medieval colophons, persons, and copying blessings

medieval colophon

Colophons — concluding meta-text concerning the production of the text — exist in about 15% of medieval manuscripts.[1] The content of medieval colophons varies widely. Items that might be included in the colophon are:

  • scribe’s name
  • scribe’s location
  • date the manuscript was copied
  • manuscript’s price
  • statements about the scribe’s spiritual character, e.g. unworthy servant of God
  • request for prayers and/or God’s mercy
  • curse upon anyone who would steal the book
  • remarks about the burden of the copy work
  • plea for corrections of the manuscript
  • concern about correctly attributing changes made to the manuscript

Here’s a short, conventional medieval colophon:

This book is finished; may the scribe be free from sin. [2]

Another frequent type of medieval colophon exonerates the scribe for changes made to the text:

the reader emends, and let him not blame the scribe [3]

A late-fourteenth-century manuscript has an amusing colophon:

This work is written master give me a drink; let the right hand of the scribe be free from the oppressiveness of pain. [4]

The scribe is usually understood to be the author of the colophon. Medieval colophons commonly refer to the scribe in the third or first person.

Medieval colophons occasionally have more elaborate forms of address. The sole surviving late-fifteenth-century, Old French manuscript of The Mirror of Simple Souls has the following colophon:

For him who has copied this book
I pray to you in your goodness of heart
To pray to the Father and the Son,
The Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
That after this present life
In the company of the angels
He may give thanks and praise to God.
Amen. [5]

The third person is used for the scribe (“for him who has copied this book”). The second person (“you”) refers to the reader. The first person (“I”) is most easily understood as the book’s author. The author prays to the reader to pray to God that the scribe will praise God (implicitly in Heaven after a life of virtuously copying texts). That is a complex chain of personal relations and actions. It suggests the author offering spiritual benefits to scribes who would copy the author’s work.

Medieval colophons written in verse might use different grammatical persons to refer to the same person. Consider a rhyming colophon written in Italian early in the fifteenth century:

I pray that God grant eternal peace
to the soul of the one who wrote
this little book, which I like so much.
And let his saints, as I’m determined,
pray to the Virgin Mary too,
and Saint John, who said so much that was good.
Let it please you to defend her from all things evil,
her soul and body, and protect her from her enemies.
Help her, Lord, since help her you can. [6]

The “I” of the first four line speaks about one associated with a verb for the physical act of writing (“wrote” / scrisse). The praise for the book (“which I like so much”) would be prideful if by the author, but without Christian moral taint if by the scribe. The “one” who wrote the book is grammatical marked as female. The third-personal “her” for whom prayers are to benefit is also female. The “I” of this colophon could be interpreted as the author praying for a female scribe. However, the scribe wrote this colophon in three works she copied. The “I” and “her” of the colophon more plausibly are interpreted as having poetic grammatical mobility in referring to the same person.

Some ancient authors were keen to encourage others to copy their works. One way to encourage copying is for the author to add a colophon invoking blessings for the scribe. The tenth-century Buddhist text The Scripture on the Ten Kings included explicit admonishments to copy and circulate the text. With similar interests, medieval authors might write colophons to create spiritual incentives for scribes to copy their manuscripts.

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[1] According to Erik Kwakkel, an authority on medieval manuscripts, about one in seven medieval manuscripts include a colophon. In religious books, colophon use increased in the ninth century with Carolingian scribal practices. Colophons became more common in secular European manuscripts from the early fourteenth century. Morton (2014) p. 65, n. 2; p. 43. About a quarter of manuscripts that nun-scribes wrote in fifteenth/sixteenth-century Italy included a colophon. Id. p. 43.

[2] This colophon was written in Latin and had a witty form: “Explicit iste liber sit scriptor crimine liber.” Wakelin (2014) p. 29.

[3] This colophon, also written in Latin, has a rhyme that adds force to the message: “qui legit emendat, scriptorem non reprehendat.” Id.

[4] From manuscript Leiden University, VLF 5, f. 172v, written in Latin: “hoc opus est scriptum magister da mihi potum; Dextera scriptoris careat grauitate doloris.Thanks to Giulio Menna. The first-personal reference “me” and the third-personal reference “the scribe” clearly refer to the same person. See subsequent discussion above.

[5] From manuscript Chantilly, Musée Condé ms. F xiv 26, from Old French trans. College, Marler & Grant (1999) p. 175.

[6] From manuscript Florence, Biblioteca Riccardiana, MS 1338, fol. 96r, from Italian trans. Moreton (2014) pp. 52-3. One of the three manuscripts including this colophon is dated 1414. Id p. 53, p. 70, n. 30-31.

[image] medieval colophon (circular text on right), from the fourteenth-century manuscript Paris, BnF,, 169r (Le Livre du roy Modus et de la royne Racio). The excellent site Medieval Manuscript Provenance has an English translation and some discussion of the colophon.


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

Moreton, Melissa. 2014. “Pious Voices: Nun-scribes and the Language of Colophons in Late Medieval and Renaissance Italy.” Essays in Medieval Studies. 29: 43-73.

Wakelin, Daniel. 2014. Scribal Correction and Literary Craft. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

appreciation for men’s sexuality in Hildegard’s Causae et curae

Hildgard of Bingen's universal man

In Causae et curae, the twelfth-century scholar and woman religious Hildegard of Bingen described four types of men. A subsequent scribe apparently labeled these types by well-established humoral temperaments: choleric, sanguine, melancholic, and phlegmatic.[1] Characterizations of men, like discussion of man, historically have tended to be asexual. Hildegard, however, didn’t describe types of men conventionally. Using natural metaphors, she characterized four types of men by their sexual desire and sexual behavior. Unlike earlier writers, who were almost all men, Hildegard of Bingen recognized fundamental importance and diversity in men’s sexuality.[2]

The types of men labeled melancholic and phlegmatic Hildegard placed at extremes of a brute / culture continuum. She described melancholic men as heterosexually “without restraint like asses.” Such men are “like animals and vipers.” They behave sexually like “ravaging wolves”; “in their hearts they are as violent as lions and they behave in the manner of bears.” In sexual intercourse, a melancholic man’s erect penis “twists vehemently like a viper.”[3] He performs sexually as if he would like to kill the woman. Melancholic men, like brutes, lack the human capacity to have sex as an expression of love.

Phlegmatic men, in contrast, are womanly and cultured. Phlegmatic men lack male characteristics. They have no beard or only a sparse one. Hildegard described the color of their faces as womanly, and their flesh, “soft like woman’s.” These men have difficulty achieving an erection; “they fail now and then in the act of procreation.” They have difficulty holding an erection to ejaculate at “the right moment.”[4] Phlegmatic men, however, are witty and verbal:

in their thoughts and delivery of speech they are daring and quick, like a fire whose flame rises suddenly and falls as rapidly. Likewise, they show some daring in their deportment but not in their deeds. In closer contact they reveal that for them it is more a matter of intention than deed.

Delivery of speech, deportment, and intention are aspects of human behavior that are highly elaborated culturally.  Melancholic men are associated with the nature of brutes. Phlegmatic men are men associated with women and culture.

Like melancholic men, choleric and sanguine men need sex with women. Hildegard declared of choleric men:

Whenever they have {sexual} intercourse with a woman they are healthy and happy. If deprived of it they dry up in themselves and walk about as if moribund unless they can force out the foam of their semen in lustful dreams or thoughts or in some other perverse act. They feel such lustful ardor that they will, on occasion, also have contact with some insentient and lifeless object and torment themselves with it so that, exhausted, in defense against and as a relief from this ardor, so to speak, they will ejaculate the foam of their semen with lust and in the torment of this ardent passion that is in them. For continence is difficult for these men.

Sanguine men in the absence of women are better able to alleviate lust:

They free themselves more easily than others from the ardent heat of lust, be it spontaneously or by other means.

Nonetheless, intercourse with women is also essential for sanguine men:

If they are without women, the males mentioned above remain as inglorious as a day without sun. As fruit is prevented from drying on such a day and throughout a day without sun, so these men will be in a moderately calm mood when they remain without a woman. Yet around women they are as delightful as a day with bright sun.

For all men but phlegmatic men, frequent sexual intercourse with women is necessary for their good health and happiness.

Hildegard contrasted choleric and sanguine men with natural metaphors for sexual desire. In late European medieval literature, Cupid shot arrows into persons’ eyes to make them love-struck.[5] Although Hildegard undoubtedly knew stories of Cupid, she described choleric men’s sexual desire with arrows used in a naturalistic simile along with other naturalistic similes:

Their blood burns with great ardor when they have seen or heard a woman or brought her to mind in their thoughts, because upon seeing a woman, their eyes are directed like arrows toward the love of woman and, upon hearing a woman, their speech is like a powerful windstorm and their thoughts are like a hurricane that cannot be restrained from descending upon the earth.[6]

Hildegard contrasted sanguine men with choleric men using Aristotelian metaphors of harmony and nobility:

They {sanguine men} can live with women in honesty and fertility, practice abstinence too, and look with beautiful and sober eyes at women. Whereas the eyes of other men {choleric men} are directed like arrows toward women, theirs {sanguine men’s} are honorably in harmony with women. Whereas the speech of other men acts like a powerful storm toward women, theirs has the sound of a cithara. Whereas the thoughts of other men are like a hurricane, these men are called thoughtful lovers full of honorableness.[7]

Hildegard further described sanguine men with abstract, philosophical language:

they are referred to as the golden edifice in proper embrace because in them rationality senses why this is so. Therefore these men will act with self-control and show a human attitude.

The odd phrase “golden edifice in proper embrace,” which is associated with rationality, seems to be a refashioning of the Aristotelian idea of the golden mean. Hildegard, with appreciation for men’s real experience of their humanity, touchingly added:

On the other hand, they often endure much pain when {sexually} controlling themselves as much as possible.

Both choleric and sanguine men have strong, natural sexuality without the moral coloring of brutishness. Sanguine men characteristically transform their strong, natural sexual desire with self-control and rationally seek honor and harmony. Choleric men, however, are also capable of acting “rightly and in a well-balanced manner in the ardor of embrace.” In Hildegard’s thought, types of men are tendencies that allow within themselves differences in behavior.

Men by virtue of their human dignity are intrinsically entitled to be healthy and happy. As Hildegard of Bingen perceptively recognized and courageously expounded, most types of men need frequent sexual intercourse with women to be healthy and happy.[8] A well-ordered society seeks to fulfill men’s sexual entitlement just as it seeks health and happiness for all its members.

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[1] Causae et curae has survived mainly in one thirteenth-century manuscript. The temperament labels, along with other labels, are inserted in a different hand from the writing of the rest of the text. Cadden (1984) pp. 165-6. On authorship and modern editions of Causae et curae, see note [1] in earlier post on Hildegard and men’s sexuality.  Hildegard also provided a textually and conceptually independent four-fold characterization of women. Dronke (1984), pp. 180-183, focuses on the four-fold characterization of women.

[2] While I use the traditional humoral temperament labels for convenience, Hildegard’s descriptions of types of men are unprecedented in important ways:

Hildegard tries to work out the implications for personality of the four humoral temperaments, with a vividness and richness of detail unparalleled in earlier medical or physiognomic tradition. What is particularly new and startling in her procedure is that she interprets the four humours fundamentally in terms of sexual behavior, and that she gives a separate detailed account for four temperaments of women as well as for those of men

Dronke (1984) p. 180.

[3] Causae et curae, 54b-55a, from Latin trans. Berger (1999) pp. 60-61.  All subsequent quotes are from id. 51b-56a, pp. 57-62, unless otherwise noted. While sexual behavior predominates in Hildegard’s characterization of men, she also includes some typical elements of physiognomy.

[4] The “right moment” is connected in Causae et curae to women’s pleasure, the subject of the immediate next sentence in that text.

[5] Stewart (2003), intro. The mid-thirteenth-century masterpiece Romance of the Rose narrates:

The God of Love {Cupid} … took an arrow and, when the string was in the nock, drew the bow — a wondrously strong one — up to his ear and shot at me in such a way that with great force he sent the point through the eye and into my heart.

Le Roman de la Rose, v. 2, ll. 1681-95, from Old French trans. Dahlberg (1971) p. 54.

[6] Plato and Galen understood vision as a process of extramission: the eye actively projects out pneuma to see. The Platonic understanding of vision, described most fully in Plato’s Timaeus, was dominant in twelfth-century Europe. Aristotle, in contrast, is associated with understanding vision as intromission: the eye sees through passively receiving beams from the viewed object. Albert the Great vigorously promoted Aristotelian visual understanding in the mid-thirteenth century. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, Aristotelian intromission had become the dominant understanding of vision in Europe. Id. pp. 13-18. Hildegard’s arrow simile is aligned with understanding vision as extramission. Hildegard referred to Plato in Causae et curae. A Latin version of Timaeus was known in Europe in her time. Dronke stated:

As for Plato, it is not certain what traditions Hildegard knew. (I have found no clear indication, for instance, that she had read the Latin Timaeus.)

Dronke (1984) p. 183. Hildegard probably did know, perhaps indirectly, the Platonic understanding of vision as extramission. Hildegard’s simile of the arrow is in parallel with similes using windstorms and hurricanes. Her simile of the arrow is neither spiritual nor theoretical. It concerns the natural flight (straight, undeviating from its specific target) of an arrow.

[7] A cithara was an ancient Greek musical instrument in the form of a large lyre.

[8] In her Book of the Rewards of Life (Liber Vitae Meritorum), Hildegard addressed the issue of men fornicating with cattle.  Part 3, Chs. 71, 81, 82, from Latin trans. Hozeski (1994) pp. 164, 167. That concern indicates both men’s sexual ardor and the prevailing failure in humanely encompassing it.

[image] The Universal Man (Humanity and the Macrocosmos), illumination in thirteenth-century text of Hildegard of Bingen’s Liber Divinorum Operum, sec. I.2, completed in 1165. MS 1942, Biblioteca Statale, Lucca (Italy). Thanks to Wikicommons. Here’s some scholarly discussion of the image.


Berger, Margret. 1999. Hildegard of Bingen: on natural philosophy and medicine: selections from Cause et cure. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Cadden, Joan. 1984. “It takes all kinds: sexuality and gender differences in Hildegard of Bingen’s ‘Book of Compound Medicine.'” Traditio. 40: 149-174.

Dahlberg, Charles. 1971. Jean Guillaume de Lorris. The romance of the Rose. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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

Hozeski, Bruce, trans. 1994. Hildegard of Bingen. The book of the rewards of life = Liber vitae meritorum. New York: Garland Pub.

Stewart, Dana E. 2003. The arrow of love: optics, gender, and subjectivity in medieval love poetry. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press.

Grazida Lizier & Reservoir Tip on mutually joyful love-making

white knight imagines love

In an important book that Cambridge University Press published in 1984, a leading medieval man writer discerned the “lines of thought and integrity of thought” of Grazida Lizier.[1] His study of Grazida’s thought revealed themes of eroticism, skepticism, and myth-making. He treated these themes narrowly, tendentiously, and without sensitivity to men’s different social positions. Reading history from below shows that eroticism, skepticism, and myth-making are also central to ordinary men’s thinking about mutually joyful love-making.[2]

Grazida Lizier is a relatively neglected figure in medieval scholarship. She was born in 1297 in the small, southern French village of Montaillou. Grazida’s mother, who was born of an unwed mother, was separated from her husband and worked as a tavern-keeper. When Grazida was about fourteen and living in her mother’s house, she began a sexual relationship with the leading local church official, Pierre Clergue.[3] Pierre at that time was probably in his late thirties. Grazida explained:

Because it gave me joy and him also when we made love, I did not think that with him I was sinning.[4]

For the next six months or so, Grazida and Pierre frequently had sex in her mother’s house, with her mother’s approval, mostly in the daytime. Then Pierre Clergue arranged to have Grazida marry Pierre Lizier.

Grazida continued to have sex with her first Pierre while married to her second. She explained:

he still often lay with me, in the four years that my husband was alive; my husband knew about it, and did not put up resistance. When he asked me about our love-making, I said yes, it was true, and he told me to take care it should be with no other man. But Pierre and I never made love when he was at home, only when he was out. …

At the time we made love, both before I was married and after, as our love-making in all that time gave joy to us both, I did not think I sinned, nor does it seem so to me now.

The husband’s concern to limit his wife to just the other Pierre suggests that he valued her more than as a live-in prostitute. He may have also believed that his wife having a child by a wealthy local church official wouldn’t significantly conflict with his over-all interests as a man and a potential father. Grazida showed some complex appreciation for her husband:

When I was married and made love with the priest Pierre, it did seem more proper to make love with my husband — all the same it seemed to me, and I still believe, it was as little sin with Pierre as with my husband. Did I have any qualms at the time, or think that such deeds might displease God? No I had none, and did not think my lying with Pierre should displease any living being, since it gave joy to us both.

If my husband had forbidden it? Supposing he had — even though he never did — I still would not have thought it a sin, because of the shared joy. … Does it displease God more when the partners are married than when they are not? I think it displeases him more when they are unmarried lovers.[5]

While capacity to rationalize increases with higher education, rationalization is an innate faculty of the human mind. Grazida adroitly distinguished between displeasing God and sinning. The latter was more clearly condemned within the letter of Church law. Her focus on that abstract, conceptual distinction obscured the question of whether she would cuckold her husband without his consent. The modern information economy for paternity knowledge works similarly.

The modern man writer sharply and moralistically distinguished between Grazida Lizier and Pierre Clergue in their mutually joyful love-making. Grazida is deeply feeling, unswerving idealistic, and without guile in her statements. Pierre is a coarse, shallow libertine, a hypocritical sensualist, and slippery like a serpent.[6] The man scholar, mounting a chivalrous knight’s horse without appreciation for its literary history, declared:

it is important not to blur the distinction between his promiscuous attitude and her unswervingly idealistic conviction. For Grazida it is uniquely the quality of shared joy between two lovers which frees love-making from all taint. The only possible external impediment to love that she can see is consanguinity (this is clearly a vestige, that she still acknowledges, of her orthodox upbringing). Such an outlook, and the assumptions underlying it, are so different from those of Pierre Clergue, that nothing in Grazida’s second avowal prevents us from fully accepting her statement in the first: “No one taught me these ideas except myself.” If at the beginning of their affair Pierre relaxed her traditional beliefs, he was too shallow ever to arrive at Grazida’s own.

He looks at love-making from the coarse standpoint of the conquering male who “pleasures” a woman (“no sin as long as it gives her pleasure”); she is concerned with tenderness, with the mutual giving of joy.[7]

The modern man writer recognized myth-making of only a primitive sort. Grazida, thinking deeply, declared:

I believe God made those things that are helpful to man, and useful too for the created world … But I don’t think God made wolves, flies, mosquitoes, and such things as are harmful to man

Tracing this line of thought, the scholar pondered the creation of wolves, flies, and mosquitoes, and asked, “Who then made these?” He missed the mythic answer obvious to him, “Those other, evil men made them.” That answer isn’t unparalleled. It’s common, in more or less explicit forms, throughout all times and places.

Men writers at the margins of public discourse have privileged, as did Grazida, mutually joyful love-making. In the plain language of men writing outside of authoritative structures, Reservoir Tip recently wrote:

Last night, I ended up in a little bit of a dilemma. I had two girls scheduled to come over at the same time, mainly because I was expecting one of them to flake. To my surprise, she didn’t.

I thought about bringing them both in and trying for the threesome, but decided against it. As girl one walks into my place, girl two texts me saying she’s arrived. I text girl two back and tell her that “the shit hit the fan” and that I can’t join her tonight. She’s pissed, and rightly so, really. What I pulled was pretty low, and definitely rude.[8]

Just as the orthodox condemnation of incest retained hold on Grazida, Reservoir’s orthodox upbringing apparently prompted him to reject trying for a threesome. While he expected one of the women, without respect for his position, to change her mind about meeting (“flake”), he understood similar actions on his part to be “pretty low, and definitely rude.” Reservoir’s desire for mutually joyful love-making caused him to end his meeting with the first woman:

I’m sitting around with girl one, doing a simple movie at my place, but she ends up being kind of a bitch, and we split after about an hour and a make out.

Reservoir’s subsequent actions shows the depth of his concern for mutually joyful love-making:

I text girl two back, “hey come over now.”
She comes right over and i boink her.

Notice the adjectival use of “right.” That diction subtly acknowledges and validates women’s strong desire for mutually joyful love-making. The word “boink” for sexual intercourse is somewhat unusual. More typical words for sexual intercourse in this genre of writing tend to emphasize the explosive physical vigor of the activity (“fuck“, “bang”). The choice of “boink” is playful, with a sense of childish innocence. Like a traditional fable, Reservoir’s story ends with an epimythium:

If your value is high enough, and the girl is horny enough, she’ll do anything, apparently.

A high priest of seduction, writing on behalf of free souls, ironically appended five “asshole dicktums” to Reservoir’s story.[9] Structures of authoritative morality always exist in human society. Within that reality, Reservoir’s story is a moving expression of mutually seeking sexual joy.

Against seemingly impossible odds, the spirit of such men has not been crushed. However savagely scholastic authorities try to suppress them, their beliefs live on irresistibly — Reservoir Tip’s, indeed, only through a site likely to attract censors, if not prosecutors. Today such testimonies remain as a wonder and a question of expiration.[10]

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[1] Dronke (1984) p. 203.

[2] Robert Darnton, Lucien Febvre, Carlos Ginzberg, and E.P. Thompson have been leading proponents of history from below and expansive interpretations of marginal texts. Somewhat under-appreciated has been the extraordinarily sensitive and insightful reading of Ellen Hootton, a ten-year-old factory worker in Wigan in 1833. See Galbi (1996).

[3] Pierre Clergue was rector of the church in Montauillou. The Clergue family was the leading family in Montaillou. Le Roy Ladurie (1978) Ch. III.

[4] Testimony of Grazida, widow of Pierre Lizier of Montaillou, to Jacques Fournier, the Bishop of Pamiers, on August 19, 1320, from Latin trans. Dronke (1984) p. 204. All subsequent quotations from Grazida’s testimony are from id. pp. 204-5. Id. pp. 265-9 provides the Latin source. Dronke’s translation is free. He noted:

The translations {of Grazida’s testimony and that of others from Montaillou} … are in a sense “free”: in order to evoke as accurately as possible the Provençal words that the women themselves will have used in their testimonies, it is necessary not only to turn the Latin into direct speech but also to infer, from legalistic and condemnatory expressions in the official record, the “unloaded” expressions that might lie behind these.

Dronke (1984) p. 316, n. 8. For analysis of such a translating strategy, Arnold (2001). Here’s a much more literal English translation of Grazida’s testimony.

[5] The logical structure of the question, “Does it displease God more when the partners are married than when they are not?” is contra-normative. That structure suggests light sarcasm toward Grazida’s claims.

[6] All these descriptive words, except for the simile, are from Dronke (1984) pp. 204-6. The phrase “like a serpent” is my interpretation of the medieval-biblical allegory implicit in “slippery.” After being imprisoned for about seven weeks, Grazida testified, “I once {aliquando} told him that I’d learnt that my mother Fabrisse was his cousin by blood.” That statement directly contradicts her earlier statement. Moreover, aliquando could also be translated as “sometimes.” Grazida claimed that Pierre Clergue “taught me these errors about sexual sin.” That statement also directly contradicts her earlier statement. The judicial officials recorded her hearsay claim:

She also said she was afraid that if I told the truth about the rector and his brothers, they would kill me or otherwise maltreat me.

The phrase “kill me or otherwise maltreat me” is sensationally pointed. Grazida in earlier testimony indicated only her joy in having sex with the rector (Pierre Clergue). Pre-trial detention is common in criminal justice systems today and doesn’t excuse perjury.  Cf. id. p. 205. In just courts, hearsay testimony isn’t presumed to be true. All testimony in just courts is subject to doubt and questioning. Dronke sternly reprimanded Duvernoy for suggesting that Grazida was behaving shrewdly:

It is disappointing that Duvernoy in his translation of Le register (1 303), says in a footnote to Grazida’s testimony: “elle est consciemment insolente, bien que le procèsverbal ait l’apparence de la naïeté.” This judgement, by the scholar who through his detailed work should have been in the best position to comprehend Grazida’s thoughts, is inappropriately hostile and condescending.

Dronke (1984), pp. 316-7, n. 15. U.S. universities today conduct rape inquisitions with less procedural protections and more hostility to the accused than did medieval heresy inquisitions. Vigorously criticizing those proceedings would show better moral judgement.

On March 8, 1321, the Inquisition sentenced Grazida Lizier to life imprisonment. About four months later her sentence was commuted and she was set free. She was required to wear the Cathar yellow cross on her clothes to signal others to beware of her.

[7] The idea that sex is unobjectionable if both parties enjoy it surely has been a common view in practice among ordinary persons. Pierre Vidal, who lived in the nearby village of Ax-Les-Thermes in Grazida’s time, testified to the Inquisition that the sexual act was innocent if it pleased both parties and the man paid the women for sex. Le Roy Ladurie (1978) pp. 150-1. The latter condition reflects  devaluation of men’s sexuality prevalent in practice throughout history.  Pierre Clergue was the “womanizer per excellence of the Clergue family.” Apparently drawing inspiration from the great teacher of love Ovid, Pierre declared that he wanted all women. Id. p. 154. Testimony to the Inquisition indicated that he had sex with at least twelve women living in Montaillou or nearby Ax-Les-Thermes. Much documentary evidence indicates sex with Pierre was mutually joyful. Pierre, although short of stature, was highly confident, socially adroit, and verbally skillful. Id. Ch. IX, passim. Le Roy Ladurie attributed Pierre’s engaging in mutually joyful love-making with a large number of women to his “power and wealth.”  Id. p. 156. That view, like Dronke’s view, is superficial and condescending. It reflects anti-men animosity and ignorance of the modern applied science of seduction.

[8] Reservoir Tip wrote his story on January 18, 2015. The amount of critical attention it will attract from literary scholars remains to be seen. Grazida Lizier’s testimony has been anthologized in leading works such as Davis et al. (1992). It has also been the basis for a national best-seller, Charmaine Craig’s The Good Men: A Novel of Heresy (2002). Craig studied medieval literature as an undergraduate at Harvard. Here’s a review of her book in the Harvard Crimson. Craig’s success underscores the value of exposing students to a wide range of writing, even writing powerful authorities might find repugnant.

[9] The Latinate ending of “dicktum” suggests the plural form “dickti.” But the final syllable -tum is better interpreted as a popular, contracted variant of “them.”

[10] Cf. Dronke (1984) p. 228.

[image] Modern knight on white charger imagines receiving women’s love. Photo thanks to PublicDomainPictures on pixabay.


Arnold, John. 2001. Inquisition and power: catharism and the confessing subject in medieval Languedoc. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Davis, Natalie Zemon, Georges Duby, Arlette Farge, G. Mouillaud-Fraisse, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Michelle Perrot, Pauline Schmitt Pantel, and Françoise Thébaud. 1992. A history of women in the West. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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

Galbi, Douglas A. 1996. “Through Eyes in the Storm: Aspects of the Personal History of Women Workers in the Industrial Revolution.” Social History. 21 (2): 142-159.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel, from French trans. Barbara Bray. 1978. Montaillou: the promised land of error {Montaillou, village occitan de 1294 à 1324 (1975)}. New York: G. Braziller.

Dhuoda for fathers deprived of custody of their children

Dhuoda's vision of fathers' love for their children

In November 30, 841,in the European Carolingian kingdom, the duchess Dhuoda began writing a book for her eldest child William. She was living apart from her husband and without physical custody of her children. William, fifteen-years old, had been placed in the sworn service of the king in violent circumstances five months earlier. Dhuoda’s second child, also a son, had been born eight months earlier. Her husband had quickly taken the baby from her to be under his protection.[1] Dhuoda loved her sons and longed to be with them. Her book has poignant immediacy today for the many fathers deprived of physical custody of their children.

Like many fathers today, Dhuoda grieved deeply from being deprived of her children. Her book includes impersonal observations and recognizes the objective value of being useful:

I have observed that most women in this world take joy in their children. But, my son William, I see myself, Dhuoda, living separated and far away from you. For this reason I am somewhat ill at ease, and eager to be useful to you. I am happy, therefore, to address this little book to you [2]

Most men take joy in their children and are eager to be useful to them. But parents, women and men, long more deeply to be with their children. Dhuoda wrote to her son:

I have been long deprived of your company, and I dwell in this town because my husband commands it. Though I am happy about the success of his campaigns, I am driven by my longing for you both. … despite the many cares that consume me, this anxiety is foremost in God’s established design — that I see you one day with my own eyes, if such is the Lord’s will. [3]

Husbands legally separated from their wives and deprived of custody of their children might feel similar longing. Beaten down in anti-men family courts and in a culture that treats men as disposable, fathers both yearn to see their children and internalize belief that they don’t deserve that joy:

Much too long, it seems to me
I’ve yearned to gaze on the shape of your face.
If I had the power! But this joy for me is
Undeserved. [4]

The anguish of fathers longing for their children lacks impelling expression in today’s elite culture. Dhuoda’s book, imaginatively read, expands to give fathers’ anguish a powerful voice.

Dhuoda’s charity in anguish was godly. Fathers deprived of custody of their children often have good reasons to be furious at their ex-girlfriends or ex-wives, and at the world. Dhuoda had such reasons with respect to her husband and her society.[5] She nonetheless retained good will toward all. She prayed for her children’s father in her prayer to be re-united with her children:

Grant me, mother of two male children,
my prayer to the loving Creator: may God
Exalt to the heights the father of these children,
and join me to them in the heavenly realm. [6]

She prayed for happiness for her son William and for his father:

May the Almighty God, of whom — despite my unworthiness — I speak so often, render you, together with your father Bernard, my seigniorial lord, happy and cheerful in the present world. May He give you prosperity in all things. And once the course of this life is ended, may He see to it that you joyously enter heaven with the saints.

Dhuoda’s relationship with her husband Bernard was strained. She was concerned that he might divorce from her. Yet with periphastic words she invoked blessings even for other children Bernard might have with another woman.[7] In praying to be received at the heavenly banquet, Dhuoda put her children’s father first, and herself, last:

To this banquet and this house, may the kind Lord in His kindness deign to lead your father, along with his children and me as well. Amen.

Bitterness toward her husband had no place in Dhuoda’s heart. Fathers can find in Dhuoda inspiration to relate to their children’s mothers with respect and kindness.

Despite all intervening circumstances, Dhuoda believed that she and her son were irreplaceable in relation to each other. Dhuoda declared to her son:

There is no one like you I leave behind among the living, no one but you to champion my cause.[8]

Dhuoda’s personal characteristics and status in society were irrelevant to what she meant to her son:

I, Dhuoda, although of the frail sex and living unworthily among women who are worthy, I am nonetheless your mother, my son William. It is to you that the words of my handcraft are now addressed.

Dhuoda’s words would apply equally well today to David and his daughter Wilma:

I, David, although of the disposable sex and living unworthily among men who are worthy, I am nonetheless your father, my daughter Wilma. It is to you that the words of my handcraft are now addressed.

In family courts, welfare agencies, and prisons and jails, fathers are crushed in systems that relate to them as cases in a queue of cases. But a father’s relationship to his child cannot be transferred to another.

Just as a father’s support for his child goes far beyond paying money to the child’s mother, Dhuoda’s support for her son was all-encompassing. Dhuoda wanted her son to be a perfect man. She wanted to be his mentor in all things.[9] These aspirations reflect, not her seeking to dominate him and determine his life, but the breadth of her love for him. In good times and bad, Dhuoda wanted to be there for her son: “In every eventuality I stand by your side.”[10] Dhuoda wrote the book and sent it to her son so that she could always be with him:

Dhuoda is always here to exhort you, my son, but in anticipation of the day when I shall no longer be with you, you have here as a memento of me this little book of moral counsels.[11]

Dhuoda’s book offers much more than moral advice. It’s a little book in the sense that she hand-wrote it for her son Williams’ hands. It’s a huge book in the sense that with it Dhuoda seeks to give William all that she possibly can. Dhuoda urged William to offer God continually in prayer “a sweet gift of honey and honeycomb.” Fearing that she would not live to see her son’s face again, she offered him her handcraft of words:

Here’s a kind of sweet brew with honeycomb mixed
As food for your lips: sip it always, I bid you.[12]

Dhuoda loved her son as the son was to love God. In Christian understanding, there is no greater love.

Many fathers today can find in Dhuoda’s text profound understanding and inspiration. Dhuoda’s great work of handcraft is wonderfully fecund.

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[1] Dhuoda’s second child was taken from her before the child was even baptized and named. Liber manualis, Preface & 1.7, Thiébaux (1998) pp. 51, 71.

[2] Dhuoda, Liber manualis, In the name of the Holy Trinity (prefatory text section), from Latin trans. Thiébaux (1998) p. 43. All subsequent quotations of Liber Manualis are from Thiébaux’s translation, cited by book.section and page number, with some minor changes that I’ve made in accordance with my sense of a better translation.

[3] Id. Preface, p. 51.

[4] Id. 10.2, p. 223.

[5] Dhuoda might have felt that her husband, who apparently was away from her for long periods of time, was insufficiently attentive to her wants and needs. In addition, he gave her the difficult and expensive responsibility of maintaining the Carolingian kingdom’s frontier at the Spanish March. Id 104. p. 227.

[6] Id. Verse inscription (preface) p. 47. Subsequent quotes in the above paragraph are from 1.7, p. 71; 2.2 p. 77. In Thiébaux’s translation, I’ve replaced “sire” with “father,” and “offspring” with “children.”

[7] On Dhuoda’s fear of divorce, 10.4, p. 227. After calling down blessing on her children and explicitly mentioning the birth of her second child, Dhuoda wrote vaguely:

Quod si plus, Deo auxiliante, fuerint, id consequantur una vobiscum, quod a me invocatum est supra {And if more, with God’s help, be subsequently among you, may the others also obtain what I have asked above}

2.3, p. 81. Neel (1991), p. 120, n. 31, comments here, “Dhuoda means if she has grandchildren.” Dhuoda could also have meant her having another child. The chronicle of Ademar of Chabannes indicates that Dhuoda had a daughter born in 844 or 845. Thiébaux (1998), introduction, p. 7. Dhuoda’s words could also mean her husband having another child with another woman. Dhuoda’s unnecessarily indirect phrasing suggests that she considered that possibility.

[8] Liber manualis, 10.4, p. 227. The subsequent quote is from id., Prologue, pp. 47-8.

[9] After providing text for her epitaph and just before the closing of her book, Dhuoda includes a section on reading Psalms. Id. 11.1, pp. 232-7. Her text there adapts Alcuin’s preface to a treatise on the use of Psalms, De Psalmorum usu liber (available in Patrologia Latina, v. 101, cols. 465-68). Dhuoda punctuated Alcuin’s points with eiusdem (“another thing”) and item (“furthermore”). That verbal punctuation of Alcuin’s teaching emphasizes Dhuoda’s concern to give William as much as she can.

[10] Liber Manualis, 9.5, p. 215.

[11] Id. 1.7, pp. 69-71.

[12] Id 10.1, p. 219. The previous quote describes offering daily Psalms to God. Id. 11.1, p. 235.

[image] Tomonori Toyofuku, Caelum II, detail. 1963, wood. Work 66,4999, Hirshhorn Museum. Douglas Galbi’s photograph at Hirschhorn Museum.


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

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

medieval women’s love poetry for men’s learning

While women enjoy reading fiction much more than men do, men could make their tools more useful with study of medieval women’s love poetry. Men struggling to find love commonly look to women for guidance. But understanding what women say and write about love requires literary sophistication that many men lack. Studying medieval women’s love poetry can help men to gain needed literary sophistication.

Medieval women’s love poetry tells men what women want, but only if men are discerning readers. Consider a poem that a medieval woman in a convent wrote:

We love only those men whom prudent Excellence has moulded,
whom Measure has advised to look on her with deference …
Ovid, that knight of the unchaste Amours, has tricked you,
persuading you to love that poem
by which unhappy men are seduced, and not made finer …
A lady’s grace will grant whatever is honourable —
this she will give to one who always asks fittingly.[1]

That’s poetic fiction. Ovid tells the truth. Men must show that they cannot easily be tricked. Women will accept resources from beta-men providers, but they love alphas. The most numerous alphas, and the types most accessible to ordinary men, are jerks, badboys, and rogues. Some men complain bitterly about women, just as some women complain bitterly about men. Learning to appreciate fiction is a better way. Pretend to be a jerk, badboy, or rogue to stir a woman’s desire.

Testing is different in medieval women’s words than in modern science. Consider another medieval poem that another nun wrote:

Let men whom lewdness delights depart from our company —
if you should be of that sort, stay away!
Even men tested in a thousand ways are only just admitted …
As for those to whom Excellence wants us to give our pledge …
let them be duly refined, with manners of distinction. …
For him who has acquired a name for courtesy like our own,
our maidenly company desires the grace of joy.[2]

The modern empirical science of seduction recognizes the central concern of this poem as “shit-testing.” That involves a woman hurling shit (unwelcoming, challenging, dismissive words) at a man to see how he responds. Learned authorities in seduction recommend responding to shit tests illogically, laconically, and lewdly. Some examples:

Question: “You are not like other men of refinement, courtesy, and chivalry. Why didn’t you remove your hat when your entered our convent?”
Answer: “i don’t wanna get you pregnant

Question: “What is your parentage?”
Answer: 8=====D~~ {ascii penis; only possible with modern texting technology}

Statement: “You’re not in the Duke’s favor.”
Response: “gay”

If this knowledge had been more widely available to medieval men, convents would have become nurseries, the Archpriest of Hita would have never written Libro de buen amor, and the population explosion associated with the rise of mixed-sex factory work would have occurred centuries earlier. It’s a matter of literary sophistication. Men pass women’s thousands of tests with strong verbal subterfuge.

Medieval women’s love poetry depreciates the value of child-bearing to men. In a medieval poem, the two sisters Alais and Yselda address the more knowing Lady Corenza. Alais says:

Lady Carenza, you whose body is so lovely,
give some advice to my sister and me,
and, since you know how to discern what’s better,
advise me as your experience suggests:
Shall I, in your opinion, take a husband,
or shall I stay unmarried? — that would please me,
for I think to breed has little to commend it —
yet it’s too troubling to be husbandless.[3]

Notice that Alais first appeals to Lady Carenza as a woman of bodily beauty and then as a woman of knowledge and experience. In love from men’s immediate perspective, bodily beauty is paramount. Being husbandless is troubling to Alais because she has no one to assign to household chores. She also has to teach again and again new men how to please her in bed. Yet why would she think that “to breed has little to commend it”? Her sister Yselda elaborates:

Lady Carenza, I’d enjoy taking a husband,
and yet I think having children is a penance —
for after that the breasts will hang right down,
and the belly be wrinkled and wearisome.[4]

In despising the bodily effects of pregnancy, this poem is similar to Aelred of Rievaulx’s medieval account of the nun of Watton’s miraculously removed pregnancy. When women age, their breasts tend to hang down and their bellies wrinkle. Men experience similar effects of aging. Beauty fades. Children are forever. If a woman doesn’t understand those realities, a man should move on to another.

Medieval love poetry teaches men that a loyal woman always remembers her man’s high value. Making clear one’s high value to a woman doesn’t come easily to Christian men, who strive to be humble and compliant (“like a lamb led to the slaughter…”). Good men know that pride is a great sin. They must develop an evil spite for the sake of love. The medieval woman poet Comtessa de Dia provided an instructive lament. She sang:

I have to sing of what I would not wish,
so bitter do I feel about him whose love I am,
as I love him more than anything there is;
with him, grace and courtesy are no avail to me,
nor my beauty, merit or understanding,
for I am deceived and am betrayed as much
as I would rightly be had I been unwelcoming.[5]

Praising a woman’s grace, courtesy, beauty, merit, or understanding doesn’t earn her ardent love. Women who claim otherwise are deceiving and betraying themselves. A high-value man isn’t welcoming to the woman he wants to love. He welcomes others. He doesn’t want to be her friend. He makes her strive to be a friend to him:

Friend, comfort me in this — that I never failed you
through any behavior of mine;
rather, I love you more than Seguis loved Valensa,
and it delights me that I vanquish you in loving,
my friend, for you are the most excellent.
To me you show arrogance in words and presence,
and are well-disposed towards everybody else.

It amazes me that your being turns to proudness
with me, friend — and for this I am right to grieve:
it is not fair that another love takes you from me,
however she may address or welcome you; —
and remember how it was at the beginning
of our love … God forbid
that the separation should be fault of mine!

The great merit that shelters in your person,
and the rich worth you have, disquiet me —
since there’s no woman, far or near,
who, if she would love, does not submit to you;

The reward for you maintaining your high value to her is her loyalty to you:

yet you, my friend, have enough discernment
to know who is the loyalest.
And remember our understanding.

My worth and my nobility must speak for me,
and my beauty, and still more my loyal heart [6]

You must stay the course and pass the test:

and so I send you, where you are staying,
this song, which shall be my messenger;
and I want to know, my fair gentle friend,
why you are so hard and strange with me —
I don’t know if it is pride or evil spite.

But I also want you to tell him, messenger,
that many suffer great loss through too great pride.

She will continue to love you loyally if you respond rightly:

be here late tomorrow evening bring wine [7]

Such literary sophistication is difficult for most men to understand and learn. They must overcome that difficulty.

Medieval women’s love poetry tends to be regarded as an arcane study. It shouldn’t be. Truly understanding medieval women’s love poetry teaches men how to secure enduring pleasure in a woman’s love.

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[1] …cum matre Cupido, ll. 8-9, 18-19, 24-25, from Latin trans. Dronke (1984) p. 92. This poem is among love-verses probably from Regensburg (in present-day Bavaria, Germany). It is in the single, chaotic manuscript, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm 17142. For full Latin text and English translation, Dronke (1968) vol. II, XXXI, pp. 433-4. The Regensburg love verses were probably written late in the eleventh century. They are from young women in a convent to their cleric-teacher from Liège. He apparently was pursuing amorous affairs with his students. For additional discussion, Dronke (1968) vol. I, pp. 221-9.

[2] Hunc mihi Mercurius florem dedit ingeniosus, ll 5-7, 9, 12, 16-17, from Latin trans. Dronke (1984) p. 92; full Latin text and English translation, Dronke (1968) vol. II, XVII, p. 426. This is another love-verse from Regensburg,

[3] Na Carenza al bel cors avinen, excerpt, from Occitan trans. Dronke (1984) p. 101. Rialto provides the Occitan text and Linda Paterson’s prose translaton of the whole poem. Paterson’s translation is similar to Dronke’s. The poem survives in only garbled form in only one manuscript. Other editors assign lines to voices differently. See, e.g. Paden & Paden (2007) p. 151. The poem probably dates to the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Comtessa de Dia (probably twelfth century), A chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria, from Old Provençal trans. Dronke (1984) p. 103. Subsequent quotes above from this poem are from id. The Provençal text and alternate English translations are available here and here. A musical score for the poem has survived. YouTube has some wonderful  performances of the song, including the one above. The liner notes for Robin Snyder’s album La Domna Ditz provides background on Comtessa de Dia:

The powerful Comtessa de Dia states plainly her desire to sleep with someone other than her husband (“Estat ai en greu cossirier”) and advises women not to worry about court gossips (“Ab ioi et ab ioven m’apais”).

The text of A chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria in those liner notes is missing two stanzas.

[6] Dronke described the Countess as “trying to rationalize irrational emotions.” He perceptively observed:

the rhetoric mirrors the obsessive quality of the lady’s questioning and rebuking: she turns the same thoughts over and over, reverting to them each time with a new attack. Each time we are brought to share her own wonderment more keenly: the injustice of it all — how was it possible?

Dronke (1984) pp. 10-5.

[7] Just to avoid any misunderstanding, this line is not from the medieval poem. I made it up based on my brief study of leading modern seduction authorities.


Dronke, Peter. 1968. Medieval Latin and the rise of European love-lyric. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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

Paden, William D., and Frances Freeman Paden. 2007. Troubadour poems from the South of France. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Perpetua resolutely rejected her father’s pleas & got killed

wisdom of an ass

The formal Roman law of pater familias, like the social construction of patriarchal understanding, suppressed and silenced the lived experience of almost all fathers. The public record has largely worked to support the dominant public ideology.  Yet occasionally a transgressive challenge has appeared at the margins of public discourse. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity was such a challenge. In it, Perpetua described the socially marginalized reality of a daughter’s relationship with her father.

When she was arrested on suspicion of being a Christian, Perpetua was about twenty-two years old. She was “well-born, liberally educated, and honorably married.” Although breast-feeding a child, she made time to write. She left a precious, first-person diary of her experiences in prison and on trial. She understood the public importance of what she was doing. Unable to write about her own execution, she wrote “let whoever wishes to write about it, do so.” Her writing should be taken seriously.[1]

The first words of Perpetua’s prison diary describe her father’s love for her. Her father knew that she was planning to declare herself a Christian and be killed. Perpetua wrote, “my father, because of his love for me, wanted to change my mind and shake my resolve.” He tried to argue with her. That of course was futile. He got angry, got in her face, and glared at her furiously.[2] Then he left, having failed to dissuade his daughter from getting herself killed. He stopped coming to her in prison for the next few days. She seemed to have been pleased with her success in turning away her father’s love. She wrote that she was “refreshed by my father’s absence.” In reality, daughters often don’t appreciate their father’s love.

Perpetua’s father tried again to save her. He was “worn with worry” for her. Rather than attempting arguing, he sought her pity:

My daughter, have pity on my gray hair, have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be called father by you, if with these hands I have raised you to this flower of youth, if I have preferred you to all your brothers, do not shame me among men.

He also reminded her of her importance to other members of their family:

Think about your brothers, think about your mother and your mother’s sister, think about your son who will not be able to live without you. Give up your pride; do not destroy us all. For, if you are punished, none of us will be able to speak freely again.

Perpetua noted that her father acted as a suppliant to her:

My father said these things to me, as a father would, out of his love for me, kissing my hands and throwing himself at my feet. Weeping, he no longer called me daughter, but lady.[3]

These weren’t one father’s extraordinary actions. Perpetua recognized that her father acted “as a father would, out of his love” for his daughter. Perpetua understood that the formal Roman law of pater familias and pater potestas was nonsense.

Fully engaged in care for children from the cradle to adulthood, Perpetua’s father took custody of his baby grandson and cared for him. Biologically he was incapable of breast-feeding the child. However, in the Roman Empire, upper-class families commonly hired wet-nurses for their children.[4] At the same time, oppressive gender norms imposed on men nearly all the responsibility for earning money to support the household. That included providing money for purchasing the services of a wet-nurse. Perpetua’s words implicitly indicated the double-burden of child-care and money-earning that fathers carried. Perpetua’s father desperately reminded Perpetua that he and his grandson — her baby son — would be crushed under the double burden of fathers’ work.

Perpetua’s father desperately intervened in her trial. He grabbed hold of Perpetua and attempted to pull her to safety. Disregarding his own life, he pleaded to Perpetua for the life of her child:

Offer the sacrifice. Have pity on your baby.

The presiding Roman official took up her father’s plea and rightfully incorporated her father in it. The Roman official declared to Perpetua:

Spare the gray hair of your father, spare your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the health of the emperors.[5]

In words that fathers in real life have often heard, Perpetua resolutely responded, “I will not.” Under official questioning, she then affirmed that she was a Christian. That meant death for her. Perpetua choosing death also meant that her infant son would most likely die and that her father would suffer terrible pain, if not death from sorrow and grief. In contrast to the Roman official inserting respect for Perpetua’s father in his plea to Perpetua, the father, out of love and grief for his daughter, in turn disrespected the Roman official. He defied the official proceeding and insistently and continually pleaded with his daughter. The Roman official ordered Perpetua’s father to be “thrown to the ground and beaten with a rod.” That’s extraordinarily harsh and demeaning treatment of a elite Roman citizen.[6] Fathers’ love for children is less strongly supported publicly than is mothers’ love for children. That gender inequality reflects the underlying gynocentrism of human society.

Perpetua’s father was acutely concerned for his grandson’s welfare. After the trial, he retained custody of the baby. That’s extraordinary under formal Roman family law.[7] Perpetua seemed relatively unconcerned about the child’s welfare. Her account is unclear about whether or not the child was with her at particular points in her prison stay.[7] Roman prisons were harsh, disease-ridden places. Perpetua’s father apparently was determined to do the very best he could for his baby grandson.

Perpetua’s father grieved inconsolably about his daughter’s rejection of his pleas and her impending death. Perpetua wrote that after she was sentenced to death:

my father, devastated with worry, came to visit me, and he began to tear out his beard and to throw it on the ground. He then threw himself on his face and, cursing his years, spoke such words to me as might move creation itself [8]

Her father’s grief took Jewish or Jewish-Christian forms. Sacrificing to Roman gods may well have been abhorrent to him.[9] But Perpetua’s father valued his daughter’s life and his grandson’s life far above formal religious ritual. Perpetua grieved for her father’s “unhappy old age.” She didn’t change her life course. She included in her diary two visions that she had about herself. She didn’t have any visions about her father and her young son.

Just as for fathers and daughters throughout history, ancient Roman fathers could tell their daughters what to do. And daughters could do what that they wanted to do, even onto death. That’s the reality underneath the ideology of pater familias and the social construction of patriarchal understanding. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity has generated an enormous volume of scholarship.[10] That scholarship largely celebrates Perpetua’s actions and ignores her father. One scholar reflected:

This is one of the very rare pieces written by a female hand that is known from antiquity. It was, even in its own day, a small and fragile thing. Yet even this exiguous voice could not be left alone. From the very start it was buried under an avalanche of male interpretations, rereadings, and distortions. What chance, one must wonder, was there for Perpetua to tell her story? Despite all this, there is that other demon – hope. Perpetua’s words are still with us. Her experiences, her thoughts and her visions have, after all, survived.[11]

This “poor dear” understanding of Perpetua (creating a “small and fragile thing”; “buried under an avalanche”; those other men are treating her badly!) is a common pattern of men’s thinking from present-day academic officials, to twelfth-century monks meditating on Mary Magdalene at Jesus tomb, probably back to the first man who had a daughter. Such understanding has perpetuated falsehoods and injustices right up to the present.

Perpetua wrote inspired, revelatory words about her relationship to her father. Those words deserve to be heard throughout the world and taken seriously.[12] Perpetua’s publicly written words are important even if most persons, in their own personal life, already know them.

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[1] The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity (Passio Sanctarum Pertetuae et Felicitatis), from Latin trans. Heffernan (2012): “well-born, liberally educated, and honorably married,” II, p. 126; “let whoever wishes to write about it, do so,” X, p. 130. All subsequent quotes from the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity (Passion) are in translation from id., by text section and page number. A translation by R.E. Wallis (1925) is freely available online, as is the translation of Musurillo (1972). Here’s an online review of a few manuscripts. Id. Appendix 1 provides a thorough review of the manuscripts, with some photos of them. The Latin original for the first quote is prefaced by fuller name for Perpetua, “Vibia Perpetua, honeste nata, liberaliter instituta, matronaliter nupta.” Vibia appears to be her nomen, and Perpetua her cognomen. “The Vibbi, attested both in North Africa and in Italy, were a large family of some distinction.” Id. p. 105 (Latin text), 150 (Commentary).

[2] Passion, III, p. 126. A sentence in this section is translated literally: “Then my father, angered by this name {Christian}, threw himself at me, in order to gouge out my eyes.” Some have interpreted this sentence to imply that Perpetua’s father actually assaulted her physically. That’s as ridiculous as believing that her father could literally throw himself. Heffernan (2012) Commentary, p. 157, states:

Her father’s behavior frightened her. She was uncertain, if only for an instant, if he would attack her.

That highly conjectural and highly implausible given the figurative language that Perpetua uses and the sophisticated literary context.

[3] Id. V, pp. 127-8. The word “lady” translates dominam, a term of respect for a woman.

[4] Cooper (2011) p. 688.

[5] Passion, VI, p. 128. Dronke (1985), p. 5, declares that Perpetua’s father “is claiming her with possessive love.” That’s an uncharitable, other-worldly interpretation.

[6] In the redactor’s introduction (II), Perpetua is described as honeste nata (well-born). That indicates that Perpetua was of the upper honestiores class. Heffernan (2012), Commentary, p. 150. Persons of that class weren’t subject to corporal punishment under Roman law. Cooper (2011) p. 694.

[7] Cooper (2011) pp. 688-9.

[7] In Passion, III, Perpetua initially had her baby in prison. There she worried about the conditions for him and nursed him. Then she entrusted her baby to her mother and brother. Then she arranged to have the baby stay with her again in prison. She expressed delight to have her baby with her. Then, with no further remarks on the matter from Perpetua, her father showed up with the baby in a visit to her (Passion, V).

[8] Id, IX, p. 129.

[9] Heffernam (2012), p. 28, observed, “his behavior reminds one more of an ancient Jew than a Roman male.” If Perpetua’s father was Jewish or Jewish-Christian, sacrificing to Roman gods would have been abhorrent to him.

[10] Bremmer & Formisano (2012) presents recent work. It’s a collection of papers resulting from a 2007 scholarly conference on the Passion. While offering scant consideration of Perpetua’s father, it features on its front cover Gustav Klimt’s Danaë. The Danaë erotically aroused by Zeus’ golden shower here seems meant to suggest Perpetua’s passion for God.  Caroline Walker Bynum noted that she and colleagues taught the Passion “as part of the required syllabus in Columbia University’s western civilization course in the mid-1990s.” She also described the cover of Bremmer & Formisano (2012) as an “egregious misjudgment.” Bynum (2013) p. 135. Friesen (2014) documents pernicious effects of narrow-minded scholarship and teaching about the Passion.

[11] Shaw (1993) p. 45.

[12] Heffernan’s magisterial critical edition of the Passion states:

This Roman father, however, does not behave like an elite Roman male. He overturns all our stereotypical understanding of the paterfamilias. … They {Perpetua’s descriptions of her interactions with her father} are the only records which depict such interactions, and should be read with some skepticism.

Heffernan (2012) p. 26. There are no other such ancient Roman records of a daughter documenting in detail tense, momentous interactions with her father. Perpetua’s words should be evaluated with respect to common life experiences of fathers and daughters. Skepticism should be directed at stereotypical understandings of gender relations. One might also be skeptical of the claim in id., p. 38, that Perpetua read and alluded to Plato’s Cratylus. In Roman competition for honor, members of the domus were interested in shielding the pater familias from shame. However, “Perpetua’s self-understanding as a Christian visionary allowed her to expose what the better-socialized members of her family preferred to hide.” Cooper (2007), p. 8.

[image] Balaam, the Angel and the Ass. Woodcut, 1493. Nuremberg Chronicle, f. 30r. Thanks to Wikicommons. For the underlying biblical narrative, Numbers 22-24.


Bremmer, Jan N., and Marco Formisano, eds. 2012. Perpetua’s passions: multidisciplinary approaches to the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. 2013. “The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity / Perpetua’s Passions: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the “Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis.” Common Knowledge. 20 (1): 134-135.

Cooper, Kate. 2007. “Closely Watched Households: Visibility, Exposure and Private Power in the Roman Domus.” Past and Present. 197 (1): 3-33.

Cooper, Kate. 2011. “A Father, a Daughter and a Procurator: Authority and Resistance in the Prison Memoir of Perpetua of Carthage.” Gender & History. 23 (3): 685–702.

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

Friesen, Gabrielle. 2014. “Perpetua Before the Crowd: Martyrdom and Memory in Roman North Africa.” University of Colorado, Boulder. Undergraduate Honors Theses.

Heffernan, Thomas J. 2012. The passion of Perpetua and Felicity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shaw, Brent D. 1993. “The Passion of Perpetua.” Past & Present. 139 (1): 3-45.

how Thecla was saved from her evil mother and terrifying death

Although Thecla was engaged to Thamyris, she fell in love with Paul. Just hearing Paul speak captivated Thecla. It wasn’t her fault. It was just the way she felt.

Thecla’s mother was furious at her for being in love with Paul. Her mother called Thamyris to their house. That really wasn’t necessary. Everyone was weeping bitterly, pleading with Thecla, and berating her. So cruel. That’s not the way a mother should treat her daughter just because she doesn’t want to go through with a wedding because she loves someone else.

The situation got worse. Her mother accused Paul of upsetting the whole city of Iconium. Two of Thamyris’ friends, who also knew Paul, blatantly lied and said that Paul said that women and men shouldn’t sleep together. That’s crazy. Paul didn’t say that. Even the tyrants running our schools haven’t tried to totally end sex. Or gender. Whatever.

So, get this, Thecla’s mother got her in trouble with the Governor. The Governor called Thecla up and said:

Why dost thou not marry Thamyris, in accordance with the law of the Iconians?

Thecla said nothing and just stared at Paul. She is so in love with him! Then her evil mother, that witch, cried out:

Burn the wicked one; burn her who will not marry in the midst of the theatre, that all the women who have been taught by this man (she meant Paul) may be afraid!

While the Governor seemed to like Paul and listened to him gladly, he knew he couldn’t rule against a mother. So he condemned Thecla to be burned. A rainstorm put out the fire, thank God. Otherwise, she would have burned.

Thecla left home and went to be with Paul. After the way her mother treated her, how could she stay at home? Thecla had been everywhere in Iconium. I hate that place, too. She and Paul went to Antioch, which is a big city with great night life. Before they went to a restaurant or club, a creepy guy named Alexander hit on her. Right out in the open street, with Paul next to her! Thecla tore Alexander’s fancy clothes, knocked him in the head, and made him the laughing-stock of Antioch.

Thecla got in trouble with the authorities for that. Alexander had friends in high places and pulled strings to get back at her. So Thecla rejected that beast Alexander, and she got condemned to the beasts! A lot of women in Antioch stood up for Thecla. They cried out: “Evil judgement! Impious judgement!” And Queen Tryphaena, who was a close friend of the Emperor, befriended Thecla. Queen Tryphaena’s daughter had died. But her daughter spoke to her in a dream:

Mother, receive this stranger, the forsaken Thecla, in my place, that she may pray for me and I may come to the place of the just.

I always pray for all the souls of the faithful departed, and a queen hasn’t adopted me. Well, I haven’t been thrown to beasts, either. When they threw Thecla to the beasts, all the women sat together to watch. Some yelled: “Away with the sacrilegious person!” But other women yelled: “O that the city would be destroyed on account of this iniquity! Kill us all, proconsul; miserable spectacle, evil judgement!” Divided, the women couldn’t rule.

A lioness and God saved Thecla. Thecla was put in the arena, and beasts were sent at her. But the lioness lay down lovingly at her feet. When a bear tried to attack her, a man bear I’m sure, the lioness defended Thecla and tore the bear apart. Then Alexander sent his lion to attack Thecla, but the lioness defended her. Both the lion and the lioness died fighting. They fought a spectacularly bloody fight over Thecla. More beasts were sent at Thecla, but she jumped into a pit of water and was what the Christians call baptized. There was a lightening flash, and then all the seals that were going to eat her died. Thecla emerged in a cloud of fire. More beasts were sent at her. A lot of women were yelling and throwing fragrant plants at her so that the whole arena smelled like perfume. All the beasts were calm as if they were asleep. It was exciting and dreamy.

Then Alexander did something really awful. You know how guys seem to be driven by their balls? Well, Alexander tied Thecla to two bulls, then poked the bulls’ balls with a red-hot iron. They went wild.  But Thecla in her robe of flames burned through the ropes tying her to the bulls. She got away unharmed from the bulls.  Then Queen Tryphaena fainted. I thought I was going to faint, too. All the Queen’s maids yelled, “The Queen Tryphaena is dead!” Alexander became very afraid. He fell at the Governor’s feet and pleaded:

Have mercy upon me and upon the city and set the woman prisoner free, lest the city also be destroyed. For if Caesar should hear of these things, he may destroy the city along with us because his kinswoman, Queen Tryphaena, has died at the theatre gate.

Alexander couldn’t even stand up to Thecla. I knew the Queen’s maids could fool him.

The Governor decided to release Thecla to the maids. They all cried out in praise to God: “One is God, who has delivered Thecla.” The whole city was shaken by the maids’ cries. Thecla was saved from death. Queen Tryphaena returned to life. She said to Thecla:

Now I believe that the dead are raised up! Now I believe that my child lives! Come inside, and I will assign to you all that is mine.

Queen Tryphaena took Thecla into her big house and gave her jewels and luxurious robes. Now all us girls want to become Christians like Thecla.

*  *  *

Thecla, Paul, and Theocleia in fresco in Cave of St. Paul, near Ephesus

In the sixth century, in a cave reputed to be the place where the Apostle John had taken Mary, the mother of Jesus, a fresco was made of Thecla, Paul, and Thecla’s mother Theocleia. Theocleia stands to the viewer’s right of Paul. Theocleia’s hand has two fingers raised in a gesture signaling that she, like Paul, is seeking to teach Thecla. Some time later, someone scratched out Theocleia’s eyes and blacked out her two-fingers teaching gesture. That person passionately identified with Thecla’s love of Paul and despised Thecla’s evil mother Theocleia.

*  *  *  *

Read more:


The text above is adapted from the Acts of Paul and Thecla, written in Greek in the second century. Barrier (2009) provides a critical edition. The quotes above are from the translation of Elliott (1993), with minor modifications. A nineteenth-century English translation is available online in the Ante-Nicene Christian Library. A scholarly consensus now exists that a woman or a community of women wrote or created orally the Acts of Paul and Thecla prior to Tertullian’s apparent reference to a presbyter producing the Acts of Paul. Barrier (2009) p. 22. The fresco shown above is in a cave, called the Cave of St. Paul, in Bülbüg Dag near Ephesus in present-day Turkey. The image of the fresco is fairly used from the Ephesus Foundation website.

Paul versus Thecla in popular theology

Crossan & Reed (2004) on its cover featured the fresco of Thecla, Paul, and Thecla’s mother. The fresco was tendentiously cropped, highlighted, and digitally restored. The book’s preface declared:

An earlier image in which Thecla and Paul were equally authoritative apostolic figures has been replaced by one in which the male is apostolic and authoritative and the female is blinded and silenced. … here are our questions. Is Thecla still departing or now returning? Does a search for Paul push female leadership, authority, and apostolicity off to the side and finally off that cover, or does a search for Paul bring Thecla, women, and equality back steadily and inevitably into the light until female and male stand together side by side in the full life of the center?

Id. pp. xii-xiv. That’s only rhetorical posing. It depends on faulty identification of the figures in the fresco. In the full image of the fresco (see above), the figure within the house on the viewer’s left is clearly Thecla at her window. The figure in the center is explicitly labeled in Greek as Paul, and the figure on the right, as ΘΕΟΚΛΙ (THEOCLI).  Hence the figure on the right (on Paul’s left, with the left side having disparaging biblical significance) surely is Thecla’s mother Theocleia, not Thecla herself. The fallaciously based analysis in Crossan & Reed (2004) remains disseminated worldwide about a decade latter in a Wikicommons page featuring the fresco, tendentiously cropped. Humane imagination provides better understanding.


Barrier, Jeremy W., ed. and trans. 2009. The Acts of Paul and Thecla: a critical introduction and commentary. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. Based on dissertation, freely available online.

Crossan, John Dominic, and Jonathan L. Reed. 2004. In search of Paul: how Jesus’s Apostle opposed Rome’s empire with God’s kingdom. New York, N.Y.: HarperSanFrancisco.

Elliott, J. K., trans. 1993. The Apocryphal New Testament: a collection of apocryphal Christian literature in an English translation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

the pregnant abbess, nun of Watton & cuckolded husbands

pregnant abbess delivered of her child

The story of a pregnant abbess miraculously delivered of a unwanted child was highly popular in medieval Europe. The story is first attested in Latin in the 1120s. It became part of many Latin collections of miracle stories throughout Europe. By the thirteenth century, vernacular versions existed in England, France, Spain, and Italy. By the fifteenth century, the story was known from Iceland to Ethiopia. The story of the pregnant abbess had such broad appeal that it was made into a drama presented to the Paris Goldsmiths in 1340. About a century later , the story was made into a drama presented in public processionals at Lille.[1] The miracle of the pregnant abbess wasn’t regarded as scandalous or ridiculous.[2] It was celebrated as revealing the mercy and grace of God.

In the story of the miracle of the pregnant abbess, an abbess ruled her convent with rigorous piety. The nuns under her disliked her severity. They sought her downfall. By the instigation of the devil and her own weakness (and implicitly by the prayers of her sister nuns), the abbess became pregnant through sex with a table servant. The sisters found out about the abbess’ pregnancy and secretly informed the bishop. He came to the convent to investigate. The abbess fled to an altar of the Virgin Mary and prayed for mercy. The Virgin Mary appeared with a retinue of angels. She induced the abbess to give birth. The angels took away the child and gave it to a hermit to raise. When the bishop sent representatives to examine the abbess, they found no indication of pregnancy. The bishop, astonished, himself examined the abbess. He too found no indication of pregnancy. Horrified at the injustice done to the abbess, he threw himself at her feet and begged her forgiveness. He ordered harsh punishment for the false accusers. The abbess, not wanting her sisters to be unjustly punished, confessed her pregnancy and the miracle to the bishop. The bishop praised the Virgin Mary, forgave the abbess, and took care of the child. The abbess’ child eventually succeeded the bishop in his episcopal office.[3]

Aelred of Rievaulx’s account of the nun of Watton includes a miracle like the miracle of the pregnant abbess delivered of her child. Aelred of Rievaulx wrote about 1160 of recent events concerning a nun at the Watton monastry. In Aelred’s account, the nun of Watton, like the abbess, was despised by her sister nuns. The nun of Watton, like the abbess, got pregnant. The nun of abbess was also miraculously freed of her pregnancy by angels.[4] In addition to hatred of men’s genitals, Aelred’s account is colored with hatred for bodily effects of pregnancy. The miracle of the pregnant abbess doesn’t describe the abbess’ body after her pregnancy is ended. Aelred, in contrast, described with evident contempt for natural effects of pregnancy the rejuvenation of the nun of Watton:

When the morning had come her guardians {sister nuns} were there looking at her. They saw her womb had shrunk, that her girlish — I will not say virginal — face had put on comeliness, and that her clear eyes had lost their leaden color. … They prodded her womb, and behold, such slimness had succeeded the swelling that you would think her belly attached to her spine. They prodded her breasts but drew no liquid from them. Not sparing her, however, they pressed harder, but they expressed nothing. They ran their fingers over each of her members, they explored everywhere, but they discovered no sign of a birth, no indication of a conception.[5]

Recent scholarly work has focused on women to celebrate Aelred of Rievaulx as a champion of gender equality:

Without apology or drama he praises women in the highest social ranks for their virtue, their strength, and their concern to build up the Church and the kingdom, and he shows ordinary English women receiving God’s blessing through his saints. His women are remarkable for their virtue, faith, and social or domestic roles rather than for their sex. Aelred recognizes not only kings and saints as models of human virtue and faith but all sorts and conditions of women as well. As he declares that God created men and women as equals, he portrays them as equally sinners and lovers of God, equally recipients and ministers of God’s loving-kindness to his creation.[6]

Aelred’s account of the nun of Watton contains hatred for the sexual biology of men and women in roughly equal measures. Unlike the miracle of the pregnant abbess, the account of the nun of Watton apparently didn’t circulate widely.[7] Medieval readers probably didn’t disseminate the story of the nun of Watton because they disliked its contempt for natural, biological effects of pregnancy on a woman’s body.

Medieval literature doesn’t include stories of men miraculously delivered of unwanted children. The nearest story concerns a Swabian husband whose work to earn money for his family kept him away from home for two years. When he came home to his wife, she had a young boy. The wife explained that she had eaten heavily of snow to quench her thirst and had thus become pregnant. About five years later, the cuckolded husband took the boy on a business trip. In a faraway land, he sold the child to a trader. When he returned home, the husband explained to his wife:

Give solace, dear wife,
give solace;
I lost your child,
whom not even you yourself
loved more
than I.
A storm arose
and a raging wind drove us,
too tired to resist,
onto sandy shoals;
and the sun scorched us all
and that child of yours

The story of the cuckolded husband delivered of his unwanted child doesn’t tell of a Godly miracle. It describes tit-for-tat morality among fraudsters:

Thus the treacherous
Swabian tricked
the wife;
thus fraud overcame fraud:
for the child whom the snow engendered
quite rightly melted
under the sun.[8]

Unlike the miracle of the pregnant abbess, the story of the cuckolded husband delivered of his unwanted child wasn’t included in medieval handbooks for preparing homilies. It hasn’t been celebrated as a portrayal of men and women as equally guileful. From the beginning of Christianity to the present, neither the Virgin Mary nor Saint Joseph miraculously arrived, even just in a story, to deliver a cuckolded husband from a child he didn’t want.[9]

Unplanned parenthood can be a wonderful surprise. It can also be a major burden. In the U.S. today, a woman who finds herself pregnant can choose to abort the pregnancy, or choose to carry the pregnancy to term. She can also choose to give up the child for adoption or choose to legally abandon it. Men facing unplanned parenthood have no equivalent choices. States, in fact, unnaturally force financial fatherhood on men. Even worse, cuckolding men has become institutionalized through grotesquely unjust state procedures for establishing paternity. Men and women today can’t even imagine the miracle of a cuckolded husband delivered of his unwanted child.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Knight (2008) p. 1. The Lille play, sponsored by the collegiate church of Saint Peter, had as its principal purpose to edify. The Paris Goldsmith’s play was presented to a confraternal audience seeking “to reconcile spiritual and material concerns.” Id. p. 147. A critical edition of the Lille play, entitled “Le Miracle de L’Abbesse Grosse,” is published in Knight (2011) no. 71, pp. 223-270. Metzler (2001), Ch. 1, reviews the manuscript history and distribution of the miracle of the pregnant abbess. By the late twelfth century, Nigel of Canterbury had made the story into Latin verse. Ziolkowski (1986) pp. 91-9, “De abbatissa inhonesta.” In the thirteenth century, the story became a song in the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Here’s a list of cantiga manuscript instances of the miracle of the pregnant abbess.

[2] Boccaccio’s Decameron includes playfully scandalous stories of lascivious abbesses: the story of Masetto de Lamporecchio’s sexual over-work as gardener at a convent (3.1), and the story of the abbess, wearing a man’s britches mistaken for a headdress, catching one of her nuns with a lover (9.2).

[3] The earliest surviving manuscript of the miracle of the pregnant abbess is part of the Latin collection of miracles of the Virgin Mary that Dominic, Prior of the English monastery of Evesham, compiled in the early 1120s. Boswell (1988), pp. 259-60, provides an English translation. A Latin text providing a 13th or 14th century version (MS Harl. No. 2316, fol. 6) is available in Wright (1842), pp. 38-40, “De abbatissa a dapifero suo impregnata.” An English translation of that version is available in Metzler (2001) pp. 3-5. A Middle English version is available online from the Northern Homily Cycle, Homily 13, Purification, ll 291-448. Metzler (2001), Appendices 3 & 4,  provide manuscript and collection indices for the miracle of the pregnant abbess. While some details vary across instances, the summary above describes almost all versions. William Adgar’s late-twelfth-century Anglo-Norman collection of Marian miracles, Le Gracial, includes the miracle (“De l’abesse enceintee,” Miracle XLIX). It added relevant normative context:

Whoever deliberately prevents natural conception commits a grave fault against God. It
is a great sin to prevent conception, but a greater sin to kill the child conceived.

Vv. 40-44, trans. Knight (2008) pp. 136-7, with original Anglo-Norman text.

[4] The nun of Watton was also miraculous freed of fetters in which her sister nuns had bound her in a prison cell. Merciful freeing of prisoners is deeply rooted in human understanding of compassion. Miraculous freeing of prisoners is described in Acts 12:6-11, 16:25-34. Coptic Christian Marian prayers from the early centuries of Christianity included prayers for setting prisoners free. A study of the affair of the nun of Watton stated:

Of the two miracles involved in the affair, that concerning the delivery of the child was probably less impressive to contemporaries than the freeing from the fetters, which was one of the oldest and best established types of miracles and therefore convincing testimony both of God’s favour and of Henry Murdac’s powers of intercession.

Constable (1978) p. 212. That’s conceptually confused. Eliminating a women’s pregnancy is unusual and not closely related to central Christian beliefs. Eliminating the nun of Watton’s pregnancy is by far the more interesting miracle in the account of the nun of Watton.

[5] Aelred of Rievaulx, The Nun of Watton, s. 10, from Latin trans Freeland & Dutton (2006) pp. 119-20.

[6] Dutton, introduction, id. p. 31.

[7] It has survived in only one manuscript and attracted little medieval interest, nor much through to the present.

[8] The raging storm and the sun suggest metaphorically the wife’s relationship with her lover and God. The version quoted here is a tenth or eleventh-century Latin verse version, Carmina Cantabrigiensia 14, trans. Ziolkowski (1994) pp. 67, 9 (with original Latin). It is the earliest surviving version of the tale, which is commonly called “The Snow-Child.” The tale has been widely disseminated, in primarily entertaining and diverting contexts, from the Middle Ages to the present. Id. pp. 211-12. The fabliau version is entitled, “L’enfant qui fu remis au soleil,” or “L’enfant de noif.” While it has been translated into English, it hasn’t been included in English-translated collections of fabliaux published since 1982. Removing unwanted children from a parent’s life was common prior to the twentieth century. Means of doing so were exposure, commitment to a religious institution, commitment to domestic servitude, or sale into slavery/service through a trader. Boswell (1988) describes practices of child abandonment through the Renaissance. Placing young children as live-in domestic servants and farm laborers continued through the nineteenth century in England.

[9] Boswell (1988), in its appendices of translations, pp. 449-60, provides serially translations of “The Snow Child,” “The Nun of Watton (Aelred of Rievaulx),” and “The Abbess Who Bore a Child and Was Saved by the Holy Virgin.”Id., however, failed to recognize how these three stories relate to men’s lives and men’s social position. Scholarship on the miracle of the pregnant abbess has served mainly to obfuscate the gynocentric structure of primate societies, including human societies.  Consider:

veneration of the Virgin did not have particularly positive implications for the position of actual women in the Middle Ages; the analysis of this story indicates that even the Virgin embodied and promoted negative aspects of the feminine, and that tales told about her promoted masculine control of women’s institutions.

Karras (1988) p. 126. Medieval men, on the other hand, complained of lack of appreciation for even basic aspects of men’s sexuality. Claiming that everything degrades women, and, deep down, is misogynistic, is a way of focusing concern on women. Consider:

The Miracle of the Pregnant Abbess, therefore, which seems so woman-friendly at first glance because it celebrates woman as both redeemer and redeemed turns out to be profoundly misogynist upon closer inspection. … The way the Pregnant Abbess advances the doctrinal party-line on women’s sexuality may well explain the great popularity and wide dissemination of a tale which seems permissively to excuse the breaking of vows of chastity and the indulgence in wanton lust.

Metzler (2014) p. 203. Men today are subject to crushing, state-imposed financial payments for doing nothing more than having consensual hetero-sex that results in a child that they didn’t want. Men are subject to hate rape culture worldwide. Medieval historians who cannot understand basic aspects of the world in which they live don’t inspire confidence in the value of their study of medieval history.

[image] Pregnant abbess delivered of her child. The abbess is asleep before an altar. The Virgin Mary takes the abbess’ child and gives it to an angel. Book of Hours, Use of Sarum (“The Taymouth Hours”), England, 2nd quarter of 14th century. British Library MS Yates Thompson 13, f. 156v, detail.


Boswell, John. 1988. The kindness of strangers: the abandonment of children in Western Europe from late antiquity to the Renaissance. New York: Pantheon Books.

Constable, Giles. 1978. “Aelred of Rievaulx and the Nun of Watton: An Episode in the Early History of the Gilbertine Order.” Pp. 205-26 in Derek Baker, ed. Medieval Women. Oxford: Published for the Ecclesiastical History Society by B. Blackwell.

Freeland, Jane Patricia, trans. and Marsha L. Dutton, intro., ed. 2006. Aelred of Rievaulx: the lives of the northern saints. Cistercian Father Series 71. Kalamazoo, Mich: Cistercian Publications.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. 1988. “The Virgin and the Pregnant Abbess: Miracles and Gender in the Middle Ages.” Medieval Perspectives. 3: 112-132

Knight, Alan E. 2008. “The Pregnant Abbesses of Paris and Lille.” Pp. 135-47 in Maddox, Donald, and Sara Sturm-Maddox. 2008. Parisian confraternity drama of the fourteenth century: the Miracles de Nostre Dame par personnages. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols.

Knight, Alan E. 2011. Les Mystères de la Procession de Lille. T. 5. Légendes Romaines et Chrétiennes. Genève: Droz.

Metzler, Eric T. 2001. The Miracle of the Pregnant Abbess: texts and contexts of a medieval tale of sexuality, spirituality, and authority. Thesis (Ph. D.)–Indiana University, 2001.

Metzler, Eric T. 2014. “The Miracle of the Pregnant Abbess: Refractions of the Virgin Birth.” Pp. 195-206 in Robert L.A. Clark, ed. Romard 52-53. The Ritual Life of Medieval Europe. London, Ontario, Canada: First Circle Publishing.

Wright, Thomas. 1842. A selection of Latin stories: from manuscripts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries : a contribution to the history of fiction during the middle ages. London: Printed for the Percy Society

Ziolkowski, Jan M. ed. 1986. Negellus Wireker (Nigel of Canterbury). Miracles of the Virgin Mary, in verse = Miracula sancte dei genitricis Virginis Marie, versifice. Toronto: Published for the Centre for Medieval Studies by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Ziolkowski, Jan M., ed. and trans. 1994. The Cambridge songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland Pub.

Nun of Watton: judging seduction and castration

artistic representation of nun of Watton's monastery

About the year 1160, terrible events occurred at the Gilbertine monastery in Watton. A nun was impudent, wanton, and impious. A lay brother was young and handsome. They caught each other’s eye:

They regarded each other caressingly …. The thing was first done by nods, but nods were followed by signs. Eventually the silence was broken, and they spoke of the sweetness of love. They inflamed one another; they sowed in one another the seeds of delight, the kindling of desire. He was planning debauchment, but she said afterwards that she was thinking only of love.[1]

The only record of this ancient incident is the account of the abbot Aelred of Rievaulx. He had no way of knowing what the brother was planning. What the nun of Watton said afterwards could easily have been the product of her rationalization hamster. Aelred of Rievaulx reported:

They agreed with one mind on a place and time to speak more freely with each other and take more pleasure together. … The thoroughly wicked man gave a signal of ruin to the ruined: at the sound of the stone that the unhappy man promised to throw at either the wall or the roof of the house in which she usually stayed, she, being alerted to his arrival, might come out to him.

Wanting to have sex with a woman doesn’t make a man “thoroughly wicked.” Men’s sexuality doesn’t in itself ruin women. Aelred continued:

She goes out, and soon, liked a deluded dove, heartless, she is seized by the talons of a hawk. She is thrown down, her mouth is stopped lest she cry out, and, having been already debauched in mind, she is debauched in body.[2]

According to Aelred, the woman is a poor dove. The man is a vicious hawk. Aelred didn’t see the incident. The only source of information about it was the woman involved. She gave information to her sister nuns, who probably gave information to Aelred. Even accepting Aelred’s third-hand account as factual, and ignoring the obvious anti-men bias, the man may have passionately and consensually fell to the ground with the woman and covered her mouth to muffle her orgasmic moaning. If you can imagine the pleasure men can provide to women, you can better understand the next lines of Aelred’s account:

The wicked gratification, once experienced, compelled her to repeat it. When it began happening so frequently, the sisters wondered at the sound they heard and suspected deceit. She was a special object of suspicion, as her habits had already been suspected by them.

Universities in the U.S. are now moving to presume men’s sexuality to be criminal outside of criminal law. Consistent with that trend, the most important recent work on the nun of Watton states that the man raped her.[3] Do you think such gender bigotry has any relation to the huge gender protrusion in America’s massive prison population?

The story of the nun of Watton in some ways challenges gender stereotypes. The nun’s sisters at the Watton monastery discovered that she was pregnant. They reacted with brutal violence:

looking at each other and striking their hands together, they rushed upon her, tearing the veil from her head. Some thought she ought to be given to the flames, others that she should be flayed alive, and others that she should be put on a stake to be burned over live coals. The older women restrained the fervor of the young. She was, however, stripped, stretched out, and whipped without mercy. A prison cell was prepared, where she was bound and enclosed. To each of her feet two rings were attached with fetters, with two chains of no small weight fastened to them. The end of one was fixed in an immense block of wood, and the end of the other pulled outside through the entryway, closed by a bolt. She was sustained on bread and water; she was fed with daily opprobrium.[4]

The nuns at Watton worried that their sister’s revealed sexual activity would hurt their reputation. They decided that, after she gave birth, they would require the man to support her and the child. They thus pressed the woman for information about the father of the child. The woman revealed the time and place for her next rendezvous with him. She thus betrayed her lover.

Men and women of the community joined together to punish the man brutally for having sex with the woman. The superior of the community organized brothers to ambush the man. When the man came, expecting to continue his sexual affair with the woman, the brothers seized him, beat him with cudgels, and bound him. Afterwards, the nuns requested custody of the man “for a short time, as if to learn some secret from him.” Once they had custody of him, they viciously assaulted him:

they knocked him down and held him. She, that cause of all evils, was brought in as if to a performance. They put an instrument into her hands and compelled her unwillingly to cut off his particular male parts with her own hands. Then one of those standing by seized those things of which he had been relieved and flung them as they were — foul and covered with blood — into the mouth of the sinful woman.[5]

Aelred called the woman the “cause of all evils.” That’s merely an abstract, conventional phrase. By requiring the woman to cut off the man’s genitals, the nuns of Watton enacted a vicious lesson of hating men’s sexuality. That lesson continues to be prominently taught in today’s universities.

The nuns of Watton seem to have transformed Saint Jerome’s example of resisting rape into brutal sexual assault. Jerome described a man who was imprisoned and bound in a pleasure garden. The man was then sexually fondled by a beautiful woman. Rather than allow himself to suffer completed rape, he bit off his tongue and spit it into the woman’s face.[6] The nuns forced the sexually active nun both to enact hatred for men’s sexuality and to experience disgust at her sexual attraction to men. Many young women at universities today undoubtedly are inculcated with similar soul-destroying emotional conflicts.

Like violence against men generally, the violence against the man in the story of the nun of Watton has been of relatively little concern. Aelred of Rievaulx praised the latter violence with rhetorical sophistication. Immediately after describing the nuns of Watton flinging the man’s bloody, “foul” genitals into the woman’s face, Aelred declared:

Do you see with what zeal these women, champions of decency, burned, these persecutors of impurity, these women who loved Christ more than anything else? Do you see how they avenged the injury to Christ by mutilating the man and pursuing the woman with opprobrium and abuse?

Aelred went on to offer biblical exempla of similarly inspired action. Then, he rhetorically demurred:

I praise not the deed but the zeal; I do not approve the shredding of blood, but I extol the fervor of the holy virgins against such infamy.[7]

Those words are about as convincing as the concern today for due process in collegiate panels adjudicating claims that a man raped a woman. After being castrated, the man vanished from Aelred’s account of the nun of Watton. In medieval scholarship, concern for castrated men has been warped into representing “men’s fear of women.”[8] Like claiming that the man raped the nun of Watton, misrepresenting men’s castration is anti-men gender bigotry welcomed in today’s educated society.

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[1] De Sanctimoniali de Wattun (The Nun of Watton) s. 3, from Latin trans. Freeland & Dutton (2006) pp. 112-3. Watton is in Yorkshire, England. The characterization of the nun of Watton and the (lay) brother above are those of Aelred of Rievaulx. Id. s. 2, 3. Gilbertine monasteries had men and women religious living on the same site in different buildings. Lay brothers were non-ordained men who were assigned manual work at the monastery. In earlier monastic life, lay brothers would have been called simply monks. That the man was a lay brother is reasonably inferred from Aelred’s description of him as a young brother in a party of brothers doing manual work for the women’s monastery.

All subsequent quotes from The Nun of Watton are from id., with a few of my minor improvements in the translation. De Sanctimoniali de Wattun survives in one manuscript, MS Corpus Christi College 139. Id. titles the work “A Certain Wonderful Miracle.” The Latin text is available online in Patrologiae Cursus Completus: Series Latina, v. 195, pp. 789-96. McNamara (1995) provides an alternate English translation.

[2] De Sanctimoniali de Wattun (The Nun of Watton), s. 3.  Predatory, animalistic characterizations of men’s sexuality are common in medieval literature. In Hrotsvit of Gandersheim’s drama Thais and Pafnutius, the desert father Pafnutius described men engaging in consensual sex as “wolves.” Boccaccio in the Decameron, Day 3, provided a sophisticated literary perspective on describing men’s sexuality as wolfish.

[3] Marsha Dutton, in an introduction entitled, with apparently unappreciated irony, “A Mirror for Christian England,” declares: the account “builds slowly through seduction, rape, pregnancy, battery”; “a handsome lay brother, who, after a time of growing familiarity, raped her”; “their {the nuns’} vengeance on her rapist.” Freeland & Dutton (2006) pp. 21,22, 24. With no apparent appreciation for women’s possible orgasmic responses, id. p. 27 misreads Aelred’s description of the couple’s sexual interaction: “he describes the young nun herself as attempting to resist her seducer.” That’s not in the text. Karl Steel, writing at an online site of fashionable medieval scholarship, states twice that the man raped the nun of Watton. A 2013 course at Saint Louis University, ENGL 429-01, “Sexualities in History: 1200-1600,”offered students the opportunity to “look more closely at the Virgin Community of Nuns in The Nun of Watton and draw some conclusions on how their actions complicate attitudes toward female sexuality.” The lead discussion piece states, “Not only is she most likely raped and abandoned by her lover … Did all this rebellion disappear because she was raped?” Adam Cruz courageously comments:

First, before the idea that the “rapist” male in any way deserved his castration, I feel it is essential to point out, as Dr. Evans did at the start of class, that it is unclear whether or not a rape takes place. Indeed, in Eleanor’s discussion, she assumes that the rape is an actual event when in fact it is much more ambiguous.

Too few persons similarly read, think, and speak truthfully, compassionately, and with perceptive moral concern.

[4] De Sanctimoniali de Wattun (The Nun of Watton), s. 6. The realistic detail in the description of the bindings is consistent with Aelred of Rievaulx’s claim that he visited the bound nun of Watton.

[5] Id. s. 7. The literal translation in Constable (1978), p. 208, is similar. I’ve used the more literal translation of ora as “mouth.” For propriis virum, I’ve replaced the abstract noun “manhood” with “particular male parts.” That phrase seems to me to capture better the specific reference and Aelred’s revulsion to specifying male genitals: “those things of which he had been relieved.”

[6] Jerome, The Life of Paul the First Hermit, s. 3.

[7] De Sanctimoniali de Wattun (The Nun of Watton), s. 7. Reviewing Aelred’s account of the nun of Watton, (which she retitled “A Certain Wonderful Miracle”), Dutton summarizes:

From the first to the last line of the work emphasizes ‘the Lord’s miracles, the clear signs of his divine loving-kindness’ and ‘the glory of Christ’. The emotional weight of the work, however, is on the suffering of a girl grown to young adulthood among a community of women who neglected her, resented her, and finally brutally punished her when she became pregnant.

Freeland & Dutton (2006) p. 20. Dutton’s misandristic, “poor dear” scholarship, like Aelred’s account of the man’s castration, ends with a superficial rhetorical flourish:

As he {Aelred} declares that God created men and women as equals, he portrays them as equally sinners and lovers of God, equally recipients and ministers of God’s loving-kindness to his creation.

Another scholar of the Nun of Watton declared, “the text appears superficially antagonistic to women.” She read the text to “uncover some of the experiences of the silenced minorities (in this instance, women)” and discerned that women exerted authority over other women. Freeman (2000) pp. 3-4. That women exert authority over other women should be no revelation to any woman with a mother, or any women who has ever worked with other women. Students of medieval literature should aspire to be better readers, more insightful thinkers, and more truthful writers than Aelred and his modern-day followers.

[8] On scholarly reading of castrating men, see Libro de buen amor‘s exempla from the Archpriest of Hita, especially note [8]. The quality of scholarly writing on castrating men is totally divorced from facts about violence against men and facts about rape of men. Such writing merely spews forth cultic pondering and in-group name-dropping within a fabric of abstract, comic absurdity:

as I have argued, the male, monastic anchorhold was a place which always threatened to collapse into that feminine realm because of its idealogical insistence upon chastity and the relinquishment of active male sexual identity. For its earliest adherents, therefore, discourses of masculine prowess were privileged in order to counter such feminization. Within this context, Conrad Leyser has argued that ascetic masculinity in the early Middle Ages should be read as fierce display of public power rather than as a retreat into passivity and invisibility. This is suppored by McNamara, who suggests that since masculinity has far weaker biological underpinnings than femininity upon which to build its construction, so it requires a strong and systematic support in order to maintain its fictions. I argue, therefore, that such a systematic support makes its presence felt as ‘alpha-masculine’ discourse in many of the works written for, by and about celibate males throughout the Middle Ages in an attempt to construct what Mc Namara terms ‘a cosmos and terrestrial order that firmly support[s] the natural law of masculine superiority’.

Herbert McAvoy (2011) p. 68, footnotes omitted. This scholarly work’s title deploys the term “anchoritisms.” Forming plural nouns is today regarded as serious literary work. Related work: gender in Aucassin and Nicolette.

[image] Abbey among Oak Trees (Abtei im Eichwald). Caspar David Friedrich, 1809 or 1810. Oil on canvas. In the Alte Nationalgalerie. Thanks to Google Cultural Institute and Wikicommons.


Constable, Giles. 1978. “Aelred of Rievaulx and the Nun of Watton: An Episode in the Early History of the Gilbertine Order.” Pp. 205-26 in Derek Baker. Medieval Women. Oxford: Published for the Ecclesiastical History Society by B. Blackwell.

Freeland, Jane Patricia, trans. and Marsha L. Dutton, intro., ed. 2006. Aelred of Rievaulx: the lives of the northern saints. Cistercian Father Series 71. Kalamazoo, Mich: Cistercian Publications.

Freeman, Elizabeth. 2000. “The Medieval Nuns at Watton: Reading Female Agency from Male-Authored Didactic Texts.” Magistra: a journal of women’s spirituality in history 6(1): 3-36.

Herbert McAvoy, Liz. 2011. Medieval anchoritisms: gender, space and the solitary life. Woodbridge, Suffolk, U.K.: D.S. Brewer.

McNamara, JoAnn, trans. 1995. “The Nun of Watton.” Magistra: a journal of women’s spirituality in history 1(1): 122-138.

Hrotsvit with Gongolf empathized with Solomon and Marcolf

Solomon: “Cast out the mocker, and with him quarrel will depart, and lawsuits and slanders will cease.”

Marcolf: “Cast out flatulence from the stomach, and with it shit will depart, and gas pains and farts will cease.” [1]

punishment of cleric and Gongolf's with in Toul cycle

The Life of Saint Gongolf, composed in Latin in Burgundy about 900 GC, is rather unusual. Gongolf was a married lay nobleman who kept busy hunting wild animals and fighting for his king. Gongolf bizarrely bought a spring for a large amount of money. He was killed by the clerk who cuckolded him. That clerk subsequently suffered disembowelment while using a castle latrine. For her refusal to repent and her impiety, Gongolf’s wife on every Friday had her words transformed into farts.[2] These aren’t the typical components of a saint’s life. Among the many lives of saints that could have served as sources for her writing, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim chose Gongolf. Underscoring her concern for men, Hrotsvit used the story of Gongolf to challenge mockery of cuckolded men.

Hrotsvit highlighted the wrong of cuckolding Gongolf. The Latin life suggests that Gongolf superficially appeared to be a simpleton. That character is associated with cuckoldry. Hrotsvit eliminated that characterization. Rather than having the cleric who cuckolded Gongolf disembowel himself on the latrine, Hrotsvit had him die from rupture of his penis.[3] That death more closely corresponds to his wrong in cuckolding Gongolf. The Latin life seems to subtly mock popular interest in miracle stories.[4] Hrotsvit gave the unusual miracles in the life of Gongolf moral focus on cuckoldry.

Hrotsvit heightened the contrast between the nature of Gongolf’s wife and her behavior. Gongolf’s wife was “a worthy spouse,” “a distinguished spouse of the royal race and one of singular beauty.”[5] Nonetheless, she sexually betrayed Gongolf and plotted his murder. A pilgrim returning from seeing miracles at Gongolf’s tomb urged Gongolf’s wife to repent her evil deeds. Hrotsvit then, more intensely than in the Latin life, presented the wife’s animalistic crudeness:

So, having listened to the man’s sincere advice,
the deceitful woman rolled her murderous eyes
and tossed her wayward head at him impatiently,
and bawled these words from her pestiferous maw:

“Why do you waste your breath, zealously pretending
that such miracles are performed through Gongolf’s merits?
These so-called wonders are nothing but lies.
And if he can pour forth miracles from his tomb
then I can work great wonders with my ass.” [6]

Unlike the Latin life, Hrotsvit imposed as punishment for the wife a complete pairing of speaking and farting. Using epic language, Hrotsvit narrated:

Thus spoke she, and a wondrous sign followed her words,
one congruent with that corporeal part:
thence she brought forth a sound of sordid music
such as my little tongue is ashamed to tell.
And after this, whenever she formed a word,
as often did she sound that graceless note. [7]

Gongolf’s wife mocked the ability of Gongolf’s relics to produce miracles. Her mockery caused her words to be paired with farting.

Hrotsvit’s story of Gongolf relates life in the flesh to life in the spirit. In Solomon and Marcolf, the fleshly Marcolf challenged the spiritual Solomon’s malice toward men. In her retelling of the life of Gongolf, Hrotsvit associated mockery of miracles with cuckoldry. She shifted mockery from the cuckolded man to the unfaithful wife:

So she who disdained to observe the laws of chastity
became a common laughing stock;
and bore throughout the rest of her life
this fitting mark of her disgrace. [8]

Mockery of cuckolded men, like mockery of men physically beaten by their wives, reflects social malice toward men. Hrotsvit sought to exorcise such malice from life in the flesh. She also understood that such malice has no place in life in the spirit.

In many countries around the world today, the cuckoldry of men is institutionally entrenched in government procedures for assigning paternity. Official paternity establishment procedures have been designed to keep men ignorant about biological paternity. Legal paternity is systematically established with undue influence, mis-representation, and mis-service. Courts pretend to mandate paternal relations, while actually just imposing sex-based financial obligations. Elite discussion of paternity testing is rife with contempt for men’s lives. From a historical perspective, mockery of cuckolded men has given way to public institutionalization of cuckolding men.

Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, like Marie de France and Heloise of the Paraclete, offered their courageous, learned voices to help establish justice for ordinary men. But the formal rulers throughout history — almost all men — haven’t followed these women’s lead. That failure has inexorably led to mockery and flatulence. Treasuring and venerating the works of these medieval women writers, we can still hope for miracles.

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[1] Solomon and Marcolf, ll. 46ab, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2008). The medieval fabliau Le Pet au Vilain (The Peasant’s Fart) and the mock epic Audigier, from late twelfth-century France, both describe a person’s soul issuing out of his anus. The thematic importance of farting in Solomon and Marcolf seems more closely related to Hrotsvit’s Gongolf than to those other works.

[2] The Latin text is commonly known as Vita Gangulfi prima. It’s available online in MGH. In French works, Gongolf is commonly spelled Gengoult. The name also occurs variously as Gengulphus, Gongolfus, Gangulf, and other forms. I’ve standardized the spelling above to Gongolf. He seems to have been a historical person who died about 760. His cult as a saint was established before his life was written.

[3] Wailes (2006) p. 247, n. 5 notes some confusion on this point and convincingly clarifies the meaning.

[4] Patzold (2013). Patzold insightfully observes in Vita Gangulfi prima “tension between the coarse content and fine hagiographical cloth.”  He declares that Gongolfus’s virtutes (good deeds) and merita (merits) “comprised scarcely more than a death on the latrine and a spouse who farted every Friday.” Id. p. 209. That humorous statement of course ignores Gongolf’s miraculous transportation of the spring and the wonder-working effects of Gongolf’s relics.

[5] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, Gongolf, ll. 343, 349-50, from Latin trans. Wiegand (1936) p. 107.

[6] Gongolf, ll. 563-72, trans., with minor changes, from Trenchard, Gengulphus website. The Latin text for Gongolf is available in Wiegand (1936) pp. 88-120.

[7] Gongolf, ll. 574-8, trans. Dronke (1984) p. 61. Gongolf himself punished the clerk by having him expelled from the country. Gongolf directly punished his wife for adultery only by denying her further access to his bed. That punishment points to his paternity interest. Wailes (2006), p. 60, follows the typical social pattern of justifying harsher punishment for the man. Hrotsvit may have had a more critical perspective and a truer understanding of gender equality.

[8] Gongolf, ll.  579-83. Wailes (2006), which focuses on spirituality and politics in Hrotsvit’s works, describes the story as “the glorious life of Gongolf.” Id. p. 60. Hrotsvit seems to me to have appreciated broader interests.

[images] Black-and-white image of stained glass windows in the Gengoult cycle at the collegiate church at Saint-Gengoult, Toul. Dated c. 1270. The images are based on the Latin life of Gengoult / Gongolf. The image on the left shows the punishment of the cleric:

The clerk is portrayed seated at the garderobe, with his robe hitched up and his drawers around his ankles, whilst his bowels are expelled. His imminent descent into the ‘cesspit of hell’ (Vita I) is alluded to by the presence of a crouching devil who assists the extraction with a rake.

The image on the left shows the punishment of Gongolf’s wife:

The indistinct figure on the left is the servant delivering her news. The wife, at the moment of her punishment, is holding up her scalded red arm in front of her whilst, with the other arm, she gesticulates toward her backside. A bystander turns his body away from her, whilst turning his head towards her – indicating both disgust and curiosity.

Descriptions by Paul Trenchard, Gengulphus website. For similar descriptions and images, see Lillich (1991) Ch. 3, and Illustrations III.


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

Lillich, Meredith P. 1991. Rainbow like an emerald: stained glass in Lorraine in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. University Park: Published for College Art Association by the Pennsylvania State University Press.

MGH: Monumenta Germaniae Historica. 7: Passiones Vitaeque Sanctorum Aevi Merovingii (V). Vita Sancti Gangulfi Martyris Christi.

Patzold, Steffen. 2013. “Laughing at a saint? Miracle and irony in the Vita Gangulfi prima.Early Medieval Europe. 21 (2): 197-220.

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

Wiegand, Sister M. Gonsalva. 1936. The non-dramatic works of Hrosvitha; text, translation, and commentary. Ph.D. Thesis. St. Louis University.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.