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, 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 Gongolf’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.


penitent harlot victorious in competiton among hermits

harlot Mary of Egypt by Nolde

Men have a propensity to compete to be first and to argue about who was first. Writing about 375 GC, Jerome noted that who was the first important Christian hermit  “has been a subject of wide-spread and frequent discussion.” Jerome teed up that observation in the first sentence of his work, Life of Paul the First Hermit. Jerome’s Life of Paul the First Hermit implicitly competed against Evagrius of Antioch’s popular translation of the Life of Antony, completed in 374 GC.[1] Jerome put forward the claim that Paul, not Antony, was the first important Christian hermit. That argument eventually led to honoring the penitent harlot St. Mary of Egypt.

Jerome signified the primacy of Paul over Antony in a variety of ways. Paul was 23 years older than Antony. Jerome narrated:

the thought occurred to {Antony}, that no hermit-monk more perfect than himself had settled in the desert. However, in the stillness of the night it was revealed to him that there was farther in the desert a much better man than he, and that he ought to go and visit him {Paul}.[2]

Antony made a difficult, dangerous journey to visit Paul. At first Paul refused to see him, but Antony’s pleadings won Paul over. They competed in humility to have the other break bread for a meal. They finally agree to simultaneously break bread together for their meal. Paul requested to be buried in the cloak that Bishop Athanasius gave Antony. Antony, in awe of Paul’s presence, readily agreed. After Paul’s death, Antony took the tunic Paul had woven for himself out of palm-leaves. Antony kept Paul’s garment and wore it on the most holy days of Easter and Pentecost. If Antony recognized Paul as first among hermits, who could dare claim Antony to be first?

The Life of Mary of Egypt, the Former Harlot, probably from the sixth or seventh century, implicitly acknowledged competition in providing stories about saints’ lives. The narrator’s frame for Mary’s life justified as a religious obligation publicly recording her life. The narrator’s frame emphasized the truthfulness of the account.  The sexual dimension of Mary of Egypt’s life probably helped to motivate these meta-assertions. Yet sexual temptations and activities were issues that early Christians openly discussed. The life ends with assertion and denial of competitive striving:

The monks continued to pass on these events by word of mouth from one generation to the other, presenting them as a model {of ascetic life}, to benefit those who wish to listen.  However, to this day they have never heard that anyone else has set this story down in writing. I have put down in this written narrative what I had heard by word of mouth. Perhaps others, too, have written the Life of the blessed {woman}, and probably in a more imposing style than my own, even though nothing of this sort has ever come to my attention. Nevertheless, I wrote this story to the best of my ability, desiring to prefer nothing but the truth.[3]

Primacy in writing and concern for style and writing ability are matters of personal status. They are common competitive issues beyond making truth widely known. The sensational sexual dimension of Mary of Egypt’s life made it a particularly potent competitor to other saints’ lives.

The Life of Mary of Egypt, the Former Harlot describes monastic community rules designed to suppress competition among monks. In that account, the monk Zosimas, like the monk Antony in Jerome’s Life of Paul the First Hermit, was an exceptionally good monk concerned about whether another monk existed better than he:

Is there any man among those leading a contemplative life in the desert who surpasses me in ascetic practice or spiritual contemplation? [4]

Pondering this question, Zosimas received the command to go forth “to learn how many other ways lead to salvation.” Zosimas went forth and joined a community of monks who excelled in ascetic life and spiritual contemplation. On the first Sunday of Lent, each monk went out to be alone in the desert. They returned on Palm Sunday. The monks’ spiritual struggles in the desert were by institutional rule non-competitive:

there was a rule that each monk observed as an inviolable law: not to be concerned with the way that the other monks practiced self-restraint or conducted themselves. … Each monk returned {to the monastery}, having as the fruits of his own purpose his own conscience, which knew how he had labored and with what toil he had sown the seeds {of his spiritual struggle}. No {monk} asked another anything whatsoever about how or in what way he had exerted himself in his struggle. This was the rule of the monastery and in this way it was well fulfilled. For when each of them is in the desert, he struggles by himself under the supervision of God, the Judge of the contest, so that he may free himself from the desire to please men or to practice self-restraint in order to show off. For those actions actions undertaken for the sake of men and performed in order to please them, not only do not benefit the one who does them, but are an additional cause of much harm to him.[5]

This institutional rule indicates the reality of the corresponding problem. Early Christian monks competed with each other to be recognized as outstanding in ascetic discipline and spiritual purity.[6]

The penitent humility of the harlot Mary of Egypt trumped monks’ competition in ascetic discipline and spiritual purity. Zosimas didn’t follow the monastery’s rule on non-competition. He rapidly journeyed to the innermost part of the desert hoping to find a holy father. He encountered instead Mary of Egypt, naked and burnt black by the sun. She fled from him. He chased her and begged her for a blessing. Finally, when he was exhausted, she turned to him and addressed him by name. She described herself as a sinful woman. She asked him for his blessing. Like Antony and Paul arguing over who should break the bread for their meal, Zosimas and Mary argued over who should bless whom. With poignant irony, Mary, deferring to Zosimas’ priestly authority, obeyed his request for her to bless him.

Zosimas recognized that the penitent harlot Mary of Egypt was spiritually superior to him. Further parallels to the Life of Paul the First Hermit figure Zosimas as Antony and Mary as Paul.[7]  Mary of Egypt, the former harlot, emerged as the ultimate victor in competition for ascetic and spiritual excellence among desert hermits.

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[1] Rebenich (2009).

[2] Jerome, Life of Paul the First Hermit, from Latin trans. Freemantle (1892), adapted slightly.

[3] Life of Mary of Egypt, the Former Harlot, from Greek trans. Kouli (1996) pp. 92-3. The ancient translation into Latin is similar. Ward (1987) provides an English translation, as well as excerpts in translation from earlier accounts. The Life of Mary of Egypt includes a textual reference (“made the desert their city”) from the Life of Antony. Kouli (1996) p. 75, n. 34.

[4] Life of Mary of Egypt, the Former Harlot, from Greek trans. Kouli (1996) p. 72. Jerome’s Life of Paul the First Hermit was highly popular and rapidly translated into Greek. It almost surely was known to the author of the Life of Mary of Egypt, the Former Harlot.

[5] Id. pp. 74-5.

[6] Surviving collections of stories of early Christian hermits include the Lausiac History of Palladius, the Meadow of John Moschos, and the Apophthegmata Patrum (Sayings of the Fathers).

[7] Antony and Zosimas see Paul and Mary in extraordinary spiritual visions: “in robes of snowy white ascending on high among the bands of angels” (Paul), walking on water (Mary). Like Antony at Paul’s request, Zosimas returns to his community at Mary’s request. Antony and Zosimas bury Paul and Mary, respectively, with the help of lions digging the graves.

[image] Mary of Egypt among sinners in the port of Alexandria. Emil Nolde,1912. Kunsthalle (Museum of Art), Hamburg, Germany. Thanks to Playing Futures: Applied Nomadology on flickr.


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

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892. “The Life of Paulus the First Hermit.” In  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Rebenich, Stefan. 2009. “Inventing an Ascetic Hero: Jerome’s Life of Paul the First Hermit.” Pp. 13-28 in Cain, Andrew, and Josef Lössl. 2009. Jerome of Stridon his life, writings and legacy. Farnham, England: Ashgate.

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

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conspecific killings in chimpanzees and humans

conspecific violence  in humans / chimpanzees

Animals other than humans engage in lethal aggression, including organized, inter-communal attacks. Lethal aggression can be understood naturally as an extreme result of biological programs, interests, and conditions that generally produce aggression among animals. There’s no good reason for thinking that humans invented lethal aggression or that other animals engage in lethal aggression only as a result of human impact.[1]

The over-all sex ratio of killings of humans in the U.S. today is similar to that among chimpanzees. Across many years of observing chimpanzee communities, inter-communal chimp killings (observed and inferred) of weaned victims comprised 32 males and 8 females.[2] The sex ratio of victims in chimpanzee killings (four males per female) is nearly the same as that among human adults killed by interpersonal violence within the U.S. Males are highly disproportionately represented among adults killed among both humans and chimpanzees.

Humans and chimpanzees differ sharply in the distribution and sex ratios of adult inter-communal and intra-communal killings. Inter-communal killings (observed and inferred) of weaned chimpanzee victims comprised 23 males and 6 females.  The corresponding numbers for intra-communal killings were 9 male and 2 female chimpanzee victims.[3]  About three times as many adult chimpanzee killings are inter-communal, while the killing sex ratio is about equally four males per female for inter-communal and intra-communal adults killed. Chimpanzee adult killings are predominately directed toward extra-communal others without additional sex differentiation.

Compared to chimpanzees, the killing of adult humans in the U.S. today is much more intra-communal. For U.S. persons the ratio of inter-communal killings to intra-communal killings is about 0.05.[4] Accounting for persons of other communities that the U.S. military kills would probably tip the killing distribution to inter-communal killings. But that’s in part an artifact of vastly superior U.S. military technology for killing others. Across all nations, the ratio of inter-communal killings relative to intra-communal killings is probably considerably less than the chimpanzee ratio of three inter-communal killings per intra-communal killing.

Compared to chimpanzees, inter-communal human killings are strongly skewed toward adult males. Within the U.S., about 4 men are killed per woman killed. Among U.S. military personnel on active duty, about 40 men are killed per woman killed. Accounting for the persons that U.S. military personnel kill would probably raise the relative prevalence of killing men even higher.[5] The sex ratio of humans killed differs greatly for inter-communal killings relative to intra-communal killings.

A simple, adaptive explanation of killings is that “killing is a means to eliminate rivals when the costs of killing are low.” Within a community, more individuals are more exposed to each other and more directly rivals. On the other hand, killings within a community undermine the social solidarity and trust necessary for communal living. Adult males tend to be more vigorous rivals with each other for sexual opportunities. Adult females are more vigorous rivals with each other for opportunities to have resources transferred to them. The simple, adaptive explanation doesn’t go far toward explaining the intra-communal / inter-communal killing distribution, the killing sex ratio, and the relationship between the two.[6]

Humans are highly skilled in deluding themselves about objective realities of violence.  Consider these incontestable facts for the U.S.:

Humans seem socially incapable of bringing to reason these basic facts about killing humans. Complex social dynamics seem to shape both killings of humans and social understanding of those killings.

Complex social dynamics may also govern killings among chimpanzees. Looking for such patterns among chimpanzees may help humans to better understand themselves.

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[1] John Horgan at Scientific American’s Cross-Check has hosted a tedious dialogue about the question:

Is chimpanzee violence a product of nature or nurture? Genes or environment?

Nature and nurture are intimately related. The expression of genes depends on the environment. The environment, social interaction, and nurture depend on genes. The construct “nature or nurture” is an ideological construct useful for mobilizing political instincts and seeking attention in mass media. It’s intellectually worthless.

Whether human impact is prompting chimpanzees to kill each other is an interesting scientific question. Wilson et al. (2014) provides good reason to think that human impact has had little to do with chimpanzees killing each other (see also additional explanation). However, the vast majority of book and magazine readers believe strongly that humans should lessen their impact on surviving chimpanzee and bonobo populations.  Associating unattractive events (killings) with human impact, like describing males as demonic, is a compelling content-marketing strategy.

[2] Counted from Wilson et al. (2014) Extended Data Tables 1 & 3.

[3] Id.

[4] Deaths by sex of U.S. military personnel on active duty serving in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 amounts to 6,664 men and 161 women. In comparison, in the U.S. in 2010 among men and women ages 18 to 40, 8,242 men and 1,531 women were homicide victims.  The ratio is calculated as the average across 13 years of the Afghanistan / Iraq U.S. military death total relative to the within-U.S. homicide total in 2010.

[5] On Sept. 30, 2008, 14.3% of active duty military personnel were female. Adjusting for this active duty sex share, the death rate for men is 6.7 times higher than for women. Willingness to serve on active duty in the U.S. volunteer/paid military is behaviorally significant and sex differentiated.

[6] The quoted definition of the adaptive explanation (“adaptive hypothesis”) is from Wilson et al. (2014) p. 416.  Id. notes, “chimpanzees could potentially attack members of their own community on a daily basis, but rarely encounter members of other communities.” That makes the chimpanzee intra-communal /inter-communal killing distribution all the more remarkable relative to the U.S. today. Wrangham, Wilson & Muller (2006), which compares chimpanzees to human subsistence societies, offers little insight into the intra-communal /inter-communal killing distribution and the killing sex ratio for adults.

[7] See note 4.


Wilson, Michael L., Christophe Boesch, Barbara Fruth, Takeshi Furuichi, Ian C. Gilby, Chie Hashimoto, Catherine L. Hobaiter, et al. 2014. “Lethal aggression in Pan is better explained by adaptive strategies than human impacts.” Nature. 513 (7518): 414-417.

Wrangham, Richard W., Michael L. Wilson, and Martin N. Muller. 2006. “Comparative rates of violence in chimpanzees and humans.” Primates. 47 (1): 14-26.

Hrotsvit of Gandersheim on men in the Life of Saint Thais

imagined portrait of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim

Inciting men to fight with each other and requiring men to provide goods to women for sex are central features of gynocentric social organization across societies and throughout history. The life of Saint Thais in early Greek, Syriac, and Lain sources briefly described gynocentric social organization:

There was a certain harlot called Thais. She was so beautiful that many men for her sake sold all that they had and reduced themselves to utter poverty. Quarrels arose among her lovers and often the doorsteps of this girl’s house was soaked in the blood of young men.[1]

Thais became rich from collecting goods from men for having sex with her. With  the help of Abba Pafnutius, a leading Egyptian desert father, Thais repented her sins. She begged God, “You who have made me, have pity on me.”[2] This God-created, Godly woman became a saint widely honored for over a millennium in Christian churches in western Eurasia.

The gynocentric social organization that holds men subservient to women hasn’t been reformed. Although Christian theology affirms that God made man, it hasn’t affirmed with social effectiveness that God made men. The materially, sexually, and physically impoverished and injured men in the story of Saint Thais haven’t been socially redeemed. They hardly attract any social interest. Throughout history, the lives of the vast majority of men have been of social interest only as means for providing goods for others or for fighting with other men.

The tenth-century thinker and playwright Hrotsvit of Gandersheim provided an under-appreciated critical perspective on gynocentric social organization. Hrotsvit of Gandersheim was an elite woman religious closely connected to the royal Germanic courts of Otto the Great and Otto II.[3] Hrotsvit didn’t use her privileged position to push for more privilege for herself and women like her. Hrotsvit instead rewrote the story of Thais as a play that subtly criticizes men’s oppression and urges a more harmonious social organization that provides justice for men.

In Hrotsvit’s dramatization, Thais explicitly recognizes the injustice she had done to men. The men who love Thai are utterly subservient to her despite her exploitation of them. She contemptuously goads them, “Come, hurry along, / my worthless lovers’ throng!” The men grovel in response, “The voice of Thais calls us, let us hurry, let us go / so that we don’t offend her by being slow.” These men are incapable of asserting their own right to justice. To provide justice to them, Thais destroys the exchange values that subordinate them. She declares:

All that I extorted from you unjustly, I now wish to burn,
so that no spark of hope is left that I will ever again return
and give in to your lust. [4]

Thais doesn’t seek to suppress men’s lust. She sets men free from the market through which their lust enslaves them.

Hrotsvit implicitly represents the impossibility of changing womanly nature. Both Thais and Pafnutius describe Thais as burning already refined gold. Gold cannot be burned away. Gold is reshaped in fire.[5] Thais’ life of luxury and sexual pleasure is reformed by having her live in a barren cell in the stench of her excrement.[6] Hrotsvit’s drama doesn’t transform Thais from a woman into some other type of being. It enacts a reshaping and re-balancing of Thais’ womanly nature.[7]

As a man, Pafnutius both laments men’s injuries and figures men as beasts. Pafnutius dilates upon the prior description of Thais’ exploitation of men:

Crowds of lovers flock to her, wishing to be near … These fools that come to her are blind in their hearts; they contend and quarrel and fight each other. .. Then, when the fight has started they fracture each other’s faces and noses with their fists; they attack each other with their weapons and drench the threshold of the brothel with their blood gushing forth. … This is the injury to our Maker which I bewail. / This is the cause of my grief and ail.[8]

Pafnutius doesn’t act to help men directly. Like the crowds of Thais’ lovers, his attention focuses on Thais. He acts boldly to rescue Thais. He takes her to a woman leader of noble, holy virgins, an abbess. He tells the abbess:

I have brought you a half-dead little she-goat, recently snatched from the teeth of wolves. I hope that by your compassion its shelter will be insured, and that by your care, it will be cured, and that having cast aside the rough pelt of a goat, she will be clothed with the soft wool of the lamb.[9]

Thais is conveyed with compassion. Men, in contrast, are figured as wolves attacking her with their teeth. Wounded men quickly vanish in men’s communication with women. Men without the help of women will not help men.

Hrotsvit, the Strong Voice of Gandersheim, concludes her dramatization of Thais’ reformation with her wisdom silently rising through Pafnutius’ prayer. Pafnutius prays for Thais at the hour of her death:

Thou Who created man, unlike Thee, to consist of diverse substances;
grant that the dissolving, diverse parts of this human being
may happily return to the source of their original being;
that the soul, divinely imparted, live on in heavenly bliss,
and that the body may rest in peace
in the soft lap of earth, from which it came,
until ashes and dirt combine again
and breath animates the revived members;
that Thais be resurrected exactly as she was,
a human being, and joining the white lambs may enter eternal joy.[10]

Pafnutius recognizes the God-created, earthly goodness of Thais. He prays that she be resurrected “exactly as she was, a human being.”

Above Pafnutius’ focus on Thais is Hrotsvit’s understanding that men, like Thais, are human beings. Men are neither wolves nor demons. Men in their masculinity are as God-created as women are. Man, male and female God created them, consists of diverse substances. Man, women and men, has a unity within God’s creation of human being. Hrotsvit, the Strong Voice of Gandersheim, carries forward the prophetic mantle of Elijah.[11] The final act of her play is for her audience to enact. We must appreciate men exactly as they are, human beings.[12]

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[1] From English translation of the Life of Saint Thais the Harlot in a Latin translation of a Greek text by an anonymous author of the fourth or fifth century GC, adapted from Ward (1987) p. 83. Early Greek texts attributed Thais’ conversion to Sarapion the Sindonite rather than Pafnutius (Paphnutius). Kuehne (1922) p.  12. On the early texts of the conversion of Thais (Thaïs), id. pp. 12-45 and Ward (1987) pp. 76-82. Engle (2006) pp. 5-10 describes additional medieval references. A life of Saint Thais appears in the Northern Homily Collection from northern England early in the fourteenth century. Whatley, Thompson & Upchurch (2004) collates the manuscripts and provides the text.

[2] Cf. Isaiah 64:8. In the early surviving life, a Latin translation of a Greek text, Pafnutius instructs Thais to say those words of prayer. Trans. Ward (1987) p. 84. In Hrotsvit of Gandersheim’s Thais, Thais says those words unprompted. From Latin trans. Wilson (1989) ll. 812-3, modernized English.

[3] Hrotsvit is also commonly spelled Hrotsvitha, Hroswitha, and Roswitha. On her elite status, Dronke (1984) pp. 55-60.

[4] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, Thais, ll. 461-3, from Latin trans. Wilson (1989). The previous two quotes are from ll. 441-4. Wilson’s translation is also available in Wise and Walker (2003).  All subsequent quotes from Hrotsvit’s Thais are from Wilson’s translation. Hrotsvit’s Latin text is available online in Strecker (1906).

[5] Pafnutius’ and Thais’ descriptions of substantial change, ll. 425-38, seem best read ironically. On Hrotsvit’s subtlety, Dronke (1984) pp. 71-83.

[6] Pafnutius reforms Thais with “medicine of contraries” (ll. 546-7). He explains, “It is only right / that you expiate the evil sweetness of alluring delight / by enduring this terrible smell.” ll. 599-601. Whatley, Thompson & Upchuarch (2004) describe the early Latin text:

Thaïs is sealed into a monastic cell and when she asks the monk where she is to urinate he charitably responds, “In the cell, as you deserve.”

The sarcasm of “charitably” evinces lack of understanding and prevailing misandry. Wise & Walker (2003), p. 191, imposes modern, dark-age dogma on the conversion of Thais. With her elaboration of the “medicine of contraries,” Hrotsvit of Gandersheim was a more broad-minded, humane, and sophisticated reader of the ancient life of Thais. On the other hand, living in an enclosed space filling with their own excrement doesn’t seem to be effective medicine for scholars today.

[7] Wailes (2006), p. 188, makes this important point:

The philosophical ideas of harmony throughout creation, presented in the first dialogues, oblige readers to interpret the sinfulness of Thais not as the triumph of evil but as an imbalance or discord between parts of her created being. Hrotsvit looks at this woman, who acts as a volcano of lust, and is no more horrified or dismayed than is Pafnutius.

[8] ll. 256-7, 259-61, 263-7, 269-70. I’ve omitted the responses of Pafnutius’ disciples. In a burlesque of student behavior, the disciples echo and affirm Pafnutius’ statements.

[9] ll. 529-35. Referring to Thais as a goat connotes her high propensity for sexual activity. Insightful scholarship on Hrotsvit’s Thais hasn’t adequately appreciated medieval women’s vigorous sexuality:

Hrotsvit’s Thais became a prostitute because of her love of money. The root of her immorality is avarice, which, in combination with her great beauty, resulted in her choice of prostitution as a career.

Wailes (2006) p. 185. Thais’ lovers, however, describe Thais as “She, who never thought of anything but love-making, / And gave herself over to pleasure completely!” ll. 480-2, trans. id.  The historically male voice of blaming men for women’s choices has dominated scholarship in recent decades. For example, the blurb for Karras (1996) tells the stories of the lives of women prostitutes: “their entrance into the trade because of poor job and marriage prospects or because of seduction or rape.” That women might choose to prostitute themselves for relatively easy earnings or for their sexual interests can only be considered at the margins of orthodox scholarship. Cf. De Jour (2005).

[10] ll. 817-28.  In her Preface to her plays, Hrotsvit refers to herself as the “Strong Voice of Gandersheim.” Dronke insightfully observes:

With her ironically placed Latin equivalent for her name — Clamor Validus = Old Saxon Hrôthsuith —  she even intimates that writing chaste, Christian plays in the Terentian genre, and thereby redeeming the genre, was a kind of prophetic mission she took on. Hers is the ‘mighty voice’ {‘strong voice’}: the expression ‘ego Clamor Validus’ can hardly help carrying a reminiscence of John the Baptist’s ‘ego vox clamantis’. At the same time, clamor can have an objective as well as subjective force: then her Latinization of the name would suggest something more like ‘the big noise of Gandersheim,’ and be a self-mocking recognition that the spreading rumor of her composing was making her known as a prodigy — or a freak.

Dronke (1984) p. 70. Hrotsvit’s prophetic mission was far more important and challenging than redeeming the Terentian genre.

[11] Cf. Genesis 1:27, 2:23; 1 Kings 19:12.

[12] Zampelli (2013) insightfully explores Hrotsvit’s theatricality and Christian commitments:

Her texts bear witness to an understanding of performance in which “entertainment” coincides with “efficacy,” where the aim of the dramatic action is not only to delight but also to transform the audience. … In her plays, Hrotsvit aims to effect changes in her audience, encouraging them to hold in their own bodies the action mediated by her dramatic compositions.

Id. pp. 156, 158. Zampelli, like scholarship on Hrotsvit in general, seems yet to be transformed by Hrotsvit’s concern for men.

[image] Imagined portrait of Hrotsvit of Gandershiem. Engraved plate from Johann Georg Leuckfeld, Antiquitates Gandersheimenses, Wolfenbuttel, 1709, reproduced in Haight (1965). The seventeenth-century scholar Martin Friedrich Seidel claimed that Hrotsvit was an anagram for Helena van Rossow, a member of the Brandenburg von Rossow family. Wilson (1998) p. 4. The engraving reflects that attribution.


De Jour, Belle. 2005. The intimate adventures of a London call girl. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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.

Engle, Sidney Douglas. 2006. A study of the Thaïs legend with focus on the novel by Anatole France. Thesis (M.A.)–University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 2006.

Haight, Anne (Lyon). 1965. Hroswitha of Gandersheim; her life, times, and works, and a comprehensive bibliography. New York: Hroswitha Club.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. 1996. Common women: prostitution and sexuality in Medieval England. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kuehne, Oswald Robert. 1922. A study of the Thaïs legend with special reference to Hrothsvitha’s “Paphnutius.” Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Pennsylvania.

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

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

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

Whatley, E. Gordon, Anne B. Thompson, and Robert Upchurch, eds. 2004. “The Life of Saint Thaïs.” Ch. IV in Saints’ Lives in Middle English Collections. Kalamazoo, Mich: Published for TEAMS (The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, College of Arts & Sciences, Western Michigan University.

Wilson, Katharina M., trans. 1989. The plays of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim. New York: Garland Pub.

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

Wise, Jennifer, and Craig Stewart Walker, eds. 2003. The Broadview anthology of drama: plays from the Western theatre. Vol I. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press.

Zampelli, Michael A. 2013. “The Necessity of Hrotsvit: Evangelizing Theatre.” Pp. 147-199 in Phyllis Rugg Brown and Stephen L. Wailes, eds. A companion to Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (fl. 960): contextual and interpretive approaches. Leiden: Brill.


females key to peaceful, egalitarian bonobo society

male bonobo grooms female bonobo

A view across primates provides insights into making a peaceful, egalitarian society. In the U.S., about four times as many men die from violence as do women. That’s about the same sex ratio for violent deaths among adult chimpanzees.[1] The overall effect of sex-biased violence, mortality, and social expulsion in chimpanzees produces chimpanzee social groups that have 90% more adult females than adult males.[2] Bonobo, in contrast, hardly ever engage in violent killings. Bonobo groups have closer to equal adult sex ratios with 50% more adult females than adult males.[3] Study of bonobo suggests that adult females are key to promoting a peaceful, egalitarian society.

Bonobo mothers strongly support their sons in social life. In a mixed-sex bonobo party, females tend to be in the center. Males tend to be in the periphery. However, if the mother of an adult male bonobo is in the party, he is more likely to be in the center. An adult male with a mother tends to be dominant over an adult male without a mother.[4] Mothers will even aggressively fight for their adult sons. A primatologist reported observations among wild bonobo:

When {bonobo} males begin agonistic interactions, their mothers sometimes join in support of their sons. …in December, {Sen, a mother} began to attack the sons of {Kame, another mother}, probably to support {Ten, her adult son}. On December 14, in a big fight involving many individuals, {Sen} and {Ibo, adult son of Kame} severely fought while grasping each other, and {Ibo} fled from {Sen}. I first observed fighting between {Kame} and {Sen} on December 19.  They had a hand-to-hand fight while rolling on the ground, and finally, {Sen} held {Kame} down. After {Sen} left the place, {Kame} continued to scream.  After this incidence, fights between {Sen} and {Kame} occurred several times, but {Kame} never defeated {Sen}.[5]

In addition to social status, the presence of mothers also helps their adult sons to get copulation opportunities.[6]  Maternal support for adult sons seems to be a central element of the relatively egalitarian sex opportunities for adult male bonobo and relatively peaceful bonobo society.

Bonobo adult females being relatively receptive to sex with males also contributes to peaceful society. Adult female bonobo are sexually receptive (in estrus) for a much large share of their normal adult lifespan than are adult female chimpanzee. That greatly increases males’ opportunities for copulations.[7] In chimpanzee society, alpha males highly disproportionately copulate with females. The sexual skew is much less severe among bonobo males who have more numerous sexual opportunities.[8] Primate societies that provide all males with plentiful sexual opportunities are more egalitarian and more peaceful.

Females determine the nature of primate society. With human politics failing to advance the welfare of men, caring women should look to other primates. If nothing more human can be done, woman can strive to emulate bonobo females for the sake of men.

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Data: chimpanzee and bonobo community adult sex ratios (Excel version)

Read more:


[1] Across 18 chimpanzee communities studied for decades, intergroup killings (observed and inferred) of weaned (adult) victims comprised 23 male victims and 6 female victims.  The corresponding numbers for intragroup killings were 9 male victims and 2 female victims. Tabulated from Wilson et al. (2014) Extended Data Tables 1 & 3. Captive chimpanzees re-introduced into the wild suffer less harm if they are female. Formerly captive females have been successfully accepted into wild groups, but males have not.   Wild chimpanzees frequently injure severely re-introduced captive male chimpanzees. Among such males, 40-50% of them would have died from the conspecific attacks if they had not received veterinary intervention. Goossens et al. (2005).

[2] See chimpanzee and bonobo sex ratio data table. Furuichi (2011) p. 135, Table 1, gives the adult sex ratio (males/females) for chimpanzees at Mahale and Gombe as 0.27 and 0.51, respectively. These are unusually skewed sex ratios.  The absolute level of mortality is much lower among humans than among chimpanzees.  However, among persons ages 15 to 59 across the world, median mortality probability is 64% higher for men than for women. That fundamental gender inequality has been largely ignored in discussions of gender and development.

[3] See chimpanzee and bonobo sex ratio data table.  Furuichi (2011) p. 135, Table 1, shows the adult sex ratio (males/females) for bonobo at Wamba is 0.75. That’s an unusually nearly equal sex ratio. According to a popular authority, bonobo are a “female-centered, egalitarian primate species that substitutes sex for aggression.” De Waal & Lanting (1997) p. 4. Id. includes a section entitled, “Who’s the Boss?” In that section, primatologist Barbara Fruth declares, “Adult females (bonobo) are dominant in every possible way. Even younger females sometimes dominate adult males.” Id. p. 79. Cf. Furuichi (2011) pp. 136-7. In discussing bonobo as an eqalitarian primate species, de Waal queries, “Could it be that cultural sensitivities surrounding the relation between men and women in our own societies led to a period of denial of this unique arrangement in one of our closest relatives?” De Waal & Lanting (1997) pp. 76, 79-80. Those sorts of cultural sensitivities continue to suppress recognition of the social construction of male dominance and the reality of gynocentrism across primates.

[4] Id. pp. 137-9. Furuichi (1997) p. 866-70.

[5] Furuichi (1997) p. 866.

[6] Surbeck, Mundry & Hohmann (2011). This effect also occurs in the northern muriqui, a  monkey species. Strier et al. (2011).

[7] Furuichi (2011) p. 134-6.

[8] Id. p. 135, Table 1 calculates the male/in-estrous female sex ratio to be 4.2, 12.3, and 2.8 for chimpanzee (Mahale), chimpanzee (Gombe), and bonobo (Wamba), respectively.

[image] Male bonobo grooms female bonobo at Wamba. From Furuich (2011) p. 138.


Furuichi, Takeshi . 1997. “Agonistic Interactions and Matrifocal Dominance Rank of Wild Bonobos (Pan paniscus) at Wamba.” International Journal of Primatology 18(6): 855-875.

Furuichi, Takeshi. 2011. “Female contributions to the peaceful nature of Bonobo society.” Evolutionary Anthropology. 20 (4): 131-142.

Goossens, B., J. M. Setchell, E. Tchidongo, E. Dilambaka, C. Vidal, M. Ancrenaz and A. Jamart. 2005. “Survival, interactions with conspecifics and reproduction in 37 chimpanzees released into the wild.” Biological Conservation 123: 461-475.

Strier, Karen B., Chaves, Paulo B., Mendes, Sérgio L., Fagundes, Valéria, and Di Fiore, Anthony.. 2011. “Low paternity skew and the influence of maternal kin in an egalitarian, patrilocal primate.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108 (47): 18915-9.

Surbeck Martin, Mundry, Roger, and Hohmann, Gottfried. 2011. “Mothers matter! Maternal support, dominance status and mating success in male bonobos (Pan paniscus).” Proceedings. Biological Sciences / The Royal Society. 278 (1705): 590-8.

Waal, F. B. M. de, and Frans Lanting. 1997. Bonobo: the forgotten ape. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wilson, Michael L., Christophe Boesch, Barbara Fruth, Takeshi Furuichi, Ian C. Gilby, Chie Hashimoto, Catherine L. Hobaiter, et al. 2014. “Lethal aggression in Pan is better explained by adaptive strategies than human impacts.” Nature. 513 (7518): 414-417.

friendship for Tito and Gisippo from Athens to Rome

Decameron X.8, the story of Tito and Gisippo, has an unusual setting. While most of the Decameron’s tales are set within two generations before the catastrophic plague of 1348, the tale of Tito and Gisippo begins and ends in Rome between 43 BGC and 30 BGC. That was the period of the Second Triumvirate. The Lex Titia of 43 BGC formally declared the constitution of the Roman Republic to be restored. In actual effect, the Lex Titia set the road to the establishment of the Roman Empire in 30 BGC. The story of Tito and Gisippo similarly reveals, under Athenian formal ideals of civic friendship, narrow interests and dominating power shaping friendship and political relations.[1]

Portrait of Two Friends, e.g. Tito and Gisippo

Ideals of friendship occur prominently earlier in Decameron VIII.8. In that story, Spinelloccio and Zeppa are young men and next-door neighbors with common status:

they spent a great deal of time in one another’s company, and to all appearances, they loved one another as if they had been brothers, or even more. [1]

Despite their mutual affection, Spinelloccio began sleeping with Zeppa’s wife. Zeppa eventually discovered their affair. To avenge that betrayal, Zeppa arranged to have sex with Spinelloccio’s wife on top of a chest. Moreover, Spinelloccio had been locked in that chest while seeking to avoid detection in an amorous visit to Zeppa’s wife.  Hearing and feeling his wife and his friend’s dance of sexual action just above him, Spinelloccio:

recalled that he was the one who had given the first offense, that Zeppa was right to have done what he had done, and that he had not only displayed humanity in dealing with him, but had treated him like a true friend. Consequently, he resolved that if Zeppa permitted it, he would be a better friend to him than ever. [2]

Spinelloccio and Zeppa had always shared everything in common. Now they agreed to share also their wives in common. The true friends and their wives lived happily ever after in polyamory. This story of sexual betrayal by a friend, sexual revenge on the friend in return, and the triumph of friendship is a parody of classical ideals of friendship.

The tale of Tito and Gisippo ends like the tale of Spinelloccio and Zeppa. Tito took into his Roman home his Athenian friend Gisippo. He made Gisippo “joint owner of all his wealth and possessions.” Moreover, Tito gave Fulvia in marriage to Gisippo. The true friends and their wives lived happily ever after together in the same house. Tito’s wife Sofronia had formerly been Gisippo’s apparent wife. Gisippo’s wife Fulvia was Tito’s “sorella.” That’s an Italian word for sister with a Latin root extending to cousin and female friend. Boccaccio was willing to suggest sexual practice that swerved from authorized acts. The tale of Tito and Gisippo ends with a perverse echo of Spinelloccio and Zeppa’s parody of classical ideals of friendship.[3]

Parody of classical ideals of friendship had political force in Tito’s long speech to the Athenian families of Gisippo and Sofronia. The Athenian Sofronia was the Athenian Gisippo’s intended wife. Because his Roman friend Tito had become lovesick to the brink of death for Sofronia, Gisippo secretly gave her in marriage to him. That action eventually had to be made public. The Athenians denounced Tito’s action. They called for him to be severely punished. After enduring for a time their attacks on his friend, Tito decided to address the problem:

knowing that the Greeks had the habit of making a lot of noise and threats until there was someone to answer them back, at which point they would become not merely humble, but quite abject, he decided their prattle could no longer be tolerated and that he needed to respond to it. [4]

Tito gathered the Athenian families of Gisippo and Sofronia and delivered to them a long speech filled with supra-reasonable rhetorical arguments. Consider Tito’s classical arguments:

  1. The immortal gods pre-determined everything. What is was meant to be: “it’s been ordained ab eterno that she {Sofronia} should belong to me rather than to him, as we now know by the outcome.”
  2. Gisippo acted according to the “sacred laws of friendship.” As if none of the Athenians had considered themselves to be Gisippo’s friends, “none of you should marvel that Gisippo valued my life more than your goodwill, since I am his friend, as I consider myself to be.”
  3. I’m a more worthy man than Gisippo. Being a Roman makes me a superior rather than an outsider: “Although it’s true that he’s an Athenian and I’m a Roman, if we argue about the merits of our cities, let me say that I come from one that is free, while his pays tribute; that mine is the mistress of the entire world, while his remains its subject; and that soldiers, statesmen, and the arts are all flourishing in mine, while his has only the last to recommend it.”
  4. I’m well-born and wealthy. I’m from an ancient and glorious Roman family. I’m wealthy and modestly reluctant to tell you I’m wealthy. My family and my wealth could help you.
  5. Good results are more important than bad acts. “If Gisippo has done a good job in marrying off Sofronia, then to go around complaining about him and the manner in which he did it is a piece of gratuitous folly.”
  6. Don’t blame me. Sofronia should have affirmatively asked for my name before she had sex with me.
  7. Don’t cross me. Happily accept what has occurred, or else you will pay: “treating you as lifelong enemies, I will see to it that you learn through experience just what Roman hearts, once roused to anger, are capable of.”

Tito finished his speech with his face “completely contorted by the anger he felt.” Taking Gisippo in hand, he immediately left the speaking venue with him. Tito walked out “turning his head from side to side and casting menacing looks all about him.”[5]

The Athenians appreciated Tito’s classical arguments and his power as a Roman:

so they went to find Tito and told him how pleased they were that Sofronia should be his, adding that they were glad to have him as a dear family member and Gisippo as a good friend. Once they were done celebrating both their friendship and their kinship together, they went their separate ways

Philosophers’ in their minds created classical ideals of friendship. They imagined republics founded on those ideals. While the tale of Tito and Giseppo recognized classical ideals of friendship, it parodied them. The tale of Tito and Giseppo points to the underlying reality of narrow interests (sexual desire)  and dominating power (Rome relative to Athens). For Boccaccio, friendship, like love, is about flesh-and-blood human life.

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[1] Sorieri (1937) traces Boccaccio’s sources for this story in Italian, French, English, and Spanish literature. Two sources in Latin literature are Lantfrid and Cobbo (about the 10th century), Cambridge Songs 6; and the Perfect Friend in Petrus Alfonsi’s Disciplina Clericalis (beginning of the 12th century).  The latter clearly has roots in Arabic literature. The stream in Arabic literature that produced the Tale of Attaf probably also produced the Perfect Friend in Disciplina Clericalis and contributed to Tito and Gisippo. In the Tale of Attaf, Baghdad is dominant over Damascus. In the Perfect Friend, Baghdad is dominant over Egypt.

[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 8, Story 8, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) pp. 665-6.  The appended clause “or even more” suggests a connection to Ja’far and Attaf’s relationship in the Tale of Attaf.

[2] Id. p. 659. In the quote above, “true friend” is my replacement for “friend” in Rebhorn’s translation. The Italian source has “compagno” and “amico” for the first and second instances of friend. In Boccaccio’s context, the first instance of friend is an amplification of friendship relative to the second instance.  Musa & Bondanella (1982) translated the first instance as “true friend.” I’ve used that phrase above.

[3] Earlier in the story in discussing what to do about Tito’s lovesickness for Gisippo’s intended wife Sofronia, Gisippo said to Tito:

I can’t remember ever having anything what wasn’t as much yours as it was mine. And so, even if things had advanced to the point where there was no other possible course of action, I’d still be willing to do with her {Sofronia} what I’ve done with everything I possessed in the past, but as the matter stands at present, I can ensure that she’ll be yours alone.

Id. pp. 805-6. Sharing Sofronia sexually wasn’t an inconceivable idea for Gisippo.

[4] Id. pp. 809-10. Subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 810-15. The Italian text uses the names Tito, Gisippo, and Sofronia. Rebhorn translated the names to the Latin forms Titus, Gisippus, and Sophronia. I’ve used the Italian name forms in the quotations above.

[5] A very knowledgeable scholar of Boccaccio has written of the tale of Tito and Gisippo:

More than anything else, what makes the dominance of reason evident in this tale is the predominance of logical discourse, particularly Tito’s apologia, a tour-de-force of epideictic oratory. … Friends, orators, and Stoic philosophers, they {Tito and Gisippo} come as close to being Christian as conceivably possible, by nation, epoch, and ethics. Emblems of Hellenic and Latin civilization at its finest moment, they are a fitting pair for the closing sequence in the Decameron’s magnificent finale.

Kirkham (1986) pp. 230-1. Boccaccio probably would enjoy a hearty laugh at that panegyric. Another scholar perceived “a certain ambivalence with regards to ideal friendship in the tale.” She wrote:

If ideal friendship is defined by the Golden Rule (“Do unto others”), mutual goodwill, reciprocal love and the sharing of both grief and good fortune, perhaps the young men’s friendship is not so perfect after all.

Gill (2008) p. 74, ft. 33; p. 75. Perfect friendship is unrealistic to expect of imperfect human beings. Boccaccio had a keen sense for human being.

[image] Portrait of Two Friends. Pontormo (Jacopo Carucci). Panel, c. 1522. Collezione Vittorio Cini, Venice. The paper in the painting contains a passage from Cicero’s De amicitia. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Gill, Amyrose Joy McCue. 2008. Vera amicizia: conjugal friendship in the Italian Renaissance. Thesis (Ph. D. in Italian Studies)–University of California, Berkeley, Fall 2008.

Kirkham, Victoria. 1986. “The Classic Bond of Friendship in Boccaccio’s Tito and Gisippo (Decameron 10.8).” Pp. 223-235 in Aldo S. Bernardo and Saul Levin, eds. 1990. The Classics in the Middle Ages. Papers of the Twentieth Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval & Early Renaissance Studies. Binghamton, NY.

Musa, Mark and Peter Bondanella, with an introduction by Thomas G. Bergin. 1982. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York: New American Library.

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

Sorieri, Louis. 1937. Boccaccio’s story of “Tito e Gisippo” in European literature. New York: Institute of French Studies.


multi-species bird communities cluster their songs

huge bird flock

Suppose birds sing to communicate information efficiently among birds of their species. Suppose different bird species don’t communicate with each other. Then different bird species in the same sound space would advantageously evolve their songs to minimize noise from each other. Birds would act like a couple at party moving to a less crowded, quieter spot to more easily hear each other in conversation.

In fact, birds congregate in sound space rather than disperse. That’s the finding of Tobias, Planqué, Cram & Seddon (2014). They studied 307 bird species living together in the Amazonian rainforest. Data on individual bird species’ songs are available here. The surprising clumping of bird song may arise in part from communication between different bird species. As a neuroecologist insightfully noted, “interspecies communication shouldn’t be too shocking: we all understand a growl when we hear it, right?”

The Every Noise at Once music genre map by glenn mcdonald is a sophisticated, data-intensive mapping of human music. Comparing the study of bird song to the music genre map doesn’t make sense if birds sing to communicate information. Human music surely doesn’t arise from efficiently communicating information. I suspect the same is true for birds. Perhaps a map of every bird species’ song would have some relation to the human music genre map.

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Tobias Joseph A., Robert Planqué, Dominic L. Cram, and Nathalie Seddon. 2014. “Species interactions and the structure of complex communication networks.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 111 (3): 1020-5.

[image] Red-billed Quelea Quelea quelea flock at waterhole.  Thanks to Alastair Rae and Wikimedia Commons.

friendship: weeping & laughing in the Tale of Attaf

Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota at Sackler Gallery

The Tale of Attaf the Syrian (The Power of Destiny) begins with Caliph Harun al-Rashid restless and uneasy. The Caliph, the Commander of the Faithful, opened a book. Reading it, he both wept and laughed profusely. His companion, his vizier Ja’far ibn Yahya, exclaimed:

O King of the Age, how is it I see you reading and weeping and laughing at one and the same moment when no one does that except madmen and maniacs? [1]

Ja’far’s sensible question infuriated the Caliph. The Caliph immediately expelled his vizier:

Get away from me and address me not again nor sit as vizier until you answer your own question and you tell me what is written and decreed in that book I was reading and you learn why I wept and why I laughed at one and the same hour. Out and away with you, and don’t face me again except with the answer, or else will I slay you in the most brutal way.

Ja’far ibn Yahya was a member of the Barmakids family. The Barmakids, thought to have Indian origins, were closely associated with al-Rashid. They served him as favored advisers and ministers.  However, in 803, al-Rashid turned upon the Barmakids, confiscated their wealth, imprisoned leading members, and executed Ja’far. In the Tale of Attaf the Syrian, al-Rashid’s strange rejection of Ja’far prompted Ja’far to leave Baghdad and journey to Damascus. The close relationship between the Caliph and his vizier became distant.

Influential ancient literature presents ideal friendship as persons being willing to lay down their lives for their friends. The story of Damon and Pythias, known in fourth-century Greek culture, told of Damon’s willingness to lay down his life for his friend Pythias. Damon and Pythias were followers of the philosopher Pythagoras. While both were in Syracuse, Pythias was sentenced to death for allegedly plotting against the tyrant of Syracuse. Pythias begged for leave to travel home to settle his affairs and say farewell to his family before he was executed. Damon pledged to remain in Syracuse and be executed in the place of Pythias if Pythias didn’t return. The tyrant accepted that ancient form of bail and allowed Pythias to travel. Unfortunately, his return was delayed. Just before Damon was to be executed, Pythias returned. He recounted his extraordinary efforts overcoming obstacles that had hindered his return. Impressed with Damon and Pythias’ dedication to each other in friendship, the tyrant pardoned both from death.

The friendship of Damon and Pythias doesn’t just concern that story. A renegade Jew living in the eastern Mediterranean area instructed his followers similarly about friendship. Foreshadowing his brutal execution in love for his friends, he told his followers:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. [2]

Friendship among men has been central to the formation of large-scale human societies. The men who have created and led such societies throughout history have needed trusted, loyal men. The personal safety of the ruler, sound administration of the realm, and defense against external enemies has depended on friendship among men. Across Eurasia, in organizations of warrior men like the comitatus, men pledged to lay down their lives for each other and for their ruler. Fear and material interests haven’t been and probably cannot be a sufficient basis for long-lasting, large-scale human societies.[3]

Laying down one’s life for a friend was culturally elaborated into laying down one’s wife for a friend.  Consider a story about the pre-Islamic Christian Arab Hatim Tai. He was renowned for his generosity. Abu Said of the Banu Hilal tribe sought to test Hatim Tai’s generosity. Disguised as a dervish, Abu Said went to the tents of the Tayy (Tai) tribe. Hatim Tai, who was his tribe’s chief, invited all to come to this table. Abu Said declared that he would have a meal with Hatim Tai only if he received Hatim Tai’s wife. Hatim Tai, with his wife’s acquiescence, agreed to give her to Abu Said. Early the next day, Abu Said departed with Hatim Tai’s wife.

Abu Said’s request for Hatim Tai’s wife was a test for friendship. While traveling home, Abu Said placed his sword between himself and the woman when they slept. When he arrived home, he gave the woman her own tent and did not bring her into his tent. Abu Said then invited Hatim Tai to visit. Abu Said hosted Hatim Tai with great hospitality. Abu Said also offered his sister to Hatim Tai. He accepted. He took the woman home. There, uncovering her, he discovered that she was his own wife.[4]

Laying down one’s wife for a friend occurs with literary, religious, and cultural sophistication. In the story of Abu Said and Hatim Tai, Abu Said placing his sword between himself and the women is an ironic literary wink to the repressed phallus. Zayd ibn Harithah, a companion (close friend) of Muhammad, divorced his wife Zaynab bint Jahsh so that Muhammad could marry her.[5] The European Latin poem of Lantfrid and Cobbo, probably from the tenth century, tells of Lantfrid giving up his wife to his dear friend Cobbo. Like in the story of Abu Said and Hatim Tai, Cobbo left with Lantfrid’s wife. Cobbo, however, soon returned with the woman. He gave her, untouched, back to Lantfrid.[6] Historically and right up to the present, men’s lives have been socially less valued than women’s lives. For a man, laying down one’s wife for a friend indicates a more socially sophisticated friendship sacrifice than laying down one’s life for a friend.

In the even more culturally sophisticated Tale of Attaf, Attaf gave up intercourse with his wives to offer hospitality to Ja’far. Attaf, a handsome, noble young man with a godly smile, noticed the traveler Ja’far just outside of Damascus. Attaf invited Ja’far to join his banquet. Attaf and Jafar quickly became close friends. After the banquet, the time came for sleep:

eunuchs came in and spread for Ja’far delicately crafted bedding at the head of the hall in its place of honor. The eunuchs placed other bedding alongside. Seeing this, Ja’far the vizier said to himself, “Perhaps my host is a bachelor, and so they would spread his bed to my side; however, I will venture the question.” Accordingly he addressed his host saying, “O Attaf, are you single or married?” “I am married, O my lord,” said Attaf. Ja’far followed up, “Why then do you not go within and lie with your wives?”  “O my lord,” replied Attaf, “my wives are not about to take flight, and it would be nothing but disgraceful to me were I to leave a visitor like you, a man whom all revere, to sleep alone while I pass the night with my wives and rise early to enter the baths. I would consider such action to be uncourteous and failure to honor a luminary like your Honor.  In very truth, O my lord, so long as your presence deigns to favor this house, I will not sleep with my wives until I say goodbye to your Worship and you depart in peace and safety to your own place.”  “This is amazing,” said Ja’afar to himself, “and perhaps further events will be more so for me.”  So they lay together that night. When morning came they arose and went to the baths. Attaf had sent there for the use of his guest a suit of magnificent clothes. He had Ja’afar put the suit on before leaving the baths.

This account of sleeping together decorously suggests same-sex eroticism. Subsequently, by day, Attaf took Ja’far around Damascus to see the various places and sights. At night, they returned home to sleep together as they did on the first night. These activities continued for four months.

Ja’far apparently tired of his affair with Attaf. Ja’far suggested that he would like to wander about Damascus by himself. Attaf graciously offered Ja’far a carriage. Ja’far declined. Attaf then gave Ja’far some money. A Victorian archaic-English translation of the Tale of Attaf poignantly has at this point:

Ja’far took from Attaf a purse of three hundred dinars and left the house gladly as one who issueth from durance vile

Wandering about Damascus, Ja’far’s eyes found a beautiful young lady:

a model of comeliness and loveliness and fair figure and symmetrical grace, whose charms would animate all who gaze upon her

Ja’far fell desperately in love with her at first sight.[8] That beautiful young lady turned out to be one of Attaf’s wives. When he found out the cause of his friend’s dangerous lovesickness, Attaf arranged to divorce that wife and have her marry Ja’far.

Courtly and clerical thinking about idealized friendship contributed to the development of the horrors of courtly love in medieval Europe. That thinking, heavily influenced by Cicero’s De amicitia, privileged relational abstractions of friendship. Friendship was a voluntary association of autonomous equals. Friends were self-aware and self-controlled. The perfect friend was another self. Those lifeless ideals of friendship prompted men to believe that they must woo and win that one woman who is their other self, perfectly matching them except that women are exalted and men must serve them.[7] Weeping and laughing in the Tale of Attaf, Caliph Harun al-Rashid reveals better understanding of friendship and love.

Differences among men and between men and women are ineluctable reality that does not necessarily make friendship impossible. Cicero observed that “in the whole range of {Greco-Roman} history only three or four pairs of friends are mentioned.”[9] That literary history is a poor guide to actual human relationships. Friendships depend on faith, hope, and generous care. Friendships encounter faults and risk despair and forsakenness. Large-scale societies need many such friendships, especially among men.

Back in Baghdad, Ja’far told Caliph al-Rashid the story of Attaf. Doing so reconciled him to the Caliph. Ja’far returned Attaf’s wife to him untouched. Attaf had suffered impoverishment, imprisonment, and near execution after his generosity to Ja’far. Ja’far made Attaf ten times as wealthy as he was before he had met Ja’far. At Attaf’s request, the Caliph pardoned Attaf’s persecutor. With this happy ending, the bloody historical ending of the relationship between Caliph al-Rashid and his vizier Ja’far could almost be forgotten.

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[1] Tale of Attaf the Syrian, from Arabic trans. Burton (1886) vol. 6.  A longer title for that tale is The Power of Destiny, or, Story of the Journey of Giafar {Ja’far} to Damascus comprehending the Adventures of Chebib (Habíb) and his family. Chebib (Habíb) seems to have been an alternate name for Attaf. Burton used the Arabic text of Dom Denis Chavis (Dionysius Shawish), transcribed about 1790. Chavis was a Syrian monk who had studied in Constantinople and come to Paris. Mahdi (1995) pp. 51-61. Since the Chavis manuscript refers to cannon fire, it’s probably from later than the fourteenth century. Burton’s text also includes a second English translation of another manuscript of the Tale of Attaf. The translator of that text was Alexander J. Cotheal, Consul-General for Nicaragua in New York. Cotheal acquired his manuscript from the estate of “a deceased American missionary who had brought it from Syria.” The manuscript was written in 1685. Burton describes the text in the Supp. Vol. 6 (Vol. 16 overall) in his translator’s forward. Burton’s description of the Cotheal manuscripts and Cotheal’s English translation is placed immediately after Burton’s translation of the Chavis manuscript. Another version of the Tale of Attaf was brought back to England by Dr. Patrick Russell, “the historian of Aleppo,” in 1771. Mahdi (1995) p. 56. I have modernized and clarified Burton’s translation, which itself was a quite loose translation from the Arabic.  All subsequent quotations from the Tale of Attaf are from Burton’s translation of the Chavis manuscript. Cotheal’s manuscript seems to be a latter version of the tale.  It explicitly indicates that it is the text of a reciter (rawi).

[2] Jesus of Nazareth, in John 15:12-13.

[3] Valerius Maximus, who flourished 14 to 37 GC, declared:

It {friendship} deserves almost the same veneration that we pay to the rites of the immortal gods. The survival of our state depends on those rites, but our survival as private people depends on the power of friendship. And if the temples are the sacred homes of the gods, then the loyal hearts of humans are like temples filled with the sacred spirit of friendship.

Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium, Bk. 4, 7.1ext, from Latin trans. Walker (2004) p.  152. Friendship wasn’t just a matter of “our survival as private people.” In a letter to Charlemagne in 798, Alcuin declared his desire to help his friend Charlemagne in any way that he could. Alcuin wrote to Charlemagne:

And if this is to be observed diligently in a friend and coequal, that the integrity of his {the friend’s} mind should remain inviolate, how much more in a lord and in such a person who loves to exalt and govern his subjects in all honor?

From Latin trans. Jaeger (2012) p. S107. Alcuin, a scholar and adviser to Charlemagne, described his friendship-dedication to Charlemagne like that of a warrior of the comitatus. Advisers to leaders in the Islamic world similarly presented themselves as loving, subordinate friends to the ruler. Waqid ‘Amr ibn-Tamini’s account of Babak and the Khurrami revolt in the early nineth century in central Mesopotamia includes a reference to a chief’s comitatus.

[4] Crane (1921) pp. 202-3, from German of Prym & Socin (1881) vol. ii, p. 24. Prym & Socin’s source was a manuscript they received from a Jacobite Christian in Damascus about 1870.  Since the text is in Neo-Aramaic, it may convey a quite ancient story.

[5] Qur’an 33:37. Ibn Hisham, who died about 830 GC, edited one of the earliest surviving versions of ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammed, the Prophet of Islam. Ibn Hisham’s text states that Zayd ibn Harithah divorced Zaynab bint Jahsh so that Muhammad could marry her.

[6] “Lantfrid and Cobbo,” Cambridge Songs, Song 6, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (1994) pp. 22-7.

[7] On the influence of Cicero’s De amicitia and the connection between ancient ideals of friendship and the development of courtly love in twelfth-century Europe, Ziolkowski (1995). On men serving women, see, e.g. the United Nations’ current HeForShe campaign.

[8] Ja’far fell dangerously lovesick. His ever solicitous friend Attaf called for a doctor. The doctor diagnosed Ja’far’s lovesickness from his pulse. That was a popular story that goes back at least to Valerius Maximus’s account of Antiochus’s lovesickness. Antiochus fell in love with the wife of his father, King Seleucus. To save his son, Seleucus gave him his wife. Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings, Bk. 5, 7.ext 1. trans. Walker (2004) pp. 190-1.

[9] Cicero, De amicitia, sec. 15. An editorial note explains:

The three pairs are Theseus and Pirithous, Achilles and Patroclus, Orestes and Pylades; the fourth, probably in Cicero’s mind (Cic. Off. III.45; Fin. II.79), was Damon and Phintias (vulg. Pythias).

Cicero praised above all the “friendship of faultless men.” Id. sec. 22, 100. Such men are very rare.

[image] Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota, at Sackler Gallery through June 7, 2015. My photograph.


Burton, Richard Francis. 1886. Supplemental nights to the book of The thousand nights and a night. Vol. 6. Benares: Printed by the Kamashastra Society for private subscribers only.

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

Falconer, W.A. ed. and trans. 1923. Cicero. De amicitia (On Friendship). Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, vol. XX

Jaeger C. Stephen. 2012. “Alcuin and the music of friendship.” MLN – Modern Language Notes. 127 (SUPPL. 5): S105-S125.

Mahdi, Muhsin. 1995. The thousand and one nights. Leiden: Brill.

Prym, Eugen, and Albert Socin. 1881. Der neu-aramaeische Dialekt des Ṭûr ‘Abdîn. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Walker, Henry J., trans. 2004. Valerius Maximus. Memorable deeds and sayings: one thousand tales from ancient Rome. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub.

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

Ziolkowski, Jan. M. 1995. “Twelfth-Century Understandings and Adaptations of Ancient Friendship.” Pp. 59-81 in Welkenhuysen, Andries, Herman Braet, and Werner Verbeke, eds. Mediaeval antiquity. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press.

sex differences in birds and their songs

male Northern Cardinal

Sex differences aren’t created merely through socialization. Both male and female Northern cardinals sing.  However, across cardinal chicks raised individually in an acoustically controlled environment, young males take about three times as long to learn songs as do young females. Males, however, are later more versatile singers as adults.[1] Among free-living cardinals, song control brain regions in adult males are 1.5-2.0 times larger than those in adult females.[2] Bird song is produced through complex interactions across sexes. Those communication systems encompass characteristic differences between females and males.

Sex differences depend on social circumstances. Among cowbirds,  juvenile males housed without adult male cowbirds develop different singing characteristics than juveniles housed with adult males.[3] Unlike humans, cowbirds themselves lack oppressive and discriminatory institutions that separate juvenile males from adult males.  Cowbirds are unlikely to be capable of developing such institutions.  Thus cowbird song is strongly fixed in cowbird social nature.

Whether communicative behavior is determined genetically or socially has little significance if social structure responds to environmental changes at a timescale similar to that of changes in genetically coded behavior. Chickadees naturally experience significantly different social structures.  Chickadees living alone or in a pair make less complex calls than chickadees living in larger groups.  That change in call type occurs in weeks following a change in the chickadees’ social group.[4]  However, most birds’ pattern of social living changes little through a bird’s lifetime. The social structure of most bird species is an emergent property of their particular nature. To a significant extent, social structure changes in a reproductively fruitful way only with changes in the nature of the bird.

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[1] Yamaguchi (2001). Social factors also affect cardinals’ singing.  Vondrasek (2006).

[2] Jawor & MacDougall-Shackleton (2008).

[3] White, King & West (2002).

[4] Freeberg (2006).

[image] Male Northern Cardinal in Columbus, Ohio, USA, 2011. Thanks to Stephen Wolfe and Wikimedia Commons.


Freeberg, Todd M. 2006. “Social Complexity Can Drive Vocal Complexity: Group Size Influences Vocal Information in Carolina Chickadees.” Psychological Science. 17 (7): 557-561.

Jawor, Jodie M., and Scott A. MacDougall-Shackleton. 2008. “Seasonal and sex-related variation in song control nuclei in a species with near-monomorphic song, the northern cardinal.” Neuroscience Letters. 443 (3): 169-173.

Vondrasek, Joanna R. 2006. “Social factors affect the singing rates of female northern cardinals Cardinalis cardinalis.” Journal of Avian Biology. 37 (1): 52-57.

White, David J., Andrew P. King, and Meredith J. West. 2002. “Facultative development of courtship and communication in juvenile male cowbirds (Molothrus ater).” Behavioral Ecology. 13 (4): 487

Yamaguchi Ayako. 2001. “Sex differences in vocal learning in birds.” Nature. 411 (6835): 257-8.


men’s studies: academic struggling against patriarchal prison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

circus elephants doing tricks

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

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

This address acutely distressed him:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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