like me in all the ends of the earth. [2]

Marcolf replies:

He who has bad neighbors praises himself. [3]

Solomon’s statement is a first-person rephrasing of second-person and third-person biblical characterizations of Solomon.  Marcolf’s response chides Solomon’s self-glorification with an allusion to the Christian commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Solomon’s brusque wisdom service in Decameron 9.9 similarly isn’t consistent with loving service.[4]

Emilia, who narrates Decameron 9.9, introduces the story in a way that aligns her and women with serving in the counterparts of loving and serving.  Emilia begins Decameron 9.9 with a travesty of Ephesians 5:22-33:

Amiable ladies, if the order of things is viewed from a sound perspective, it will quite quickly become apparent that Nature, custom, and the laws have decreed that the vast majority of women are subservient to men and must be controlled and governed by them at their discretion.

Licisca knew better about women’s power.  The stories of Day 7, and the near-suppression of them, also provides a better window into social reality.  Just two stories earlier on Day 9, Pampinea told the story of Talano and his wife:

She was more beautiful than all the rest, but surpassed them even more in being irritable, obstinate, and ill-tempered to the point that she utterly refused to follow other people’s advice and never approved of anything anyone else did.  All this was a heavy burden for Talano to bear, but he put up with it since he had no choice in the matter. [5]

Emilia incoherently described Pampinea’s story as motivating her story:

I have been led to make these observations {the travesty of Ephesians 5:22-33} — though it is not for the first time — by what Pampinea said a little while ago about Talano’s obstinate wife to whom God meted out the punishment her husband was unable to visit upon her.

Talano did not seek to punish or hurt his wife.[6]  Emilia’s claims about “Nature, custom, and the laws” contrast sharply with the nature, behavior, and legal privilege of Talano’s wife.  Emilia’s claim that women should serve men out of fear of punishment describes service without love.

The paired narrative conclusions in Decameron 9.9 don’t unifying loving and serving.  Returning home, Giosefo and Melisso happened upon a muleteer brutally beating his mule at Goosebridge.  Giosefo concluded that Solomon meant to advise him to beat his wife.  Giosefo brutally beat his wife.  His wife then compliantly served Melisso and Giosefo the dinner that they wanted.  Neither Giosefo’s nor his wife’s actions express love.  When Melisso returned home, he told a wise man of Solomon’s advice.  The wise man explained:

He could not have given you a truer or better piece of advice.  You yourself know that you don’t really love anyone and that you do all that entertaining and all those favors for others not because you feel for them, but simply to show off.  You should love, therefore, as Solomon told you, and then you, too, will be loved. [7]

Melisso followed the wise man’s advice and came to be loved.  Melisso loving others is just a different tactic than he serving them meals.  Decameron 9.9 ends with Giosefo being served by his wife and Melisso being loved by his neighbors.  Those endings, like Emilia’s introduction, don’t realize a Christian understanding of unified loving and serving.

The ridiculous figure of Solomon and the entanglement of the brigata in Decameron 9.9 pushes forward the reader as a counterpart.  Solomon’s advice to Melisso and Giosefo paired abstract ideal with specific directive.  The reader must fit together loving and serving across that range, but more convincingly and more clearly than Solomon did.  The reader must fit together the paired wisdom of Ephesians 5:22-33, from its abstract allegory to its real social context, as Emilia did not.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 9, Story 9, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) pp. 739-40.  Boccaccio, like Dante, chose numbers deliberately.  The numerical symmetry of 9.9 is a detail consistent with the theme of putting together counterparts.  All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from id. pp. 738-43.

[2] Solomon and Marcolf,  1.6a, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2008) p. 55.  Cf. Proverbs 2:6, 1 Kings 3:12, 4:29-34, 10:24.

[3] Solomon and Marcolf,  1.6b, id.  Ziolkowski’s commentary notes a parallel with Egbert of Liège (born c. 972), Fecunda ratis, forward, 723-4, from Latin trans. “He praises himself, whom the neighborhood does not caress, and the man who has no renown hates neighbors forgetful of him.”  Id. p. 123.  For the Christian commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” see Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:30-1, Luke 10:27, Romans 13:8-10, Galations 5:14.

[4] The Christian ideal of loving service is prominent in Jesus washing his disciples feet after his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. John 13:1-15.  That ideal is rooted in Hebrew scripture.  Deuteronomy 11:13 pairs loving and serving: “loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul.”

[5] Decameron, Day 9, Story 7, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) pp. 730.  Talano’s lack of choice suggests that he could not legally divorce his wife.  Even if he could divorce his wife, he may have faced unrecognized de facto discrimination that made such action impractical.  In the U.S., men initiate only about 30% of divorces and face family courts highly biased against men.

[6] Talano said to his wife:

Wife, although I’ve never had even one good day with you because of your ill temper, all the same I’d still be sorry if anything bad happened to you, and therefore, if you’ll take my advice, you won’t leave the house today.

Id. p. 731.  Unlike Decameron 9.7, the Archpriest of Talavera described how to use a wife’s recalcitrance to advance the husband’s interests.

[7] Status-seeking, self-interested generosity is a subtext of Decameron 10.3.

[image] Couple (mahen yafe style), probably sometime from 14th to 17th century, stone, Sierra Leone, in a private collection.  My photograph of the sculpture on display in “Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone” at the National Museum of African Art, Washington DC, through Aug. 17, 2014.


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

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


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