men’s studies: academic struggling against patriarchal prison

Despite the high value of bringing men’s perspectives to academia, men’s perspectives haven’t been welcomed.  Consider the experience of a U.S. professor who in 1988 wrote an “emancipatory reading of selected works of contemporary American popular men’s art.”  It was finally published in 1994.  In a preface to that book, the professor explained:

{this book} has had a spotty history since I first wrote it in the fall of 1988: enthusiastically embraced by a series of editors at university presses (six or seven of them, I think), who sent it out for external evaluation to feminist scholars of American popular culture and social history; returned by almost all those scholars with recommendations not to publish, despite a determined sympathy with my project that was invariably eroded by anxiety, even anger.[1]

This book in men’s studies considered Spencer, hero of Robert B. Parker’s series of detective novels and subsequently the protagonist of the late 1980’s television series, Spenser: For Hire.  It considered Rambo, the hero of David Morrell’s novel First Blood and the 1982 blockbuster movie starring Sylvester Stallone.  It also considered Bruce Springsteen, “the Boss,” a rock star since the 1970s.  It’s not as if the struggling professor was writing about the global conspiracy to obscure the gender protrusion in men’s mortality.  He didn’t expose deep anti-men sexism in the World Values Survey.  He didn’t ridicule sexist social-scientistic studies of sexism.  Why would this professor’s work on “popular men’s art” provoke anxiety and even anger?

The problem seems to have been that he tried to be the one good man.  In his book, he identified the hegemonic forces of patriarchal society:

It is essential, certainly, as a first step in a project of emancipation, to identify the forces that hold you fast, to explore the prison block in which you are incarcerated; but to dwell on incarceration exclusively seems to me ultimately counterproductive, leading to an overwhelming sense of your powerlessness before the hegemonic forces of patriarchal society. [2]

Identifying himself and his readers as “us counterhegemonic few,” he set out a master narrative of modern history:

The emergence and establishment of the middle classes in the modern era has meant the progressive feminization of Western society, the gradual displacement of medieval masculinity, with its reptilian territorialism, by humanizing feminine voices and values. That history has been punctuated, however, by recurrent periods of remasculinization, periods in which patriarchy, as it were, has panicked at social change and slammed on the brakes.

Within this deeply sexist master narrative, he recognized two types of critical tasks:

For the ideological critic, the pressing task is to map every square inch of the jailcells in which we are currently trapped; for the utopian critic, the crucial task is to engineer a jailbreak.

Despite these concrete images, the fundamental problem seems to be unconscious, abstract ideas and evil voices generated within persons’ bodies:

An emancipatory gender politics requires, it seems to me, a relaxation of the programmed suspicions that keep us in thrall to patriarchy. The sheer unconscious effectiveness of patriarchal ideology makes this possibility seem so utopian as to be virtually {un?}attainable …. If men can’t relax the inner patriarchal voice that objectifies and demonizes women, and women can’t relax the inner patriarchal voice that objectifies and demonizes men, we’ll all remain in the same trap.

The professor proposed a “transformative engagement” with feminism to liberate women and men from the patriarchal prison:

I take feminism to be a transformative engagement with the patriarchal prison that attempts to liberate the women incarcerated there. I assume that a healthy feminism will naturally work to help men liberate themselves from the same prisons (possibly from trusteeships in that prison – we have more power and greater rewards, but we are no less incarcerated.)

The professor seemed to understand his work as a contribution to the profeminist men’s movement, “dedicated to the liberation of men from patriarchal gender programming.” At least among professors, this is much more respectable than “whiny men jumping on the victimization bandwagon or playing cowboy and Indians at warrior weekends and beating drums in sweat lodges.”[3] The professor explained:

my primary audience is male, other men like me who have begun to detonate the patriarchal walls that have hemmed us in.

Yet for all the high talk about patriarchal prisons and liberating men, the professor showed no awareness that among persons held in real prisons, men outnumbered women by a factor of twenty.[4]  Men are vastly more likely to be imprisoned than are women.  Efforts to vastly increase the number of men imprisoned have intensified in recent years.

circus elephants doing tricks

Despite this professor’s apparent capacity for tending and befriending fashionable thought, he found himself acutely stressed in circumstances he perceived as highly antagonistic.  He explained:

In her Presidential address to the women’s breakfast at the 1987 American Studies Association Convention in New York, … Lois Banner took issue with the very idea of “men’s studies,” denying the need for men to study masculinity on our own terms. “I think it is time for all of us to use the term ‘feminist’, ” Banner said. “This term encompasses the rest: thus we have the feminist study of women, of men, and of gender.”

This address acutely distressed him:

When I first read Banner’s speech in the ASA {American Studies Association} Newsletter, I thought my chest would burst with pent-up anxiety; I felt small, infantile, powerless, faced with an all-powerful mother who was telling me exactly how to behave so as to please her. I was five years old, about to burst into tears – or, since both of my parents always ridiculed me for crying, into a more “masculine” display of anger. I remember pacing restlessly around our bedroom with the text of Banner’s speech in my hand, reliving all those childhood fears and frustrations, wondering what to do.

Finally, he wrote a response that he described as “calling for a kind of truce … {for} relaxation of the polarized recriminations that drive the battle of the sexes.”  Unfortunately, his response, printed on the back page of a subsequent ASA Newsletter, did not have that effect.  Along with his response the newsletter printed a reply from the Lois Banner, President of the ASA:

“Professor Robinson’s remarks sadden me,” she wrote. “They seem hysterical and overblown and filled with ageism. I’m tempted to say that they sound like a small boy having a tantrum, but to do so would be only to engage in the kind of name-calling in which Professor Robinson indulges.”

The distress the professor felt from this response was even more acute:

Hysterical: because I admitted my feelings, I suppose. I had thought “hysterical” was patriarchy’s name for women (especially, since the 1960s, feminists) who do not toe the official line by repressing rebellious impulses; now established feminists accuse “rebellious” men of the same? What does this say? Overblown: out of all proportion to the real hurt suffered, this seems to mean. Men can’t be hurt; they’re oppressors. Stop whining and melodramatizing your “plight.” Ageist: because I spoke of her as an established feminist, someone my mother’s age in a position of power in the academy. And then that last sentence, which really pulls the iron band tight around my chest – that subtly extended and quickly withdrawn insult, that infantilization that I can analyze, intellectually, as fear-driven maternal rhetoric, but without much impact on my somatic response: halfway into my analysis my neocortex is shut down by my own fear, that infantile terror of mommy’s anger.

That’s a glimpse into intellectual life in a dark age of ignorance, bigotry, and superstition.  Humane civilization and human reason become astonishingly tenuous as human institutions age and stagnant.

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[1] Robinson (1994) pp. 12, 5.

[2] Id. p. 17.  Subsequent quotes above are from id. pp. 13, 20, 22, 23, 26, 6, 27, 28.

[3] Id. p. 25 notes that many academic men, in response to this unattractive image, began “calling what they do men’s studies, rather than the men’s movement – some even swearing off men’s studies, for fear of association with drumming.”  Non-institutionalized men have taken other paths.

[4] See U.S Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 1994, Table 10.

[image] Ansar Shrine Circus, Oct. 28, 2007.  Thanks to Katherine Johnson.


Robinson, Douglas. 1994. No less a man: masculist art in a feminist age. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

oxytocin & testosterone underlie male disposability

Sex-differentiated physiological responses to stress favor male disposability.  Oxytocin, a neuroactive hormone linked to maternal behavior and enhanced by estrogen, facilitates approach behavior and more generally, social affiliation. Oxytocin has been found to increase trust in mammals.[1]  Oxytocin is more up-regulated in women’s stress response than in men’s.  In response to stress, women tend-and-befriend in-group members and rally social antagonism toward out-group individuals.  Men’s response to stress tends toward decreasing trust, indiscriminate avoidance, and isolation.  Men’s behavioral response to stress is associated with down-regulation of oxytocin.[2]

Compared to women, men have on average about a ten times higher level of serum testosterone.  Increases in testosterone suppress immune system functioning and are correlated with competing for dominance.[3]  The large difference in males’ and females’ basal testosterone levels is also correlated with greater male risk of predation, greater male susceptibility to infectious diseases, much higher male suicide rates, and increased male-female mortality protrusion under conditions of chronic stress.

Gender protrusion in male mortality is common across animals and is linked to stress.  Among 26 mammalian species for which data are available, the median male/female predation death ratio is about 1.7.[4]  Death from parasites (infectious disease) is also male-biased.[5]  In the U.S., the male/female suicide mortality ratio is 3.9, the highest sex ratio among enumerated causes of death.  Under conditions of chronic stress, male testosterone levels typically fall while female testosterone levels rise.  Russia from 1990 to 2000 provides a historical example of significant, sex-differentiated effects of chronic stress.  Across those years, the gender protrusion in mortality grew from 10 years shorter expected lifespan for males to 13 years shorter expected lifespan for males.[6]

A man’s physiological response to stress tends to separate him from others and increase his mortality risk.  A woman’s physiological response to stress tends to integrate her with others and socialize concern about risk to her.  Social effects of those biological mechanisms of male disposability are starkly evident in the sex-differentiated social response to interpersonal violent injury and to rape.

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[1] Anacker & Beery (2013), Curley & Keverne (2005), Lieberwirth & Wang (2014).  As Lieberwirth & Wang (2014) p. 8 observes, sex differences in hormonal response have been relatively under-studied.

[2] Taylor et al. (2000), Tamres, Janicki & Helgeson (2002), De Dreu et al. (2011), Palgi, Klein & Shamay-Tsoory (2014).  Estrogen strongly increases oxytocin’s effects.  Taylor (2006) p. 276.

[3] Grant (2005) p. 2.  In males, testosterone is secreted primarily from the testes.  In females, testosterone originates in peripheral tissues.  On behavioral effects of sex differences in testosterone, Klein (2000), Grant (2005) pp. 3-11, Lamason et al. (2006), and Edwards (2006).  Grant convincingly argues that dominance, understood as “acting overtly to change the views or actions of another” is not the same as aggression.  She also documents that dominance is more closely correlated with testosterone differences than is aggression.  The hormone arginine vasopressin (AVP) also has sex-differentiated activity:

In men, AVP stimulates agonistic facial motor patterns in response to the faces of unfamiliar men and decreases the perceptions of the friendliness of those faces. In contrast, in women, AVP stimulates affiliative facial motor patterns in response to the faces of unfamiliar women and increases perceptions of the friendliness of those faces.

Thompson et al. (2006) p. 7889.  In males, AVP is associated with the formation of bonds with female mates, as well as territorial marking and aggression. Curley & Keverne (2005) p. 562.

[4] Christe, Keller & Roulin (2006).

[5] Lamason et al. (2006).

[6] See workbook Male-Female Gender Protrusion in Mortality in Russia (Excel version).  That data come from World DataBank Gender Statistics.  The WorldBank’s summary page for the Russian Federation reflects now-dominant anti-men gender bigotry.  Shkolnikov & Meslé (1996) Table 4.1 provides a century-long perspective.


Anacker, Allison M. J., and Annaliese K. Beery. 2013. “Life in groups: the roles of oxytocin in mammalian sociality.” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. 7.

Christe, P., L. Keller and A. Roulin. 2006. “The predation cost of being a male: implications for sex-specific rates of ageing.” Oikos 114(2): 381-384.

Curley, James P. and Eric B. Keverne (2005). “Genes, brains and mammalian social bonds.” Trends in Ecology and Evolution 20(10): 561-567.

De Dreu Carsten K.W., Lindred L. Greer, Gerben A. Van Kleef, Shaul Shalvi, and Michel J.J. Handgraaf. 2011. “Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108 (4): 1262-6.

Edwards, David. 2006. “Competition and testosterone.” Hormones and Behavior 50: 681-3.

Grant, Valerie J. 2005. “Dominance, Testosterone and Psychological Sex Differences.” Pp. 1-28 in Janice W. Lee, ed. Psychology of Gender Identity. New York, Nova Science Publishers: 1-28.

Klein, Sabra L. 2000. “Hormones and mating system affect sex and species differences in immune function among vertebrates.” Behavioural Processes 51(1-3): 149-166.

Lamason, Rebecca, Po Zhao, Rashmi Rawat, Adrian Davis, John C. Hall, Jae Jin Chae, Rajeev Agarwal, Phillip Cohen, Antony Rosen, Eric P. Hoffman and Kanneboyina Nagaraju. 2006. “Sexual dimorphism in immune response genes as a function of puberty.” BMC Immunology 7(2): 1-14.

Lieberwirth, Claudia, and Zuoxin Wang. 2014. “Social bonding: regulation by neuropeptides.” Frontiers in Neuroscience. 8 (4).

Palgi, Sharon, Ehud Klein, and Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory. 2014. “Intranasal administration of oxytocin increases compassion toward women.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. (5).

Shkolnikov, Vladimir M. and France Meslé. 1996. “The Russian Epidemiological Crisis as Mirrored by Mortality Trends.” In Julie DaVanzo and Gwen Farnsworth, eds. Russia’s Demographic “Crisis”. RAND Conference Proceedings CF-124-CRES.

Tamres, Lisa K., Denise Janicki, and Vicki S. Helgeson. 2002. “Sex Differences in Coping Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review and an Examination of Relative Coping.” Personality and Social Psychology Review. 6 (1): 2-30.

Taylor, Shelley E., Laura Cousino Klein, Brian P. Lewis, Tara L. Gruenewald, Regan A.R. Gurung and John A. Updegraff. 2000. “Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females: Tend-and-Befriend, not Fight-or-Flight.” Psychological Review 107(3): 411-429.

Taylor, Shelley E. 2006. “Tend and Befriend: Biobehavioral Bases of Affiliation Under Stress.” Current Directions in Psychological Science. 15 (6): 273-277.

Thompson, R. R., K. George, J. C. Walton, S. P. Orr and J. Benson. 2006. “Sex-specific influences of vasopressin on human social communication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 103(20): 7889-7894.


Boccaccio protested men’s subservience to women

woman holding child and grimacing

In his fourteenth-century Latin humanist work The Downfall of Illustrious Men, Boccaccio vehemently protested against men’s subservience to women.  Boccaccio counseled men:

if you will control the unrestrained passion which you have within you, then women will set their net and try their wiles in vain.  Even if they have the grace to want children (which is not often the case), it is not necessary to be their slaves. [1]

From Roman love elegy to all-powerful ancient caliphs to Dante’s dolce stil novo in his Vita Nuova, men have made themselves into slaves to women.  Men who make themselves subservient to women hope to be loved like children.  Men have mythically exaggerated women’s love for children.  Men don’t understand that women typically won’t love men who act like children.

Boccaccio’s reference to “unrestrained passion” is misunderstood simply as sexual passion.  In the European Middle Ages, women’s passion was commonly recognized to exceed that of men’s and be more difficult to restrain.  A key challenge for a husband was to be always ready to satisfy his wife’s sexual urges.  To Boccaccio, unrestrained passion meant men acting like children toward women.

Boccaccio’s figure of women setting their net was well-established in the literature of men’s sexed protests.  A Latin text of men’s sexed protests, probably from the eleventh century, concluded:

Woman overcame man living without pain.
Freedom lacks foul, tight reins.
Not entombed, not paying for their chains,
Happy are they not caught in this net. [2]

Boccaccio did not favor men going their own way apart from women.  Boccaccio celebrated heterosexual relations.  He imagined men living freely and happily in love with women.

While he described men cast down by forces beyond their control, Boccaccio emphasized women’s skills in self-fashioning.  Boccaccio observed:

they {women} consult one another, and anything about their person which seems excessive, they reduce, and any defect they patch with marvelous skill.  A woman who is too thin will eat sweets and pastries, and a fat one get thin by fasting and exercise.  Women are busy keeping their curves from fading, lowering their shoulder line, bracing whatever has sagged, extending their necks, heightening themselves if short, and even correcting a limp. [3]

Women fashioning themselves into whom they want to be represents a humanistic ideal.  Women’s humanistic merit, however, doesn’t depend on classical scholarship.  Boccaccio noted that “without calling in the learned Hippocrates”:

women obtain waters to make black hair golden, curling irons to make straight hair ringed and wavy; they make their forehead higher by pulling out their hairs; eyebrows that are too big and joined together they separate with pincers making the arc less thin.  Any teeth which by chance have fallen out, they replace with ivory.  What hair they cannot remove from their face with a razor, they remove with nitre, and they scrape away skin that is too thick.  By these techniques they remake themselves so that if you thought before they were unattractive and shapeless, now you think them Venus herself.

The Downfall of Illustrious Men emphasizes the power of Fortune over men’s status.  Women dominate Fortune and determine their own status.  If a tooth falls out, a woman will replace it with a tooth of ivory.  She will make herself by force of her own will to look like Venus.

Women’s relatively good access to riches aids their self-fashioning.  With rhetorical sophistication, Boccaccio declared:

Need I mention the flowers, garlands, fillets, or coronets decked with gold and gems they decorate themselves with?  It is as if they took off their clothes and dressed themselves in a little of the thinnest gold.  How can I describe these clothes?  They are robes glittering with gold and precious stones fit only for a king.  This woman dresses herself like the Narbonnese, that one like one from the Cote d’Or, this one like the Cyprians, others like the Egyptians, Greeks, or even the Arabs.  It is no longer sufficient to be dressed like an Italian.

The unmentionable and indescribable is easily known.  Only one man is king.  Ordinary men in Bocaccio’s time and place dressed like Italians.  Women’s dress represented women’s privileged status relative to men.

Reason cannot free men from subservience to women.  Cultivating reason was central to the humanistic project.  But reason doesn’t enable men to live freely and happily in love with women:

The reason of man is blinded by feminine wiles, for women know just how to walk, just when to show a little of their alluring breasts or their legs, how they ought to use their eyes in looking at a man, what fleeting gesture will attract, what laugh is most appealing, and (this they know best) when it is the moment to show that they want what they really do not want.  But how can I attempt to list their secrets?  It would be easier to count the grains of sand by the seaside.

The grains of sand by the seaside figure in the biblical promise of being blessed with numerous descendents.[4]  Believing that one can know God completely and make God do one’s own bidding was at the core of the medieval understanding of hubris.  Within his rhetorical game of reticence and disclosure, Boccaccio had no illusions that men, even experts like him, could dominate women:

I think it is more courteous to keep undisclosed how well every woman knows those mysterious, honeyed words, those enticements, those seductions, those opportune tears which men find very moving.  It is by such tricks as these that the most expert observers of women are most often captured.

Men’s desire for women in necessary for the blessing of numerous descendants.  Men’s reason is no match for women’s ability to manipulate men’s desire.

To free men from subservience to women, Boccaccio emphasized the medieval virtue of self-mastery over the humanist expedient of self-fashioning.  The virtue of self-mastery differs from the humanist expedient of self-fashioning.  The virtue of self-mastery depends on a sense of true, best nature.  The humanist expedient of self-fashioning is merely instrumental.  It is directed to ends that Fortune whimsically chooses for societies under the ideological guise of subjectivity, boundlessly socially constructed.  With a sense for their own true, best nature as humans with equal dignity to women, men must master their passion for importuning women, supplicating to women, and slavishly serving women.[5]

Confronting artfully the question of men’s relation to women and protesting against men’s subservience, Boccaccio built a new synthesis of medieval virtue and humanistic reason.  Boccaccio’s protests against women tend to be misandristically dismissed as misogyny.  Using reason provides more fecund understanding.  Men excel in instrumental reason.  Men’s skillful use of tools has largely built the material structure of human civilization.  Men’s reason, however, is no match for women’s skill in self-fashioning and in controlling men’s desire.  Men remain subservient to women unless they achieve virtuous self-mastery within the everyday world.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, The Downfall of Illustrious Men (De Casibus Virorum Illustrium), Bk. 1, penultimate section, “The tricks women use to capture the reason of men are many and varied.”  From Latin trans. Hall (1965) p. 45.  De Casibus Virorum Illustrium is commonly translated as The Fates of Illustrious MenThe Downfall of Illustrious Men is a more accurate translation.  The work, which consists of nine books, was composed about 1358 and revised in 1373.  Marchesi (2014) p. 245.  The work includes profiles of women, e.g. Jocasta, Queen of Thebes; Dido, Queen of Carthage; Olympiade, Queen of Macedonia.  In 1361, Boccaccio wrote a similar volume of exclusively female biographies, Famous Women (De mulieribus claris).  Both works attracted in the subsequent two centuries much more attention than did Boccaccio’s Decameron.  In recent decades, Famous Women has attracted much more critical interest than The Downfall of Illustrious Men.

[2] From a manuscript (Gudianus 192) of a poem in Latin leonine hexameters, incipit Arbore sub quadam dictavit clericus Adam.  See post on medieval men protesting devaluation of masculine love.  The relevant Latin text and English translation is at the bottom of column 5 and 3, respectively, in the online version of Arbore sub quadam dictavit clericus Adam.

[3] Boccaccio, The Downfall of Illustrious Men, Bk. 1, penultimate section, trans. Hall (1965) p. 42.  The subsequent quotes above are from id. pp. 42-3.

[4] Genesis 22:17.

[5] In the subsequent section of The Downfall of Illustrious Men, Boccaccio wrote that he had written enough about “those who carry love to foolish extremes.”  Trans. Hall (1965) p. 46.  Dante’s relationship to Beatrice and Petrarch’s relationship to Laura fit that description.

[image] Woman holding child and grimacing, from the Helen Richey Collection of the San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives.


Hall, Louis Brewer, trans. 1965. Giovanni Boccaccio. The fates of illustrious men. New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co.

Marchesi, Simone. 2014.  “Boccaccio on Fortune (De Casibus Virorum Illustrium).” Pp. 245-254 in Victoria Kirkham, Michael Sherberg, and Janet Levarie Smarr, eds. 2014. Boccaccio: a critical guide to the complete works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


Boccaccio criticized Petrarch and Dante with Theophrastus

Petrarch teaching Boccaccio

In fourteenth-century Florence, Boccaccio worked in the shadow of his great predecessor Dante.  Boccaccio figured Dante as an excellent father who called Boccaccio “my son.”  Boccaccio also worked amid great regard for the European-wide celebrity Petrarch.  Petrarch, a classical humanist writing Latin poetry, was crowned a new poet laureate of Rome (the first since the fall of the Roman Empire) in a ceremony at the Roman Capitol in 1341.  Boccaccio referred to Petrarch as “my excellent and reverend teacher.”[1]  Despite his high regard for Dante and Petrarch, Boccaccio with subtle irony used Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage to criticize both.

Boccaccio ironically praised Dante for achieving literary greatness despite being married.  As imagined in his Vita Nuova, Dante at age nine fell madly in love with Beatrice.  He may not have seen her again for another nine years.  In any case, Dante’s parents arranged a marriage for him at age twelve to Gemma Donati.  Dante and Gemma had four or five children.  Beatrice died young.  Dante never mentioned his wife Gemma in his writings.  Beatrice, in contrast, was a major presence in Dante’s work, particularly his Commedia.  From a literary perspective, Dante might as well have been unmarried.

Boccaccio deployed Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage in playful appreciation for Dante’s achievement.  Writing in praise of Dante in a literary construction of his life, Boccaccio declared:

Academic endeavors (and especially those of philosophy, to which our Dante, as has been shown, devoted himself), usually require solitude, freedom from anxiety, and tranquility of mind.  Instead of this serene retirement and quiet which Dante almost from the beginning of his life and up to the day of his death searched for, he had to endure an uncontrollable passion of love, a wife, familial and civic responsibilities, exile, and poverty, not to mention other special troubles which naturally arise out of these.  I will explain all of them one by one, so that their burden may become more evident. [2]

In describing the burden of having a wife, Boccaccio lifted text nearly verbatim from Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage.  Amid reciting from that well-known text, Boccaccio expressed concern about giving “too long a sermon.”[3]  Then he wittily expanded upon a point in Theophrastus’ Golden Book:

it is enough to discuss one matter that pertains to almost all women: they believe that doing a good job always keeps the lowliest servant in the household, while doing the opposite leads to dismissal.  As a result, they feel that if they themselves do their work well, they are simple acting like menials; they can remain great ladies only when they do their jobs poorly, but avoid the fate of the dismissed servant.

Boccaccio then winked at the reader:

But why should I want to keep on proving in detail what most of us already know?  I believe it is better to hold my tongue than to offend our lovely ladies by my talk.

Many men are deathly afraid of offending women.  Boccaccio wasn’t.  He went on to cite another point from Theophrastus’ Golden Book.  Boccaccio concluded with a classical invocation of the highest love:

Let no one believe that I am suggesting, from what I have stated, that men should not take wives.  In fact, I recommend this highly, but I must say that it is not for everyone.  Permit philosophers to leave marriage to wealthy fools, to noblemen and peasants, and let them take their delight with Lady Philosophy, who is a far better bride than any other. [4]

The list “wealthy fools, noblemen, and peasants” light-heartedly casts a net over the major classes of medieval society.  Philosophers, in contrast, remain apart from wealth, the world, and flesh-and-blood women.  Boccaccio in the outrageous comic realism of his Corbaccio mocked the courtly love fantasy of Dante’s Vita Nuova.  Boccaccio found inspiration in flesh-and-blood ladies, not the Muses on Mount Parnassus.  Boccaccio admired and valued Dante’s civic engagement.[5]  Boccaccio idealized the solitary, disengaged philosopher only to praise Dante’s achievement in real life.  That real life was not with Beatrice, but with his flesh-and-blood wife Gemma.

In emphasizing the burden of having a wife, Boccaccio elevated Dante relative to Petrarch.  Petrarch did not marry, stood apart from contemporary civic concerns, and took delight in Lady Philosophy and a Laura no more real that Beatrice.  Boccaccio wrote:

What will those say now whose houses are not sufficient for their studies and who thus seek solitude in the forests?  Or, those who have complete repose, and whose ample facilities without any anxiety are supported by every opportunity?  Or those who, free from wife and children, have as much leisure as they desire?  Many of those are such that, if they were not sitting in comfort, or if they were to hear a murmur, they would not be able to read or write, let alone reflect, if their elbows were not at rest. [6]

Scholars have suggested that, “whether deliberate or unintentional,” Boccaccio is describing Petrarch.[7]  Boccaccio was from the merchant class in which persons kept their elbows moving and sharp.  Men from that class also had wives and were aware of women’s guile.  Boccaccio followed Petrarch in recovering classical learning and creating new humanist literature in Latin.  At the same time, Boccaccio was critical of Petrarch’s disengagement from everyday life.

Boccaccio further used Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage to assert his own sense of humanism against Dante’s theological ascent and Petrarch’s classical models.  In Canto XVI of Dante’s Inferno, Jacopo Rusticucci, suffering in Hell, complained, “it is my fierce wife who pains me most of all.”[8]  Boccaccio provided a conventional literal exposition of that line: Rusticucci’s shrewish wife drove him to seek satisfaction in sodomy to his eternal perdition.  Then Boccaccio provided a round-about introduction to Theophrastus’ Golden Book:

St. Jerome writes in one of his books called Against Jovinianus the Heretic that Theophrastus, who was a venerable philosopher and student of Aristotle, composed a book that is called De nuptiis {On marriage}.  In a part of that work, he questions whether a wise man should take a wife. [9]

Boccaccio then copied into his work the text of De nuptiis (Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage), which he silently translated from Latin into Italian.  The only significant change Boccaccio made to De nuptiis was to excise these two outrageous sentences about the wife:

You have to show deference to her nurse and her maid, the servant from her father’s house, and her foster-child, and her handsome attendant and her curly-haired “assistant,” and her eunuch, gelded to prolong her pleasure and to make it safe: behind these titles there is an adulterer hiding.  Upon whomever she sets her heart, they must have her love though they want her not. [10]

Boccaccio wasn’t afraid to write about women’s sexual eagerness and women’s guile.  The problem with the above text for a learned, free-writing person is that eunuchs did not exist in Theophrastus’ Athens.  The eunuch reference signals to the learned that Theophrastus’ De nuptiis is a post hoc literary artifice.[11]  Boccaccio seems to have been in on Jerome’s ruse.  Boccaccio concluded his account of De nuptiis and its relevance to Dante’s account of Jacopo Rusticucci with artful, more general moralizing:

Let those who prepare to take a wife, then, be alert and let them keep an eye on others, for all too rarely does it happen that a man gets a Lucretia, a Penelope, or someone of like ilk.  As I have heard many men say, although they seem like angels in the daylight, they are devils in your bed at night. [12]

A woman who is a “devil in your bed at night” isn’t a conventional figure of a shrewish, domineering, selfish, and unsatisfying wife.  In the Decameron‘s story of Alibech and Rustico, Rustico urged Alibech to “put the Devil back into Hell” as means to have sex with her.  With sound literary insight, the translator of Boccaccio’s text noted that a woman who is a devil in your bed at night “may not seem in modern times to be so bad.”[13]  The classical heroines Lucretia and Penelope don’t represent true, humanistic understanding of men imagining wives.  “Oh, my little devil” is a universal fantasy of real men throughout history.[14]  More in the fullness of the real world than his father Dante, Boccaccio outwitted his teacher Petrarch in humanistic understanding.

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[1] Filosa (2014) p. 220, citing Boccaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium 8.16 and 9.23.7.

[2] Giovanni Boccaccio, Trattatello in laude di Dante (Little Treatise in Praise of Dante, also know as Life of Dante), s. 3, from Italian trans. Bollettino (1990) p. 10, adapted slightly.  The text has survived in three version, which apparently do not differ in this passage.  In a letter on Dante to Boccaccio (Familiares 21.15), Petrarch declared:

my father, compelled by other matters and by concern for his family, resigned himself to exile, while his friend {Dante} resisted and began devoting himself all the more vigorously to his literary pursuits, neglecting all else and desirous only of glory.  In this I can scarcely admire and praise him too highly when nothing — not the injustice suffered at the hands of his fellow citizens, not exile, poverty, or the stings of envy, not his wife’s love or his devotion to his children — diverted him from his course once he had embarked upon it, when many other great talents, being weak of purpose, would be distracted by the least disturbance.

From Latin trans. Bernardo (2005) v. 3, p. 203.  Petrarch seems to have rewritten Boccaccio’s text into a veiled critique of Dante.  Cachey (2009) pp. 25-8.

[3] Expressing concern about prolixity follows Jerome’s rhetorical strategy in Adversus Jovinianum.

[4] Boccaccio, Trattatello in laude di Dante, trans. Bollettino (1990) pp. 16-7 (previous three quotes above).

[5] Houston (2010).

[6] Gloss that Boccaccio added to shortened Chigi version of Trattatello in laude di Dante.  From Italian trans. Filosa (2014) p. 219.

[7] Filosa (2014) pp. 219-20.

[8] Dante, Inferno, XVI.44-5, cited by Boccaccio, from Italian trans. Papio (2009) p. 577.

[9] Boccaccio, Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante, “Canto XVI: Literal Exposition,” s. 28, from Italian trans. Papio (2009) p. 578.

[10] Liber De Nuptiis (Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage), from Latin trans. Hanna & Lawler (1997) p. 152, with the second sentence amended as described in note [12] here.  Boccaccio replaced those two sentences with relatively bland sentiment:

indeed, more than any other person, he must show that he loves her father — and any other relative or person whom she holds dear.

Boccaccio, Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante, “Canto XVI: Literal Exposition,” s. 34, from Italian trans. Papio (2009) p. 579.

[11] Scholars who have discussed the reference to eunuchs have rationalized it as later interpolation.  The truth seems to be simpler: Jerome brilliantly created Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage.

[12] Boccaccio, Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante, “Canto XVI: Literal Exposition,” s. 46, from Italian trans. Papio (2009) p. 580.

[13] Id., notes, n. 16, p. 707.   Papio added to his note a cautionary reference to Boccaccio’s exposition of Canto XV (15.83).  There Boccaccio refers to the sin:

committed when a man and a woman (even a husband and a wife) come together in a fashion that is less than moral or against the rule of Nature or, indeed, against canon law.

Trans. id. p. 568.  That’s the literal level of understanding “my little devil.”  It’s inner meaning in life can be recognized in the sly gusto of Decameron 9.10 and innuendo Boccaccio made in the conclusion to the Decameron.  See note [4] in post on masculine love.  While devilish behavior has its attractions, medieval men also considered heterosexual intercourse preoccupied with intercourse of non-reproductive type to be oppressive, demoralizing, and wrong.

[14] Men’s fantasies about their wives and lovers are not equivalent to men admiring sluts or desiring a long-term relationship with such women.  In Famous Women (De mulieribus claris), Boccaccio described the life of Leontium, a famous Greek female literary scholar:

prompted either by envy or feminine temerity, she dared to write an invective against Theophrastus, a famous philosopher of that period {late-fourth-century BGC Macedonian, about the time of Alexander the Great}.

Boccaccio condemned Leontium’s sexual behavior:

What disgraceful behavior!  Living in the brothels among pimps, vile adulterers, and whores, she was able to stain Philosophy, the teacher of truth, with ignominy in those disgraceful chambers, trample it with wanton feet, and plunge it into filthy sewers — if indeed the splendor of Philosophy can be dimmed by the infamous action of an unchaste heart.  We must certainly bewail the fact that so brilliant a talent, bestowed as a sacred gift from heaven, could be subject to so filthy a way of life.

Boccaccio, Famous Women (De mulieribus claris), Ch. LX, from Latin trans. Brown (2001) pp. 251-2.  Boccaccio may have invented this whole biography to provide an opportunity for him to defend Theophrastus and philosophy.  Boccaccio’s criticism of Dante and Petrarch shouldn’t be interpreted to imply contempt for philosophy and endorsement of licentiousness.

[image] Petrarch teaching Boccaccio, illumination in Giovanni Boccaccio, De casibus virorum illustrium in French translation (Des cas des ruynes des nobles hommes et femmes), translated by Laurent de Premierfait, France, Central (Paris?), 1st quarter of the 15th century.  British Library, Royal 20 C IV f. 269.


Bernardo, Aldo S., trans. 2005. Francesco Petrarca. Letters on familiar matters = Rerum familiarium libri. New York: Italica Press.

Bollettino, Vincenzo Zin, trans. 1990. Giovanni Boccaccio, the life of Dante (Tratatello in laude di Dante). New York: Garland.

Brown, Virginia, trans. 2001. Giovanni Boccaccio. Famous women {De mulieribus claris}. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Cachey, Theodore J. “Between Petrarch and Dante: Prolegomenon to a Critical Discourse.” Pp. 3-49 in Zygmunt G. Barański and Theodore J. Cachey. 2009. Petrarch & Dante: anti-Dantism, metaphysics, tradition. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

Filosa, Elsa, 2014.  “To Praise Dante, To Please Petrarch (Trattatello in laude di Dante).” Pp. 213-220 in Victoria Kirkham, Michael Sherberg, and Janet Levarie Smarr, eds. 2014. Boccaccio: a critical guide to the complete works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hanna, Ralph and Traugott Lawler, eds. 1997. Jankyn’s book of wikked wyves. Vol. 1: The Primary Texts (with translations). Walter Map’s Dissuasio; Theophrastus’ De Nuptiis; selections from Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum. University of Georgia Press: Athens.

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

Papio, Michael, trans. 2009. Boccaccio’s Expositions on Dante’s Comedy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


virilocality & polygyny in evolution of communicative sex differences

wedding party at wife's family's home: no virilocality

Virilocality and polygyny probably have been common features of human groups across evolutionary time.  Virilocality means heterosexual mates tend to establish a home near the man’s kin.  Uxorilocality is the corresponding term for locating near the woman’s kin.  Polygyny means one man tends to have concurrently either no or multiple heterosexual mates.  Polyandry is the corresponding term for women.  Among about 330 societies that European anthropologists have described at early dates of European contact, 70% were virilocal, 10% bilocal, and 20% uxorilocal.  About 80% practiced polygyny to some extent.[1]  Among societies classified as foragers, residence patterns have been summarized as flexible.[2]  The independence and representativeness, over an evolutionarily relevant time scale, of the data points underlying these statistics are highly problematic.[3] The expansion of agricultural societies has strongly affected the distribution and ecology of hunter-gatherer societies and plausibly their residence arrangements as well.[4] More sophisticated phylogenetic comparative analysis indicates that Proto-Indo-European social organization was virilocal and Proto-Malayo-Polynesian, uxorilocal.  Virilocality appears to be more stable than is uxorilocality.[5]

More interpretive social-geographic analysis associates key developments in human communication with virilocal and polygynous societies.  Research systematically analyzing ethnographic data from around the world for patterns in social structure identified Middle Old World social structure:

The Middle Old World includes North and Northeast Africa, the Middle East, South and Central Asia, most of China, and the Vietnamese. … for most of history the economic center of Eurasia was in this region. … The Middle Old World has a combination of two kinds of constraints – it is constrained both to being unilineal and to being patricentric.

The ecology of the Middle Old World favored competition for assets – domesticated animals, pasture land, and other capital and land associated with capital-intensive agriculture.  Probably driven by the interests of dominant, asset-rich men, social life in the Middle Old World strongly limited men’s and women’s freedom of association and freedom of sexual interaction:

the Middle Old World shows a strong tendency for women to be restricted from public roles, with little political or economic autonomy. Purdah, veiling of women, foot-binding, infibulation, the suttee, and the honor-shame complex, all originated within the Middle Old World.

The Middle Old World also was the locus of significant developments in human communication:

Most of the earliest Eurasian civilizations are in the Middle Old World – Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and China. Most of the important empires of Old World history were in the Middle Old World, and all of the major world religions originated in this region, as did many of the world’s writing systems.[6]

Significant communicative developments thus occurred in social environments favoring virilocality and polygyny.

Virilocality and polygyny bias men’s communication toward kin and women’s communication toward non-kin.  Virilocality implies men’s continuing communication with kin.  Women, in contrast, under viriloclity have to establish intensive communicative relationships with new, non-kin.  Under polygyny, men’s mate-typical communication occurs across multiple mates.  Those mates, living in a common familial space, have more complex communicative relationships among each other.  The human evolutionary history of virilocality and polygyny together suggests that non-kin social communication has been more evolutionarily significant for women than for men.

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[1] Based on data and coding for Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas, as reported in Burton et al. (1996), Table 1.  Number of societies: 311 coded for marital residence, 348 coded for mating (marriage) type.  The societies are almost exclusively non-European societies that European-oriented anthropologists described at early dates of European contact.

[2] Alvarez (2004) and Marlowe (2004).

[3] Marlowe (2004) uses the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS), which he describes as “186 societies with good ethnographic coverage that have been chosen to create an unbiased sample of the world’s societies with respect to geographic region, language family, and cultural area.”  However, the definition of society is highly problematic and not external to the SCCS.  In addition, geographic region, language family, and cultural area do not together define a consistent, well-defined sampling frame that would make the statistical concept of “unbiased sample” meaningful.  Id. p. 278,  ft. 4, notes:

North America is overrepresented among foragers (83% in the EA {Ethnographic Atlas}, 50% in the SCCS {Standard Cross-Cultural Sample}) because there were many foragers there when ethnographies were first written, while the Circum-Mediterranean region is completely absent because foragers had disappeared there before ethnographies were written.

Even in geographic regions where foraging societies exist, the advance of agricultural societies has strongly affected the distribution of foraging societies.  Alvarez (2004) analyzes fifty hunter-gathering societies selected from the Ethnographic Atlas.  The relevance of this sample to general patterns of human social organization is unclear.

[4] For example, starting from about 4000 years ago, Bantu farmers from southern Cameroon spread across sub-equatorial Africa and displaced foragers living in locations propitious for agriculture.  Wood et al. (2005).  The social organization of ethnographically described hunter-gather societies may not be more evolutionarily relevant than the social organization of non-human great apes, or the social organization of ethnographically described humans in non-hunter-gatherer societies.  Given human-Neandertal interbreeding, dispersed development of agriculture prior to 11,000 years ago, and relatively rapid genetic evolution, significant human evolution may have occurred in social circumstances different from those of current (marginalized) human foraging societies.

[5] Fortunato & Jordan (2010).  Copeland et al. (2011), using much different methods, finds evidence of virilocality in ancient hominin species.

[6] Burton et al. (1996) pp. 100-1 (previous three quotes).

[image] wedding of Miss Watts of Bonmahon, Co. Waterford, Ireland, on 29 Apr. 1907 at Watts family home.  From original glass plate negative. Thanks to National Library of Ireland and flickr Commons.


Alvarez, Helen Perich. 2004. “Residence Groups Among Hunter-Gatherers: A View of the Claims and Evidence for Patrilocal Bands.” Pp. 420-441 in Bernard Chapais and Carol M. Berman, eds. Kinship and behavior in primates. Oxford: Oxford University Press: .

Burton, Michael L., Carmella C. Moore, John W. M. Whiting and A. Kimball Romney. 1996. “Regions Based on Social Structure.” Current Anthropology 37(1): 87-123.

Copeland, Sandi R., Matt Sponheimer, Darryl J. de Ruiter, Julia A. Lee-Thorp, Daryl Codron, Petrus J. le Roux, Vaughan Grimes, and Michael P. Richards. 2011. “Strontium isotope evidence for landscape use by early hominins.” Nature. 475 (7357): 532.

Fortunato Laura, and Fiona Jordan. 2010. “Your place or mine? A phylogenetic comparative analysis of marital residence in Indo-European and Austronesian societies.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences. 365 (1559): 3913-22.

Marlowe, Frank W. 2004. “Marital Residence among Foragers.” Current Anthropology 45(2): 277-284.

Wood, Elizabeth T., Daryn A. Stover, Christopher Ehret, Giovanni Destro-Bisol, Gabriella Spedini, Howard McLeod, Leslie Louie, Mike Bamshed, Beverly I. Strassmann, Himla Soodyall and Michael F. Hammer (2005). “Contrasting patterns of Y chromosome and mtDNA variation in Africa: evidence for sex-biased demograhic processes.” European Journal of Human Genetics 13: 867-876.


Saint Jerome’s corpus of letters shows concern for women

Saint Jerome was a leader in orienting his life toward women.  Of Jerome’s 123 surviving letters, 36% are addressed to women.  Jerome in his surviving letters addressed by name 20 different women.  Jerome’s letters to women have less diverse types and are more personal than his letters to men.[1]  In a scholarly letter to the learned woman Principia, Jerome stated that he was censured by many for writing to women and preferring women to men.[2]

Jerome wrote many more letters to women than have survived.   In one of his works, Jerome referred to “volumes of letters which I have written to Paula.”  He also noted, “how many letters I have written to Paula and Eustochium I do not know, for I write daily.”[3]

Jerome closely associated with women.  In Rome, Jerome was frequently surrounded by women. Women and Jerome were comfortable discussing scripture and Christian living with each other.  Jerome observed of his relationship with women:

Study had brought about constant companionship, companionship comfortableness, and comfortableness a sense of mutual trust. [4]

The patrician Roman women Fabiola, Paula, and Eustochium followed Jerome from Rome to Jerusalem.   Jerome toured monasteries in Egypt with Paula in the winter of 386/6.[5]  Both Paula and Eustochium financially supported Jerome and lived next to him in Bethlehem.   Jerome eulogized Lea, Blesilla, Fabiola, Paula, and Marcella after their deaths.[6]  They probably would have done the same for him.

two women, Saint Paula and Saint Eustochium, with Saint Jerome

Because Jerome loved women, he told them what they needed to know, not what men thought women wanted to hear.  Jerome was far from the self-abasing, desperately love-seeking man of Roman love elegy.  Rather than keeping women ignorant, Jerome told women directly what men want.  Men debated among themselves about whether men should marry.  They assumed that women should marry.  Jerome, in contrast, strongly supported women not marrying.  Few men have cared as much for women as Jerome did.  Only persons who don’t understand women and don’t truly love them cannot understand why women loved Jerome.

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Data: Letters of Jerome Dataset (Excel version)

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[1] See the summary statistics sheet in the Letters of Jerome Dataset.  Saint Jerome is also known as Jerome of Stridon and as Hieronymus.  His full Latin name is Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus.

[2] Jerome, Letter 65 (to Principia, dated 397), from Latin trans. by Medieval Women’s Latin Letters.  In this letter, Jerome refers to women as the “weaker sex.”   That was a conventional term associated with women’s less powerful physical stature and more powerful communication capabilities.  Jerome uses that conventional term in high rhetoric replete with irony.  A simpler presentation is in Jerome’s Letter 126.  Freemantle (1892), p. 601, describes that letter as addressed to “Marcellinus, a Roman official of high rank, and Anapsychia his wife.”  Jerome addresses the husband of high public rank and his wife equally as students of scripture:

Our reverend brother Oceanus to whom you desire an introduction is a great and good man and so learned in the law of the Lord that no words of mine are needed to make him able and willing to instruct you both and to explain to you in conformity with the rules which govern our common studies, my opinion and his on all questions arising out of the scriptures.  In conclusion, my truly holy lord and lady, may Christ our God by his almighty power have you in his safekeeping and cause you to live long and happily.

Letter 126, s. 3, trans. Freemantle (1892) p. 602.

[3] Jerome, De viris illustribus (On Illustrious Men, dated 393), s. 54, 135.  Cain (2009), p. 220, observes:

Considering Jerome’s otherwise prolific literary output and the size of his social network, his 123 extant letters are bound to represent only the tiniest fraction of all of the letters he wrote during his long career.

[4] Jerome, Letter 45 (to Asella, dated 385) s. 2, from Latin trans. Cain (2009) p. 107.  Freemantle (1892) provides an alternate translation of the full letter.

[5] Cain (2009) p. 155.

[6] Lea (Letter 23), Blesilla (Letter 39), Fabiola (Letter 77), Paula (Letter 108), and Marcella (Letter 127).  Freemantle (1892) has English translations.

[image] Saint Paula and Saint Eustochium with Saint Jerome, Francisco de Zurbarán and Workshop, c. 1640/1650, oil on fabric, Samuel H. Kress Collection, U.S. National Gallery of Art, 1952.5.88, thanks to Wikipedia.


Cain, Andrew. 2009. The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford University Press.

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.


men’s position in social communication in human evolution

coal miner

Human societies typically prefer to sacrifice men’s lives relative to women’s lives.  A scholarly analysis explained:

It is morality that enables us to shame our males into putting their lives on the line for the group, while it is innate altruistic propensities that help to motivate those males to suffer and die in the interest of the rest of the group.[1]

Both morality (social values) and innate altruistic propensity of individuals evolve through time with the differential reproductive success of humans and human groups.  The evolved social preference for sacrificing men’s lives is more complex than simply sex differences in parental investment, sex differences in the operational sex ratio, sex differences in potential rates of reproduction, or anisogamy.[2]  Men’s relative disposability developed in human evolution through mutual re-enforcement between social values and sex differences in social communication.

Consider the relationship between parents and their biological children.  Parental support for children depends on the combination of many different factors – biological capabilities (gestation, lactation, etc.), behavioral patterns (feeding, protecting, and teaching young), social resources (availability of social substitutes for parental roles) and other aspects of the environment (such as the prevalence of food and predators, which determine the survival value of different parental activities).  Suppose that all these factors combine to produce an observable effect: if a father dies, his offspring is more likely to survive than if the mother dies.   Such an effect favors social communication valuing fathers as being more disposable than mothers.

Dependence relations are a general feature of social groups.  Men’s and women’s contributions to the average reproductive success of all group members depend on a variety of factors.  A small number of men can provide sperm to a large number of women, and thus, apart from other considerations, additional men are a cost to the average reproductive success of the group.  But many other group effects also are relevant.  For example, in small, technologically primitive human societies, the meat that male hunters secure is typically shared among the whole group.[3]  In such circumstances, the value of men to the group depends on the value of this common food provision.  Similar considerations apply to men’s contribution to territorial defense, defense from predators, and to reproductively harmful within-group behaviors such as intrasexual and intersexual hostility and violence.  Suppose that all these factors combine to produce a commonly recognized effect: the death of a man reduces the expected reproduction of the group by less than does the death of a woman.  Such an effect favors social communication valuing men as more disposable than women.[4]

Socially constructed, sex-biased morality connects social values to individual behavior.  Humans plausibly evolved in circumstances in which, among breeding pairs, fathers have had less reproductive value than mothers, and, within groups, men have had less reproductive value than women.[5]  These social values suggest that, in competition to acquire resources and avoid harm, a woman can more effectively make claims in social communication than a man can.  That makes social communication more valuable to women than to men.[6]  Human evolution has thus favored women’s social communication capabilities over those of men.  That sex difference in turn supports lack of social concern about men’s lives.

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[1] Boehm (1999) p. 254.

[2] For an example of simplistic evolutionary-psychological reasoning justifying men’s relatively high death rate from violence, see Daly & Wilson (1988).

[3] E.g. Woodburn (1998) and Hawkes (2001).

[4] See, e.g. Hawkes (2004), pp. 464-5, which emphasizes infanticidal males, the dangers of male mating competition, and the relative unimportance of males’ contributions to group reproductive success.

[5] These social values do not necessarily imply that men maximize their inclusive fitness by being more aggressive, taking more risks, and committing more crimes than women.  Arguments that higher male reproductive variance explains male risk-taking are remarkably ad hoc. See, e.g. Daly & Wilson (1988) Ch. 7.  Social life enables and shapes possibilities for behavioral exchanges.  The price of mates, like the price of food, is part of an aggregate budget constraint.  Suppose prices are measured in energy expenditure.  A fitness-maximizing response to a higher price of mates might be substitution into more food collection and less risk of harm to self.  On biological markets, see Noë (2001).

[6] This is a general implication of cooperative game theory.  In cooperative game theory, payouts are typically directly related to expected marginal contributions averaged across a large number of possible coalitions. Roughgarden et al. (2006) forcefully advocates the importance of such models.  Criticisms of id. have focused on whether Darwin’s theory of sexual selection needs to be replaced.  The argument here is that the cooperative distribution of fitness benefits determines the individual value of communication capabilities.

[image] Harry Fain, coal loader. Inland Steel Company, Wheelwright 1 & 2 Mines, Wheelwright, Floyd County, Kentucky.  Thanks to the National Archives and Wikipedia.


Boehm, Christopher. 1999. Hierarchy in the forest: the evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Daly, Martin and Margo Wilson. 1988. Homicide. New York, A. de Gruyter.

Hawkes, Kristen. 2001. “Is meat the hunter’s property? Ownership and explanations of hunting and sharing.” Pp. 219-236 in C. Stanford and H. Bunn, eds. Meat-Eating and Human Evolution.  Oxford: Oxford University Press: 219-236.

Hawkes, Kristen. 2004. “Mating, Parenting, and the Evolution of Human Pair Bonds.”  Pp. 443-473 in Bernard Chapais and Carol M. Berman, eds. Kinship and behavior in primates.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Noë, Ronald. 2001.  “Biological markets: partner choice as the driving force behind the evolution of mutualisms.” Pp. 93-118 in Ronald Noë, Jan A.R.A.M. von Hooff and Peter Hammerstein, eds. Economics in nature: social dilemmas, mate choice and biological markets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roughgarden, Joan, Meeko Oishi and Erol Akçay. 2006. “Reproductive Social Behavior: Cooperative Games to Replace Sexual Selection.” Science 311: 965-969.

Woodburn, James. 1998. “Sharing is not a form of exchange: an analysis of property sharing in immediate return hunter-gatherer societies.” Pp. 48-63 in C.M. Hann, ed. Property Relations: Renewing the Anthropological Tradition.  Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.


Decameron X.3: horrible generosity of Nathan and Mithridanes

The price of material goods relative to self-esteem and social status has fundamental economic importance.  That price structures the macroeconomics of persons’ self-interest.  In Decameron X.3, Boccaccio imagined a society in which material goods were cheap, while self-esteem and social status were dear.  Competition in generosity reached a horribly high level.  This story provides a critical perspective on the Arabic tradition of hospitality, the Christian understanding of salvation, and the role of media, particular social media, in serving self-esteem and social status.

Portrait of a Bolognese Gentleman in a Fur-lined Coat

Boccaccio ironically distanced Decameron X.3 to the realm of fantasy.  The story’s narrator presented it as being from a far-away land:

It is beyond doubt, if the reports of various men from Genoa and elsewhere who have been to those parts may be trusted, that in the region of Cathay there once lived a man of noble lineage named Nathan who was rich beyond compare. [1]

Cathay is northern China, far from Boccacio’s Florence.  Travelers’ reports commonly contain stories of wondrous sights, beasts, and events.  The clause “it is beyond doubt” is immediately qualified with reason for doubt.  It should be interpreted ironically.  The two main characters in the story are named Nathan and Mithridanes.  Nathan is a Jewish name.  Christians in medieval Europe stereotyped Jews as being ungenerous.[2]  Mithridanes is a name associated with pre-Christian Roman cultic belief.[3]  Christian nobles and merchants in fourteenth-century Florence would understand Decameron X.3 to be fantastical.

In Decameron X.3, Mithridanes sought to surpass Nathan’s fame for generosity.  Nathan lived in a huge, luxurious palace next to a main thoroughfare.  For many years, everyone who passed by Nathan hosted “in a most agreeable and festive manner.”  Nathan thus acted as the proprietor of a bizarre combination of a motel and a country estate.  Nathan’s renown spread throughout the East and the West.  Mithridanes, another rich man who lived near Nathan, grew envious:

he resolved that through an even greater display of liberality he would either obliterate the old man’s renown or overshadow it.  And so, after having had a palace built similar to Nathan’s, he began to bestow the most extravagant courtesy ever seen on everyone who passed by, going in either direction, and there is no doubt that in a short time he became very famous.

One day, a little, old, poor woman begging for alms from Mithridanes happened to remark that Nathan was more generous than he.  Her remark ignited Mithridanes to raging fury:

How can I ever match Nathan’s greatest acts of generosity, let alone surpass him as I’ve sought to do, when I can’t come close to him in the smallest things?  All my efforts will truly be in vain unless I wipe him off the face of the earth, and since old age isn’t carrying him away all by itself, I’ll have to do the job with my own hands, and that without delay.

Competition in generosity thus led to intent to murder.

Nathan subsequently offered Mithridanes horrible generosity.  Traveling to Nathan’s palace to fulfill his plan to murder him, Mithridanes encountered an old man.  Mithridanes asked the old man for directions to Nathan’s palace.  Mithridanes also requested that, “if possible, he did not want Nathan to see him or to know that he was there.”  The old man was actually Nathan.  He cheerfully and deceptively agreed to Mithridanes request.  Claiming to be one of Nathan’s menial servants, Nathan led Mithridanes to the palace.  There Nathan arranged with his servants not to reveal his identify.  Acting as a menial servant, he won the confidence of Mithridanes.  Mithridanes then told him of his plan to murder Nathan and sought his help.  Nathan agreed to help to arrange for his own murder.

With this horrible generosity, Nathan prevailed over Mithridanes.  Nathan strolled by himself in the woods.  That was the opportunity that Nathan had offered to Mithridanes to murder him.  Mithridanes jumped him, seized him by the turban, and exclaimed, “Old man, you’re as good as dead.”  In a parody upon a parody of Christian self-abnegation, Nathan responded only, “Then I must deserve it.”  Immediately events turned in a different direction:

Upon hearing his voice and looking him in the face, Mithridanes instantly recognized him as the man who had received him with such kindness, had kept him company like a friend, and had advised him so faithfully.  Consequently, his fury immediately subsided, and his anger was transformed into shame.  Hurling away the sword, which he had already drawn out in order to strike his adversary, he dismounted and flung himself down in tears at Nathan’s feet.

Nathan absolved Mithridanes of any wrong-doing in pursuing his murderous scheme:

call it evil or not as you will, there’s no need to ask for my forgiveness or for me to grant it, because you didn’t pursue it out of hatred, but in order to be held in greater esteem. … you have dedicated yourself not to the amassing of wealth, which is what misers do, but to spending what you have accumulated.

That’s a ridiculous justification, made from the perspective of nobles and courtiers looking down on merchants.  With further sarcasm, Boccaccio has Nathan expand upon this justification:

In order to increase their realms, and thus their fame, the most illustrious of emperors and the greatest of kings have practiced almost no art other than killing, not just one man as you wanted to do, but an infinite number of them, as well as putting entire countries to the torch and razing cities to the ground.  And so, if, to achieve renown, I was the only person you wanted to kill, you were not doing anything extraordinary or unusual, but something actually quite commonplace.

Citing his desire to preserve his unblemished record for generosity, Nathan then implored Mithridanes to kill him.  Mithridanes refused.  Nathan’s concern to be generous generated his grotesque devaluation of his own  life.  Only Mithridanes lack of generosity saved Nathan’s life.

Nathan further underscored the perversity of social status-seeking.  In gratitude to Nathan for not condemning his evil intent, Mithridanes offered the platitude that he would like to give years of his life to Nathan.  Nathan, greedy to add to his public record of generous acts, proposed a mechanism to effect that gift.  Nathan proposed that Mithridanes subsequently pretend to be Nathan, and Nathan pretend to be Mithridanes.  The young man Mithridanes could then deceptively add many more years of deeds of generosity to Nathan’s public record.  Mithridanes refused that absurd scheme only out of appreciation for his own inferiority in generosity:

If I knew how to comport myself as well as you do now, and as you’ve always done, I”d take your offer without giving it a second thought, but because I feel quite certain that my actions would only serve to diminish Nathan’s fame, and because I have no intention of marring in another what I cannot make perfect in myself, I won’t accept it.

This isn’t just a story of two gentlemen donkeys stuck at a door, insistently saying to each other, “No, please, you first.”  The story of Nathan and Mithridanes describes perverse effects of social status being much more dear than material goods.[5]

Arabic culture has a deep tradition of hospitality as measure of social status.  Hatim Tai, a Christian Arab who lived in the sixth century, became a focal point for stories about generosity in Arabic culture.  In a book by Saadi, a major Persian poet writing in the thirteenth century, Hatim Tai is the renowned generous person in a story much like that of Decameron X.3.[4]  Another story about Hatim Tai is preserved in Arabic in the 1001 Nights.  That story places Hatim Tai’s generosity squarely within pre-Islamic Arabic culture.  Travelers at the top of a mountain came across Hatim Tai’s grave.  One traveler said mockingly, “We are your guests tonight, Hatim, and we are hungry.”  After falling asleep for the night, the traveler had a dream:

I saw Hatim approaching me with a sword.  “You have come to me,” he said, “but I have no provisions.”  He then struck my camel with his sword [6]

The traveler’s own camel thus provided the meat that the host offered.  Slaughtering a camel for a shared meal is a typical feature of a pre-Islamic ode.[7]  Hatim Tai’s slaughter of the traveler’s camel, like Decameron X.3, shows a perverse effect of intense concern for maintaining social status of generosity.[8]

In the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches extreme generosity.  Jesus declares:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. [9]

From a Christian perspective, Jesus realized God, love, and salvation for humanity by allowing himself to be crucified.  Jesus’ words “love one another as I have loved you” mean love one another with complete self-giving, even to the point of death:

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. [10]

Like the Decameron’s story of Frate Alberto, Decameron X.3 superficially looks like a parody of Christian scripture.  But Christian extreme generosity isn’t about social status.  Jesus was the son of a carpenter from a provincial town of Judea.  Crucifixion was a degrading means of execution.  Jesus frequently disparaged prayers and pious acts intended to garner social acclaim.[11]  The distinction between outer and inner generosity is crucial in Christian understanding.  That distinction is also crucial for fully understanding Decameron X.3.

Accumulating material wealth, dissipating human sense of divine favor, and powerful new communication technologies are increasing the price of self-esteem and social status relative to material goods.  The dehumanization of materialism and consumerism is becoming less of a personal risk.  The social position of nobles and courtiers is being democratized.  Competition for social status encourages disconnection between the outer and inner person.  Decameron X.3 provides a critical perspective on new personal risks in the Facebook-Twitter-smartphone social economy.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 10, Story 3 (story of Nathan and Mithridanes), from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 763.  The narrator is Filostrato.  In Boccaccio’s text, Mitridanes represents Mithridanes.  All subsequent quotes are from id., unless otherwise noted.

[2] The southwestern Eurasian tribal value of generosity is not surprisingly an aspect of Jewish tradition.  The prophet Isaiah in Hebrew scripture expressed that value:

All you who are thirsty,
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, receive grain and eat;
Come, without paying and without cost,
drink wine and milk!

Isaiah 55:1.  The underlying idea is that the Lord is a good (generous) host.

[3] The Roman deity Mithras was the focus of a popular Roman cult.

[4] Saadi Shirazi, Bustan, ll. 306-342, from Persian trans. Clarke (1879) in Crane (1921) pp. 212-14, and Edwards (1911) Ch. II (Concerning Benevolence), “Story of Hatim and the Messenger Sent to Kill Him.”  Hatim Tai is more properly transliterated as Ḥātim al-Ṭāʾī.  It is found variously transliterated as Chatemthai, Chatemtai, and Hatam Taei.  Hatim was of the Tayy tribe of Arabia.

[5] Readers can easily interpret this story superficially.  Crane (1921) called it a “noble story.” F.W.V. Schmidt, writing in Berlin in 1818, declared:

The sentiment in this divine story so far exceeds all the bounds of the most daring fancy of our ancient and modern times, that one cannot help thinking that this work of fiction had its source in the sunny plains of the Orient, and was the offspring of a bright and peaceful mind.

Cited in id. pp. 196-7.

[6] 1001 Nights, Night 271, from Arabic trans Lyons (2008) vol, 1, p. 885.  The text is Calcutta 1839-42 (Calcutta II, also called Macnaghten).  According to Geert Jan van Gelder, earlier versions of the story are found in Ibn Qutaybah (d. 889), al-Shi`r wa-l-shu`ara’ (ed. Shakir, 249), in al-Mas`udi (d. 956), Muruj al-dhahab (ed. Charles Pellat, ii, 298-99 = para. 1213-14), and a little later, with two versions, in Abu l-Faraj al-Isfahani, al-Aghani (ed.Cairo) xvii, 374-75, 392.

[7] Examples of pre-Islamic odes (qasā’id) that describe killing a camel and sharing a meal of its meat are the Muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays and the Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab.

[8] Abū l-Ḥakam al-Maghribī, Maʿarrat al-bayt (The Domestic Scandal), written in twelfth-century Damascus, provides a light-hearted view of the hardships of a hospitable host.  In the penultimate line, the host concludes:

At other people’s places drinking
Is better, in my way of thinking.

From Arabic trans. van Gelder (forthcoming).

[9] John 15:12.

[10] John 15:13.

[11] E.g. Matthew 6:1-18, Mark 12:40.

[image] Portrait of a Bolognese Gentleman in a Fur-lined Coat, c. 1523-25, by Giuliano Bugiardini (Italian, 1475-1554).  The Walters Art Museum, 37.1101.  Special thanks to the Walters for their leadership in making art accessible worldwide on the Internet.


Crane, Thomas Frederick. 1921.  “The Sources of Boccaccio’s Novella of Mitridanes and Natan (Decameron X, 3).”  The Romanic Review 12(3): 193-215.

Edwards, A. Hart, trans. 1911. The Bustān of Sadi. London: J. Murray.

Gelder, Geert Jan van. “Abū l-Ḥakam al-Maghribī, Maʿarrat al-bayt (‘The Domestic Scandal’).”  Forthcoming in A Literary History of Medicine: “The Best Accounts of the Classes of Physicians” by Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿah (d. 1270).  University of Oxford & University of Warwick.

Lyons, Malcolm C. 2008. The Arabian nights: tales of 1001 nights. vols. 1-3. London: Penguin.

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


William, Nastagio, Federigo: ignorant men in love

Before the scientific advances of sexual selection field reports, men in love lived in ignorant self-abasement.  Many men still do.[1]  Empirical science alone cannot produce loving enlightenment.  To move beyond the dark ages of chivalric self-abasement, men must understand the stories of William, Nastagio, and Federigo.

William, said to be a bright, young man, desired his master’s wife.  She was beautiful:

She was exceeding beautiful.
The wild flowers blooming on the hill,
The lily flower, the rose of May —
She was more beautiful than they.

The narrator, undoubtedly like William, let her bodily beauty lead to where a beautiful women’s beauty naturally leads men:

For when her hair was left untied,
It shone so bright that anyone
Who saw would swear that it was spun
From purest gold.  Her forehead shone
Like finely cut and polished stone,
Her eyebrows brown and widely spread,
Her eyes were laughing in her head,

{continuing down through nose, mouth, chin, throat}
Her breast were round as little apples,
Firm and small with little nipples,
There’s nothing more for me to say:
To lead men’s hearts and minds astray [2]

Men who aspire to be more than beasts understand and respect their own sexuality.  Appreciating a young, beautiful woman’s physical attractiveness doesn’t require a man to be subjugated by it.

William was both stupid and timid.  He stayed in his beloved’s household for seven years, pining away in love for her, never saying a word to her.  Finally he accosted her:

William looked long and longingly
Upon her, then he said, “Hello.”

No, no, no.  “Lady, go make me a sandwich” would have been better.  Even worse, William then deployed a stock tactic of a lovestruck adolescent:

Lady, I beg of you, pay heed
To what I ask of you.  I need
Your counsel.  Tell me what you’d say ….”
— “Of course I’ll give it.  Ask away.”
— “If clerk, or knight of high degree,
Or someone from the bourgeoisie
Should fall in love — or even a squire —

What would your opinion be
If he has loved her seven years
And kept it hidden and he fears
Still to tell her anything —
What martyrdom he’s suffering —
And yet he still could tell his love
If only he were brave enough
And the occasion would appear
To open up his heart to her,
And what I really wish I knew
Is what you think he ought to do
And whether he does right or wrong
To keep his love from her so long.”

She declared that the hypothetical lover should bravely tell his love.  She also said of the beloved:

She’d have to pity the poor man.
It would be very foolish of her
Not to accept the love he’s offered
And one day wish to God she had. [3]

William moaned and sighed and then said, “Lady, behold the man.”[4] The lady asked if he were joking and then told him to shut up and get out.  The lady was false to her counsel.  She was true to human nature.  Women naturally don’t desire sexually pathetic men.

William nearly killing himself stirred the lady’s desire.  William announced a starvation strike for love:

Kill me and get it over with.
Listen, I asked for your love.
I beg a gift, and I will prove
My need for it.  I will not eat
Until the day that you see fit. [5]

Since pathetically abasing himself didn’t work to stir the lady’s love, William resolved to abase himself even further.  He refused to eat until the lady acknowledged his love.  That’s not a rational response to the lesson of experience.  Only within the conventions of chivalric fiction is such a tactic ever successful.  So it was here.  The lady and his master implored William to eat.  Without acknowledgement of his love, William resolutely refused to eat, sweating and trembling, with every limb filled with pain, potentially facing death at the hand of his master for desiring his wife should she acknowledge his love.  His suffering and bravery stirred the lady’s sexual desire.

falcon with kill

The lady arranged to cuckold her husband with doublespeak.  She said that William was sick to death with desire for his master’s faucon.  The master readily granted his faucon to William to save his life.  Faucon is Old French for falcon.  Faucon can also be interpreted as “false cunt.”  The lady understood faucon to mean both falcon and false cunt.  Her husband gave his falcon to William, and she gave herself to William.  William instantly became well.  In representing herself as a false cunt, she made effective for William the counsel that she had betrayed.

Boccaccio, who was keenly concerned about men in love, seems to have responded to William of the Falcon with two adjacent stories in the Decameron.  In Decameron 5.8, Nastagio degli Onesti nearly squandered his fortune unsuccessfully seeking the love of a beautiful, young woman.  At times Nastagio was so filled with despair about his unrequited love that he wanted to commit suicide.  Lost in a pine forest, Nastagio had a Dantesque vision of a beautiful, young women, completely naked, running from two ferocious dogs and a knight.  Nastagio intervened to defend the woman.  The knight explained that both he and the woman were spirits undergoing God-ordained punishments:

I, who once loved her so dearly, was to pursue her as my mortal enemy rather than the woman I once loved.  And every time I catch up to her, I kill her with this same sword with which I slew myself {in love suicide}. Then I rip open her back, and as you are about to see for yourself, I tear from her body that cold, hard heart of hers, which neither love nor pity could ever penetrate, and together with the rest of her inner organs, I give it to these dogs to eat.  In a short space of time, as the justice and power of God ordain, she rises up as if she never died and begins her woeful flight all over again, with the dogs and me in pursuit. [6]

Nastagio, although full of pity and fear from the vision, realized that it could be useful to him.  He arranged to have the woman he loved see the vision.  Realizing the lady’s words to William in William of the Falcon, the lady in Boccaccio’s story understood:

She’d have to pity the poor man.
It would be very foolish of her
Not to accept the love he’s offered
And one day wish to God she had. [7]

She thus agreed to marry Nastagio.  They lived happily ever after.  In William of the Falcon, the bravery of a man enduring extreme, self-imposed suffering stirred the lady to sexual desire.  In Boccaccio’s more humane story, the lady’s vision of her own future suffering from rejecting a man’s love stirred her to accept his love.

In the subsequent story in the Decameron, the man in love gives up his falcon but gets the false cunt.  Filomena, who narrates this story, declares that it “partly resembles the preceding one.”  Like Nastagio, Federigo was a rich young man profligately and futilely courting a beautiful woman.  Federigo was in love with Monna Giovanna, who was married to a rich man.  Federigo’s courtship left him with nothing but a falcon:

As Federigo continued to spend money well beyond his means, while acquiring nothing from his lady in return, he went through his entire fortune, as can easily happen, and wound up a poor man, left with nothing except a tiny little farm, the income from which was just enough for him to live very frugally, and a single falcon, which was among the finest in the world. … There he would go hunting with his falcon, whenever he could, and without asking assistance from anyone, he bore his poverty with patience. [8]

Monna Giovanna’s husband died.  While spending the summer at their country estate, her son became acquainted with Federigo and his falcon.  The boy happened to fall ill.  He told his mother that he would get better if she would get for him Federigo’s falcon.  Monna Giovanna had never paid any attention to Federigo’s love for her.  But now that she needed a falcon, she decided to visit him personally, invite herself to have dinner with him, and ask him for his falcon.

Federigo responded to Monna Giovanna’s visit with self-abasement and extravagance.  Surprised and delighted by her visit and her self-invitation to dinner, Federigo wanted to “honor the noble lady” with a worthy meal.  But he had nothing suitable, except for his falcon.  He cooked his falcon and served it as dinner for the lady.  That extravagant charity is as false to reason and nature as the rich lady’s surprise visit and self-invitation to dinner at her spurned lover’s poor home.  It’s as false to reason and nature as the son’s claim that getting Federigo’s falcon would cure his illness.

The story ends with intimations of falsity.  Having failed to acquire Federigo’s falcon other than as a piece of dead, cooked meat, Monna Giovanna returned “utterly despondent” to her son.  Her son then died.  That actually was in Monna Giovanna’s material interests, for when her rich husband died:

he left his entire estate to his son, who was still a growing boy, and since he also loved his wife very dearly, he made her his heir in the case that he son would die without lawful issue. [9]

Monna Giovanna wanted to remain a rich widow.  But her brothers pressured her to remarry.  Mona Giovanna recalled “Federigo’s great worth and his last act of generosity, that is his having killed such a splendid falcon in her honor.”  She might more realistically have recalled Federigo as a foolish, self-abasing man who had caused her utter despair.  Monna Giovanna and Federigo married.  Federigo reportedly lived happily ever after:

Federigo, finding himself not just married to the great lady he had loved so dearly, but a very rich man to boot {through his share in Monna Giovanna’s inherited wealth}, managed his fortune more prudently than he had before and lived with her happily to the end of his days. [10]

A profligate man doesn’t plausibly become prudent by marrying a rich widow.  Monna Giovanna treated Federigo selfishly and instrumentally.  Read against William of the Falcon, Monna Giovanna seems like the false cunt, and Federigo, the foolish, self-abasing man.  That doesn’t suggest a happy end for Federigo.

Everyone in the brigata “praised God for having given Federigo the reward he deserved.”[11]  In truth, Federigo undoubtedly received the reward he deserved.  To move beyond self-abasement, men must understand.

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[1] Societies have always required men to sacrifice their lives in group-structured men-on-men violence (war).  That discourse colonizes men’s personal lives.  Men come to believe that they must desperately fight for love, rather than be loved for who they are.

[2] Guilluame au Faucon (William of the Falcon), fabliau, 1st half of the 13th century, from Old French trans. Duval (1982) p. 92 (inc. previous quote).  For alternate English translations, see the Fabliaux English Translation Index.

[3] Id. pp. 94-5 (previous three quotes).

[4] Cf. John 19:5. That parallel suggests that William feels he isn’t guilty of any offense.  He is guilty of fearing to give offense.

[5] Id. p. 97.

[6] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 5, Story 8 (story of Nastagio degli Onesti), from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 448.  The story of Nastagio degli Onesti is the subject of four paintings that Sandro Botticelli produced in the 1480s.  Botticelli’s paintings focus on the woman.

[7] Guilluame au Faucon, trans Duval (1982) p. 95.

[8] Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 5, Story 9 (story of Federigo degli Alberighi), from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 453.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. p. 458. The Bustan of Saadi (written in Persian in 1257) includes a story with some similar features.  The Sultan of Turkey decides to ask Hatim Tai, an Arab renowned for generosity, for his fabulous horse.  But before the messenger conveyed the Sultan of Turkey’s request, Hatim slaughtered his horse because it was all he had to provide a meal for the messenger.  Trans. Edwards (1911) Ch. II (Concerning Benevolence), “Story of Hatim Taei.”  The additional context of courtly love in the Decameron‘s story of Federigo degli Alberighi highlights the sexed structure of self-abasement in generosity.

[11] Introductory sentences to Decameron, Day 5, Story 10, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 459.


DuVal, John, trans. and Raymond Eichmann, text, notes, intro. 1982. Cuckolds, clerics, & countrymen: medieval French fabliaux. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.

Edwards, A. Hart, trans. 1911. The Bustān of Sadi. London: J. Murray.

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

Tagged: ,

strong reciprocity depends on communication

Humans frequently behave cooperatively.  Human cooperation is obvious to ordinary persons in everyday life.  In laboratory experiments, a large share of humans cooperate according to social norms if others cooperate likewise, even if not cooperating offers a higher, immediate objective reward.  Similarly, a large share of humans also punish others who do not cooperate according to social norms, even if punishing has immediate, objective net cost to the person who does the punishing.  These two patterns of behavior together are called strong reciprocity.[1]

Strong reciprocity is sensitive to subtle aspects of communication.  The social norms that are the reference points for strong reciprocity are products of social communication.[2]  In laboratory experiments, participants who engage in relevant pre-play verbal communication, who engage in oblique eye gaze, who tap each other lightly on the shoulder or arm, or who use a computer displaying eyespots, behave more cooperatively.[3]  Given the importance of human cooperation for humans’ ecological position relative to other animals, humans have likely undergone natural selection for effectively signaling cooperation.

Experimental work on strong reciprocity hasn’t adequately accounted for individual differences. Experiments have found that, among persons in common cultural circumstances, a sizable share of persons act according to strong reciprocity, and a sizeable share do not.[4]  Experiments have found that demographic characteristics, including sex, do not significantly differentiate between these two groups of persons.[5]  The existence of considerable individual differences in strong reciprocity within a culture isn’t well explained.

elephant herd

Experimental findings of the insignificance of demographics for strong reciprocity concern demographics of individual participants who understand themselves to be playing with anonymous others.  Such demographic information is not ecologically relevant.  Moreover, abstracting from the demographics of opponents or assuming that the demographics of opponents are irrelevant to participants is not consistent with testing the significance of participants’ demographics.[6]  Demographics, in particular sex, may in fact be highly relevant to propensity to engage in strong reciprocity.

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[1] For differing perspectives on strong reciprocity, see Bowles & Ginis (2011) and Guala (2012).

[2] On subtle aspects of social circumstances, see, e.g. Bardsley (2005) and Bardsley (2008).  The issues are not limited to whether persons who interact with participants understand the structure and purpose of the experiments.   What participants understand themselves to be doing can depend on where the experiment takes place, differences in status between participants and non-participants with whom the participants interact, participants’ sense of the specific circumstances of interaction (e.g., via computer terminals in a relatively quiet and barren room), and other subtle aspects of participants’ full sense of their circumstances. Controlling vocal communication with participants is a weak control on communication with participants.

[3] See Valley et al. (2002), Kurzban (2001), and Haley & Fessler (2005).  Kurzban (2001) found effects of eye gaze and touch only for male subjects:

This finding is alarming in that it seems that males are ready to accept extremely scant evidence that they are in a meaningful group capable of cooperating. If indeed male psychology is well designed for cooperating because of adaptations for intergroup conflict, then the ease with which males form cooperative associations is also the ease with which males can form groups for the purpose of intergroup conflict {references omitted}.

Id. pp. 256-7.  The risk of males cooperating to address the demonization of males and the social disposal of males in intergroup conflict seems remote.

[4] The split is close to equal:

Taken together, the fraction of subjects showing strong positive reciprocity is rarely below 40 and sometimes 60 percent whereas the fraction of selfish subjects is also often between 40 and 60 percent.

Fehr, Fischbacher & Gächter (2002) p. 8.  This remarkable division has attracted relatively little attention in scholarship on cooperation.

[5] Henrich et al. (2001) p. 76. Using subjects from U.S. universities, Cox & Deck (2006) found in laboratory behavioral experiments that women’s behavior was more sensitive to the costs of generosity than was men’s.   That result is consistent with more developed social intelligence in women.

[6] In experimental games testing cooperation among nonhuman animals, ensuring that animals sense that they are playing against another animal is in tension with preventing communication between the animals. Noë (2006), pp. 11-12, provides an insightful discussion of this problem. Because humans have a more developed capacity to make sense of human presence, this problem is less significant in experiments involving humans. Nonetheless, the issue of sense of presence in anonymous human cooperation experiments deserves further consideration.

[image] Elephant herd at Ambroseli National Park (Kenya), with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background.  Thanks to Amoghavarsha and Wikipedia.  Elephant herds consist of adult females and young of both sexes.  Male elephants are forcibly excluded from herds at puberty.


Bardsley, Nicholas. 2005. “Experimental Economics and the Artificiality of Alteration.” Journal of Economic Methodology. 12: 239-251.

Bardsley, Nicholas. 2008. “Dictator game giving: altruism or artefact?Experimental Economics. 11 (2): 122-133.

Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. 2011. A cooperative species human reciprocity and its evolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Cox, James C. and Cary A. Deck. 2006. “When are Women More Generous than Men?Economic Inquiry. 44(4): 587-598.

Fehr, Ernst, Urs Fischbacher and Simon Gächter. 2002. “Strong reciprocity, Human Cooperation and the Enforcement of Social Norms.” Human Nature. 13: 1-25.

Guala, Francesco. 2012. “Reciprocity: Weak or strong? What punishment experiments do (and do not) demonstrate.”  With discussion and response. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 35 (01): 1-15.

Haley, Kevin J. and Daniel M.T. Fessler. 2005. “Nobody’s watching? Subtle cues affect generosity in an anonymous economic game.” Evolution and Human Behavior. 26: 245-256.

Henrich, Joseph, Robert Boyd, Samuel Bowles, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr, Herbert Gintis and Richard McElreath. 2001. “In Search of Homo Economicus: Behavioral Experiments in 15 Small-Scale Societies.” American Economic Review. 91(2): 73-78.

Kurzban, Robert. 2001. “The Social Psychophysics of Cooperation: Nonverbal Communication in the Public Goods Game.”  Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. 25(4): 241-259.

Noë, Ronald. 2006. “Cooperation experiments: coordination through communication versus acting apart together.” Animal Behaviour. 71: 1-18.

Valley, Kathleen, Leigh Thompson, Robert Gibbons and Max H. Bazerman. 2002. “How Communication Improves Efficiency in Bargaining Games.” Games and Economic Behavior. 38: 127-155.

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