matriarchy in 11th-century Germany: the case of Ruodlieb

Tamar the Great, Queen of Georgia

A great king counseled the noble knight Ruodlieb to marry only upon his mother’s advice. Ruodlieb’s mother advised:

I should desire, if you do, that we now call
Our relatives and loyal friends together, that
With their advice and with their loyal help you can
Find a woman to be your wife [1]

Ruodlieb didn’t rebuff, resent, or ignore his mother’s urgings to marry. He responded “very calmly.” He also acted promptly and obediently:

Tomorrow we will tell our friends and relatives
To gather here with us as quickly as they can.
If you think we should follow the advice that they
Give me, I will not fail to carry out your wish.

At that gathering to help Ruodlieb find a wife, Ruodlieb spoke “just as his mother had advised.” Ruodlieb pursued marriage to please his mother. He was a leader among men, but a follower of his mother.

Ruodlieb entrusted his household to his mother for ten years. Because lords in his home realm weren’t favoring him, Ruodlieb decided to seek service elsewhere. Ruodlieb’s mother lived with him. Before leaving, he entrusted all his affairs to her. These actions occurred very early in the story.[2] The reader doesn’t know that Ruodlieb has no wife, no siblings, and his father is dead. Delaying narration of these details highlights the dominance of Ruodlieb’s mother in his life.

Ruodlieb could have entrusted his affairs to someone other than his mother. Other persons loved Ruodlieb and had long-term relationships with him. Ruodlieb left home with a squire who had served him from childhood. The house servants wept and groaned when Ruodlieb left. They joyously strained to catch first sight of him when they heard news of his return. Ruodlieb consulted loyal friends and relatives about seeking a wife. He could have entrusted his affairs to one of them. Instead, Ruodlieb burdened his aged mother with his affairs.

Ruodlieb’s emotional relationship with his mother mattered more to him than his position in broad networks of men. While in service to a foreign king, Ruodlieb received a message “from his dear mother.” The message had two parts. The first part was from Ruodlieb’s home lords. It explained Ruodlieb’s current standing among men, the need for his skills, the fall of his enemies, and possibilities for remuneration. The second part of the message was his mother’s emotional appeal to him:

My darling son, remember your unhappy mother
Whom, as you know, when you departed you deserted
Both unconsoled and widowed by a double cause.
Once by your father, the second time by you, my son.
As long as you were with me, you eased all my woes;
When you departed, though, you multiplied my sighs.

That’s a claim for sympathy with a thrust of shaming. Ruodlieb’s mother’s suffering was his fault. His mother claimed the moral high ground:

However, I decided I could bear it somehow,
Provided you could live your wretched life safe from
So many enemies who were so strong and fearsome.
Because they all have now been maimed or killed, return,
Dear son, and bring your mother’s grieving to an end.

But in the end his mother made clear it wasn’t just about her:

By your arrival gladden all your relatives,
Not only yours but all your countrymen as well.

Ruodlieb didn’t react to his lords’ message. He cried “for his lonely mother.” He grieved for her intensely. Showing the message to the king, Ruodlieb described it as deeply disturbing. He evidently wasn’t referring to his lords’ praising him and welcoming him to return. The king understood Ruodlieb’s focus, but described it much differently: “the message from your mother is extremely pleasing.”[3] The king released Ruodlieb to go home to his mother. That Ruodlieb was also going home to his lords hardly mattered.

The emotional intensity of Ruodlieb’s relationship with his mother is evident in his interaction with his mother’s goddaughter. She, a widow, looked to Ruodlieb for romance. He felt no passion for her. But he passionately sought information about his mother (her godmother):

Now, mistress, how long since you saw your godmother?
Please tell me, is she well? And does she live in peace?
Please tell me, when did she become your godmother?
Has she borne me a brother whom you raised from that
Baptismal fount, or did she raise your daughter from
The fount?

The goddaughter in response pushed the emotional level higher:

Ah me, what have you said? Do you think she has wed,
For whom her life has lost its sweetness without you?
For she has lost her vision from her tears for you. [4]

Ruodlieb in response wept. This scene, like similar scenes in the late-eighteenth-century English literature of sensibility, encourages personal characterization and identification. Almost everyone knows what it feels like to love one’s mother.

Ruodlieb’s relationship with his mother is also characterized in more stereotypically medieval ways. Consider table arrangements at the banquet celebrating Ruodlieb’s return home:

The knight {Ruodlieb} went to the table and sat down …
He did not wish to sit up at the head, however;
But like a guest sat humbly on his mother’s right,
And gladly he gave her complete authority.
Respectfully he took that which she gave to him.
She cut the bread and passed it out to all the group,
And passed to everyone a dish of special foods;
She sent around a bowl of wine, and sometimes mead. [5]

After the banquet, Ruodlieb went with “his beloved mother” to a private room to show her the treasures he had acquired during his time away from home. Excited with showing his mother his wealth, he broke open both loaves that the king had given him. Breaking the second loaf violated the king’s instructions.[6] Ruodlieb’s child-like excitement with his mother obliviated the instructions he had received from the king.

Compared to the wisdom the king gave Ruodlieb, Ruodlieb’s mother’s counsel would have been more suspect to medieval listeners. His mother portrayed the ravages of old age for a woman. Among its evocative descriptions, her portrait described effects of aging on the woman’s hair:

The golden-colored hair that once hung to her buttocks,
Bound up in separate braids and covering her back,
Sticks up grotesquely, terrible to see, as if
Her head had just been drawn, arse first, through shrubbery. [7]

Ruodlieb’s mother then declared that “age overcomes an agile man as it does woman.” Her portrait of the old man ends with his plea for death:

Death, you who are alone the end of human woes,
Why do you come for me so late? Why do you not
Release me from my prison? [8]

These paired portraits are highly literary and highly exaggerated. They seem to occur in the context of urging Ruodlieb to marry. Presumably his mother wanted him to marry a young woman before he got too old. But Ruodlieb earlier saw the loving marriage of a young man and an old woman. Compared to his mother’s words, the king’s wisdom was less rhetorical. Its validity was also realized in the course of the narrative. Moreover, the king provided wisdom as a chosen gift. Ruodlieb’s mother “did not cease giving Ruodlieb her frequent warnings.”[9] Frequent warnings tend to have the value of nagging.

A change in the depiction of Ruodlieb’s mother seems to have occurred from the middle of the penultimate surviving fragment. Ruodlieb’s mother then became a paragon of virtue:

The mother of that Ruodlieb, as best she could,
Helped Christ’s unfortunates: the widows, orphans, pilgrims,
And thus she earned that Ruodlieb be greatly blessed.
For Christ revealed to her how he would glorify
Her son. [10]

Ruodlieb’s mother was herself a widow and earlier lamented her misfortune in her son’s absence. That has no narrative relevance here.

The revelation to Ruodlieb’s mother indicated that Ruodlieb would become a king, marry, and receive greater honors. Information from a captured dwarf apparently confirmed that revelation. Ruodlieb’s mother remained humble and didn’t credit herself for her son’s forthcoming good fortune. The last words of Ruodlieb’s mother in the surviving text are pieties about giving thanks to God.[11] Earlier concern and wonder about Ruodlieb’s relationship with his mother are eliminated in the end.

Matriarchy is both subtle and beyond challenge.

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[1] Ruodlieb XVI.11-14, from Latin trans. Kratz (1984) p. 187. The subsequent three quotes are from XVI.19, 20-23, 41, id. pp. 187, 189. The phrase “very calmly” translates placidissime from l. 19. The greater king’s counsel to defer to mother is at V.487, p. 125. All subsequent quotes are from id. The Latin text of Ruodlieb is online. Ruodlieb wasn’t a homebody. He won a major military victory in foreign service as commander-in-chief of the great king’s army.

[2] By line 16 of the story. Id. p. 75.

[3] All the quotes in the above paragraph are from Ruodlieb V.224-90, pp. 113, 115.

[4] Ruodlieb V.1-9, p. 169 (previous two quotes).

[5] Ruodlieb XIII.10-17, id. p. 173.

[6] Ruodlieb XIII.35-60 (breaking open both loaves in private with his mother). Gold and jewels were hidden in what appeared to be loaves of bread. The king instructed Ruodlieb:

Do not break open these two loaves, my dearest man,
Until you reach your mother, whom you love so dearly.
Then in her sight alone you break the smaller loaf;
When you sit at your wedding with your bride, then break
The next.

Ruodlieb V.549-53, p. 127.

[7] Ruodlieb XV.18-21, p. 183. On the importance of a woman’s hair, see my post on Paul and Thecla, especially note [5] and Galbi (1996) preprint p. 22.

[8] Ruodlieb XV.58-60, p. 185. Release from prison has been a common, broad rhetorical figure throughout literary history.

[9] Ruodlieb XV.65-6, p. 185. The king’s wisdom given as a gift to Ruodlieb is at V.451-526, pp. 123-7.

[10] Ruodlieb XVII.85-7. Zeydel perceived that the text changed from XVII.83:

From here on, the style of the work changes. There is occasional end-rhyme (e.g. ll. 85-87; 90-91), verbs of saying are omitted, and the scansion of the name Ruodlieb fluctuates (e.g. ll. 87 and 91). The handwriting, however, does not change. Perhaps there was some lapse of time after l. 82.

Zeydel (1959) p. 153. The literary treatment of Ruodlieb’s mother also changes sharply from that point.

[11] In Ruodlieb XVII.119-28, Ruodlieb’s mother states:

Remember, son, how often in his goodness God
Has helped you and has rescued you from death itself,
And that He often helped you when you were in exile,
And let you come back to your homeland safe and wealthy.
I know that now you will obtain still greater honors,
But I fear very much to say the Lord has thus
Rewarded us for ever doing anything
Which has pleased Him — my son, beware of saying this!
What could we do, who have nothing but what He gives?
But whether you fare well or badly, give Him thanks!

Ruodlieb’s mother earlier was a much more subtle, complex character.

[image] Shota Rustaveli presents his poem to Queen Tamar of Georgia. Painting. Mihály Zichy, 1880s, Tbilisi, Georgai. Thanks to Air sign and Wikimedia Commons.


Galbi, Douglas. 1996. “Through Eyes in the Storm: Aspects of the Personal History of Women Workers in the Industrial Revolution.” Social History 21(2): 142-59.

Kratz, Dennis M., trans. 1984. Waltharius, and Ruodlieb. New York: Garland Pub.

Zeydel, Edwin Hermann. 1959. Ruodlieb: the earliest courtly novel (after 1050); introduction, text, translation, commentary and textual notes. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Psycho and Aphrodite through Apuleius’s Metamorphoses

Held, so he thought, on the charge of telling tales insulting the honor of women, the young soldier was thrust into a dark cave under the guard of an old man. He wasn’t even held in a proper cage like they get in Gitmo, no, they handcuffed him to the understrut of an old metal desk pulled out of branch command in the office refurbishing. The old man was the usual drunk ex-military, retired but not tired enough not to want to chew leather, swap war stories with the boys, and pocket some cheap pay for being a hired guard. The young soldier, only a few years out of West Point, hadn’t yet had military respect starved out of him. He addressed the old man with “Sir.”

Sir, I request to be informed of the details of the charges against me. Please, please, I need JAG representation, a lawyer, a law lover who will get things right and proper. My father was a general, and nothing made him prouder than when I entered West Point. His heart would break if he knew.

After a brutal battle with the Taliban, my best buddy had his legs blown off, and we struggled back to barracks and fell into bed. In the dark of night, I sweated with flashbacks of a mortar attack and the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air, but our flag was still there, when all of a sudden the lights in the barracks snapped on. The intruders flashed Internal Affairs badges and yanked me out of my bed and marched me away. I don’t know why I’m here, sir, I just don’t know.

The young soldier began to sob and bang his head against the top drawer of the metal desk. That caused the other drawers to rattle and metallic sounds to echo off the walls of the cave. I knew how brave those soldiers are, and deep inside my animal hide, I felt sorry for him. The old man told him to man up, chin up, and get a grip on himself. Then the old man unsteadily stood up, and with his backside to the soldier and peering with half-opened eyes at no one, saluted. He then turned to the soldier.

You’re now in the toughest battle, the battle within. Back in Desert Storm, I was deep in the desert on patrol with Jack, Jim, and Johnny, the hardest-hitting Marines that ever came out of a bottle. A hellish sandstorm blew up, the sky vanished, and we were lost within the sandy earth. I lay down to die with my gun in my hands, and I was entombed in sand. But soon, suddenly, came a monsoon. I rose, born again in that rain. You too can rise again. The victor in battle is the loser. If you’re being tried for treason, you’re a loyal soldier. Let me tell you a lovely, true story I heard from my friends. And so he began.

Back in the days before women in combat meant pencil-pushing pussy jobs, there was a feared and ferocious Taliban fighter known as Aphrodite. She was beautiful and deadly. Central command sent special ops after her, man after man. But no matter how big the gun, and no matter how tightly he bound himself to it, she would shake him until he was numb, and then behead him.

Afghan cover girl for National Geographic

Mercury grew up working in the family grocery store in rural Tennessee. To earn more money he also carried the job of the local postman. One fateful day there came in the mail a sensational issue of National Geographic. He knew in his loins right away that he would lose it. On the cover was a stunningly beautiful Afghan girl with big green eyes that drew you in like a whirlpool. Just on the cusp of manhood, he spent many hours at night in the woods spending himself with the Afghan cover girl. He never delivered the issue. He desperately wanted to find her, or at least a wild, exotic girl like her.

He marched himself to the Marine Corps recruiting office and signed away his life. Neither big nor strong, he got through boot camp by wits and twists and turns. Within the Marine Corps, he joined the Signal Service and rose through the ranks as the sort of soldier who would deliver a message to Garcia. Because of his skills as a translator and unimpressive musculature, some of the Marines nicknamed him Hermaphroditus. But Mercury was better known as Psycho for his undercover communication missions which in command review were analyzed as psychotic.

Direct Ops, jealous that Signal Service was getting more missions and more resources because of Psycho, arranged to have him sent on a mission that, by straight-book tactical plans, he had no chance of return. His mission order was concise and direct: PSYCHO SEIZE APHRODITE STOP. Aphrodite, the ferocious Taliban fighter who beheaded Adonis and whom Ares had never succeeded in reaching! Psycho, throw down your guns and leap from a cliff with the hope that the wind will bear up your head! Then you would have a better chance to live!

A National Geographic mission wound its way slowly into mountainous Taliban territory. Its goal, under the funding document that the publisher approved, was to find again the Afghan cover girl and write a sensational story. No one suspected that the head of the National Geographic mission, a man full of fake journalistic credits, was actually Psycho.

The National Geographic delegation went from village to village, showing everyone the National Geographic Afghan cover girl issue. Most of the villagers looked sullenly mystified and turned a cold shoulder. One, however, an older man with a gleam in his eye, said that he knew that girl. Psycho, with the yearning of his youth swelling up with the force of memory and imagination, asked to be taken to her. An arduous, three -hour climb through rugged, desolate terrain brought them to her isolated village.

Three heavily armed Taliban men menacingly approached. Psycho showed them the National Geographic Afghan cover girl issue, touching and emotive, acclaimed and celebrated across America. One Taliban pointed his Kalashnikov at Psycho’s head, another grabbed Psycho’s arms and pinned them behind his back, while a third pushed Psycho’s local guide away and told him to leave immediately. Then a Taliban took off his shoe and began striking Psycho in the face with the sole, back and forth, the dung of Afghan rural life digging into his cheeks. Then they emptied his pockets, stripped him to his red-blossom boxer shorts, and brought him inside a hut.

Afghan cover girl follow-up

The Afghan cover girl, now a middle-aged woman, was there. After again striking him in the face with a shoe’s sole, the men demanded, “Tell us why you are here.” Psycho, who had been silent while being crushed, declared solemnly, “So be it, I will, God willing.” Then he told his whole story, without deceit: his youth working the grocery store and delivering mail, his infatuation with the Afghan cover girl from that issue of National Geographic, his military service, and his mission. They told him, “Make peace with God and prepare to die.” He was about to be shot in the head and returned to the dust when the woman intervened. “Tie him on top of that bed,” she said, “arms and legs strapped to the corners, and then cover him with a blanket and leave him alone.”

Now it is the depths of the night, and a mild and merciful sound reaches his ears. Then, so alone and so unguarded, but tied down so exposed, Psycho is afraid for his masculinity. In fear and trembling, he lies quaking, and more than for any evil, he is in mortal terror of the unknown. And then the unknown woman is there: she had climbed into the bed, she had make Psycho her husband, and before the sun had risen she had hastily gone away. Psycho found that one of his hands had gotten free and was resting on his thigh. By the side of the bed had appeared tea, cooked lamb, a hookah, and flat bread, freshly made, it seemed. He ate a sumptuous meal for a starving man, and the hookah filled his mind with smoke. And over time, all this long time, these actions are repeated, in just this way. To be sure, this is how nature engineers such things: what was new and unanticipated had bestowed joy upon him through accustomed habit and repetition; and the sound of that indeterminate voice was a consolation in his isolation.

With the smoke from the hookah filling his mind, it drifted. If I were back in America, and there were a university in rural Tennessee, and if it had a class in classical Latin literature, and any students took it, the professor would teach that I’ve been raped, repeatedly, and through that trauma had traumatically bonded to my captors, and come to accept and like being raped. It would be like that news story of how a brutish man kept a girl, everywoman, as a sex slave for decades until she was finally rescued and educated. I chuckled and thought of National Geographic.

My one hand was free — was it free just so that I could drink tea and bring food and the hookah tube to my mouth? I sensed that the muscles of my hand and arm were moving during the night. Could it be possible, what if, what if I held her tight and wouldn’t let go, how could she fade from firm flesh to nothingness? If I held tight and didn’t let go, would that be the death of me?

He resolved to die to know if the Afghan cover girl was pressing against him in the night. In the depths of the night, the cover lifts slightly, and she slips in between his legs. He hooks his arm around her back and holds her tight. Before she had been bouncing upright, now she was tight against him and his hand was only moving slightly when it slid lower on her back. He buried his face in her black hair and in pleasure waited for the morning light.

“I am Aphrodite,” she moaned to him. The earth stopped moving for him, all the blood drained from his extremities, and it was as if he were sucked down in a whirlpool to a watery death. His pale skin turning cold blue, he pushed her face up to his. “You are the Afghan cover girl,” he whispered in a trembling voice. “I am Aphrodite,” she said again with a faint smile. She was the Afghan cover girl, she was Aphrodite — a double mission impossible, an explosion of fear and passion!  Take me now, he said, slit my throat and cut off my head, I have seized life far beyond my dreams.

God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and nothing happens but what God wills. God willed that Psycho remember his mission orders: PSYCHO SEIZE APHRODITE STOP. God willed that a week earlier Aphrodite’s husband had been killed by an IED misplaced in the sheep’s meadow. No one could better guide the Taliban to avoid American forces than a former Signal Service leader. Psycho converted to Islam, pledged his allegiance to the Taliban, and married Aphrodite. They had a beautiful boy whom they named Hermaphroditus. Psycho, by expertly guiding the Taliban away from American forces, saved many lives. Soldiers here argue about whether he’s a hero, a traitor, or just a soldier who strictly followed his orders. But no one has any doubt that Psycho has a good life, especially since we heard that Aphrodite arranged for him to have three other beautiful, loving wives.

And that was the story that the old man told, in his drunkenness and delirium, to the captive and captivated soldier. And I — standing off to one side, not too far away — I was in anguish, believe you me, because I had neither steno books nor stylus to record such a beguiling fiction.

The Prosecutor-Advocate arrived with two assistants, all in crisply pressed uniforms with badges neatly ordered in colorful rows flaring on their breasts. The young soldier tilted back his head so that his handcuffed right hand could reach it in salute, but by pulling on the understrut he caused the center drawer of the desk above him to cha-chink open like a cash register. The officers ignored the metallic rattling and addressed him.

Soldier, you are charged with three counts of failing to offer to carry the pack of a woman soldier on full retreat from fearful and ferocious Taliban fire. According to the enacted Rules of Engagement for all active-fire acts in this theater, you are to ask the woman soldier if she wants you to carry her pack, asking politely, respectfully, and without any hint of inferiority. If she says no, you are to ask her again. If she says no, then you are to ask her a third time. If she says no again, then you are free to run as fast as you can with only your pack on your back. Did you receive the Bible-thick book of Rules of Engagement in the pre-mission briefing meeting? The young soldier nodded his head vigorously, but carefully, so as not to bang his head on the metal desk drawer above. Then he sputtered, “But sir, my buddy had his legs blown off in a brutal Taliban blast.” The officer glared at him, and said only, “Do you understand your rights?” The soldier started sobbing. The officer and his assistants remained stiff and solemn.

Outraged, I ambled over and nuzzled one assistant’s fingers, held curved inwards at the bottom of his straight arm. I licked his fingers and acted as if I were just an ass hoping for a carrot. The assistant, born and bred on a farm in Arkansas, unconsciously started stroking my ears. Playing the empty-headed ass, I positioned my rear next to the officer’s legs and let loose with a strong stream of piss, drenching his pants from the knees down and dulling the spit-shine of his black shoes. He turned to his assistant and said, “Lieutenant, get that ass out of here.” I was cruelly yanked by the halter to a far corner of the cave, all the while tingling with pleasure for my good deed. The officer announced, in a voice struggling to maintain command, that they would return in an hour. Then they retreated.

The old man, the retired ex-military hired guard, took a long drink from his bottle. Then he pulled out his pistol, stuck the barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

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The story above is fictional and a parody. It’s meant as literary, social, and media commentary. War, suicides of soldiers, and the privacy of the Afghan woman famous for being on the cover of the National Geographic are serious matters. In my view, they haven’t been taken seriously enough in the past.

Fragmentary data on veterans’ suicides indicates that, as a best estimate, on average 22 veterans commit suicide per day in the U.S. Among those veterans committing suicide, more than 97% are men. See U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Suicide Data Report, 2012, pp. 18, 22. Men’s deaths from suicides, like men’s deaths from interpersonal violence, attract relatively little public concern.

The story above is adapted from Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, 4.23-6.30. That section centers on what has come to be known at the Tale of Cupid and Psyche. The story above incorporates close adaptations of sections of Metamorphoses 5.4 and 6.25, from the outstanding English translation of Relihan (2007), also available in Relihan (2009). The later providers useful literary and philosophical context for Cupid and Psyche. Relihan’s A Reader’s Commentary on Cupid and Psyche is freely available online. My adaptation has benefited from Relihan and others’ commentary on Metamorphoses 5.4.

The Afghan girl appeared on the cover of the June, 1985, issue of National Geographic. The title of the article was “A Life Revealed: Along Afghanistan’s War-torn Frontier.” The National Geographic Society searched out and found the Afghan girl in 2002. That generated in the April, 2002, issue of National Geographic an article entitled “A Life Revealed,” with subtitle text, “Her eyes have captivated the world since she appeared on our cover in 1985. Now we can tell her story.” Wikipedia states:

a number of women who came forward and identified themselves erroneously as the famous Afghan Girl. In addition, after being shown the 1984 photo, a handful of young men erroneously identified Gula as their wife.

Afghan Girl Revealed” National Geographic interactive video and the “Afghan Girl Revealed” National Geographic slide show provide information consistent with Wikipedia’s statement and more details about the development of the story.

In 2002, the National Geographic Society established the Afghan Girls Fund (see NG1). According to the National Geographic Society:

The Afghan Girls Fund (AGF) has worked to realize the wish of Sharbat Gula—whose arresting childhood photograph graced the cover of National Geographic magazine and captured the hearts of its readers—to improve the prospects of Afghan girls and women through education. (see NG2)

By September, 2002, the Afghan Girls Fund has raised about half a million dollars. See NG3.  By December 5, 2003, the fund had raised about $832,000. See NG3. In 2008, the National Geographic expanded its effort to boys:

Beginning May 20, 2008, the National Geographic Society will undertake an important change: a new fund to expand the Society’s grant-making efforts to serve all children in Afghanistan—both girls and boys. The new Afghan Children’s Fund (ACF) replaces the current Afghan Girls Fund, a successful and purposeful grant-making program that raised more than $1,000,000 since its inception in 2002. (see NG4)

Despite considerable deterioration in conditions in Afghanistan from September, 2002, to 2008, the rate of fundraising dropped sharply after September, 2002. That’s a common pattern for the media blockbuster effect. The amount of money raised for Afghan girls and boys after 2008 was probably relatively small. Development agencies have prioritized girls and women relative to boys and men. That’s consistent with the value of attractive, vulnerable-looking women for fundraising.

The images in the article above are used under the fair use provisions of U.S. copyright law. Wikipedia documents fair-use justifications for its use of the National Geographic Afghan girl cover and the Afghan girl photograph. Those justifications are applicable here, with the purpose of an encyclopedic entry replaced by parody of the sensational value of the National Geographic story.


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

Relihan, Joel C. 2009. Apuleius. The tale of Cupid and Psyche. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

NG1: National Geographic Society. “The Afghan Girls Fund Educates Young Women and Girls of Afghanistan Stewardship Update – August 2004.” Web page, saved in Internet Archive.

NG2: National Geographic Society. George Stuteville for National Geographic News, September 9, 2002. “Afghan Girls to Benefit From NG-Sponsored Education Fund.” Web page, saved in Internet Archive.

NG3: National Geographic Society. Jennifer Vernon for National Geographic News, December 5, 2003. “Afghan Girls Fund Update: Over $831,000 Raised.” Web page, saved in Internet Archive.

NG4: National Geographic Society. “Afghan Children’s Fund to Help Educate All Young Children of Afghanistan.” Web page, saved in Internet Archive.

erotics of aridity in Hildegard’s Ordo Virtutum

The flower in the meadow falls in the wind, the rain splashes it,
But you, Virginity, remain in the symphonies of the heavenly habitants:
you are the tender flower that will never grow dry.

Along with seventeen or eighteen female solo voices, Hildegard of Bingen in her Ordo Virtutum included one male solo voice: the voice of the devil. The virtue-women and the soul-woman sing lyrical poetry. The devil-man shouts unpoetically. The play poetically figures destroying the “voracious wolf” and binding and laying low the “age-old snake”; it also refers to “man’s wantonness.”[1] Such rhetoric is common in the long and unloving history of disparaging men’s sexuality.

devil as tempter in Hildegard

Ordo Virtutum, however, is far more poetically sophisticated than caricaturing women as virtuous and men as demonic. The devil-man shouts his worldly promises. The underlying cause of the soul-woman’s fall is her incompletely formed carnal desire, her impetuousness, and her pride. Treating men as show horses merely to be ridden impetuously and pridefully in a sexual carousel demeans men’s persons. That behavior also tends to dry women’s sexuality to aridity. Storms that produce heavy wind and rain can pass through quickly to leave a scorching desert.

The virtue-women and the soul-woman remembered a man. Like a woman in love, his body encompassed them. He was the greatest of men, but had the lowest of worldly status. He knew what women are in the fullness of their carnal being. He implored God the Father to fulfill his promise:

Now remember that the fullness which was made in the beginning
need not have grown dry,
and that then you resolved
that your eye would never fail
until you saw my body full of buds.
For it wearies me that all my limbs are exposed to mockery:
Father, behold, I am showing you my wounds.

Hildegard of Bingen’s play ends with instruction to the gathered soul-women:

So now, all you women,
bend your knees to the Father,
so that he may reach you his hand. [2]

Creation is restored to greenness and flowering from moist earth when soul-women remember the man’s wounds and humbly wait for the one masculine touch.

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[1] The epigram and the three subsequent quotes are from Hildegard of Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum, ll.  109-11, 221, 481va, 55 (all sung by the voices of virtues, except 481va, which is sung solo by the voice of victory), Latin text and English trans. from Dronke (1994) pp. 160-81. In l. 110, Dronke translated Virginitas as “Maidenhood.” I replaced “Maidenhood” with the less Victorian-sounding word “Virginity.”

One of the voices of the virtue-women is illegible in the manuscripts. If that voice is different from the other virtue-women, then there are eighteen female solo voices (seventeen virtue-women and the soul-woman). On the virtues, see Dabke (2006).

Hildegard wrote Ordo Virtutum no later than 1151. She wrote it in Latin verse with musical notation that has survived. It may have been performed on May 1, 1152, at the consecration of Hildegard’s Rupertsberg convent. Dronke (1994) p. 152.

Latin texts and English translations are available online from Peter Dronke, Christine Jolliffe, and Linda Marie Zaerr (English only).  A variety of song performances are available on YouTube.

[2] Ordo Virtutum, ll. 267-9, from Dronke (1994) p. 181. The previous quote is ll. 260-66. Both are sung by the voices of virtues and souls.

In l. 267, Dronke translated omnes homines as “all you people.” However, at l. 55, he translated hominis lasciviam as “man’s wantonness.” The Latin hominis most properly means human being, female and male. Men’s masculinity, however, is often effaced in referring to men, except in derogatory contexts. Ordo Virtutum, l. 55, refers to the devil-man, hence “man’s wantonness” is the best translation in context for hominis lasciviam. Ordo Virtutum was probably performed primarily for women in Hildegard’s Rupertsberg convent. Hence “all you women” seems the most appropriate translation for the concluding address omnes homines.

In l. 264, the phrase plenum gemmarum means both “full of gems/jewels” and “full of buds.” Id. p. 151. I have chosen above the later translation. Id. notes that this image connects to the prologue’s image of a tree blossoming. Hildegard’s Hymn to the Holy Spirit, l. 12, describes wounds transformed by the Holy Spirit into jewels. The association of Christ’s wounds (coagulated blood) with jewels (sphragis imagery) occurs in early Christianity. Dronke (1970) pp. 155-6. Ruodlieb V.99-129 describes making a jewel from a lynx’s urine. Such a claim goes back at least to the first-century in Dioscorides’s De Materia Medica and Pliny’s Natural History.

Like the Song of Songs, Ordo Virtutum includes poetry of erotic love, e.g.:

Virginity, you remain within the royal chamber.
How sweetly you burn in the King’s embraces,
when the Sun blazes through you,
never letting your noble flower fall.

ll. 104-7 (voice of chastity), trans. Donke (1994) p. 169, with, as above, my translation of Virginitas as “Virginity.”

[image] The Tempter, illumination from Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, Part II.7, Rupertsberg Codex, based on copy made at Hildegard Abbey in Eibingen, 1927-1933, via Böckeler (1954) Plate 18.  All the Scivias illuminations are online here. Campbell (2013) argues strongly that Hildegard oversaw the design of the illuminations.


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

Cambell, Nathaniel M. 2013. “Imago expandit splendorem suum: Hildegard of Bingen’s Visio-Theological Designs in the Rupertsberg Scivias Manuscript.” Eikón Imago 2(2):1-68. Summary here.

Dabke, Roswitha. 2006. “The Hidden Scheme of the Virtues in Hildegard of Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum.” Parergon. 23 (1): 11-46.

Dronke, Peter. 1970. Poetic individuality in the Middle Ages: new departures in poetry, 1000-1150. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1994. Nine medieval Latin plays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

America Solved: Alan Cohen’s cry for family-law reform

great american family

Alan Cohen’s learned, passionate book on U.S. child support and child custody law is dedicated to his daughter:

This book is dedicated to my daughter, who has been a constant inspiration in my life. Her insights into the next generation of parents have been remarkable, as well as enlightening, and inspired me to strive for a better America and to complete this work.

Cohen has roots in the heart of America. He grew up ten miles from Ferguson, Missouri, attended the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and has lived and worked ten miles from Ferguson for twenty-five years as an attorney specializing in family law. As a child, Cohen admired Robert F. Kennedy. As an idealistic young adult, he went into law to advance justice and equality. His new book, America Solved: A New Family for the 21st Century, connects dysfunctional family law to personal alienation, broken community, and despair. Written in the great American tradition of progressive social reform, Cohen’s new book proposes new family law to heal America. It’s well worth reading.

Cohen passionately believes that long-term, intimate personal relations are vitally important for adults, children, and community. He argues that children need a stable family of adults showing enduring love for each other and their children. About half of black men ages 25 to 34 are noncustodial fathers.[1] Among black children, 72% are born to unmarried mothers. About a third of young black men are awaiting trial for a crime, incarcerated, or on probation or parole. Black family and community breakdown, although deeply related to the historical legacy of American slavery, is being generalized to all Americans through child support and child custody laws. Given the injustices of those laws, men are increasingly uninterested in marriage and having children. With men socially defined as criminally suspect persons, men’s aspirations shrink towards short-term sexual couplings and not being bothered. The next generation of boys have few men to inspire and guide them. That at best produces socio-economic stagnation; at worst, riots.

Cohen’s book provides a brief, well-informed historical overview of child support and child custody law. Changes in dominant public values, most recently in affirming homosexual marriage, have driven changes in family law. Yet the resulting law is wildly inconsistent. Why does the state punish men with long-term financial obligations for doing nothing more than engaging in consensual sex of reproductive type? What interest does the state have in the specific terms under which a couple marries or divorces? These important questions are obscured in the dominant public misunderstanding of sex as private activity and marriage as a beautiful wedding, a Hollywood honeymoon, and affectionate companionship. Marriage is a legal relationship that now can be legally terminated at will by either party without any need for showing breach of obligation or fault. Ending a marriage involves public determination of the allocation of the couple’s assets and their future financial obligations to each other. Anyone thinking of having children or getting married must understand state regulation of those fundamental human activities. Cohen’s book helps to provide such understanding.

Cohen’s program for family-law reform centers on free, informed marital contracting and team parenting from the birth of a child. Marriage is now an obscure, one-size-fits-all legal regime that few understand before marrying. Moreover, when couples establish prenuptial agreements, courts often subsequently nullify those agreements in unpredictable ways. Cohen proposes that a couple be required to select an explicit marital contract before being married. That contract would provide a wide range of possibilities for personal customization in response to personal values, circumstances, and desires. Cohen’s book sets out a legal framework for free, informed marital contracting in considerable detail.

Team parenting from birth makes common sense of gender equality and working together. By virtue of human biology, women know for certain who their biological children are. Men deserve equal biological-parental knowledge under law through low-cost DNA testing. Cohen proposes regular establishment of such knowledge and reporting biological fatherhood truthfully on birth certificates. For children born to unmarried persons, current law focuses on establishing a man (not necessarily the actual biological father) as legally obligated to pay the mother child support. That law effectively punishes men’s sexuality and devalues fatherhood into paying money for having sex. Moreover, the legal focus on extracting money from men obscures child-custody issues vitally important to women. Cohen proposes that a team parenting plan be legally established at birth. That’s as reasonable and publicly important as shifting health care from treating illnesses to keeping persons healthy. Establishing team parenting at a child’s birth is easier and more effective than trying to establish joint custody amid a bitter custody dispute.

The greatest weakness of Cohen’s book is also its most endearing quality. Cohen is an idealist with a shining vision of great American family life and society. He makes bold statements, provides sweeping analysis, and urges radical change. He imagines with amusing satire Harry Truman growing up in America today. Prickly, intolerant persons might huff at Cohen categorically declaring “happiness only occurs in a life shared together in marriage.” Cohen has practiced family law ten miles from Ferguson, Missouri, for over twenty-five years and through the recent turmoil.[2] His book rises from his lived experience. His claims should be appreciated in that context.

Cohen apparently believes that great ideas are enough to produce great political change. Underlying the gross injustices and acute anti-men gender inequality of child support and child custody laws is the political insignificance of men. The dominant discourse of “gender equality” is stunning testimony to gynocentrism and anti-men gender bigotry.[3] Society, like intimate heterosexual relations, is becoming nasty and brutish. Near the end of his book, Cohen declares:

We must toss away all of these political animosities and dig in as never before against the same flood that destroyed so many empires before us, the crumbling from within. … After all, don’t fathers have daughters? Don’t mothers have sons?

Of course they do. Yet we have the gender politics that we have. Men leaders seeking to seduce women, please mother, and continue to be elected in our majority-women democracy with majority-women media patronage have made current child support and child custody law. This situation won’t change easily. Without much more powerful social and political support for ordinary men, great ideas for renewing family life won’t matter.

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[1] Edelman, Holzer & Offner (2006) p. 25. The subsequent quotes are from Cohen (2015) pp. 106, 111. I haven’t specifically validated these facts with primary sources, but they seem to me to be correct.

[2] Cohen’s ground-level practical knowledge of child-support law and practice is evident is his insightful description of prosecuting persons for child support arrears. See Cohen (2015) n. 135, pp. 271-3. His understanding of the common law of coverture is less up-to-date. He declares that coverture “in practical effect, put women, not on a pedestal, but in a cage.” Id. n. 3, pp. 223-4. The bitter irony in that statement is that coverture was very significance protection for women from the massive imprisonment of men for debt in late-seventh-century England.

[3] Most of the scholarly literature on child support and child custody is rife with anti-men bias. Mason (1994) provides a good example. That book might be better titled: From Formal, Largely Irrelevant Law of Father’s Property to Children’s Rights as a Pretense for Treating Fathers as Wallets. Cohen’s book seems relatively even-handed with respect to women’s and men’s interests. That might be considered inappropriate given the overwhelming dominance of women’s interests in current child support and child custody policies.


Cohen, Alan W. 2015. America Solved: A New Family for the 21st Century. Elliot Publishing, LLC.

Edelman, Peter, Holzer, Harry J., Offner, Paul. 2006. Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men. Urban Institute: Washington, DC.

Mason, Mary Ann. 1994. From father’s property to children’s rights: the history of child custody in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press.

dwarf romance & deceit in Ruodlieb’s marriage proposal


In the last surviving fragment of the eleventh-century Latin romance Ruodlieb, the title character Ruodlieb captured a dwarf. The dwarf promised to show Ruodlieb treasure. The dwarf in return asked to be unchained. Ruodlieb, suspecting deceit, refused to unchain him. The dwarf then protested:

Far be it that such fraud prevail among us dwarves!
For then we would not be so long-lived or so healthy.
Among you, no one speaks unless deceitfully;
And therefore you will not attain a ripe old age. [1]

Ruodlieb personally experienced the dwarf’s observation about deceit among humans. In Ruodlieb’s earlier, failed marriage proposal, deceit had filled all sides of the affair.

The lady whom Ruodlieb had sought as a wife had a reputation for integrity, virtue, chastity, and nobility. In reality, she was having a secret sexual affair with a cleric. She at first accepted Ruodlieb’s marriage proposal. To the messenger conveying that proposal, she responded with courtly love lyrics:

Now from my faithful heart
Bring him from me as much of love as there are leaves;
Bring him from me as much amour as birds have joy,
And bring him honors equal to the grass and flowers. [2]

Beautiful words, but full of deceit, as subsequent events would show.

Ruodlieb cruelly deceived the lady he proposed to marry. She welcomed his love messenger with a sumptuous meal, the best wine, and mead served from golden vessels. Ruodlieb had arranged with his messenger for him to pretend to forget to give the lady a gift until after he had enjoyed her hospitality and she had responded to Ruodlieb’s proposal. The gift was sealed in a box. Ruodlieb deceived his messenger about the nature of the gift. When the lady opened the box, she found a scarlet cloth in which were wrapped her headdress and her garters. She had lost them at her cleric-lover’s house. Ruodlieb had somehow acquired them. The lady was mortified. She then gave the messenger a new message, with the same formal rhetorical figure as her earlier one, but different substance:

Tell your relative and friend that if
There were no other man alive save him alone,
And if he gave to me the whole world as a present,
I do not wish to marry him. You tell him truly! [3]

The emphatic “you tell him truly” underscores the deceit on all sides of this affair. Ruodlieb, with mean obnoxiousness like his nephew’s bride had shown during their wedding, rejoiced and laughed at how he had tricked and insulted the lady that he proposed to marry.[4]

Ruodlieb depicts a world in which courtliness and noble character can suddenly vanish. The last surviving lines of Ruodlieb are uncannily apt. They depict the magnanimity of the dwarf’s wife. After Ruodlieb had captured her dwarf husband, she acted to save him:

Small, very beautiful, decked out in gold and clothes,
She fell at Ruodlieb’s feet, uttering complaints:
“Best of all men, release my husband from his chains!
Hold me for him until he settles his whole debt.” [5]

When the courtliness of dwarves rises above that of knight and lady, romance has stagnated and the artistic poet has turned to parody.[6]

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[1] Ruodlieb XVIII.18-21, from Latin trans. Kratz (1984) p. 199. All subsequent quotes are from id. The Latin text of Ruodlieb is online. The phrase “no one speaks unless deceitfully” (nemo loquitur nisi corde doloso) has biblical resonances (cf. Jeremiah 17:9). Moreover, “doloso is rare in classical Latin, but common in the Vulgate.” Grocock (1985) p. 231. The promise of more life is central to Jewish and Christian scripture.

[2] Ruodlieb XVII.11-4, p. 191. On the lady’s reputation, XVI.65-70, XVII.35. The messenger seems to have been Ruodlieb’s nephew. Dronke (1970) p. 61. When the lady asked him about the local women (“their reputation, beauty, character”), the messenger responded like the bishops in the Life of Saint Pelagia:

“I have no knowledge of what you ask me about,”
He answered with a smile, “for nothing matters less
To me than following things like the doings of
Our ladies. I leave such behavior to the dandy.
If I walk by by a place where I see ladies standing,
I bow to them and keep my intended way.

Ruodlieb XVII.5-9, trans Kratz (1984) p. 191. Dronke (1970), p. 61, interprets that response literally and suggests it’s a tribute to the nephew’s “newly won … respectability.”

[3] Ruodlieb XVII.43-46, p. 193. The rhetorical figure is adynaton. A widespread, ancient adynaton is the “sea of ink” figure. For adynata in Greco-Roman poetry, Donke (1970) p. 62, n. 2.

[4] The messenger-nephew, much more willing to stand up to his uncle than to his bride, told Ruodlieb never to ask him to serve as his envoy again. Ruodlieb XVII. 57-8. Dronke, who relishes the bride’s obnoxious behavior, describes Ruodlieb’s trick as cruel and declares of the lady’s sexual affair with a cleric, “a perfect Christian would no doubt have forgiven” it. Donke (1970) p. 60. Following that pattern of thinking, if the lady had become a perfect Christian, she would have informed Ruodlieb that she rejected marriage and that she would emulate the penitent life of Mary of Egypt.

[5] Ruodlieb XVIII.29-32, p. 199.

[6] Dronke’s influential analysis presents Ruodlieb as “the emergence of romance” and describes it as “the first medieval verse romance.” Dronke (1970) pp. 33-4. While manuscripts are lacking, Ruodlieb itself suggests a tradition of romance continuing from the Greek novels.

[image] The Dwarf. Giacomo Ceruti, 1720s. Oil on canvas. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Dronke, Peter. 1970. Poetic individuality in the Middle Ages: new departures in poetry 1000-1150. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Grocock, C. W., ed. and trans. 1985. The Ruodlieb. Chicago, Ill: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers.

Kratz, Dennis M., trans. 1984. Waltharius, and Ruodlieb. New York: Garland Pub.

Aseneth in her wretchedness recalled a father’s love


weeping woman

In Joseph and Aseneth, a text perhaps written in fourth-century Syria, the strong, independent, man-hating Aseneth is overcome with a sense of her own wretchedness. In her despair, she recalls the loving care of a father for his child:

a little child who is afraid flees to his father,
and the father, stretching out his hands, snatches him off the ground,
and puts his arms around him by his breast,
and the child clasps his hands around his father’s neck,
and regains his breath after his fear,
and rests at his father’s breast,
the father, however, smiles at the confusion of his childish mind.

The confusion in the child’s mind is that there exists cause for great fear, and that the father doesn’t offer protection. Aseneth understands that she is like that child. She realizes that she can run to a loving father.

Fathers’ love for their children is now widely denied or obscured. Perhaps that’s part of an effort to support enormous gender inequality in child-custody decisions and acute anti-men sex discrimination in family courts.

The human toll of gender-equality double-talk is unfathomable. Gender equality in public discourse today largely stands for anti-men gender bigotry. Recalling the loving care of a father for his child is a first step towards healing the world.

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The quoted text above is from the long version of Joseph and Aseneth, sec. 12, from Greek trans. Burchard (1985) p. 221. The short version of Joseph and Aseneth doesn’t include this text. See the notes in my post on Aseneth’s conversion for details on the text and further references.

Aseneth pleads her own ignorance: “my many deeds of ignorance. … I have sinned against you in ignorance.”  Id. p. 223. With the Internet, persons can much more easily overcome their ignorance.

[image] Weeping Woman, slightly cropped. Vincent van Gogh, 1883. Art Institute of Chicago, F1069. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Burchard, Christoph. 1985. “Joseph and Aseneth: A New Translation and Introduction.” Based on Burchard’s own reconstruction of a long Greek version. Pp. 177-247 in James H. Charleworth, ed.  The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Vol. 2.  Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

story of Lazarus shows comic reality of Gospel truth

Lazarus coming out from the tomb

The Gospel of John states:

Jesus cried out with a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.

Just imagine that scene. It’s like something out of a zombie apocalypse. It’s not like a fairy-tale kiss bringing a sleeping beauty to life.

Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha. Mary wiped Jesus’s feet with the hair of her head. To anyone in the ancient world, Mary’s action would have been completely disgusting.

Lazarus’s dead body had been in the uncooled tomb for four days. In the warm climate of the eastern Mediterranean, the dead body would rot and stink. In the the Gospel of John, Martha explicitly expressed concern about the stench of Lazarus’s body. Jesus was unconcerned. Jesus wasn’t a Greco-Roman hero represented high above human stench.

Martha, who spoke her mind and acted to get tasks done, complained to Jesus that he was late in coming to care for Lazarus. Ignoring Martha’s engagement in her immediate circumstances, Jesus said to her:

I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?

Martha responded:

Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.

Jesus’s statement and Martha’s response are at the heart of Christian faith. Christian faith beats within the outlandish, improper, stinking reality of the world.

Other ancient literature has generic similarities to the accounts of the life of Jesus, the Gospels. The Gospels are episodic, set in ordinary life, and interspersed with parables. The Life of Aesop similarly is episodic, describes mundane circumstances, is interspersed with fables, and leads to Aesop’s death. Like the Gospels, the Life of Aesop directly challenges elite culture from below. Apuleius’s Metamorphoses intersperses tales in an account of Lucius’s fall into beastly being and then his salvation. Metamorphoses mixes culture across a wide range of high and low in valuing sensational entertainment over the public honor of engaging in serious thought.

In the market of human minds, the Gospels have vastly out-competed all other Greco-Roman literature over the past two millennia. That obvious symbolic-market victory has promoted misunderstanding. The Gospels are strange, subversive literature that meets a disjointed world.

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The death and raising of Lazarus is in John 11:1-44. The style of the story of Lazarus is similar to other depictions of Jesus engaged in healing in the Gospel of John.

Literary scholars now tend to see the Gospels within the Greco-Roman literary genre of βίος (account of a life) or the cult narrative of a dead hero. Burridge (2004) and Wills (1997). Neil Godfrey at Vriday provides a good review and critique of Burridge.

[image] Raising of Lazarus. Fresco, 1320s. Attributed to Giotto di Bondone. Magdalen Chapel, Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi, Italy. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Burridge, Richard A. 2004. What are the Gospels?: a comparison with Greco-Roman biography. 2nd rev. ed. (1st ed., 1992). Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans.

Wills, Lawrence M. 1997. The quest of the historical gospel: Mark, John, and the origins of the gospel genre. London: Routledge.

Ruodlieb questioned romance of sexual symmetry


sexual symmetry

In southern Germany in the middle of the eleventh century, a Latin poet wrote the verse romance Ruodlieb. This artful, highly individual work experimented with the sexual symmetry that distinguished the ancient Greek novels.[1] When the Greek novels diffused into the urbane, highly learned ancient Islamic world, they generated superb, popular burlesques. Ruodlieb more subtly questioned sexual symmetry. Well-developed European dogma on gender symmetry now punitively represses outrageous literary burlesques and smothers subtle questioning. Gender-symmetry dogma (sex is now a disfavored term) has fostered sexual apathy and inaction. It portends European demographic collapse. Within the historical resources of European culture, invigorating humane romance might start with better understanding Ruodlieb.

In Ruodlieb, a knight’s match with a noble widow generated no sparks. They had considerable sexual symmetry. The knight, well on in his adult years, was the title character Ruodlieb. The widow was the goddaughter of Ruodlieb’s mother. The widow warmly welcomed Ruodlieb and his nephew, a young man, as visitors to her spacious home. Ruodlieb’s nephew and the widow’s daughter became passionately engaged. The widow apparently had similar hopes for Ruodlieb and her. She took him to listen to harp music that some men played. Ruodlieb asked the widow for a harp. She responded:

“There is a harp,” she said, “there will never be a finer one,
on which, while he lived, my lord used to play.
At the sound of it my mind grows sick with love.
No one has touched it since his life ended,
But you, if you wish, may play on it. [2]

The widow’s response sounds notes of sexual longing and makes a courtly entreaty for Ruodlieb’s love. Ruodlieb then — literally, merely — played the harp well. He missed the message of the widow’s heart. Like his fishing with an herb that caused fish to flop on the surface of the water, Ruodlieb’s relationship with the widow lacked the sharp polarity of an arrow strike or the yank of a hook.[3]

The greater king offered Ruodlieb some wisdom that is sexually symmetric implicitly. When traveling, what sort of lodging should one seek? The greater king counseled Ruodlieb:

When you see that an old man has a youthful wife,
Do not seek lodging there when you are traveling:
You bring suspicion on yourself, though innocent.
He fears, she hopes; for thus their fortune turns for them.
But where a young man has an older widow as
His wife, seek lodging: he fears not, she wants you not.
There you will sleep without suspicion, safe and sound. [4]

This advice assumes the virtue of the traveler. It rests on belief in a sexually symmetric decline in ardor with age and sexual risk accruing with excess ardor across spouses. If the traveler were a young woman, the king would advise her to seek lodging with a young woman who has an old husband.

In Ruodlieb’s accounts of marriages sexually asymmetric by age, the significance of that asymmetry is subtly depreciated. The deceitful redhead declared, “Old men should have old wives.” Looking for an opportunity for adultery, the redhead sought lodging with an old man married to a pretty, young woman. A shepherd described that woman as “a stupid girl and impudent, too.” She had contempt for her husband and deceived him with “her stupid lovers.”[5] The problem was much less the wife’s age than her character. Sexual symmetry in age implies nothing about the spouses’ characters.

To get sex with the pretty young wife, the redhead pretended to place her in a courtly romance. He told her a story about a man who didn’t exist:

In all the world this is no one more handsome than
This man. He, when he learned how beautiful you are,
and heard about the hardships you endure each day,
Grieved deeply in his heart and groaning said to me,
“Beloved friend, if you were ever true to me,
Go, say this to that tortured woman: if she wants
Me to release her and to free her from her prison,
Tomorrow when she hears a horn resounding softly,
Without a word, not even to a trusted woman,
To leave the courtyard, standing hidden in the street
Until I come and with my troop snatch her away.
Then she may be my mistress and do as she pleases.”

The promise to allow women to do as they please, and the requirement for men to be subservient to women, are central to the mis-romance of courtly love. That hateful, men-oppressing romance, which may have already suppressed the earlier, more humane understanding of chivalry, apparently existed in European culture at the time of Ruodlieb’s writing.

Ruodlieb makes clear that courtly love is fundamentally fraudulent. The redhead demanded that the wife sleep with him three times for arranging the courtly romance. Echoing the adultery proposition of Xanthus’s wife in the Life of Aesop, the wife crudely responded:

Do it ten times if you can,
Or else as often as you like.

In Ruodlieb, beneath the false story of courtly romance are base sexual interests.

The false story of courtly love led to brutal violence against men. The wife and the redhead flirted with each other at table with the husband. Later the redhead and the wife had sex. The husband caught them in the act. He knocked out the redhead’s front teeth. The redhead in turn mortally wounded him. Brought to public judgment, the redhead and the wife blamed each other. The redhead apparently was executed. The wife, who repented her adultery, was forgiven and allowed to live just as before, except her husband was now dead.

While bias against men is an enduring feature of public criminal justice, the wife in Ruodlieb imposed upon herself an extreme regime of penance. The wife took up a life like that of the early Christian desert mother and repentant harlot Mary of Egypt:

She cast off all her lovely clothes and ornaments,
And wore a coat which seemed to have been dyed in soot;
She shaved her hair and plaited it in little cords
With which she tightly tied her tender breasts together.
The cords bit fiercely in her flesh until it rotted.
She covered her entire head with ragged cloth,
So nothing could be seen except her nose and eyes.
She learned the Psalter, sang it for the old man’s soul.
And did not eat until she saw the evening star,
And then ate only dry bread that was dark as ashes;
And then for drink she had just three spoonfuls of water.
This woman walked barefooted through the cold and heat;
She slept upon a bed with straw her only mattress,
And for a pillow merely used a block of wood.
Before dawn broke, she visited the old man’s tomb
To pray until, perspiring, she could stand no longer,
Then fell upon her face and wept a flood of tears.

Adultery, violence, and suffering didn’t result from the sexual asymmetry of an old man marrying a young woman. The crux of the story was a key disagreement between the spouses: the husband wanted the redhead to leave, the wife wanted him to stay.  The wife prevailed. The redhead stayed. The greater king in his wisdom had warned about such a disaster.[6]

Ruodlieb paired the story of the old husband / young wife with a story of a young husband / old wife. The old wife had as her first husband a dour, stingy, wealthy man. A young man, “bare and needy,” came to their home and sought food and work. For merely crusts of bread, he washed dishes and served their food. He seasoned their food with salt to transform it from bland to savory. He worked diligently and took little for himself. When the husband died, the young servant became the widow’s lover and master of their home.[7]

Ruodlieb deftly dealt with hostility to age-asymmetric pairing. The poet through a shepherd reported:

No one objected to the widow’s heartfelt love
For that young man; we saw them go to church together;
They ate together and would go to bed together. [8]

They went to church together, they ate together; who, other than a dour, stingy-hearted moralist, would object to them sleeping together? The shepherd then recalled:

He calls his lady mother; she calls him her son.
The servants, male and female, learn to call him father,
While he in turn addresses them as his own children

Following immediately the reference to sleeping together, the mother / son address evokes the horrifying figure of incest. But that’s just a figure, like the servants calling the young man father, and he calling them children, as if he were a priest. The love of the old woman and the young man was substantially greater than that of other married couples:

For we have never seen a greater love or else
A married couple so well suited to each other.

Sexual symmetry is a formalist dogma. While attentive to formalism in ritual, Ruodlieb presents formalism as inferior to substantial love.

Generosity and humble service is more important than sexual symmetry in Ruodlieb. In the wisdom he gave Ruodlieb, the greater king counseled:

Though she is quite attractive, never treat your maid
As if she were your social equal or your wife,
So she will not despise you or give haughty answers,
Or even think she should be mistress of the house
Because she spends the night or sits there at your table;
For if she eats with you and sleeps with you all night,
Then she will wish at once to be the highest mistress.
Such things will make a man notorious and disgraced. [9]

Considering this wisdom as sexually symmetric, the old woman violated it in her relation with the young man, her servant. But in doing so, she opened her door to “rich and poor alike.” The servant as the new master of the house served bread and meat to the poor and the servants. He declared:

When Christ sends anyone to me,
My house and I must celebrate that day as Easter

Ruodlieb received generous hospitality from the young husband and the old wife. He thanked them with a subtly symbolic act:

{he} thought how he could thank that man,
At last he gave the lady of the house his cloak,
So, clad in it, she could attend the holy church.

Ruodlieb thanked the man with a biblical item of generosity — his cloak. He gave it not to the man, but to the woman whom the man loved. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul instructed women not to teach men and to be silent in church. By giving the woman his cloak to wear in church, Ruodlieb gave her well-deserved authority to speak in church and instruct men.[10]

Among sexually symmetric pairings by age, Ruodlieb’s nephew and the widow’s daughter experienced romance. The widow’s daughter was beautiful and graceful:

When she came forth, she shone as brilliant as the moon.
How graceful was that woman! No one could discern
If she were flying, swimming, or just how she moved [11]

Anticipating a wonderful wedding, the widow’s daughter wove two golden bands like shackles to give to her future husband. Her mother sat the nephew next to her daughter and gave them both just one plate and one cup. The mother arranged to have her guests’ feet washed after dinner. Her daughter gave Ruodlieb’s nephew a ring. Ladies secretly watched through a lattice. The nephew, much less perceptive than a dog who could sense the person who stole Ruodlieb’s spurs, didn’t perceive a set-up.

Signs of trouble existed in the romance of the young man and young women. The ring that she gave him “barely fitted on his little finger.” Later, giving him his prize for winning a game of dice, she impetuously tossed the ring to him:

In a cavity in that ring a catch was fastened —
He couldn’t have worn it without loosening it. [12]

A finger not fitting into a ring suggests sexual non-receptivity. If that seems too crudely physical, imagine a bird, taught to be dependent on humans, preferring to be in his cage. He learns to speak the Lord’s Prayer, but doesn’t understand the petition, “lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil.”[13]

The young man and young woman had a Hellish wedding. The young man, apparently burning with sexual desire, had an unhappy prior relationship with a courtesan. Witnesses at the wedding were charged with offering assistance. They indecorously declared:

All of us should counsel that a man
Ought not to be disgraced but quickly snatched away
From that vile whore who well deserves a death by burning. [14]

Later they made clear that they weren’t referring to the bride, but to the courtesan with whom the groom earlier had an affair. The groom politely thanked the witnesses for their counsel, implicit referred to Paul’s injunction that it is better to marry than to burn, and then proceeded with the wedding ceremony.

The bride outperformed the witnesses in obnoxiousness. Asked if she desired to take the man as her husband, she declared:

How could I refuse the slave I won by gambling,
Whom I beat at dice and from whom I won a pledge
that, win or lose, he would marry none but me?
Let him serve me steadfastly — I wish it — night and day:
the better he does it, the more I’ll cherish him!

Men’s servitude to women in courtly love meets the dogma of sexual symmetry in the themes of pretense, falsity, and men’s servility. To the young women’s outrageous statement, everyone smiled and laughed. No one dared to take her seriously.[15]

The bride then became more obnoxious. The groom, continuing the formal wedding ceremony, drew his sword and wiped its point. In the hilt of the sword was a gold ring. The groom gave the gold ring to the bride. This ritual plausibly invoked ancient and continuing tradition of men as the point of the spear, striking (and dying) to protect women, valued gynocentrically with gold. The groom said to the bride:

Just as the ring embraces your entire finger
I pledge to you my constant and enduring faith.
You must preserve the same for me or lose your head. [16]

The bride insisted on sexual symmetry:

The same rule should apply to both of us.
Why should I, tell me, be more true to you than you
to me?

The groom’s pledge is best understanding as sexually symmetric in “constant and enduring faith.” Sexual asymmetry in the threat of decapitation corresponds to the sexual asymmetry in the ancient and continuing practice of men bearing the burden of violent action. The narrator described the bride as responding “credibly and suitably.” Those words should be interpreted ironically. No other interpretation is possible given the bride’s continued rant and balk:

When you go fornicating, would you like that I
Become a whore for you? No, far be it from me
To marry you on such conditions. Go! Good-bye!
Go whore however much you like, but not with me.
The world has many men like you for me to wed.

The bride then stopped the marriage ritual by refusing to take the groom’s sword and the gold ring. The wedding ritual was highly formal. Nothing important that the groom said or did would have surprised the bride. Her crude outburst and balk in the middle of the wedding was an outrage and a stunning insult to the groom. If the groom were to cut off the bride’s head in reality, just then would have been the most justified time.

The groom’s response to his bride’s outrageous behavior parodies men’s self-abnegation in courtly love. The groom declared:

So be it, my darling, as you wish.
If I ever do, I’ll lose the goods I gave to you.
And you will be empowered to cut off my head. [17]

In the wisdom he gave to Ruodlieb, the greater king advised Ruodlieb that, if he wed, he should honor his wife “in all ways” and treat her kindly. The bride extended no such honor and kindness to the groom. The greater king also advised Ruodlieb not to be subjected to his wife, but to be dominant to her.[18] The groom, in contrast, acted like the servile, doormat-type man known as an omega in the most credible modern intimate-relation literature. The account of the marriage of the young woman and the young man ends with the narrator’s remark:

How they will get along — what grounds do I have to worry? [19]

For a careful reader of the intricate, subtle symbolism of Ruodlieb, fertile ground exists for worry about this superficially sexually symmetric relationship.

Misunderstanding the wedding ceremony in Ruodlieb has deep roots in human social nature. In his reading of Ruodlieb as “the emergence of romance,” one of the most eminent scholars of medieval Latin literature obscured through ellipses the bride’s mid-wedding rant about the groom’s fornicating and whoring.[20] He translated the groom’s request for mutual faith as a one-sided demand.[21] He imagined the bride as having achieved a marriage “based on mutual frankness and trust.” The marriage is “a love-match in which the lovers have kept nothing from each other.”[22] The good scholar doesn’t mistake the narrator’s concluding question about worry as providing grounds for worry.[23] According to this leading authority on courtly love, Ruodlieb depicted the bride and her marriage as “unmistakably an ideal.” The marriage has “the ring not of literary model but of dramatic truth.”[24]  These claims indicate some truth. Men, like children clinging to mother, will eagerly seek women’s approval and idealize women in astonishing ways. Ruodlieb, which apparently never circulated and wasn’t completed, recognized and questioned such behavior. Recognizing and questioning men’s subservience to women typically isn’t welcomed.

Sexual symmetry isn’t associated with happiness in Ruodlieb. The four primary heterosexual pairs in Ruodlieb explore sexual symmetry by age: older women (Ruodlieb’s mother’s goddaughter) / older man (Ruodlieb), young wife / old husband, old wife / young husband, young woman (Ruodlieb’s mother’s goddaughter’s daughter) / young man (Ruodlieb’s nephew). Of these four pairs, the old (wealthy) wife / young (formerly impoverished) husband by far show love most fully and most deeply. That couple is generous to guests, poor, rich, peasant, noble alike. The husband is master of the home, but the wife is fully capable of acting in a man’s position. The wife and husband continually sleep with each other.

European culture should relax its gender-symmetry dogma and encourage broader, more daring imagination of women and men’s relations. A first step is to reject the crude topos of misogyny. That label has been a convenient excuse for disparaging and dismissing distinctly masculine literary voices.[25] Studying marginal European literature with a distinctly masculine perspective — among works in Latin, for example, the Life of Aesop, Jezebel, Lantfrid and Cobbo, Ruodlieb, Solomon and Marcolf, Asinarius, and the Lamentations of Matheolus — offers much greater cultural value than continued scholarly and public preoccupation with men-degrading courtly love. Being receptive to a bold, strong masculine presence can uncover more lively romance in medieval literature, and in life today.

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[1] On sexual symmetry in the ancient Greek novels, Konstan (1994).

[2] Ruodlieb XI.30-4, from Latin trans. Dronke (1970) p. 54. Ruodlieb probably dates between 1050 and 1075. It has survived in only two, fragmentary manuscripts (Munich clm 19486; St. Florian Port. 22) written in the same hand. Here’s the Latin text of Ruodlieb. Grocock (1985) (prose translation), Kratz (1984) (verse translation), Ford (1965) (prose translation), and Zeydel (prose translation) are English translations. I cite by fragment.line and page from Kratz’s translation. Dronke’s translations tend to be more poetic than those of Kratz, hence I favor them when available, unless otherwise noted.

[3] Ruodlieb showed the widow and “her retinue of ladies” how he fished with bugloss. Bugloss, an herb, caused fish to float to the surface of a lake so that they could be pushed ashore with a stick. Ruodlieb X.29-48. See also II.1-15.

[4] Ruodlieb V.461-7, trans. Kratz (1985) p. 123. The greater king was the king that Ruodlieb served as an exile from his homeland.

[5] Ruodlieb VI.23, 121, 123, pp. 133, 137. The subsequent three quotes are from VII.68-79,  86-7, pp. 141, 143; VIII.89-105, p. 151.

[6] The greater king advised Ruodlieb, should he wed, to be dominant to his wife. Ruodlieb V.488-91, p. 125. Underscoring the wife’s dominance over her husband, their dinner was served only when she ordered it to begin. VII.122-9, pp. 143, 145.

[7] “Now he is lord of her whom he served like a servant.” Ruodlieb VI.26, p. 133. The widow didn’t value only the young man’s domestic work. The shepherd explained the wealthy widow’s attraction to the needy young man with a proverb about sexual desire: “The old ewe gladly licks the vat for love of salt.” (agna vetus cupide vas lingit salis amore) VI.32, p. 133.

[8] Ruodlieb VI.105-7, p. 137. They did wed. VI.24, p. 133. The subsequent two quotes are from VI.108-110, 111-2, p. 137.

[9] Ruodlieb V.476-483, pp. 123, 125.

[10] The previous two quotes are from Ruodlieb VII.4-5, 23-25, p. 139. On giving one’s cloak, Matthew 5:40.  On women not instructing men and being silent in church, 1 Timothy 2:12.

[11] Ruodlieb X.54-6. The other details in the above paragraph are from X. That fragment describes Ruodlieb’s dog sensing the person who stole Ruodlieb’s spurs.

[12] Ruodlieb X.128, p. 163, XI.71-2., trans Dronke (1970) p. 56.

[13] Cf. description of training birds in Ruodlieb XI.1-24, p. 165.

[14] Ruodlieb XIV.26-29. On the nephew’s prior relationship with a courtesan, IX. While the witnesses to the wedding call the woman a whore, they also make clear the nephew’s prior ongoing entanglement with her.  Whores, in contrast, tend to be associated with simple, one-shot, pay-and-act commerce. For Paul’s counsel to marry rather than burn, 1 Corinthians 7:9. The subsequent quote is XIV.52-56.  The wedding, although obviously formally scripted, wasn’t a Christian ritual. Church marriages didn’t become necessary until the reign of Pope Alexander III (1159-1181). The wedding probably was a ritual union that came to be known as Friedelehe in Germanic custom. Grocock (1985) p. 16.

[15] Within the wedding ceremony, the woman declaring that she wants the groom to be her slave is to one scholar a “playfully joking speech.” Jaeger (1999), p. 90. That scholar then seriously describes this call for slavery to indicate the rise of the cult of love service in courtly romance.

[16] Ruodlieb XIV.66-68, p. 179. The subsequent two quotes are from XIV.70-72, 77-80, p. 179.

[17] Ruodlieb XIV.82-84. The first line is my translation of the relevant part of 82: “Fiat, dilecta, velut vis.” Kratz has “It will be as you wish, my darling.” Fiat, which is a Latin word close to amen, seems to me better rendered as an initial, punchy expression. The cult classic movie Princess Bride uses “as you wish” as the hero’s constant address to the princess in that comic fantasy of medieval romance.

[18] For the king’s wisdom, X.488-492. Dronke (1970), p. 60, disparages this advice. He interprets it to indicate the king’s imperfection by showing him being at times like “a stuffed owl.” That interpretation has little basis in the medieval text.

Mass culture and billionaire-advocates today instruct men to do more housework to better sexually arouse their wives or girlfriends. Rather than follow these authorities, men should engage in free thought and enlightened reason to study, discuss, experiment, and evaluate how to best promote mutual sexual satisfaction with their wives or girlfriends.

[19] Ruodlieb XIV.99, my translation. For discussion, see note [21].

[20] Dronke (1970), pp. 58-9, quoting Ruodlieb XIV.69-87 with ll. 77-80 (lines about fornicating and whoring) effaced by ellipses.

[21] Kratz (1985), p. 179, translates Ruodlieb XIV.66-68 as:

Just as the ring embraces your entire finger,
I pledge to you my constant and enduring faith,
You must preserve the same for me or lose your head.

Grocock (1985), p. 167, and Ford (1965), p. 90, are similar translations. Donke (1970), p. 58, in contrasts, translates those lines as a one-sided demand to the woman:

As the ring encircles the whole finger, all around,
so do I bind you with firm and lasting faith,
which you too must keep, or — off with your head!

Zeydel (1959), p. 125, offers a similar translation. The middle line of this triplet (XIV.67) is from the Latin sic tibi stringo fidem firmam vel perpetualem. The line linguistically and grammatically admits either translation. But faith makes little sense as a means for binding someone else.  Moreover, in the broader context of the marriage ceremony, a mutual pledging of faith with sword and gold ring better makes sense of the text. The social value of disparaging men and the women-are-wonderful-effect seem to drive the one-sided translation.

Other scholars have proceeded similarly. In a remarkably convoluted, tendentious discussion of the marriage ceremony in terms of (mythic) patriarchy, one scholar described the young man’s “one-sided gesture” (translated in the way of Dronke) and seamless connected it the threat of punishment. Green (2009), pp. 72-4. Another scholar quoted Kratz’s translation. He then described that pledge of mutual fidelity, with a backing threat of beheading for the woman, as “what amounts to a declaration of the girl’s subservience to him.” But — you go girl! — “The girl does not stand for such blatant inequality.” Vander Elst (2011), p. 7.

[22] The greater king advised Ruodlieb, if he should wed, not to disclose to his wife everything. Ruodlieb V.493-7. See also Marie de France’s Bisclavret.

[23] Ruodlieb XIV.99: “How they will get along — what grounds do I have to worry?” (Qualiter inter se concordent, quid mihi curae?) This line is thought to be an erotic courtly metaphor suggesting that after conflict comes union. Schiller (2013) p. 95. The Ruodlieb poet surely was sophisticated enough to use it in a context suggesting that after conflict comes more conflict and more horror. Some critics have interpreted that line literally as expressing the narrator’s indifference or as “probably a jest.” Zeydel (1959) p. 152. Dronke interprets the line to mean the opposite of its literal meaning. For him, it expresses the narrator’s confidence in this ideal relationship depicted through the Hellish marriage ceremony. Dronke (1970) p. 58, n. 2.

[24] Dronke (1970) p. 59. Suggesting his view of the division of labor in an ideal marriage, Dronke observes that Ruodlieb:

noticed the young man’s “badly washed underwear, and his coat of marten fur dark with age and sweat” (X.120-30): clearly the mistress with whom he had lived had not looked after him so well in these respects! So the new coat is, we might say, more than a wedding-present: it is an augury of the young man’s Vita Nuova.

Id. pp. 59-60. Men are fully capable of washing their own clothes to their own standard of cleanliness given the time and money constraints they have. Men are similarly capable of buying their own clothes.

[25] Id., pp. 11-18,  describes four kinds of empirical weaknesses associated with analysis of topoi. The literary practice of using the label misogyny shares all these weakness. Moreover, because the label misogyny is difficult to challenge socially, it’s associated with extraordinarily shallow analysis. Even relatively high-quality scholarly work makes serious mistakes in dismissing literature via applying the label misogyny. For example, id., p. 76, describes Jezebel as a “misogynistic satire.” Id. finds that the poem uses “poetically the crudest means” in predictable and unvarying technique that only displays and satires Jezebel’s shamelessness. Ziolkowski (1989) shows that interpretation to be greatly mistaken. As its worst, misogyny has produced the absurd claim that a writer “can only be defined as a women.” See note [8] in my post on Bernard of Cluny’s De Contemptu Mundi.

[image] Sexual symmetry gender grinder, parodic transformation of Metamorphosis (Gottfried Honegger, 1962, bronze, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966 (66. 2496) at Hirshhorn Gallery, Washington, DC). Photograph and digital processing by Douglas Galbi.


Dronke, Peter. 1970. Poetic individuality in the Middle Ages: new departures in poetry 1000-1150. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ford, Gordon B. 1965. The Ruodlieb: the first medieval epic of chivalry from eleventh-century Germany. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Green, D. H. 2009. Women and marriage in German medieval romance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grocock, C. W., ed. and trans. 1985. The Ruodlieb. Chicago, Ill: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers.

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

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

Kratz, Dennis M., trans. 1984. Waltharius, and Ruodlieb. New York: Garland Pub.

Schiller, Nina. 2013. Das Menschenbild im Ruodlieb – Mittelalterliche Lebenswirklichkeiten am Beispiel eines Epos aus dem ausgehenden 11. Jahrhundert. Thesis. Magistra der Pihlosophie. University of Vienna.

Vander Elst, Stefan. 2011. “Virtue and Equality in the Medieval Latin Ruodlieb.” Essays in Medieval Studies. 27 (1): 1-11.

Zeydel, Edwin Hermann. 1959. Ruodlieb: the earliest courtly novel (after 1050); introduction, text, translation, commentary and textual notes. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1989. Jezebel: a Norman Latin poem of the early eleventh century. New York: P. Lang.

strong, independent, man-hating Aseneth became new woman

Aseneth and Joseph having their children blessed by Jacob

In Egypt a long time ago lived a woman named Aseneth. She was a strong, independent, man-hating woman. But she wasn’t ugly and old. She was “about eighteen years of age, tall and beautiful and graceful, more beautiful than any other virgin in the land.” All the young noblemen across Egypt, or “across the whole world,” wanted to marry her. The men fought with each other for her favor. But Aseneth “despised all men and regarded them with contempt.” She refused to meet with any of them.

Aseneth was very rich and very privileged. She lived in a top-floor palace penthouse with ten rooms. She had seven maids, all of her own age, all very beautiful, and all subservient to her. They had their own rooms, one for each of the seven maids and three rooms for Aseneth. One of Aseneth’s rooms held her fine clothes, expensive jewelry, and treasures. Another held good things for her to eat and drink and share with her maids. The largest room was Aseneth’s bedroom.

Aseneth’s bedroom was lavish. It had three large windows looking to the east, to the north, and to the south. Aseneth’s bed faced the east, the direction from which godly salvation was thought to come. Her bed was made of gold. It had a “coverlet of purple woven with gold, embroidered with blue, and fine linen.” Aseneth didn’t allow anyone to sit on her bed. It was hers alone. She spent most of her time in her room with all her fine things.

Surrounding the palatial building in which Aseneth and her maids lived was a large, walled court. Inside the wall were many beautiful trees that produced fruit. An ever-bubbling spring supplied a stream that kept the trees watered. The wall surrounding the court was high and strong. The court had four iron gates, at each of which stood guard “eighteen strong young men-at-arms.” That made a total of seventy-two men ready to fight and die to protect Aseneth from harm. But sometimes she still felt afraid. More needs to be done to help women feel safe.

One day Aseneth went to join her parents for a feast. Aseneth put on a “golden girdle,” “golden trousers,” and “a fine linen robe of blue woven with gold.” To accent her golden clothes, she added precious-stone jewelry: bracelets on her hands and feet, and a necklace. She wore a tiara on her head and a diadem around her temples.  She also covered her head with a veil. Wearing a veil indicates that she was oppressed as a woman.

Like Perpetua, Aseneth refused to do what her father wanted her to do.  Aseneth’s parents returned from their county estate to arrange a welcome for Joseph, the Pharaoh’s hard-working vizier who was on a business trip in the area. Her parents brought delightful treats for Aseneth — grapes, dates, figs, pomegranates, and doves. Then her father and mother asked her to sit down between them. She did. Her father held her right hand in his right hand.

He said: “My child.”

Aseneth responded: “What is it, father?”

He said: “See, Joseph, the mighty man of God, is coming to us to-day, and he is ruler of all the land of Egypt, for Pharaoh has appointed him ruler of all our land; and he is the distributor of corn throughout the country and is to save it from the famine that is come upon it. And Joseph is a man that worships God: he is discriminating, and a virgin (as you are to-day), and a man of great wisdom and knowledge, and the spirit of God is upon him, and the grace of the Lord is with him. So come, my child, and I will give you to him as his wife: you shall be his bride, and he shall be your bridegroom for ever.”

Aseneth’s face turned red. She was furious at her father. She looked sideways at him and said: “Why should my lord and my father speak like this and talk as if he would hand me over like a prisoner to a man of another race, a man who was a fugitive and was sold as a slave? Is this not the shepherd’s son from the land of Canaan, and he was abandoned by him? Is not this the man who had intercourse with his mistress, and his master threw him into prison where he lay in darkness, and Pharaoh brought him out of prison, because he interpreted his dream? No! I will marry the eldest son of the king, for he is king of all the earth.”

Patriarchy is a myth. Many daughters throughout history have been strong, independent women. Aseneth’s father knew that it would be wise for him to accede to Aseneth’s wishes.

News came that Joseph was at their gate. Aseneth ran up to her room to avoid Joseph. She looked out her window to see his arrival. Joseph arrived in the chariot of the Pharaoh’s second-in-command. The chariot was golden. Four white horses pulled it via golden reins. Joseph was wearing a fabulous white tunic and purple robe made of linen woven with gold. On his head he had a golden crown set with twelve precious stones and golden rays. He held a royal sceptre in his right hand. Aseneth’s parents and all her relatives bowed their faces to the ground before Joseph. Joseph was an alpha male of alpha males.

Aseneth immediately fell in love with Joseph. Her heart was deeply distressed, her stomach churned, her knees became weak, and her whole body trembled. She felt wretched and ashamed. She was so wrong to hate all men. She was so wrong in what she had said about Joseph. How could she be forgiven for all her hate and lies? She hoped that her father would give her to Joseph as a slave to serve him — to make his bed and wash his feet — for the rest of her life.

Joseph was wary of women sexually harassing him. Women throughout Egypt offered him unwanted propositions for sex. Even long after he made it clear that he was in Egypt only to do the Pharaoh’s business, women sent him gold, silver, and other valuable gifts in hope of receiving sexual favors. The women of Egypt weren’t prosecuted for their blatant sexual harassment of the Pharaoh’s vizier. That’s probably because the Pharaoh at that time wasn’t employing enough U.S.-trained lawyers to prosecute all the women of Egypt for sexually harassing Joseph. Joseph dealt with the problem on his own as best as he could.

At the palace of Aseneth’s parents, Joseph noticed Aseneth visually stalking him from the upper-story window. Joseph felt afraid. He asked Aseneth’s parents to have the woman at the window go away.  Her parents explained that the woman was Aseneth. They explained that Aseneth hated men. Joseph was relieved. He no longer feared he would be subject to more sexual harassment. Aseneth’s parents urged Joseph to welcome Aseneth as a sister. Joseph agreed to be a brother to her.

Joseph physically rejecting Aseneth converted her into a woman who lovingly cared for men. Aseneth’s father, who had wanted her to marry Joseph, brought his beautiful, young daughter to Joseph. Aseneth and Joseph greeted and blessed each other. Then Aseneth’s father urged her, “kiss your brother.” Joseph, who had endured much sexual harassment, was no fool. When Aseneth came near to kiss Joseph, he stretched out his right hand against her chest. He held her at a distance with his hand between her two breasts. Aseneth was already aroused and her breasts were “already standing upright like handsome apples.” Joseph declared that he would not kiss a woman who did not understand love as he did.

When Joseph rejected Aseneth’s attempt to kiss him, Aseneth became extremely distressed. She fixed her gaze on Joseph and started to cry.  Joseph was tender-hearted and felt her distress. But Joseph didn’t disintegrated into irrational ooze like a college president sipping hot chocolate with a woman making outlandish rape claims and credulously and sympathetically discussing a hatefully fallacious rape story. Joseph lifted his right hand above Aseneth’s head and invoked the God who leads persons “from darkness into light, from error into truth, and from death into life.” Joseph implored God to renew and bless Aseneth.

Joseph’s prayer for Aseneth’s conversion caused her joy and fear. She rushed up to her room and collapsed on her bed. Aseneth wept bitterly about her former behavior. She ate nothing and drank nothing. She remained awake throughout the night. In the middle of the night she went downstairs, collected ashes, and carried them up to her room. Then she went into her dressing room and took off her sumptuous dress and put on black mourning clothes. She threw her best dress out the window. She broke up her gold and silver idols and threw them out the window. So too went “her royal dinner, even the fatted beasts and the fish and the meat, and all the sacrifices of her gods, and the wine-vessels for their libations; and she threw them all out of the window as food for the dogs.” Then she dumped ashes on her ornate-stone bedroom floor. She put on sackcloth, smeared herself with ashes, and fell into the ashes on the floor. There she wept, beating her breast and groaning, until the morning. She did the same for another day and another day and another day until seven days had passed.

With further prayer and the help of a heavenly man, Aseneth become a new woman. No longer was she a strong, independent, man-hating women. She had become a strong, independent woman dedicated to truth and love. Once arrogantly oblivious to her own privilege, she now sought to serve others. She became a man like men had aspired to be before they were taught not to aspire to be men. But she was also a beautiful woman. Her face was “like the sun, and her eyes like the rising morning star.” And after all her fasting, you can be sure she wasn’t fat.

Joseph now loved Aseneth. Being a new woman didn’t mean that Aseneth couldn’t get all dressed up for her wedding with Joseph. In preparation for joining hands with Joseph, Aseneth adorned herself with a dress that glittered with precious stones. She put on golden bracelets, golden boots, a precious necklace, and a golden crown. Their wedding featured a lavish banquet that went on for seven days. Yet even after that wedding, Aseneth still remembered the taste of ashes.

Of course Aseneth and Joseph had children. Men and women did that together until recent years. But the most wonderful sign of Aseneth’s salvation wasn’t childbearing. It was Aseneth being a shining City of Refuge for men who would otherwise have been added to the vastly gender disproportionate rolls of person punished for crimes.

With her strong and independent voice, Aseneth saved Dan and Gad from being killed for participating in an evil plot. The Pharaoh’s son, who lacked Joseph’s seductive allure, foolishly sought to gain Aseneth’s love by force. He plotted to kill his father and Joseph and to seize Aseneth. He enlisted Dan and Gad in this evil plot. The sons of Leah caught Dan and Gad red-handed and prepared to kill them. Aseneth, however, asked them to spare their brothers. The sons of Leah at first rejected Aseneth request. But she insisted that they not kill their brothers:

No brother, you must not repay evil for evil to your neighbour.

Strong, independent women like Aseneth are desperately needed today. They are scarcely to be found among the mobs howling for vengeance against all those evil men, real and many more imagined.

As always, men are partly to blame. Many men lack the insight and courage of Joseph. Men pushing women away can bless them with the possibility of becoming new women.

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The text above is an adaptation of Joseph and Aseneth, included among Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Quotations and details are almost all from the short version of the work, from Greek translated Cook (1984). The short version is probably the earliest version of the text. Kraemer (1998) Ch. 3. The phrase “across the whole world” and the description of Aseneth’s breasts “already standing upright like handsome apples” are exclusively from the long version, established and translated by Burchard. See Burchard(1985), which also includes a good introductory description of Joseph and Aseneth. For an extensive list of Joseph and Aseneth manuscripts, translations, and studies, see Mark Goodacre’s bibliography.

The date, cultural context, and place in which Joseph and Aseneth was created has been a matter of considerable scholarly debate. Nir (2012) convincing places Joseph and Aseneth in the context of third and fourth century Syriac Christianity. In my view, more likely than not a woman authored Joseph and Aseneth. Women authors predominated among authors of early English novels. Joseph and Aseneth has “numerous points of contact with the Greek romances.” Whitmarsh (2013) p. 16. Both Charicleia in Heliodorus’s Aethiopica and Habrocomes in Xenophon’s Ephesian Tale initially reject all men.

The long version gives additional emphasis to the difference between the old and new Aseneth in Joseph’s response to her. While on their first meeting Joseph pushed Aseneth away, in their second meeting in the long version, Joseph eagerly greets Aseneth and kisses her repeatedly:

Joseph stretched out his hands and called Aseneth by a wink of his eyes. And Aseneth also stretched out her hands and ran up to Joseph and fell on his breast. And Joseph put his arms around her, and Aseneth (put hers) around Joseph, and they kissed each other for a long time and both come to life in their spirit. And Joseph kissed Aseneth and gave her spirit of life, and he kissed her the second time and gave her spirit of wisdom, and he kissed her the third time and gave her spirit of truth.

Ch. 19, long version, trans. Burchard (1985) p. 233.

Kraemer (1998), Ch. 7, discussing gender in Joseph and Aseneth, invokes comically absurd clichés of anti-men gender studies: “Aseneth as potential medium of exchange between men,” “Aseneth as the object of male gaze,” “female characters as ‘stand-ins’ for male readers engaged in debates about masculine identity,” and of course the social construction of everything but such silliness. Forbes (1999), documenting the mind-numbing effects of such teaching, concludes:

This has disturbing implications for women; that they are incapable of being saved as they are but have to rely upon a man for their salvation. This in turn implies that women are second class people and are somehow more sinful than men.

In Joseph and Aseneth the author ensures that the ideal man will always win, for no matter what she might gain a woman loses her independence, having to depend upon a man to become the ideal woman.

Such views would be inconceivable to all but thoroughly programmed persons.

[image] Jacob with Joseph and Aseneth, blessing their children Ephraim and Manasseh. Rembrandt, 1656. Held in Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel, Germany. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Burchard, Christoph. 1985. “Joseph and Aseneth: A New Translation and Introduction.” (from Burchard’s own reconstruction of a long Greek version). Pp. 177-247 in James H. Charleworth, ed.  The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Vol. 2.  Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Cook, David, ed. and trans. 1984 “Joseph and Aseneth” (based on Greek text of Philonenko (1968). Pp. 473-503 in Sparks, H. F. D. The Apocryphal Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Forbes, Moira. 1999. “Ideal Man versus Ideal Woman in Joseph and Aseneth.” Available online at Mark Goodacre’s The Aseneth Home Page.

Kraemer, Ross Shepard. 1998. When Aseneth met Joseph: a late antique tale of the biblical patriarch and his Egyptian wife, reconsidered. New York: Oxford University Press.

Philonenko, Marc. 1968. Joseph et Aséneth: Introduction, texte critique, traduction et notes par Marc Philonenko. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Nir, Rivkah. 2012. Joseph and Aseneth: a Christian book. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.

Whitmarsh, Tim. 2013. “The Romance between Greece and the East.” Ch. 1 (pp. 1-22) in Whitmarsh, Tim, and Stuart Thomson. 2013. The romance between Greece and the East. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marbod of Rennes in history of gender-equality double-talk

warrior's leg cut off from man's body

In Marbod of Rennes’s eleventh-century Latin work Liber Decem Capitulorum, no chapters focus on men, but two chapters are all about women. One chapter is about wicked women. The following chapter is about good women.[1] A scholar writing at the end of the twentieth century interpreted Marbod of Rennes’s disproportionate attention to women as developing the social ideal of “ennobling love.” Marbod of Rennes is better understood as an exponent of gender-equality double-talk that implicitly devalues men.

While current gender-equality double-talk is blatant and crude, medieval gender-equality double-talk was rhetorically sophisticated. At the end of his double-chapters focusing on women, Marbod of Rennes wrote:

woman ought not to be censured simply because she is female, nor ought any man be heaped with praise simply because he is a man, but rather that vice should be censured in both sexes and virtue deserves praise equally in both. [2]

A late-twentieth-century scholar of ennobling love commented on that passage:

Moral value, not sex, is the measure of worth, and woman is declared better able to learn virtue than man. [3]

In the Middle Ages, logic was an important field of learning. An educated medieval cleric could work out the syllogism: moral value is the measure of worth, woman is more moral (learned in virtue) than man; therefore, woman is superior to man. While not tracing through his syllogism, the scholar explained:

The point is that the positive pole here introduces into the public forum of poetry a differentiated view of woman, an awareness of the virtuousness and honor potentially present, maybe even inherent, in women, a sensitivity to the “glory of the female sex.” [4]

The phrase “maybe even inherent” is telling. Claims that women are superior to men are made directly in recent, acclaimed scholarly books and are now featured in major U.S. newspapers.

While focusing his attention on women, Marbod of Rennes with a single sentence anticipated modern disparagement of men. Marbod declared:

the stubborn mentality of stiff-necked man resists and scarcely endures the yoke of discipline, all the while denying that he is inferior. [5]

Those who deny that men are inferior to women are today disparaged as sexist and misogynistic. Men today are expected to acknowledge their inferiority, to ponder whether men are necessary, and perhaps also to act to raise the suicide rate of men, which is already four times that of women.

While scholars have argued that the new economy of communication, cooperation, and self-esteem-raising favors women’s superiority, the extension of ideals of ennobling love to women in eleventh and twelfth-century Europe also emphasized women’s superiority. The leading scholar of ennobling love explained:

“Refined love,” “high love,” and “sublime love or friendship” have the role of social ideals resisting social ills that develop in a male-dominated warrior society: misogyny, rape, contempt of women, boorish, warriorlike manners. The civil values of the court can be a force reshaping social practice by reward and punishment. It may well be one of the most genial ideas of any social reformer in history that he or she developed an ideology of courtly behavior within which “worth,” “price,” “value,” prestige, and standing in noble society are set by the individual’s ability to learn courtesy, restraint, civility, to acquire virtue as a prerequisite to loving — hence also as a result of loving. [6]

Men are urged and forced to fight and die for their societies. Historical developments over the past millennium haven’t change the vastly disproportionate bodily disposal of men in war. The development of ideals of “ennobling love” merely increased vicious disparagement of men for “misogyny, rape, contempt of women,” and, worst of all, “boorish, warriorlike manners.”

Medieval literature sets before men the figures of Ulrich von Liechtenstein and the Archpriest of Talavera. Ulrich von Liechtenstein subordinated himself to women and struggled to win the favor of a lady who had contempt for him. The Archpriest of Talavera wrote an important book instructing men on finding true love. Men should study medieval literature and follow the example, not of Ulrich von Liechtenstein, but of the Archpriest of Talavera. Men, choose to be truly good men.

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[1] The standard scholarly critical edition of Liber decem capitulorum is now that in Leotta and Crimi (1998). A lower-quality Latin text is available online in Patrologia Latina 171, 1693f. The ten chapters in Liber decem capitulorum are:

  1. De Ato Genere Scribendi (proper style for writing)
  2. De Tempore et Aevo (meaning of time)
  3. De Meretrice (wicked women)
  4. De Matrona (good women)
  5. De Senectute (old age)
  6. De Fato et Genesi (role of the zodiac in destiny)
  7. De Voluptate (disadvantages of pursuing pleasure)
  8. De Vera Amicitia (true friendship)
  9. De Bono Mortis (benefits of death)
  10. De Resurrectione Corporum (bodily resurrection)

Chapter titles in Latin from Patrologia Latina text, descriptions in English adapted from Ziolkowski (1986) p. 686. Two letters of Marbod’s to women are available online with Latin text and English translation.

[2] Marbod of Rennes, Liber decem capitulorum, Ch. 4, sec. 9, from Latin trans. C.W. Marx in Blamires, Pratt & Marx (1992) p. 232.

[3] Jaeger (1999) p. 94.

[4] Id.

[5] Marbod of Rennes, Liber decem capitulorum, Ch. 4, sec. 5, from Latin trans. C.W. Marx in Blamires, Pratt & Marx (1992) p. 230.

[6] Jaeger (1999) pp. 150-1. Underscoring the fundamental anti-men gender bigotry in this development, Jaeger explains:

there is an entirely new and unique image of woman created in the years between 1050 and 1100: woman the vessel of virtue, soft wax to Goodness, sensitive, loving and learning more intensely than hard-necked man. … The dynamics which account for the spread of courtliness outward from the humanistically educated court clerics also account for the rise of the image of woman as giver of virtue {to men} through love.

Id. p. 105. Celebrating this development has dominated teaching of medieval Latin literature. For a broader, more humanistic understanding of literature and life, students should study great medieval literature of men’s sexed protest such as Boccaccio’s Corbaccio.

[image] Warrior’s Leg. Paul Thek, 1966-7. Wax, metal, leather, and paint in acrylic vitrine. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest Fund, 1990 (90.9). Douglas Galbi’s photograph at Hirschhorn Museum.


Blamires, Alcuin, Karen Pratt, and C. William Marx. 1992. Men Impugned, Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: an anthology of medieval texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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

Leotta, Rosario and Carmelo Crimi. 1998. Marbod of Rennes. De ornamentis verborum ; Liber decem capitulorum : retorica, mitologia e moralità di un vescovo poeta (secc. XI-XII). Tavarnuzze (Firenze): SISMEL edizioni del Galluzzo.

Ziolkowski, Jan. 1986. Review. “Marbodo. Liber decem capitulorum, ed. Rosario Leotta.” Speculum 61 (3): 686-688.