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.


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:

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~~ {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 your 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. The difficulty must be overcome.

Medieval women’s love poetry tends to be regarded as an arcane study. It shouldn’t be. 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. Crossan & Reed (2004), for its book cover, featured that fresco, tendentiously cropped and highlighted. That 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. The figure 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 viewer’s right (on Paul’s left, with the left side having disparaging biblical significance) surely is Thecla’s mother Theocleia, not Thecla herself. The absurd analysis in Crossan & Reed (2004) is 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, 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.

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.