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.


gender equality and anti-men gender bigotry

tree, hollow inside, collapsed

Dying in military service on behalf of one’s country is a highly significant sacrifice. In U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, the sex ratio among U.S. military personnel killed on active duty is 41.4 men killed per woman killed. The sex ratio among U.S. military personnel wounded in action is even more unequal: 50.4 men wounded per woman wounded.[1]

Discussion of gender equality typically focuses on highly privileged positions. Politicians and news media celebrate affirmative efforts to foster gender equality among members of parliaments and corporate boards, CEOs, leading engineers and scientists, and other rich, powerful, or otherwise privileged persons. The theory seems to be that gender equality imposed at the top will trickle down to the vast mass of ordinary folk. Gender inequality in persons dying for their country seems to be of no more public interest than remedying explicit gender discrimination in the imposition of Selective Service obligations. Pushing for gender equality with only concern for women is a farce. Yet such efforts are prevalent. They face almost no serious challenge in public deliberation.

The most serious challenge to gender equality meaning anti-men gender bigotry is the demoralization of men. Men are being imprisoned for not being able to fulfill onerous financial obligations imposed on them for doing nothing more than having consensual sex. Men are being treated as presumptively criminal when accused of rape. Men are deprived of their children through family courts administered with acute anti-men gender bias. The demonization of persons who raise their voices about such injustices makes clear to men that their lives matter little in competition for public attention and public influence.

Men treated as second-class citizens will not work hard. Men treated as second-class citizens will not fight hard.  That is the fundamental challenge for the U.S., for Europe, and for other countries seeking to follow the current world-elite consensus.[2] Financial machinations and immigration can help to offset domestic economic and demographic stagnation. Countries can pretend that their security is assured with the ultimate feminine weapon: nuclear bombs. These machinations and delusions won’t change the demoralizing reality that today in the Western world gender equality actually means anti-men gender bigotry.

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Data: U.S. military personnel, by sex, killed and wounded in active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts (Excel version).

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[1] See the U.S. military casualties by sex dataset.  More comprehensive measures of casualties also show strong biases toward men’s deaths. In Iraq during the two years preceding the start of war in 2003, Iraqi men’s death rate was about twice that of Iraqi women’s. War in Iraq caused men’s death rate to rise much more sharply than women’s. See Hagopia et al. (2013) p. 8, Fig. 3. At the peak of the war period (2005-2006), Iraq men’s death rate was about 2.5 times that of women. In the period after the U.S. began fighting in Iraq through 2011, 8.5 males died from violence for each female that died from violence. Id. p. 7. U.S. military action targets men for killing. Drone strikes target men after they have left their homes or when they are living without their loved ones. Drone strikes seek to kill a specific man, but not his wife and other women who intimately support him and love him. Drone strikes are probably interpreted as a grave insult to women in traditional cultures that retain a more humane and reasonable understanding of gender equality than does the U.S.

[2] World elite leaders fly into places like Iraq and Afghanistan and lecture local leaders on empowering women and girls. Then they seek to train and equip local men in the brutal business of fighting highly motivated, viciously inhumane enemy forces. Not surprisingly, local men seem not to appreciate the motivating power of Western ideals of truth, equality, and human dignity. Perhaps they perceive the reigning Western anti-men gender bigotry.


Hagopian, Amy, Flaxman, Abraham D., Takaro, Tim K., Esa Al Shatari, Sahar A., Rajaratnam, Julie, Becker, Stan, Levin-Rector, Alison, et al. 2013. “Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003–2011 War and Occupation: Findings from a National Cluster Sample Survey by the University Collaborative Iraq Mortality Study.” PLOS Medicine 10:10. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001533

Wednesday’s flowers

purple haze

Valerii ad Rufinum: speaking truth in love for a friend

Ulysses and the Sirens, a allusion in Valerii ad Rufinus

Today, as in Europe in the days of Valerius and Rufinus, men are silenced. Loqui prohibeor et tacere non possum. They forbid me to speak, and I cannot be silent. I detest the incessant howling of humans who lack the songs of a dog except one. Rufinus, Valerius’ friend, wanted to marry. Heloise urged Abelard not to marry. They now say that’s misogyny. They forbid me to speak.

Women encircling men delight them with the attention, praise, and bodies of women. You will become a husband surrounded by one threefold monster with the face of a taskmaster, the belly of an accepted fatty, and a tail you hardly ever see. Ulysses too was enchanted by women, especially the Sirens. Veritatis vinculis sibi vim fecit, ut vitaret voraginem. I foretell you will remain a man, but many are becoming manboobs. I am afraid. They forbid me to speak.

Lest you become a pig or an ass, I cannot be silent. Walter Duranty, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, reported for the New York Times from the Stalinist Soviet Union amid the famines of 1932-1933. He explained to readers:

But—to put it brutally—you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and the Bolshevist leaders are just as indifferent to the casualties that may be involved in their drive toward socializaton as any General during the World War who ordered a costly attack in order to show his superiors that he and his division possessed the proper soldierly spirit. In fact, the Bolsheviki are more indifferent because they are animated by fanatical conviction.

Generals who order a costly attack cause the deaths of men. Deaths of men matter little to today’s queens and kings. My beloved friend, the Bolsheviks caused not only the deaths of millions of men, but also the deaths of millions of women and children who weren’t even forced to be soldiers. Your life is worth nothing to them. They will even lie about persons who count.

Now Ezra Klein, a minister of Babel positioned in new media like Walter Duranty was in old, has taught readers the merits of arbitrary criminalization of men’s sexuality. Recently Klein coolly wrote:

Critics worry that colleges will fill with cases in which campus boards convict young men (and, occasionally, young women) of sexual assault for genuinely ambiguous situations. Sadly, that’s necessary for the law’s success. It’s those cases — particularly the ones that feel genuinely unclear and maybe even unfair, the ones that become lore in frats and cautionary tales that fathers e-mail to their sons — that will convince men that they better Be Pretty D–n Sure.

Convicting men for “genuinely ambiguous situations” is “law’s success” only in a culture of misandry without reason. That’s our mire in which you want to marry. I cannot be silent.

You have many advocates for your desire. They pour you honeyed poison that goes down pleasantly. It pleases you. I cry out bitter truth that you loath. They forbid me to speak.

Prima primi uxor Ade post primam hominis creationem primo peccato prima solvit ieiunia contra preceptum Domini. In the beginning in the apes’ forest, scholars have said that males were demonic and social groups gynocentric. Truth, which cannot be deceived, says otherwise. I have no wife to lay down for you. I will lay down my life for you. I cannot be silent.

Det tibi Deus omnipotens omnipotentis femine fallatia non falli. Let the women go first. Let them go first into the elevator to ride to the top of modern life. May the fire of my love shine a light into your heart. I have written boldly, perhaps with incivility, but that is necessary. Heloise understood. I am afraid. Stay here with me. Farewell.

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The above includes text from Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum philosophum ne uxorem ducat (Letter of Valerius to the philosopher Rufinus, dissuading him from marrying). Walter (Gualterus) Map wrote that Latin work probably in the late 1170s. Map, who was Welsh, was a courtier to King Henry II of England. Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum apparently circulated on its own. Map later incorporated it into his De nugis curialium (1180-1183) as Distinction IV, Chapter 3. The Latin text and English translation, with interpretive and textual notes, are available in Hanna & Lawler (1997). The Latin text is freely available online in James (1914) pp. 143f.

Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum was a highly popular medieval work. It has survived in at least 158 medieval manuscripts and generated at least seven medieval commentaries. Cartlidge (1998) p. 156 (manuscript count) and Lawler & Hanna (2014) (commentaries, with English translations). In medieval Europe, Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum tended to be falsely attributed to the ancient Roman author Valerius Maximus. Falsely attributed to Jerome, it was occasionally printed with Jerome’s work. It thus appeared in a 1468 printed edition of Epistolae Hieronymi. Goldschmidt (1943) p. 40. A leading medieval Latin scholar called Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum “a rhetorical tour de force, which is amusing precisely because it defies both moderation and logic.” Cartlidge (1998) p. 158.

Neither medieval commentators nor modern scholars have appreciated Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum as literature of men’s sexed protest. Four of the medieval commentaries are primarily concerned to explicate classical allusions. The other three moralizing commentaries, according the book blurb for Lawler & Hanna (2014), “mount eloquent defenses of women.” For example, one declares, “Of Lais, Livia, Deinira and Lucilia I concede that they were dangerous; (but not all women are dangerous).” Lawler & Hanna (2014) p. 288 (Commentary Four, “Valerius qui dicitur parvu,” on Chapter Six).  A manuscript of the medieval commentary “Hoc contra malos religiosos” explains:

What he means to say is that the number of bad women is very much greater than that of the good. Indeed, morally speaking, this is just as true of men, which is something to be regretted.

Cartlidge (1998) p. 159. Lawler & Hanna (2014) follow the approach of those medieval men commentators and ponders at length “anti-feminism” in Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum. Scholars today might more usefully ponder the male gender protrusion in mortality and incarcerating men for having done nothing more than have consensual sex and subsequently not being able to make the legally required payments.

The Latin phrases in the text above are from Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum. Here are English translations of those phrases:

  • Loqui prohibeor et tacere non possum. They forbid me to speak, and I cannot be silent.
  • Veritatis vinculis sibi vim fecit, ut vitaret voraginem. He made himself strong with the shackles of truth so as to avoid the whirlpool.
  • Prima primi uxor Ade post primam hominis creationem primo peccato prima solvit ieiunia contra preceptum Domini. The first wife of the first Adam after the first creation of humanity by the first sin ended the first fast, against God’s command.
  • Det tibi Deus omnipotens omnipotentis femine fallatia non falli. May almighty God grant you the grace not to be tricked by the trickery of almighty woman.

Trans. adapted from Hanna & Lawler (1997).  The text above also includes English phrases adapted from Hanna & Lawler (1997)’s translation.

[image] Ulysses and the Sirens. Herbert James Draper, c. 1909. Oil on canvas. Held in Ferens Art Gallery, KINCM:2005.4878. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Cartlidge, Neil. 1998. “Misogyny in a Medieval University? The ‘Hoc contra malos’ Commentary on Walter Map’s ‘Dissuasio Valerii’.” Journal of Medieval Latin 8: 156-91.

Goldschmidt, Ernst Philip. 1943. Medieval texts and their first appearance in print. London: Bibliographical Society.

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

James, Montague Rhodes, ed. 1914. Walter Map De nugis curialium. Anecdota Oxoniensia. Medieval and Modern Series. Part XIV. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lawler, Traugott, Ralph Hanna, eds. and trans. 2014. Jankyn’s Book of Wikked Wyves: Seven Commentaries on Walter Map’s “Dissuasio Valerii.” Athens: University of Georgia Press.

females key to peaceful, egalitarian bonobo society

male bonobo grooms female bonobo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] Furuichi (1997) p. 866.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary of Egypt in the thought of Heloise of the Paraclete

holy kiss in painting Saint Peter and Paul's farewell

Heloise of the Paraclete was a highly intelligent woman who boldly expressed her strong, independent sexuality. As a young, unmarried woman, she delighted in a sexual affair with Peter. As a scholar, she studied the neglected history of great women who came before her. One such great woman was Mary of Egypt. Medieval scholars, who historically have been predominately men, haven’t adequately appreciated Mary of Egypt as a foremother to Heloise of the Paraclete.[1]

Mary of Egypt’s extra-marital sexual experience was much more extensive than that of Heloise of the Paraclete. Mary, living in Alexandria probably about 600 GC, was very sexually liberated:

I threw myself entirely and insatiably into the lust of sexual intercourse. … For more than seventeen years … I was a public temptation to licentiousness, not for payment, I swear, since I did not accept anything although men often wished to pay me. I simply contrived this so that I could seduce many more men, thus turning my lust into a free gift. [2]

Requiring men to pay for sex, or having men always be the gender paying for dinner and entertainment, undermines gender symmetry and sex equality. Mary of Egypt was a champion of sex equality. She was also a sex champion more generally:

one summer day I {Mary of Egypt} saw a huge crowd of Libyan and Egyptian men running toward the sea. … I ran toward the sea, where I saw the other people running. And I saw some young men standing at the seashore, about ten or more, vigorous in their bodies as well as in their movements, who seemed to me fit for what I sought … I rushed shamelessly into their midst, as was my habit. “Take me where you are going,” I said, “Surely you will not find me useless.” Then, uttering other even more obscene words, I made everyone laugh, while they, seeing my penchant for shamelessness, took me and brought me to the boat they had prepared for the journey. … What tongue can declare, or what ears can bear to hear what happened on the boat and during the journey and the acts into which I forced those wretched men against their will? There is no kind of licentiousness, speakable or unspeakable, that I did not teach those miserable men. [3]

In modern terms, Mary of Egypt confessed to raping a boatload of men. Men raping women has been throughout history a serious public concern. But even today, women raping men isn’t taken seriously. That Mary of Egypt raped a boatload of men shouldn’t be held against her.

Heloise of the Paraclete must be appreciated similarly within her own historical context. Just as in our time, medieval Europe was a time of intensified attacks on women and oppression of women. Within her twelfth-century, clergy-dominated society, Heloise constructed Peter as her “one-and-only.”[4] Heloise thus internalized the oppressive medieval European norm of monogamy in her extra-marital affair with Peter.

Both Mary of Egypt and Heloise of the Paraclete struggled with appealing memories of extra-marital sex with men. For seventeen years, Mary of Egypt struggled with sexual memories:

an irrational desire for lascivious songs entered my mind, always disturbing me profoundly and trying to seduce me into singing the demonic songs that I have learned. … How can I describe to you those thoughts that were urging me again to fornication? Indeed, deep in my miserable heart a burning desire was kindled and set my whole {being} aflame and excited my desire for intercourse. [5]

Heloise of the Paraclete also for years struggled with such memories:

The lovers’ pleasures we enjoyed together were so sweet to me that they cannot displease me and can scarcely fade from my memory.  Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies which will not even let me sleep.  Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold on my most unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness rather than on prayer.  I, who should be grieving for the sins I have committed, am sighing rather for what I have lost.  The things we did and also the places and times we did them are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live though them all again with you.  Even in sleep I know no respite. [6]

While the modern elite work to criminalize the heterosexual love that 25% of men experience across wide swaths of the world, medieval clerics had sympathy for monks’ unintentional nocturnal emissions. Highlighting the gender inequality implicit in that sympathy, a medieval scholar recently recognized Heloise’s pioneering scholarly work:

It is precisely this “maleness” of monastic temptation that Heloise confronts and contests with her claims of nocturnal fantasies. She makes the point — still largely unacknowledged at this time in the early twelfth century — that women religious also suffer from sexual temptation and that the existing pastoral literature makes no space either to recognize this or to deal with it sympathetically. Heloise achieves this not simply by “confessing” (or appearing to confess) her sexual temptations, but by actively regendering her sexual desire as “male” sexual desire. [7]

This analysis devalues Heloise as a strong, independent thinker. Heloise taught Peter boldness and courage. Heloise spoke out strongly against marriage. With the support of Mary of Egypt as a role model (female role models are crucial for women’s advanced thinking), Heloise of the Paraclete was strong enough to affirm that her sexual desire was a woman’s sexual desire.

Culminating in leading twentieth-century philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, Heloise of the Paraclete is part of a long, distinguished chain of women thinkers who have developed the importance of intentions. Heloise explained to the highly respected scholar Peter:

It is not the deed but the state of mind of the doer which makes the crime, and justice should weigh not what is done but the spirit in which it is done. What my intention toward you has always been, you alone who have known it can judge.

A philosophically striking aspect of this thought is the assertion that Person A’s intention is known completely by Person B, with the implicit assertion that Person A knows that Person B knows completely Person A’s intention. This is an important philosophical path to theory of mind. Heloise also anticipated the development of theory of embodied cognition:

it is not so much what things are done as the mind in which they are done that we must consider if we wish to please him who tests the heart and loins [8]

The mind in which acts are done are linked to the heart and the lions. Only a small step further leads to the recognition of loins as a force of thought.

In her thinking about intention, Heloise of the Paraclete seems to have drawn upon insights into intention in the life of Mary of Egypt. Mary recounted to Zosimas her life as a liberated woman with strong, independent sexuality. Zosimas, a monk, was enthralled with her account. In Zosima’s return visit to her, she ordered him to recite the holy creed of the Christian faith and to say the Our Father:

When this was done and the prayer came to an end, according to custom she gave the monk the kiss of love on his mouth. [9]

In Christian churches in the second century and earlier, kisses on the lips were exchanged between women and men in the Mass for the kiss of peace (holy kiss/ kiss of love). Because of concerns about concupiscence, heterosexual kisses for the liturgical kiss of peace were forbidden in the third century.[10] Heloise, an keen biblical and patristic scholar, probably recognized that the labial kiss of peace included in the life of Mary of Egypt taught readers the importance of intention. Mary of Egypt gave Zosimas that kiss “according to custom.” Her intention was pure. Zosimas reception of her kiss, one assumes, was also with purity of mind, as are the minds of the monks and others reading the life of Mary of Egypt.

The roughly contemporaneous life of Matrona of Perge elaborates further on the importance of state of mind. Matrona had disguised herself as a eunuch and joined a monastery. The monastery’s abbot eventually learned her true sex:

{He} said to her, “So be it. You have all the while escaped notice as a woman, and have done no harm to us who were unaware of this. But how have you approached the divine mysteries with your head uncovered? And have you offered the kiss of peace to the brethren? Said she, “During the divine mysteries I have pulled my cloak halfway over my head, feigning a headache. And as for the symbol of peace and seal of love, I have not shunned it, for I considered that I offered myself not unto human mouths, but unto God’s angels and men free of passion.” [11]

In the Middle Ages, men and women were separated on different sides of the nave in churches. That separation helped to prevent women and men from kissing each other for the kiss of peace. Heloise of the Paraclete expressed concern about her nuns associating with men.[12] As a scholar and a philosopher, Heloise of the Paraclete thought deeply about Zosimas and Mary of Egypt’s kiss on the lips, and perhaps also the kisses of Matrona of Perge and the monks. She understood the difficulty of intentions.

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[1] The Life of Mary of Egypt was well known in medieval Europe. Many medieval manuscripts of her life have survived. Kouli (1996) p. 67. In the Western church, her life was celebrated in the liturgical calendar with a feast day on April 2. Abelard referred to Mary of Egypt in a letter to Heloise. He stated:

she struggled with superhuman courage against what anchorites suffer, so that holy women should lead in both kinds of monastic life.

Letter 7.40, from Latin trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) p. 331. The phrase “what anchorites suffer” could encompass appealing memories of sexual activities.

[2] The Life of Mary of Egypt, the former Harlot, who in Blessed Manner Became an Ascetic in the Desert of the {River} Jordan, s. 18, from Greek trans. Kouli (1996) p. 80. The later Latin Life of Mary of Egypt is available in English translation in Ward (1987), pp. 35-56. The Latin life follows the Greek life closely.

[3] Life of Mary of Egypt, s. 19-21, trans. Kouli (1996) pp. 80-2. The phrase “speakable or unspeakable” suggests with the second term sexual acts not of reproductive type.  Compared to the lusty vitality of the life of Mary of Egypt, Burrus (2004) offers precious, precious academic posturing with “erotics of ancient hagiography,” “countereroticism,” Foucault, Irigaray, Boudrillard, etc, leading to “Postscript (Catching My Breath)”:

Inspire: write and be read! Expire: let go of the self! In the midst, in between such daunting imperatives, our lives transpire. Heavy breathing, shallow breaths, suspenseful breathlessness … Can breath be “caught”? It is neither prey nor disease. Yet we speak of “catching the wind” … When my first child was born, after an exhausting twelve hours of mutual labor, he paused delicately — such a beautiful in-between blue, I thought dreamily.

Burrus (2004) p. 160. Does anyone get excited by that sort of writing?

[4] E.g. Heloise to Abelard, Letter 2, concluding, “farewell, my one-and-only.” From Latin trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) p. 141.

[5] Life of Mary of Egypt, s. 28-29, trans. Kouli (1996) pp. 85-6. In the Islamic world, singing was a highly valued attribute of courtesans.

[6] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 4.12,  trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) p. 171.

[7] Ruys (2008) p. 394. This work underscores the value of further study of gender in Aucassin and Nicolette.

[8] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 2.13, trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) p. 137 (first quote in paragraph);  Heloise to Abelard, Letter 6.25, id. p. 251 (second quote). See also 6.24.

[9] Life of Mary of Egypt, s. 35, trans. Kouli (1996) p. 90. Similarly in the Latin version, ch. 22, trans. Ward (1987) p. 53.

[10] Paul urged the Romans, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” Romans 16:16. See also 1. Cor. 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26. Peter used a slightly different form, “Greet one another with a kiss of love.” 1 Peter 5:14. The “kiss of peace” became part of the Mass:

From Augustine’s account, and those of many others, we also learn that the kiss of peace was a full, labial act. In the second century and most likely earlier, this kiss was exchanged between members of the opposite sex as well as between members of the same sex.

Foley (2010) p. 60.  Because of concerns about concupiscence, in the third century the kiss was restricted to same-sex pairs. Id. p. 61.  Apparently that restriction didn’t end concern about concupiscence. In thirteenth-century Europe, kissing a “pax brede” (peace board) replaced direct interpersonal kissing in some churches. Id. 70. Interpersonal kissing on the lips during Mass was no longer practiced by 1570. Id. In further scholastic development, kissing on college campuses may require clear, prior, individual affirmative consent. Only the scholastic officials deciding cases know what the law requires.

[11] The Life and Conduct of the Blessed and Holy Matrona, s. 7, from Greek trans. Featherstone (1996) p. 26.

[12] Heloise tendentiously queried:

Which is more fitting for our religious life: for an abbess never to offer hospitality to men, or for her to eat with men she has allowed in? It is all too easy for the souls of men and women to be destroyed if they live together in one place,and especially at table, where gluttony and drunkenness are rife, and wine “which leads to lechery” is drunk with enjoyment.

Heloise to Abelard, Letter 6.4, trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) p. 221.

[image] Farewell of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Alonzo Rodriguez. 17th century. Held in Museo Regionale di Messina, Italy. Thanks to Maria lo sposo and Wikimedia Commons.


Burrus, Virginia. 2004. The sex lives of saints: an erotics of ancient hagiography. Philadelphia, Pa: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Featherstone, Jeffrey, trans. and Cyril Mango, intro. 1996. “Life of St. Matrona of Perge.” Pp. 13-64 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.

Foley, Michael P. 2010. “The Whence and Whither of the Kiss of Peace in the Roman Rite.” Antiphon 14.1: 49-54.

Kouli, Maria. 1996. “Life of St. Mary of Egypt.” 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.

Luscombe, David, and Betty Radice, ed. and trans. 2013. The letter collection of Peter Abelard and Heloise. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

Ruys, Juanita Feros. 2008. “Heloise, Monastic Temptation, and Memoria: Rethinking Autobiography, Sexual Experience, and Ethics.” Pp. 383-404 in Classen, Albrecht, ed. Sexuality in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times: New Approaches to a Fundamental Cultural-Historical and Literary-Anthropological Theme. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.

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

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Wednesday’s flowers

maze of red tentacles

friendship for Tito and Gisippo from Athens to Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


multi-species bird communities cluster their songs

huge bird flock

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

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

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

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

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

Heloise wholly innocent of disastrous marriage with Abelard

Following Heloise and Abelard’s affair, her pregnancy and childbirth, and their marriage, her uncle and his relations broke into Abelard’s lodgings and castrated him. Only two of the perpetrators were caught. Both were both castrated and blinded. Reviewing Abelard’s account of these calamities, Heloise wrote to him:

Who is there who was once my enemy, whether man or woman, who is not moved now by the compassion which is my due? Wholly guilty thought I am, I am, as you know, wholly innocent. [1]

In a subsequent letter, Heloise explained:

But even if my conscience is clear through innocence, and no consent of mine makes me guilty of this crime, too many earlier sins were committed to allow me to be wholly free from guilt. I yielded long before to the pleasures of carnal desires, and merited then what I weep for now. [2]

In Heloise’s apparent understanding, Abelard’s castration and the castration and blinding of the other two men flowed not from Heloise and Abelard’s sexual affair, but from their disastrous marriage. That disastrous marriage led to Heloise, who did not suffer any physical violence, being deprived of her delight in Abelard’s sexuality. Heloise is worthy of compassion and wholly innocent because she strongly objected to that marriage. Throughout history, few persons have argued as forcefully and eloquently against marriage as did Heloise. Men and women everywhere should listen to Heloise.

caught in marriage net

Heloise selflessly recognized that her marriage to Abelard would oppress Abelard. She urged Abelard not to marry her. After their disastrous marriage, Abelard mournfully recalled Heloise’s sagacity:

{Heloise said} it would be a sorry scandal if I should bind myself to a single woman and submit to such base servitude. She most strongly rejected this marriage; it would be nothing but a disgrace and burden to me. Along with the loss to my reputation she put before me the difficulties of marriage … What harmony can there be between pupils and serving women, desks and cradles, books or tablets and distaffs, pens or quills and spindles? Who can concentrate on thoughts of Scripture or philosophy and be able to endure babies crying, nurses soothing them with lullabies, and all the noisy crowd of men and women about the house? Who will put up with the constant muddle and squalor which small children bring into the home? [3]

Jerome fabricated words of Theophrastus to persuade widows to reject marriage out of compassion for men. Like many holy women in Jerome’s own time, Heloise, even as a single woman, took to heart Jerome’s lesson. She counseled Abelard:

St. Jerome in the first book of his Against Jovinian recalls how Theophrastus sets out in considerable detail the unbearable annoyances of marriage and its endless anxieties, in order to prove by the clearest possible arguments that a wise man should not take a wife [4]

Heloise figured herself as Marcella, one of Jerome’s close female associates, and Abelard as Jerome.[5] Jerome did not marry. Heloise wanted Abelard to live like Jerome (“blessed Jerome”), with additional pleasure.

Heloise’s courageous rejection of the formal institution of marriage did not imply rejecting sexual relations. Heloise and Abelard delighted in having sex with each other. Heloise recognized that day-to-day association in the ordinary affairs of life can dull romantic ardor. She explained to Abelard:

if we had to be parted for a time, we should find the joy of being together all the sweeter the rarer our meetings were. [6]

Heloise insisted:

The name of wife may seem holier or more valid, but sweeter for me will always be the word friend or, if you will permit me, concubine or whore.  … you keep silent about many of my arguments for preferring love to marriage and freedom to a chain. God is my witness that if Augustus, emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever, it would seem dearer and more honorable to be called not his empress but your mistress. [7]

Heloise preferred to be Abelard’s whore or mistress than be Abelard’s wife. She surely was wholly innocent of their disastrous marriage.

A disastrous marriage is much more likely for men today. Family law is now a whirlpool of anti-men bigotry. For example, if a wife bears a child from an extramarital affair, the law will impose a conspiracy of silence and force financial obligations upon the cuckolded husband.[8] Men should listen to Heloise. Men should not get married.

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Read more:


[1] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 2.13, from Latin trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) p. 137.  Id. has Historia calamitatum as Letter 1.  Other collections have the subsequent letter as Letter 1.

[2] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 4.11, id. p. 169.

[3] Abelard to a friend, consoling him, Letter 1 (Historia calamitatum) 24-5, id. pp. 35, 37.

[4] Id. p. 37.

[5] In her preface to Problemata Heloissae. Heloise quoted Jerome praising Marcella, as well as praising Asella. Heloise then wrote to Abelard:

What do these statements mean, I ask you, who are dear to many, but dearest of all to me? They are not mere testimonies; they are admonitions, reminding you of your debt to us, which you should not delay in paying.

In Abelard’s rule for the nuns of the Paraclete, Abelard described Jerome as “the greatest doctor of the Church and glory of the monastic profession.” He counseled the nuns:

in your love and study of sacred writings model yourselves on those blessed disciples of St. Jerome, Paula and Eustochium, for it was mainly at their request that this doctor with so many volumes lit up the Church.

S. 123, 128, trans. Luscombe & Radice (2013) pp. 509, 517. In a letter to the nuns of the Paraclete, Abelard put forward Jerome’s advice to Laeta on the upbringing of her daughter Paula and other examples of Jerome’s guidance to women. Letter 9, trans. Ziolkowski (2008) pp. 10-33. Abelard, however, felt that Jerome sometimes went too far in his solicitude for women and his praise of women:

he seems to go somewhat beyond the bound of truth in their praise, as if he felt in himself what he mentions elsewhere: “Love has no limit.” … in writing to the virgin Demetrias, he began his letter with such remarkable praise of her that he seems to give way to excessive adulation.

Abelard to Heloise, Letter 7.49, id. p. 347. Boccaccio addressed the under-appreciated historical problem of men’s excessive adulation for women through his under-appreciated creative wit in El Corbaccio.

[6] Abelard to a friend, consoling him, reporting Heloise’s advice, Letter 1 (Historia calamitatum) 26, id. p. 43.

[7] Heloise to Abelard, Letter 2.10, id. p. 133.

[8] Of course, current times are also difficult for unmarried men. Instead of thuggish relatives, the state now deploys vast resources to punish unmarried men for consensual sexual intercourse that produces a child.

[image] Sunset over Lake Erie through fishing net, Erie, Pennsylvania, September 5, 2004. Thanks to Sensor and Wikimedia Commons.


Luscombe, David, and Betty Radice, ed. and trans. 2013. The letter collection of Peter Abelard and Heloise. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

Ziolkowski, Jan. M., ed. and trans. 2008. Letters of Peter Abelard, beyond the personal. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.


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