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.

[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 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.

At those who read the Decameron without a hearty sense of irony, she is laughing still.[3]

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[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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[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.


scholarly literature on sex differences in communication

Studying scholarly literature on sex differences in communication is insightful.  Popular books on sex differences usually lack solid scientific support but appeal to common sense.  They are easily understandable and occasionally amusing.  Reading excruciatingly detailed technical analysis of the scholarly weaknesses of these books indicates contrasting values in the scholarly marketplace.  For example, in an article entitled “‘You Just Don’t Have the Evidence’: An Analysis of Claims and Evidence in Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand,” two communication scholars noted:

there is widespread agreement that gender differences in communication are typically small. This pattern is evident in the foregoing review of research in various areas {of communication} and has also been noted by other authors who have conducted similar reviews. For example, Canary and Hause (1993) reviewed 15 meta-analyses on various communications topics, summarizing more than 1,200 studies of gender differences in communication. The average effect size is small (average weighted d = .24) and accounts for about 1% of the variance. [1]

Effect sizes and shares of variance depend strongly on experimental design.[2]  Effect sizes and shares of variance from unnatural, laboratory experiments are thus difficult to interpret in relation to the ordinary behavior of men and women in ordinary life.  The cited meta-analysis, Canary and Hause (1993), summarized the scholarly situation in 1993:

The problem is that fifty years of research on the topic of sex differences in communication have provided no clear findings. … Is there any reason to research sex differences in communication? On both empirical and conceptual levels the answer is “no,” assuming current practices continue. [3]

This scholarship carefully preserved the possibility of doing further academic work in this area:

We believe there are sex differences in communication, but they are eluding us. Perhaps a definitive answer to the question of sex differences in communication will arrive within the next fifty years. [4]

This scholarly work also lamented the influence of sexual stereotypes on scholarly work, the polarization of the sexes in scholarly deliberation, scholars’ failure to distinguish clearly between sex (nature) and gender (nurture), a dearth of theory about gender, and excessive scholarly enthusiasm for studying sex differences.  As the popular adage goes, if what you’re doing isn’t succeeding, keep doing it until it succeeds.

stack of scholarly papers on sex differences

Meta-analysis and moving to a higher level of abstraction is a common scholarly tactic.  A communication scholar subject to harsh criticism for her view that women and men communicate differently declared:

The pervasiveness of agonism, that is, ritualized adversativeness, in contemporary western academic discourse is the source of both obfuscation of knowledge and personal suffering in academia. Framing of academic discourse as a metaphorical battle leads to a variety of negative consequences, many of which have ethical as well as personal dimensions. [5]

Recent scholarship has emphasized sex differences in competitiveness.  With a striking mix of positive and normative phrases, an economics article published in 2007 was entitled, “Do Women Shy Away from Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much?”[6]  Consider an alternative title of similar form: “Do Men Compete Vigorously? Are Women Too Averse to Competition?”  The latter title probably wouldn’t have been published, and almost surely wouldn’t have scored as many subsequent citations exploring the roots of gender inequality.  Another social scientist has queried:

What kind of motives are more likely to lead to good science: Competitive motives, like the motive J. D. Watson described in The Double Helix, to get the structure of DNA before Linus Pauling did? Or nurturant motives of the kind that Doug Melton has described recently to explain why he’s going into stem cell research: to find a cure for juvenile diabetes, which his children suffer from? [7]

Scholarly attempts to evaluate this question are likely to be less successful that past scholarly attempts to evaluate sex differences in communication.  Appealing to care for children, however, is a propitious social-rhetorical strategy.

Communication scholars need not step far from calculations of effect sizes in laboratory communication experiments to find more meaningful evidence of sex differences in communication.  From the 1970-1 to the 2010-11 academic years, the sex ratio of students receiving bachelor degrees in “communications, journalism, and related programs” in the U.S. rose from 0.55 women per man to 1.67 women per man.  Bachelor degrees awarded in communications, journalism, and related programs grew about seven times as rapidly as did bachelor degrees in all fields.  That rapid growth was relatively women-biased: the sex ratio in bachelor degrees conferred in communications, journalism, and related fields (1.67 in the 2010-11 school year) is much higher than the sex ratio for all bachelors degrees (1.34).[8]  In short, the academic discipline of communication has grown relatively strongly to serve predominately female students.  Communications scholars pondering sex differences in communication should consider those real-world facts.

In a jazz club the waitress recommended the crab cakes to me, and they turned out to be terrible. I was uncertain about whether or not to send them back. When the waitress came by and asked how the food was, I said that I didn’t really like the crab cakes. She asked, “What’s wrong with them?” While staring at the table, my husband answered, “They don’t taste fresh.” The waitress snapped, “They’re frozen! What do you expect?” I looked directly up at her and said, “We just don’t like them.” She said, “Well, if you don’t like them, I could take them back and bring you something else.” [9]

You should be able to enjoy the food you ordered in a restaurant.  You must be really upset.  You were so right to send those crab cakes back!

The evidence for sex differences in communication is voluminous, socially significant, and willfully disparaged.

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[1] Goldsmith & Fulfs (1999) p. 26, footnote omitted.  Id., p. 2, noted that Tannen (1990) had achieved huge market success:

The cover of the 1990 paperback edition proudly proclaims that the book has appeared on the New York Times best-seller list for more than 4 years, generated more than 1.5 million copies, and received favorable reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and San Franscisco Chronicle. The book has been excerpted and cited for millions of readers in such popular magazines as Newsweek, Time, Redbook, Reader’s Digest, Working Woman, Ladies’ Home Journal, and People and in newspapers such as the Christian Science Monitor and USA Today.

Following the success of the book, Tannen has made numerous television appearances and has written articles and book reviews in a wide variety of publications with large circulation, including Reader’s Digest, the Washington Post, McCall, USA Today, and New York Times Magazine, to name only a few.

[2] The effect sizes calculated in meta-analyses of social-scientific experiments typically depend on variables that are defined conventionally and that have little ecological significance. The variance observed depends greatly on the specific variable description. Consider, for example, a study of sex differences in height. If the study includes women and men both standing and mounted on horseback, then the effect size of sex on height will be much less than if just height standing is measured. MacGeorge et al. (2004) p. 148, Fig. 1, demonstrates the significance of this issue.  If the message type “change the subject” was not included in the experiment, the variance of “likelihood of use” would be much smaller, and the effect size of sex in the experiment would be much larger.  Moreover, sex differences in variance can be significant. Walker et al. (2006) documents cross-cultural sex differences in height, weight, and in the variance in bodily growth trajectories.  Using the “average within-sex standard deviation” (e.g. Hydep (2005) p. 582) in calculating effect sizes makes effect sizes even less interpretable in relation to actual human behavior in ordinary circumstances.

[3] Canary & Hause (1993) pp. 129, 141.

[4] Id. p. 141.

[5] Tannen (2002) p. 1651. Cf. Goldsmith & Fulfs (1999).

[6] Niederle & Vesterlund (2007).

[7] Spelke in Pinker & Spelke (2005).

[8] U.S. Dept. of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics: 2012, Tables 348 and 310.  The sex ratio of female to male communications bachelor degree recipients peaked at 1.83 in the 2003-04 school year.  Across the seven years prior to that peak, communications degrees conferred grew much faster than all bachelor degrees conferred, with growth rates of 52% and 19%, respectively.  In the subsequent seven years, communications degrees conferred grew slightly slower than all bachelor degrees, with growth rates of 21% and 23%, respectively.  Thus the ratio of females to males receiving communications degrees has become less unequal as communications, journalism, and related fields have become much less attractive to students.  These data are gathered and summarized in the Communications Degrees Sex Bias Workbook (Excel version).

[9] Tannen (1990) p. 29.


Canary, Daniel J. and Kimberley S. Hause. 1993. “Is There Any Reason to Research Sex Differences in Communication?” Communication Quarterly 41(2): 129-144.

Goldsmith, Daena J. and Patricia A. Fulfs. 1999. “”You Just Don’t Have the Evidence”: An Analysis of Claims and Evidence in Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand.” Communication Yearbook 22: 1-49.

Hyde, Janet Shibley. 2005. “The Gender Similarities Hypothesis.” American Psychologist 60(6): 581-592.

MacGeorge, Erina L., Angela R. Graves, Bo Feng, Seth J. Gillihan and Brant R. Burleson. 2004. “The Myth of Gender Cultures: Similarities Outweigh Differences in Men’s and Women’s Provision of and Responses to Supportive Communication.” Sex Roles 50(3/4): 143-175.

Niederle, Muriel, and Lise Vesterlund. 2007. “Do Women Shy Away from Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much?“. Quarterly Journal of Economics. 122 (3): 1067-1101.

Pinker, Steven, and Elizabeth Spelke. 2005. “The Science of Gender and Science: Pinker vs. Spelke.”  Edge The Third Culture.

Tannen, Deborah. 1990. You just don’t understand: women and men in conversation. New York, NY: Morrow.

Tannen, Deborah. 2002. “Agonism in academic discourse.” Journal of Pragmatics 34: 1651-1669.

Walker, Robert, Michael Gurven, Kim Hill, Andrea Migliano, Napoleon Chagnon, Roberta De Souza, Gradimir Djurovic, Raymond Hames, A. Magdalen Hurtado, Richard Kaplan, Karen Kramer, William J. Oliver, Claudia Valeggia and Taro Yamauchi. 2006. “Growth Rates and Life Histories in Twenty-Two Small-Scale Societies.” American Journal of Human Biology 18: 295-311.


mocking stork gesture in Persius and Comoedia Lydiae

In his first, programmatic satire, the Roman poet Persius addressed the relationship between writer and patron.  Acclaimed by the patron with “Bravo!” and “Lovely!”, the writer imagines saying to the patron:

You know how to serve up hot tripe, you know how to give some poor shivering fellow writer a worn-out cloak, and then you say, “I love the truth.  Tell me the truth about myself.”  How, actually?  Do you really want me to?  You’re a fool, baldy, your fat paunch sticking out with an overhang of a foot and half.  Lucky Janus, never banged from behind by a stork or by waggling hands imitating a donkey’s white ears or by a tongue as long as a thirsty Apulian dog’s.  You, of patrician blood, who have to live without eyes in the back of your head, turn around and face the backdoor sneer! [1]

The patron rewards the writer with neither meaningful appreciation for his work (only “Bravo” and “Lovely”) nor sufficient material support (only a “worn-out cloak”).  The patron only pretends to want to know the truth.  The writer imagines telling the patron the truth: the patron is old, fat, and a fool.  Then the writer describes three mocking gestures that are being made at the patron behind his back.  Waggling hands imitating a donkey’s ears is easy to understand as mocking the patron as an ass.  The mocking stork gesture hasn’t even been clearly understood formally.  The long-tongued, thirsty-dog gesture hasn’t been understood meaningfully.[2]

head of stork

Comoedia Lydiae, a late twelfth-century Latin elegiac comedy, provides key context to understand the mocking stork gesture.  In this tale, Lidia, the wife of the duke Decius, is deeply in love with the knight Pearus.[3]  To demonstrate the depth of her love for Pearus, Lidia wrings the neck of Decius’ prized falcon in front of Decius and guests, plucks hairs out of his beard, and yanks out one of his healthy teeth.  To further display her mastery of her husband, Lidia arranges to have sex with Pearus while Decius watches.  While Lidia is going with Decius and Pearus to the garden to perform that feat of cuckoldry, the servant-woman Lusca follows them.  She is in on the cuckolding scheme: “mouth agape, she trails along behind, making at Decius the gesture of the stork.”[4]  Lusca means in Latin “one-eyed.”  That name playfully contrasts with Persius’ Janus, a two-faced god who has eyes in the front and back of his head.[5]  Lusca’s mocking of Decius behind his back in Comoedia Lydiae evokes the mocking of the patron behind his back in Persius’ satire.  The context in Comoedia Lydiae suggests that the stork gesture ridicules male heterosexual failure.  Decius failed to fulfill his wife’s sexual desire and was thus cuckolded.

A gesture plausibly similar to the stork gesture has endured through millennia.  Near Boston in the late 1980s, a young man of first-generation Italian-American heritage and of strong, independent heterosexual desire would regularly make to his male friends a gesture plausibly similar to the stork gesture.  He would point an index finger straightly erect, and then droop it into a curved position.  That gesture declared a perceived lack of heterosexual vigor in the guy to whom it was directed.

finger in mocking stork gesture

The three mocking gestures in Persius have subtle complexity.  In the focal passage from Persius, I translated the Latin verbal form pinsit as “banged from behind.”  The most recent, authoritative academic translation of Persius translated pinsit as “pummeled from behind.”  The verb pinsit is difficult:

pinsit, ‘strikes’, an extension based on the analogy of the partial synonym tundit, pinso usually means “crushes, grinds, pounds”, but {Persius} seems to have none of these senses in mind.  pinsit, rather than say, ludit, is of course prompted by what the gesture represents. [6]

However, the stork gesture occurs in Jerome without any verb like pinsit:

They will fawn upon you with fulsome praise and do their best to blind your judgment; yet if you suddenly look behind you, you will find that they are making gestures of derision with their hands, either a stork’s curved neck or the flapping ears of a donkey or a thirsty dog’s protruding tongue. [7]

Moreover, the verb pinsit grammatically applies to the other two gestures:

The lines involve a zeugma.  From pinsit (58), the idea of ‘mock’ has to be supplied. [8]

With the stork gesture interpreted as mimesis of male erectile dysfunction, pinsit works as verbal irony.  A penis in the condition of the stork gesture is incapable of pinsit, meaning heterosexual intercourse of reproductive type.  Flapping could evoke lack of testicular tension as well as being an ass.  The thirsty dog’s protruding tongue adds a concluding note of male sexual frustration.  Rather than being crudely transparent, Persius’ three mocking gestures are highly literary.

Centuries of male scholars scrutinizing Persius’ satire failed to generate appreciation and insight into the mocking stork gesture.  Male scholars haven’t been reading texts with sufficient male consciousness.

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[1] Perseus, Satires 1.53-63, from Latin trans. Braund (2004) p.53.  I’ve replaced “pummeled from behind” by “banged for behind” for reasons subsequently explained above.  I’ve also replaced “client” with “fellow writer” for clarity.  The underlying Latin word is “comitem.”  Gildersleeve (1875) provides an online version of the Latin text.  A.S. Kline has generously provided an online translation into English.

[2] “The exact nature of this ‘stork’ gesture is not discoverable.”  Harvey (1981), p. 33.  “Perhaps symbolising cacophony,” according to Bramble (1974) p. 116.  Id. notes that a sign of a thirsty dog, an ass, and a parrot occurs in Callimachus’ second Iambus.  How that recognition helps to read Persius isn’t clear.  In ancient Sanskrit literature, a parrot is linked with intended cuckoldry.  A recent scholarly work, “drawing upon recent scholarship in gender studies and Lacanian film theory,” interprets the mocking gestures in Persius as evoking elite male anxiety about anal penetration.  King (2006) p. 74, p. 249 n. 18.

[3] Elliott (1984), pp. 126-46, provides an English translation of Lidia, with some translation notes.  The poem is attributed to Arnulf of Orléans.  Boccaccio adapted Lidia in Decameron 7.9.

[4] My translation of the Latin, “Rictibus ora trahit Decioque ciconiat usu.”  Elliott (1984), p. 141, has as the translation:

Her lips curve up into a smile, and at Decius
she makes the gesture of the crane

That seems to me less exact.  The full Latin text is available online in Du Méril (1854).  See esp. id. p. 371.  Boccaccio’s version of Lidia, Decameron 7.9, doesn’t include the mocking stork gesture.

[5] The prologue to Lidia refers to a parrot imitating human speech.  A parrot imitating human speech also figures in the prologue to Persius’ satires.

[6] Harvey (1981) p. 33.  The relevant Latin lines from Persius, 1.58-60:

o Iane, a tergo quem nulla ciconia pinsit
nec manus auriculas imitari mobilis albas
nec linguae quantum sitiat canis Apula tantum.

From Braund (2004) p. 52.  Gildersleeve (1875) notes for l. 58:

ciconia pinsit = pinsendo ludit. The fingers of the mocker imitate the clapping of the stork’s bill.  Pinsit, ‘pounds,’ because the ciconia levat ac deprimit rostrum dum clangit, Isidor., Orig., 20, 15, 3.  ‘Pecks at’ is not correct; ‘claps’ is nearer.  What seems to be meant is mock applause.

[7] Jerome, Letter 125 (To Rusticus, dated 411) s.18, from Latin trans. Freemantle (1892) p. 597.  I’ve inserted “curved” within “stork’s neck.”  The underlying Latin:

si subito respexeris aut ciconiarum deprehendes post te colla curvari aut mans auriculas agitari asini aut aestuantem canis protenti linguam.

[8] Harvey (1981) p. 33.


Bramble, J. C. 1974. Persius and the programmatic satire: a study in form and imagery. Cambridge: University Press.

Braund, Susanna Morton, trans. 2004. Juvenal and Persius. Loeb Classical Library 91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Du Méril, Édélestand.  1854. Poésies inédites du moyen âge, précédées d’une histoire de la fable ésopique. Paris: Franck.

Elliott, Alison Goddard, ed. and trans. 1984. Seven medieval Latin comedies. New York: Garland.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Gildersleeve, Basil L. 1875. The satires of A. Persius Flaccus. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Harvey, R. A. 1981. A commentary on Persius. Leiden: Brill.

King, Richard Jackson. 2006. Desiring Rome: male subjectivity and reading Ovid’s Fasti. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

rape of men about as prevalent as rape of women

The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) found that 1.1% of non-incarcerated men were forced to have sex with another person in the past year.  Defining rape victimization with the gender-neutral concept of being forced to have sex (including being “made to penetrate”), NISVS found that 1.1% of men and 1.1% of women were raped in the past year among persons outside of jails and prisons.[1]  When is the last time you heard that roughly equal numbers of non-incarcerated men and women are raped?  When is that last time you heard any concern about rape of men?

tree rotten to core

Men being forced to have sex by being forced to penetrate sexually is scarcely recognized.  Before 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) definition of rape explicitly limited rape to rape of females.  The UCR apparently now includes as rape men being made to penetrate.  Making that inclusion explicit is clearly needed for clarification.  The major, annual, government-administered National Crime Victimization Survey doesn’t ask about men being forced to penetrate.  NISVS asked men about being forced to penetrate, but NISVS didn’t include men being forced to penetrate under the category rape.  NISVS pretended that men being forced to have sex with their penises isn’t real rape.  That’s gender bigotry like surveys labeling men, and only men, as rapists in circumstances of true love.

NISVS buried the facts about rape of men.  The executive summery of NISVS’s summary report listed as its first key finding:

Nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives, including completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration. [2]

These statistics don’t include men “made to penetrate” sexually another persons.  NISVS found a lifetime prevalence of men raped in that way to be 4.8%.[3]  Moreover, NISVS asked participants to recall sexual victimization across their whole lifetime and across the past year.  Lifetime recall is much more likely to be faulty and biased than past-year recall.  For example, regretted sex can be rationalized over time in memory as drunken sex.  NISVS classifies drunken hetero-sex as rape of the woman.  The best, non-gender-biased rape measure from NISVS is that 1.1% of women and 1.1% of men were raped in the past year.  Those key statistical findings are nowhere compellingly communicated in the NISVS summary report.  The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention administered NISVS and publicly reported its results.  Burying the facts about rape of men shows anti-men bias shaping public communication of an expert, government agency.

Anti-men bigotry combines with farce in a recent scholarly article.  The scholarly article, entitled “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions,” was published in the prestigious American Journal of Public Health.  It begins thus:

The sexual victimization of women was ignored for centuries.  Although it remains tolerated and entrenched in many pockets of the world, feminist analysis has gone a long way toward revolutionizing thinking about the sexual abuse of women, demonstrating that sexual victimization is rooted in gender norms and is worthy of social, legal, and public health intervention. [4]

This article doesn’t begin with concern about sexual victimization of men in America.  It begins gynocentrically.  A similar rhetorical strategy shapes the introduction to a scholarly article exploring the much neglected topic of men suffering much higher injury mortality than women, including men suffering a death rate from violence 4.1 times higher than that of women.  Here, the scholarly article’s first sentence is simply preposterous.  Sexual victimization of women has been of intense concern across all of recorded history.  False accusation of rape has been of intense concern across all of recorded history until recent decades.  The history of concern about false accusations of raping a woman makes no sense without parallel concern about raping women.

Acknowledging the reality of rape apparently isn’t possible without working earnestly to support entrenched discursive interests.  The scholarly article observes:

The survey {NISVS} found that men and women had a similar prevalence of nonconsensual sex in the previous 12 months (1.270 million women and 1.267 million men).  This remarkable finding challenges stereotypical assumptions about the gender of victims of sexual violence.  However unintentionally, the CDC’s publications and the media coverage that followed instead highlighted female sexual victimization, reinforcing public perceptions that sexual victimization is primarily a women’s issue. {bolding added to original text} [5]

Highlighting female sexual victimization was no more unintentional than is marketing stories with understanding of market demand.  Female victimization attracts massive attention.  No one wants to hear about male victimization.

Entrenched discursive interests are readily apparent in the scholarly article.  With standard academic cant, the article declares:

We have interrogated some of the stereotypes concerning gender and sexual victimization, and we call for researchers to move beyond them.  First, we question the assumption that feminist theory requires disproportionate concern for female victims. [6]

The article’s first concern is what feminist theory requires.  Why should anyone care about requirements of feminist theory, as defined by the ruling feminist theoreticians?  Elites today care, because if they don’t confirm their allegiance to feminist theory, they will be expunged from mainstream public discourse.  The article concludes with a declaration worthy of feminist theory:

Finally, a gender-conscious analysis of sexual victimization as it affects both women and men is needed and is not inconsistent with a gender-neutral approach to defining abuse.  Indeed, masculinized dominance and feminized subordination can take place regardless of the biological sex or sexual orientation of the actors. [7]

Biological sex or sexual orientation shouldn’t be relevant to concern for human suffering.  While discounting those irrelevant factors, the article maps sexual victimization onto “masculinized dominance” and “feminized subordination.”   The difference between hating men and hating masculinity is worse than splitting hairs.  It’s chopping penises.  “Masculinized dominance” and “feminized subordination” are worse abstractions than “feminized dominance” and “masculinized subordination.”  The latter provides a better metaphor for reality today.

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[1] Basile et al. (2011) pp. 18-9, Tables 2.1 and 2.2.  These results are based on non-incarcerated persons’ statements about sexual victimization in response to survey questions.  They are not findings of rape under criminal law.  Rape in NISVS includes “completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration.”  The statistics cited above add to the NISVS “rape” category the sexual violence of men “made to penetrate” sexually another person.

[2] Id. p. 1.  NISVS did not survey incarcerated persons.  Men are highly disproportionately represented among incarcerated persons.  Incarcerated persons suffer a much higher prevalence of sexual violence.  If incarcerated men are appropriately recognized as “men in the United States,” rape of men is considerably higher than the NISVS statistics indicate.

[3] Id. p. 19, Table 2.2.

[4] Stemple & Meyer (2014) p. e19.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. p. e20.

[7] Id. p. e25.  The article pursues “intersectional approaches.”  Intersectional approaches detract attention from the fact that black men, Hispanic men, low-income men, mentally ill men, gay men, disabled men, and homeless men are all men.  Consider, for example, this statement:

Because the United States disproportionately incarcerates Black, Hispanic, low-income, and mentally ill persons, accounting for the experience of the incarcerated population will help researchers and policymakers better understand the intersecting factors that lead to the sexual victimization of already marginalized groups.

Id. p. e25.  The article thus fails to mention that men are highly disproportionately incarcerated.  About ten times more men are currently held in U.S. prisons and jails relative to women there.  Gender-biased understandings of crime, such as gender-biased understanding of the crime of rape, contribute to the highly disproportionate incarceration of men.


Basile, Kathleen C., Michele C. Black, Matthew Joseph Breiding, Jieru Chen, Melissa T. Merrick, Sharon G. Smith, Mark R. Stevens, and Mikel L. Walters. 2011. National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010 summary report. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention.

Stemple, Lara, and Ilan H. Meyer. 2014. “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions.” American Journal of Public Health. 104 (6): e19-e26.


authors beware: 80% of books sell less than 100 copies

pile of books

Most published books sell few copies.  According to BookScan data:

79 percent of all new books sold in the United States in 2004 sold fewer than 99 copies, with 16.91 percent of all books selling between 100 and 999 copies.[1]

In 2004, BookScan covered about 70% of all U.S. book sales.[2]  The book industry today, like other industries marketing symbolic works, is based on hugely popular blockbusters.  Most authors, even authors of published books, earn nothing for all their work.

Books that sell less than 100 copies are not a waste.  An author may have enjoyed writing a book.  A few readers may value the book greatly. Of course, authors, like everyone else, need some way to support themselves.  A book that sells less than 100 copies is not likely in itself to provide significant financial benefit to the author.  A reasonable strategy for such books is to make them freely available to everyone on the Internet.  On the Internet, such books potentially can remain economically accessible to billions of persons forever.  Together they can greatly enrich the public landscape of human creativity and knowledge.

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[1] Greco, Rodríguez & Wharton (2007) p. 212.

[2] Id.

[image] pile of Nordic books.  Thanks to Johannes Jansson and Wikipedia.


Greco, Albert N., Clara E.  Rodríguez and Robert M.  Wharton. 2007. The culture and commerce of publishing in the 21st century. Stanford, Calif., Stanford Business Books.


Roman epitaph to Julia Galbina

Roman epitaph to Julia Galbina

Above is a photograph of a Roman epitaph from the second century GC.  Translated from Latin, it states: “To the sacred memory of Julia Galbina; she lived 45 years. Gnaeus Haius Iustus, to his most devoted wife.”

In the U.S. in 1790, expected lifespan at birth was 44 years for white females and white males.  Now it’s 79 years for females and 74 years for males.  You can now expect to live longer than Julia Galbina.  But will you be remembered 1800 years from now?

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[image] My photograph of marble stone on display at the Portland Art Museum.  Sally Lewis Collection of Classical Antiquities 26.68.


Bernard of Cluny’s De Contemptu Mundi trivializes men’s sexed protests

Now we flee from standing firm and we stream toward evil; let us stand up for goodness.  It is the final hour, the most wicked of times — be watchful! [1]

Bernard of Cluny’s De Contemptu Mundi is a long, twelfth-century Latin poem that complains about everything.  Its complaints are conventional: everything used to be better, the world’s gone to hell, everyone now is obsessed with money, sex, power, and their stomachs.  A scholar has described this work as containing “one of the most vehement, nasty outpourings of antifeminism in the Middle Ages.”[2]  But its vehemence and nastiness has a hollow core.  De Contemptu Mundi lacks the outrageously transgressive pseudo-realism of Jaume Roig’s Spill, the intricate poetic parodies of Libro de buen amor, and the keen psychological insights of Marie de France’s work.  Bernard of Cluny’s De Contemptu Mundi trivializes men’s sexed protests.

De Contemptu Mundi favors narrow technical proficiency over broad social change.  De Contemptu Mundi complains about everything while maintaining a difficult leonini cristati trilices dactylici meter throughout its 3,000 lines.  Bernard fundamentally misunderstands virility:

Bernard speaks of this metre with great pride, pointing out in his prologue that other poets had not used it for more than a handful of lines, whereas he has managed to keep it up for three thousand. [3]

Literature from the Islamic world describes the much more impressive feat of Abu’l Hayloukh.  Bernard wrote De Contemptu Mundi for his monastic brethren.  Enforcing the intensely difficult leonini cristati trilices dactylici on himself often required Bernard “to torture syntax, vocabulary, and word order.”[4]  Torture, like going down on sinking ships, hurts men.

De Contemptu Mundi Virī

Bernard places women at the center of the world.  His gynocentric imagination ignores men and connects abstract evils to shameless whores, woman, the evil woman, and even a specific woman:

Excess thrives, impiety stands erect, injustice abounds.  The impious crowd, the troop of whores, defiles all.  The life of shameless whores is to walk without restraint; their tongue is defilement, their heart is drunkenness, their life is the belly.  Their one and only glory is to love the lewd desires of the flesh, to defile hearts in their abyss, to defile bodies in their lust.  Woman is filthy, woman is faithless, woman is feeble; she pollutes the clean, she contemplates the impious, she wears away one’s abundance.  An evil woman becomes a spur to wickedness, a rein to goodness.  An evil woman is a wild beast; her sins are as sand.  I am not going to revile righteous women whom I ought to bless, but since I must, in my poem I sting those who think like Locusta. [5]

While “impiety stands erect” surely suggests a masculine contribution, Bernard doesn’t dilate that figure.  He immediately moves on to whores.  Men throughout history have served as whores, but historians, who have been predominately men, have ignored them.  Underscoring his lack of recognition of men, Bernard abruptly moves from whores to women.  Two verses later, the subject is the evil woman.  Bernard claims that he isn’t going to revile righteous women.  That’s transparently incredible since he has reviled “woman” only a few verses earlier.  From the highly abstract claim “excess thrives” to the specific, historical reference “those who think like Locusta,” Bernard never thinks of men.

Bernard distracts attention from his disregard for men with an insincere distinction between person and acts.  Immediately following the above passage, Bernard declares:

Now the evil woman becomes my theme, she becomes my discourse.  Her I regard as good, but her acts I condemn, and therefore I censure them. [6]

After only a few more verses, Bernard tramples the distinction between person and acts.  He describes “woman” as pulchra putredo (“beautiful rottenness”), dulce venenum (“sweet poison”), semita lubrica (“a slippery path”), fossa novissima (“the deepest ditch”), and publica janua (“a public doorway”).[7]  All these descriptions are directed at the person.  With their specific forms, these figures are gendered to exclude men.[8]

Bernard himself doesn’t appreciate the seriousness of his disparagement of the literature of men’s sexed protests.  Bernard rattles off verses that seem to be merely technical exercises:

Foemina perfida, foemina foetida, foemina foetor
{Woman is faithless, woman is foul, woman is foulness} [9]

Bernard joins a long history of ridiculing cuckolded men:

What woman keeps sacred agreements … so that offspring given to her husband, sired by him and not by a servant, shows his father’s face and manifests the father’s deeds? For what woman does the promise or the blessing at the altar remain firm? What woman has pious eyes, what woman is good? A rare one, believe me! This bird is very rare, this plant is difficult to find. I attack such things, I ridicule such things, but not without weeping. [10]

A leading scholar of Latin literature observed:

In view of the violent diction and strained ornamentation we have seen, and the conscious imitation of satirical conventions, I suspect that the misogynistic poems which flourished in the twelfth century were comic in effect, if not in purpose. Perhaps they were all for show. [11]

The effects of literature like De Contemptu Mundi aren’t comic.  The literature of men’s sexed protests addresses real, serious issues in men’s lives.  It concerns issues such as men’s paternity interests, violence against men, men’s need for compassionate and helpful direction, and men’s inferiority in guile. Bernard of Cluny’s De Contemptu Mundi doesn’t broach any of these issues.  De Contemptu Mundi implicitly reveals contempt for men.

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[1] Bernard of Cluny, De Contemptu Mundi, I.1077-8, from Latin trans. Pepin (1991) p. 75.  I’ve replaced “the times are most wicked” with “the most wicked of times” for better w-alliterated rhythm.  Bernard, who is also known as Bernard of Morlaix (or Morval and related variants), wrote De Contemptu Mundi about 1140.  On Bernard and his works, Belnaves (1997) Ch. 1.

[2] Pepin (1991), intro. p. xvii.

[3] Mann (1994) p. 163.

[4] Id.

[5] De Contemptu Mundi, II.439-50.  In describing shameless whores walking without restraint, Bernard may have been referring to a medieval version of the post-modern slutwalkLocusta was a strong, independent businesswoman in first-century Rome.  She acquired considerable wealth working directly for the Roman Emperor Nero.  The Roman Emperor Galba (probably not related to Galbi, which is more likely a name of Roman Arabic slaves who quarried rocks) condemned Locusta to death.

[6] De Contemptu Mundi, II.451-2.

[7] Id. II. 459, 460, 461.  Phrases like pulchra putredo (beautiful rottenness) play in a rhetorical game that goes back to Hesiod’s Theogony and its reference to the first woman as a καλός κακός (beautiful evil).  On 12th-century Latin rhetoric disparaging woman, Pepin (1993).  A long series of paired Latin antonyms describing love occur in the 12th-century poem, “Vix nodosum valeo….”  See ll. 6-9, trans. Wetherbee (2013) pp. 521-33.

[8] This problem may have cosmic generality.  Bloch (1987), p. 19, declares that a writer “can only be defined as a woman.”  Bloch sees the exclusion of men as defining the whole literary enterprise:

The discourse of misogyny runs like a rich vein throughout the breadth of medieval literature. … it is the equation of women with the illusory that serves to identify the misogynistic with the literary. … The danger of women, according to this reading of the phenomenon of misogyny, is that of literature itself.

Id. pp. 1, 15, 20.  Professors could address this problem by making literature classes more welcoming to men and by encouraging more men to read fiction.  Bloch’s analysis seems to draw upon earlier work pushing fully human men to the margins:

Unlike the pusillanimous pastor he {Bernard of Cluny} does not refrain from condemning such powerful depravity for fear of losing an earthly stipend.  Yet like the meek pastor he remembers with compassion his equality in nature to those whose faults he disciplines with the rigor of zeal.  In his Christian fashion he accommodates to the iniquity of carnal lust the tears of Heraclitus and the laughter of Democritus, the alternative responses of pagan satire to the vanity of human prudence: he laments the evil woman while deriding her viciousness.  … although Bernard voices the conventional disclaimer that his diatribe is directed only against evil women and only against their sins, he nevertheless proclaims in the era of the false Christian the universality of the evil woman foreshadowed in Eve and in the licentious contemporaries of Noah and Juvenal, who now takes her part in the ambiance of iniquity which portends the coming of Christ in judgment as it anagogically had attended His coming in mercy.

Engelhardt (1964) p. 166.  Fully human men, most of whom have been low-status men, have had low social valuation throughout history.

[9] De Contemptu Mundi, II.517.

[10] Id. II.531-40.

[11] Pepin (1993) p. 663.


Balnaves, Francis John. 1997. Bernard of Morlaix: the literature of complaint, the Latin tradition and the twelfth-century “renaissance.” PhD thesis, Australian National University, March 1997.

Bloch, R. Howard. 1987. “Medieval Misogyny.” Representations. 20 (1): 1-24.

Engelhardt, George J. 1964.  “De Contemptu Mundi of Bernardus Morvalensis, Book 2.”  Mediaeval Studies 26: 109-152.

Mann, Jill. 1994. Review. “Ronald E. Pepin, Scorn for the World: Bernard of Cluny’s De contemptu mundi. The Latin Text with English Translation and an Introduction.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 4 (1): 163-169.

Pepin, Ronald E., trans. 1991. Bernard of Cluny. Scorn for the world: Bernard of Cluny’s De contemptu mundi: the Latin text with English translation and an introduction. East Lansing, Mich: Colleagues Press.

Pepin, Ronald E. 1993. “The Dire Diction of Medieval Misogyny.” Latomus. 52 (3): 659-663.

Wetherbee, Winthrop, trans. 2013. Alain de Lille. Literary works. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

sexual innuendo: rising for marriage in Libro de buen amor

In the fourteenth-century Spanish work Libro de buen amor, the Easter arrival of Sir Love prompted wide-ranging rejoicing.  The sun was radiant, birds sang, and trees sent forth foliage and blooms.  Instruments of human construction also played:

The Moorish guitar sang its lament,
High and harsh in tone.
The portly lute accompanies a rustic dance,
And the Western guitar joins them.

The screaming rebec with its high note,
qalbī ʼaʻrābī does its rote play;
The Psaltery in their company is higher than La Mota.
The quill plectrum guitar dances in time with them. [1]

The Arabic phrase qalbī ʼaʻrābī seems to refer to a zajal that began:

qalbī bi-qalbī,
qalbī ʼaʻrābī. [2]

That’s plausibly translated as:

{I give} my heart {in exchange} for a heart,
{for} my heart is a Bedouin heart.

These lines suggest a necessity of love and an insistence on a fair bargain in love.  In Latin, galbus means yellow.  I prefer to believe that the root of galbi is the Arabic qalbī (heart).

secluded waterfall

Libro de buen amor narrates the Archpriest of Hita’s failures in love.  The Archpriest tells of his experience on the Sunday after Easter:

On Sunday after Easter I saw churches and cathedrals
All filled with festivals and marriages and joyous song;
They had great celebrations and they spread delicious banquets;
From wedding on to wedding, priests and minstrels ran along.

Those who were single just before are married now in turn;
I saw them pass, accompanied by wives for whom they burned;
I strove to think how I might taste such joy as they had earned,
For he who’s single and alone has many a hard concern. [3]

The Archpriest surely wasn’t imagining the fifteen joys of marriage, because that subtle and creative book hadn’t been written yet.[4]  In the Archpriest’s insistent yearning for a mistress, a reader might perceive a less cultured interest.  A sober and judicious scholarly authority on sexual innuendo has written:

Reading sexual innuendo in medieval literature is a delicate balancing act. … Balance requires that we see medieval sexuality as being no different in practice, if not in moral sanction, than our own; but it also requires that we do not uncritically seek a mirror to, or rather affirmation of, contemporary sexual culture or politics.  Between the two extremes there remains much fertile soil to be plowed. [5]

The Archpriest had a hard plow.  Fertile soil scarcely responded to his strenuous efforts.  In Korean, galbi is a barbeque rib dish made from beef.  Properly prepared, it’s delicious.

Between a good meal and a heart for a heart wanders Libro de buen amor.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Libro de buen amor, s. 1228-9, from Old Spanish trans. Monroe (2011) p. 31.  Verse 1229b is “badly garbled in our manuscripts” and scholars have argued over the correct reading.  Willis (1972) intro., pp. lviii-lix.  See also the discussion in Monroe (2011) pp. 31-32, 33 ft. 16.

[2] Monroe (2011) p. 32, which also provides the subsequent translation above.

[3] Libro de buen amor, s. 1315-6, from Old Spanish trans. Daly (1978) p. 329.  Daly’s translation turns up the heat of s. 1316 with “burned” (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:9) and “hard concern (cf. tumescence of his penis).  The Old Spanish text for s. 1316 is:

Los que ante son solos, desque eran casados,
veíalos de dueñas estar aconpañados;
pensé cómo oviese de tales gasajados,
ca omne que es solo sienpre piens{a} cuidados.

Zahareaus’ text in Daly & Zahareas (1978) p. 328.  An alternate, close prose translation of s. 1316:

As soon as those who formerly had been alone were married, I saw that they had the companionship of ladies; I pondered how I could have such pleasure from company, for a man who lives alone always has many cares.

Willis (1972) p. 356.  The context, however, is subtly sexual.  The date is the Sunday after Easter (“Dia de Cuasimode”), i.e. Quasimodo Sunday or Low Sunday.  The name Quasimodo Sunday comes from the first two words of the Quasimodo Sunday mass’s Latin Introit:

Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite {As newborn babes, with innate reason desire milk}

Libro de buen amor describes desire for sex as innate reason (“rationabile, sine dolo”), meaning a fundamental, natural part of human being:

Wise Aristotle says, and what he says of course is true,
That all men struggle most for two things: first, what he must do
To feed himself and keep alive, and second, in this view,
To have sex with a pleasing woman who is compliant, too.

And that he speaks the truth is proven with no artifice:
Mankind and birds and beasts, animals in caves and dens,
Desire by nature ever new, sweet paramours and bliss,
And man has much more itch than all the rest who’re moved by this.

Libro, ss. 71, 73, trans. Daly (1978) p. 43. The attribution to Aristotle is fallacious, and in general, Libro de buen amor ridicules Aristotle and other institutional authorities.  However, the sexual interpretation of Quasimodo Sunday is consistent with popular practice in medieval France:

This week {beginning with Quasimodo Sunday} marked the beginning of spring carnival and a universal relaxation of social convention.  Jeay states that despite local variations “the character of the celebrations was everywhere the same: couples formed outside marriage, and it was the woman who took the initiative.”

Pitts (1985) p. 143, n. 3, quoting Jeay (1977) p. 138.  Libro de buen amor can fairly be judged to be rife with sexual innuendo.  Its “Cruz Cruzada” lyric (s. 115-122):

is so replete with sexual “double entendres”, that it may be considered one of the most, if not the most obscene poem in the entirety of Spanish literature.

Monroe (2011) p. 36.

[4] Les Quinze joies de mariage, written in Old French about 1400, trans. Pitt (1985).

[5] Christoph (2008) p. 292.  The sexual innuendo here, whether intentional or not, is delightfully incongruous with the over-all style of this scholarly article.


Christoph, Siegfried. 2008. “The Limits of Reading Innuendo in Medieval Literature.” Pp. 279-292 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, New York: Walter de Gruyter.

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

Jeay, Madeleine.  1977. “Sur quelque coutumes sexuelles du Moyen Ages.”  Pp. 123-41 in Bruno Roy, ed. 1977. L’Érotisme au moyen âge.  Institut d’Etudes Medievales, Montréal: Éditions de l’Aurore.

Monroe, James T. 2011. “Arabic literary elements in the structure of the Libro de buen amor (I).” Al-Qanṭara. 32 (1): 27-70.

Pitts, Brent A., trans. 1985. The fifteen joys of marriage = Les XV joies de mariage. New York: P. Lang.

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


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