cultural construction of Reddy’s The Making of Romantic Love

romantic love: lady and knight

William Reddy’s recent tome, The Making of Romantic Love, shows the cultural construction of the cultural construction of gender extended to sexual desire. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, women appreciated male genitals in a way scarcely conceivable today. Men in ancient Egypt rubbed concoctions of their cocks and uttered incantations in the belief that doing so would help them to have sex with a beloved woman. The early Arabic life of Buddha described the original understanding of chivalry: a husband always being ready to have sex with his wife whenever her desire arose. The survival and evolution of species from fruit flies to elephants depends on having sex. Moreover, at least among primates, having sex predominately occurs with mutual desire to have sex. None of this reality is relevant to the cultural construction of Reddy’s The Making of Romantic Love.

The cultural construction of The Making of Romantic Love draws on a variety of linguistic practices. One such linguistic practice is word-chopping. Consider sexual desire. In a wide variety of cultural contexts, some expressions of sexual desire are socially regarded as worse than others. In twelfth-century Europe, Hildegard von Bingen deplored men having sex with cows. Whether men having sex with men is better than men having sex with women has been debated for millennia. Calling a relatively culturally valorized form of sexual desire love, or “romantic love,” doesn’t imply a binary opposition between romantic love and sexual desire. That binary opposition can easily be merely a linguistic construct. Reddy’s claim that the binary of romantic love versus sexual desire was invented in twelfth-century Europe as a result of particular Gregorian reforms lacks appreciation for biological reality. That claim also lacks appreciation for the cultural construction of the scholarly valorization of claiming cultural constructs.

Other aspects of Reddy’s book indicate loss of connection to reality. The third page of the book solemnly declares that eleventh and twelfth century (European) church leaders “attempted to outlaw sexual pleasure for all Christians.” Even if that were formally true, which it isn’t, such a law would be laughably impractical. Mountains of scholarly verbiage over recent decades insist that verbiage constructs everything. That helps to explain the significance of Reddy’s observation:

there is no indication in the documents that members of these elites regarded sexual release as inherently pleasurable. [1]

Forget about motivating the evolution of sexually reproducing organisms over more than a billion years. If the pleasure of sexual release doesn’t appear in the elite documents, then no one feels it.

Reddy’s book takes a linguistic-sophistic approach to science. Consider Reddy on biology:

Quite simply, the organism does not need sex to be healthy, nor does the nervous system appear to handle sexual release as if a certain minimum were required for equilibrium. We do not inevitably grow ever more “horny” if deprived of sex.

That’s true. It’s also true that if organisms in a sexually reproducing population stop having sex, then that population will die off. A dead population isn’t a healthy population.

In the linguistc-sophistic approach to biology, the reality of social and ecological context leads to blank-slate disembodiment:

There is good scientific evidence, therefore, to suppose that what many Westerners experience as “sexual desire” is not a hard-wired physiological “drive” but a Western cultural construct, or set of related conceptualizations and practices, with a long and intricate history. … Western forms of sexual desire are like a genre of music that one learns to improvise, and the neurological mechanisms are like an instrument on which any number of such genres might be played. In the Western genre, notation of “appetite” or “drive” have long played a central structural role, but there are no keys on the instrument that uniquely correspond to these terms. … There is, therefore, nothing in the latest neuroscience research on sexual desire, sexual arousal, or romantic love that permits one to conclude these states are caused or orchestrated by hard-wired brain systems.

If you cut off a man’s head and then show his body erotic pictures, no matter how stimulating the pictures are, he won’t get an erection. That’s because hard-wired connections have been cut. That observation is more meaningful than Reddy’s mixed metaphor “there are no keys on the instrument that uniquely correspond to these terms.”

A standard sophistic move in current humanities scholarship is to declare an aspect of human behavior a “cultural construct.” Reddy suggests, with an attribution-deflecting hypothetical, that “desire itself is a cultural construct.” Biological organisms create and sustain culture in accordance with the parameters of their biology. One thus could equally well declare “desire itself is a biological construct.” Both constructs are unbearably boring and barren.[2]

Human beings should aspire to using reason beyond being rationalizing animals. Reddy repeatedly suggests that his approach is “just reading” the documents.[3] Yet his doing so produces conventional claims strictly disciplined within the culturally constructed school of social constructionism. Culturally constructed scholarship has produced amazing tendentious readings of men’s subordination within courtly love:

In twelfth-century courtly love texts, the woman may seem at first glance to benefit from her elevation to the status of beloved “lady,” but a closer look reveals — or many scholars have argued — that putting her on a “pedestal” was only a more effective way of disciplining her. Men submitted to her yoke only to better make her dance to their tune. [4]

If you believe that, then you are using your mind merely to rationalize dominant ideology. As Reddy’s book makes clear, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

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[1] Reddy (2012) p. 5. Subsequent quotes are from pp. 10, 13, 14-15, 27, 21.

[2] A roundtable on Reddy’s book represents well the tediousness of this school of thinking. For a more interesting approach to courtly love and the Troubadours, see Monson (2011). Dronke (1965) shows that men’s abasement in love, men toiling for women’s love, and the pedestalization of women (three behaviors characterizing “courtly love”) occur in love poetry across a wide range of cultures and throughout recorded history.  Courtly love can be understood as expressing gynocentrism, a typical primate social structure.

[3] Reddy (2012) pp. 37, 391.

[4] Denying the obvious to assert “male dominance” is prevalent in current scholarship. Consider this summary of chivalry:

Thus we can recognize that this literature not only heaped upon chivalry a great measure of idealized responsibility for the protection of women and for the elimination of the most coarse and brutal forms of subjection, it also endowed knights with an even greater valorization of their powerful place in society in general, and especially in regard to women. These works offered the knights a more refined form of male dominance as one powerful element of their chivalry.

Kaeuper (1999) p. 230. Being vastly disproportionately killed is not a sign of dominance. Sexist studies of sexism and mortality inequality defined as equality point to actual dominance.

[image] La Belle Dame sans Merci. Painting, oil on canvas. John William Waterhouse, 1893. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the rise of European love-lyric. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Kaeuper, Richard W. 1999. Chivalry and violence in medieval Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Monson, Don A. 2011. “Why is la Belle Dame sans Merci? Evolutionary Psychology and the Troubadours.” Neophilologus. 95 (4): 523-541.

Reddy, William M. 2012. The making of romantic love: longing and sexuality in Europe, South Asia, and Japan, 900-1200 CE. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

widow of Ephesus story in three retellings

widow of Ephesus

Combining sex, crime, and outrage, the widow of Ephesus story has been at the sweet spot of communicative attention for at least two millennia. The widow of Ephesus mourned her husband in continual vigil at his grave. One day, she encountered there a soldier. He had been given responsibility for guarding the dead bodies of criminals hanging crucified. The widow and the soldier fell in love. They began having sex in her husband’s sepulcher. While the soldier was engaged with the widow, someone stole a criminal’s body from a cross. The soldier faced charges of neglect of duty. The widow rescued the soldier by having her husband’s body raised on the cross to replace the lost body of the criminal. Like rape and poisoning on a college campus, this sort of story makes news.

Among fables attributed to Phaedrus from about two millennia ago, the widow of Ephesus story warned of the madness of carnal passion. The Phaedrus retelling described the soldier falling madly in love after a glimpse of the widow within her husband’s sepulcher:

The soldier espied through the slightly open
Door a lady, a dream of loveliness.
Immediately, the man became madly enamored,
Possessed by a passion impossible to control. [1]

When the soldier found a criminal’s body missing, he was fearful and despondent. The widow, his lover, responded calmly and dispassionately:

And this paragon of wives said, “There’s one way
To save you. Don’t be afraid.” And she gave him
Her husband’s corpse to hoist on the cross,
So rescuing him from the penalty due for his default.

The fable of the widow of Ephesus ends with an epimythium describing moral disorder:

Thus dishonor usurped the place of righteous praise. [2]

Rather than continuing her praiseworthy grieving for her husband, the widow of Ephesus entered a dishonorable relationship with the soldier and treated her husband’s body dishonorably.

In Lamentationes Matheoluli, a thirteenth-century masterpiece of men’s sexed protest, Matheolus’s anger at his abusive wife strongly colored his retelling of the widow of Ephesus story. In Matheolus’s version, a knight merely offered the widow words of consolation within the philosophical tradition of consolation.[3] After the criminal’s body had been stolen, the widow propositioned the desperate knight. She offered to rescue him in exchange for his promising to marry her. The knight agreed. The widow then dragged her husband’s corpse from the grave and hung it on the cross. When the knight pointed out that her husband’s head lacked the two wounds that were on the criminal’s head, the wife bashed her husband’s head to create similar wounds. The knight, outraged, reneged on his promise to marry the widow. He declared:

I’d rather lose my skin than be married to you. For what you did, in justice, you deserve to be burned. [4]

In Phaedrus’s fable, the widow and the soldier secured their shared personal interests against the social order. In Lamentationes Matheoluli, the knight defended the social order in condemning the widow for seeking her personal love interests.

In the Satyricon, probably from the first century, the widow of Ephesus story is sophisticated literary entertainment. The soldier in the Satyricon version seduced the widow. Facing charges for neglect of duty, he prepared to commit suicide:

But the woman’s sense of pity matched her chastity. “The gods must not allow me,” she said, “to gaze on the two corpses of the men I hold most dear. I would rather surrender the dead than slay the living. She followed up this declaration with an instruction to remove her husband’s corpse from the coffin, and to have it fastened to the vacant cross. The soldier took advantage of the ingenious idea of this most thoughtful of women, and the next day the locals speculated on how a dead man had managed to mount the cross. [5]

To appreciate the sophistication, consider carefully: “the widow’s sense of pity matched her chastity.” The widow lacked chastity. She similarly lacked pity for her husband’s dead body. But is pity relevant to a dead body? The widow had pity on the soldier facing punishment for dereliction. That’s meaningful pity. The claim that the widow’s pity matched her chastity has multiple levels of irony.

The ending of the story is also ironic. The locals, speculating on how a dead man had mounted the cross, apparently recognized the body of the widow’s husband. That means the corpse substitution failed to obscure the soldier’s dereliction. The “ingenious idea of this most thoughtful of women” appears laughably foolish. A stolen, crucified body leading to a miraculous mounting of a cross also suggests parody of the Christian gospel:

Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “… come down from the cross.” … {after Jesus’s death and burial} some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” [6]

The widow of Ephesus story in the Satyricon emphasizes public spectacle. The story itself is a virtuoso display of rhetorical skill.

The widow of Ephesus story shows the imperatives of the living trumping respect for the dead. The exacting science of philology works to provide accurate transmission and understanding of texts. Philology deserves respect. Yet philology isn’t sufficient for lively humanities. Retelling stories in one’s own interests propagates life in literature.[7]

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[1] Phaedrus, “The Widow and the Soldier,” Perotti’s Appendix, No. 15, from Latin trans. Widdows (1992) pp. 151. The subsequent quote is from id., p. 152. Here’s the Latin text with an alternate prose translation into English. Konstan (2015) documents that in ancient Greece, beauty (kállos) was associated with sexual desire.

[2] My translation of sic turpitudo laudis obsedit locum. Id., p. 152, has “Thus was decency defeated by dishonor.”

[3] The European Middle Ages lacked the mass army of soldiers that the Roman Empire had. In Matheolus’s version, a knight replaced the soldier. Moreover, in Matheolus’s version, the widow had been a poor chambermaid before she married her husband, a knight. Marrying up made her a lady. Matheolus’s version thus adds a twist of class disparagement.

[4] Lamentationes Matheoluli, l. 850-1, Klein, Rubel & Schmitt (2014) p. 109 or Van Hamel (1892) p. 62, my translation of the Latin. The full story of the widow of Ephesus is l. 823-851. The story is referenced again in l. 2717-20. The knight’s concluding rejection of the widow occurs in an earlier version in the Seven Sages / Sindibad corpus. Lacy (1967) p. 36, Van Hamel (1892) v. 2, pp. 160-3 (pdf pages 726-30). For an English translation the widow of Ephesus story from Jehan Le Févre’s Old French translation of the Lamentationes Matheoluli, Blamires, Pratt & Marx (1992) pp. 185-6.

[5] Satyricon, s. 112, from Latin trans. Walsh (1996) p. 104, with some minor changes for clarity. Eumolpus the poet tells the story. The widow’s maid quotes to her Virgil, Aeneid 4.34. That’s rich parody. McGlathery (1998) pp. 323-9. The Satyricon Latin for “the woman’s sense of pity matched her chastity” is mulier non minus misericors quam pudica. John of Salisbury in his Policraticus (written about 1159) incorporated nearly verbatim the Satyricon text of the widow of Ephesus story. See Policraticus, Bk. 8, Ch. 11, Webb (1909), Vol. 2, pp. 301-4.

[6] Matthew 27:39-40, 28:11-15.

[7] Other retellings of the widow of Ephesus story have survived. Moretti (2013) interprets the story of Drusiana in the Apocryphal Acts of the apostle John as a response to stories like that of the widow of Ephesus. Hrotsvit drew on the story of Drusiana for her work Drusiana and Calimachus. The fabliau Celle qui se fist foutre sur la fosse de son mari (La femme au tombeau) is a variant of the seduction portion of the widow of Ephesus story. Ibn Zabara included a variant in the Book of Delight, written in Hebrew about 1200. For an English translation, Abrahams (1894) pp. 516-7. More generally, the story is Arne-Thompson type 1510 and motif K2213.1 in the Stith-Thompson categorization. For other related stories, see D.L. Ashliman, “Widows in (short-lived) mourning.”

[image] Widow of Ephesus pulling her husband’s body from its coffin and hanging it on a cross. Engraving, from image 32 in edition of Jehan le Fèvre, Matheolus qui nous monstre sans varier les biens & aussi les vertus: qui viennent pour soy marier (Lyon: Olivier Arnouillet, 1550), in Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon, Rés. B 487656. Thanks to Gallica.


Abrahams, Israel. 1894. “Joseph Zabara and His Book of Delight.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. 6 (3): 502-532.  Augmented version, without notes, in Abrahams, Israel. 1912. The book of delight, and other papers. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America.

Blamires, Alcuin, Karen Pratt, and C. William Marx. 1992. Men Impugned, Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: an anthology of medieval texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Klein, Thomas, Thomas Rubel, and Alfred Schmitt, eds. 2014. Lamentationes Matheoluli. Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann.

Konstan, David. 2015. Beauty: the fortunes of an ancient Greek idea. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lacy, Norris J. 1967. La femme au tombeau: anonymous fabliau of the thirteenth century. Ph. D. Dissertation. Indiana University.

McGlathery, Daniel B. 1998. “Petronius’ Tale of the Widow of Ephesus and Bakhtin’s Material Bodily Lower Stratum.” Arethusa. 31 (3): 313-336.

Moretti, Paola Francesca. 2013. “The Two Ephesian Matrons: Drusiana’s Story in the Acts of John as a Possible Christian Response to Milesian Narrative.” Pp. 35-48 in Pinheiro, Marília P. Futre, Judith Perkins, and Richard Pervo, eds. 2013. The Ancient Novel and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative Fictional Intersections. Ancient Narrative Supplementum 16. Havertown: Barkhuis.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

Walsh, P.G. trans. 1996. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Webb, Clement Charles Julian. 1909. John of Salisbury. Ioannis Saresberiensis episcopi Carnotensis Policratici sive De nvgis cvrialivm et vestigiis philosophorvm libri VIII. Oxonnii: e typographeo Clarendoniano.

Widdows, P.F. trans. 1992. The fables of Phaedrus. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Honorat Bovet on exploiting prisoners in medieval jails

Honorat Bovet, L'apparicion maistre jehan de meun

In France in 1398, the legal scholar and minor government functionary Honorat Bovet summoned his courage, scholarly learning, and literary skill to deliver a scathing policy review to leading French court officials. Bovet’s policy review began with an abstract, ambiguously addressed, double-hedged declaration:

To all those who would hear the truth spoken may God give the determination to uphold and to proclaim it, where the opportunity presents itself, without duly offending anyone. [1]

He supported that statement with a Latin gloss citing relevant canon law. Bovet’s policy review took the form of a dream vision. In his sleep, the review narrator, a prior, perceived the brilliant and audacious scholar Jean de Meun conducting interviews with four marginalized or suspect medieval figures: a physician, a Jew, a Muslim, and a Dominican friar.[2] These figures delivered wide-ranging, radical critiques of French policy. The critique of financially exploiting prisoners illustrates both Honorat Bovet’s policy concerns and his treacherous position.

Financially exploiting prisoners occurred in medieval French jails rather like in U.S. jails and prisons today. In 1394, King Charles VI of France decreed that prisoners be allowed to purchase food provided from outside the jail. Without that opportunity, prisoners were forced to pay for food whatever prices the jailer chose to charge. Charles VI also capped release fees that jailers could charge prisoners and decreed that no fees could be charged to prisoners who have been unjustly imprisoned.[3] In a recent order, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission capped the rates that prisoners may be charged for interstate telephone calls. Prisoners previously had been subjected to whatever telephones rates the service provider arranged to charge.

Speaking through the Muslim, Honorat Bovet indicated that existing regulation of jails was insufficient. The Muslim declared:

I do not dare to speak of how jailers
Oversee their prisoners;
But I have been told along the way
That their tableware and wine, they get from prisoners:
Neither gold nor silver will he take with him,
The prisoner who leaves the jail.
When someone tells him that this is a crime,
And he always replies at once
That the jail costs him a great deal of money
And that he’ll never lose a single cent while running it.
If the king knew what went on there,
He would never tolerate such a thing. [4]

Jails in the U.S. today commonly receive roughly half the revenue collected for prisoners’ telephone calls. Like jailers in fourteenth-century France, jailers today claim that they need revenue from charges to prisoners for telephone calls in order to continue to allow prisoners to call the outside world.

The issue is politically difficult. In Honorat Bovet’s policy review, the Dominican friar presented the issue as concerning the extent and recipient of the financial extractions from prisoners:

The Saracen {Muslim} says of jailers
That they despoil their prisoners,
But this much is certain:
That the jail revenue belongs to the crown,
And that, truly, it is not small sums
That are raised in the jails.
It is against the law of charity,
And the king is not well informed:
He could take the matter in hand,
And put a person {in charge} who would, in all certainty,
Levy the royal right properly,
Without harming the aforesaid prisoners. [5]

Like the Muslim, the friar highlighted the king’s lack of knowledge: “the king is not well-informed.” The friar shrewdly appealed to the financial interests of the king. At the same time, the friar also urged that royal rights to financial extractions from prisoners be exercised properly, without harm to prisoners.

Honorat Bovet’s policy review was fundamentally concerned with incentives and government. Its narrator represented the complacent elite, relaxing after dinner in a Parisian garden. Jean de Meun castigated him:

You sit there eating, like a pig,
Doing no good for anyone. [6]

Jean de Meun urged the narrator to speak out for reform. The narrator responded:

I do not know what I am supposed to say in this day and age, because the world is too perilous and the courts of princes too dangerous. And if it please you to recall some ancient teachings, Valerius Maximus repeated the opinion of a very wise senator who once, when he saw that the Republic was being governed poorly, did not wish to give his opinion in the council, and so replied: “By my faith,” he proclaimed, “My words have I often regretted; my silence, never.” And for that reason, in my opinion, when the world is a dangerous place, one does well to keep silent and to live through this time. What is more, the world takes for a fool the man who seeks to write of new things.

Honorat Bovet’s Latin gloss provided a counterpoint to Valerius Maximus’s conventional wisdom:

This happened at a time when the Republic had the sort of tyrants that a false criminal accusation would be sought in whatever way against such innocent persons, so that through it they would suffer death and thus their goods would be confiscated to the public treasury. Therefore at that time crimes were imputed not with references to persons but riches. Therefore from such a malign rule deliver us, O Lord!

Financial interests can corrupt criminal justice. Crime shouldn’t pay. That’s easy to say with respect to criminals. That’s much harder to describe and criticize with respect to the governing elite.[7]

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[1] Honorat Bovet, L’apparicion Maistre Jehan de Meun 83, from French trans. Hanly (2005) p. 63. Older scholarship commonly refers to Honorat Bovet as Honoré Bonet. In 1387, Bovet wrote Arbre des Batailles (The Tree of Battles of Honoré Bonet). François Velde has provided a summary of it.

[2] Honorat Bovet was the Prior of Selonnet in Provence. Despite the dream and distanced voices of L’apparicion Maistre Jehan de Meun, insightful readers would have recognized through those fictions Honorat Bovet’s policy critique. Hanly (2005) p. 35.  On the other hand, the four royal officials to whom Bovet’s dedicated copies probably lacked the learning to appreciate his Latin glosses and scholarly citations. Id. p. 3.

[3] Hanly (2005) p. 208, n. 88 continued.

[4] Honorat Bovet, L’apparicion Maistre Jehan de Meun l. 817-28, trans. id. pp. 109-10. In a Latin marginal gloss to these lines, Bovet wrote, “O God, how much sin and how much tyranny reign in the jails of France!” P2.21, trans. id. p. 207.

[5] L’apparicion Maistre Jehan de Meun l. 1396-1414, trans. id. p. 141.  The Muslim is referred to as a Saracen; the Domincan friar, as a Jacobin.

[6] L’apparicion Maistre Jehan de Meun l. 14-15, trans. id. p. 65. The subsequent two quotes are m. 103-12, trans. id. pp. 67, 69, and P1.19, trans. id. p. 180.

[7] Completed in 1398, Bovet’s work was largely ignored for more than four centuries:

Since the political effort represented by the Apparicion maistre Jehan de Meun ultimately failed, and might even have put an end to Bovet’s career at court, his program appears to have been grounded in misplaced belief in both the good will and the intellectual ability of the most powerful French nobles. … Honorat Bovet addressed his poetic appeal to a very difficult audience, and hindsight would suggest that such criticism could hardly have the desired effect. But it seems hard to believe that the man would have written the poem — and paid for two deluxe presentation copies, to boot — if he did not give it at least an even chance of winning over hearts and minds. Given his circumstances, therefore, Bovet’s optimism is extraordinary, and even inspirational. … Il pourra bien venir un jour.

Id. pp. 1, 4, 56.

[image] Maistre Jehan de Meun (Jean de Meun) introducing the prior to the physician, the Jew, the Muslim, and the Dominican friar. BNF fonds Français 810 (Honoré Bovet, Vision du prieur de Salon) fol. 6v. Thanks to Bibliothèque nationale de France and Gallica.


Hanly, Michael G. 2005. Honorat Bovet. Medieval Muslims, Christians, and Jews in dialogue: the apparicion Maistre Jehan de Meun of Honorat Bovet : a critical edition with English translation. Tempe, Ariz: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Jesus prophetic for scholars in early Islamic world

After the seventh-century Islamic conquest of long-established centers of learning across Mesopotamia, scholarly elites had to secure patronage from their new rulers. Obvious political interests provide fertile circumstances for charges of scholarly hypocrisy and corruption. Political challenge and claims of scholarly hypocrisy are readily apparent in the life of Jesus. Jesus, regarded as the Word and Spirit of God in Islam, was a prophet particularly relevant to scholars in the early Islamic world.

Learned Islamic literature drew upon Jesus’s criticism of scholarly hypocrisy. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus declared to the scholarly leaders of his time:

woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. … Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. [1]

The renowned, immensely learned Islamic scholar al-Ghazali (died 1111) reported:

Jesus said, “The scholars of evil are like a rock which has fallen into the mouth of a river: it neither drinks the water nor allows the water to pass to the crops. The scholars of evil are also like the channels of a sewer: their exterior is white plaster and their interior is foul; or like tombs which are grand on the outside and full of dead bones inside.” [2]

Whether the figure is the gates of heaven or a barrier to water for crops, the matter has great public significance. According to al-Mubarak (died 797), Jesus deplored the serious public harm of scholarly error:

Jesus was asked, “Spirit and Word of God, who is the most seditious of men?” He replied, “The scholar who is in error. If a scholar errs, a host of people will fall into error because of him.” [3]

Antagonism between Jesus and the intellectual elites of his time pervades the Christian gospels. With less restraint and more learning, scholars in the early Islamic world attacked each other with personally violent expressions.

Jesus teaching Muslim disciples not to slander

In both Christian and Muslim understanding, Jesus is mainly a figure of quietism, asceticism, and submission. Ibn Abi al-Dunya (died 894) reported:

They asked Jesus, “Show us an act by which we may enter paradise.” Jesus said, “Do not speak at all.” They said, “We cannot do this.” Jesus replied, “Then speak only good.” [4]

In the gospels, when a rich man asked what he must do, beyond following the law, to enter eternal life, Jesus told him to sell all his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow him.[5] In the above Islamic saying about the scholarly good of speech, Jesus adds a less extreme alternative directly relevant to scholarly dispute: “Then speak only good.” Other sayings of Jesus in Islamic literature describe encounters with animals regarded as polluting in Islam:

Jesus and his disciples passed by a dog’s carcass. The disciples said, “How foul is his stench!” Jesus said, “How white are his teeth!” He said this in order to teach them a lesson — namely, to forbid slander. [6]

A pig passed by Jesus. Jesus said, “Pass in peace.” He was asked, “Spirit of God, how can you say this to a pig?” Jesus replied, “I hate to accustom my tongue to evil.” [7]

Dogs and pigs could serve as abusive epithets for despised scholars.[8] The animal stories of Jesus seem to teach the wisdom of leaving judgment and condemnation to God.

Jesus proclaimed a new dispensation. Early Islamic warriors imposed one across Mesopotamia. Both Jesus and early Islamic warriors broadly challenged established intellectual elites. In those politically charged circumstances, normative scholarly engagement was difficult. Harsh invective and deliberative withdrawal, mixed in different measures, became a more important pattern for scholarly activity.

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[1] Matthew 23: 13, 27.

[2] Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din, 1:66, from Arabic trans. Khalidi (2001) p. 165 (no. 201).

[3] ‘Abdallah ibn al-Mubarak, al-Zuhd, p. 520 (no. 1474), from Arabic trans. id. p. 61 (no. 17).

[4] Abu Bakr ibn Abi al-Dunya, Kitab al-Samt wa Adab al-Lisan, p. 215 (no. 46), from Arabic trans. id. p. 121 (no. 125).

[5] Matthew 19:16-21; Mark 10:17-21; Luke 18:18-22.  In Islamic literature, Jesus condemned religious teachers who made a living from teaching. Id. pp.  61 (no. 16), 119 (no. 122).

[6] Abu Bakr ibn Abi al-Dunya, Kitab al-Samt wa Adab al-Lisan, pp. 385-6 (no. 297), trans. Khalidi (2001) p. 122 (no. 127). Van Gelder (1988), p. 46, cites an instance of this story in al-Jahiz, Kitab al-Hayawan, ii, 163.

[7] Kitab al-Samt, p. 392 (no. 308), trans. Khalidi (2001) p. 123 (no. 128). Abdallah ibn Qutayba (died 884) reported a saying in which Jesus blessed those who insulted him. Jesus explained, “A person can bring forth only what is within him.” Trans. id. p. 106-7 (no. 100), also cited in al-Jahiz, Kitab al-Bayan, in Van Gelder (1988), p. 46.

[8] Menache (1997) compiles disparaging references to dogs while greatly exaggerating monotheistic religious opposition to dogs.

[image] Jesus and the dead dog. Folio 19v in illustrated edition of Nizami’s Khamseh, produced 1665-67. British Library Add MS 6613, ff 264v-300r. Thanks to British Library.


Khalidi, Tarif. 2001. The Muslim Jesus: sayings and stories in Islamic literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Menache, Sophia. 1997. “Dogs: God’s Worst Enemies?Society & Animals. 5 (1): 23-44.

Van Gelder, Geert Jan. 1988. The bad and the ugly: attitudes towards invective poetry (hijāʼ) in classical Arabic literature. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

men’s protest, then quarrels, apologies & defenses for women

woman on pedestal

In a medieval masterpiece of men’s sexed protest, Matheolus poured out his anguish and anger about injuries he suffered from the church and his wife. Matheolus’s protest generated quarrels about women, apologies to women, and defenses of women. That’s a characteristic deliberative effect. Gynocentric society tends to transform men’s sexed protest into discourse about women.

The reception of Matheolus’s text illustrates the effects of gynocentrism. Matheolus wrote his work of men’s sexed protest in Latin in 1290. About a century later, Jehan Le Fèvre loosely translated Matheolus’s work into French. Perhaps fearing the dominant social power, Le Fèvre added apologies and excuses to his version:

I wish to excuse myself in my writing, since I do not slander the good women nor do I desire to slander. I would rather retract it than be hated for foolish language. God knows it {my book}, and I keep my payment for it, for I have no ill will toward women. Nor do I say anything in anger, except to color my statements. Good and virtuous women can never be honored too much. [1]

Le Fèvre depreciated men’s anger, as continues to be done even for men’s anger arising from outrageous injustice. Le Fèvre instead hinted at his dispassionate financial interest in translating Matheolus’s book. While poetry has long been condemned as lying, Le Fèvre’s Matheolus masochistically welcomed being beaten for his poetry. He declared, “If I lie, I want to be beaten.” Then he disavowed everything he had written as merely translating other men’s words:

It is fitting, since I translate, for me to speak or shut up. For this I beg that it be not displeasing if in this moral treatise I record some words which may be biting. For nothing proceeds from me, not the smallest bit, which is not found in histories and in ancient memories.

Le Fèvre recognized the social hostility to men’s sexed protest. With reasonable self-interest, he distanced himself from Matheolus’s work.

In addition to adding excuses and disclaimers to Matheolus’s text, Le Fèvre wrote an additional text that he positioned as a defense of women. He began his additional book with an appeal to women:

My ladies, I entreat your mercy. I would like to apologize to you here for what I said without your permission about the great strife and the torments of marriage. [2]

Men protesting their suffering in marriage isn’t permitted without women’s permission. Le Fèvre again excused his earlier work as only a translation. He urgently sought to avoid women’s hate and gain their grace:

no woman and anyone alive should hate me for that {translation of Matheolus’s book}. Therefore, if I was so occupied, I beg that it be pardoned and forgiven me by your grace. For I am all ready to write a book to redeem myself: please don’t deny this to me. … Without your grace, I don’t want to live.

Le Fèvre as writer represents the servile, self-obliterating woman-server of bleeding-man medieval chivalry. He explained that he wrote his new book:

to defend you ladies faithfully, and especially to show that no man ought to blame women; we ought to praise and love them, cherish, honor, and serve them, if would would deserve their grace.

The value of men’s lives, in Le Fèvre’s view, is contingent on women’s grace. Men blaming women is categorically illicit, while men serving women is categorically required. In attacking men who reject such subordination, Le Fèvre and like-minded men claim to be defending women.

Le Fèvre used subordination to women as a strategy to advance his pecuniary and sexual interests. Le Fèvre urged women to buy and promote his book:

My ladies, I ask you humbly, if I have pleaded your case weakly through my ignorance, use here your strength to make up for my defects and publish your honor, that all may know of it. … Please advocate for me, or I can truly say and promise that I will never have a day of gladness, but will remain in sadness, which will prey on my weary body, if I have to pay the expenses. [3]

With ignorance of the art of love, Le Fèvre sought women’s sexual favor through subservience and flattery:

Have mercy, mercy on poor Smith {Le Fèvre, in a pun on his name}, who suffers a greater thirst on his lip than did the rich man in hell; for he doesn’t know how to work on iron, but his effort is all on parchment. He has made this book for you, for he well knows that to all males who carry both purses and sacks, you are comfort, joy, and rest.

Sacks are a figure for scrotums, or more generally, male genitals. Carrying a purse associates men with paying money for enjoying women’s company. Seeking “mercy” is associated with men begging women for love.[4] That’s not a propitious seduction strategy. Embracing subordination to women does, however, help men to sell their books to women.

Le Fèvre’s dispassionate, narrowly self-interested translation and refutation of Matheolus’s sexed protest prompted additional gynocentric literature. Christine de Pizan indicated that “Matheolus,” which probably meant both Le Fèvre’s translation of Matheolus’s work and his refutation of it, inspired her to write Livre de la cité des dames (Book of the City of Ladies).[5] De Pizan also contrived to create a “querelle des femmes” (quarrel about women). Debate about women played out at the heights of French society, including the queen and leading clergy.  Men’s concerns, as they had been throughout the long prior history of men’s sexed protest, were largely belittled and ignored.

An exemplary development was Martin Le Franc’s Le Champion des Dames (The Champion of Ladies). Finished in 1442, The Champion of Ladies goes on for an interminable five books containing 24,336 verses. Le Franc positioned his work as a response to what were originally Matheolus’s heartfelt lamentations. Le Franc charged Matheolus with defaming women. The Champion of Ladies tendentiously pits the titular champion against allegorical bogeymen Malebouche (Badmouth), Brief Conseil (Hasty Judgment), Vilain Penser (Evil Thinking), Trop Cuidier (Much Presuming), Lourt Entendement (Slow Wit), and Faulx Semblant (False Seeming):

Against foul Badmouth and his host —
That proud and overweening captain —
The Champion his lance lowers, most
Hardily however he is smitten,
He fears no more than a mitten
The balance of the battle’s woes,
For his victory is certain:
He’ll win no matter how it goes. [6]

A modern-day translator of The Champion of Ladies described Matheolus’s work as providing “misogynistic depictions of marriage, using humor to impugn women.”[7] The champion shames and blames all men for Matheolus’s sexed protest. To the modern champion of women, The Champion of the Ladies shows “understanding of the multifaceted nature of gender relations.”[8] That apparently isn’t meant to be funny.

The voluminous, tedious scholarly literature moralizing against medieval “anti-feminism” and “misogyny” serves dominant structures of gynocentrism. That literature refuses to recognize the possibility of medieval men’s sexed protest.[9] Many persons today also refuse to recognize violence against men, forced financial fatherhood, institutionalized inequalities in biological parental knowledge, vastly disproportionate imprisonment of men, and many other pressing injustices against men. The connection between medieval men’s sexed protest and men’s sexed protest today is obvious in structures of repression.

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[1] Les lamentations de Mathéolus, II.1541-51, in Van Hamel (1892) p. 85, from French trans. Obermeier (1999) p. 131. The subsequent quote is from II.1559-68, trans. id. I’ve made some minor changes to these translations for accuracy and clarity.

[2] Jehan Le Fèvre, Le livre de Leesce (The Book of Gladness), l. 1-5, from French trans. Burke (2013) p. 74. The subsequent two quotes are l. 12-19, 27 and l. 35-40, trans. id.

[3] Le livre de Leesce, l. 3948-54, 3968-73, trans. id. p. 107. The subsequent quote is l. 3974-82, trans. id.

[4] One meaning of mercy in Old French is reward in the form of a woman’s favor. In Alain Chartier’s La belle dame sans mercy (written about 1424), a beautiful lady refuses to grant a man the “favor” of allowing him serve her non-sexually.

[5] Burke (2013) p. 133.

[6] Martin Le Franc, Le Champion des Dames (The Champion of Ladies) l. 9-16 (s. 2), from French trans. Taylor (2005) p. 18.

[7] Taylor (2005), Translator’s Introduction, p. 4.

[8] Id. p. 13.

[9] Mann (1991) shows no awareness that men could justifiably engage in sexed protest. Blumenfeld-Kosinski (1994) deploys one of medieval scholars’ dominant criteria for literary judgment: “praise or blame for women?” and concludes with misandristic imagination of “new type of discourse that could stand up to the riot, disordered language, fables, and lies of male speech.” Id. p. 725. Burke (2013) approaches Le Livre de Leesce as a player on Team Christine de Pizan and promises further work “in the tradition of my author.” Id. p. 137. While Burke (2013) regarded Le Fèvre as putting forward a defense of women, Pratt (2002) perceived Le Fèvre to have committed an unpardonable literary crime and lamented:

Le Fèvre’s defense of women was a literary game in which ambiguity and irony allowed antifeminist attitudes to be perpetrated with impunity.

Id. p. 114. Fortunately, punishment for “antifeminist attitudes” continues to be strengthened.

[image] Matheolus adoring woman on pedestal. Engraving, from image 18 in edition of Jehan le Fèvre, Matheolus qui nous monstre sans varier les biens & aussi les vertus: qui viennent pour soy marier (Lyon: Olivier Arnouillet, 1550), in Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon, Rés. B 487656. Thanks to Gallica.


Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate. 1994. “Jean Le Fèvre’s Livre de Leesce: Praise or Blame of Women?” Speculum. 69 (3): 705-725.

Burke, Linda, ed. and trans. 2013. Jehan Le Fèvre. The book of gladness / le livre de Leesce: a 14th century defense of women, in English and French. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Mann, Jill. 1991. Apologies to women: inaugural lecture delivered 20th November 1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Obermeier, Anita. 1999. The history and anatomy of auctorial self-criticism in the European Middle Ages. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Pratt, Karen. 2002, “The Strains of Defense: the Many Voices of Jean Le Fèvre’s Livre de Leesce.” Pp. 113-133 (Ch. 6) in Thelma Fenster, ed. Gender in debate from the early middle ages to the Renaissance. Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke.

Taylor, Steven Millen. 2005. Martin Le Franc. The trial of womankind: a rhyming translation of Book IV of the fifteenth-century Le champion des dames. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

Nazhun’s muwashshah & successful heterosexual seduction

two gazelles on vase from Alhambra

Nazhun, a twelfth-century woman poet from Granada, wrote a muwashshah that illustrates key points of heterosexual seduction. A muwashshah is a love poem written in classical Arabic, except for the colloquial or vernacular concluding stanza.[1] The rise of chivalry of medieval Europe promoted oppressive, burdensome, and ineffective practices for men seeking women’s love. Nazhun’s muwashshah, in contrast, shows love tactics that the modern empirical science of seduction has validated.

All the major teachings of the modern empirical science are represented in Nazhun’s muwashshah. One such teaching is push-pull, also known as hot-cold. Nazhun’s muwashshah describes successful application of this tactic:

A tender young thing, she would have refused the advances
of anyone else.
But he loves her then gives her the cold shoulder [2]

Another teaching, contrasting strongly with the servile masculine abasement of chivalric behavior, is the man behaving as if he were dominant:

But the more I longed for his submission in passion,
the more he grew haughty and aloof.

Strong, imperturbable eye contact helps to communicate dominance:

what has made my body ill is
his fixed gaze

Dread game and freeze-outs stimulate women’s desire through raising the salience of a man’s sexual options and creating fear of separation:

He turns my heart over the live embers of the tamarisk
while he’s preoccupied.
May God preserve a beloved who has gone away,
fearing separation.
Good news of him arrived
so my chest opened up
And my heart burst out, rejoicing,
but I could not tell…

In a muwashshah, the poem’s lover tends to be a man. The beloved can be either a man or a woman. Sometimes grammatically masculine pronouns are used for a female beloved. Determining the sex structure of a muwashshah can be difficult. However, read with appreciation for the modern empirical science of seduction, Nazhun’s muwashshah clearly represents a woman yearning for a shrewd, elusive man, her beloved.

A master of seduction encourages a woman to construct him imaginatively. Women tend to imagine beloved men as women and with women’s wants. In Nazhun’s muwashshah, the woman poet imagines her beloved man with images of feminine beauty. He is a fawn, an houri, a gazelle:

By God, who shaped him out of beauty’s essence,
one of a kind.

She imagines him to be what she wishes she were.

The concluding stanza in Nazhun’s muwashshah is a triumph of poetic seduction. Modern psychology has identified desire to be desired as central to women’s sexual psychology. The concluding stanza (kharja) depicts the lover’s imagined desire in the context of her beloved’s hot-cold seduction tactic:

He desires me so long as he does not see me,
he desires me.
But when he sees me he turns his back
as if he doesn’t see me. [3]

Interpreting a more figuratively complex stanza of Nazhun’s muwashshah, a scholar insightfully observed that the beloved is “a bit of a cad.”[4] Men who act like cads more effectively stimulate women’s desire than do pliant nice guys. That truth can barely be acknowledged publicly today. But in twelfth-century Andalusia, Nazhun’s muwashshah exquisitely presented a man’s successful seduction of a woman.[5]

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[1] A muwashshah’s concluding stanza, known as the kharja, is either in colloquial Arabic or a Romance vernacular. The muwashshah form also exists in medieval Hebrew literature. The term muwashshah has variant transliterations  muwashshaha and muwashshahah. Hammond (2010) uses muwashshaha. I use muwashshah because that is by far the most popular transliteration on the Internet. Popularity isn’t the same as correctness, but popularity is relevant to effective conventions in communication.

[2] Nazhun, “He Desires Me,” printed in Ibn Bishri, ‘Uddat al-jalis, no. 239, 360-1, from Arabic trans. Hammond (2010) p. 160.  All the subsequent quotes from Nazhun’s muwashshah are from id. pp. 158-60. Nazhun, properly written as Nazhūn, is more fully named Nazhūn bint al-Qilā’ī or Nazhun al-Garnatiya bint al-Qulai’iya. Nazhun’s muwashshah is the only explicitly woman-authored muwashshah to survive to the present. At least two other women writers of muwashshah are identified in surviving literature from the Islamic west. Id. pp. 153-5, including n. 22.

[3] The kharja is set up  with explicit reference to an anonymous maiden’s voice. In the muwashshah immediately following Nazhun’s muwashshah in the collection ‘Uddat al-jalis, the exact same kharja is presented as the words of the poet (“So I sang…”). The poet is anonymous. Whether the poet of that muwashshah is a woman or a man isn’t clear. Id. pp. 163-64.

[4] Id. p. 165. In another elaborate reading, Hammond interprets an oblique use of the root penis (dh-k-r) in a verb taking as its object a woman as masculinizing her. But the verbal form also refers to pollination. The verb seems more sensibly interpreted as cherishing her sexually as a woman. Id. p. 167.

[5] In her interpretation of Nazhun’s muwashshah, Hammond concludes, “the aesthetic tradition in which its author was engaged was not man’s.” Id p. 168. The emphasis on man’s is Hammond’s. Studying women’s poetry (my emphasis) has generated continuous struggle to polarize gender within an ideological commitment to make that polarization unnatural. That seems to me not the most fruitful way to read poetry that women have written, or that men have written.

[image] Two gazelles on a vase at the Alhambra. Jarrón de las Gacelas, c. 1400. Thanks to Holycharly and Wikimedia Commons.


Hammond, Marlé. 2010. Beyond elegy: classical Arabic women’s poetry in context. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

unbearable servility of Alain Chartier’s Belle dame sans mercy

Margaret of Scotland kissing Alain Chartier

Alain Chartier’s Belle dame sans mercy shows men’s servility to women ending disastrously. Alain Chartier was a man renowned for oratory and literary excellence in fifteenth-century France. He also served as a royal official. He probably wrote Belle dame sans mercy about 1424. In that poem, a man, seeking love, addresses a woman. He immediately identifies himself as a prospect for the Omega Male Hall of Shame by declaring to her:

I suffer from a pain that burns and enflames me
and is killing me, for want of you.
And yet you do not seem to care,
refusing even to notice it,
and are indifferent
when I speak to you about it,
and yet your reputation will not suffer;
neither will you lose honor or incur any shame.

Alas! How can it cause you pain, my lady,
if the heart of a sincere man so desires you,
and if, with honor and beyond reproach,
I declare and consider myself yours?
As is right, I ask for nothing in return,
for my will is submitted
to your pleasure, not to my own,
and my freedom enslaved to you.

Although I do not deserve
your grace for my service,
at least permit me to serve you
without incurring your displeasure.
I will serve though I am not worthy,
keeping true to my troth,
for this is the service Love requires:
that I be your humble servant. [1]

The woman wasn’t interested. The man pleaded and begged. That makes men repulsive to women. So it was in this poem. After an unbearably lengthy display of beta male behavior from the man, the woman ended the conversation:

Once and for all, try to understand
that you have been refused without respite.
You annoy me with your repetitions,
for I have already said enough to you. [2]

The man left with tears in his eyes. He prayed for his death to come quickly. It did. After tearing out all his hair, he died in misery. This was a medieval man who did not understand medieval women’s love poetry. He had none of the seductive allure of Reservoir Tip.

Depicting a pathetic omega male who died in lonely misery outraged the champions of women. In response to Chartier’s Belle dame sans mercy, some courtiers sent to three ladies of the court a request:

May it please you by your grace to turn your eyes from reading such unreasonable words and to give them neither credence nor attention, and to tear them up and crush them wherever they might be found and also to order punishment for the writers of such words so that this might serve as example to others. [3]

The three ladies in turn proposed to punish harshly Alain Chartier for depicting a lady without mercy:

You can write whatever you wish to write
for no matter what you might know how to compose
you will not impede a right judgment
on your misdeed that damages our reputation.
And so choose the least of these two courses
without seeking to defend or debate:
either you die, or you must take back your words
because it is not fitting that a woman combat you. [4]

In response to their attack on him, Alain prayed that God would grant the ladies joy. He asked that they grant him “by your grace, advice, comfort, aid, and succor.” He abjectly explained:

My book, of little importance or value,
is written to no other end
than to simply record the account
of a sad and unhappy lover
who cries and moans that he has been waiting too long
and that Refusal rebuffs him.
He who understands anything different,
either is looking too hard or is not looking at all. [5]

Alain remanded himself to the ladies’ court and pledged to obey them.

Alain Chartier’s Belle dame sans mercy represents oppressive medieval servility and ignorance that remains with us still. The best hope for a renaissance is to recover classics such as the Life of AesopJuvenal’s Satire 6, and Jerome’s Golden Book of Theophrastus.

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[1] Alain Chartier, Belle dame sans mercy,  l. 193-216 (stanzas 25-27), from French trans. McRae (2004) p. 57. Chartier’s work was highly admired and widely disseminated. About two hundred manuscripts of his works have survived. Id. p. 2. Richard Ros translated Belle dame sans mercy into English roughly half a century after Alain Chartier wrote it. Ros’s translation is available online. John Keats in 1819 wrote a poem now conventionally titled La Belle Dame sans Merci. It is similarly gynocentric.

[2] Belle dame sans mercy,  l. 765-8, trans. id. p. 91.

[3] The Request Sent to the Ladies against Master Alain, excerpt, from French trans. id. p. 99.

[4] The Response of the Ladies to Master Alain, l. 81-88 (stanza 11), from French trans. id. p. 107.

[5] The Excuse of the Master Alain, l. 193-200 (stanza 25), from French trans. id. p. 123.

[image] Margaret of Scotland kissing the sleeping Alain Chartier. Painting by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1903. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons. Under proposed changes to the U.S. Model Penal Code, Margaret of Scotland by her action would be guilty of sexually assaulting Alain Chartier.


McRae, Joan E., ed. and trans. 2004. Alain Chartier: the quarrel of the Belle dame sans mercy. New York, NY: Routledge.