Hildegard of Bingen’s holy vision of men’s sexuality

Hildegard of Bingen's vision of sexuality
In our benighted age, masculinity is described as toxic, men are labeled as rapists for receiving true love, and doctors of public health discuss masculinity as a pathology to be cured to raise men’s average lifespan to equality with women’s. Hildegard of Bingen, a learned, visionary woman leader in twelfth-century Europe, had a much more enlightened understanding of men’s sexuality. In Causae et curae, Hildegard depicted men’s sexuality as awesome and holy in its proper, loving context.[1]

Hildegard was a Christian woman religious with mystical vision and wide learning. She entered a community of nuns as a young girl. She lived in that community for her whole life. The modern stereotype of the nun narrowly enclosed in space and mind describes in reverse Hildegard’s life. She wrote liturgical songs and poems along with theological, botanical, and medicinal texts. She counseled bishops, kings, and emperors. She was famous for her visionary understanding. Within her unfathomable wisdom, she profoundly appreciated men’s sexuality.

Hildegard described men’s genitals as tabernacles, a strong structure, and a blossoming flower. With her visionary intuition, she moved from a general description of virile men to a kaleidoscopic description of men’s genital structure and function:

the wind that is in their loins is more fiery than windy. It has two tabernacles under its command into which it blows as a pair of bellows. These tabernacles surround the stem of all of the man’s powers, like small buildings put up next to a tower for its defense. For that reason there are two, so that they may more strongly surround the stem, make it firm and hold it and, further, so that they may capture more strongly and aptly the aforementioned wind and attract and emit it in an even manner, like two pairs of bellows blowing jointly into a fire. Thus when they erect the stem in its power, they hold it strongly. In this way the stem blossoms through its offspring.[2]

Wind in medieval thought is connected to the Holy Spirit. A tabernacle is a place of divine presence. Hildegard’s beautiful and poetic description of men’s genitals is grounded in biological reality, but not limited to that reality. Demeaning, repulsive descriptions of men’s genitals occur in medieval literature. Violence against men’s genitals — men’s “junk” — is a staple of modern popular jokes. Hildegard had humane appreciation for masculine biology.[3]

Hildegard appreciated the urgency of men’s sexual passion. She described men’s sexual passion as “like the fire of blazing mountains ” Shifting images, men can be like a ship in a great storm:

As a ship is endangered by great waves, surging in rivers from strong winds and storms, so that at times it can barely make headway and survive, so too in the storm of pleasure man’s nature can only with difficulty be held in check and restrained.

Fire and water are abstractly contrasting elements. But they are closely connected in Hildegard’s appreciation for men’s sexuality:

When the storm of lust surges in a male, it turns around in him like a mill. For his loins are like a forge which the marrow provides with fire. This forge then pours the fire into the male’s genital area and makes it burn strongly.[4]

Heat and fluid have natural correspondents in men’s sexual biology. Hildegard’s figures of men’s sexuality are both realistic and imaginative.

Hildegard did not romanticize masculine biology. In Hildegard’s Christian understanding, Adam’s transgression against God’s command introduced evil into human being. Hildegard declared:

With the taste for evil the blood of Adam’s children was changed into the poison of semen from which humans’ offspring are propagated.[5]

She described bitter, black bile as originating from Adam’s semen and generating evil. She also described semen as a poisonous foam within men’s bodies.[6] Her description of melancholic men is horrifying:

they do not experience proper love for anyone but are bitter, greedy, foolish, and overflowing with lust. With women they are without restraint like asses. … the embrace of women that they should have in a thoughtful manner is tortuous, hateful and deadly, like that of ravaging wolves. … The wind of sexual pleasure … arrives with a strong, sudden motion, like a wind that suddenly and strongly shakes the entire house. It erects the stem with such tyranny that the stem, which should blossom with blooms, twists vehemently like a viper, with the malice a deadly and murderous viper feels toward its offspring, because the Devil’s suggestion is so strongly at play in the lust of these men, that they would kill a woman in intercourse if they could since there is no love or tenderness in them.[7]

In Hildegard’s thinking, ejaculation is necessary for men to purify their bodies from the accumulating poison of semen. Yet some men excessively seek sexual intercourse with women and engage in such intercourse abusively.

In loving sexual intercourse, poisonous semen becomes life-giving. Hildegard understood conception as the woman’s body warming the man’s poisonous semen and transforming it into the blood of new life. Hildegard declared that conception will occur only if the sexual act is consensual.[8] In reality in the U.S. today, women rape men about as often as men rape women, and some rapes do result in pregnancies. Separating rape from conception seems to have been for Hildegard poetic rhetoric to deny evil acts the power of giving the blessing of new life. Hildegard gave biological significance not just to consent but also to mutual love in sexual intercourse. One-sided love in consensual sexual intercourse produces children who are bitter and lacking in virtue. Mutual love in sexual intercourse produces virtuous children.[9]

In contrast to her figure of poisonous semen, Hildegard also figured semen as a natural blessing. She declared that a man with reproductive strength “produces semen as the sun brings forth light.” Semen in that figure is not poisonous, but life-giving. Another cosmic figure of semen is more elaborate:

In the summertime, as a result of the heat, when fire and air complete their mutual duties in an appropriate mixing behavior, if there is not stormy weather, they sweat the dew out into the mild and clear air. The dew pours out fertility and productivity like semen full of blessings for the fruitful use of the earth.[10]

Just as effects of sexual intercourse are qualified with mutuality and appropriateness, so too is the mixing of fire and air to produce dew. In her Scivias, Hildegard used dew in a simile for the vivification of the infant in the womb:

at the divinely appointed time the infant in the maternal womb receives a spirit, and shows by the movements of its body that it lives, just as the earth opens and brings forth the flowers of its use when the dew falls on it.[11]

Dew in that figure could be understood as moisture rather than seed. Similarly, the Virgin Mary’s flesh rejoiced at the incarnation “just as a blade of grass on which the dew has fall’n / viridity within it to infuse.”[12] Refiguring dew from moisture to seed, Hildegard indicated the natural, universal blessing of men’s sexuality for the world.

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[1] Causae et curae has survived in not much more than one manuscript, the Royal Library of Copenhagen’s Ny Kgl. Saml. 90b, probably dating to the mid-13th century. The manuscript contains an explicit attribution to Hildegard of Bingen. She died in 1179. The manuscript includes some material that Hildegard didn’t author. The extent that it includes material that she did author is a matter of scholarly debate. Moulinier & Berndt (2003), a critical edition of the work, argues that Hildegard wrote little of Causae et curae. That’s currently the predominate scholarly opinion. Sweet (2006), Ch. 2, argues that Hildegard wrote most of it. I believe that the material I’m discussing was either written by Hildegard, or by women students of hers. My references to Hildegard can be interpreted more precisely in that sense.

[2] Causae et curae, 52a, Kaiser (1903) p. 70, ll 23-34, from Latin trans. Berger (1999) p. 58. For tabernacula, id. translates “tents”. I’ve used “tabernacles”. Hildegard elsewhere remarks:

If a man no longer has these two powers {testicles}, either because he has lost them by chance in a natural way or through castration, he has no more manhood and no more masculine storm of passion that erects the member to its full strength. Hence his member cannot be raised to plow the woman like the earth because he is cut free from the storm of his power which should strengthen his member as a means to beget offspring. In the same way, a plow cannot root up the earth when it has no ploughshare.

Causae et curae, from Latin trans. Palmquist, Kulas & Madigan (1994) p. 89. The Romance of the Rose later took up the importance of plowing.

[3] Hildegard recognized the possibility of men ejaculating in their sleep. She understood that men suffer from sexual excitement that doesn’t result in ejaculation. Id. 105b, pp. 54-5. She offered medicine “for the harmful holding back of a semen emission,” “for a swelling in the testicles,” and for sterility. Palmquist, Kulas & Madigan (1994) pp. 171, 160-1.

[4] Causae et curae, 56b, trans. Berger (1999) p. 62. The previous two quotes in the above paragraph are from id. 104b, p. 53; 51a, p. 57. All subsequent quotes are cited by manuscript folio and page in Berger’s translation, unless otherwise noted.

[5] Id. 26a, p. 39.

[6] Id. 27b, p. 39 (black bile); 43b, p. 44 (semen as poisonous foam). According to Hildegard, men’s semen is like foam on boiling water:

Boiling with the ardor and heat of lust, human blood emits foam which we call semen. This is like a pot that, placed over a fire, emits foam from the water because of the fire’s fervor.

Id. 23b-24a, p. 51.

[7] Id. 54a-55a, p. 60.

[8] Id. 43-44a-, p. 44; 78b, p. 81 (warming semen); 43b, p. 43 (consent necessary).

[9] Id. 25b-26a, pp. 51-2.

[10] Causae et curae, Latin in Kaiser (1903) p. 40, ll. 27-32, trans. Palmquist, Kulas & Madigan (1994) p. 36, adapted slightly. Newman (1987), pp. 134-8, doesn’t recognize this blessing of semen.

[11] Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, I.4.16, from Latin trans. Hart & Bishop (1990) p. 119.

[12] Hildegard of Bingen, Ave generosa, 6.2 (Hymn to the Virgin).

[image] Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, Vision I.3, illumination from Meister des Hildegardis-Codex, c. 1165. Thanks to BorgQueen and Wikicommons.


Berger, Margret. 1999. Hildegard of Bingen: on natural philosophy and medicine: selections from Cause et cure. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Hart, Columba and Jane Bishop. 1990. Hildegard of Bingen. Scivias. New York: Paulist Press.

Kaiser, Paul, ed. 1903. Hildegard of Bingen. Hildergardis Causae et curae. Lipsiae: in aedibus B.G. Teubneri.

Moulinier, Laurence and Rainer Berndt. 2003. Hildegard of Bingen. Beate Hildegardis Cause et cure. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Newman, Barbara. 1987. Sister of wisdom: St. Hildegard’s theology of the feminine. Aldershot: Scolar.

Palmquist, Mary, John S. Kulas, and Patrick Madigan, trans. 1994. Hildegard of Bingen. Holistic Healing. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press.{English translation from German translation of Latin}

Sweet, Victoria. 2006. Rooted in the earth, rooted in the sky: Hildegard of Bingen and premodern medicine. New York: Routledge.

play of contrasts in Dhuoda’s learned work

Amerika by Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival

Near the beginning of Liber Manualis, the learned Duchess Dhuoda wrote to her fifteen-year-old son, “You and I must quest for God, my son.” To him she declared her unworthiness and feebleness. She then offered a metaphor:

Now it sometimes happens that a troublesome little female puppy among the other whelps under the master’s table can seize and devour the crumbs that fall. He who made the mouth of a dumb animal speak has the power, according to his mercy from of old, to open my senses and give me understanding. … At least I may gaze from under his table, that is to say, within the Holy Church, at the little male whelps in the distance, those who are ministers to the sacred altars. From among the crumbs, I shall be able to gather — by spiritual wisdom — for myself and you, William, my beautiful son, words that are beautiful and luminous and worthy.[1]

William probably wouldn’t have understand well his mother as a “troublesome little female puppy.” A sense of Dhuoda’s inadequacy is only the beginning of her meaning. Her metaphor grows into much different understanding.

Dhuoda’s metaphor discards worldly distinctions in the quest for God. Dhuoda’s metaphor doesn’t hierarchically distinguish priests, herself, and her son. Dhuoda, not “ministers to the sacred altars,” acts to serve William. Dhuoda’s reference to making a dumb animal speak comes from a similar self-reference by the eminent bishop Gregory of Tours.[2] In Dhuoda’s metaphor, the male priests are, like her, whelps within the mother Holy Church. Dhuoda’s metaphor is based on the biblical pericope of the Canaanite woman and Jesus. That pericope is plausibly interpreted as showing Jesus mocking his disciples’ arrogance. The Canaanite woman, tried in ways that didn’t demean pagan heroes, emerged as a Christian hero in service to her daughter. Dhuoda wanted to be such a woman for her son William.

With considerable literary skill, Dhuoda mocked a writer’s figure of  professional self-importance. A classical Sanskrit text from roughly 2000 years ago declares:

if the whole sea were filled with ink, and the earth made of paper, and all the inhabitants of the terrestrial globe were only employed in writing, that would not suffice to give an exact account of all the miracles Krishha has performed [3]

One of the earliest and most secure jobs for persons with literary learning has been and remains to recognize, support, and praise the important and great acts of a patron. Implicit in the “sea of ink” figure is the importance of the writer’s job. Dhuoda ridiculously expanded the writer’s figure of professional self-importance and balanced it with an expansive description of God’s greatness:

if heaven and earth were extended through the sky like a charter on a spread-out sheet of parchment, and if all the gulfs of the sea were transformed, tinged like inks of many colors, and if all the earth’s inhabitants born in the world from the beginning until now were — through some increase of human wisdom, an impossibility contrary to nature — writers, they would not be able to capture the grandeur, the breadth, the loftiness, and be able to tell of the depth, of the sublimity and divinity, and wisdom, and goodness, and mercy of him who is called God.[4]

Dhuoda’s literary reconstruction of the “sea of ink” figure preceded by more than a millennium a related deconstruction of it by the celebrated U.S. public figure Oliver Wendall Holmes. In 1890, he wrote:

If all the trees in all the woods were men,
And each and every blade of grass a pen;
If every leaf on every shrub and tree
Turned to a sheet of foolscap; every sea
Were changed to ink, and all the earth’s living tribes
Had nothing else to do but act as scribes,
And for ten thousand ages, day and night,
The human race should write, and write and write,
Till all the pens and paper were used up,
And the huge inkstand was an empty cup,
Still would the scribblers clustered round its brink
Call for more pens, more paper, and more ink.[5]

Dhuoda was more subtle than Holmes, and less cynical. She also seems to have truly believed that God is great and uncircumscribable.[6]

Dhuoda’s discussion of fornication includes a subtle, playful contrast. The headline contrast seems to be a highly formulaic contrast between fornication and chastity. Dhuoda gave her son relevant biblical wisdom:

Avoid fornication, my son, and drive your thoughts away from any harlot woman.[7]

She also implicitly acknowledged the difficulty of following that wisdom. Since eyes may stray, she counseled William to have inner strength. She also warned of the sexual “shamelessness of women,” implicitly meaning some women in particular circumstances. When women illicitly approach lustfully, she urged him, “Fend them off!” Sexuality in marriage is a sharply contrasting affair. Dhuoda enumerated holy biblical men who married and had children. She joyfully envisioned William having children. Dhuoda commended as husbands:

{men} who soldiered within the marriage-bed and applied themselves to keeping a heart pure in Christ.[8]

The late-eighth-century Arabic text Bilauhar and Budasaf described a knight who recognized his foremost martial-marital responsibility: to be always ready to satisfy his wife’s sexual desire, lest she stray from the marriage bed. Whether Dhuoda knew that story or a similar story is lost in history. But even without that context, her marital advice to her young, unmarried son has personal sparkle.

Dhuoda’s love for her son is at the core of her writing for him. Her writing conveys the immediacy of a specific relation of love. Yet Dhuoda is also a subtle, complex writer. She offers a sophisticated, Trinitarian understanding of love and much joy in play of contrasts.

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[1] Dhuoda, Liber manualis, 1.2, from Latin trans. Thiébaux (1998) p. 61. I’ve changed “its master’s table” to “the master’s table” to indicate that the master is the master of all the whelps. Similarly, I’ve changed “their crumbs” to “the crumbs”: the crumbs are from the master for everyone. The word for whelps is catulos. That can mean either whelps in general or male whelps specifically. The second instance of that word refers to “ministers of the sacred altars.” For that instance only, I’ve replaced “whelps” with “male whelps.” Subsequent text from Liber manualis is from id., with some minor changes I’ve made.

[2] Dronke (1984) pp. 49-50, with additional explanation printed in Thiébaux (1998) p. 242, n. 7. Dronke notes “certain fundamental tensions in what Dhuoda says.”

[3] For source notes, see my post, “sea of ink: writing across Eurasia,” note [3].

[4] Liber manualis, 1.6, pp. 67-8. The translation above incorporates the adaptation of Nelson (2007) p. 117, inc. n. 48.

[5] Oliver Wendall Holmes, Sr. “Cacoethes Scribendi.

[6] That the fullness of God is all encompassing and beyond human understanding is a theme in Dhuoda’s work. Liber manualis, Bk 1-2.

[7] Liber manualis, 4.6, p. 143.

[8] Id. 4.6, pp. 143, 145. I’ve adapted Nelson’s correction of Thiébaux’s minor translation error. Nelson (2007) p. 115, n. 42. Dhuoda referred to the “shameless of women” in the context of Potiphar’s wife accosting Joseph and then falsely accusing him of rape. Liber manualis, 3.3, p. 91. “Fend them off” is from id. 4.6, p. 143.

[image] Amerika — A Refuge, detail. Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), Acrylic paint on printed paper on canvas, 1990-91, 91.34, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC.


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

Nelson, Janet L. 2007. “Dhuoda.” Pp. 106-20 in Wormald, Patrick, and Janet L. Nelson. Lay intellectuals in the Carolingian world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thiébaux, Marcelle, trans. 1998. Dhuoda. Liber manualis: handbook for her warrior son. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Liber Manualis: mother wanted perfect son & provided handbook

representing Dhuoda, Liber Manualis, and her son

Image a mother writing to her fifteen-year-old son: “I urge you to be a perfect man. … And I would show you how to become such a man with God’s help.” Her son was already in active military service. She declared to him that she would be “your mentor in all things.” Those aren’t the words of a delusional single mother from Hell. They are the words of Dhuoda.[1]

Dhuoda loved and appreciated men personally. She was intensely loyal to her husband and two sons. Since Dhuoda shouldered significant administrative burdens in the ninth-century European royal court of Louis the Pious, she undoubtedly knew well men outside of her immediate family.[2] But the burdens of public work and divisions of gender meant less to Dhuoda than her relation to her son. She confessed her weaknesses and failings to her son.[3] She nonetheless believed that she could, with God’s help, show her son how to be a perfect man. Such a man, “traversing the earth, tramples mud and clay underfoot because of his worthy merits.” Men traversing the earth could be treasures far above earthen vessels. She wanted her “noble boy” to be such a man: “I wish you to show him to me.”[4]

Dhuoda’s love for her son was deeply Trinitarian. Not actually attempting to be his mentor in all things, she demurred from explicating for him the Holy Trinity:

The Holy Trinity, then, as we read, my son, encompasses Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What I might be capable of composing for you in this portion of my little book, I neither dare, nor have the right. Read the volumes of the orthodox Fathers, and you’ll find what the Trinity is.

Dhuoda described understanding of the Holy Trinity as arising in holy Fathers’ mirror vision:

Many among them contemplated as in a mirror the figure of the Holy Trinity, before the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and they confessed and worshiped the Most High. So it is told that one of them, while seated beneath the oak of Mamre, saw three men coming down the road toward him. Gazing on them as the semblance of the highest Trinity, he speaks to the three as one, and so on. “He saw three, and worshiped one.” One in three and three in one, that is the Trinity.

Dhuoda also recognized the Trinity in threefold patterns of words. Showing confidence in her son’s capacity to perceive what she didn’t mention explicitly, Dhuoda wrote:

another among the Fathers, whose name I believe is not hidden from you, expressed himself this way in one of his poems, saying, “May God bless us, our God, may God bless us!” The first time he says ‘God,’ he means the Father. The second time he says ‘God,’ he means the Son. The third time he says ‘God,’ he means the Holy Spirit.[5]

Dhuoda didn’t understand the Trinity atomistically. Discussing the Trinity led her to writing on hope, faith, and love. She quoted the Apostle Paul, “There are three things — hope, faith, and love –and the greatest of these is love.”[6] Like the Libro de buen amor, Dhuoda’s book is generically diverse. The unity is in love.

Dhuoda didn’t believe in or impose on her son an oppressive, totalizing ideology of matriarchy. Trinitarian love is key to understanding the mysterious beginning of her text for her son:

This little book has been set up to reveal a threefold design. Read the whole work, and by the end you’ll be able to grasp it more fully. I want the three guidelines to be marked with equal emphasis in the very useful sequence of my teachings: Precepts, Form, and Handcraft. Each of these parts of the discourse pertains to us both in every way. Precepts come from me, the Form they realize is within you; Handcraft is as much from me as it is for you, composed by my hand and received in yours.[7]

Dhuoda summarized her little book of handcraft in a way that might evoke in a teenage boy tedium, misery, and chores:

hoc est sermo ex me, opus in te
{this is a speech from me, giving work to you}[8]

Elsewhere, however, Dhuoda summarized her handcraft more elaborately in a simile connecting response to the Holy Trinity to response to her work:

Sicut in hoc opusculo parvitatis meae inveneris, tene, crede, et opere comple
{(As with the Trinity) just as with what you have found in this little work of my insignificance — take it, believe in it, and complete the work}[9]

Dhuoda called her son to complete with her the work of living a life of love. Precepts, Form, Handcraft — Father, Son, Holy Spirit: these trinities express relationships of love. “Each of these parts of the discourse pertains to us both in every way.”[10] The Holy Spirit is Dhuoda’s love for her son and his love for her. It will be realized in the breath of her son reading aloud the handcraft that he received in his hands from her. The Precepts are from God for Dhuoda and her son. The work of realizing the Precepts in this world gives Dhuoda and her son the Form of the Son. If that seems mysterious, just understand that it mirrors the Holy Trinity.[11] It’s not about authority, but about love.

For Dhuoda, Godly love is inextricably associated with worldly joy. She began her text with the Trinitarian description of its design. Following that she wrote, “In the name of the Holy Trinity.” Then she wrote more clearly in a variety of ways. She wrote a simple section of longing and concern for her son. She wrote acrostic verses spelling, “Dhuoda, to her beloved son William. Read!” Far from sermonizing, she wrote heartwarming blessings for her son:

In jubilant joy, may he run a glad course,
shining with virtue and reaching the heights.
Obtaining all just things — may this be his aim
You who give without scorn, grant him good sense
Verily to know you, to believe you, to love you,
and praise you with redoubled thanks, Holy One.
Visit upon him your bounteous grace,
with peace and safety of body and mind.
In this world may he and his children flourish,
and have good things here, while not losing them there.[12]

Dhuoda complemented the profundity of her Trinitarian design with figures of simple pleasure:

The game of backgammon, among other pleasurable pursuits, is agreed to be a most congenial and apt pastime for young people. And some women will customarily peer at their own faces in the mirror so that they may cleanse away the spots of dirt and show themselves radiant and, in a worldly way, give pleasure to their husbands. In just such a way, I would like you, in spite of the pressures of your worldly occupations, to give your devoted attention — for my sake — to the reading of this little book which I have addressed to you. Give it that same degree of attention and zeal that others give to looking in the mirror or playing backgammon.[13]

That last line is better interpreted as subtly playful, rather than sarcastic. Dhuoda’s text has similarities to a mirror for princes. She almost surely was familiar with the mirror for princes genre.[14] Love can be a simple pleasure, like playing backgammon or pleasing your spouse. Whether rewriting an Ovidian love elegy or advising her son to take as “mistress” of his fleshly birth “the Greek system of numerical calculation,” Dhuoda subtly played with the popular mirror for princes genre to express love and joy.[15]

The mirror for princes genre concerns seeing yourself  in the other. That’s a common human mode of personal imposition. Dhuoda was a holy, loving mother, as well as an elite public figure in the ninth-century Frankish royal court of Charlemagne’s son. Rather than offering her son a conventional mirror for princes, she lovingly offered him a mirrored Trinity of relationships: Father, Son, Holy Spirit — Precepts, Form, Handicraft.

Dhuoda didn’t seek to circumscribe Williams’ development. She encouraged him to pursue a broad course of book learning. She urged him to cultivate friendships with young and old men. She implored, “learn all that you can from men who are great and intellectually able.” She showed William that he could learn from behavior of animals such as stags and doves.[16] Dhuoda was Williams’ mentor in all thing in the fullness of her Christian love.

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[1] Dhuoda, Liber Manualis (Book of Handcraft), “The chapters of this book” & 6.2 (be perfect man), 7.1 (active military service), 11.1 (mentor in all things), from Latin trans. Thiébaux (1998) pp. 55, 185, 191, 233. Id. includes the Latin text. All subsequent quotes are from id. with minor changes reflecting my sense of better translation. Neel (1991) provides an alternate English translation. Dhuoda’s text has prompted monstrous interpretations of her:

Once “entombed,” Dhuoda continues her utterances from the vantage point of the next world, all the while perpetuating her authorial stance. … The stratagem of the epitaph seems paradoxically to energize the speaker, to reaffirm her creative vitality. The unextinguishable mother rises up out of the grave, exhuming herself to start a new chapter, for now she must instruct William on the Psalms!

Thiébaux (1998) intro., p. 34. The son to whom Dhuoda wrote was William. A early medieval scholar declared:

William could have been a highly placed and a lifelong adviser to the king if things had worked out differently. Perhaps, if William had followed the examples his mother provided on giving advice at court, things would have.

Chandler (2010), p. 271. Dhuoda was far from a guilt-tripping parent. She cannot fairly be imagined to have ever uttered a “if you had just listened to me …” reproach after her husband or child experienced painful failure. Id. doesn’t suggest that she would have uttered such a reproach.

[2] Dhuoda, Liber Manualis, 10.4, id. pp.227. In 2012 Janet Nelson presented a paper at Oxford entitled, “Putting Dhuoda in Context.”  Jonathan Jarrett reported his impression of that paper:

Looking back at this paper, therefore, apart from the affection that Jinty {Professor Dame Janet Nelson} brought to her subject and which the capacity crowd demonstrated for her, what stands out for me is that if all we had was the career pattern, some kind of itinerary (which in fact we don’t have) and the odd reference in other texts, except for being married to a man this career would look like a respectable one for any courtier of the period: get educated at court, marry someone you met there, wind up with an administrative position for which you’re partly qualified by your ancestry in a difficult position during a time of civil war that ultimately costs you most of your family … I mean, there are male relatives of Bernard’s about whom we cannot say as much or even demonstrate them as important. Just because the title of countess was not yet used by powerful women of the Midi as it would be a century later doesn’t mean that we’re not looking at one of them when we read this text

Although titles like courtier or king typically haven’t been applied to women historically, women have always been intimately associated with power. One under-appreciated gender difference, however, is that men have been more likely to be killed, and their deaths have been of less social concern. A similar pattern also holds for rape.

[3] Dhuoda confessed that she was “sluggish in praising God.”  Id. 10.4, p. 225. She declared, “I, Dhuoda, slothful and negligent, fragile and always inclining toward the abyss, do not delight in prayers — not only long ones, but not even short ones.” Id. 2.2., p. 79. Regarding her instruction to William about God, she stated: “I am not able to deliver a wholly perfected discourse, nor have I the power, nor is it my responsibility.” Id. 1.4, p. 63.

[4] Id. 6.2, p. 185 (perfect man traversing the earth). Cf. 2 Corinthians 4:7. Dhuoda called her son’s attention to “him who formed you from clay.” Id. Prologue, p. 49. Dhuoda refers to Willam as “noble boy” (nobilis puer) four times. Id. 4.7, p. 145; 9.5, p. 215; 10.4, p. 227; 11.2, p. 237. “Show him {perfect man} to me.” Id. 6.2, p. 185. Isaiah 64:8 (“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; / we are the clay, and you are our potter; / we are all the work of your hand.”) excuses failings. Dhuoda’s Liber Manualis provides further handcraft to seek perfection.

[5] Id. 2.1, p. 73 (three prior quotes). The Psalm verse in contemporary numbering is Psalm 67:6-7. The Psalms are traditionally attributed to King David.

[6] Id. 2.2 p. 75.

[7] Id. Incipit textus, p. 41. I’ve used “Precepts, Form, and Handcraft” for the Latin “Norma, Forma et Manualis.” Thiébaux has “The Rule, the Form, and the Handbook.” After stating, “this little book in the form of handcraft consists of speech from me, giving work to you” (see subsequent text above), this section concludes pointing to God: “I have taken my work to its end in him who is called God.”

[8] Id. Incipit textus, p. 42, my Latin translation. Id. combines the relevant Latin into a broader clause: “this little book in the form of a handbook consists of words from me, and their actualization in you.”

[9] Id 2.1, p. 74, my Latin translation. Sicut (like / as) seems to me to be quite significant in context (see above). Thiébaux gives sicut no significance and has: “What you will have found in this little work of my insignificance — take it, believe in it, complete the task.” The translation in Neel (1991), p. 16, also gives sicut no significance.

[10] Id. Incipit textus, p. 41.

[11] Mayeski (1995), which addresses Dhuoda’s Christian understanding at length, fails to recognize Dhuoda’s original use of Trinitarian understanding:

Her book on the search for God is followed by some chapters on the Trinity and the theological virtues. Dhuoda seems greatly concerned that William’s understanding of this central Christian teaching be completely orthodox. Undoubtedly this is a reflection of the trinitarian controversies that had divided the Carolingian kingdom in the previous century, and Dhuoda’s thought contributes nothing original.

Id p. 58. Liber Manualis in modern published versions consists of 11 books. That division doesn’t imply that Dhuoda abandoned her “threefold design.” The division of Liber Manualis into 11 books is a modern textual convention.

[12] Dhuoda, Liber Manualis,verse inscription, p. 45. These verse in id. are indented as couplets. Blessing is an important component of Dhuoda’s work. A common pattern in Liber Manualis: Dhuoda offers precepts (moral rules of conduct) not of her own, but taken from scriptural texts and theologians, and then she invokes related blessings for William.

[13] Id. prologue, p. 49. Translating tabularum lusus and tabulis,  I’ve used the more specific “backgammon” rather than Thiébaux’s “game of tables” and “board game.” Cf. id. n. 23, p. 241 and p. 28.

[14] In addition to the women looking at their own faces in a mirror to see how to make themselves more beautiful for their husbands, Dhuoda refers to a mirror three other times. Immediately following the figure of the women looking at their own faces in a mirror, she writes:

You will find in this book in succinct form all that you want to know. You will also find in it a mirror, in which without a doubt you can fix your gaze upon the health of your soul.

Id. Prologue, p. 49. Another figure of mirror replaces William’s self with Dhuoda:

you have here as a memento of me this little book of moral counsels. And you can gaze upon me as an image in a mirror, by reading with mind and body and by praying to God

Id. 1.7, pp. 69. 70. The references to body and praying to God turn that figure away from visualizing a spiritual master. Dhuoda refers to Abraham “contemplating as in a mirror” the Holy Trinity in seeing three angels. Id. 2.1, p. 73. That’s not a simple typological figure. It presents Abraham as a typological interpreter avant la lettre (and before the New Testament) who is himself implicated in the mirroring. Taken together, Dhuoda’s figuring of a mirror is far from simple and conventional.

[15] Id. 7.1, p. 191, rewrites a quote from Ovid, Amores 3.11b. In Amores 3.11b, the poet’s voice laments that he is enslaved to his lover’s carnal beauty, but repelled by her lack of virtue. Dhuoda insist that William understand Ovid’s verse as meaning that spiritual and fleshly life cannot be separated: “The one cannot exist in the human race without the other.” Dhuoha’s brilliant re-writing of Ovid leads immediately into her witty figure of a mistress:

No one is ignorant of the fact that in our our first birth {in the flesh} each one of us is born in sin. You will gain an insight into this, to some extant, from the Greek system of numerical calculation, which I entreat you to learn. This is an art worthy of the most expert scholars and in all ways a mistress who will provide great illumination.

Id. 7.2, p. 191. Scholars have tended to under-appreciate Dhuoda’s joyful whimsy, while making her into much more of a contemporary over-bearing mother than her personal sophistication and deep Christian love suggest.

Dhuoda’s Handbook for William, then, presents itself as a source of consolation for a grieving mother. Through this work, she represents her influence on and her love for her absent children. … Dhuoda’s work belongs, like these, to the long-lived genre of the enchiridion or speculum, the moral handbook or mirror.

Neel (1991), introduction, pp. ix, xvii.

Her support of the patriarchy is unimpeachable; yet with all her humble protestations, she expresses a vigorous subtext of maternal authority. … Dhuoda endures as a mother’s voice from the grave, a mother’s mirrored image, her name and book in her own words.

Thiébaux (1998) pp. 3, 37.

Gender did not preclude Dhuoda’s writing for a public, nor the transmission of her work. … She wrote, in short, not only as a mother for her son (and that repeated invocation of him is itself perhaps a bit of literary legerdemain), but as a would-be giver of a second birth in the mind and spirit of other women’s sons.

Nelson (2007) pp. 119-20. Primate societies, which include human societies, have always been and still remain gynocentric. A self-absorbed, over-bearing mother is a microcosm of gynocentric society. But Dhuoda was no such a mother.

[16] Chandler (2010) makes clear that Dhuoda encouraged William to pursue a broad course of book learning. On cultivating friendships with young men and old men, Liber Manualis 3.5, p. 99; great men, id. 3.9. p. 109; stags, id. 3.10, p. 133, and doves, id. 4.1, p. 129.

[image] Composite work meant to evoke Dhuoda and her son. On left, portrait of Isabella of Portugal, from Portrait of Philip the Good and Isabella of Portugal, 16th century, oil on panel. On right, young nobleman, first half of 16th century, Portugal, oil on panel. Images thanks to Museum of Fine Arts (Ghent, Belgium), National Museum of Ancient Art (Lisbon, Portugal), and Wikicommons. Dhuoda lived in the ninth century. To some eyes, she and her son may have little resembled the image I have constructed to evoke them.


Chandler, Cullen J. 2010. “Barcelona BC 569 and a Carolingian programme on the virtues.” Early Medieval Europe. 18 (3): 265-291.

Mayeski, Marie Anne. 1995. Dhuoda: ninth century mother and theologian. Scranton: University of Scranton Press.

Neel, Carol, trans. 1991. Dhuoda. Handbook for William: a Carolingian woman’s counsel for her son. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Nelson, Janet L. 2007. “Dhuoda.” Pp. 106-20 in Wormald, Patrick, and Janet L. Nelson. Lay intellectuals in the Carolingian world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thiébaux, Marcelle, trans. 1998. Dhuoda. Liber manualis: handbook for her warrior son. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

how Paul seduced Thecla in Iconium and brought her to God

Saint Paul, displaying large sword

In the non-biblical Acts of Paul and Thecla, Paul is described as short, bald, and bow-legged. In a biblical epistle, Paul described himself as poorly dressed and homeless.[1] Nonetheless, Paul in Iconium attracted the love of the wealthy, beautiful, young woman Thecla. Her enthrallment with his words and Godly mission prompted her to break off her betrothal to another man. Persecution and imprisonment of Paul didn’t deter Thecla’s love for him. Thecla loved Paul through vicious punishments imposed on her. Acts of Paul and Thecla describes how Paul so completely seduced Thecla.

Paul boldly defied the dominant culture and stood as a man proclaiming the truth as he understood it. In a culture that emphasized men competing for worldly status at sumptuous, sensuous banquets, Paul was a renegade. He urged purity of heart, chastity, renunciation of the world, and following Jesus Christ. Sitting at a window, Thecla heard Paul’s words. She stayed at that window for three days and three nights. She eagerly sought every word that Paul said. She also saw many young single women and married women going to see Paul.[2] Thecla’s mother observed:

my daughter … clinging to the window like a spider, catches his words and grows with a strange eagerness and a fearful passion; for the young woman hangs upon the things he says and has been captivated.[3]

When Thecla’s fiancé Thamyris pleaded to her to leave her position at the window and come to him, she ignored him. Thamyris had “much wine, great wealth, and a splendid table.” Marriage contracts and wealth didn’t matter. Thecla wanted to be with Paul before Paul even noticed her.

Paul being sent to prison prompted Thecla to acts of loving devotion. Thecla was from a wealthy family of Iconium. Her family had slaves that guarded the door of the family home. Thecla nonetheless sought to be with Paul in prison. At night, Thecla bribed the door-keeper with her bracelets to get out of her house unnoticed. She gave a silver mirror to the jailer to get in to see Paul. There she sat at Paul’s feet and kissed his fetters. Paul confidently proclaimed to her the might of God. After some time, Thecla was discovered in prison. She was there affectionately bound with Paul. When Paul was taken away for questioning, Thecla “pressed herself to the place where Paul had sat and taught in the prison.”[4] Thecla yearned for Paul in his absence.

Paul appreciated Thecla’s feminine beauty. Thecla declared to Paul:

I will cut my hair short and follow you wherever you go.[5]

Both in the ancient world and today, men tend to prefer women with long hair. Paul obliquely acknowledged the hostile circumstances for feminine beauty and implicitly indicated that he preferred Thecla to retain her long hair. He also brought up her former betrothal and questioned her faithfulness in their circumstances:

The times are evil, and you are beautiful. May no other temptation come upon you, worse than the first {agreeing to marry Thamyris}, and you do not withstand it but act cowardly in love.

Men who put women on pedestals earn only their frigid praise. Paul had the confidence and skill to tell Thecla of her potential weakness. Thecla responded with eagerness to please Paul and God. Most scholars read the Acts of Paul and Thecla to imply that Thecla cut her hair short. That interpretation lacks understanding of love between a woman and a man. Thecla wanted to be beautiful in Paul’s eyes. She didn’t cut her hair short and didn’t act cowardly in love.

Paul at times acted aloof towards Thecla. Paul took Thecla to Antioch. There Paul rejected the immoral role of pimp or the conventional role of male protector. He required Thecla to act decisively to defend herself:

as soon as they had arrived a Syrian named Alexander, who was one of the leading citizens of Antioch, seeing Thecla, became enamored of her. He sought to persuade Paul as a pimp with money and gifts. But Paul said: “I do not know the woman of whom you speak, nor is she mine.”

Paul then apparently walked away from the scene. Thecla had to deal with the importuning Alexander herself:

{Alexander}, being a powerful man, embraced her on the open street. She however would not tolerate that. She looked about for Paul and cried out bitterly, “Do not force the stranger, do not force the handmaid of God! Among the Iconians I am a leading citizen, and because I would not marry Thamyris, I have been cast out of the city.” And taking hold of Alexander, she tore his cloak, pulled off the crown from his head, and made him a laughing-stock.[6]

Men in general are personally reluctant to be physically aggressive to women. Societies tend to sanction more severely men’s physical aggression to women compared to women’s physical aggression toward men. Paul knew that Thecla could make a laughting-stock of Alexander “on the open street.” Through his actions, he gave her the opportunity to act courageously. She rose to the occasion.

With Thecla facing punishment, Paul left her. Thecla was brought before the governor for her physical and symbolic violence against Alexander. Alexander had embraced Thecla against her will. Perhaps the charge against Thecla was that her response went beyond actions permitted in self-defense. Thecla was a stranger in Antioch. Alexander was a leading citizen of Antioch. Their case apparently was tried in Antioch. Those circumstances don’t favor equal justice, even given justice systems’ typical favoritism toward women. Thecla was condemned to the beasts. But with the vigorous support of the local women and the favor of God, Thecla miraculous prevailed over various trials. Paul, apparently with confidence in such an outcome and dedication to his big mission, didn’t stay in Antioch for Thecla’s trials. He went to work in Myra, about 200 kilometers distant from Antioch. Paul was no Ulrich von Liechtenstein.

Paul’s dedication to his big mission didn’t diminish Thecla’s love for him. After Thecla prevailed over the beasts and was released, she was invited to share the home and wealth of her friend and benefactor, Queen Tryphaena.  Tryphaena was a kinswoman of the Roman emperor. After eight days living with Tryphaena, Thecla yearned for Paul:

Thecla yearned for Paul and sought him, looking in every direction. And she was told that he was in Myra. And wearing a mantle that she had altered so as to make a man’s cloak, she came with a band of young men and young women to Myra. There she found Paul speaking the word of God and went to him.[7]

Paul took Thecla by the hand and led her into a house. There Thecla told Paul all that had happened to her. Thecla’s mother, who had treated her horribly, lived in Iconium.  Thecla declared to Paul, “I am going to Iconium.” Paul responded, “Go and teach the word of God!”  When she arrived in Iconium, Thecla “threw herself down on the floor where Paul had sat and taught the oracles of God.” Thecla wept and praised God. Then she found her mother. Thecla offered her mother not justified reproach or condemnation, but money and her daughter’s presence. After this Christian act of familial forgiveness and love, Thecla went off to witness to the word of God in Seleucia.

Early Christians recognized both Thecla and Paul to be Christian heroes and saints. The Acts of Paul and Thecla was known within the second century of Christianity.[8] In the biblical book Acts of the Apostles, Paul enters and leaves Iconium with Barnabas.[9] Barnabas, however, is effaced from Acts of Paul and Thecla. Women are superior to men in social communication. Concern about women dominating early Christian church life might be perceived in Christian scripture.[10] Yet Acts of Paul and Thecla shouldn’t be interpreted as indicating efforts to have women dominate all aspects of Christian life. Acts of Paul and Thecla teaches men how to realize their wonderful and beneficial power to seduce women and bring them to God.

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[1] 1 Corinthians 4:11. For the description of Paul in Acts of Paul and Thecla, see its s. 2. For available English translations, see note [3] below. Acts of Paul and Thecla is chapters 3 & 4 in a larger work, Acts of Paul. Many other non-biblical texts of acts of the apostles (conventionally called apocryphal acts of the apostles) have survived. These include Acts of John, Acts of Peter, Acts of Andrew, Acts of Thomas, Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles, and Pseudo-Clementines. These works typically center on a woman who converts to Christianity and visits the apostle in prison. Elliott (1993) provides English translations of these and other early Christian texts similar to those in the New Testament.

[2] In terms of modern applied erotic psychology, Thecla saw social proof of Paul’s extraordinary attractiveness. Thecla remained at the window for three days without taking food and drink. That’s a conventional indication of love sickness. Barrier (2009) pp. 90-1, discusses the erotic coloring of the story. There’s no indication that Paul displayed his large sword to Thecla.

[3] Acts of Paul and Thecla, s. 9, from Greek trans. Elliott (1993), adapted slightly to improve the translation.  All subsequent quotes from Acts of Paul and Thecla are similarly from id. Barrier (2009) provides a critical edition with the Greek. R. McL. Wilson’s translation of the German translation of Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher (1959), Neutestamentliche Apokryphen in deutscher Übersetzung, is reprinted in Hansen (1998). A nineteenth-century English translation is available online in the Ante-Nicene Christian Library.

[4] Acts of Paul and Thecla, s. 20. Being “affectionately bound to Paul” has erotic resonances, particularly in the original ancient Greek.

[5] Id., s. 25 (including subsequent quote). Apuleius’ Golden Ass, probably from the mid-second century, provides in the male narrator’s voice extravagant claims about the important of women’s hair:

May there never by an example of a thing as hideous as this! — if you rob a woman’s head of her hair, be she ever so beautiful, ever so extraordinary, if you strip from her face its inborn attraction, well! Even if she were to come down from heaven like a thunderbolt, even if she were born from the sea, brought into being from the waves; even, I say, if she were Venus herself, even if surrounded by the entire chorus of the Graces, even if escorted by a whole nation of Cupids and wearing Venus’ own girdle, smelling of cinnamon and dripping with balsam — should she make her entrance bald, she wouldn’t be able to please even her husband Vulcan.

Golden Ass, s. 2.8, from Latin trans. Relihan (2007) pp. 28-9.  See similarly s. 11.3, id. p. 234. In the subsequent quote, Thecla’s words evoke the words of Ruth to Naomi, Ruth 16.

[6] Id., s. 26 (sec. 4.1 in the Acts of Paul). Barrier (2009), p. 140, notes that Paul’s acts in this section “have been grossly misinterpreted.” Id. interprets them in terms of the plots of the Greek novels and the over-all trajectory of Acts of Paul and Thecla. I favor above a more immediately contextualized interpretation in terms of Paul’s aversion to being cast as a pimp and his natural behavior as a man to whom women are passionately attracted.

[7] Acts of Paul and Thecla, s. 40 (sec. 4.15 in the Acts of Paul).

[8] Tertullian apparently referred to the account:

if certain Acts of Paul, which are falsely so named, claim the example of Thecla for allowing women to teach and to baptize, let men know that in Asia the presbyter who compiled that document, thinking to add of his own to Paul’s reputation, was found out, and though he professed he had done it for love of Paul, was deposed from his position.

Tertullian, De baptismo (On baptism), s. 17, from Latin trans. Evans (1964).

[9] Acts 14:1-5.

[10] E.g. 1 Corinthians 14:26-39. For compelling examples of modern gynocentrism, see Kraemer (2011) Ch. 4, and Ratcliffe (2014). Consider: “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” (1 Corinthians 14:36). That verse reads prophetically today like literature of men’s sexed protests. However, the underlying Greek for “you” is the masculine plural. The masculine plural was used generically to encompass women and men. See D.A. Carsen, “Silent in the Church,” ft. 47. From a Christian perspective, the word of God was born of a woman. But that doesn’t necessarily imply the inevitability of woman’s dominance of Christian theology, Christian literature, and Christian churches.

[image] Saint Paul, displaying large sword. Detail from work of Bernardo Daddi, 1333, tempera on panel. Thanks to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.


Barrier, Jeremy W., ed. and trans. 2009. The Acts of Paul and Thecla: a critical introduction and commentary. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Elliott, J. K., trans. 1993. The Apocryphal New Testament: a collection of apocryphal Christian literature in an English translation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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

Kraemer, Ross Shepard. 2011. Unreliable witnesses: religion, gender, and history in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ratcliffe, Rosie. 2014. “The Acts of Paul and Thecla: Violating the Inviolate Body – Thecla Uncut.” Ch. 10 in Taylor, Joan E., ed. The body in biblical, Christian and Jewish texts. London; New York: Bloomsbury.

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

how Mary Magdalene became a repentant prostitute

Mary Magdalene kissing Jesus' feet

According to the Christian New Testament, seven demons were cast out of Mary Magdalene. She stood by Jesus at his crucifixion. She was at his tomb when he was buried. She was the first person Jesus addressed after his resurrection.[1] Nowhere in the bible is Mary Magdalene explicitly described as a prostitute.

In eastern Christian tradition, Mary Magdalene is regarded as having lived a life of great virtue. She is regarded as having been a close companion of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In western Christian tradition, various Mary’s within the Gospels were identified with Mary Magdalene.[2] Mary Magdalene came to be regarded as a repentant prostitute only in western Christian tradition.

The association of Mary Magdalene with sexual sin has various biblical sources. Mary Magdalene was identified with the city woman who was a sinner. That woman, who had many sins, bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiped his feet with her hair, and anointed his feet with oil. The seven demons cast out of Mary Magdalene were identified with seven deadly sins. One of those sins was lust. Jesus told the chief priests and elders of his people that tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the Kingdom of God ahead of them.[3] Mary Magdalene was the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. Mary Magdalene was thus identified as a repentant prostitute.

Ancient lives of saints include stories of women who worked explicitly as prostitutes and became holy women. Saint Thais, thought to have lived in fourth-century Roman Egypt, earned great wealth as a high-class prostitute. She gave up all her wealth and became a woman religious and a saint. Saint Pelagia was a leading actress, dancer, and prostitute in ancient Antioch. She repented and became a famous holy woman. Saint Mary, the niece of the monk Abraham, sinned against the Christian faith and in despair went to work in a brothel. Abraham heroically rescued her. She became a devout nun. Saint Mary of Egypt desired sex with men so much that she didn’t want to deter any of them by charging them for sex with her. She subsequently became a leading desert mother. Identifying Mary Magdalene as a prostitute associated her with these other women saints.

Identifying Mary Magdalene as a prostitute tends to separate her from men. Men historically have lacked equal opportunities with women to become prostitutes. In the Christian bible, Jesus told the chief priests and elders of his people that tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the Kingdom of God ahead of them. Mary Magdalene could have been identified as a tax collector or some other type of bureaucrat. Many men and women today are bureaucrats. Bureaucrats too can repent and seek salvation.

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[1] Luke 8:2, Mark 16:9 (casting out seven demons); Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, John 19:25 (at crucifixion); Matthew 27:61, Mark 15:47 (at burial); John 20:14-18, Luke 24:10, Mark 16:9 (first to see Jesus post-resurrection).

[2] Ward (1987) Ch. 2. In a homily in 591, Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great) identified Mary Magdalene with the Mary who kissed and anointed Jesus’ feet in Luke’s gospel and with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Homily 33, from Latin trans. Hurst (1990). Those associations was probably common at least two centuries earlier. Ward (1987) p. 13. Names tended to be less standardized and less widely distinguishing among ordinary persons in the ancient world. Hence distinguishing among different persons based on different uses of the name Mary isn’t straight-forward.

[3] Luke 7:36-50 (sinful woman washing and anointing Jesus’ feet); Matthew 21:31 (tax collectors and sinners entering heaven ahead of hypocrites). Understanding Mary Magdalene to be a repentant sinner is a reasonable interpretation of scripture. But that interpretation isn’t necessary. Other interpretations are also reasonable.

[image] Mary Magdalene kissing the feet of Jesus. Early 14th century, Chapel of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino in Basilica of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino, Tolentino, Italy. Thanks to Mattana and Wikicommons.


Hurst, David, trans. 1990. Gregory the Great. Forty gospel homilies. Kalamazoo, Mich: Cistercian Publications.

Ward, Benedicta. 1987. Harlots of the desert: a study of repentance in early monastic sources. Kalamazoo, Mich: Cistercian Publications.

Basilius & Gallicanus: Hrotsvit on men’s entitlement to love

Men throughout history have been willing to trade their souls and their lives for women’s love. Men have not understood that they are essentially entitled to love by their very being.[1] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, a noble, learned woman religious of tenth century Old Saxony, rejected requiring men to sacrifice their souls or their lives for women’s love.

In her story Basilius, Hrotsvit presented the desperate action of a servant in love with his master’s daughter. The servant wanted to marry his master’s daughter, rather than merely be sexual entertainment for her and him. Men commonly marry women of much lower social status than them. Women, in contrast, typically are much more concerned to marry up. The servant “knew himself unworthy for such an exalted union.” But he didn’t accept that dominant, gender-disparate personal valuation. He sought to subvert gynocentric marital privilege with a magician’s spell to “bind the daughter’s tender heart / to the servant’s affection and in equal passion.”[2] The magician offered to cast such a spell in exchange for the servant pledging his soul to the devil. The servant, lacking sense of men’s entitlement to love, agreed to trade his soul for love.

Hrotsvit redeemed the servant from his desperate trade for love. Recognizing the priority of his daughter’s desire, the father reluctantly agreed to assent to and fund his daughter’s marriage to his servant. Although the daughter’s love arose from a magician’s spell, she nonetheless loved her husband with Christian love. In particular, she acted to rescue him from his deal with the devil. She guilefully extracted from her husband a confession of his evil deed. She then went to Basil, the Bishop of Caesarea, to plead for her husband’s salvation. The Bishop imposed a regime of penance on her husband. That freed him from the devil and returned him to Christ. Underscoring men’s entitlement to love, Bishop Basil didn’t deprive the servant of his high-born wife. Hrotsvit emphasized the priority of men’s loving relationship with God.[3]

Basil of Caesarea, hero of Hrotsvit's Basilius

In her play Gallicanus, Hrotsvit subverted the romantic plot of a man undertaking great risks to his life in exchange for a woman’s love. Gallicanus was a non-Christian general serving the Christian Roman emperor Constantine. Gallicanus had consecrated himself to military service on behalf of Constantine and the Roman Empire:

I am ready to obey your orders if it costs me my life.[4]

In return for leading a dangerous military offensive against the Scythians, Gallicanus sought the prize of marrying Constantine’s daughter Constantia. Gallicanus declared that in “hard and strenuous fighting,” the thought of the prize of marrying Constantia would give him new strength. Constantine recognized that Gallicanus’ services were necessary for the defense of the empire. Yet Emperor Constantine feared challenging his daughter’s choice of how she wanted to live her life. She had consecrated herself to God. In response to the desperate need of her father and the Empire, Constantia declared:

I would rather die. … I will keep my vow inviolate. Nothing can ever force me to break it. [5]

Women in fact rule above most men’s understanding. Constantia proposed to her father a guileful strategy to bring Gallicanus to Christ and save the Roman Empire. He assented to her plan.

Constantia’s strategy saved Gallicanus’ life. Constantia prayed and acted to bring Gallicanus to Christ. Amid a deadly battle, with his troops being mowed down and wanting to surrender, Constantia’s efforts yielded fruit. Gallicanus vowed to become a Christian. Christ and angelic soldiers immediately entered the battle on behalf of Gallicanus. The tide of battle instantly turned. The enemy king surrendered. When he returned victorious to Rome, Gallicanus declared:

I have surrendered myself completely to the will of God. I am ready to renounce even your daughter, whom I love more than anything in the world. I wish to abstain from marriage that I may devote myself wholly to the service of the Virgin’s Son.[6]

Despite her vigorous efforts, Heloise failed to save Abelard. Constantia succeeded in saving Gallicanus. Hrotsvit, who surely had great respect for Jerome, had Gallicanus leave Rome to become a disciple of the holy man Hilarion.[7] Gallicanus planned to live the rest of his life in love: “praising God and helping the poor.”

In a way scarcely conceivable today, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim in Basilius and Gallicanus affirmed that men are entitled to love. Human societies’ failures to recognize men’s entitlement to love has made human societies less humane than bonobo societies. Medieval European ideals of chivalry devalued men’s lives. Rebuilding civilization requires regaining love for men.

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[1] A horrifying example of this lack of understanding is a celebrated medieval tale of a knight who suffered needlessly grievous bodily injuries to please a woman. Leading thinkers about love today advocate the use of an ascii penis in men’s text conversations with women. That can be understood as affirming an important aspect of men’s value.

[2] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, Basilius, from Latin trans. Wilson (1998) p. 22 (including previous quote). Hrotsvit’s story of Basilius is adapted from Basil of Caesarea’s vita and miracula by ps.-Amphilochios (BHG 246yff), “De iuvene qui Christum Negaverat,” which goes back to a fifth-century Greek life. A related work is the Latin poem, “De Proterii filia,” in the Cambridge Songs, 30a, ed. and trans. Ziolkowski (1994). It seems not to have been based on Hrotsvit’s Basilius. Id. p. 269. Another related story is the beneficial tale W796. Wiegand (1936) provides the Latin text of Hrotsvit’s Basilius and an alternate English translation.

[3] In the Latin life of Basil of Caesarea (vita and miracula by ps.-Amphilochios), Basil explicitly returns the servant to his high-status wife. Hrotsvit’s Basilius didn’t include that narrative detail:

For Hrotsvit, the human drama and the sacred drama lie side by side in the story, the former leading and giving way to the latter.

Wailes (2006) p. 95. “De Proterii filia,” Cambridge Songs 30a, made the same choice.

[4] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, Gallicanus, from Latin trans. St. John (1923) p. 4. The subsequent quote is from id. Hrotsvit drew upon the life of Saint Gallicanus

[5] Id. p.7

[6] Constantine proposed that Gallicanus live in the palace with him and his daughter. Gallicanus responded:

What temptation is to be feared more that the lust of the eyes? … is it right that I should see her too often? As you know, I love her more than my own kin, more than my life, more than my soul!”

Gallicanus statement in part reflects his immaturity as a new Christian. However, the twelfth-century monk-leader Bernard of Clairvaux recognized men’s sexual vitality:

To be always in a woman’s company without having carnal knowledge of her – is this not a greater miracle than raising the dead? You cannot perform the lesser feat; do you expect me to believe that you can do the greater?

Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermones in Cantica canticoraum, Sermon 65, par. 4. Because women’s sexuality is now much weaker than it was in olden times, women and men working together today creates fewer sexual challenges.

[7] Jerome wrote the life of Hilarion. Hilarion was later recognized as a saint.

[image] St. Basil of Caesarea. St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev, 11th century icon. Thanks to Wikicommons.


St. John, Christopher, trans. 1923. The plays of Roswitha. New York: B. Blom.

Wailes, Stephen L. 2006. Spirituality and politics in the works of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press.

Wiegand, Sister M. Gonsalva. 1936. The non-dramatic works of Hrosvitha; text, translation, and commentary. Ph.D. Thesis. St. Louis University.

Wilson, Katharina M., trans. 1998. Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: a florilegium of her works. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer.

Wortley, John. 2001. “Some Light on Magic and Magicians in Late Antiquity.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies. 42 (3): 289.

Ziolkowski, Jan M., ed. and trans. 1994. The Cambridge songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland Pub.

venerating Marian icon in the life of Mary of Egypt

icon of St. Mary of Egypt

As a young woman in the large, ancient city of Alexandria, Mary of Egypt exercised her strong, independent sexuality. Driven by her carnal interests, Mary traveled with a large group of men to Jerusalem. There throngs celebrated the discovery of a relic of the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Mary, however, was unable to enter the church that held the cross. An “overwhelming power” held her back.

Mary’s prayer to a Marian icon released her from the sins that held her back. While standing in the church courtyard lamenting her exclusion, “a salvific word touched the eyes of my heart.” She recognized her sinful behavior:

I began to cry, lamenting and beating my breast, raising sighs from the depths of my heart.  As I was crying, I saw the icon of the all-holy Mother of God standing above the place where I stood. I looked straight at Her and said, “Virgin Lady, Thou Who didst give flesh to God the Word by birth, I know, I know well that it is neither decent, nor reasonable for me who is so filthy and utterly prodigal, to look upon Thy icon. … help me, a lone woman who has no one to help her. Command that I, too, may be allowed to enter the church. … Command, my Lady, that the door may be opened also to me, that I may venerate the divine cross; … from the moment I look upon the wood of Thy Son’s cross, I shall immediately renounce the world and all worldly things, and I shall go wherever Thou shall instruct and guide me, as the guarantor of my salvation. [1]

As soon as she spoke these words, Mary “received the fire of faith just like some kind of assurance.” She entered the church effortlessly. She saw the relic of the “life-giving cross.” She kissed the ground in front of it. Then Mary rushed outside to address the icon. Kneeling in front of it, she said:

O my Lady, Thou Who lovest goodness hast shown me Thy love for mankind, for Thou didst not abhor the prayers of an unworthy woman. … Guide me now wherever Thou dost command. Be the teacher of my salvation and guide me toward the path which leads to repentance.

A voice instructed Mary to cross the river Jordan and go into the desert wilderness. There Mary lived an austere and secluded life. The story of her life established her as Saint Mary of Egypt, a desert mother. She became an eremitic leader greater than Saint Paul the First Hermit and the famous Saint Antony.

Attributing spiritual powers to images has been common among humans across cultures and throughout history.  In Western Eurasia, the status of images in Christianity were central to major political conflict. In Byzantium in the eighth and ninth centuries and in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, authorities fought viciously over whether images had extra-representational powers. The Protestant Reformation and the rise of secularism have formed the main stream of Western Eurasian elite culture. Parochialism within that culture has obscured the pervasiveness of humans attributing spiritual powers to images.[2]

The life of Mary of Egypt was written in Greek probably in the seventh century.[3] It provides poignant witness to the deep human roots of ascribing spiritual powers to relics and icons.

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[1] Life of Mary of Egypt, the Former Harlot, from Greek trans. Kouli (1996) p. 84. All subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 84-5. Here’s an online English translation of Mary of Egypt’s life. The ancient translation into Latin is similar. Ward (1987) provides an English translation of the Latin, as well as excerpts in translation from earlier accounts. “The phrase “Command, my Lady, that the door may be opened also to me,” is similar to early Coptic Marian prayers for ritual power. The Piacenza Pilgrim, writing about 570, reported venerating the true cross in Jerusalem in the Basilica of Constantine. He also reported:

There is the sponge and the reed, of which mention is made in the gospel, and we drank water from the sponge. There is also the cup of onyx, which our Lord blessed at the last supper, and many other relics. Above is the painting of the Blessed Mary and her girdle, and the wrapper which she wore upon her head.

Ch. XX, from Latin trans. Stewart & Wilson (1896) p. 17. Epiphanios the Monk in the eighth century stated that he saw “on the left side of Saint Constantine … the icon of the very holy Theotokos, who forbade Saint Mary to enter the church on the day of the Exaltation.” Kouli (1996) p. 83, n. 49.

[2] For a learned failure to appreciate the pervasiveness of icon use, see Brubaker & Haldon (2011).

[3] Kouli (1996) p. 66, 68. Manuscripts attribute the Life of Mary of Egypt to Sophronios (lived c. 560 – 638). Sophronios was patriarch of Jerusalem from 634 to 638. In the eighth century, John of Damascus cited the Life of Mary of Egypt and Paul the Deacon in Italy translated it into Latin. The Life provides no indication of Islam.

[image] Icon of St. Mary of Egypt, Russia, 18th century, now held in Kuopio Orthodox Church Museum. Thanks to Wikicommons.


Brubaker, Leslie, and John F. Haldon. 2011. Byzantium in the iconoclast era (c. 680-850): a history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kouli, Maria. 1996. “Life of Mary of Egypt, the Former Harlot.” Pp. 65-94 in Talbot, Alice-Mary Maffry, ed. 1996. Holy women of Byzantium: ten saints’ lives in English translation. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Stewart, Aubrey, and Charles William Wilson, ed. and trans. 1896. Of the holy places visited by Antoninus Martyr (circ. 560-570 A.D.). London: Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society.

Ward, Benedicta. 1987. Harlots of the desert: a study of repentance in early monastic sources. Kalamazoo, Mich: Cistercian Publications.

early Christian liturgical gestures in Life of St. Mary of Egypt

conflict over fingers in the cross gesture

The Life of St. Mary of Egypt provides an early witness to important liturgical gestures. In that account, Mary, a penitent harlot, kissed the monk Zosimas on the lips as the kiss of peace.  She did this “according to custom.” Heterosexual kisses of peace stopped being the custom in Christian churches by the third century. The Life of St. Mary of Egypt apparently refers to a very old custom for the gestural act of the kiss of peace. In Christian churches today, the relevant gesture has become a handshake

The Life of St. Mary of Egypt also describes a gesture similar to what is now known as the “little cross.” In Catholic Christian liturgy, the little cross is a small crossing gesture that the faithful make on their forehead, lips, and heart just before the Gospel reading. While making this gesture, the faithful say, “Glory to You, Oh Lord.” The Life of St. Mary of Egypt describes Mary making a similar gesture:

she made the sign of the cross on her forehead, eyes, lips, and breast, saying thus, “Let God lead us away from the devil and his snares, Father Zosimas, for his power against us is great.” [1]

In both cases, the crossing gestures refer to various bodily organs of understanding: mind, eyes, lips, heart. The crossing gesture in the Life of St. Mary of Egypt plausibly was subsequently streamlined to have three, rather than four, organ references. Three, as in the Holy Trinity, was a sacred number to early Christians. The prayer “Glory to You, Oh Lord” has an abstract sense that encompasses Mary’s specific prayer of turning to God for help and protection.

While the practice of crossing has ancient roots, the specific trifold little cross has been documented only from the eleventh century. The Christian biblical Book of Revelation refers to “the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads” and to faithful who had “{the lamb’s} name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.”[2] The third-century Christian father Tertullian declared:

At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign.[3]

The trifold little cross in liturgy is mentioned in the eleventh century. It became common practice in the twelfth century.[4]

The early Christian desert fathers and mothers seem to have a relatively rich bodily spirituality. The Life of St. Mary of Egypt dates from no later than the seventh century.[5]  It includes the heterosexual kiss of peace from before the third century and a gesture like the trifold cross not documented until the eleventh century. The early eremitic Christians advocated asceticism and engaged their bodies in sensuous spiritual gestures.

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[1] The Life of Mary of Egypt, the Former Harlot, who in Blessed Manner Became an Ascetic in the Desert of the {River} Jordan, s. 15, from Greek trans. Kouli (1996) p. 79. Similarly in the Latin version, ch. 11, trans. Ward (1987) p. 43. Latin versions favor the title, the Life of St. Mary of Egypt.

[2] Book of Revelation 7.3, 14.1. More on the history of the cross gesture (mainly the “large cross”).

[3] Tertullian, De Corona 3.4, from Latin trans. Thelwall (1869).

[4] Richter (1990) pp. 132-3.

[5] The early Greek text of the Life of St. Mary of Egypt is commonly attributed to Sophronios (c. 560-638). He was patriarch of Jerusalem from 634 to 638. Some scholars dispute that attribution. The text was cited by John of Damascus and translated into Latin in the eight century. Kouli (1996) p. 66. Earlier versions of the Life of St. Mary of Egypt exist in Greek in the sixth-century Life of St. Kyriacus by Cyril of Skythopolis and in The Spiritual Meadow of John of Moschos (c. 545 to 625). Id. p. 65. Ward (1987) provides English translations of these early sources and the Latin version.

[image] A defiant Old Believer arrested by the Czar’s authorities in Russia in 1671 holds two fingers raised. That indicates the old “proper” way of crossing oneself: with two fingers, rather than with three.A detail of painting Boyarynya Morozova. Vasily Surikov, 1884-1887. In Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Kouli, Maria. 1996. “Life of Mary of Egypt, the Former Harlot.” Pp. 65-94 in Talbot, Alice-Mary Maffry, ed. 1996. Holy women of Byzantium: ten saints’ lives in English translation. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Richter, Klemens. 1990. The meaning of the sacramental symbols: answers to today’s questions. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press.

Thelwall, S. 1869. “De Corona.” ANCL 11 (1869) pp.333-355; reprinted ANF 3 (1885), pp. 669-679.

Ward, Benedicta. 1987. Harlots of the desert: a study of repentance in early monastic sources. Kalamazoo, Mich: Cistercian Publications.

gender equality and anti-men gender bigotry

tree, hollow inside, collapsed

Dying in military service on behalf of one’s country is a highly significant sacrifice. In U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, the sex ratio among U.S. military personnel killed on active duty is 41.4 men killed per woman killed. The sex ratio among U.S. military personnel wounded in action is even more unequal: 50.4 men wounded per woman wounded.[1]

Discussion of gender equality typically focuses on highly privileged positions. Politicians and news media celebrate affirmative efforts to foster gender equality among members of parliaments and corporate boards, CEOs, leading engineers and scientists, and other rich, powerful, or otherwise privileged persons. The theory seems to be that gender equality imposed at the top will trickle down to the vast mass of ordinary folk. Gender inequality in persons dying for their country seems to be of no more public interest than remedying explicit gender discrimination in the imposition of Selective Service obligations. Pushing for gender equality with only concern for women is a farce. Yet such efforts are prevalent. They face almost no serious challenge in public deliberation.

The most serious challenge to gender equality meaning anti-men gender bigotry is the demoralization of men. Men are being imprisoned for not being able to fulfill onerous financial obligations imposed on them for doing nothing more than having consensual sex. Men are being treated as presumptively criminal when accused of rape. Men are deprived of their children through family courts administered with acute anti-men gender bias. The demonization of persons who raise their voices about such injustices makes clear to men that their lives matter little in competition for public attention and public influence.

Men treated as second-class citizens will not work hard. Men treated as second-class citizens will not fight hard.  That is the fundamental challenge for the U.S., for Europe, and for other countries seeking to follow the current world-elite consensus.[2] Financial machinations and immigration can help to offset domestic economic and demographic stagnation. Countries can pretend that their security is assured with the ultimate feminine weapon: nuclear bombs. These machinations and delusions won’t change the demoralizing reality that today in the Western world gender equality actually means anti-men gender bigotry.

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Data: U.S. military personnel, by sex, killed and wounded in active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts (Excel version).

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[1] See the U.S. military casualties by sex dataset.  More comprehensive measures of casualties also show strong biases toward men’s deaths. In Iraq during the two years preceding the start of war in 2003, Iraqi men’s death rate was about twice that of Iraqi women’s. War in Iraq caused men’s death rate to rise much more sharply than women’s. See Hagopia et al. (2013) p. 8, Fig. 3. At the peak of the war period (2005-2006), Iraq men’s death rate was about 2.5 times that of women. In the period after the U.S. began fighting in Iraq through 2011, 8.5 males died from violence for each female that died from violence. Id. p. 7. U.S. military action targets men for killing. Drone strikes target men after they have left their homes or when they are living without their loved ones. Drone strikes seek to kill a specific man, but not his wife and other women who intimately support him and love him. Drone strikes are probably interpreted as a grave insult to women in traditional cultures that retain a more humane and reasonable understanding of gender equality than does the U.S.

[2] World elite leaders fly into places like Iraq and Afghanistan and lecture local leaders on empowering women and girls. Then they seek to train and equip local men in the brutal business of fighting highly motivated, viciously inhumane enemy forces. Not surprisingly, local men seem not to appreciate the motivating power of Western ideals of truth, equality, and human dignity. Perhaps they perceive the reigning Western anti-men gender bigotry.


Hagopian, Amy, Flaxman, Abraham D., Takaro, Tim K., Esa Al Shatari, Sahar A., Rajaratnam, Julie, Becker, Stan, Levin-Rector, Alison, et al. 2013. “Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003–2011 War and Occupation: Findings from a National Cluster Sample Survey by the University Collaborative Iraq Mortality Study.” PLOS Medicine 10:10. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001533

Valerii ad Rufinum: speaking truth in love for a friend

Ulysses and the Sirens, a allusion in Valerii ad Rufinus

Today, as in Europe in the days of Valerius and Rufinus, men are silenced. Loqui prohibeor et tacere non possum. They forbid me to speak, and I cannot be silent. I detest the incessant howling of humans who lack the songs of a dog except one. Rufinus, Valerius’ friend, wanted to marry. Heloise urged Abelard not to marry. They now say that’s misogyny. They forbid me to speak.

Women encircling men delight them with the attention, praise, and bodies of women. You will become a husband surrounded by one threefold monster with the face of a taskmaster, the belly of an accepted fatty, and a tail you hardly ever see. Ulysses too was enchanted by women, especially the Sirens. Veritatis vinculis sibi vim fecit, ut vitaret voraginem. I foretell you will remain a man, but many are becoming manboobs. I am afraid. They forbid me to speak.

Lest you become a pig or an ass, I cannot be silent. Walter Duranty, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, reported for the New York Times from the Stalinist Soviet Union amid the famines of 1932-1933. He explained to readers:

But—to put it brutally—you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and the Bolshevist leaders are just as indifferent to the casualties that may be involved in their drive toward socializaton as any General during the World War who ordered a costly attack in order to show his superiors that he and his division possessed the proper soldierly spirit. In fact, the Bolsheviki are more indifferent because they are animated by fanatical conviction.

Generals who order a costly attack cause the deaths of men. Deaths of men matter little to today’s queens and kings. My beloved friend, the Bolsheviks caused not only the deaths of millions of men, but also the deaths of millions of women and children who weren’t even forced to be soldiers. Your life is worth nothing to them. They will even lie about persons who count.

Now Ezra Klein, a minister of Babel positioned in new media like Walter Duranty was in old, has taught readers the merits of arbitrary criminalization of men’s sexuality. Recently Klein coolly wrote:

Critics worry that colleges will fill with cases in which campus boards convict young men (and, occasionally, young women) of sexual assault for genuinely ambiguous situations. Sadly, that’s necessary for the law’s success. It’s those cases — particularly the ones that feel genuinely unclear and maybe even unfair, the ones that become lore in frats and cautionary tales that fathers e-mail to their sons — that will convince men that they better Be Pretty D–n Sure.

Convicting men for “genuinely ambiguous situations” is “law’s success” only in a culture of misandry without reason. That’s our mire in which you want to marry. I cannot be silent.

You have many advocates for your desire. They pour you honeyed poison that goes down pleasantly. It pleases you. I cry out bitter truth that you loath. They forbid me to speak.

Prima primi uxor Ade post primam hominis creationem primo peccato prima solvit ieiunia contra preceptum Domini. In the beginning in the apes’ forest, scholars have said that males were demonic and social groups gynocentric. Truth, which cannot be deceived, says otherwise. I have no wife to lay down for you. I will lay down my life for you. I cannot be silent.

Det tibi Deus omnipotens omnipotentis femine fallatia non falli. Let the women go first. Let them go first into the elevator to ride to the top of modern life. May the fire of my love shine a light into your heart. I have written boldly, perhaps with incivility, but that is necessary. Heloise understood. I am afraid. Stay here with me. Farewell.

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The above includes text from Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum philosophum ne uxorem ducat (Letter of Valerius to the philosopher Rufinus, dissuading him from marrying). Walter (Gualterus) Map wrote that Latin work probably in the late 1170s. Map, who was Welsh, was a courtier to King Henry II of England. Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum apparently circulated on its own. Map later incorporated it into his De nugis curialium (1180-1183) as Distinction IV, Chapter 3. The Latin text and English translation, with interpretive and textual notes, are available in Hanna & Lawler (1997). The Latin text is freely available online in James (1914) pp. 143f.

Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum was a highly popular medieval work. It has survived in at least 158 medieval manuscripts and generated at least seven medieval commentaries. Cartlidge (1998) p. 156 (manuscript count) and Lawler & Hanna (2014) (commentaries, with English translations). In medieval Europe, Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum tended to be falsely attributed to the ancient Roman author Valerius Maximus. Falsely attributed to Jerome, it was occasionally printed with Jerome’s work. It thus appeared in a 1468 printed edition of Epistolae Hieronymi. Goldschmidt (1943) p. 40. A leading medieval Latin scholar called Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum “a rhetorical tour de force, which is amusing precisely because it defies both moderation and logic.” Cartlidge (1998) p. 158.

Neither medieval commentators nor modern scholars have appreciated Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum as literature of men’s sexed protest. Four of the medieval commentaries are primarily concerned to explicate classical allusions. The other three moralizing commentaries, according the book blurb for Lawler & Hanna (2014), “mount eloquent defenses of women.” For example, one declares, “Of Lais, Livia, Deinira and Lucilia I concede that they were dangerous; (but not all women are dangerous).” Lawler & Hanna (2014) p. 288 (Commentary Four, “Valerius qui dicitur parvu,” on Chapter Six).  A manuscript of the medieval commentary “Hoc contra malos religiosos” explains:

What he means to say is that the number of bad women is very much greater than that of the good. Indeed, morally speaking, this is just as true of men, which is something to be regretted.

Cartlidge (1998) p. 159. Lawler & Hanna (2014) follow the approach of those medieval men commentators and ponders at length “anti-feminism” in Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum. Scholars today might more usefully ponder the male gender protrusion in mortality and incarcerating men for having done nothing more than have consensual sex and subsequently not being able to make the legally required payments.

The Latin phrases in the text above are from Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum. Here are English translations of those phrases:

  • Loqui prohibeor et tacere non possum. They forbid me to speak, and I cannot be silent.
  • Veritatis vinculis sibi vim fecit, ut vitaret voraginem. He made himself strong with the shackles of truth so as to avoid the whirlpool.
  • Prima primi uxor Ade post primam hominis creationem primo peccato prima solvit ieiunia contra preceptum Domini. The first wife of the first Adam after the first creation of humanity by the first sin ended the first fast, against God’s command.
  • Det tibi Deus omnipotens omnipotentis femine fallatia non falli. May almighty God grant you the grace not to be tricked by the trickery of almighty woman.

Trans. adapted from Hanna & Lawler (1997).  The text above also includes English phrases adapted from Hanna & Lawler (1997)’s translation.

[image] Ulysses and the Sirens. Herbert James Draper, c. 1909. Oil on canvas. Held in Ferens Art Gallery, KINCM:2005.4878. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Cartlidge, Neil. 1998. “Misogyny in a Medieval University? The ‘Hoc contra malos’ Commentary on Walter Map’s ‘Dissuasio Valerii’.” Journal of Medieval Latin 8: 156-91.

Goldschmidt, Ernst Philip. 1943. Medieval texts and their first appearance in print. London: Bibliographical Society.

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.

James, Montague Rhodes, ed. 1914. Walter Map De nugis curialium. Anecdota Oxoniensia. Medieval and Modern Series. Part XIV. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lawler, Traugott, Ralph Hanna, eds. and trans. 2014. Jankyn’s Book of Wikked Wyves: Seven Commentaries on Walter Map’s “Dissuasio Valerii.” Athens: University of Georgia Press.