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.

Alibech, Rustico, and the life of Saint Pelagia

A story in Boccaccio’s Decameron is set in the Egyptian desert of the desert fathers.  The young hermit Rustico dwelling there unexpectedly encountered the beautiful girl Alibech.  Dioneo, the narrator of this story, foretells the story as putting the Devil back into Hell:

I want to tell you how to do it.  Perhaps you’ll even be able to save your souls once you’ve learned it. [1]

Dioneo’s story should be understood in the context of the Life of Saint Pelagia, an early Christian story of ascetic holiness.  Both Dioneo’s story and the Life of Saint Pelagia affirm the natural goodness of human sexuality.  They also recognize the human tendency toward deception and self-centeredness.  At the beginning of the Decameron, Pampinea chartered the brigata with the fullness of good life:

We should go and stay on one of our various country estates, shunning the wicked practices of others like death itself, but having as much fun as possible, feasting and making merry, without ever trespassing the sign of reason in any way. [2]

In Dioneo’s story and the Life of Saint Pelagia, the sign of reason mirrors the sign of selfless self-giving in true love.

He who moves heaven and all of its stars
Made me, for His delight,
Refined and charming, graceful, too, and fair,
To give to lofty spirits here below
A certain sign of that
Beauty abiding ever in His sight.
But mortals imperfect,
Who can’t see what I am,
Find me unpleasing, nay, treat me with scorn. [3]

In the Life of Saint Pelagia, Pelagia’s well-cultivated physical beauty served as inspiration to a higher beauty.  Pelagia was an actress, dancer, and courtesan.  In the company of young men and wearing nothing but jewelry, Pelagia paraded by Bishop Nonnus and other bishops.  Bishop Nonnus intently looked at her.  He delighted in her beauty.  Her beauty inspired him to cultivate beauty of the soul to please God the eternal lover.  His fellow bishops lacked that lofty spirit.  They scorned Pelagia’s obvious physical beauty.  They thus deceived themselves and denied natural male sexuality.[4]

Saint Ursicinus, a hermit saint

The story of Alibech and Rustico plays these keys of asceticism and beauty, self-centeredness and deception.  The story begins with unreason.  Alibech was the fourteen-year-old daughter of a very rich man in the Muslim land of Tunisia.  She was naive and not conscious of her own contradictory motivations:

She was not a Christian, but having heard how greatly the Christian faith and the service of God were praised by the numerous Christians living in the city, one day she asked one of them how God could be served best and with the least difficulty.[5]

Christians praising the Christian faith isn’t reasonably inspiring to non-Christians.  A desire to best serve God isn’t consistent with a desire to serve God with the least difficulty.  In any case, a Christian told Alibech that she could best serve God by becoming a holy recluse in the desert.  Alibech unreasonably sought to do just that:

the following morning, moved not by a reasonable desire, but rather by a childish whim, she set out secretly for the Theban desert all by herself without letting anyone know what she was doing.

Alibech set out into the desert as an unholy fool.

Rustico led himself into temptation with Alibech.  In the desert, Alibech went up to a holy man’s hut and asked him to teach her how to serve God.  The hermit, with appreciation for his natural sexual desire for a beautiful girl, told her that he could not be her teacher.  He advised her to seek someone more capable.  Another hermit similarly advised Alibech.  Then she came to Rustico.  He was willing to put himself to the test.  He took Alibech into his cell and made a bed for her from palm fronds.  His holy resolve soon dissolved.  He designed a scheme to gain consensual carnal knowledge of Alibech.

Rustico told Alibech that the most pleasing service to God is to put the Devil back into Hell.  Rustico told the girl to do whatever he did.  Then he took all his clothes off.  He knelt down and had her kneel down just in front of him:

as they knelt in this way, and Rustico felt his desire growing hotter than ever at the sight of her beauty, the resurrection of the flesh took place.  Staring at it in amazement, she said, “Rustico, what’s that thing I see sticking out in front of you, the thing I don’t have?”

Holy hermits aspired to put their flesh to death symbolically with ascetic practices.  The resurrection of the flesh — Rustico’s penal erection — was a reversal of monastic asceticism.[6]  Echoing the disparagement of men’s genitals in medieval European literature, Rustico described his penis as the Devil.  He described Alibech’s vagina as Hell.  With Alibech’s enthusiatic consent, Rustico put the Devil back into Hell.  They went on to put the Devil back into Hell seven times, a virtuous number, before they rested for awhile.  Alibech came to enjoy immensely putting the Devil back into Hell.  At her insistence, they had sex even when Rustico didn’t want to.  According to the United Nations’ judgment of criminality, Alibech raped Rustico repeatedly.  Rustico became thin and exhausted.   In a symbolic transfer of Alibech’s fiery lust, her father’s house burned down, killing him and all his family except for Alibech.

The story of Alibech and Rustico represents self-centeredness and deception.  Personal whim propelled Alibech out into the desert to seek to serve the Christian understanding of God.  After she experienced sex, she insistently demanded sex with no respect for Rustico’s exhaustion.  Beneath Alibech’s expressed desire to serve God was her own self-centeredness.  Rustico, on the other hand, betrayed his ascetic commitment as a monk and intentionally deceived Alibech with his story of putting the Devil back into Hell.

Beyond Alibech’s and Rustico’s problems of sexual desire are more important problems of self-centeredness and deception.  True love, which can encompass sexual love, is impossible with deception and self-centeredness.  That’s the higher meaning of Boccaccio’s story of Alibech and Rustico.[7]

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 3, story 10, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 290.  Id. Notes, n. 1, p. 889 states, “There are only the vaguest antecedents for this story.”  Several early saints were named Rustico (Rusticus): Saint Rusticus of Verona (died c. 290),  Saint Rusticus of Narbonne (died c. 461), and Saint Rusticus of Lyon (died 501).  While two of these saints were bishops, Rustico also suggests “rustic” or uncultured.  Alibech sounds Arabic and is thus appropriate for a girl from Tunisia.  An early fifteenth-century text from North Africa tells the story of men who were sexual heroes and who would have been Alibech’s equals.

[2] Id. Day 1, Intro., trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 16.  I’ve replaced “overstepping the bounds of reason” with “trespassing the sign of reason” based on Kirkham (1993), Introduction.

[3] Decameron, Day 3, Conclusion, Lauretta’s song, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 298.  The first line quoted above parallels the end of Dante’s Commedia in Paradiso, 33.145, “The love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Id. Notes, p. 890, n. 3.  Id n. 4 observes of Lauretta’s song:

Critics have attempted to link it to Boccaccio’s own life and to allegorize it in various ways, but with little success.

The relevant allegory seems to me to be the speaker of the song having been the bride of Christ, also understood as the Church.  In addition to the stanza quoted above, a key line:

Although I’d come to earth
For all men’s good, of one I’m now the slave.

That line makes little sense realistically and personally. It makes sense allegorically as representing the political position of the Church in Florence at a specific time.

[4] The Life of Saint Pelagia was a hagiography that probably originated in a mid-fifth-century Syro-Palestinian milieu.  It was well-known in medieval Italy; a Latin translation survives in a late-twelfth-century or early thirteenth-century Italian manuscript.  Here’s discussion of the Life of Pelagia, with citations to source texts.  Storey (1982), pp. 164-7, discusses the tale of Alibech and Rustico in relation to the literary tradition of Vite Patrum, but doesn’t mention the Life of Saint Pelagia.

[5] Decameron, Day 3, story 10, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 290.  All subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 291-2.

[6] Illustrating perennial social repression of strong, independent male sexuality, the story of Alibech and Rustico was multilated and repressed in editions of the Decameron from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century:  “this story — when printed at all — was sometimes so radically abridged or altered as to be rendered virtually unrecognizable if not downright nonsensical.”  Kirkham (1981) pp. 79-80.  In English translations, sometimes the key passage wasn’t translated.

[7] Emphasizing the story’s context in Day 3, in the Decameron, and in all of Boccoccio’s works, Kirkham (1981) reads the story of Alibech and Rustico to instruct, “Illicit love leads to perdition.”  Id. p. 93.  Alibech is forced to return to town and marry.  Rustico, after burdensome sexual demands, is restored to his betrayed monastic solitude.  Those outcomes are less than Alibech’s and Rustico’s ill-formed desires, but not necessarily equal to perdition.  Moreover, “illicit love leads to perdition” is rather vague instruction for students.  Is sex outside of the legal institution of marriage necessarily illicit?  Boccaccio, one might reasonably suppose, pondered that question.

[image] Saint Ursicinus, a hermit living about 600 in present-day Switzerland. Thanks to Yesuitus2001 and Wikipedia.


Kirkham, Victoria. 1981. “Love’s labors rewarded and paradise lost (Decameron, III, 10).” Romanic Review, vol. LXXII, no. 1, pp. 79-83.  Reprinted as Ch. 6 in Kirkham (1993).

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

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

Storey, Harry Wayne. 1982. “Parodic Structure in ‘Alibech and Rustico’: Antecedents and Traditions.” Canadian Journal of Italian Studies 5 (3), pp. 163-176.


Boccaccio’s inspiring ladies and Muses on Parnassus

Boccaccio’s Il Corbaccio is a masterpiece of rhetorical sophistication at the service of comic realism.  It shouldn’t be dismissed as merely an embarrassment, a literary joke, or Boccaccio’s last vernacular fiction.  The Corbaccio insists that poetic entertainment, instruction, and salvation work through realistic personal experience.  The Corbaccio defines the program of the Decameron and should be appreciated along with the Decameron.[1]

Boccaccio provides a key to understanding the Corbaccio and the Decameron in the relation of realistic ladies to the Muses on Mount Parnassus.  In the Corbaccio, the narrator’s dream-guide advises solitary study to increase fame with deeds:

Rather than visiting the multitudes gathered in churches and other public places, it is fitting for you, and I know you are aware of it, to frequent solitary places, and there, by studying, working, and versifying, to exercise your intellect and to make an effort to better yourself, and, as best you can, to increase your fame more with deeds than words [2]

That advice is contradictorily polarized.  Contradictory polarization rhetorically structures the dream-guide’s subsequent description of Castalian nymphs (nine Muses associated with Mount Parnassus).  The dream-guide first describes the Muses abstractly and vaguely:

While you are in the woods and remote places, the Castalian nymphs, with whom these wicked women {flesh-and-blood women} would compare themselves, will never abandon you.  Their beauty, as I have heard, is celestial.  Such beautiful ladies as these will neither shun you nor mock you; rather, they will enjoy lingering and journeying in your company.

The Muses’ celestial beauty, which the dream-guide hints that he has never seen, is distant from earthly experience.  The Muses’ character is defined first as a negative of realistic behavior:

they will not put you to discussing or disputing how many cinders are needed to boil a skein of coarse flax, or whether linen from Viterbo is finer than that of Romagna, or whether the baker’s wife has the oven too hot, or to see whether there are brooms to be had to sweep the house.  They will not tell you what madam so-and-so, and madam such-and-such did the night before, or how many paternosters they said at the sermon, or whether it is better to change the ornaments on some dress or other than to leave them as they are.  They will not ask money for cosmetics, powder boxes, and ointments.

The surface level of this text is factual detail.  Within its realistic style, the text plausibly contains bawdy figures (“the baker’s wife has the oven too hot”) and common references from the literature of men’s sexed protests (“ask money for cosmetics, powder boxes, and ointments”).[3]  Yet the importance of the surface realism is highlighted in contrast to the immediately subsequent positive description of the Muses’ behavior:

With angelic voice, they will narrate to you the things which have been from the beginning of the world down to this day; and sitting with you upon the grass and flowers in the delightful shadows beside that spring whose last ripples will never be seen, they will show you the causes of the variations of the weather, the toils of the sun and the moon, what hidden power nourishes the plants and also tames brute animals, and from what place rain down the souls onto men.  They will show you that Divine Goodness is eternal and infinite, by what steps one rises to it, and down what precipices one plunges to the opposite place.  After they have sung with you the verses of Homer, Virgil, and other worthy ancients, they will sing your own, if you wish. [4]

The Muses represent epic poetry, cosmic understanding, and high aspiration.  The dream-guide complains that the narrator turns instead to flesh-and-blood women:

Ah, how just would it be for these most distinguished ladies to banish you as unworthy from their most beautiful chorus!  How often do your desires turn to women!  How often, on leaving them, fetid, corrupted, and unashamed of your bestiality do you go again to mingle with those who are most pure!  Certainly, if you do not stop this, it seems to me that it will happen to you {be banished from the Muses’ chorus}, and deservedly so.  …  And how shameful it would be for you, were this to occur, you can be quite sure.

From declaring that the Muses would never abandon the narrator, the dream-guide attempts to shame the narrator with the threat the Muses will banish him.  The dream-guide then immediately turns to a realistic description of his former wife.  The dream-guide is continually self-subverting.  The effect is to undermine epic yearning and cosmic abstraction.  The Corbaccio presents the comic reality of heterosexual love as a new Vita Nuova.

Boccaccio constructs the Decameron’s author as a man keen to serve women in realistic style.  The knight who fought in the lady’s chainse, Suero de Quinones, Ulrich von Liechtenstein, Captain De Falco, and the male authors of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gaps 2011 report exemplify men’s servitude to women in high style.  The Decameron, in contrast, is filled with earthy stories of sexual intrigues and escapades.  In the Decameron’s introduction to its fourth day, Boccaccio acknowledges criticism from “wise men”:

many, concerned about my reputation, say that I would be wiser to remain with the Muses on Parnassus than to get myself involved with you {flesh-and-blood ladies} and these trifles {realistic stories of sexual intrigues and escapades}.[4]

Boccaccio responds:

I agree that remaining with the Muses on Parnassus is sound advice, but we cannot always dwell with the Muses any more than they can always dwell with us.

The Muses are represented as ladies.  Medieval literature recognized that one man could not satisfy nine ladies, or three, or even just one.  The mutual problem of exclusivity is a matter of realism:

If it sometimes happens that a man leaves them {the Muses}, he should not be blamed if he delights in seeing something resembling them: the Muses are ladies, and although ladies are not as worthy as Muses, they do, nevertheless, look like them at first glance; and so for this reason, if for no other, they should please me.

Boccaccio, like the dream-guide in the Corbaccio, surely hasn’t actually seen the Muses.  Their lady-like appearance is representational realism like the help that Boccaccio claims to have received from earthly ladies:

ladies have already been the reason for my composing thousands of verses, while the Muses were in no way the cause of my writing them.  They have, of course, assisted me and shown me how to compose these thousands of verses, and it is quite possible that they have been with me on several occasions while I was writing these stories of mine, no matter how insignificant they may be — they came to me, it could be said, out of respect for the affinity between these ladies and themselves.

Realism traces natural cause to ordinary effect.  Boccaccio’s represents flesh-and-blood ladies as the realistic cause of his writing.  The Muses inspire him out of respect for their similitude with flesh-and-blood ladies.  This representational play is key to Boccaccio’s self-understanding of his position as an author:

Therefore, in composing such stories as these, I am not as far away from Mount Parnassus or the Muses as some people may think.

Nor are Boccaccio’s intentions as far away from Dante’s as some critics have thought:

my pen should be granted no less freedom than the brush of a painter who, without incurring censure or, at least, any which is justified, … shows Christ as a man and Eve as a woman, and nails to the cross, sometimes with one nail, sometimes with two, the feet of Him who wished to die there for the salvation of mankind.[5]

Boccaccio intended neither the Decameron nor the Corbaccio to be merely low entertainment.  Both the Decameron and the Corbaccio assert the importance of realism.  Boccaccio’s comic realism, like the sacraments that the Church offers, provides instruction and salvation through the materials of ordinary life.[6]

quilt made from a mixture of natural materials

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[1] Hollander (1988) p. 1 declares:

Boccaccio’s final work in vernacular fiction has been for the most part an embarrassment, even to its admirers.  It is almost universally understood as running counter to the spirit of the preceding masterwork, the Decameron.

Hollander attempted to redeem the Corbaccio as a “literary joke.”  Id. p. 2.  More insightfully, he observed that Boccaccio describes himself as nearly forty years old one-third of the way through composing the Decameron, and about forty-two when writing the Corbaccio.  Hollander declared:

Decameron and Corbaccio are meant to be read as closely contiguous literary experiences, whether they were so or not.  These two texts tell us more about one another than we may learn from most other sources about the essential strategies of either.

Id. p. 33.

[2] Giovanni Boccaccio, Il Corbaccio, from Italian trans. Cassell (1993) p. 36.  The four subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 36-7.  In the author’s conclusion to the Decameron, Boccaccio chides prudish ladies: “ladies of the type who weigh words more than deeds and who strive more to seem good than to be so.”  Decameron, from Italian trans. Musa & Bondanella (2002) pp. 803.  Boccaccio’s figure of the prudish ladies aptly describes critics who declare the Corbaccio to be misogynistic.

[3] Libro de buen amor includes a “cruz cruzada, panadera” lyric that is a high point of medieval sexual innuendo.

[4] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, 4th day, intro., from Italian trans. Musa & Bondanella (2002) pp. 287.  Ladies probably weren’t actually the readers that Boccaccio intended for the Decameron.  Kirkham (1993) pp. 118-9.  The meta-narrative of the Decameron is another level in Boccaccio’s literary strategy.  The subsequent four quotes are from id. p. 291.

[5] Decameron, Author’s Conclusion, id. p. 803.  Id. p. 804 declares:

And just as fitting words are of no use to a corrupt mind, so a healthy mind cannot be contaminated by words which are not so proper, any more than mud can dirty the rays of the sun or earthly filth can mar the beauties of the skies.

The comic realism of the Decameron is consistent with a moral and salvific vision for humanity.  Salvation within the Decameron’s realism means escaping death from the plague.  It also means recognizing human viciousness and cruelty and the possibility of escaping from that plague through understanding love.

[6] Boccaccio studied thoroughly Dante’s Commedia and frequently cited Dante in the Decameron, the Corbaccio, and other of his works.  The 100 stories of the Decameron can be understood as a stylistically different approach to the journey of the Commedia’s 100 cantos.  In an influential work examining the Commedia, the Decameron, and the representation of reality, Auerbach declared:

{Boccaccio} writes for the entertainment of the unlearned. … his ethics of love is … concerned exclusively with the sensual and the real … {the Decameron} rarely abandons the stylistic level of light entertainment.

Auerbach (1953) pp. 224, 226, 227.   Hollander (1997), p. 90, insightfully proclaimed, “the Decameron is one of the worst read masterpieces that the world possesses.”  The fundamental problem is lack of proper appreciation for the Corbaccio.  Boccaccio scholars should abandon their neoliberal commitment to symbolic property rights and turn to the government, or off-duty government workers, for help.


Auerbach, Erich. 1953. Mimesis: the representation of reality in Western literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cassell, Anthony K. trans. 1993. Giovanni Boccaccio. The corbaccio, or, The labyrinth of love. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.

Hollander, Robert. 1988. Boccaccio’s last fiction, Il Corbaccio. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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.

Musa, Mark and Peter E. Bondanella, trans. 2002. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York: Signet Classic.

Tagged: ,

the whole shipwrecked man

vortex sucks down shipwrecked men

Some fishermen hauled up a half-eaten
Man, caught in a net full of flounder –
Wept-for remains of a lost voyage.

Rather than profit from ruin,
They buried the man and the fish in shallow

Land, here you have the whole shipwrecked man
Though, in place of the rest of his flesh,
You have those that ate it.

This epigram, attributed to Hegesippus, was written in Greek probably in the mid-third century BGC.  The last line could be funny.  The context, however, is mournful.  The fishermen have an ethical sense beyond profit as much as you can.  By burying the man and the fish in shallow sand, they enable both to be, with time, washed out into the sea.  The whole shipwrecked man, “wept-for remains of a lost voyage,” will move again from the land to the sea.  The half-eaten man and the fish caught in the net are the whole shipwrecked man, the continually transforming body in an unanchored world.

Latter-day Greeks, are we not dead
And only seem to be alive,
Having fallen on hard times,
Mistaking a dream for existence?
Or are we alive,
While our way of life has perished?

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first epigram — from Greek trans. Wolfe (2013) p. 91.  On the dating of the epigrammist Hegesippus, about whom little is known, id. p. 175.  Id. describes this and the subsequent epigram as epitaphs.  They probably weren’t actually inscribed on tombs.  Epitaphs typically weren’t highly poetic.  In the above epigram translation, I’ve replaced “earth” with “land” for better poetic sense.  The epigram is GA 7.276.  The prose translation there uses “land” rather than “earth.”  The word “man” above shouldn’t be only understood as indicating a human being.  Men in ancient Greece faced a much higher risk of death on the sea because men predominated among long-distance commercial travelers and warriors.  Men today continue to face a much higher risk of accidental death than do women.

second epigram — from Greek trans. Wolfe (2013) p. 151.  The epigram also appears in GA 10.82.  It is attributed to Palladas of Alexandria, who lived in the fourth-century GC.  On the dating of Palladas work, Wilkinson (2009).  Palladas continued to follow traditional Greek religion after Constantine converted to Christianity.  Alexandria was a leading center of early Christianity.  Palladas lamented the new dominance of Christians.


GA: Paton, W.R. 1920. The Greek Anthology with an English Translation. London: William Heinemann (vol. I, bks. 1-6; vol. II, bks. 7-8; vol. III, bk. 9; vol IV, bks. 10-12; vol. V, bks. 13-16). (epigrams indicated GA {bk}.{epigram # within bk})

Wilkinson, Kevin W. 2009. “Palladas and the Age of Constantine.” The Journal of Roman Studies. 36: 36-60.

Wolfe, Michael. 2013. Cut these words into my stone: ancient Greek epitaphs. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.


classical Arabic buttocks in medieval European context

In classical Arabic literature, a figure of feminine beauty was a narrow waist and large buttocks.  An Arabic song from the seventh century lovingly effused:

Her buttocks quiver when she walks; her back
is like a willow branch, her waist is slim. [1]

An Arabic ode from the early eighth century marveled:

Her rump is like a dune that towers, where
the sprinkling rains have shaped firm hillocks. [2]

The larger the buttocks, the bigger the blessing to an admiring man in the ancient Islamic world.  But only within reason.  In a Syrian author’s eleventh-century Arabic story, a shaykh found himself in Paradise:

The shaykh takes a quince, or a pomegranate, or an apple, or whatever fruit God wills, and breaks it open.  A girl with black, lustrous eyes whose beauty dazzles the other damsels of the Paradisical gardens, emerges. [3]

The shaykh is overjoyed and prostrates himself to God for this blessing.  While praising God he retained his good sense in classical Arabic literature:

It occurs to him, while he is still prostrate, that the girl, though beautiful, is rather skinny.  He raises his head and instantly she has a behind that rivals the hills of ʻĀlij, the dunes of al-Dahnāʼ, and the sands of Yabrīn and Banū Saʻd.  Awed by the omnipotence of the Kind and Knowing God, he says, “Thou who givest rays to the shining sun, Thou who fulfillest the desires of everyone, Thou whose awe-inspiring deeds make us feel impotent, and summon to wisdom the ignorant: I ask Thee to reduce the bum of this damsel to one square mile, for Thou hast surpassed my expectations with Thy measure!” [4]

The shaykh’s prayer revised the initial impulse of desire that God apparently perceived in his heart and granted to his eyes.  God responded mercifully to the shaykh’s praise of divine bounty and to his feeling of impotence upon seeing the enormous size of the girl’s buttocks:

An answer is heard: “You may choose: the shape of the girl will be as you wish.”
And the desired reduction is effected.

Men and women across cultures and history typically find most attractive women with waist-to-hip ratios about 0.7.[5]  But, irrespective of evolutionary psychology, classical Arabic literature and God could construct enormous buttocks.

Bustle dress from mid-1880s exaggerates buttocks

The classical Arabic ideal of large buttocks apparently moved European culture.  The ancient Greek ideal of buttocks, at least as represented by the Aphrodite Kallipygos, isn’t impressive in size.  However, an important early fifteenth-century Spanish work in the literature of men’s sexed protests registers a meaningful objection to what would now be termed sexual harassment:

She looks at her hands all covered with rings, and chews her lips to make them red, casting her eyes about, looking sideways, wriggling her bottom like mad … And if she is at home clad only in a wrapper, she will lean over and pick up something from the floor, to show her shanks proudly and a great expanse of buttocks, this to attract the attention of whoever is looking at her, or of the one she would be desired by. [6]

An Italian work of men’s sexed protests from the fourteenth century explicitly connects a woman’s large buttocks to the Arabic world:

she wanted her cheeks nicely puffed and red, her buttocks ample and protruding (having heard perhaps that these things were most highly prized in Alexandria and for that reason were a very great part of the beauty of a lady), above all else she strove to make these two features abundantly conspicuous in herself.  … And fully did she succeed in becoming plump-cheeked and big-bottomed. [7]

The man’s protest focused on the expensive food that his wife ate in order to swell her buttocks:

About the milk-fed veal, the partridges, the fat thrushes, the turtledoves, the Lombard soups, the lasagne cooked in broth, the elderberry fritters, the white chestnut cakes, and the blancmanges of which she had the same bellyfulls as peasants do of figs, cherries, or melons when they are placed before them, I do not care to tell you.

This rhetorically sophisticated protest would gain additional weight if the narrator and most medieval European men did not favor big-bottomed women.  Given the prestige of Arabic science and literature in medieval Europe, large buttocks may have been recognized as an ideal of womanly beauty irrespective of most medieval European men’s actual preferences.

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[1] Attributed to Qays ibn Dharīh in Abū l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī, al-Aghānī, from Arabic trans. van Gelder (2013) p. 142.

[2] Dhū l-Rummah, qasīdah “To Mayyah’s Two Abodes, a Greeting,” from Arabic trans van Gelder (2013) p. 23.

[3] Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, Risālat al-ghufrān, from Arabic trans. van Gelder (2013) p. 269.  I’ve added a comma after gardens.

[4] Id. (including subsequent quote).  In classical Arabic love poetry, large buttocks were admired in both women and boys: “the standard poetic simile is that of a sand hill or dune.” Id. p. 405, n. 801.

[5] Kościński (2013), Singh (2002).  With respect to body-mass index, relatively wealthy, urban men and women find most attractive skinny women.  Kościński (2013).

[6] Alonso Martínez de Toledo, Archpriest of Talavera, II.8, from Spanish trans. Simpson (1959) p. 140.

[7] Giovanni Boccaccio, Il Corbaccio, from Italian trans. Cassell (1993) pp. 40-1 (including subsequent quote).  Id. p. 123, n. 188, observes that Alexandria was the site of a “notorious Egyptian slave market.”  Desired buttocks in medieval European literature seem otherwise to be smaller than the ideal buttocks of classical Arabic literature.  In twelfth-century French literature, feminine beauty was “small waist; moderately full hips.”  In English literature from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, feminine beauty was typically “small waist; … not too broad or round hips.”  The fourteenth-century Spanish work Libro de buen amor, which was a culturally hybrid Arabic-European work, described as desirable “widish” hips.  The Arabic folk tale La historia de la doncella Teodor, translated into twelfth-century Castilian, described as beautiful “wide” hips.  Da Soller (2005) pp. 44-6, 73-4, 88-9, 99.  Boccaccio spent part of his youth in Angevin Naples and probably was familiar with at least some Arabic literature.  Kirkham & Menocal (1987).

[image] Dress from the 1880s with bustle exaggerating the buttocks.  Thanks to Wikipedia.


Cassell, Anthony K. trans. 1993. Giovanni Boccaccio. The corbaccio, or, The labyrinth of love. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.

Da Soller, Claudio. 2005. The beautiful woman in medieval Iberia: rhetoric, cosmetics, and evolution. Ph.D. Thesis. University of Missouri-Columbia.

Gelder, Geert Jan van. 2013. Classical Arabic literature: a library of Arabic literature anthology. New York: New York University Press.

Kirkham, Victoria, and Maria Rosa Menocal. 1987.  “Reflections on the ‘Arabic’ world: Boccaccio’s ninth stories.” Stanford Italian Review VII, pp. 95-110.

Kościński, Krzysztof. 2013. “Attractiveness of women’s body: body mass index, waist-hip ratio, and their relative importance.” Behavioral Ecology. 24 (4): 914-925.

Simpson, Lesley Byrd Simpson. 1959. Alfonso Martínez de Toledo.  Little sermons on sin: the Archpriest of Talavera. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Singh, Devendra. 2002. “Female mate value at a glance: relationship of waist-to-hip ratio to health, fecundity and attractiveness.” Neuro Endocrinology Letters. 23: 81-91.


transcending legal constraints to meet men’s sexual needs

Many married men in America now suffer from sexual deprivation.  That wasn’t a problem in medieval Europe.  A leading fourteenth-century European spiritual guide for men recognized women’s strong, independent sexuality:

let it be clear to you that she who seems most chaste and virtuous … would rather have one eye than be content with just one man.  … Women’s lust is fiery and insatiable and for this reason knows no discrimination or bounds … while their husbands were away or else left sleeping in their beds, many have already gone to public brothels in disguise!  And they were last to leave these places, tired but unsatisfied. [1]

The spiritual guide described his own earthly experience with his wife:

Not only could I not satisfy her burning lust, nor one lover, nor two besides me, but a multitude were not sufficient to quench a single tiny spark of it.  I have not spoken to you about this, nor do I intend to speak about it at length, … for I know that men who desire women’s affection take greater hope and, in consequence, add more fuel to their love, the more they hear of women’s ardor. [2]

Men want their sexual needs to be met.  Medieval European men tended not to understand, at least in advance, that medieval European women’s sexual vitality far exceeded their own.

millstone for a lusty young miller

The fourteenth-century Spanish work Libro de buen amor presents men’s sexual misunderstanding in a culturally hybrid fableau.  A lusty young miller wanted three wives.  Some medieval European men undoubtedly had sexual relationships with women other than their wives.  However, in Christian Europe, a man was not permitted to have multiple wives.  In the Islamic world, men could have up to four wives.  The young miller’s desire for multiple wives is sexual eagerness expressed in a well-recognized institutional form of the Islamic world.  Quantitatively, the young miller’s sexual eagerness did not quite reach the limit of Islamic law.

After a month of marriage to one wife, the lusty young miller sought to transgress European Christian marriage law in a different direction.  His wife exhausted him sexually.  His family was planning to marry off his elder brother “to one woman, and not more, by law and the rites of the Church”:

The wedded brother {the young miller} replied that they should not do this, for he already had a consort with whom both of them could partake of conjugality to the full, and that they should tell his brother of this, and they should not meddle with marrying him to another woman. [3]

The young miller thus sought for his wife to have sexually in effect two husbands.  Such an arrangement is no more Christian than a man having three wives.

The story of the young miller concludes in weakness and in love.  Before he was married, the young miller was muscular and had great power and strength.  He could stop a spinning millstone with his unmoving foot.  After a month of marriage, the young miller was tossed upside down when he attempted to stop the millstone with his foot.  He then cursed the millstone: “Ah, strong mill, would that I could see you married!”  The mill could not marry.  Neither could in Christian Europe one man legally marry multiple wives, or one wife have multiple husbands.  These institutional details matter little in the end:

He loved his first wife so much that he never took the second girl; he never tried to stop the millstone again, he never even considered it [4]

The fire of his wife’s sexuality left the young man weak and satisfied.  Men today probably wouldn’t protest such an outcome, at least if they could know who their children are.

An earlier Old French fabliau parallels the story of the young miller, but places a young man’s initial desire beyond Islamic law.  The young man said that he wanted twelve wives.  However, just one wife sexually exhausted him and established her sexual superiority.  Haggard and spent from too much sex with his wife, the husband renounced his desire for multiple wives.  His wife then took good care of him:

She took her husband by the hand
and led him home and bathed him and
had him shaven and cut his hair,
and saw he drank and had three square
meals every day and had a place
where he could sleep alone in peace,
and made sure all his needs were met
till he’d filled out and put on weight
and regained his vitality. [5]

Many countries today control men’s sexuality with harshly punitive laws.  Those laws are unlikely to change soon.  But individual women are capable of meeting men’s sexual needs and showing concern for men’s health and well-being.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Il Corbaccio, from Italian trans. Cassell (1993) p. 26.  Those observations echo Juvenal, Satire VI, 53-54, 116-30.  They subsequently became well-recognized in the literature of men’s sexed protests.  Men’s current de facto legal subordination in marriage may be dissolving married couples’ sexual interests in each other.  See De Jour (2005) and Magnanti (2012).

[2] Id. p. 46.

[3] Libro de buen amor, s. 192, from Spanish trans. Willis (1972) p. 60.  The story of the young miller spans ss. 189-196.  All the quotes above, unless otherwise noted, are from id.

[4] Elsewhere in Libro de buen amor, Don Amor (Sir Love) urges upon men the importance of frequently having sex with their ladies:

Do not neglect your lady, I’ve told you that before.
All women, gardens, mills need constant use, as you should know.

The following things are true: a mill that’s grinding earns the rent,
A garden that’s well spaded bears sweet apples excellent,
A woman who is often wooed is lively and content.
With these facts in mind, you’ll find your efforts not misspent.

Ss. 472ab, 473, trans. Daly (1978) p. 137.  Before the man-degrading ideal of chivalry triumphed in western Europe, chivalry meant a man being always ready to satisfy his lady’s sexual needs.

[5] Du vallet aus douze fames (The fellow of the dozen wives), from Old French trans. Dubin (2013) p. 373.  For an alternate translation of Du vallet aus douze fames, see the fabliaux English translation bibliographic dataset.


Cassell, Anthony K. trans. 1993. Giovanni Boccaccio. The corbaccio, or, The labyrinth of love. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.

Daly, Saralyn R., trans. and Anthony N. Zahareas, ed. 1978. Juan Ruiz. The book of true love {Libro de buen amor}. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

De Jour, Belle. 2005. The intimate adventures of a London call girl. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Dubin, Nathaniel. 2013. The fabliaux. New York: Liveright.

Magnanti, Brooke Leigh. 2012. The sex myth: why everything we’re told is wrong. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Willis, Raymond S., ed. 1972. Juan Ruiz, Arcipreste de Hita. Libro de buen amor. Princeton N. J: Princeton University Press.


two lazy suitors compete in laziness to marry a lady

laziness exemplified

Libro de buen amor, a fourteenth-century Spanish work, is a masterpiece in the literature of men’s sexed protests.  Central problems for that literature are women inciting men to violence against men and men’s propensity for self-abasement.  In the thirteenth-century Old French work, Des trois Chevaliers et del Chainse, a knight gladly accepts a woman’s challenge to fight other knights while wearing no body armor.  In the twenty-first century’s World Values Survey, elite men and women compete to measure most tendentiously anti-women sexism while ignoring anti-men sexism.  Libro de buen amor mocks such crazy worldly woman-service with its story of two lazy suitors competing in laziness to marry a lady.

Two lazy suitors sought to marry a lady.  One of the suitors was blind in one eye.  The other had a hoarse voice and was lame in one leg.  They both wooed the lady:

The lady told them, when they asked, that she’d prefer to wed
The lazier of the two: that was the man she’d like to take.
She had no such idea — she wished to goad them instead. [1]

To win the lady, each suitor proclaimed his superior laziness.  The suitor with the lame leg and hoarse voice explained that, because he was too lazy to lift his feet up the steps, he fell off a ladder and permanently lamed his leg.[2]  He ruined his voice through laziness in a river:

I once went swimming in a river — one of my chief joys –
Upon a scorching afternoon, the hottest ever seen,
And I was dead with thirst, but I was such a lazy boy
I wouldn’t open my mouth, so I lost my gentle voice.[3]

The one-eyed suitor disparaged as paltry the lame, hoarse suitor’s laziness.  Beginning with a courtly image of male subservience quickly overturned with low bodily realism, he proclaimed his own laziness as being without equal:

I fell in love last April with a lady like a dove.
Once as I stood before her, peaceful, meek and ripe for love,
I noticed oozing from my nose a nasty stream of snot.
Through laziness to wipe that nose, this girl I never got.

But let me tell you more. One night as I lay wide awake
In bed, it rained a torrent. In the roof there was a break
Through which a steady stream of water dropped right on my eye
And dripped and dropped and plopped a lot — it really made me ache!

But I was much too lazy to move my head toward the wall.
The drip-drop, as I say, kept coming down till I did mind.
In fact, at last it burst the eye in which I now am blind.
My lady, you must marry me, the laziest one of all! [4]

To appreciate fully this competition in laziness, you have to see clearly Suero de Quinones breaking three hundred lances and many men’s bodies in service to his love for a lady.  In Libro de buen amor, Don Amor (Sir Love) told the story of the two lazy suitors to spur the Archpriest of Hita to arduous woman-service.  That makes no sense.  Woman-service serves neither love nor men.

The lady didn’t marry either man.  She declared that they both were equal to her.  She told them:

Look somewhere else for brides to wed.  No lady wants a mate
Who’s ugly, lazy, lame and bent, whose manners are so coarse.[5]

The lady created the competition in laziness with a false promise of love.  In truth, men desperately seeking a woman’s love can only lose.  That is a central theme of Libro de buen amor.

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[1] Libro de buen amor, s. 459a-c, from Old Spanish trans. Daly (1978) p. 135.  In 495c, I’ve replace “badger” with “goad.” The latter word seems to me more contextually appropriate.  In the Salamanca manuscript, the story of the two lazy suitors is entitled “Ensienplo de los dos perezosos que querían cassar con una dueña” (The Tale of the Two Lazy Dolts Who Wished to Marry One Lady).  That tale, the tale of the young miller (ss. 457-473), and the tale about what happened to Pitas Payas are similar to fabliaux.  All subsequent quotes above are from the tale of the two lazy suitors, ss. 461-467.

[2] Climbing a ladder is associated with ascent to God in Christian spirituality.  Cf. Genesis 28:10-19.

[3] Jesus summoned those who were thirsty and declared that he would give them water such that they would never thirst again.  John 4:13-14, 7:37-38.

[4] A leading scholar has perceived in the image of the nose dripping snot a phallic figure.  Vasvari (1989) p. 196.  It could equally well be understood as a figure of a vagina.  Alternately, one could understand being blinded by a torrent of rain as extending the first suitor’s scriptural parody of thirsting.  Rain in medieval Jewish and Christian understanding was associated with cleansing and purification.  See Noah and the Great Flood, Genesis 7-9.  The second suitor failed to respond to a flood that might have cleansed him of his chivalric misunderstanding of love.  Further parody runs through Matthew 13:14-17.

[5] Haywood (2008), pp. 51-70, analyzes the tale of the two lazy suitors with cultic psychoanalytic references, preoccupation with castration, and triangles.  Vasvari (1989), p. 199-200, declares of the tale:

it belongs to a mixed or hybrid mode/genre, with a number of genre-signals clustered around a single dominant principle.  Like the Fr. sotte chanson, it blends the popular fantasy of Cockaigne, the love debates and related forms, tall stories, the epic, including the sub-genre of gab, and the lyric, all framed in a burlesque art of love {scholarly reference omitted}.  The imitation subversion is all held together by its extravagant grotesque humor which pairs the ridiculous and the repulsive.

This learned scholarly analysis lacks any appreciation for the central place of themes from the literature of men’s sexed protests in Libro de buen amor.

[image] Sloth (Acedia), from The Seven Vices by Hieronymus (Jerome) Wierix (Netherlandish, ca. 1553–1619 Antwerp), engraving, dated before 1612, thanks to Wikipedia and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York).


Daly, Saralyn R., trans. and Anthony N. Zahareas, ed. 1978. Juan Ruiz. The book of true love {Libro de buen amor}. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Haywood, Louise M. 2008. Sex, scandal and sermon in fourteenth-century Spain: Juan Ruiz’s Libro de Buen Amor. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Vasvari, Louise O. 1989. “The Two Lazy Suitors in the Libro de buen amor: Popular Tradition and Literary Game of Love.”  Anuario medieval vol. 1, pp. 181 -205.


seven sages at Ostia offer wisdom in shitting

public latrine at Ostia, setting for seven sages wall painting

In a tavern in Ostia Antica, the seaport of ancient Rome, wall paintings from about the year 100 depict ordinary men sitting on the bench toilets of a public latrine.  Painted above them sit seven sages in scholarly dress and seated on thrones.  Associated with each sage is ironic text providing wisdom on shitting and farting:

  • Solon of Athens: To shit well, Solon rubbed his belly.
  • Thales of Miletus: Thales admonished those shitting to strain hard.
  • Chilon of Lacedaemon: Cunning Chilon taught to fart silently. [1]

The men shitting at the latrine are also associated with text.  Some fragments have survived:

  • I’m hurrying up
  • shake yourself about so you’ll go faster
  • you are sitting on a mule-driver
  • friend, the proverb escapes you; shit well and fuck the doctors
  • no one talks to you much, Priscianus, until you use the sponge on a stick [2]

The wall paintings and text are humorously incongruous and inappropriate.  In the ancient Roman world, public latrines were similar in their conviviality to taverns.[3]  The wall paintings brought public facilities for eliminating bodily wastes into a public place for ingesting food and drink.  The logic of that combination is humorously jarring.

The seven sages preside over ordinary men shitting.  The wall paintings represent the sages with sculptural conventions.  All of the seven sages are men.  Lists of the seven sages in various ancient references encompass at least twenty-three male sages.  The seven sages did not include Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, or other highly honored intellectual authorities of Roman times.  Unlike the seven sages, wisdom was commonly personified as a woman.[4]  The seven sages were myth.  The ordinary men seated below the seven sages and shitting represent the reality of most men’s lives.

The texts included in the wall paintings relate the seven sages and the ordinary persons.  The sages’ maxims are literally above the ordinary persons’ words.  The sages’ maxims also seem to be grammatically above ordinary persons’ words.  The sages’ maxims “use the authority of the third person, the past tense, and the meter of iambic senarii.”[5]   The ordinary persons’ words use first and second person pronouns, present tense, and no meter.

The ordinary persons’ words seem to have literary subtlety in crudeness beyond that of everyday talk.  For example, the words “you are sitting on a mule-driver” seem to analogize the strain of buttocks on hard stools to the work of a mule-driver on intractable asses.  The words, “friend, the proverb escapes you; shit well and fuck the doctors” seems to figure a proverb as shit.  Moreover, the Latin for “fuck the doctors” literally means vigorously thrust your penis in the doctor’s mouth and ejaculate.  Ancient doctors provided to patients advice and medicine for defecation.  The text here seems to present natural defecation and male sexual function as dominating the wisdom of doctors.[6]

The wall paintings in the tavern at Ostia Antica maintained a formal hierarchy between the seven sages and ordinary men.  The wall paintings united the seven sages and ordinary men in concern about a universal human bodily function: shitting.  They are like Solomon and Marcolf in encompassing and subverting the socio-intellectual hierarchy.  But the main effect seems to be unity in natural substance, not intellectual and practical confrontation.

painting of man sitting on toilet

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[1] From Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2008) p. 28.  Ziolkowski is a world-leading authority on Latin.  Others’ translations are similar.  The paintings of the other sages haven’t survived, except for a fragment and a label indicating Bias of Priene.  The names of the remaining sages cannot be known for sure, because lists of the seven sages varied.

[2] These translations aren’t given in id.  I’ve based them on Latin text and English translations from the relevant Ostia Antica website page, a post in a Google group for Latin, Clarke (2003) pp. 171-2, Fagin (2006) p. 203, inc. ft. 61, and Adams (1983) p. 315, ft. 14 cont’d.  The sponge on a stick translates xylosphongio.  It was probably a tool for cleaning one’s ass after defecation.  The spacing of the men and the dimensions of the room indicate that about twenty ordinary men were originally depicted.  Clarke (2003) p. 172.

[3] Clarke (2003) pp. 175-6.  Roman elites, in contrast, did not defecate in each other’s presence. Id. pp. 177-8.  The function of the space for which the wall paintings were made isn’t known for sure.  Id. p. 170 states “the most likely hypothesis” is that it was “a caupona that served wine.”  I’ve referred to it as a tavern, rather than a caupona, for ease of understanding.

[4] Here’s some analysis of who were the seven sages.  Proverbs 1:20-21 personifies wisdom as female.  In the Greco-Roman world, wisdom (sophia) was commonly represented as a woman.

[5] Clarke (2003) p. 178.

[6] In Latin, irrima.  That word, like “fuck” in the English language today, was commonly used as a general term of disparagement.  Adams (1983) p. 315, ft. 14 cont’d.  At Herculaneum, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 GC preserved a toilet graffito in a room known as the Casa della Gemma.  The text:  “APOLLINARIS MEDICUS TITI IMP(ERATORIS) | HIC CACAVIT BENE”; in English translation, “Apollinaris, doctor of the emperor Titus, had a good shit here.”  Fagan (2006) p. 204, n. 61.  Id. observers:

I see no reason to think that Titus’ doctor actually scribbled this report on the toilet wall, as is often assumed

In my view, this graffito humorously subordinates the imperial doctor’s expertise in defecation to the merits of this particular toilet.  In that view, it is similar to the above text’s attitude toward doctors.  Clarke (2003) p. 179 describes the wall-painting texts associated with the ordinary men as representing “everyday talk.”  That seems to me to be an exaggeration tending to heighten the contrast between the sages and the ordinary men.

[image]  Public latrine from ancient Roman Ostia Antica.  Thanks to Fubar Obfusco and Wikipedia.  “Sunday on the Pot with George,” unknown artist and date, acrylic on canvas.  Thanks to Museum of Bad Art and Wikipedia.


Adams, J. N. 1983. “Martial 2. 83.” Classical Philology. 78 (4).

Clarke, John R. 2003. Art in the lives of ordinary Romans: visual representation and non-elite viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fagan, Garrett G. 2006. “Bathing for Health with Celsus and Pliny the Elder.” The Classical Quarterly. 56 (1): 190-207.

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


Sukasaptati: parrot instructs men in guile

Within the learned culture of ancient India, tales recognizing men’s inferiority in guile and the risks of paternity deception weren’t socially suppressed.  Tales about cuckolded men served as practical instruction for men about paternity deception, warning to women that their superiority in guile was socially recognized, and entertainment for all.  Sukasaptati, written in Sanskrit no later than the second half of the twelfth century, provides tales of paternity deception within a framework that illustrates guile for men.[1]

In Sukasaptati, a merchant went on a business trip.  He left his wife Prabhavati alone at home.  At the urging of her women friends, Prabhavati prepared to have an adulterous affair.  A male parrot that her husband had received as a gift spoke to Prabhavati about her planned adulterous tryst:

This is fine and merits doing.  But it is not easy for women of good families.  Moreover, it is considered disreputable.  Go if you have the wits to handle any problems which may arise.  Otherwise you will be in for trouble. [2]

The parrot then quoted a verse:

The wicked merely watch the fun
when problems arise.
Like the starving lady did
as another pulled the merchant’s hair.

Prabhavati was confused and intrigued.  “What does this mean?” she asked.  The parrot, with the insouciance of an alpha male, brushed her off:

Go to your lover, my beauty.  Afterwards you can listen to this long story if your pretty eyes are still interested.

Filled with curiosity, Prabhavati stayed to listen to the story.  Every night for the next seventy days, the parrot similarly induced Prabhavati to change her plans for an adulterous tryst and instead stay home and listen to the parrot’s story.

Parrot Addresses Khojasta from the Tutinama

The parrot’s stories, like Old French fabliaux, provide a view of ordinary persons’ lives.  Consider, for example, the story on the eleventh evening.  The parrot’s guile provides the frame for his telling of the story:

The charming Prabhavati continued to be distracted by thoughts of love.  “I will go {to a lover} if you agree,” she said to the parrot respectfully, the next evening.

“You should certainly go,” the parrot replied.  “That is my definite view, for who can prevent the mind from seeking what it wants and water from flowing downwards.  But if you go you must be prepared to do something out of the ordinary, as Rambhika did in times past for the sake of the Brahmin.” [3]

Prabhavati then remained at home to listen to the story about Rambhika.  Rambhika was the wife of a village headman.  She sought adulterous affairs, but no other men would have sex with her because they feared her husband.   One day, she saw a handsome young Brahmin who was visiting the village.  She lovingly looked at the young Brahmin.  The text here provides relevant poetic commentary:

Rolling the pelvis, and looking at you
repeatedly with a lovelorn gaze:
you simple boy, what has she not
already told you thus?

The man who cannot comprehend
the heart’s desire long conveyed
through a women’s eyes: what can
explaining do for such a fool?

Rambhika told the young Brahmin to come home with her, salute her husband, and affirm everything that she says.  She presented to her husband the young Brahmin and described him as her long-lost cousin.  The young Brahmin affirmed that he was her cousin.  The husband instructed his wife to care well for her cousin.  He then left them alone at night.  Rambhika sought sex with the young Brahmin.  He refused.  He explained that he had accepted her as his cousin, and cousins shouldn’t have sex together so as not to tarnish the family reputation.  Rambhika urged him with poetry:

For it is very hard to find
a girl devoted to one’s parents;
and men who have the same devotion
should take pleasure in that girl.

As if that claim wasn’t convincing enough, Rambhika then declared that if a woman solicits a man for sex and he refuses her, “stricken by her sighs, he will / for certain be consigned to hell.”  The young Brahmin refused to violate his moral code.  Rambhika then cried out with a false accusation of rape: “Help! Help! I am being raped!”  Her husband and his relatives came running to attack violently the accused man.  The Brahmin recognized his dire predicament:

The terrified Brahmin bowed down and fell at Rambhika’s feet.  “Mistress!” he cried, “save my life! I will do whatever you wish.”

Rambhika ingeniously redirected her alarm:

She slopped some milk and rice under the bed and quickly lit a fire nearby. “He has cholera!” she told her husband who had just come in, “that is why I screamed.” She pointed out the mess of milk and rice to her foolish spouse, who looked at it and went out again.

Rambhika then had sex with the young Brahmin.  They continued their affair throughout the month that he remained at her home on the pretext of his convalescence.

The parrot told such stories for seventy nights and kept Prabhavati at home while her merchant husband was away.  When her husband returned, Prabhavati lovingly welcomed him.  The parrot recited softly:

Attachment to women is futile,
and futile too is the conceit
that “she will always love me,
and will be my beloved for ever.” [4]

The husband ignored the parrot’s words. Academic inquisitors time-traveling back from 21st-century America to ancient India declared that the parrot is misogynist, insisted that he be silenced, or preferably, killed, and deplored any discussion of paternity deception.  The parrot laughed and said:

One who heeds the words said for his benefit, and acts upon them, earns merit both in this and the next world.

The parrot repeated this again and again until finally the husband asked the parrot for an explanation. Then Prabhavati confessed:

when you went away, for some time I could bear being separated from you.  But then I fell into bad company, and wanted to take a lover.  I nearly killed the mynah {a type of bird} which tried to stop me, but then this parrot held me back for seventy days with his flow of words.  Thus I sinned only in thought, but never by deed.  Now my life and death are in your hands.

The parrot declared that situation arose naturally from a wife being left alone.  The parrot urged the husband to forgive his wife.  The husband did.  They all lived happily ever after.

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[1] Sukasaptati (Shuka Saptati) is constructed from the Sanskrit words shuka (parrot) and saptati (seventy).  The earliest surviving Sukasaptati manuscript is from the fifteenth century.  A reference to Sukasaptati exists in late-twelfth-century literature.  It may go back to the sixth century.  Haksar (2009) intro. pp. xv, xvii-xviii.  With its episodic tales united by common characters and interspersed verse, Sukasaptati is formally similar to Arabic/Hebrew maqama.  A Persian adaptation of Sukasaptati, called Tutinama, was made in the fourteenth century.  A lavishly illustrated version of Tutinama was made for Mughal Emperor Akbar in the later half of the sixteenth century.

[2] Sukasaptati, from Sanskrit trans. Haksar (2009) p. 5.  Subsequent quotes in the above paragraph are from id., p. 6.  Prabhavati figured the parrot as male, addressing it as “king of parrots.”  Id. p. 5.  She also said:

This bird gives good advice to everyone, and to me especially, has been like a father or brother.

Id. p. 205.

[3] Id. p. 49.  All subsequent quotes in the above paragraph are from id. pp. 49-53.  Wortham (1911), pp. 46-48, provides a more streamlined, less provocative translation.

[4] Sukasaptati, from Sanskrit trans. Haksar (2009) p. 204.  Subsequent quotes in the above paragraph are from id., pp. 204, 207.

[image]  The Parrot Addresses Khojasta, from the Tutinama, c. 1565-1570, Mughal Dynasty, reign of Akbar, India.  Freer Gallery, F1991.8.


Haksar, A. N. D. 2009. Shuka Saptati: seventy tales of the parrot. New Delhi: Rupa Co.

Wortham, B. Hale. 1911. The enchanted parrot; being a selection from the “Suka Saptati,” or, The seventy tales of a parrot. London: Luzac & Co.

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