ancient Greek epitaphs: Herais & Sozomene for their husbands

Given the prevalence of anti-men gender bigotry, some may wonder: do women truly love men?

man alone, beseeching

Ancient Greek epitaphs show the long history of women’s love for men. Here’s an epitaph from the second or third century:

I Herais lie here, stranger, five times seven {years old}
And I urge you, my husband,
Not to keep weeping. For the thread of the Moirai calls everyone. [1]

The epitaph begins with a conventional first-person address to the conventionally anonymous passerby (“stranger”). The first verse provides information that remains conventional on gravestones to this day: the name of the deceased (Herais) and her age at death (five times seven = thirty-five). The epitaph’s second verse, however, suggests that Herais selected/dictated her epitaph just before her death.[2] Herais personally addresses her weeping husband. She urges him to move beyond his grief at her death.

Personal words from women are relatively rare in the ancient historical record. The long-established, long-misinterpreted literature of men’s sexed protests describes suffering and injustices that men have endured from women and within marriage. But not all men were like that. Some men wept when their wives died. Moreover, some women did not relish their husbands’ weeping. Herais didn’t want her husband to be weeping. After expressing that concern, so poignant to readers today, Herais returns to conventional expression in ancient Greek epitaphs. Ancient Greeks commonly attributed the course of persons’ lives to fate (the Moirai). The distinctive, personal words in Herais’s epitaph are her words of comfort for her grieving, weeping husband.

Another ancient Greek epitaph provides women’s words with more subtle poetry. In the second or third century, Sozomene had inscribed for her husband Crispinus this epitaph:

Here is the tomb of swift-fated, mindful Crispinus
For whom no stock of children will later appear.
A destructive Ker overcame them both before him.
So his wedded wife Sozomene inscribed his gravestone
For mortals still to be born to learn from. [3]

The term “swift-fated” suggests that Crispinus died young. He lived long enough, however, to have two children. Those children predeceased him. With bracketing of the first verse, the subsequent verses are a chiasma of thematic contrasts. A destructive Ker (death-spirit) killed their children. Sozomene in response inscribed stone. For Crispinus “no stock of children will later appear.” But Sozomene’s inscription offers teaching “for mortals still to be born to learn from.” A teacher gives birth to knowledge in students. His students are like children to him. The first verse describes Crispinus as “mindful” with a Greek word associated with the philosophical ideal of prudence. With her epitaph, Sozomene lovingly provides for Crispinus to have more children in the life of the mind.

Women have long loved men and cared for men’s welfare. Men are more responsible for anti-men gender bigotry than are women. Men seeking compassionate help would best look to women.

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[1] Epitaph (gravestone inscription) from Amorgus, among the southeastern Greek islands. From Greek trans. Hansen (1998) p. 336, from Greek text in Peek (1955) p. 93, no. 372. Some epitaphs were composed as literary pieces and never actually engraved on gravestones.

[2] Widespread conventions in gravestone epitaphs suggests that engravers offered customers choices among standard verses. A common verse: “It is not dying that is grievous, since it is destined for all, … {continued in various ways, e.g. but that I died before the journal completed the review of my article, etc.} Id. pp. 329-332.

[3] Epitaph (gravestone inscription) from Berrhoea. Βέρροια, now commonly transliterated as Veria, is in northern Greece. From Greek trans. Hansen (1998) p. 335, from Greek text in Peek (1955) p. 33, no. 107. The Greek word translated as “mindful” is πινυτου (pinytou).

[image] Southern Barbarians in Japan. Painting, ink, color, and gold on paper. Edo period (1515-1868), Japan. Accession number F1965.22-23. Thanks to Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.


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

Peek, Werner. 1955. Griechische Vers-Inschriften. Band I, Grab-Epigramme. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.

Dafydd ap Gwilym’s penis under law in medieval Welsh poetry

The fourteenth-century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym addressed his penis in poetry. If even noticed, the criminalization of men’s sexuality tends to be seen as a bizarre aberration of twenty-first-century elite culture. Yet that tendency in law can also be perceived in this penis poem from fourteenth-century Wales. Dafydd ap Gwilym began his penis poem with forthright recognition of the force of law on his penis:

By God, cock, there’s need to keep you
Under guard with eye and hand,
Stiff-headed pole, with this law-suit,
Even better from now on.
Cunt’s net-float, because of complaint,
Needs must your snout be snaffled
To keep you from being indicted
Again. [1]

Old French fabliaux disparage and devalue men’s genitals. The thirteenth-century account of the nun of Watton shows relatively little concern about viciously castrating a man for nothing more than having consensual sex. Embracing social disparagement and legal suppression of men’s genitals, Dafydd ap Gwilym subtly created a counter-melody proclaiming the value of his penis:

You’re a loathsome rolling-pin,
Scrotum’s horn: don’t rise, don’t waggle,
Noble ladies’ New-Year’s-gift

You’re longer than a large man’s thigh,
Long night’s roving, hundred nights’ chisel,
Auger like the signpost’s pillar,
Leatherhead that’s called a shaft.
You’re a sceptre that causes lust,
A girl’s bare arse’s lid-bolt.

The phrase “loathsome rolling-pin” explicitly signals contempt and implicitly vicious violence. Horns are associated with the devil and cuckoldry. But horns are also associated with strength and plenty. A sceptre is a kingly sign, while a lid-bolt performs a common function. For noble women, men’s sexuality is a New Year’s gift.

Noble women eagerly waiting for the coming of a New Year must fight against disparagement and criminalization of men’s sexuality. Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poem ends with poignant irony in addressing his penis:

You are a trouser-problem personified,
suede-necked, gander-glide,
congenital liar, pod from which indecency has sprung,
nail on which injunctions are hung.

Now you’re once more been brought to book
you should bow your head, you children’s dibbling-hook.
It’s so hard to keep you in check,
you pathetic little pecker-peck.
Your master will stand in the dock because of you,
because you’re rotten through-and-through. [2]

Universities’ star-chamber proceedings on claims of sexual assault stage obtuse, ignorant readings of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s penis poem.

tide comes in on vagina

Gwerful Mechain’s medieval Welsh vagina poem shows sharply contrasting public values. She begins by complaining that poets praise all of a woman’s body except “the place where children are conceived.”[3] That’s because most men lack the boldness to affirm the center of their sexual interest. Predating the Vagina Monologues by nearly half a millennium, Gwerful Mechain’s poem lavishly praises the vagina:

You’re a piece with unfailing power,
a faultless court of fat’s plumage,
Here’s my credo: the quiff is lovely,
Circlet of broad-edged lips,
Dingle deeper than hand or ladle,
Trench to hold a two-handed prick,
Cunt there next the full-cheeked rump,
Songbook with red facing pages. [4]

Gwerful Mechain ended her vagina poem by invoking God’s protection for the flawless vagina:

Noble forest, flawless gift,
Soft frieze, fur for fair bollocks,
Girl’s thick grove, precious welcome’s round,
Splendid bush, may God preserve it.

Gwerful Mechain’s vagina poem isn’t famous. It doesn’t need to be. Versions of it run naturally through primates’ minds.

In a poem complaining about jealous wives, Gwerful Mechain declared women’s sexual interest in a “bigger than average cock.” She boasted, “every big-cocked lover is after me.”[5] Then she complained that women with such men value them too highly. According to Mechain, a wife values a “big prick” more than her father, her wealth, her clothes and jewelry, her mother, her brothers, her sister, and all her possessions. Old French fabliaux describe men being valued merely for their penises.  Mechain’s poem emphasizes that demeaning of a man’s person. She doesn’t praise even just the penis. She complains that other women value men-penises too highly.  In broad historical and evolutionary perspectives, her claim isn’t credible.

Creating public value for the penis equal to that of the vagina is probably beyond the power of poets. But reducing the vastly disproportionate imprisonment of men should be attempted.

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[1] Dafydd ap Gwilym, Cywydd y Gal (Penis Poem), from Welsh trans. Clancy (2003) p. 192. The subsequent quote is from id. The Welsh text, an audio of a Welsh reading, an English translation, and additional information are available on the Swansea University’s excellent Dafydd ad Gwilym site (see entry 85 -Y Gal on the choose-poem dropdown box). Dafydd ap Gwilym wrote Cywydd y Gal probably in the period 1330-1350. Johnston (1991) p. 29.

[2] Trans. Muldoon (2009) p. 113. Muldoon’s translation is livelier than Clancy’s. Johnston claims in his preface to the poem that it is “in fact an elaborate means of boasting the poet’s sexual process.” Johnston (1991) p. 29. That perspective lacks appreciation for the legal context of the poem. Johnston’s introduction makes clear that he is a modern-day Suero de Quinones.

Other medieval Welsh poems disparage men’s genitals. Dafydd ab Edmwnd’s Dychan i Geuilliau Guto’r Glyn (Satire on Guto’r Glyn’s Testicles) describes Guto’r Glyn’s testicles as a “repulsive shaft … vile fulling-mill … a paunch of puss” and other descriptions of disease. Guto’r Glyn’s Dychan i Gal Dafydd ab Edmwnd (Satire on Dafydd ab Edmwnd’s Penis) responds by declaring that Dafydd ab Edmwnd has “a linden tree of a diseased prick.” Trans. Johnston (1991) pp. 127, 131.

[3] Gwerful Mechain, Cywydd y Cedor (Vagina Poem), from Welsh trans. Johnston (1991) p. 41. Here’s the full English translation of Cywydd y Cedor, as well as the Welsh text. Clancy (2003) p. 339 has “the place where children are bred.” That translation is less consistent with the wondrous, laudatory tone of Cywydd y Cedor. Cywydd y Gal and Cywydd y Cedor commonly occur together in medieval manuscripts, with both poems attributed to Gwerful Mechain. But there is strong textual and stylistic evidence that Dafydd ap Gwilym authored Cywydd y Gal.

[4] Id. trans. Clancy (2003) p. 339. Id. titles this poem Vivat Vagina and the previous poem, Reproach to his Penis.  The actual Welsh titles are symmetric and less descriptive. For clarity, I’ve replaced above the second line in id., “The feathered crutch’s flawless court,” with the corresponding verse translation from Johnston (1991) p. 43.

[5] Gwerful Mechain, I Wragedd Eiddigeddus (To Jealous Wives), from Welsh trans. Johnston (1991) pp. 37, 39. Johnston, underscoring the women-are-wonderful effect, laughably declares that the poem is “a subtle but clear proclamation of female sexuality.”

[image] Tide {detail}. Jan Dibbets, 1969. Gelatin silver prints. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 2007. The Panza Collection (07.43). Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC. Douglas Galbi’s photograph at Hirschhorn Museum.


Clancy, Joseph P., trans. 2003. Medieval Welsh poems. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Johnston, Dafydd. 1991. Canu Maswedd yr Oesoedd canol = Medieval Welsh erotic poetry. Grangetown: Tafol.

Muldoon, Paul. 2009. Dafydd ap Gwilym. “Y Gal.” Irish Studies Review. 17(1): 111-113.

from Dhuoda to her son William: loving touch in text

handcraft from Dhuoda to William

Incipit textus. The text begins. So begins the one surviving text that Dhuoda wrote for her fifteen-year-old son William. Dhuoda had decades of experience in the high politics of ninth-century Carolingian royal courts. In tense political circumstances, Dhuoda’s husband had placed William in sworn military service to the new Carolingian king. William needed skills that 800 years later would be called statecraft. Rather than merely tutoring him in statecraft, Dhuoda gave to her son William a way of being: a text for success in this world and the world to come.

Naming Dhuoda’s text in English provides an insightful exercise in understanding Dhuoda. For Dhuoda, names weren’t merely conventional, but carried essential significance. Dhuoda’s third word following “Incipit textus” described her text as libellus (little book). She described her little book as revealing a threefold design: Norma, Forma et Manualis. Further indicating her deeply Trinitarian orientation, Dhuoda also used the word Manualis to refer to her whole text. Even before ending her text’s prefatory text, she additionally referred to it as liber (book), opus (work), and codex (a book of bound pages), as well as various combinations and diminutives of these words. Her prefatory text includes an elaborated naming:

Incipit liber Dhuodane Manualis quem ad filium suum transmisit Wilhelmum.
{Here begins the book Dhuoda’s Handcraft which she has sent to her son William.}[1]

The text concludes with a reference to libellus (little book) and then an elaborated naming in a haunting chiasmus:

Finit hic, Deo gratias, liber Manualis Wilhelmi, in eo quod ait Evangelium: Consumatum est.
{Here ends, thanks be to God, the book of Handcraft for William, in the words the Gospel speaks: “It is finished.”[2]

The diverse forms that begin and end Dhuoda’s text tend to be interpreted as indicating her shyness, reticence, or uncertainty, or as a gesture of maternal swaddling.[3] Those diverse forms are better understood as indicating her literary sophistication in representing the all-encompassing personal breadth of her relation to her son William.

Dhuoda expected persons other than William to encounter her text. The intimacy of the text’s personal address to William doesn’t limit it to his solitary reading. Another might have another read aloud to William and his fellow soldiers, who would then together discuss and re-read the relevant passage. William might read a section to his younger brother. The text might be passed down in William’s family, with his children reading it to their children.[4] In addressing William, Dhuoda mentions “those to whom you show this little book for the purpose of study.” She instructs William that when his younger brother reaches the age of “speaking and reading,” to urge him to read the text. Just before writing the epitaph that she fervently asks William to have inscribed for her, she writes:

As for those who will some day read this Handcraft which you are reading, let them also meditate on what follows [5]

Her epitaph calls upon persons of any age and sex to pray for her. That plea is within the universal Christian understanding of personal sinfulness and of personal hope for redemption. Everyone is invited to travel the Christian way, yet that way is deeply personal. Dhuoda’s text similarly allows everyone to enter into her deeply personal love for her son William.

Scholarly objectification and analysis of Dhuoda’s work has given it names. The leading Latin-English edition of her text has on its title page Dhuoda, Handbook for her Warrior Son / Liber manualis.[6] But Dhuoda wasn’t writing foremost about Dhuoda. The term “handbook” is objective and commodified in a way that Dhuoda’s handcraft isn’t. Dhuoda wrote to her son William. That William was in active military service had little specific significance to her. Dhuoda referred to her text as Liber manualis. She also referred to it as libellum moralis and many other varying terms.[7]

Dhuoda’s play with her own references to her text direct attention to her and to her insistently addressing the text to her son William. Dhuoda’s handcraft of writing made her text available to others, including us in our far distant world. Having received it and read it, we should realize its meaning is inextricably related to being from Dhuoda to her son William.[8]

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[1] Dhuoda, Liber manualis, second prefatory section, headed “In the name of the Holy Trinity,” Thiébaux (1998) pp. 42-3, Latin and English translation. I have modified the translation slightly based on my sense of a better translation. All quotations from Liber manualis are by book.section and page in id.

[2] Id. 11.2, pp. 238-9, with English translation modified slightly.

[3] Dronke stated:

It is as though a series of barriers had to be surmounted before Dhuoda felt the confidence to set out a discussion freely and directly. The prolegomena are, as it were, so many hesitations about embarking upon the rôle of instructress; at the same time they constitute the writer’s way of gaining assurance towards that rôle, of getting her bearings in it.

Dronke (1984) p. 39. “Dhuoda begins her work again and again, as if shyly.” Neel (1991) p. 114, n 18. “The mother’s gift to her son must be wrapped, enfolded, swaddled in protective layers of greetings, and leavetakings.” Thiébaux (1998) intro., p. 34.

[4] Nelson (2011), p. 44, insightfully suggests that Dhuoda and William read the psalter together. I’m grateful to Jonathan Jarrett for pointing me to this reference.

[5] Liber manualis, 10.6, p. 229. Previous quotes: “those to whom you show this little book”, 1.1, p. 59; urge little brother to read it, 1.7, p. 71. In a shift toward introspective address, Dhuoda wrote at the end of her prefatory verses:

With Christ’s help I shall embark on the work I have begun for my children.

Id. p. 47. Yet the verses themselves are explicitly addressed to one particular child, William. The later reference “for my children” (ad prolem) is probably best understood in the dynastic sense of offspring.

[6] Thiébaux (1998). Libraries, e.g. the Library of Congress, cataloged it with the title Liber manualis: handbook for her warrior son.

[7] For “libellum moralis,” 1.7, p. 68.

[8] Asking “was Dhuoda also an intellectual in Raymond Williams’ sense, in Bourdieu’s sense, in our sense?” {emphasis in original}, Nelson answered:

She wrote, in short, not only as a mother for her son (and that repeated invocation of him is itself perhaps a bit of literary legerdemain), but as a would-be giver of a second birth in the mind and spirit to other women’s sons.

Nelson (2007), pp. 117, 121-2. That answer obscures the possibility of second-personal address having broad, communal significance.

[image] Hand of the Lord above the Chariot of Abinabad, f. 39r, Morgan Picture Bible, 1240s, France. MS M. 638, Morgan Library, New York.


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

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

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

Nelson, Janet L. 2011. “Dhuoda on Dreams.” Pp. 41-54 in Conrad Leyser and Lesley Smith. Motherhood, religion, and society in medieval Europe, 400-1400: essays presented to Henrietta Leyser. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.

Thiébaux, Marcelle, trans. 1998. Dhuoda, Handbook for her Warrior Son: Liber manualis. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Calimachus: Ovidian teaching for sexually desperate men

Ovid, failure as teacher of love

The literary genius Ovid instructed men about the folly of being sexually desperate for a woman. Many men failed to learn what Ovid taught. In Old Saxony about the year 960, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, a noble, learned, and compassionate nun, buttressed Ovid’s teaching with new exempla. Hrotsvit instructed men in love with a sparkling play about Calimachus and Drusiana. Hrotsvit, a supersubtle author, obscures in her prefaces both the extent of her classical interests and her loving concern for men’s weakness and hardships.[1]

Hrotsvit’s Calimachus models the lover in Roman love elegy. The play begins with Calimachus telling his friends that he loves Lord Andronicus’ wife Drusiana. Calimachus tells his friend this natural, passionate yearning through progressively refined answers in a comically prolix dialogue. Calimachus declares his determination to make her fall in love with him. His friends caution about the difficulty of that task. They note that Drusiana through religious devotion has ceased to sleep with her husband. Calimachus, lacking Ovidian learning, speaks and understands only crude straight-forwardness:

Calimachus {to his friends}: I have sought your consolation, / but you drive me to desperation.

Friends: He who pretends, deceives; and he who flatters, sells truth.

Calimachus: Since you refuse me your help, I’ll go to her myself and try to seduce her with love blandishments.

Friends: You will fail entirely. [2]

Calimachus refers to the examples of many daring lovers. Ovidian daring is the making of pretenses, deceptions, and illusions. Offering desperate love blandishments, in contrast, characterizes the conventional elegiac poet.

Calimachus attempts to seduce Drusiana without any seductive art. He opens: “I would like to speak with you, Drusiana, love of my heart.” Men love beautiful women. Calimachus tells Drusiana that her beauty compels him to love her. This approach naturally leads to Drusiana’s response: “I feel no reaction except for disgust.” Calimachus brings his seductive failure to a climax with an unself-conscious self-mocking vow to Drusiana:

By God I swear: if you don’t yield to me, I will not rest, / I will not desist from pursuing my quest / until I entrap you with clever guiles.

Men are inferior to women in guile. Calimachus showed no guile whatsoever in declaring his guile to Drusiana. Guile requires ability to carry deception and illusion. Calimachus’ vow shows how much he fails to understand about erotic seduction.

Drusiana is the antithesis of the cruel beloved of conventional Roman elegy. To her womanly self-dramatization and her power to impose her own passionate imagination is added extraordinary Christian concern for Calimachus:

Alas, my Lord Jesus Christ, what is the good of the vow of chastity I swore / if this madman is crazed on my beauty’s score? / Oh, Lord, look upon my fear, / look upon the pain I bear! / I don’t know what to do; if I denounce him, there will be public scandal on my account, I’m afraid; / if I keep it secret, I cannot avoid falling into these devilish snare without Thy aid. / Help me, O Christ, therefore, with my plan / and permit me to die so that I won’t become the ruin of that charming young man.[3]

Drusiana dies suddenly in accordance with her prayer. In her mind, Drusiana had transformed Calimachus into a charming young man. She recognized her own potential for illicit passion with a charming young man. Her Christian solution was to lay down her life for the Calimachus she imagined. That is a self-seduction far beyond Calimachus’ feeble art of love.

Calimachus’ subsequent actions show that he lacks both charm and Christian virtue. Apparently suffering from extraordinary oneitis, Calimachus goes to Drusiana’s tomb. To gain access to her dead body, he bribes the tomb guard Fortunatus. Before Calimachus can engage in sexual intercourse with Drusiana’s dead body, a snake kills both Fortunatus and him. A snake is a Christian symbol of seduction. Having a snake kill Calimachus while he pursues necrophilia comically emphasizes his seductive failure.

Resurrected through the grace of God, Calimachus subsequently makes clear that his Christian fault is much broader than his failure in the ways of love. Calimachus acknowledges his madness and his will to necrophilia. He nonetheless blames for his sin “Fortunatus’ fraudulent guile.” Calimachus declares that Fortunatus was “the kindler of my evil, the inspiration of my sin.” Calimachus’ claims are crude lies. Calimachus compounds his gross falsity by arguing against mercy for Fortunatus:

Apostle of Christ, do not deem that traitor, that evildoer, worthy of regaining his breath / of absolving him from the chains of death, / him who deceived me, who seduced me, who prompted me to attempt that horrible deed!

Calimachus, far from being a “charming young man,” shows contempt for truth and mercy. Hrotsvit had keen insight into human passion and greatly appreciated men. She positions Calimachus as a woman betraying Christian mercy in blaming her lover for desired sexual seduction.

Living in myth, men in Hrotsvit’s works are vulnerability to love madness. Drusiana’s husband describes Calimachus as a “madman,” “blinded by carnal desire.” In Hrotsvit’s Basilius, the servant is possessed by the unholy god Amor:

So sharply was the unhappy wretch pricked by the arrows of love, that the more his infatuation increased, the more did he languish.[4]

In another Hrotsvit play, the beautiful, holy virgins Hirena, Agape, and Chionia observe Dulcitius:

Hirena: Look, the fool, the madman base / he thinks he is enjoying our embrace./

Agape: What is he doing?

Hirena: Into his lap he pulls the {kitchen} utensils, / he embraces the pots and pans, giving them tender kisses. /

Chionia: Ridiculous![5]

The virgins describe Dulcitius as possessed by the Devil. Just after the virgins are presented to him as captives, Dulcitius declares, “I am captivated by their beauty.”[6] Hrotsvit, with appreciation for Ovid, understood that eros can dominate and transform men not dedicated to the true god.

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[1] Dronke (1984), p. 83, refers to Hrotsvit as a “supersubtle” literary genius. Hrotsvit herself addresses the issue of subtlety in The Resurrection of Drusiana and Calimachus. In that work, Saint John says:

With what exact discernment the Supreme Judge weights all that is done, and how equitably He balances the merits of every one, is not obvious to man nor can it be easily explained / because the subtlety of the Divine Judge far surpasses the human brain.

From Latin trans. Wilson (1998) pp. 59-60.

[2] Id. Wilson (1998), pp. 55-6, with minor modifications. “Love blandishments” above is a literal translation of “amorem blandimentis.” For the Latin text of Calimachus, Strecker (1906) pp. 148-61 (Liber II). All subsequent quotes from Resurrection of Drusiana and Calimachus are from the translation of Wilson (1998), with minor modifications.

[3] Hrotsvit hints that Drusiana’s husband, Lord Andronicus, lacks sexual passion for his wife. Consider:

Andronicus: Alas, my Lord, I am weary of my life./

John: What happened to you, what strife./

Andronicus: Drusiana, your disciple …

John: Did she expire?/

Andronicus: Yes.

A more passionately attached husband probably would have said “Drusiana, my wife” rather than “Drusiana, your disciple.”  In addition, Andronicus first requests of Saint John the resurrection of Calimachus, not Drusiana.

[4] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, Basilius, from Latin trans. Wilson (1998) p. 22. The phrases “pricked by the arrows of love” translates “spiculis perfossus amoris.” Wailes (2006), pp. 94, 235, points out the Ovidian subtext and notes, “Hrotsvit was very interested in the erotic.”

[5] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, The Martyrdom of the Holy Virgins Agape, Chionia, and Hirena, from Latin trans. Wilson (1998) p. 48.

[6] Hrotsvit forthrightly recognizes that women’s beauty is highly significant to men. In her play The Martyrdom of the Holy Virgins Fides, Spes, and Karitas, Hadrian, upon seeing these virgins, declares, “The beauty of every one of them stuns my senses.” Trans. Wilson (1998) p. 83.

[image] Statue of Ovid. Ettore Ferrari, 1887. Constanța, Romania.Thanks to Romeo Tabus and Wikicommons.


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

Strecker, Karl, ed. 1906. Hrotsvithae Opera. Lipsiae: in aedibus B.G. Teubneri.

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

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

Eumolpus pelted for reciting poetry in Satyricon

Eumolpus reciting poetry in Satyricon

“Who wants yesterday’s epics? Who wants yesterday’s boy?” Thus spoke Eumolpus, a white-hair old man with an overwrought expression and guitar slung over his thin shoulder. He seemed to be the sort of celebrity that literary men imagine Homer to have been in the age when listeners were discriminating. Who wants yesterday’s epics? Nobody in the world.

“After this time I finally learned, after the pain and hurt, after all this, what have I achieved? I’ve realized it’s time to leave.” Where will you go? Over the bare peaks of snow and stone, down into the gorge to a time-forgotten stand of trees reaching for the sky? Sing, old man, sing of your rage. Rolling stones will pummel you from the metropolis on the hill. Who knows Virgil? Nobody in the world.

“I’m living a life of constant change. Every day means the turn of a page.” Lust for fame has overturned everything. I tweet a thunderstorm, stick my face all over my Facebook page, and I can’t even attract as many fans as venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. Yesterday’s epics have such old views. The same thing applies to me and you.

I slid my iPhone out of my pants and checked if I had gotten any messages. Eumolpus saw my fingers stroking the screen that shifted colors like a blushing girl. “I’m doing this, and I’m doing that, and I try, and I try, and I try, and I try, and I can’t get no, I can’t get no…” I looked at Eumolpus mournfully. “I can’t get no satisfaction,” he said softly. “I can’t get no poetic reaction.”

Eumolpus began reciting the fall of Troy from Virgil’s Aeneid. A hipster two tables away threw a balled-up napkin at him. Soon everyone in Starbucks was throwing cups, stirrers, and other garbage in our direction. We retreated out to the street, abandoning my Chestnut Praline Latte. I said:

What the hell is wrong with you? We’ve been together only two hours, but you’ve barked more poetry than recognizable human language. It’s no wonder that people throw garbage at you. I’m going to fill my pockets with gumdrops and M&M’s and whenever you start on one of your flights, I’ll pelt you with candy.

Eumolpus nodded gravely and said, “Every time I recite, I am showered with honor in the currency of the day. But so as not to disturb your placidity, I will abstain from the poetic banquet for all of today.” I promised that if he swore off his demented behavior, we would have dinner together at the Cheesecake Factory.

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The above text is very loosely adapted from the Satyricon, attributed to Petronius, c. 60 GE, s. 83-90, from Latin trans. Sarah Ruden. 2000. Satyricon. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co. With contributions from the Rolling Stones “Yesterday’s Papers” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The portrait of Eumolpus is from Firebaugh,W.C., trans. 1927. The Satyricon. New York: Liveright Pub. Corp. Eumolpus means in Greek “skillful singer.”

De Maria Magdalena: a drama of Mary standing and weeping

De Maria Magdalena, wood sculpture

De Maria Magdalena, written in Latin about 1200, responds to the scriptural text of Mary Magdalene standing and weeping at Jesus’ empty tomb. De Maria Magdalena circulated widely in western Europe from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. While probably written for Cistercian monks in France, medieval manuscripts identify De Maria Magdalena as a homily of the early church father Origen.[1] It isn’t your typical father’s homily. It’s theatrical lectio divina. De Maria Magdalena displays from dramatic reading of scripture the beautiful word in the mind of men.

De Maria Magdalena is both highly rhetorical and intensely emotional. It begins:

Mary stood weeping outside the grave-marker. We have heard, brethren, of Mary standing outside the grave-marker. We have heard of her weeping. Let us see, if we can, why she stands, and see why she weeps. May her standing edify. May her weeping edify for us. [2]

While written in prose, De Maria Magdalena uses language poetically with emotive rhythms and sounds. It continues:

Amor faciebat eam stare, dolor cogebat eam plorare.

{Love caused her to stand. Sorrow forced her to weep.} [3]

De Maria Magdalena stands as much as a homily as it weeps like a planctus. Both generic identifiers are incomplete. Mary stood outside the marker. From hearing the scriptural passage, we are to see it and then live it in Christian understanding.

Like the psalms, De Maria Magdalena presents different voices within one mind. The reader’s emphatic identification with Mary prompts emotional inferences:

At first, her sorrow was caused by the loss of the living, but at least she was somewhat consoled by believing that she was in possession of the dead. Now, however, she could feel no consolation for that sorrow because she could not find his body. She even feared that the love for her master might grow cold in her breast, whereas by seeing him again it would be rekindled.

As in common among men throughout history, the reader identifies with the woman and depreciates men:

And thus totally oppressed by sorrow of mind and body, she became exhausted and knew not what to do. For what could this woman do except weep, she who felt intolerable grief but who found no comforter, not even Peter and John who had come with her to the tomb but who had departed when they found no body there.

But Mary stood outside the tomb weeping, almost despairing in her tears. Peter and John were afraid and did not stay. Mary was not afraid because she conceived of nothing beyond this which could frighten her. She had lost her master whom she loved in such a way that, without him, she could love nothing and hope for nothing.

The reader shifts without textual concern to first-person address to Mary:

O Mary, what hope, or what purpose, or what emotion kept you standing alone at the tomb? You came before the disciples {Peter and John}, stood with them and remained after they departed. Why did you do so? Were you wiser than they? Or did you love more than they since you were not afraid as they were?

The reader also hears Mary talking to herself in the “poor dear” mode of men’s identification with women:

I have no wish to see the angels. I have no wish to remain with them because they only add to my sorrow; they cannot end it completely. If they begin to tell me many things and if I should wish to respond to all of them, I fear that they would impede my love more than liberate it. … Woe to me in my misery. Where shall I go? Where has my beloved gone? I looked for him in the tomb and I did not find him; I called to him and he did not answer me. .. O wretched me, I do not know where to search. To leave the tomb is death to me. Yet to stand at the tomb is an incurable sorrow. It is better for me to watch over the tomb of my lord than to go far away from it. For if I go far away, perhaps when I return I shall find him dead or missing. Therefore, I shall stay and die here so that I shall be buried near the tomb of my lord. O how blessed my body will be entombed near my master! [4]

The reader imagines the angels telling Mary to stop weeping. The reader imagines Mary refusing to obey them. As is common in prayer, the reader then speaks to Jesus:

O dearest Jesus, … how could this loving woman have offended the sweetness of your heart that you withdraw from her so? We have not heard that she committed any sin except that she came early in the morning to the sepulcher before the others, carrying oils to anoint your body, and when she did not find you in the tomb she ran and told your disciples. They came, saw, and departed. But this woman stood and wept. If this be sin, we can not deny that she committed it.

The position of “we,” the community of monks, is as an advocate for Mary Magdalene to Jesus. While that advocacy includes common patterns of gendered discourse, it’s nonetheless an extraordinary position for medieval monks to assume. Mary Magdalene was recognized as a saint in medieval Europe. She was institutionally positioned to intercede for men. But the monks, with psychological realism and deep spiritual empathy, dramatically interceded for her.

The reader prays to Jesus with attention to a small difference between what Mary said to the angels and what Mary said to Jesus. Seeking to move Jesus’ heart to compassion for Mary, the reader pleads to Jesus:

Do not consider the error of the woman but the love of your disciple when she cries and says, not in error but for the sake of love and sorrow, “Sir, if you have taken him, tell me where you have placed him.” O how knowing her ignorance; how learned her error when she said to the angels, “They have taken my lord away.” She did not say “you have taken away and you have placed,” since it was not the angels who removed you from the tomb nor put you in another place. How true were her words when she said to you, “If you have taken him away and placed him,” because it was really you who removed the body from the sepulcher and replaced it with your {glorified body}. [5]

As Jesus needs to be persuaded, the reader understands that Mary only superficially misperceived Jesus as the gardener. Jesus is truly a gardener because he plants good seeds in the hearts of Mary and the faithful. Mary asks the gardener, but not the angels, to tell her where the body is because because she implicitly recognized the gardener to be Jesus. In her great love for Jesus, she echoed the words of Jesus to her and Martha lamenting the death of Lazarus. After the reader’s explication of these facts, Jesus should understand.

The reader imagines Mary Magdalene to be more courageously Christian than “the prince of the apostles” Peter. Meditating on the words of scripture, the reader imaginatively creates a new sacred drama:

what is this, O good Jesus, that she says about you, “I shall carry him away.” Joseph {of Aramathea} was afraid and did not dare remove your body from the cross except at night and only with Pilate’s approval. However, Mary neither waited for darkness nor showed fear. But now she boldly promises, “I shall carry him away.” O Mary, if the body of Jesus had been placed by chance in the hall of the chief priest where the prince of the apostles warmed himself by the fire, what would you have done? “I shall carry him away.” And if the handmaid guarding the gate had questioned you, what would you have done? “I shall carry him away.” [6]

The reader responds emotionally to his own imagined sacred drama of Mary Magdalene, understood as a repentant prostitute:

O, the boldness of a wretched woman. O woman, a woman not welcomed anywhere, however, who asked for nothing, says fearlessly and promises absolutely, “Tell me where you have put him and I will carry him away.” O woman, how great is your constancy, how great is your faith.

While imagining Mary to be more courageously Christian than Peter, the reader again intercedes for her with direct address to Jesus:

I beseech you, sweet master, do not seek to prolong her desire since, for three days now, she has endured your absence, you who satisfy her hungering soul. … If you do not wish her to continue languishing on the way, then refresh and comfort the depths of her soul with your sweet taste. For you are the living bread who contains all delight and taste of sweetness in you. She will not be able to live very long in her body unless you quickly manifest yourself, you who are the life of her soul.

The reader then narrates Jesus calling out to her, “Mary.” Mary turns and addresses Jesus as master. She touches him. With poetic language the reader narrates the emotional transformation:

conversus est dolor magnus in gaudium magnum

{great sorrow is changed into great joy}

Regardless of men’s propensity to compete over status, that is the Christian story of Easter for Mary, Peter, and all Christians.

De Maria Magdalena concerns a scriptural text that has under-appreciated drama.  After Mary addressed the angels sitting in the tomb, she turned around and saw Jesus:

she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbi” (which means master). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” [7]

If you read that scripture in its external drama, you might understand actions scripture didn’t explicitly describe. The scriptural text implies that Mary turned away from the gardener when she spoke to him about carrying the body away. Jesus apparently called out “Mary” when she had her back to him. Then she turned again and recognized the gardener as him. After she called out to him, “Rabbi,” she apparently reached out and touched him insistently. That implicit action motivates Jesus’ words, “Do not cling to me.” None of this drama was of interest to the reader in De Maria Magdalena.

De Maria Magdalena is primarily a dramatic reading of scripture in its internal, emotional dimension.The actions of standing and weeping point internally to the emotion of love. In De Maria Magdalena, love and closely associated emotions motivate movement among different persons’ voices. All the voices are inflected with men’s deep preference for women. With its exquisitely constructed rhetorical forms, rhythms, and rhymes, De Maria Magdalena represents words of love as beautiful.

Like the drama of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, De Maria Magdalena is dramatic work that enriches understanding of the history of Christian drama. Unlike the quem quaeritis trope, Le Jeu d’Adam, and various mystery cycles, De Maria Magdalena isn’t an external representation of scripture. De Maria Magdalena reads scripture with human passions dramatically united to Christian understanding. De Maria Magdelana is within the tradition of Hrotsvit, but with scripture replacing hagiography and without Hrotsvit’s particular, transgressive concern for men. Understood primarily as a homily, De Maria Magdalena has been misunderstood.[8]

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[1]  Over 130 Latin manuscripts of De Mari Magdelena have survived. Origen wrote in Greek. De Mari Magdelena was clearly composed in Latin. For this and other reasons, Origen surely didn’t write De Mari Magdelena. The work may have been attributed to Origen to give it ancient authority. That attribution could have resulted from “omelia oriensis” (homily from unknown author) being scribally corrupted into “omelia origenis.”   McCall (1971) pp. 492-5, esp. n. 11.

[2] Delasanta & Rousseau (1996) provides both a Latin text and an English translation. All the quotes from De Mari Magdelena are from id., with some minor changes that I have made. For example, in the above quote, I have translated “ad monumentum foris” as “outside the grave-marker.” Id. has “outside the tomb.” My translation brings out more the text’s concern for signification. Id. variously translates “monumentum” as “tomb” and “sepulcher.”

[3] The ornate, poetic prose of De Maria Magdalena has similarities to popular medieval Arabic and Hebrew maqama in combining aspects of prose and poetry.

[4] Cf. Song of Solomon 5:6 (“I called to him and he did not answer me.”).

[5] Attention to specific scriptural details and narrative interpretation of those details characterizes rabbinical scriptural interpretation. Kugel (2007), a massive Whig history of biblical interpretation, provides extensive documentation of Jewish scriptural interpretation. De Mari Magdalena hints at close relations between monks and rabbis in twelfth-century France.

[6] Cf. John 18:15-7, 19:38, Luke 22:54-7.

[7] John 20:14-17.

[8] De Maria Magdalena ends with a shift from direct address to Jesus to moral application:

Let us imitate, brothers, the affection of this woman. Let each of us cry to Jesus since he did not hide himself from the woman sinner who sought him. Learn this, sinner, from the woman who sins were all forgiven. Learn to weep because of the absence of God and to desire his presence. … I dare to promise you confidently that if in faith you stand at the tomb of your heart, if crying you search for Jesus, and in seeking persevere, if you bow in humility, if by the example of Mary you wish to receive no other consolation from Jesus except for him when he reveals himself, you will find him and then recognize him so that it is unnecessary to ask others where Jesus is, but rather you will proclaim him to others since “I have seen the Lord and he said unto me,” to whom there is honor and glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen. Thus ends the homily of Origen.

The awkwardly connected final doxology seems to have been appended to an earlier composition, as was the concluding specification “homily of Origen.” A prologue appears in some manuscripts:

As I prepare to address you, dearly beloved, on this present solemnity, I am put in mind of how, by loving our Lord above all else, the blessed Mary Magdalene …

Trans. Waddell (1989) p. 53. On the manuscripts, McCall (1971) pp. 492-3. This prologue seems to me to be of different style than the main text and a likely addition. Assimilating De Maria Magdalena to a homily seems to have begun early in its textual history. The work has attracted little recent attention, mainly by Chaucer scholars. Delasanta & Rousseau (1996) p. 319, Gross (2006).

[image] Mary Magdalene. Sculpture in wood attributed Gregor Erhart (d. 1525). Louvre, Paris. Thanks to Gautier Poupeau and flickr.


Delasanta, Rodney K., and Constance M. Rousseau. 1996. “Chaucer’s ‘Orygenes upon the Maudeleyne’: A Translation.” The Chaucer Review. 30 (4): 319-342.

Gross, Karen Elizabeth. 2006. “Chaucer, Mary Magdalene, and the Consolation of Love.” Chaucer Review. 41 (1): 1-37.

Kugel, James L. 2007. How to read the Bible: a guide to Scripture, then and now. New York: Free Press.

McCall, John P. 1971. “Chaucer and the Pseudo Origen De Maria Magdalena: A Preliminary Study.” Speculum. 46 (3): 491-509.

Waddell, Chrysogonous. 1989. “Pseudo-Origen’s Homily on Mary Magdalene at the Tomb of Jesus.” Liturgy 23 (2): 45-65.

Life of Mary of Egypt intricately packed with Christian symbols

wadi in the desert

The Life of Mary of Egypt is a sensational story written within vigorously contested claims about who was the most important early Christian hermit. The Life of Mary of Egypt is also a literary work with intricate symbolism.

Crossing the river Jordan is an important motif in the Life of Mary of Egypt. In Jewish history, the Jewish people, after wondering for 40 years in the desert, crossed the river Jordan into the promised land. In the Life of Mary of Egypt, the monk Zosimas lived in Palestine. That can be meaningfully interpreted as the promised land. When Zosimas was 53 years old, he was led by an unnamed one to a monastery in Palestine along the bank of the Jordan. In accordance with the calendar of Lent in Eastern Christianity, the monks of that monastery crossed the Jordon for Pure Monday and returned 40 days later for Palm Sunday. The monks thus re-enacted the Jews’ purification in the desert before returning to the promised land to celebrate Holy Week. Zosimas joined the monks in that symbol-laden ritual.

In that Lenten sojourn, Zosimas encountered Mary of Egypt on the 6th hour of his 20th day in the desert. The 6th hour is noon (mid-day). The 20th day is the mid-point of the 40-day Lenten time in the desert. Zosimas’ meeting with Mary of Egypt was thus numerically the turning point of his Lenten purification.

Zosimas and Mary of Egypt encountered each other across a dry riverbed (a wadi). Mary of Egypt initially fled from Zosimas. He chased her. Zosimas came within calling distance, but could chase no more. Mary of Egypt was then across the wadi from him. With Zosimas wailing laments, Mary of Egypt from the other bank of the wadi turned and addressed him. Zosimas then appeared at her feet without explicitly crossing the wadi. Zosimas’ encounter with Mary of Egypt was a mystical, extra-historical experience.

Mary of Egypt recounted her life to Zosimas with symbolic numbers. When Mary was 12 years old, she left her parents and went to live a licentious life in Alexandria. The number 12 represents both the number of tribes of Israel and the number of original apostles of Jesus. Mary leaving her parents at age 12 resonates with personal, salvation-historical, and Christian betrayal. Mary lived a licentious life in Alexandrian for more than 17 years. Then, with the help of an icon of Mary, the Mother of God, she repented. That would have been when she was about 30. The number 30 incorporates 3, as in the triune God, and is traditionally understood to be the age at which Jesus started his public ministry. Mary saw the holy cross at the 3rd hour of the day. She then took 3 loaves of bread with her as she began her spiritual life in the desert. For 17 years in the desert she struggled with sensual desires. Those 17 years corresponding to undoing the 17 years (and more) she spent in sexual promiscuity. Mary tells Zosimas that she spent a total of 47 years in the desert. That’s 17 years plus 30 years. Through that time, she had been transformed into a most holy woman.[1]

Zosimas’ second encounter with Mary of Egypt communicated clearly her holiness. Mary had instructed Zosimas to wait with Eucharist for her on the bank of the Jordan in the promised land. Zosimas did so. Mary came to him by walking across the water of the Jordan.[2]

Zosimas’ third encounter with Mary of Egypt associated her with the passion and death of Jesus. After journeying again 20 days in the desert, Zosimas found Mary at the wadi:

{he} saw the blessed woman lying dead on on its eastern slope, her hands folded in the proper manner and her body lying in such a way that she was facing toward the east. [3]

The Gospel of Matthew promised:

For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. [4]

Mary, like Christian churches, was oriented to the east to see the second coming of Christ. Writing in the sand next to Mary’s head explained:

I died  … on the very night of the Passion of our Savior, after I received the holy Last Supper. [5]

Mary had died with Christ after miraculously traversing in one hour what for Zosimas had been a 20-day journey. Just as a lion had helped Saint Antony bury Saint Paul the First Hermit, a lion helped Zosimas to bury Mary of Egypt. The lion venerated Mary to the extent of “licking the soles of her feet.” That takes Jesus’ humble act of washing his disciples feet to a further level of self-abasement. In a symbol of the prophesied blessed time, the lion afterward withdrew “like a sheep” into the desert.[6]

Zosimas was explicitly described as 53 years old when he set out on the journey that would lead him to Mary of Egypt.  Given the symbolic density of the Life of Mary of Egypt, that age is probably significant. A key prophetic passage from a Christian perspective occurs in Isaiah 53. That chapter tells of the suffering servant:

Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? [7]

Zosimas came to understand that the Lord was revealed to Mary of Egypt, the former harlot. Few would have believed that. The Life of Mary of Egypt offers better understanding to everyone.

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[1] All the details described in this post are from the Life of Mary of Egypt, written in Greek probably in the seventh century. Kouli (1996) provides an English translation. Here’s an alternate online English translation. Some have tried to construct from the figures given a chronology of the life of Mary of Egypt. That seems to me to be an mis-reading of the numbers’ meanings. Cf. Id. p. 85, n. 54, and p. 86, n. 55.

[2] Cf. Matthew 14:25.

[3] Trans. Kouli (1996) p. 91.

[4] Matthew 24:27.

[5] Trans. Kouli (1996) p. 91.

[6] John 13:1-15 (Jesus washing the feet of his disciples). In the Life of Saint Paul the First Hermit, two lions help Antony bury Paul. Those lions came to Antony and licked his hands and feet. On the peaceful kingdom, Isaiah 11:6.

[7] Isaiah 53:1.

[image] Wadi in Nahal Paran, Negev, Israel. Thanks to Mark A. Wilson (Department of Geology, The College of Wooster) and Wikicommons.


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

Mary of Egypt in the thought of Heloise of the Paraclete

holy kiss in painting Saint Peter and Paul's farewell

Heloise of the Paraclete was a highly intelligent woman who boldly expressed her strong, independent sexuality. As a young, unmarried woman, she delighted in a sexual affair with Peter. As a scholar, she studied the neglected history of great women who came before her. One such great woman was Mary of Egypt. Medieval scholars, who historically have been predominately men, haven’t adequately appreciated Mary of Egypt as a foremother to Heloise of the Paraclete.[1]

Mary of Egypt’s extra-marital sexual experience was much more extensive than that of Heloise of the Paraclete. Mary, living in Alexandria probably about 600 GC, was very sexually liberated:

I threw myself entirely and insatiably into the lust of sexual intercourse. … For more than seventeen years … I was a public temptation to licentiousness, not for payment, I swear, since I did not accept anything although men often wished to pay me. I simply contrived this so that I could seduce many more men, thus turning my lust into a free gift. [2]

Requiring men to pay for sex, or having men always be the gender paying for dinner and entertainment, undermines gender symmetry and sex equality. Mary of Egypt was a champion of sex equality. She was also a sex champion more generally:

one summer day I {Mary of Egypt} saw a huge crowd of Libyan and Egyptian men running toward the sea. … I ran toward the sea, where I saw the other people running. And I saw some young men standing at the seashore, about ten or more, vigorous in their bodies as well as in their movements, who seemed to me fit for what I sought … I rushed shamelessly into their midst, as was my habit. “Take me where you are going,” I said, “Surely you will not find me useless.” Then, uttering other even more obscene words, I made everyone laugh, while they, seeing my penchant for shamelessness, took me and brought me to the boat they had prepared for the journey. … What tongue can declare, or what ears can bear to hear what happened on the boat and during the journey and the acts into which I forced those wretched men against their will? There is no kind of licentiousness, speakable or unspeakable, that I did not teach those miserable men. [3]

In modern terms, Mary of Egypt confessed to raping a boatload of men. Men raping women has been throughout history a serious public concern. But even today, women raping men isn’t taken seriously. That Mary of Egypt raped a boatload of men shouldn’t be held against her.

Heloise of the Paraclete must be appreciated similarly within her own historical context. Just as in our time, medieval Europe was a time of intensified attacks on women and oppression of women. Within her twelfth-century, clergy-dominated society, Heloise constructed Peter as her “one-and-only.”[4] Heloise thus internalized the oppressive medieval European norm of monogamy in her extra-marital affair with Peter.

Both Mary of Egypt and Heloise of the Paraclete struggled with appealing memories of extra-marital sex with men. For seventeen years, Mary of Egypt struggled with sexual memories:

an irrational desire for lascivious songs entered my mind, always disturbing me profoundly and trying to seduce me into singing the demonic songs that I have learned. … How can I describe to you those thoughts that were urging me again to fornication? Indeed, deep in my miserable heart a burning desire was kindled and set my whole {being} aflame and excited my desire for intercourse. [5]

Heloise of the Paraclete also for years struggled with such memories:

The lovers’ pleasures we enjoyed together were so sweet to me that they cannot displease me and can scarcely fade from my memory.  Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies which will not even let me sleep.  Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold on my most unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness rather than on prayer.  I, who should be grieving for the sins I have committed, am sighing rather for what I have lost.  The things we did and also the places and times we did them are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live though them all again with you.  Even in sleep I know no respite. [6]

While the modern elite work to criminalize the heterosexual love that 25% of men experience across wide swaths of the world, medieval clerics had sympathy for monks’ unintentional nocturnal emissions. Highlighting the gender inequality implicit in that sympathy, a medieval scholar recently recognized Heloise’s pioneering scholarly work:

It is precisely this “maleness” of monastic temptation that Heloise confronts and contests with her claims of nocturnal fantasies. She makes the point — still largely unacknowledged at this time in the early twelfth century — that women religious also suffer from sexual temptation and that the existing pastoral literature makes no space either to recognize this or to deal with it sympathetically. Heloise achieves this not simply by “confessing” (or appearing to confess) her sexual temptations, but by actively regendering her sexual desire as “male” sexual desire. [7]

This analysis devalues Heloise as a strong, independent thinker. Heloise taught Peter boldness and courage. Heloise spoke out strongly against marriage. With the support of Mary of Egypt as a role model (female role models are crucial for women’s advanced thinking), Heloise of the Paraclete was strong enough to affirm that her sexual desire was a woman’s sexual desire.

Culminating in leading twentieth-century philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, Heloise of the Paraclete is part of a long, distinguished chain of women thinkers who have developed the importance of intentions. Heloise explained to the highly respected scholar Peter:

It is not the deed but the state of mind of the doer which makes the crime, and justice should weigh not what is done but the spirit in which it is done. What my intention toward you has always been, you alone who have known it can judge.

A philosophically striking aspect of this thought is the assertion that Person A’s intention is known completely by Person B, with the implicit assertion that Person A knows that Person B knows completely Person A’s intention. This is an important philosophical path to theory of mind. Heloise also anticipated the development of theory of embodied cognition:

it is not so much what things are done as the mind in which they are done that we must consider if we wish to please him who tests the heart and loins [8]

The mind in which acts are done are linked to the heart and the lions. Only a small step further leads to the recognition of loins as a force of thought.

In her thinking about intention, Heloise of the Paraclete seems to have drawn upon insights into intention in the life of Mary of Egypt. Mary recounted to Zosimas her life as a liberated woman with strong, independent sexuality. Zosimas, a monk, was enthralled with her account. In Zosima’s return visit to her, she ordered him to recite the holy creed of the Christian faith and to say the Our Father:

When this was done and the prayer came to an end, according to custom she gave the monk the kiss of love on his mouth. [9]

In Christian churches in the second century and earlier, kisses on the lips were exchanged between women and men in the Mass for the kiss of peace (holy kiss/ kiss of love). Because of concerns about concupiscence, heterosexual kisses for the liturgical kiss of peace were forbidden in the third century.[10] Heloise, an keen biblical and patristic scholar, probably recognized that the labial kiss of peace included in the life of Mary of Egypt taught readers the importance of intention. Mary of Egypt gave Zosimas that kiss “according to custom.” Her intention was pure. Zosimas reception of her kiss, one assumes, was also with purity of mind, as are the minds of the monks and others reading the life of Mary of Egypt.

The roughly contemporaneous life of Matrona of Perge elaborates further on the importance of state of mind. Matrona had disguised herself as a eunuch and joined a monastery. The monastery’s abbot eventually learned her true sex:

{He} said to her, “So be it. You have all the while escaped notice as a woman, and have done no harm to us who were unaware of this. But how have you approached the divine mysteries with your head uncovered? And have you offered the kiss of peace to the brethren? Said she, “During the divine mysteries I have pulled my cloak halfway over my head, feigning a headache. And as for the symbol of peace and seal of love, I have not shunned it, for I considered that I offered myself not unto human mouths, but unto God’s angels and men free of passion.” [11]

In the Middle Ages, men and women were separated on different sides of the nave in churches. That separation helped to prevent women and men from kissing each other for the kiss of peace. Heloise of the Paraclete expressed concern about her nuns associating with men.[12] As a scholar and a philosopher, Heloise of the Paraclete thought deeply about Zosimas and Mary of Egypt’s kiss on the lips, and perhaps also the kisses of Matrona of Perge and the monks. She understood the difficulty of intentions.

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[1] The Life of Mary of Egypt was well known in medieval Europe. Many medieval manuscripts of her life have survived. Kouli (1996) p. 67. In the Western church, her life was celebrated in the liturgical calendar with a feast day on April 2. Abelard referred to Mary of Egypt in a letter to Heloise. He stated:

she struggled with superhuman courage against what anchorites suffer, so that holy women should lead in both kinds of monastic life.

Letter 7.40, from Latin trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) p. 331. The phrase “what anchorites suffer” could encompass appealing memories of sexual activities.

[2] The Life of Mary of Egypt, the former Harlot, who in Blessed Manner Became an Ascetic in the Desert of the {River} Jordan, s. 18, from Greek trans. Kouli (1996) p. 80. The later Latin Life of Mary of Egypt is available in English translation in Ward (1987), pp. 35-56. The Latin life follows the Greek life closely.

[3] Life of Mary of Egypt, s. 19-21, trans. Kouli (1996) pp. 80-2. The phrase “speakable or unspeakable” suggests with the second term sexual acts not of reproductive type.  Compared to the lusty vitality of the life of Mary of Egypt, Burrus (2004) offers precious, precious academic posturing with “erotics of ancient hagiography,” “countereroticism,” Foucault, Irigaray, Boudrillard, etc, leading to “Postscript (Catching My Breath)”:

Inspire: write and be read! Expire: let go of the self! In the midst, in between such daunting imperatives, our lives transpire. Heavy breathing, shallow breaths, suspenseful breathlessness … Can breath be “caught”? It is neither prey nor disease. Yet we speak of “catching the wind” … When my first child was born, after an exhausting twelve hours of mutual labor, he paused delicately — such a beautiful in-between blue, I thought dreamily.

Burrus (2004) p. 160. Does anyone get excited by that sort of writing?

[4] E.g. Heloise to Abelard, Letter 2, concluding, “farewell, my one-and-only.” From Latin trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) p. 141.

[5] Life of Mary of Egypt, s. 28-29, trans. Kouli (1996) pp. 85-6. In the Islamic world, singing was a highly valued attribute of courtesans.

[6] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 4.12,  trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) p. 171.

[7] Ruys (2008) p. 394. This work underscores the value of further study of gender in Aucassin and Nicolette.

[8] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 2.13, trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) p. 137 (first quote in paragraph);  Heloise to Abelard, Letter 6.25, id. p. 251 (second quote). See also 6.24.

[9] Life of Mary of Egypt, s. 35, trans. Kouli (1996) p. 90. Similarly in the Latin version, ch. 22, trans. Ward (1987) p. 53.

[10] Paul urged the Romans, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” Romans 16:16. See also 1. Cor. 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26. Peter used a slightly different form, “Greet one another with a kiss of love.” 1 Peter 5:14. The “kiss of peace” became part of the Mass:

From Augustine’s account, and those of many others, we also learn that the kiss of peace was a full, labial act. In the second century and most likely earlier, this kiss was exchanged between members of the opposite sex as well as between members of the same sex.

Foley (2010) p. 60.  Because of concerns about concupiscence, in the third century the kiss was restricted to same-sex pairs. Id. p. 61.  Apparently that restriction didn’t end concern about concupiscence. In thirteenth-century Europe, kissing a “pax brede” (peace board) replaced direct interpersonal kissing in some churches. Id. 70. Interpersonal kissing on the lips during Mass was no longer practiced by 1570. Id. In further scholastic development, kissing on college campuses may require clear, prior, individual affirmative consent. Only the scholastic officials deciding cases know what the law requires.

[11] The Life and Conduct of the Blessed and Holy Matrona, s. 7, from Greek trans. Featherstone (1996) p. 26.

[12] Heloise tendentiously queried:

Which is more fitting for our religious life: for an abbess never to offer hospitality to men, or for her to eat with men she has allowed in? It is all too easy for the souls of men and women to be destroyed if they live together in one place,and especially at table, where gluttony and drunkenness are rife, and wine “which leads to lechery” is drunk with enjoyment.

Heloise to Abelard, Letter 6.4, trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) p. 221.

[image] Farewell of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Alonzo Rodriguez. 17th century. Held in Museo Regionale di Messina, Italy. Thanks to Maria lo sposo and Wikimedia Commons.


Burrus, Virginia. 2004. The sex lives of saints: an erotics of ancient hagiography. Philadelphia, Pa: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Featherstone, Jeffrey, trans. and Cyril Mango, intro. 1996. “Life of St. Matrona of Perge.” Pp. 13-64 in Talbot, Alice-Mary Maffry, ed. 1996. Holy women of Byzantium: ten saints’ lives in English translation. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Foley, Michael P. 2010. “The Whence and Whither of the Kiss of Peace in the Roman Rite.” Antiphon 14.1: 49-54.

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

Luscombe, David, and Betty Radice, ed. and trans. 2013. The letter collection of Peter Abelard and Heloise. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

Ruys, Juanita Feros. 2008. “Heloise, Monastic Temptation, and Memoria: Rethinking Autobiography, Sexual Experience, and Ethics.” Pp. 383-404 in Classen, Albrecht, ed. Sexuality in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times: New Approaches to a Fundamental Cultural-Historical and Literary-Anthropological Theme. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.

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

metatextual irony follows Gemmata, Pietro and Donno Gianni

Read literally, the preface to the Decameron indicates that it was written for ladies.  Boccaccio and a lady reader of Decameron IX.10 are laughing still at today’s learned literary scholars’ will to believe that fiction.

Gray Arabian broodmare

In Decameron IX.10, Donno Gianni, a priest serving an impoverished church, garnered a living by trading at fares.  Donno Gianni became friends with a fellow trader named Pietro.  Pietro lived in a poor little cottage and had only one ass.  When Donno Gianni visited, he had to sleep in the stable on straw next to his mare and Pietro’s ass.  Pietro’s wife Gemmata offered to sleep at a neighbor’s so that Donno Gianni could have her place in bed with Pietro.  Donno Gianni declined that offer.  He told Gemmata:

don’t trouble yourself about me.  I’m doing just fine, because whenever I like, I change this mare into a beautiful gal and pass the time with her.  Then, whenever I want to, I turn her into a mare again. [1]

While a priest, Donno Gianni evidently was also a man with keen heterosexual animal instinct.

Gemmata believed Donno Gianni’s tale.  Eager for greater earnings from trading, she urged her husband to have Donno Gianni turn her into a mare to work with his ass transporting trading goods.  When Pietro returned home, he could have Donno Gianni turn her back into a woman.

Pietro pleaded with Donno Gianni to fulfill his wife’s rich plot.  Donno Gianni tried to decline, but Pietro insisted.  Finally, Donno Gianni agreed to perform his magic in their cottage just before daybreak.  He explained that if they wanted his performance to succeed, they had to obey his every order and not say a single word, no matter what.  They eagerly agreed.

To perform his magic in their cottage just before daybreak, Donno Gianni ordered Gemmata to take off all her clothes and get on her hands and knees in the position of a mare.  Then Donno Gianni began touching her and invoking a bodily transformation:

“Let this be a fine mare’s head.” Then stroking her hair, he said: “Let this be a fine mare’s mane.” Next, he touched her arms, saying: “Let these be a fine mare’s legs and hooves.” [2]

Just as for the monk Rustico and the young girl Alibech, events led to a rising of the flesh:

When he came to her breasts, he found they were so firm and round that a certain uninvited something or other awoke and stood erect, and he said: “And let this be a fine mare’s chest.”

He then did the same thing to her back, her stomach, her hindquarters, her thighs, and her legs.  Finally, having nothing left to take care of but the tail, he whipped up his shirt, grabbed hold of the stick he used for planting men, and quickly stuck it into the furrow that was designed for it, saying: “And let this be a fine mare’s tail.”

Pietro then interrupted, saying he didn’t want a tail there.  After the “vital fluids that all plants need to take root” had come, Donno Gianni pulled out of his magic performance.  He declared that Pietro’s words had broken the spell.  Pietro explained his interruption:

“I didn’t want that tail there, no, not me.  Why didn’t you tell me, ‘Do it yourself’?  And besides, you were sticking it on too low.”

“I didn’t tell you because it was your first time,” replied Donno Gianni, “and you wouldn’t have known how to stick it on as well as I do.”

Pietro apparently preferred putting the tail on the mare in the ass position.  Gemmata turned on Pietro, called him a dope, and blamed him for ruining their chance to earn more money.  Pietro was left to continue doing his work only with the anus and the ass.

Dioneo, who understood Ovid’s teachings on love, told this story.  He first praised the ladies’ superior virtue.  He then summarized the story’s moral teaching:

{this story} will teach you how carefully one must follow the instructions of those who do things by means of incantations and how making even one tiny mistake will ruin everything the magician has done.

The conclusion for Day 9 offers a higher metatextual commentary on this story:

How the company laughed at this story, which the ladies understood better than Dioneo had intended, can be left to the imagination of that lady who has read it and is laughing at it still.

That lady is laughing still at those who read the Decameron without a hearty sense of irony.[3]

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Read more:


[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 9, Story 10, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 745.  All subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 746-8.

[2] The original Italian sounds more like an incantation:

“Questa sia bella testa di cavalla ” … “Questi sieno belli crini di cavalla” … “E queste sieno belle gambe e belli piedi di cavalla.”

[3] Most Boccaccio scholars today apparently believe that the Decameron actually was written for ladies. See, e.g. Houston (2010) p. 120.

[image] Gray Arabian broodmare.  Thanks to Lovely Little Girl and Wikimedia Commons.


Houston, Jason M. 2010. Building a monument to Dante: Boccaccio as Dantista. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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

Galen engaged in anatomical displays and patient care

The second-century physician Galen wrote a massive corpus of scholarly works.  These texts shaped medicine in western Eurasia for more than a millennium.  Along with prodigious scholarly work, Galen was also a physician in bloody, strenuous, and difficult engagements with living bodies in anatomical displays and patient care.

As a young physician in his hometown of Pergamum, Galen performed anatomical displays.  Galen disemboweled a living monkey, emptied its intestines, and then challenged observing physicians to replace the intestines.  According to Galen, none stepped forward to do so.  Galen then surmounted the challenge himself.  Galen similarly would sever a monkey’s artery and challenge rival physicians to stop the bleeding.  Galen would demonstrate that, unlike other physicians, he knew how to stop the bleeding.[1]

At the age of twenty-seven, Galen in 157 was appointed physician to the gladiators in Pergamum.  Just like players in major-league team sports today, gladiators were valuable assets to their promoter-owners.  Galen made ointments and bandages for gladiators’ wounds.  He himself applied and monitored daily the wound treatments.  He sutured deep-tissue wounds and performed abdominal surgery on gladiators.  Galen’s care for the gladiators was much more successful than that of his predecessors.  He served five successive terms as physician to the Pergamum gladiators through the year 161.[2]  Galen subsequently left for Rome.  Rome offered a successful and ambitious physician much greater opportunity for achievement.

Galen gained famed in Rome through amazing anatomical displays.  Galen became friends with Flavius Boethus, a Roman senator and ex-consul who was an avid fan of anatomical displays.  Galen dissected pigs, goats, cattle, monkeys, cats, dogs, mice, snakes, fish, and birds.  He also dissected an elephant at least once.  Dissecting living pigs and goats in front of elite spectators, Galen demonstrated the function of the recurrent laryngeal nerve:

“the finest nerves, a pair of them like hairs,” as he writes, proud of his ability to locate minute anatomical structures.  They were his own discovery, unknown to his predecessors, and he also emphasizes the startling power of these delicate threads: for when they were cut, they would silence the animal without damaging it in any other way. [3]

By ligating the laryngeal nerve with needle and thread, Galen could silence and restore the animal’s voice at will.  In the ancient world, oratory was a primary source of public power.  Galen demonstrated that he could exert precise control over voice.

Galen performed many other types of difficult, bloody anatomical displays.  He vivisected pregnant goats and displayed the fetus breathing and moving.  He cut open living animals’ skulls and showed how pressing on different areas of the brain would change the animals’ physical capabilities, e.g. blind it.  He also cut open living animals to show their beating heart.  He would show that the animal could run, eat, and drink while having its beating heart exposed to view.[4]

Galen’s anatomical displays helped him to provide care for patients.  In one case, a slave boy of Maryllus the mime-writer suffered a wrestling injury.  An abscess formed in the boy’s sternum.   After several months, the boy was in danger of death:

Maryllus called together several physicians, including Galen, to consult on the case.  They all agreed that the affected part of the sternum needed to be cut out; no one, however, dared to perform the operation, knowing that the slightest error would result in catastrophic perforation of the pleural membrane.  But Galen had vivisected hundreds of animals.  He had held their beating hearts in his fingers.

Galen attempted the operation:

The operation went well at first — the infection had spared the veins and arteries around the wound — but when Galen removed the affected bone, he saw, to his despair, that part of the pericardium beneath had putrefied and disintegrated, forcing him to excise it.  Then, “we saw the heart as clearly as we see it when we deliberately lay it bare during {animal} dissection.” [5]

The boy recovered and subsequently lived for many years. Galen probably performed the operation without the use of anesthesia.

surgical treatment of skull fracture

Galen’s strenuous, life-long project was not just knowledge-seeking.  A fine recent biography of Galen observed:

Despite the energy he devoted to dissecting, writing, and showing off, Galen never lost sight of the idea that medicine is about treating patients; and he treated all kinds of patients.  His anecdotes, although personal in tone, betray barely a hint of condescension toward any patient except for one silly rich man.  He would root around in a farmer’s yard for a suitable ingredient for a plaster.  He would wheedle information from a chambermaid if it helped him to make a better diagnosis.  He would perform insanely risky surgery on the slim chance of saving a slave boy’s life, with professional disgrace as the price of failure. [6]

Galen, like Paul of Tarsus, was both a highly learned thinker and a person passionately involved in ordinary life.

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Read more:


[1] Mattern (2013) pp. 83-4.  By today’s standards, Galen’s anatomical displays involved grotesque cruelty to animals.  But in the Roman Empire, watching gladiators grievously wound or kill each other was a popular activity.  Galen’s treatment of animals wasn’t much crueler than prevalent treatment of humans in his time and place.

[2] Id. Ch. 3.

[3] Id. p. 148.

[4] Id. pp. 142-4.  These anatomical displays involved flailing animals, cries of pain, and flows of blood.  They were sensually the elite equivalent of gladiator shows.

[5] Id. pp. 184-5 (including previous quote).

[6] Id. pp. 288-9.

[image] Medieval treatment of compound skull fracture. From Roger Frugard of Parma, Chirurgia. France, N. (Amiens); 1st quarter of the 14th century.  f. 2 of Sloane 1977, thanks to British Library.


Mattern, Susan P. 2013. The prince of medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.