women and men on medieval women writers

A free, online book, Medieval Women Writers’ Loving Concern for Men, is now available worldwide. This book shows the public importance of medieval women writers’ outstanding work. For teachers of medieval literature, this book can usefully serve as a supplement to Peter Dronke’s erudite and influential book, Women Writers of the Middle Ages.

ghostly representation of women medieval writers

While Dronke’s book was published in 1984, women writers of the Middle Ages still have not been adequately appreciated.  Dronke in the preface described his book as:

an affirmation of the intrinsic value of writings that have been — I believe quite unjustly — undervalued in the past. It is not necessary here to dwell on the history and causes of this, or on the diverse attempts to belittle the rare women whose writings did achieve fame. [1]

The term “rare” applied to women has roots in the Latin phrase rara avis (“rare bird”) in Juvenal’s widely and unjustly disparaged Satire 6.[2] Belittling women implies not taking women seriously and not recognizing their power and importance. Juvenal’s Satire 6, in contrast, fully recognizes the enormity of women’s importance. While Dronke doesn’t dwell on belittling rare women, he provides sufficient examples:

It will suffice to recall, by way of illustration, that in 1867 Hrotsvitha’s works were alleged to be a hoax perpetrated by the humanist Conrad Celtes, who first edited the principal manuscript, and that this ‘discovery’ gave rise to some coarsely mocking verses; or that till quite recent times, notwithstanding Hildegard of Bingen’s meticulous account of her method of composition, scholars exaggerated the role of her men secretaries to the point of implying that they were the real begetters of her works; again, speculations about male authorship of some of Heloise’s letters are still with us, and are still treated much more seriously — there’s the rub — than for instance the suggestion that Bacon, or Marlowe, wrote the works of Shakespeare. [3]

Today, men die from violence four times more frequently that women do. Men are incarcerated for doing nothing more than having consensual sex and being too poor to pay for state-forced financial fatherhood. If humanistic scholars don’t care about those facts, they might consider: the share of men who have read a work of literature in the past year is only 68% of that for women. Men earn only 56% of the women’s advanced degree earnings in study of literature and the humanities.[4] Adequately appreciating medieval women writers depends on adequately appreciating these realities.

Scholars have not adequately recognized the importance of medieval women writers for men. Of the seven English-language scholarly reviews of Women Writers of the Middle Ages, six were written by women. One reviewer, who is now recognized as one of the most eminent medieval historians, wrote:

Dronke still speaks of women writers too much in the context of their relationship to men. … his choice of which passages and texts to emphasize still focuses more than the nature of women’s writing itself warrants on the ways in which women perceive men and their relationship to men. [5]

As Medieval Women Writers’ Loving Concern for Men makes clear, Dronke wrote relatively little on medieval women writers’ relationships with men. The way that medieval women writers perceived men and showed concern for men is an outstanding feature of their work. Much scholarship doesn’t recognize that medieval women writers didn’t write just for women. Medieval women writers wrote for men in ways that should not remain beyond understanding today.

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[1] Dronke (1984) p. ix.

[2] Juvenal, Satire 6.165: rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cycno (“a rare bird on earth and most similar to a black swan”).

[3] Dronke (1984) p. ix, omitted footnote scornfully cites Georges Dubay questioning attribution of work to Marie de France (such as this) and Heloise (such as this). Dubay, like others, evidently lacked appreciation for medieval women writers’ concern for men. Questioning attribution of work to women writers now tends to generate intense hostility. Consider, for example, the question of whether Mary Shelley actually authored Frankenstein. See Lauritsen (2007) Preface, Ch. 5 & Ch. 7. Here’s some online discussion of the handwriting-authorship fallacy with respect to Frankenstein and prefaces to the 1818 and 1831 versions of Frankenstein. Stevenson’s massive tome on women Latin poets states, “Mary Shelley read Latin and Greek as well as French and Italian.” Stevenson (2005) p. 425. That statement doesn’t fairly represent Mary Shelley’s classical learning.

[4] U.S. masters and Ph.D. degrees conferred, 2010-11, compiled from U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Educational Statistics, 2012. The compiled data and calculations are available in the humanities gender protrusion spreadsheet (alternate Excel version).

[5] Bynum (1985) p. 328. Bynum is now Professor emerita of Medieval European History at the School of Historical Studies at the Institute of Advanced Study in  Princeton, New Jersey. The single man reviewer was Ralph Hexter. He is now Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor of the University of California, Davis. For the names of all seven reviewers, with institutional affiliations at the time of review and journal in which the review appeared, see the Dronke reviewers spreadsheet (alternate Excel version).

[image] Soft Bathtub (Model) — Ghost Version. Claes Oldenburg, 1966. Canvas, wood, acrylic paint, and mixed media. Item 1998 (98.18), Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC.


Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1985. Review. “Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua († 203) to Marguerite Porete († 1310).” Modern Language Quarterly. 46 (3): 326-329.

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.

Lauritsen, John. 2007. The man who wrote Frankenstein. Dorchester, MA: Pagan Press.

Stevenson, Jane. 2005. Women Latin poets: language, gender, and authority, from antiquity to the eighteenth century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Candace & Alexander the Great: from cunning to inwardness

Candace taking Alexander into her chamber

Alexander the Great ventured toward the territory of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia and former ruler of Egypt. Queen Candace was “a woman of remarkable beauty, in her middle age.” She was wary of Alexander the Great. She wrote to him:

Do not despise us for the color of our skin. In our souls we are brighter than the whitest of your people. We have eighty flame-throwers ready to do harm to those who would attack us. [1]

To dissuade hostility from Alexander, Candace sent him a lavish array of gifts: 500 young Ethiopians, 100 solid-gold ingots, ivory, pearls, elephants, chimpanzees, and many other precious goods. With additional cunning, Candace sent one of her courtiers, a Greek painter, to infiltrate Alexander’s camp and secretly paint a portrait of him. The painter succeeded in his covert mission. He gave the portrait of Alexander to Candace.

Alexander, with his own cunning, infiltrated in disguise Candace’s palace. Candace alone saw through Alexander’s ruse. When they were together in private, she addressed him as Alexander. He insisted that he was Antigonus, Alexander’s messenger. But Candace showed him the portrait by which she recognized him to be Alexander. Alexander the Great, knowing that he had been caught in the power of Candace, trembled. With wisdom she counseled him:

You who have destroyed the Persians and the Indians, who have taken trophies from the Medes and Parthians, who have subdued the whole East — now, without a single battle, you have become the prisoner of Candace. Know this then, Alexander, that no matter how clever a man may be, another will be able to outwit him. Now Candace’s cunning has outstripped even Alexander’s intelligence. [2]

Alexander was furious. Candace taunted him:

What can you do? You who were such a great king have now fallen into the hands of a single woman.

With the motherly address, “do not fret, child Alexander,” Candace promised to preserve Alexander’s disguise. When Candace’s men wanted to kill Alexander disguised as the messenger, she and the disguised Alexander together arranged to trick the men. After spending some time with Candace, Alexander moved on to other adventures.[3]

In France about the year 1300, the Mirror of Simple Souls adapted the story of Queen Candace and Alexander the Great. The middle-aged Queen Candace became a damsel, a king’s daughter. This damsel was “great-hearted and noble and worthy of heart.” But she wasn’t clever. She was status-seeking and self-centered:

this damsel heard tell of all the graciousness and nobility of King Alexander, and at once she wanted to love him for the great fame of his gentle breeding. [4]

His fame alone was sufficient for her. But there was a difficulty with this love:

this damsel was so far off from this great lord, on whom of her own will she had set her love, that she could neither see him nor possess him; and because of this she was often sad at heart, for no other love than this sufficed for her.

The damsel couldn’t have the man she wanted. So she created an image of the man:

she thought to herself that she would comfort her sorrowful heart by making some imagined likeness of her loved one, for love of whom her heart was many a time sorely wounded. So she had a picture painted to represent the likeness of the king whom she loved, as near as she could to the appearance under which she loved him, by the affection of the love by which she was overcome; and by means of this picture and of her other rites of love she could imagine that the king himself was present.

A teen-aged girl in love would understand this tale.[5] The story of Candace and Alexander became in the Mirror of Simple Souls an allegory for the simple soul’s simplicity and self-absorption.

Love by hearsay was a common motif in European courtly literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It had an influential source in Cicero’s De Amicitia:

there is nothing more lovable than virtue, nothing that more allures us to affection, since on account of their virtue and uprightness we feel a sort of affection even for those whom we have never seen. [6]

In Candace’s love by hearsay for Alexander, the Mirror of Simple Souls substitutes for virtue abstract ideas of nobility (“graciousness,” “gentle breeding”). Love by hearsay with this substitution becomes less connected to acts and more connected to being within the lover’s own imagination.

Stories of cunning have been more popular historically than stories of imaginative self-absorption. The story of Queen Candace and Alexander the Great in the Alexander romance evoked the cunning of Odysseus in Homer’s hugely influential epics. The trickster motif more generally is attested in popular tales throughout history and around the world. In medieval France, fabliaux recounted cunning across a wide range of circumstances. Boccacio’s Decameron with more literary sophistication celebrated similar character.

The Mirror of Simple Souls, in contrast, anticipated the imaginative self-absorption of early nineteenth-century Romantic poetry. The Mirror’s theological ideas are common. The Mirror doesn’t reveal any particular mystical experience.[7] With aggressive self-promotion, the Mirror achieved considerable distribution. Dozens of manuscripts of it were probably produced, with fourteenth-century translations into at least three languages.[8] What makes the Mirror of Simple Souls interesting is others’ interests in it.

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[1] Greek Alexander Romance III.18, trans. Stoneman (1991) p. 136. Flame-throwers would blacken the skin of attackers in a deadly way. On Candace’s skin-color, see above illumination in a European manuscript.

[2] Id. III.22, p. 140. The subsequent quote is from id.

[3] Alexander had a close relationship with his mother. Candace, however, did not always remain a mother figure to Alexander. Various medieval versions of the Alexander Romance adapted the relationship of Candace and Alexander in various ways. The ninth-century Byzantine chronicler George the Monk (George Hamartolus) had Alexander marry Candace in appreciation for her “cunning and devious intelligence.” Trans. Stoneman (2012) p. 30. In the twelfth century, Alexander of Paris (Alexander of Bernay) wrote a romance of Alexander in French verse. In that romance, Candace and Alexander spent half a day of pleasure together in bed. Then Alexander left. Thomas of Kent (Eustache Kent) in the twelfth century also wrote an Alexander romance, Roman de toute chevalerie. That version features a love affair between Candace and Alexander, but includes warnings in the tradition of the literature of men’s sexed protests. Roman de toute chevalerie was the basis for the thirteenth-century Middle English romance Kyng Alisaunder.

[4] Mirror of Simple Souls, Prologue, from Old French trans. Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999) p. 10. The subsequent two quotes are from id. pp. 10-11.

[5] Kocher (2008) struggles to find complex significance in this prologue:

the Prologue is, for all its complexity, a deceptively small and easily opened door into the vast edifice of the text. … It is a modest, somewhat cautious beginning to a text whose later wording is not so cautious. The Prologue makes no attempt to introduce features of the Mirror that are controversial or difficult to understand

Id. p. 90.

[6] Cicero, De Amicitia, 8.20, from Latin trans. Falconer (1923). On love by hearsay (amour lointain, amor de lohn), Jaeger (1999) pp. 122-7, Asaro (2013). According to the thirteenth-century vita of the troubadour Jaufré Rudel, he fell in love with the countess of Tripoli after hearing travelers’ reports of her.

[7] Kocher (2008) observes of the Mirror:

if the text is read aloud, listeners will hear most of its central ideas in virtually any thirty-minute period. … The major points appear over and over, in varying formulations and metaphors.

Id. p. 54

[8] The Mirror has survived in “at least sixteen complete or partial versions”; “it appears as if dozens of copies of the Mirror were bobbing up continually in the seas of late-medieval western Europe like unsinkable corks.” Kocher (2013) p. 25; Lerner (2010) p. 116. Dronke (1984), p. 202, called Marguerite Porete, to whom the Mirror has come to be attributed, “the most neglected of the great writers of the thirteenth century.” In the past three decades, many scholarly articles have addressed Marguerite’s work.

[image] Candace taking Alexander into her chamber. Illumination for Historia de proelis in a French translation (Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre), France, c. 1420, Royal 20 B XX,  f 71v. Thanks to the British Library.


Asaro, Brittany. 2013. “Unmasking the Truth about Amor de Lonh: Giovanni Boccaccio’s Rebellion against Literary Conventions in Decameron I.5 and IV.4.Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies. 44 (1): 95-120.

Colledge, Edmund, J. C. Marler and Judith Grant, ed. and trans. 1999. Margaret Porette {Marguerite Porete}. The mirror of simple souls. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

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.

Falconer, W.A. ed. and trans. 1923. Cicero. De amicitia (On Friendship). Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, vol. XX.

Jaeger, C. Stephen. 1999. Ennobling love: in search of a lost sensibility. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kocher, Suzanne. 2008. Allegories of love in Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of simple souls. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols.

Kocher, Zan. 2013. “The Apothecary’s Mirror of Simple Souls: Circulation and Reception of Marguerite Porete’s Book in Fifteenth-Century France.” Modern Philology. 111 (1): 23-47.

Lerner, Robert E. 2010. “New light on The Mirror of Simple Souls.” Speculum. 85 (1): 91-116.

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

Stoneman, Richard, trans. 2012. Legends of Alexander the Great. London: I.B. Tauris.

no Juvenal kidding: Milesian tales, Asinarius & Brothers Grimm

With the exasperated exclamation “if only this were nonsense,” the first-century Roman author Juvenal in Satire 6 brushed aside criticism that he was letting satire put on the high boots of tragedy. Apuleius, writing about a century later, prefaced a story of a step-mother falsely accusing her step-son of rape and poisoning by declaring that he wasn’t telling a tale (fabula), but was moving from the soft shoe of comedy to the high boots of tragedy.[1] Juvenal and Apuleius’s indications of tragedy extend to historical understanding of the sexuality of donkeys and men. From ancient Milesian tales to the medieval written Latin fabula Asinarius to the Brothers Grimm, masculine sexuality has been historically devalued.

asinarius updated

Ancient authorities wrote of women seeking to have sex with male donkeys. Juvenal explained that, without willing men, a sexually excited woman will turn to a male donkey for sexual pleasure.[2] A recently discovered fragment of third-century papyrus, probably from a Milesian tale, narrates a women’s sexual encounter with a donkey:

Kissing the donkey, who was in {love} pain as soon as she had fallen down with him, and beseechingly she says: “Wow, it’s fat and big as a roof-beam. Wait! Little by little. Don’t put it all the way in.” [3]

A notable aspect of this text is the woman’s appreciation for the wondrous physical dimensions of the donkey’s erect penis. The fragmentary text ends with a sense that the woman wasn’t satisfied. She came to realize that she wanted it all.

In Apuleius’s Golden Ass, a woman had it all. A married woman fell passionately in love with a donkey. She purchased from his keeper a tryst. In a luxuriously arranged bedroom to which the donkey was led, the woman got naked. She then anointed herself and the donkey with perfume. While neither party continually and affirmatively consented to sex, the woman encouraged the donkey sexually:

she kissed me ardently, yet gently, not such kisses as are usually given in a brothel, the prostitutes’ kisses-at-a-price or their customers’ kisses-with-a-hand-on-the-purse — no, she bestowed pure, sincere kisses and the most flattering words on me: “I am in love with you,” and “I want you,” and “I love you alone,” and “I can no longer live without you,” and the other phrases that women use both to lead others on and also to express their own desires [4]

The male donkey, as men commonly do, showed concern for the woman and fear of punishment predominately directed at men:

But I felt quite anxious, reflecting with great fear how, with so many and such huge legs, I would be able to mount the delicate lady, or embrace her body of milk and honey, so translucent and so tender, with my hard hooves, and kiss her dainty lips, gleaming red and ambrosia-bedewed, with such a large mouth, so enormous and misshaped because of its rock-like teeth; and finally, how the woman, even if she was titillated from top to toe, could receive such a formidable penis. Woe is me, when I have broken this well-born woman apart, I will be thrown to the beasts [5]

The woman, however, comforted the male donkey suffering from male bodily anxiety and fear of unjust punishment:

she redoubled her tender words and continuous kisses and gentle cries with gazes that touched me to the quick — in short, she said: “I have you, I have you, my fond dove, my sparrow,” and as she spoke she demonstrated that my worries had been unfounded and my fear foolish. For she clung to me very tightly and received me entirely, but fully and entirely. [6]

The woman left the donkey, exhausted from hours of male sexual work, just before the light of dawn. Before she left, she arranged to pay the donkey’s keeper again for another night of similar pleasure.

Subsequent stories of women and donkeys depreciate the physicality of masculine genitals and the pleasure that male sexuality offers. The medieval Latin Asinarius (Donkey Tale), written about 1200, provides key insights into that transformation over the long duration. Asinarius probably drew upon a Sanskrit donkey tale that traveling musicians helped to transmit orally from India to western Europe.[7] Asinarius also contains literary associations with ancient Greco-Roman epic texts concerning the Trojan War.[8] But the oral and literary streams that flowed into Asinarius are even richer. In that work, when a king asks a little donkey, “Do you like our daughter?” the donkey, apparently indignant with the suppression of male sexuality, responds:

Amazing! Why do you ask? O king, why do you labor to know? Why ought I not like her? [9]

Like the donkey in Apuleius’s Golden Ass, the donkey in Asinarius appreciates the physical beauty of women:

I like her, I like her, I like her very much. … Certainly the man who does not like her at all is made of iron. Her fair face, suffused with rosiness, brings delight, as if I should contemplate lilies mixed with roses. And I like her hair; her ivory-white neck brings delight; and I confess that I like her whole body. [10]

The donkey and the daughter get married. When night comes and the couple goes to their marital bedroom, the bridegroom inexplicably “puts off his donkey garb.” To all who have read the Golden Ass or its Greek source Onos, the bride’s reaction represents a complete reversal:

The maiden, seeing the noble body of a handsome man whose appearance previously had been repulsive, having marveled before long at the unbelievable charm of her spouse, rushed headlong into the bond of lovemaking. [11]

The maiden’s reaction represents the accumulation of more than a millennium of Christian doctrine and ideology of sexual renunciation. As male animals, a man and a donkey have similar genitals, but a donkey’s penis is typically much larger. In the sexual context of Asinarius, the man is now characterized as noble, handsome, and charming, and the male donkey, repulsive. The fundamental biological form of the male reproductive organ was celebrated in ancient sculpture, public parades, and literature. By the European Middle Ages, the phallus had been devalued relative to cultural constructions of nobility, appearance, and charm. A leading scholar of Asinarius has described it as emphatically misogynistic.[12] It is also deeply misandristic.

By the nineteenth century with the Brothers Grimm, the situation had become far worse. The Brothers Grimm created a fairy tale from the medieval Latin text Asinarius. While Asinarius drew upon the ancient idea of a woman and donkey mating being an interesting spectacle, the Brothers Grimm sent a servant to watch secretly because “the king wanted to know whether the donkey would behave himself really nicely with courtesy and good manners” in having sex with the princess.[13] As Apuleius’s Golden Ass makes clear, males are worthy of trust in their mating with females. In addition to casting off the form of a male hung like a donkey, the Brothers Grimm added as sexual foreplay the little man seeking the woman’s approval of his being:

he then cast off his donkey skin all at once and stood there as a handsome, royal youth, who said: “You see who I am and that I have been worthy of you.

That sort of male approval-seeking typically doesn’t give women sexual tingles. The new fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm continues without any sexual vigor. The bride relates to her new husband, that fairy-tale descendent of Apuleius’s fully pleasing ass, just like she would relate to her dear mother:

the bride was overjoyed, kissed him, and loved him with all her heart. [14]

Fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and their cultural followers have prompted many women today to relish Fifty Shades of Grey. More importantly, fairy tales have prompted initiatives to suppress men’s sexuality in harshly unjust, trust-smashing, pleasure-destroying ways. Now more than ever, Western culture desperately needs more appreciation for classical and medieval literature.[15]

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[1] Juvenal, Satire 6.434: altum satura sumente coturnum (“letting satire put on the high boots of tragedy”). Apuleius, Golden Ass, 10.2.14: non fabulam legere, et a socco ad coturnum ascendere (“you aren’t reading an amusing story, but are rising to a higher level, exchanging the low slipper of comedy for the high boot of tragedy,” trans Zimmerman (2000) p. 68). In id. 10.2.1, the narrator offers the story ut uos etiam legatis, ad librum profero (“in order that you too may read it, I will put it on the record”). The unusual phrase ad librum profero (“put it on the record”) suggests both book and legal/theatrical performance.

[2] Hildegard of Bingen, on the other hand, expressed concern that sexually desperate men were fornicating with cattle. See appreciation for men’s sexuality in Hildegard’s Causae et curae, particularly note [8].

[3] From Greek trans. May (2010) p. 63.

[4] Apuleius, Golden Ass 10.21, from Latin trans. Zimmerman (2000) p. 275.  All subsequent quotes from the Golden Ass are from id., unless otherwise noted. In the misnamed spurcum additamentum to the Golden Ass 10.21, the woman cleans the donkey’s penis before sex:

And, by Hercules, she cleaned my round scrotum, my balls, with perfumed wine and rosewater of Chios. And then with her fingers, thumb, forefinger, middle finger, ring finder and little finger, she withdrew the foreskin, and cleared the shaft of my penis of the plentiful whitish dirt.

Id p. 434. The donkey enjoyed this action:

And when the beautiful woman arrived very soon at the top of my penis from my testicles, braying and lifting my teeth toward the sky, I got, through the regular friction, an erection of the penis, and while it moved up and down I often touched her belly with it.

Id. The spurcum additamentum is generally thought to be not original and to date perhaps from the twelfth century.

[5] 10.22. Onos, a Greek source for the Golden Ass, similarly shows the donkey’s concern for the woman. After stating that he had never before had sex with a woman, the donkey remarks:

this fact aroused in me an excessive fear that the lady could not accommodate me and she would be torn apart and I would have a harsh penalty to pay as her slayer.

Onos 51, from Greek trans. May (2010) p. 68, adapted slightly. In the Golden Ass, 7.21, a slave boy falsely accuses the donkey of rape and attempted rape. The slave boy claims that the donkey would have split a woman in two:

if the clamor of her womanly wailing and weeping hadn’t brought at a run the assistance of fellow-travelers, if she hadn’t been snatched from between that ass’s hooves and set free, that poor, pitiable woman would have been rammed and split in two

Trans. Relihan (2007) p. 149. The mendacious slave boy evidently lacked appreciation for women’s sexual capacities. Relihan mis-inflates his translation of the donkey’s concern in 10.22:

how in the world will this woman, even if she has the itch all the way to her fingertips, receive an organ as Brobdingnagian as mine? Curses!

Id. p. 222. Regarding the donkey’s vastum genitale, Zimmerman (2000), p. 284, notes, “the narrator uses a polite word {genitale} for his large penis.” Genitale is a biological term without any connotations of boasting.

[6] Zimmerman (2000), p. 284, has the woman’s words as: “I’ve got you, I’ve got you, my little dove, my sparrow.” The corresponding text above is from the translation of May (2010) p. 69. The latter seems to me a better translation.

[7] Ziolkowski (2007) pp. 219-25. Id. relates Asinarius to The Story of Vikramaditya’s Birth. The latter is attested no earlier than in a thirteenth/fourteenth-century manuscript, but plausibly dates from much earlier.

[8] Praet (2013).

[9] Asinarius, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2007) pp. 345-6. The subsequent three quotes are from id. pp. 346. 348.

[10] In Asinarius, the donkey’s description of the king’s daughter is a “classical descriptio puellae (‘description of a girl’) so typical of the lyric and poetry of the courtly fin’amors.” Praet (2014) p. 209. The Golden Ass similarly includes a descriptio puellae. See above. Apuleius’s Golden Ass isn’t well attested in Europe about the time Asinarius was written (c. 1200). But it may have been known. Carver (2007) p. 78.

[11] The Latin refers to novus homo: Extemplo sponsus asinium ponit amictum; / Exposita veteri pelle novus fit homo (“Presently the groom laid down his asinine cloak. / His old skin shed, he became a new man.” Asinarius, ll. 309-310, trans. Praet (2010) p. 210). Cf. Ephesians 4:24. In Christian understanding, the new man is the spiritual man succeeding the carnal man in the renewal of creation. Discussing the Biblical references in Asinarius, Praet concludes:

Incongruently enough to bring a smile to the reader’s lips, noble man’s quest for God through Wisdom is thus humorously juxtaposed with the basest of animals finding his way into an eager princess’ bed. In the end, no spiritual conversion or unfolding takes place; the Prince is not created a new man in Christ, he merely drops his trousers.

Praet (2014) p. 219. But what that act reveals lacks the massive significance it had in earlier Latin literature.

[12] Ziolkowski (2007) p. 208.

[13] Brothers Grimm, The Donkey (Das Eselein), based primarily on 1819 edition, from German trans. id. p. 354. The subsequent two quotes are from id.

[14] In the ancient Greek Onos, after the donkey becomes the man Lucius again, he arranged another tryst with the married woman, his former donkey-lover. In the bedroom with her, Lucius:

took off all my clothes and displayed myself in the nude, fondly imagining that compared with a donkey I should be quite irresistible. But she was so disappointed to find that I was in every respect a normal human being, that she actually spat in my face. … “O, for God’s sake, don’t you understand?” she exclaimed, “It was the donkey I fell in love with, not you! And I did so hope that there’d be one thing left, at least, to remind me of that splendid great animal — but just look at you — you’re nothing but a wretched little monkey!”

From Greek trans. Paul Turner in Hansen (1998) p. 104. That’s a strident affirmation of the raw physicality of the masculine member. It’s inconceivable in today’s culture.

Praet traces the donkey-tale transformations to recent decades. His insightful analysis indicates that Erich Ackermann’s “Das Eselchen,” in Märchen des Mittelalters (2007), and M. Jean Craig’s The Donkey Prince (1977) further diminish masculine sexuality even relative to the Grimm’s tale. At the donkey’s transformation into a dandy in a private screening of the film La Belle et la Bête (directed by Jean Cocteau, 1946), Greta Garbo reported yelled out, “Give me back my beast!” Praet (2014) pp. 357-376.

[15] Literary learning involves being able to interpret stories other than as literal instructions for action. For those lacking in literary learning, here’s a plain message: having sex with a donkey can be deadly. For further instruction, consult the famous thirteenth-century Persian Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Muhammad Balkhi, commonly known among English-speakers as Rumi. Rumi’s masterpiece Masnavi describes, in verse, two women who had sex with a donkey. One woman cleverly placed a gourd with a hole in it over the donkey’s penis to lessen risk of damage to her body. The other woman, ardently seeking pleasure with the donkey, didn’t have the donkey use the gourd. The donkey’s penis tore into her intestines. She died. See Rumi, Masnavi, Bk 5, ll. 1333-1364, trans. Nicholson (1930). Nicholson switched from English to Latin in translating the verses on sex between the women and the donkey.

Concerned readers should also know that having a larger penis does not necessarily provide more sexual pleasure. The leading early-modern German surgeon Guilhelmius Fabricius Hildanus (1560-1634) confronted the case of a woman suffering serious pain and wounds from her husband’s too-large penis. Hildanus developed an ingenious device for shortening the operational length of the penis. The device worked much like the gourd for the donkey in Rumi’s Masnavi. It allowed the woman and her husband to enjoy, without adverse effects, sexual intercourse of reproductive type. See Kompanje (2006).

[image] Illustration from Crane & Evans (1874) p. 6.


Carver, Robert H. F. 2007. The Protean ass: the Metamorphoses of Apuleius from antiquity to the Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crane, Walter, and Edmund Evans. 1874. Beauty and the Beast. London & New York: George Routledge and Sons.

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

Kompanje, Erwin. 2006. “Painful Sexual Intercourse Caused by a Disproportionately Long Penis: An Historical Note on a Remarkable Treatment Devised by Guilhelmius Fabricius Hildanus (1560-1634).” Archives of Sexual Behavior. 35 (5): 603-605.

May, Regine. 2010. “An Ass from Oxyrhynchus: P. Oxy. LXX.4762, Loukios of Patrae and the Milesian tales.” Ancient Narrative. 9: 59-83.

Nicholson, Reynold Alleyne. 1930. The Mathnawí of Jaláluʼddín Rúmí: edited from the oldest manuscripts available with critical notes, translations and commentary. London: Luzac.

Praet, Stijn. 2013. “The Trojan Ass: Asinarius as Mock Epic.” Viator. 44 (3): 157-173.

Praet, Stijn. 2014. Fairy Tales and the Latin Tradition: A Literary-Contextualising Approach. Ph.D. Dissertation. D. Litt. Faculty of Arts and Philosophy. Universiteit Gent.

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

Zimmerman, Maaike, ed. and trans. 2000. Apuleius. Metamorphoses {The Golden Ass}, Book X: Text, Introduction and Commentary. Groningen: E. Forsten.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2007. Fairy tales from before fairy tales: the medieval Latin past of wonderful lies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Mirror of Simple Souls, rationalization, and the Virgin Mary

The late-thirteenth-century Mirror of Simple Souls is an extraordinary document of rationalization. Humans alone among animals have the capability and propensity to rationalize their actions. Losing yourself in the love of God isn’t enough. You want to explain and justify your nothingness. That’s what the Mirror of Simple Souls does. Nothing to humans becomes much better when others understand how good it is.

The Mirror of Simple Souls features long arguments with personified reason. That’s much different from acting apart from reason or with indifference to reason. In the Mirror, the soul kills reason with an argument about the impossibility of limits on love.[1] Putting reason to death with argument is the ultimate in rationalization.

Virgin Mary enthroned

Taking seriously concern for reason in the Mirror of Simple Souls provides insight into its complicated manuscript history. In a chapter considering the Virgin Mary, the Mirror states:

I considered this lady {the Virgin Mary} at the Cross, present at the death of her child {Jesus}, there where the Jews were crucifying him all naked before her face. … Lady, truly, if there had been need, at that very hour you would have given your life, if they might have had forgiveness from God for this misdeed, but there was no necessity, for Jesus Christ was reconciling them so fully and with such anguish that he sufficed for everything. [2]

The Virgin Mary here appears willing to lay down her life to save the Jews. The scribe of the Chantilly manuscript, written about 1500, added in the margin, “Alas, note well, you proud ones.” The scribe’s point seems to be that vindictiveness is associated with the sin of pride. At the same time, the Mirror of Simple Souls emphasizes transcending the virtues. Within the primary message of the Mirror, the Virgin Mary would lay down her life to save the Jews because her worldly life was nothing, and she was one with Jesus.

Within the Mirror’s chapter on the Virgin Mary is another hypothetical, one concerning Mary’s virginity. The Mirror states:

I considered her {the Virgin Mary} in respect of her virginity; but I believe of her that if the whole world could have been saved by her means, if she renounced her state of virginity, she would have never thought for one instant of consenting, since Jesus Christ, in his goodness, by means of his death could do that.

That’s mystifying in comparison to the Virgin Mary’s willingness, in the Mirror, to die to save the Jews. The scribe of the Chantilly manuscript added in the margin, “Note well, good virgins.”

The original text of the Mirror of Simple Souls probably had the Virgin Mary willing to sacrifice her virginity. In comparison with the text concerning the Virgin Mary and saving the Jews, the most plausible text for the Mirror’s author would be:

I believe of her that if the whole world could have been saved by her means, if she renounced her state of virginity, she would have in an instant consented, but that was never necessary, since Jesus Christ, in his goodness, by means of his death could do that.

The Chantilly manuscript has been recognized to include changes that make it more doctrinally orthodox.[3] One Latin manuscript and the Italian manuscripts of the Mirror omit the clause “since Jesus Christ, in his goodness, by means of his death could do that.”[4] The Mirror, on the whole, gives no reason for attaching importance to the virginity of Mary. In the context of cherished beliefs about the Virgin Mary, scribes plausibly found reason to change the text of the Mirror.[5]

The interplay of love lyrics and simple theological ideas drives the Mirror of Simple Souls. Its last chapter declares:

Sometimes indeed it does happen that in the whole of a kingdom one could not find two creatures who were of one spirit, but when by chance it happens that two such creatures find one other, they declare themselves one to the other, unable to disguise themselves, for even if they wished to they could not, such is their state of spirit, their constitution, their way of life to which they are called, if they have not attained the peak or perfection of freedom. [6]

The sentiment “we were meant for each other” is not seriously theological. It’s a common love rationalization. It’s like imagining an excuse to lose your virginity. The Mirror of Simple Souls can be understood better if it’s read with less scholarly piety.

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[1] Mirror of Simple Souls, Ch. 87, from Old French trans. Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999) p. 112.

[2] Id. Ch. 126, titled “The fourth consideration is of the Virgin Mary,” p. 160-1. The subsequent quote is from id. p. 159. The scribe’s notes are given in footnotes in id.

[3] Lerner (2010) pp. 101-3.

[4] Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999) p. 159, n. 3.

[5] Kocher (2011) provides a case study of a particular crux in the manuscripts. Lerner (2010) and Kocher (2011) judge that the Middle English text is closest to the original. Id. p. 13 notes that the Middle English manuscript contains “patent misinterpretations of the French.” Doctrinal corrections in details are plausible in the Middle English manuscript, as in the other manuscripts.

[6] Mirror, Ch. 139, trans. Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999) p. 175.

[image] Madonna with child, enthroned. Giotto, c. 1310. Uffizi Gallery, Italy. Thanks to Wikipedia.


Colledge, Edmund, J. C. Marler and Judith Grant, ed. and trans. 1999. Margaret Porette {Marguerite Porete}. The mirror of simple souls. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

Kocher, Zan. 2011. “The Virgin Mary and the perfect meulequin: Translating a textile analogy in Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls.” Philological Quarterly. 90 (1): 1-19.

Lerner, Robert E. 2010. “New light on The Mirror of Simple Souls.” Speculum. 85 (1): 91-116.

The Mirror: actively promoted, long book on doing nothing

Porete painted into corner

The Mirror of Simple Souls, a book probably written about 1300 in France, exalts noble Souls. These Souls have taken leave of reason and works of virtue. They have relinquished completely their will. Annihilated, they seek nothing. This book’s author, now commonly regarded as Marguerite Porete, seems to have understood herself to be a noble Soul.[1] She thus struggled to explain why she wrote (and actively promoted) a long book on the noble way of doing nothing.

Porete declared that her work as an author was base. In an exculpatory chapter entitled, “How the Soul who caused this book to be written excuses herself for having made this so long-winded, this book which seems so small and short to the Souls who dwell in nothingness…,” Porete wrote:

I excuse myself, says this Soul {“who caused this book to be written”}, before all you who dwell in nothingness … for I have made very big with my many words this book, which yet will seem very small to you, if I know you rightly. [2]

To those who dwell in the greatness of nothingness, Porete’s book is “very small” because it’s a worldly work. Addressing noble Souls, Porete made conventional excuses and declared her book to be base:

Now by your gracious leave excuse me, for necessity knows no law. I did not know to whom to make my intention known. But now I know, to set you at peace and to tell the truth, that it is base. It was Cowardice who guided it, and who surrendered this intention to Reason through Love’s replies to Reason’s questions [3]

She pleaded that she had to write the book. She pleaded that she was too cowardly not to write the book. She elaborately explained that she didn’t cause the book to be written:

Love caused it to be written by human knowledge, and by the will of the transformation of my understanding, with which I was burdened down, as it appears in this book; for Love has made it by unburdening my spirit through these three gifts of which we have spoken. And so I say that it is base and very little, however great it seemed to me when I began to make this state of being known.

After declaring her book to be “base and very little,” Porete turned to lyrical poetry. Her poetry affectively argues that her writing isn’t base.

Porete actively promoted her book. Sometime after she wrote the first version of her book, she added to the prologue blurb-like endorsements. In one, the Cisterian monk Dom Frank fully endorsed it: “it is all truth that this book says.”[4] The theological scholar Master Godfrey of Fontaines lavishly praised it:

the soul never comes to divine usages until she has this usage, for all other human usages are beneath these usages. This is divine usage and none other but this. [5]

The Friar Minor John of Querayn affirmed its divine inspiration: “this book is made by the Holy Ghost.” Porete, making clear that The Mirror of Simple Souls should not be understood as her personal expression, explained: “through me, the creator has created out of himself this book.”[6] The puffery that Porete collected and incorporated into her book is as actively and willfully promotional as blurbs associated with aggressive book marketing in modern, highly competitive scholarly book markets. That’s something.

Porete actively promoted her book even in circumstances that strongly favored doing nothing. Sometime before 1306, Guido of Colmieu, Bishop of Cambrai, condemned Porete for “a certain pestiferous book containing heresy and error.” Guido ordered Porete to watch her book be publicly burned.[7] Porete was additionally admonished:

You were expressly prohibited by this bishop, under pain of excommunication, from composing or having again such a book, or using it or one like it. The same bishop added and expressly stated in a certain letter sealed with his seal that if you should again use the aforesaid book, or if you should attempt again by word or in writing those things that were contained in it, he was condemning you as heretical and relinquishing you to be judged by secular justice.

Porete, however, refused to do nothing. Two years later, a new Bishop of Cambrai accused her of distributing her book and teaching her views.[8] The official inquiry addressing her activity recounted:

After all these things, against the said prohibition, you several times had and several times used the said book, as is evident in your acknowledgements, made not only in the presence of the inquisitor of Lorraine, but also in the presence of the reverend father and lord, Lord Philip then bishop of Cambrai and now archbishop of Sens. After the aforesaid condemnation and burning, you even communicated the said book, as though good and licit, to the reverend father Lord John, bishop of Châlons-sur-Marne, and to certain other persons [9]

For almost a year and half, Porete refused to testify under oath to the official inquiry into her activity. She refused opportunities for absolution and reconciliation. Perhaps Porete was eagerly seeking the self-annihilation that she celebrated in her book. In any case, she was burned as a heretic in 1310.[10]

The scholastic officials of her time had Porete burned for actively promoting her path of doing nothing. In our enlightened age, we should better recognize that leaving behind reason and virtue and embracing nothingness are bad ideas.

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[1] Lydia Wegener and Elizabeth A.R. Brown, who are highly knowledgeable, truth-seeking scholars, have recently questioned whether Marguerite Porete authored The Mirror of Simple Souls and whether the text condemned in Paris in 1310 was that text. Wegener (2010) and Brown (2012) pp. 27-9. In this article, I assume both those claims to be true. In any case, the difficulties with the authorial position within The Mirror of Simple Souls don’t depend on who authored it and whether it was officially condemned.

Within the now standard view of Mirror authorship, Lerner (2010), pp. 92-3, points out that Porete was probably a nickname rather than a cognomen. He states:

I would also add my subjective judgment that referring to this remarkable woman as “Marguerite,” rather than “Porete,” places her fittingly in the company of Hadewijch, Mechthild, and Eckhart.

On the other hand, Porete has become the standard surname. It is more distinguished among names than is simply Marguerite. In any case, careful evaluation of the historical evidence of authorship is surely more interesting than pondering conventions of reference.

[2] Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls brought to nothingness and who live only in the will and desire for love, Ch. 119, from Old French trans. Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999) p. 146. All subsequent quotes from Porete’s The Mirror of Simple Souls, unless otherwise noted, are from id.  Field briefly observed:

Marguerite’s story contains its share of contradictions. She was a theologian of nonaction and nothingness, yet consistently active in seeking approval for these ideas. … These contradictions and complexities only add to the extraordinary nature of her life and death.

Field (2012) p. 164. Rationalization and hypocrisy, like court poets delivering eulogies for the reigning lords, isn’t extraordinary. It’s commonplace. In highly developed cultures, it can take striking meta-forms, e.g. entrenched authorities praising mythic marginal-transgressive heroes and shunning real, contemporary transgressive work.

[3] Id., also for subsequent quote. The excuse “necessity has no law” (necessitas legem non habet) was well-established in late-thirteenth-century France. It’s found in the ninth-century Pseudo-Isidore and the twelfth-century Decretum Gratiani (C.1 q.1 dictum post capitulum 39). Professor Ken Pennington’s site provides a citational history for the phrase. Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999) p. 146, n. 2, states, “The proverb is older than Christianity.” I haven’t found evidence supporting that statement.

[4] This and the subsequent two endorsement blurb quotes are from M.N.’s Middle English translation of the Mirror, literally trans. into modern English in Field (2012) pp. 51-2. The Middle English source text, which Lerner (2010) regards as the best witness to the original, is available in Doiron, Colledge & Guarnieri (1968). The dating of when Porete sought the endorsement blurbs is a matter of scholarly controversy.  Field (2012) pp. 277-8, n. 31.

[5] Mirror, Middle English translation, literally trans. into modern English in Field (2012) p. 52. An alternate modern English translation taking into account the Latin manuscript evidence is:

the soul will never attain to divine practices until she has acquired this practice, for all other practices, inferior to this, that teacher said, are human practices. This practice is divine, and no other except it.

Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999), Appendix 1, p. 181. This text doesn’t occur in the late fifteenth-century French Chantilly manuscript of The Mirror of Simple Souls. Field (2009) provides detailed analysis of evidence concerning the intellectual and practical relationship between Porete and Godfrey of Fontaines. Id. doesn’t consider the broader question of whether Porete was actually the author of The Mirror of Simple Souls. Cf. Wegener (2010) and Brown (2012) pp. pp. 27-9. Field (2009) also doesn’t evaluate the possibility that the author of The Mirror fabricated the endorsement blurbs, perhaps after Godfrey of Fontaines death. Such action would help to explain the inconsistency between Godfrey being a leading theologian and the weak theological content of The Mirror. Dom Frank and Friar Minor John of Querayn, quite unlike Godfrey of Fontaines, are completely unknown other than in The Mirror.

[6] Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999), Appendix 1, p. 180, modern English translation based on M.N’s Middle-English translation. The Mirror‘s Prologue declares that “a most mighty king … gave me this book.” Id. p. 11. Following Dronke, Field states:

Marguerite did not claim that God spoke through her or that what she knew came from a mystical access to the divine that others lacked. In fact, she did not deign to explain how she knew what she knew at all.

Field (2012) pp. 7-8. See also Dronke (1984) p. 203. Claiming that God spoke through her was necessary for Marguerite to rationalize her action as author of The Mirror. Claiming divine authorship was also an important aspect of marketing and promoting The Mirror.

[7] Evidence suggests that the burning of her book occurred in Valenciennes, which was probably about where Porete lived. Porete appeared before the Dominican Inquisitor in Paris, William Humbert, also known as William of Paris.The quotes in the above paragraph are from French National Archives Box AN J.428, document no. 15b, dated 31 May 1310, William of Paris’ sentencing of Marguerite Porete and Guiard of Cressonessart, from French trans. Field (2012) p. 228. Id., Appendix A, provides a thorough description and painstakingly accurate English translation of all the relevant trial documents. Appendix A is based on fresh transcriptions of the original records. Prior printed versions of the trial documents, both the original texts and translations, are not fully reliable and have created factual mistakes in historical accounts. Id. pp. 3-6. Id., Appendix B, provides English translations of other contemporary sources as given in printed editions. Richard Burton has provided online English translations of some trial documents and contemporary sources based on printed editions. That’s very helpful for general public understanding. Field’s book, however, should now be regarded as the authoritative source for detailed scholarly work with the trial documents.

[8] Field (2012) p. 59. The new Bishop of Cambrai was Philip of Marigny. Id., pp. 54-61, provides a plausible summary chronology prior to William of Paris taking up the case in the autumn of 1308.

[9] The canon lawyers’ summary, dated 9 May 1301, AN J428 no. 19bis, states that Porete communicated the book not only to Lord John, Bishop of Châlons-sur-Marne, but also “to many other simple people — begardis and others — as a good book.” Trans. Field (2012) p. 225. The inquisitor from Lorraine was almost surely Brother Ralph of Ligny. Id. p. 58.

[10] William of Paris publicly read Porete’s sentence on May 31, 1310, at the Place de Grève in Paris. She was burned on the next day, probably also at the Place de Grève. Id. p. 159.

[image] Corner Piece. Lynda Benglis (1969). Latex. Item 05.30, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC.


Brown, Elizabeth A. R. 2012. “Moral imperatives and conundrums of conscience: reflections on Philip the Fair of France.” Speculum. 87: 1-36.

Colledge, Edmund, J. C. Marler and Judith Grant, ed. and trans. 1999. Margaret Porette {Marguerite Porete}. The mirror of simple souls. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

Doiron, Marilyn, Edmund Colledge, and Romana Guarnieri, eds. 1968. Marguerite Porete. The Mirror of Simple Souls. Archivio Italiano Per La Storia Della Pietà (Testo Stampato). Roma: Edizioni di storia e letteratura.

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.

Field, Sean L. 2009. “The Master and Marguerite: Godfrey of Fontaines’ praise of The Mirror of Simple Souls.” Journal of Medieval History. 35 (2): 136-149.

Field, Sean L. 2012. The beguine, the angel, and the inquisitor: the trials of Marguerite Porete and Guiard of Cressonessart. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

Lerner, Robert E. 2010. “New light on The Mirror of Simple Souls.” Speculum. 85 (1): 91-116.

Wegener, Lydia. 2010. “Freiheitsdiskurs und Beginenverfolgung um 1308 – der Fall der Marguerite Porete.” Pp. 199-236 in Speer, Andreas, and David Wirmer. 1308: eine Topographie historischer Gleichzeitigkeit. Berlin: De Gruyter.

rape & poisoning on college campus: an ass’s tale of justice

I wasn’t always an ass. My hide was thick, it had to be, with the vicious politics at my small, liberal arts college in a lush valley in the middle of far utopia. With a grave, dignified appearance like that of Aesop, and with all his wisdom, I was a classic of a classic, you know the type, a classics professor. We get all our books via a fly-over air-drop from Amazon. The packages of books float down under colorful parachutes filling the cloudy empyrean like manna — hosanna in the highest! — from Jupiter.

Fortune struck me with a wife, a chemist, a polyamorist. She became the college president. Most of her time she spent soliciting philandropy from women and men wide and long all across the country. I kept my nose in books and out of the mind-bending groping of administrative group work. That was the cause of my downfall and metamorphosis.

My wife, acting in the high clogs of today’s college leaders, performed with a chorus of deans. One, a young woman, supple, slim, and soft, had sparkling black hair, parted in the middle and joined in the back, like fertile black earth beckoning for vernal seed. She bore the form for satisfying ADA-compliance of my Virgil seminar. She ignored me standing by the door of the now empty seminar room; the lengthening shadows from burning Helios’s decline creeped across the ground. You, emissary of the gods, why so forlorn of face? Share the burden of your tale with me! Here’s the sensational and salacious story she told:

I had a sister dear, my playmate from birth, inseparable from me in mirth of childhood innocence. The nursery rhymes we were taught urged us to study science. Emma Penelope was smarter than me, or at least, less distracted in high school. She became a professor of computer science at a large state university.

Her partner Proserpina, a professor of molecular biology, had a girl. Neither she nor Emma could further conceive. So they adopted a boy, a cute little boy, who liked to play with his toy.

So long as Cupid was an infant, nursed only by his first nutriments, Emma could stand up against his still-feeble force, easily suppressing in silence the subtly suffused blush of her cheek. But when his mad fires had fully engaged her heart and Love blazed up in an orgy of excess, then she succumbed to the sadistic god; she masks the wound in her heart by the illness of her body, feigning fainting and feebleness. She was lovesick as sure as science.

That can happen to anybody, you who would judge the sister as sick, you know nothing of life as it was and is and ever shall be. The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. The haters who never, ever feel baters remorse are like plums dried up by the sun, good for nothing but helping the constipated.

To return to the story, Emma, exhausted, forlorn, on the brink of death, as if somebody had tweeted something mean to her, pondered the right words to speak to the boy who loved her like a mother. He lovingly tended her in her exhaustion and weakness. She cries torrents of tears, lifts up her dress to cover her face, and speaks to her son thus:

The entire cause, the fons et origo, of my present anguish; also my cure; also my sole hope of salvation: you yourself are all these things to me. … Have pity on a woman who is dying because of you! And don’t let your reverence for your other mother stand in your way — no, not at all. It is because I see her features in your face that I love you — it’s only right. You have the security that comes from your mother’s long hours at the lab; you have the leisure that can accommodate the deed that must be done. You see, what no one knows about — it’s practically as if it never happened at all!

The boy was shocked by the suddenness of this sinfulness, and although he recoiled in horror from the horror proposed, he knew that delay and diffuse promises are the glue that hold the academic family together. So he makes a long-winded, convoluted declaration of contingency, uncertainty, complexity, and the social construction of reality. He spoke of the hope that his other mother would travel to an academic conference to provide secure time for the free rein of their passion. He planned a galloping getaway from having, unintentionally but culpably in the criminal court of public opinion, seduced his foster-mother.

Emma, a full professor of computer science at a large state university, was no fool. She knew that the boy’s excuses and postponements, calls for further discussion and further consideration of various issues, meant that he had no intention of doing the deed of passion. She summoned to her office a post-doc student, a loathsome lackey, a serf in mind and a slave to her in his professional future. She, mother and spurned foster lover, instructed the post-doc to prepare posthaste a poison for the death and destruction of her foster-son.

The poison was compounded with kombucha and placed in Emma’s office refrigerator to keep it fresh. While Emma was out at a departmental meeting, Proserpina and their daughter Daphne dropped by the office. Proserpina perused co-authors listed on the papers on Emma’s desk. Daphne, bored, pouted. She pleaded for a fizzy drink. Proserpina opened the refrigerator, espied the killer kombucha, and unknowingly gave the death-dealing brew to Daphne to drink. Three sips as if pouring a sacrifice to the gods, and she dropped dead. Campus police sounded the campus emergency alert when they heard Proserpina’s piercing, keening cry and saw her beating her breast and tearing out her already short hair.

My sister dear, my playmate from birth, inseparable from me in mirth, had become an unparalleled paragon of monstrous motherly maliciousness. The gruesome, twisted sister plotted even worse. She sent the slavish post-doc to fabricate a report that her son, Hippolytus himself, poisoned Daphne in revolting revenge for her refusing to allow him to rape her on the mattress in her office. She further claimed that Hippolytus was terrorizing and harassing her on campus so as to destroy her promising career in science. The campus police, cold and heartless, told her to pick up her mattress and walk away. She has been carrying that mattress around campus to this day.

Proserpina, Daphne’s loving mother and Emma’s fiercely loyal partner, spoke out courageously against the inadequate university response to attempted rape and poisoning. Pulling out all the stops, she played for a death sentence for her son Hippolytus. She led vigils, marches, occupations, and dramatic theater of long, lyric speeches pouring forth full hearts in profuse strains of unpremeditated art. In her sorrow and lament she set on fire not only the local senate but the people as well; such was her appeal to their pity, such was her righteous anger, that they all cry out that this public menace should be publicly punished, stoned to death under a hail of stones, or at least lynched. Away with the tedium of due process! Away with the proofs of the prosecution, clear as day anyway! Away with the premeditated prevarications of the defense!

The college president, blood boiling with a vow of vengence, called an urgent meeting of the mightiest deans and biggest heads. “We must unite and move vigorously, passion against passion, and vindicate the right,” she said. “We will press forward, again and again, until we produce a press release. The earth will move under Hippolytus, the sea will roar, and he will be destroyed in the crush of our words.” The army of intellectual leaders all cheered, “Alala, alala.” In the fever of flashing eyes, the gleam of sharp-tipped fountain pens, and nodding heads, nobody noticed that the classics head was missing amidst their ranks.

My foster-nephew Hippolytus is now dead. Inspired warriors tore him to shreds in the ecstasy following the president’s press release. Emma Penelope, my sister dear, my playmate from birth, inseparable from me in mirth, now lives only in mourning for the children she loved and lost. She has not produced a single computer science peer-reviewed publication since. I, once joined with her in mirth, now join with her in mourning.

This beautiful woman’s burden of mourning crushed me like end-of-semester exam-paper grading. The sorrow in her eyes, the fall of her glistening black hair, the suffering of the poor dear, shook me to my marrow. I am only a classics professor, no scientist, not even a sociologist. Of what use is my sword in the battle against rape and poisoning on campus? To rise to be like a firm, thick column in the gleaming temple of righteousness, must I join the mind-bending groping of administrative group work with the college president, my own wife?

I wandered, dazed, out to the lake on the edge of campus and fell down into the white sand imported to make a small beach for the students. The warmth of the sand embraced my body, the music from the dormitories faded, and night enveloped me in sweet sleep. About an hour after the last couple had left the beach, in the deserted silence of the 3am sand, I am startled from my sleep with a hard bolt in the night. I see the disk of the moon, at its full, blindingly bright, just now rising out of the waves of the lake. I had gained the silence-shrouded secrets of the shadowed, sheltered night. Now I was certain that the supreme goddess does hold sway in surpassing majesty; that absolutely all the affairs of mortals are governed by her Providence; that not just animals — be they domestic or wild — but even inanimate objects are quickened at her divine nod, her light, her might; that physical bodies as well — be they on earth or in the sea or in the heavens — now wax and grow in harmony with her, now wane and fade in deference to her.

I rose quickly, enthusiastically to my feet and ran to the earth beyond the edge of the beach. I rolled in the dirt, gushed tears down my face, and prayed to the all-powerful goddess. She came forward toward me with her body naked and exposed, except that she shrouded from the heat her majestic mons pubis with a gossamer gown of silk. A fresh and curious breeze would playfully, erotically, now puff out the hem of this gown, push it aside, to reveal the flower of her blooming youth; would now sensuously blow against it, to outline in fine detail the delights of her limbs by clinging with a soft insistence. She reached out her exquisite fingers and offered me straw, saying take this, my beast, and eat. The straw stuck in my teeth as I chewed. It scratched my throat in my swallowing.

At once my thick skin hardens into a hide. At the very calloused ends of the palms of my hands all my fingers come together, no longer discrete, and coalesce into hooves, one by one. From the base of my spine a fully developed tail comes out of hiding and flops in my spreading crack. Now my face grows hideously long-drawn, my mouth gapes much larger, my nostrils flare outward, my lips hang downward; not only that, but my ears are covered in upstanding bristles of an unpluckable mass. And I could see no consolation for this pitiful metamorphosis except for this:  I had become quite superhumanly hung.

As ass can understand, the way a man can’t, the rape crisis on campus and the poison hidden from the uninitiated child putting his hand into the adder’s den. The bear, the wolf, the lion, and the leopard are there to kill, and kill they will without strong iron bars creating safe spaces in zoos. I now plead with all the eloquence of my learning to my wife and her chorus: refashion campus to make safe spaces for all, including asses, silenced no longer and seeking salvation in your justice.

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The video above, from the Associated Press, reported the news that five men gang-raped a Hofstra student on September 13, 2009. The five men were held in jail for nearly four days. Then a video emerged that completely contradicted the alleged rape victim’s story. She recanted. The men were freed from jail after intense personal trauma and damage to their reputations. The sensational, unquestioning news reporting of the rape allegations greatly contributed to harm to the innocent men.

Another recent, sensational college rape story is the Rolling Stone story, “A Rape on Campus” (published in December, 2014 issue). Subsequent critical analysis of the story found it lacking in fundamental aspects of good journalism. Among many other issues, the alleged rape victim apparently fabricated the character Haven Monahan and used that character to forward letters containing text copied from scripts of the TV series Dawson’s Creek and Scrubs. There’s now good reason to believe that the gang rape described in the Rolling Stone story didn’t actually occur.

Emma Sulkowicz, who regards herself as a victim of rape by another Columbia student, has created for her senior thesis in visual arts a public spectacle of her carrying a mattress around the Columbia University campus. A university inquiry found that Sulkowicz’s allegation was not sufficiently credible to entail punishing the accused student. However, according to the Washington Post:

{Sulkowicz} has committed herself to toting around a mattress until the school expels the fellow student she says raped her, or he leaves on his own. She’s been carrying it around since August. In doing so, she’s generated a lot of buzz, namely because it’s really difficult to ignore a woman toting a mattress with her wherever she goes on campus.

According to Wikipedia:

New York Times art critic Roberta Smith described the {Sulkowicz’s mattress performance} piece as “strict and lean, yet inclusive and open ended, symbolically laden yet drastically physical”, writing that comparisons to the Stations of the Cross and Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter are apparent. Nato Thompson, chief curator of Creative Time, said that he “[couldn’t] think of another instance where a work of art has triggered a movement in this way.” Art critic Jerry Saltz called it “clear, to the point, insistent, adamant … pure radical vulnerability”, and included it in his list of the best 19 art shows of 2014. … Sulkowicz received the National Organization for Women’s Susan B. Anthony Award and the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Ms. Wonder Award for the piece. She was invited to the 2015 State of the Union Address as a guest of Senator Kristen Gillibrand.

Further analysis of Sulkowicz’s claims strongly supports the university’s judgment that they aren’t sufficiently credible to entail punishing the accused student. Her claims, however, have attracted an enormous amount of public attention and have been highly damaging to the accused student. Both rape of women and wrongful accusations of rape have been major public concerns throughout recorded history, except perhaps for today. Serious discussion of wrongful accusations of rape today is marginalized and demonized in elite public discourse.

Sections of the main text above I adapted from Apuleius, The Golden Ass / Metamorphoses, 10.2-3,6 (perfidious stepmother), 11.1, 10.31, 3.24, from Latin trans Relihan (2007) pp. 208, 209, 211, 233, 239, 62-3. Relihan labels the relevant story from The Golden Ass as “the lustful stepmother.” That’s a mis-characterization. The problem isn’t that the stepmother is lustful. It’s that she attempted to murder her stepson, falsely accused him of raping her, and falsely accused him of attempting to murder his step-brother.


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

Porete rejects Holy Cathedral the Little & turns to annihilation

annihilation of Porete

Disillusioned with the dominant institutions of her time, the transgressive medieval lay theologian Marguerite Porete named those institutions Holy Cathedral the Little. She declared that noble Souls like her could achieve a higher life in Holy Cathedral the Great.[1] That was the place of those successful in self-annihilation. Its exemplary member was Mary Magdalene. Cultural authorities like those who helped Porete to achieve actual annihilation now celebrate her life and works.[2] Porete’s path — “she sees nothing except herself” — is becoming increasing attractive to men today.

Porete devalued reason and doing. Noble Souls on Porete’s path of annihilation leave behind reason and works of virtue. Words to Porete have two meanings.[3] Their meanings in use yield to their meanings in Porete’s noble work. Men’s self-sacrifice for their families and their societies leads them to be called kings. But men are kings only in lands where persons see with only one eye of reason: “for truly those who have two eyes consider them as slaves.”[4] Those men who live longing for idealized women are likewise slaves. Apart from reason, the noble Soul rejoices in the afflictions of her neighbors:

for in her spirit she perceives and knows without knowledge that this is the way by which they will come to the harbor of their salvation.[5]

Men, enduring storms of misandry, are beginning to understand.

Porete exalted Mary Magdalene. She had no shame for her sins:

She had no shame, because Jesus Christ said to her that she had chosen the better and the safer part, and, what is more, that it would never be taken from her. And, also, she had no shame at all because her sins were known to all the people, as the Gospel itself witnesses, which says so that all hear it that God drove seven devils out of her. She had no shame for anyone, for she was overwhelmed, and taken and seized; and therefore there was no-one that concerned her except him alone.[6]

The noble Soul, who has perfect charity, likewise never feels remorse or qualms of conscience:

whoever had always perfect charity in her will would never have remorse or qualms of conscience. For remorse or qualms of conscience in the Soul is nothing else than lack of charity; for the Soul is not created for anything else than to have within her, endlessly, the state of pure charity.

Sins aren’t causes for shame or remorse. The noble Soul’s sins serve to testify to the God’s graciousness and the Soul’s glory: “in Paradise, to her great glory, her sins will be known.” Mary Magdalene’s sins show her glory. Mary Magdalene also excelled in doing nothing:

I considered the sweet Magdalene, and what service she performed to prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ as her guest, who was often in Mary’s dwelling, he and his companions, the Apostles in a great throng, but to no avail, because Mary did not move, however much there was to do in the house. And even though our Lord Jesus Christ often returned barefooted, his blessed head all wearied, and was unfed and exhausted and rejected by all, for he could find no-one to give him drink and food, and the Magdalene knew all this, none the less she did not move, whatever his body might need, and left it to her sister Martha to serve him, whose role this was; but to love him she left to no-one but herself.

Doing nothing is the better part. Magdalene choose that part. Noble Souls likewise choose to do nothing.

While scholars for the past three decades have emphasized the Madonna-whore binary, Marguerite Porete more than seven centuries ago abolished that binary. Mary Magdalene came to be like Mary, the mother of Jesus:

she {Mary Magdalene} found God within herself, without seeking him, and, too, she had nothing to seek for, for Love had laid hold of her. But when she first took to loving, she besought him, moved by the longing of the will in her spiritual feeling, and so she was human and little, for she was then forlorn and not Mary. She did not know when she sought him that God was everything, everywhere, for then she would not have sought for him.[7]

Porete observed:

I have found no-one who knew this at all times, except the Virgin Mary. In her there was never any will prompted by the senses, never any labor of the spirit, but only the will of the Deity in the divine work.

When the young Jesus wandered off from his parents to spend three days without them in Jerusalem, the Virgin Mary anxiously sought after him.[8] Like Mary Magdalene’s sins, the Virgin Mary anxiously seeking for Jesus means nothing. For Porete, nothing covers everything. Both Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary found God within themselves through doing nothing.

In Porete’s sixth stage of annihilation, the Soul identifies completely with God. Christ is fully God and fully human in medieval Christian understanding. Porete understood the noble Soul to walk the earth as fully God:

God of his divine majesty sees himself in her, and by him this Soul is so illumined that she cannot see that anyone exists, except only God himself; and so she sees nothing except herself, for whoever sees that which is sees nothing except God himself, who sees himself in this very Soul by his divine majesty. … this Soul, thus pure and illumined, sees neither God nor herself, but God sees himself of himself in her, for her, without her, who — that is, God — shows to her that there is nothing except him. And therefore this Soul knows nothing except him, and loves nothing except him, and praises nothing except him, for there is nothing but he.[9]

Put equivalently, there is nothing but she. Along with increased scholarly appreciation for Porete’s work in recent decades, many women and men today have achieved this sixth state of annihilation.

In our new networked economy, more men are starting to follow Porete’s lead. Men historically have killed beasts, cleared land, built cities, and invented a wide range of new technologies, including many designed for institutionalized men-on-men violence known as war. Yet men’s doing has resulted in men becoming an inferior caste of beings. Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), the sexodus, grass-eaters, and manboobs indicate men embracing Porete’s path of annihilation and doing nothing.

Holy Cathedral the Little remains firmly entrenched in our world. That cathedral has more power now than it ever did in the Middle Ages. Longing for love, simple Souls are attracted to Marguerite Porete’s The Mirror of Simple Souls brought to nothingness and who live only in the will and desire for love. Porete’s path is far superior to curriculum vitae publication building, tallying Facebook likes, and desperately seeking Twitter followers. But perhaps there is a still more excellent way.

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[1] On Holy Cathedral the Little and Holy Cathedral the Great, see Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls brought to nothingness and who live only in the will and desire for love, Chs. 19, 43, 49, 51, 66, from Old French trans. Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999) pp. 38, 62, 69, 70, 87. All subsequent quotes from Porete’s The Mirror of Simple Souls are from id. The subsequent quote in the above paragraph is from Ch. 118, p. 145. An alternate translation for “Souls brought to nothingness” (ames anienties) is “annihilated Souls.” Holy Cathedral the Little and Holy Cathedral the Great are my translation of the terms Saincte Eglise la Petite and Saincte Eglise la Grande. The term eglise is commonly translated as “church,” but Porete here refers to dominant institutions, not a local parish church. Hence “cathedral” seems to me a better translation. On elitism as a fundamental aspect of Porete’s thought, Robinson (2001).

[2] Peter Dronke, a leading medieval literary scholar, described Porete’s book as one of the “most moving expressions of love by medieval women that have come down to us.” Dronke (1984), p. 228. In his Foreword, Kent Emery of the Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame, declared:

Margaret Porette’s solitary, steadfast, and courageous stand against the mighty engines of cultural authority is bound to evoke the sympathy and enkindle the imagination of every modern reader.

Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999) p. viii. Bernard McGinn, a leading scholar of medieval theology, included Porete among “the four female evangelists of thirteenth-century mysticism.” McGinn (1998), p. 141.  Robert E. Lerner, a leading scholar of medieval mysticism, declared that Marguerite’s The Mirror of the Simple Soul “has come to be recognized as one of the greatest works of Western religious literature.” Lerner (2010) p. 92.

Porete was burned as a heretic on June 1, 1310. For a thorough review of the historical evidence, Fields (2012). Porete’s book was quite popular apart from the view of church authorities. It circulated widely in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Within a century, The Mirror of Simple Souls was translated into Italian, Middle English, and even Latin, the authoritative language of Christendom. Despite formal suppression of it, perhaps “dozens of copies” of The Mirror of Simple Souls existed in late-medieval Europe. Lerner (2010) p. 116. The popularity of Porete’s book apparently was due in part to its incomprehensibility. Sections of it in some texts are like gibberish. Colledge, Marler & Grant (1999) p. lxxxiii. Fascination with gibberish is a general feature of appropriately cued written communication.

[3] Ch. 66, p. 87 (take leave of Reason and Virtues); Ch. 13, p. 29, Ch. 20, p. 40 (same word has two meanings).

[4] Ch. 55, p. 74.

[5] Ch. 116, pp. 137-8.

[6] Ch. 76, p. 97 (no shame). Subsequent quotes Ch. 37, p. 57 (no remorse); Ch. 37, p. 56 (great glory in sins); Ch. 124, p. 155 (doing nothing but loving). On the ethics of Porete, Marler (2012). Porete is some ways anticipated the late-nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his works On the Genealogy of Morals and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Scholars of Porete and Nietzche have failed to credit sufficiently Porete as an intellectual mother of Nietzsche.

[7] Ch. 93, p. 118 (God within herself), id. (Virgin Mary likewise). Dubois (2013) highlights the importance of Mary Magdalene to Porete’s thought. “Mary of Peace” and “chosen bride” were common appellations of the Virgin Mary. Porete applied those appellations to Mary Magdalene. Id. p. 152.

[8] Luke 2:48.

[9] Ch. 118, pp. 145-6.

[image] Fire photo thanks to Mr. Theklan and flickr.


Colledge, Edmund, J. C. Marler and Judith Grant, ed. and trans. 1999. Margaret Porette {Marguerite Porete}. The mirror of simple souls. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

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.

Dubois, Danielle C. 2013. “From Contemplative Penitent to Annihilated Soul: The Recasting of Mary Magdalene in Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls.” The Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures. 39 (2): 149-172.

Field, Sean L. 2012. The beguine, the angel, and the inquisitor: the trials of Marguerite Porete and Guiard of Cressonessart. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

Lerner, Robert E. 2010. “New light on The Mirror of Simple Souls.” Speculum. 85 (1): 91-116.

Marler, Jack C. 2012. “The Mirror of Simple Souls: The Ethics of Margaret Porette.” Pp. 445-472 in Jeremiah M. Hackett, ed. A Companion to Meister Eckhart. Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition, 36. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

McGinn, Bernard. 1998. The flowering of mysticism: men and women in the new mysticism (1200-1350). New York: Crossroad.

Robinson, Joanne Maguire. 2001. Nobility and annihilation in Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of simple souls. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York.

Hildegard of Bingen’s antiphon for fathers, O magne pater

O Magne Pater in revelation illumination

English translation Latin text L#
O great Father, O magne Pater, 1
in great need are we. in magna necessitate sumus. 2
Now therefore we beg, we beg of you Nunc igitur obsecramus, obsecramus te 3
according to your Word, per Verbum tuum 4
according to which you created us per quod nos constituisti 5
full of all that we lack. plenos quibus indigemus. 6
Now may it please you, Father, Nunc placeat tibi, Pater, 7
as it behooves you — look upon us quia te decet, ut aspicias in nos 8
with your kindly aid, per adiutorium tuum, 9
that we would not fail, ut non deficiamus, et 10
that your name be not extinguished within us, ne nomen tuum in nobis obscuretur, 11
and by your own name et per ipsum nomen tuum 12
graciously help us. dignare nos adiuvare. 13

Hildegard of Bingen, who lived nearly nine centuries ago, was a visionary. Her poignant antiphon O magne Pater faces the eternal possibility of failing to love fathers.[1] Loving fathers involves calling out to them for help.

The first two lines of O magne Pater echo greatness in the greatness of God the Father and humanity’s great need.  That need, as will develop in the hymn, is the need for God the Father. The third line repeats “beg,” making a plea to the cosmos into a plea to a personal “you.” The fourth and fifth lines resonate with the majestic opening of John’s gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God [2]

The sixth line highlights human imperfection and desire. Humans desire to receive God and believe in who he is. That desire pleases God and is fulfilled with God’s help, for humans alone are prone to allow the name of the Father to be forgotten (lines seven through eleven). The closing two lines celebrate that the grace of God extends even to helping humanity to sing always of God.[3]

Hildegard of Bingen connected humans and God in a resonating unity. Fatherhood is central to Hildegard’s understanding of human and divine harmony:

Oh humans, look at the human being! For it contains heaven and earth and other creatures in itself, and is one form, and all things hide in it. This is what fatherhood is like. In what way? The round of the wheel is fatherhood, the fullness of the wheel is divinity. All things are in it and all stem from it, and beyond it there is no creator. [4]

The roundness of the wheel is the specific human bodily form. The fullness of the wheel is the fullness of human life. Without fatherhood there is no creation, no cosmos, no specific human person.

One thing I ask of the Lord;
this is what I seek:
To live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
To gaze upon the beauty of the Lord,
and to seek him in his temple. [5]

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[1] O magne Pater is from Hildegard of Bingen’s Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations), Song 6. The Latin text above is from the transcription of Beverly Lomer and the edition of Barbara Newman, as provided on the O magne Pater page of the International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies. The English translation above I’ve adapted from those of Nathaniel M. Campbell (O magne Pater page) and Newman (1998) p. 105.

[2] John 1:1, 1:12.

[3] After an extensive analysis of O magne Pater, Karmen McKendrick observed of this antiphon:

altogether musically, deixis becomes reverberation, in which one vibration—the call of created desire, the creative divine voice—sets up another on the same frequency, so that we have the “same” sound, but more so, louder by addition, enriched by another voice, closer to Paradisical perfection. Humanity’s very need, put into song, perfects divine delight. Hildegard’s musicality informs her cosmology both intellectually and sensuously. Taking seriously the notion of a world called into being by voice, she likewise takes seriously the fullness of desire that calls back, the soul as a resonating chamber for the voice that reads aloud the unnamed name of the you, in an address and a reply that can only call to both gratifying completeness and endless need.

MacKendrick (2013) p. 224.

[4] Hildegard of Bingen, Causae et Curae, from Latin trans. Dronke (1984) p. 172. That translation omits a section label written in a different hand. I’ve also eliminated an unnecessary paragraph division. Id. observes of this text, “fluctuations of outlook are notable.” That can be understood as a different perspective on reverberations. Cf. MacKendrick (2013). Newman uses this text on fatherhood as an introduction to the Mother of God and theology of the feminine. Newman (1989) Ch. 5.

[5] Psalm 27:4.

[image] The Day of the Great Revelation, illustration from Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, Part III.12, Rupertsberg Codex, based on copy made at Hildegard Abbey in Eibingen, 1927-1933, via Böckeler (1954) Plate 33. Nathaniel Campbell argues persuasively that Hildegard helped to design the illuminations.

[embedded video] Canto litúrgico cristiano performing Hildegard of Bingen’s O magne Pater. Many other performances of O magne Pater are on YouTube.


Böckeler, Maura. 1954. Wisse die Wege. Scivias. Nach dem Originaltext des illuminierten Rupertsberger Kodex ins Deutsche übertragen und bearb. Salzburg: O. Müller.

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.

MacKendrick, Karmen. 2013. “The Voice of the Mirror: Strange Address in Hildegard of Bingen.” Glossator 7: 209-226.

Newman, Barbara. 1989. Sister of wisdom: St.Hildegards theology of the feminine. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Newman, Barbara, ed. and trans. 1998. Hildegard of Bingen. Symphonia: a critical edition of the “Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum” (Symphony of the harmony of celestial revelations). 2nd ed. Ithaca (N.Y.): Cornell University Press.

gender, egalitarian relationships, and institutional constraints

equals isn't egalitarian without males

In a recent survey of unmarried, childless persons ages 18 to 32 years old, about a third of women and men didn’t prefer an egalitarian long-term relationship.[1] That’s surprising. Why don’t all young women and men today say that they prefer an egalitarian relationship?

An egalitarian relationship means sharing equally housework and/or childcare. In scholarly research, housework is commonly defined as cooking, cleaning, shopping, sewing, home decorating, arranging furniture, and other such tasks. Discussing various choices for completing these tasks also counts as housework. Do you think that the mauve towels go with the granite vanity countertop? Exhausting, viciously competitive, recreational cycling doesn’t count as housework. Neither does killing animals for fun (hunting). Whether telling the kids to go out and play or plopping kids down in front of the television counts as childcare in official tallying isn’t clear.

Men tend to disagree with women on the necessary level of housework and childcare. In the past, experts prescribed standards for homekeeping and childcare. Today experts have moved on to prescribe standards of gender equality in work and family life (excluding gender equality in child custody and child support awards under anti-men family law). The experts solved the fundamental problem of sex differences in housekeeping and child-care preferences by sweeping that problem under the rug. They commonly assume that women determine the necessary standard of housework and childcare. In surveys, a person choosing egalitarian splitting of housework and childcare is free to assume that the housework and childcare is split is based on her standard of what must be done. Who wouldn’t want someone else to do half the work that she thinks needs to be done?

An egalitarian relationship means equally sharing the burden of financially supporting the household. To do that, both partners need to have roughly equal incomes. Under family law, both partners’ income is typically attributed equally to each partner. So if you’re making $30,000 a year and you marry someone making $200,000 a year, you’ve just raised your effective income to $115,000 and lowered your partner’s effective income to $115,000. Imputed income equality is imposed by law only upon divorce. While divorce has become relatively common, persons seeking an egalitarian relationship don’t seek to marry someone making a lot more money than they. With egalitarian relationships, the poor marry the poor, the rich marry the rich, and the social distribution of income becomes more entrenched and more unequal.

Given all the social-status benefits of saying that you favor an egalitarian relationship, why do about a third of women and men refuse to say that? Perhaps they believe that egalitarian relationship is a code word for gynocentrism. It’s like sexism in the World Values Survey and sexism in the Modern Sexism Scale and sexism in major international organizations statistics on gender disparities in lifespans. It’s like a sign for “equals” that includes only the sign for females. That’s the sign the University of Texas used in its press release touting the study on preferences for egalitarian relationships. That study, entitled “Can We Finish the Revolution? Gender, Work-Family Ideals, and Institutional Constraint,” is tendentiously gynocentric.[2] So too is the widespread press coverage of the study’s press release. About a third of women and men reject implicitly gynocentric egalitarianism.

Scholarly and public discussion of egalitarian relationships and gender equality is a farce.  That farce is built upon men dying violent deaths in vastly disproportionate numbers and men being imprisoned in vastly disproportionate numbers. Only in marginal websites does one find real discussion of anti-men gender biases. Anti-men gender biases have a huge effect on family life, work life, and society generally. But no one is allowed to take seriously anti-men gender bias and survive in powerful institutions today.  That’s the key institutional constraint.[3]

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[1] Pedulla & Thébaud (2015) Fig. 2, Condition 2 (egalitarian option). The survey was of the U.S. in  2012. It was completed by 45% of the sample, but 33% of the respondents who completed the survey weren’t able retrospectively to describe correctly the question that they answered. Id. pp. 123, 136, n. 11. That left 329 responses that were analyzed. While the survey was nationally representative, it is quite small and could suffer from unrecognized sampling biases as well as non-sampling biases. For the specific wording of the egalitarian option, see id. p. 135. The text of the egalitarian response:

I would like to have a lifelong marriage or committed relationship where financially supporting the family and managing the household (which may include housework and/or childcare) are equally shared between my spouse or partner and I.

[2] The study begins:

In recent decades, women have entered the labor force en masse, yet this trend has not been matched with a corresponding increase in men’s share of unpaid household work, men’s entry into traditionally female-dominated occupations, or substantial reforms to government and workplace policies. Furthermore, women still comprise only a small minority of elite leadership positions in government, business, and academic science. For instance, women make up just 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 18 percent of the 535 members in the U.S. Congress.{scholarly references omitted}

Pedulla & Thébaud (2015) p. 116. This introduction gynocentrically ignores much more welfare-significant gender inequalities. In U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, forty times more U.S. men soldiers have been killed compared to U.S. women soldiers killed. At the same time, the U.S. still maintains by law sexist Selective Service registration. In civilian work, thirteen times as many men suffer workplace fatalities, but that stark gender inequality has attracted much less attention than claims about gender gaps in earnings (gaps not controlling for earnings-relevant factors such as time on the job, time in the workplace, and non-pecuniary job costs and benefits). In civilian life, four times as many men die from violence, but violence against men is of much less social concern than violence against women. U.S. universities are now leading anti-men, gender-biased rape inquisitions that make medieval inquisitions seem like models of enlightenment. About as many men report suffering rape as do women. That reality has attracted very little public concern amid the strong push to enact anti-men rape inquisitions. Such issues are major obstacles to truly gender egalitarian relationships.

[3] Id. has a much narrower view of institutional constraints. Condition 3 (supportive policies) states:

Raising children, caring for ill family members, and/or taking care of household responsibilities involves a considerable amount of time and energy. In the United States, the cost of paying others to help with these responsibilities (such as childcare) is also high. However, if policies were in place that guaranteed all employees access to subsidized childcare, paid parental and family medical leave, and flexible scheduling (such as the ability to work from home one day per week), which of the following options best describes how you would ideally structure your future work and family life?

Id. p. 135. While such policies are helpful, eliminating alimony payments, child-support payments, and anti-men bias in family courts undoubtedly would be much more effective for promoting egalitarian relationships.


Pedulla, David S. and Sarah Thébaud. 2015. “Can We Finish the Revolution? Gender, Work-Family Ideals, and Institutional Constraint.” American Sociological Review 80 (1): 116-139.

primatology, vegetarianism & criminalization of male animals

In 2009, Harvard University Press published a edited collection of scholarly papers entitled Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans. That title is inapt. Primates include humans. Book-marketing interests probably drove adding “and humans” to primates in the title.[1] The book’s subtitle, An Evolutionary Perspective on Male Aggression against Females, displays more publicly significant interests.  Among humans, about equal numbers of men and women report suffering sexual coercion. Aggression isn’t equivalent to sexual coercion. Men are much more likely than women to be subject to serious physical aggression. The book’s conceptual confusions and anti-men biases underscore primate gynocentrism. Primatology in this book unintentionally helps to explain highly disproportionate criminalization of men through sex-biased social concern.

male orangutan pondering humans' views of sexual coercion

In recent decades, primatology has recognized that male and female sexual interests differ. Sex differences are real. Female primates typically have greater direct parental investment than do male primates. Male primates typically are more eager to have sex. Female primates live longer, are less likely to be killed, and are more socially valued. These facts are reasonably associated in an evolutionary perspective. They imply conflict between females and males within the fundamental, universal evolutionary interest in reproduction.

In Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans, primatologists conceptually criminalized non-human primate males physically forcing females to have sex. Non-human primates commonly fight physically with each other over food, social rank, physical position, and other interests. Some non-human primates kill and eat other animals. Implicitly assuming non-physical sexual decision-making to be normative in non-human primates is as silly as assuming vegetarianism to be normative for non-human primates. The underlying logic isn’t reasoned human ethics applied to non-human primates. The underlying logic is gynocentrism imposed on non-human primates to serve human symbolic interests.

While the primatologists conceptually criminalized male non-human primates physically pursuing their sexual interests, primatologists favor such criminalization only with words. Most primatologists support minimizing disruptive intrusions on non-human primates living in the wild. Primatologists have done nothing to organize policing and punishment of wild male non-human primates engaging in what they have labeled sexual coercion. In high-income countries, hunters, who are predominately men, tend to prefer to kill male animals.[2] Primatologists haven’t advocated increasing hunting to lessen male sexual coercion of female non-human primates. In actual practice, conceptually criminalizing male non-human primates serves to strengthen women’s social dominance and highly disproportionate criminalization of men in human societies.

Influential, fallacious claims about evolutionary psychology and human violence have supported highly disproportionate criminalization of men. Women and men roughly equally victimize each other physically in domestic relations. Men’s assaults against their wives don’t have any general implications for evolutionary psychology.[3]  Absurdly false claims about men’s violence against women have persisted in public discourse. That reality is significant for understanding evolutionary psychology. Widespread belief in false claims about violence against women has deep roots in the evolved psychology of men and women. Primatology should bring that human insight to study of non-human primates.

Men, like women, have sexual interests. Men have an evolutionary interest in fathering biological offspring that in turn produce biological offspring. That interest is misrepresented as men’s “proprietary view of women’s sexuality and reproductive capacity.”[4] That’s gynocentric rhetoric no better than conceptually criminalizing non-human primates physically pursing their sexual interests.  Sexuality and reproductive capacity aren’t the property of women or men. Sexuality and reproductive capacity flourish in a network of social relations encompassing men and women and reasonably accommodating their differing interests.

Men, for good evolutionary reasons, are interested in knowing their biological offspring. Men have always recognize their risk of being cuckolded. They have naturally and not completely successfully sought to limit their cuckoldry risk. Today, cuckolding men is institutionalized in grotesquely unjust legal procedures for establishing paternity. In addition, dominant political interests have greatly constrained men’s ability to acquire highly reliable paternity information through modern DNA testing. Mothers’ interests in men’s financial resources have overwhelmingly dominated men’s interest in ascertaining biological paternity. Men are now imprisoned, without the benefit of counsel, for being too poor to pay state-mandated financial child-support obligations. Men’s sexual and reproductive interests receive remarkably little weight in modern human societies.

In addition to supporting social injustice, misandristic misrepresentations of men’s interests foster fundamental evolutionary misunderstandings. Influential contributors to Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans declared in their contribution, “human male fitness is and always has been limited primarily by access to the reproductive efforts of fertile women.”[5] That’s wrong by many orders of magnitude. From about 2000 years ago to 1000 years ago, world human population was about 250,000 persons. World population is now about 6 billion persons.[6] What changed in the last millennium wasn’t that women decided to increase their reproductive efforts. Inventions that almost exclusively men made allowed massive human population growth to occur.

With its gynocentric conceptual framework, Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans fails to provide insight into fundamental issues. Most sexual activity in non-human primates doesn’t involve males physically forcing females to have sex.[7] That reality suggests that non-human primates have evolved means to limit physical confrontations over sexual activity. Plausible mechanisms are stress, pleasure, and trust. Physical confrontations create stress and physical risks, including to the prevailing animal. From an evolutionary perspective, physical confrontations hurting the fitness of one’s sexual partner is disadvantageous. Animals, including humans, have biological mechanisms that associate sex with pleasure. Those mechanisms are less operative in hostile sexual encounters. Hostile sexual encounters are also likely to undermine trust between animals. Reducing trust limits opportunities for further interaction and lessens stability of the larger social group. Biological mechanisms common across primates probably reduce hostile sexual encounters and encourage mutually desired ones much more than do human practices of demonizing, criminalizing, and incarcerating men.

Primatology can provide a valuable critical perspective on human behavior. Humans show relatively little concern about violence against men.[8] Humans are highly reluctant to acknowledge that roughly equal numbers of men and women are victims of sexual coercion.[9] Hugely disparate imprisonment of men generates little social concern even in societies where gender equality is a major concern in public discussion. These fundamental, troubling facts should be recognized in intellectually serious, ethically engaged primatology that serves to make human societies more humane.

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[1] The editors obviously knew that primates include humans. They specifically displayed that elementary knowledge in the last words of the introductory chapter: “in both humans and nonhuman primates.” Muller, Kahlenberg & Wrangham (2009) p. 18. The editors also displayed that elementary knowledge in the title of their concluding chapter, in the first paragraph of that chapter, and in the last sentence of that chapter. Wrangham & Muller (2009) pp. 451, 466.

[2] The explanation isn’t just devaluation of men’s lives projected onto other animals. Hunters in part prefer to kill male animals because male animals tend to be larger and to have distinctive ornaments.

[3] Wilson & Daly (2009) promotes misandristic misunderstanding of domestic violence. Apparently presuming reader ignorance, id., p. 272, declared in the context of wife beating:

In an oft-repeated phrase, Strauss (1980) maintained that “a marriage license is a hitting license.”

For nearly three decades, Murray Strauss and other family violence researchers have been presenting data showing gender symmetry in physical aggression among intimate partners.

[4] Wilson & Daly (2009) pp. 274-80. Wilson and Daly have been peddling this idea at least since Wilson & Daly (1992). The 2009 publication repeats nearly verbatim a widely disseminated claim from the 1992 publication:

In proposing that men take a proprietary view of women’s sexuality and reproductive capacity, we mean that men are motivated to lay claim to particular women as songbirds lay claim to territories, as leopards lay claim to a kill, or as people of both sexes lay claim to valuables.

Wilson & Daly (2009) p. 275. Cf. Wilson & Daly (1992) p. 289. Beyond its misandristic rhetoric, this claim means not much more than that men, like other organisms, have an interest in reproducing biologically.  One could with equal reason declare:

In proposing that women take a proprietary view of men’s sexuality and productive capacity, we mean that women are motivated to lay claim to particular men as songbirds lay claim to territories, as leopards lay claim to a kill, or as people of both sexes lay claim to valuables.

Current laws imposing child-support on men for doing nothing more than having consensual sex underscore current state support for proprietary claims on men based on nothing more than their sexual activity.

[5] Wilson & Daly (2009) p. 275.

[6] For estimates of world population across the past two millennium, Maddison (2001) pp. 231, 241.

[7] Across primates, males physically forcing females to have sex seems to be most common among orangutans. The share of forced copulations varies widely by local population and male type (flanged vs. unflanged). A rough median figure is 50%. Knott (2009) p.86, Fig. 4.2. Although copulations are physically forced, “the degree of physical wounding is extremely low”; “severe wounding of females has never been reported.” Id. p. 82. Forced copulations are a very small share of total copulations for other primates, including humans.

[8] Relatively little concern about violence against men has a chimpanzee parallel in Muller, Kahlengerg & Wrangham’s chapter, entitled “Male Aggression against Females and Sexual Coercion in Chimpanzees” (Ch. 8). It declares:

There are few published data on the rates of intersexual aggression in chimpanzees, but in our own site of Kanyawara, in Uganda’s Kibale National Park, females are as likely as males to be victims of male aggression.

Id. p. 184. The prevalence of false claims about domestic violence against women shows that manipulating data on aggression against females is relative easy. Manipulating data on deaths is more difficult. Among chimpanzees, four times as many males die from aggression as do females. Muller, Kahlengerg & Wrangham’s chapter obscures that large sex disparity in chimpanzee victimization from lethal aggression.

[9] Like much scholarship, Muller & Wrangham (2009) shows no concern for sexual coercion of males. In Ch. 14, p. 355, Melissa Emery Thompson defines rape to exclude men being raped. In Ch. 16, Tommaso Paoli described a survey he administered about bonobos. The survey asked only about male bonobos coercing females to have sex. No such cases were reported. Several respondents on their own initiative reported cases of females sexually coercing males. Reporting on the bonobo colony at Columbus Zoo, Monique Fortunato stated:

I have seen some ‘sexual coercion’ by females to males — not in the strictest sense, in which there are beatings and/or forced copulation, but there is one female in particular that makes very strong advances to males for oral or manual stimulation.

Amy Pollick reported many cases of female sexual coercion of a male bonobo:

I saw plenty of sexual coercion in the San Diego Zoo bonobos — mostly just one female (Lolita) towards one male (Junior). Lolita (second-ranking female) must have done it 40 times in 114 hours of observation, wheras the third-ranking female just 3 times.

Id. p. 414.  In humans, female sexual coercion of males attracts little interest. Voluminous, well-funded work addresses exclusively male sexual coercion of females.

[image] Male breeding orangutan. Thanks to TheBusyBrain and flickr.


Knott, Cheryl D. 2009. “Orangutans: Sexual Coercion with Sexual Violence.” Ch. 4, pp. 81-111, in Muller & Wrangham (2009).

Maddison, Angus. 2001. The world economy: a millennial perspective. Paris, France: Development Centre of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Muller, Martin N., Sonya M. Kahlenberg, and Richard W. Wrangham. 2009. “Male Aggression and Sexual Coercion of Females in Primates.” Ch. 1, pp. 3-22, in Muller and Wrangham (2009).

Muller, Martin N., and Richard W. Wrangham. 2009. Sexual coercion in primates and humans: an evolutionary perspective on male aggression against females. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, Margo and Martin Daly. 1992. “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Chattel.” Ch. 7, pp. 289-322, in J.H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, J. Tooby, eds. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. Oxford University Press. New York.

Wilson, Margo and Martin Daly. 2009. “Coercive Violence by Human Males against Their Female Partners.” Ch. 11, pp. 271-291, in Muller and Wrangham (2009).

Wrangham, Richard W. and Martin N. Muller. 2009. “Sexual Coercion in Humans and Other Primates: The Road Ahead.” Ch. 18, pp. 451-468, in Muller and Wrangham (2009).