how Thecla was saved from her evil mother and terrifying death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

*  *  *  *

Read more:


The text above is adapted from the Acts of Paul and Thecla, written in Greek in the second century. Barrier (2009) provides a critical edition. The quotes above are from the translation of Elliott (1993), with minor modifications. A nineteenth-century English translation is available online in the Ante-Nicene Christian Library. A scholarly consensus now exists that a woman or a community of women wrote or created orally the Acts of Paul and Thecla prior to Tertullian’s apparent reference to a presbyter producing the Acts of Paul. Barrier (2009) p. 22.

The fresco shown above is in a cave, called the Cave of St. Paul, in Bülbüg Dag near Ephesus in present-day Turkey. The image of the fresco is fairly used from the Ephesus Foundation website. Crossan & Reed (2004), for its book cover, featured that fresco, tendentiously cropped and highlighted. That book’s preface declared:

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

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


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

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

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

the pregnant abbess, nun of Watton & cuckolded husbands

pregnant abbess delivered of her child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

how Paul seduced Thecla in Iconium and brought her to God

Saint Paul, displaying large sword

In the non-biblical Acts of Paul and Thecla, Paul is described as short, bald, and bow-legged. In a biblical epistle, Paul described himself as poorly dressed and homeless.[1] Nonetheless, Paul in Iconium attracted the love of the wealthy, beautiful, young woman Thecla. Her enthrallment with his words and Godly mission prompted her to break off her betrothal to another man. Persecution and imprisonment of Paul didn’t deter Thecla’s love for him. Thecla loved Paul through vicious punishments imposed on her. Acts of Paul and Thecla describes how Paul so completely seduced Thecla.

Paul boldly defied the dominant culture and stood as a man proclaiming the truth as he understood it. In a culture that emphasized men competing for worldly status at sumptuous, sensuous banquets, Paul was a renegade. He urged purity of heart, chastity, renunciation of the world, and following Jesus Christ. Sitting at a window, Thecla heard Paul’s words. She stayed at that window for three days and three nights. She eagerly sought every word that Paul said. She also saw many young single women and married women going to see Paul.[2] Thecla’s mother observed:

my daughter … clinging to the window like a spider, catches his words and grows with a strange eagerness and a fearful passion; for the young woman hangs upon the things he says and has been captivated.[3]

When Thecla’s fiancé Thamyris pleaded to her to leave her position at the window and come to him, she ignored him. Thamyris had “much wine, great wealth, and a splendid table.” Marriage contracts and wealth didn’t matter. Thecla wanted to be with Paul before Paul even noticed her.

Paul being sent to prison prompted Thecla to acts of loving devotion. Thecla was from a wealthy family of Iconium. Her family had slaves that guarded the door of the family home. Thecla nonetheless sought to be with Paul in prison. At night, Thecla bribed the door-keeper with her bracelets to get out of her house unnoticed. She gave a silver mirror to the jailer to get in to see Paul. There she sat at Paul’s feet and kissed his fetters. Paul confidently proclaimed to her the might of God. After some time, Thecla was discovered in prison. She was there affectionately bound with Paul. When Paul was taken away for questioning, Thecla “pressed herself to the place where Paul had sat and taught in the prison.”[4] Thecla yearned for Paul in his absence.

Paul appreciated Thecla’s feminine beauty. Thecla declared to Paul:

I will cut my hair short and follow you wherever you go.[5]

Both in the ancient world and today, men tend to prefer women with long hair. Paul obliquely acknowledged the hostile circumstances for feminine beauty and implicitly indicated that he preferred Thecla to retain her long hair. He also brought up her former betrothal and questioned her faithfulness in their circumstances:

The times are evil, and you are beautiful. May no other temptation come upon you, worse than the first {agreeing to marry Thamyris}, and you do not withstand it but act cowardly in love.

Men who put women on pedestals earn only their frigid praise. Paul had the confidence and skill to tell Thecla of her potential weakness. Thecla responded with eagerness to please Paul and God. Most scholars read the Acts of Paul and Thecla to imply that Thecla cut her hair short. That interpretation lacks understanding of love between a woman and a man. Thecla wanted to be beautiful in Paul’s eyes. She didn’t cut her hair short and didn’t act cowardly in love.

Paul at times acted aloof towards Thecla. Paul took Thecla to Antioch. There Paul rejected the immoral role of pimp or the conventional role of male protector. He required Thecla to act decisively to defend herself:

as soon as they had arrived a Syrian named Alexander, who was one of the leading citizens of Antioch, seeing Thecla, became enamored of her. He sought to persuade Paul as a pimp with money and gifts. But Paul said: “I do not know the woman of whom you speak, nor is she mine.”

Paul then apparently walked away from the scene. Thecla had to deal with the importuning Alexander herself:

{Alexander}, being a powerful man, embraced her on the open street. She however would not tolerate that. She looked about for Paul and cried out bitterly, “Do not force the stranger, do not force the handmaid of God! Among the Iconians I am a leading citizen, and because I would not marry Thamyris, I have been cast out of the city.” And taking hold of Alexander, she tore his cloak, pulled off the crown from his head, and made him a laughing-stock.[6]

Men in general are personally reluctant to be physically aggressive to women. Societies tend to sanction more severely men’s physical aggression to women compared to women’s physical aggression toward men. Paul knew that Thecla could make a laughting-stock of Alexander “on the open street.” Through his actions, he gave her the opportunity to act courageously. She rose to the occasion.

With Thecla facing punishment, Paul left her. Thecla was brought before the governor for her physical and symbolic violence against Alexander. Alexander had embraced Thecla against her will. Perhaps the charge against Thecla was that her response went beyond actions permitted in self-defense. Thecla was a stranger in Antioch. Alexander was a leading citizen of Antioch. Their case apparently was tried in Antioch. Those circumstances don’t favor equal justice, even given justice systems’ typical favoritism toward women. Thecla was condemned to the beasts. But with the vigorous support of the local women and the favor of God, Thecla miraculous prevailed over various trials. Paul, apparently with confidence in such an outcome and dedication to his big mission, didn’t stay in Antioch for Thecla’s trials. He went to work in Myra, about 200 kilometers distant from Antioch. Paul was no Ulrich von Liechtenstein.

Paul’s dedication to his big mission didn’t diminish Thecla’s love for him. After Thecla prevailed over the beasts and was released, she was invited to share the home and wealth of her friend and benefactor, Queen Tryphaena.  Tryphaena was a kinswoman of the Roman emperor. After eight days living with Tryphaena, Thecla yearned for Paul:

Thecla yearned for Paul and sought him, looking in every direction. And she was told that he was in Myra. And wearing a mantle that she had altered so as to make a man’s cloak, she came with a band of young men and young women to Myra. There she found Paul speaking the word of God and went to him.[7]

Paul took Thecla by the hand and led her into a house. There Thecla told Paul all that had happened to her. Thecla’s mother, who had treated her horribly, lived in Iconium.  Thecla declared to Paul, “I am going to Iconium.” Paul responded, “Go and teach the word of God!”  When she arrived in Iconium, Thecla “threw herself down on the floor where Paul had sat and taught the oracles of God.” Thecla wept and praised God. Then she found her mother. Thecla offered her mother not justified reproach or condemnation, but money and her daughter’s presence. After this Christian act of familial forgiveness and love, Thecla went off to witness to the word of God in Seleucia.

Early Christians recognized both Thecla and Paul to be Christian heroes and saints. The Acts of Paul and Thecla was known within the second century of Christianity.[8] In the biblical book Acts of the Apostles, Paul enters and leaves Iconium with Barnabas.[9] Barnabas, however, is effaced from Acts of Paul and Thecla. Women are superior to men in social communication. Concern about women dominating early Christian church life might be perceived in Christian scripture.[10] Yet Acts of Paul and Thecla shouldn’t be interpreted as indicating efforts to have women dominate all aspects of Christian life. Acts of Paul and Thecla teaches men how to realize their wonderful and beneficial power to seduce women and bring them to God.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] 1 Corinthians 4:11. For the description of Paul in Acts of Paul and Thecla, see its s. 2. For available English translations, see note [3] below. Acts of Paul and Thecla is chapters 3 & 4 in a larger work, Acts of Paul. Many other non-biblical texts of acts of the apostles (conventionally called apocryphal acts of the apostles) have survived. These include Acts of John, Acts of Peter, Acts of Andrew, Acts of Thomas, Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles, and Pseudo-Clementines. These works typically center on a woman who converts to Christianity and visits the apostle in prison. Elliott (1993) provides English translations of these and other early Christian texts similar to those in the New Testament.

[2] In terms of modern applied erotic psychology, Thecla saw social proof of Paul’s extraordinary attractiveness. Thecla remained at the window for three days without taking food and drink. That’s a conventional indication of love sickness. Barrier (2009) pp. 90-1, discusses the erotic coloring of the story. There’s no indication that Paul displayed his large sword to Thecla.

[3] Acts of Paul and Thecla, s. 9, from Greek trans. Elliott (1993), adapted slightly to improve the translation.  All subsequent quotes from Acts of Paul and Thecla are similarly from id. Barrier (2009) provides a critical edition with the Greek. R. McL. Wilson’s translation of the German translation of Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher (1959), Neutestamentliche Apokryphen in deutscher Übersetzung, is reprinted in Hansen (1998). A nineteenth-century English translation is available online in the Ante-Nicene Christian Library.

[4] Acts of Paul and Thecla, s. 20. Being “affectionately bound to Paul” has erotic resonances, particularly in the original ancient Greek.

[5] Id., s. 25 (including subsequent quote). Apuleius’ Golden Ass, probably from the mid-second century, provides in the male narrator’s voice extravagant claims about the important of women’s hair:

May there never by an example of a thing as hideous as this! — if you rob a woman’s head of her hair, be she ever so beautiful, ever so extraordinary, if you strip from her face its inborn attraction, well! Even if she were to come down from heaven like a thunderbolt, even if she were born from the sea, brought into being from the waves; even, I say, if she were Venus herself, even if surrounded by the entire chorus of the Graces, even if escorted by a whole nation of Cupids and wearing Venus’ own girdle, smelling of cinnamon and dripping with balsam — should she make her entrance bald, she wouldn’t be able to please even her husband Vulcan.

Golden Ass, s. 2.8, from Latin trans. Relihan (2007) pp. 28-9.  See similarly s. 11.3, id. p. 234. In the subsequent quote, Thecla’s words evoke the words of Ruth to Naomi, Ruth 16.

[6] Id., s. 26 (sec. 4.1 in the Acts of Paul). Barrier (2009), p. 140, notes that Paul’s acts in this section “have been grossly misinterpreted.” Id. interprets them in terms of the plots of the Greek novels and the over-all trajectory of Acts of Paul and Thecla. I favor above a more immediately contextualized interpretation in terms of Paul’s aversion to being cast as a pimp and his natural behavior as a man to whom women are passionately attracted.

[7] Acts of Paul and Thecla, s. 40 (sec. 4.15 in the Acts of Paul).

[8] Tertullian apparently referred to the account:

if certain Acts of Paul, which are falsely so named, claim the example of Thecla for allowing women to teach and to baptize, let men know that in Asia the presbyter who compiled that document, thinking to add of his own to Paul’s reputation, was found out, and though he professed he had done it for love of Paul, was deposed from his position.

Tertullian, De baptismo (On baptism), s. 17, from Latin trans. Evans (1964).

[9] Acts 14:1-5.

[10] E.g. 1 Corinthians 14:26-39. For compelling examples of modern gynocentrism, see Kraemer (2011) Ch. 4, and Ratcliffe (2014). Consider: “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” (1 Corinthians 14:36). That verse reads prophetically today like literature of men’s sexed protests. However, the underlying Greek for “you” is the masculine plural. The masculine plural was used generically to encompass women and men. See D.A. Carsen, “Silent in the Church,” ft. 47. From a Christian perspective, the word of God was born of a woman. But that doesn’t necessarily imply the inevitability of woman’s dominance of Christian theology, Christian literature, and Christian churches.

[image] Saint Paul, displaying large sword. Detail from work of Bernardo Daddi, 1333, tempera on panel. Thanks to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.


Barrier, Jeremy W., ed. and trans. 2009. The Acts of Paul and Thecla: a critical introduction and commentary. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

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

Hansen, William F., ed. 1998. Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kraemer, Ross Shepard. 2011. Unreliable witnesses: religion, gender, and history in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ratcliffe, Rosie. 2014. “The Acts of Paul and Thecla: Violating the Inviolate Body – Thecla Uncut.” Ch. 10 in Taylor, Joan E., ed. The body in biblical, Christian and Jewish texts. London; New York: Bloomsbury.

Relihan, Joel C., trans. 2007. Apuleius. The golden ass, or, A book of changes. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub.

Nun of Watton: judging seduction and castration

artistic representation of nun of Watton's monastery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *  *

Read more:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Calimachus: Ovidian teaching for sexually desperate men

Ovid, failure as teacher of love

The literary genius Ovid instructed men about the folly of being sexually desperate for a woman. Many men failed to learn what Ovid taught. In Old Saxony about the year 960, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, a noble, learned, and compassionate nun, buttressed Ovid’s teaching with new exempla. Hrotsvit instructed men in love with a sparkling play about Calimachus and Drusiana. Hrotsvit, a supersubtle author, obscures in her prefaces both the extent of her classical interests and her loving concern for men’s weakness and hardships.[1]

Hrotsvit’s Calimachus models the lover in Roman love elegy. The play begins with Calimachus telling his friends that he loves Lord Andronicus’ wife Drusiana. Calimachus tells his friend this natural, passionate yearning through progressively refined answers in a comically prolix dialogue. Calimachus declares his determination to make her fall in love with him. His friends caution about the difficulty of that task. They note that Drusiana through religious devotion has ceased to sleep with her husband. Calimachus, lacking Ovidian learning, speaks and understands only crude straight-forwardness:

Calimachus {to his friends}: I have sought your consolation, / but you drive me to desperation.

Friends: He who pretends, deceives; and he who flatters, sells truth.

Calimachus: Since you refuse me your help, I’ll go to her myself and try to seduce her with love blandishments.

Friends: You will fail entirely. [2]

Calimachus refers to the examples of many daring lovers. Ovidian daring is the making of pretenses, deceptions, and illusions. Offering desperate love blandishments, in contrast, characterizes the conventional elegiac poet.

Calimachus attempts to seduce Drusiana without any seductive art. He opens: “I would like to speak with you, Drusiana, love of my heart.” Men love beautiful women. Calimachus tells Drusiana that her beauty compels him to love her. This approach naturally leads to Drusiana’s response: “I feel no reaction except for disgust.” Calimachus brings his seductive failure to a climax with an unself-conscious self-mocking vow to Drusiana:

By God I swear: if you don’t yield to me, I will not rest, / I will not desist from pursuing my quest / until I entrap you with clever guiles.

Men are inferior to women in guile. Calimachus showed no guile whatsoever in declaring his guile to Drusiana. Guile requires ability to carry deception and illusion. Calimachus’ vow shows how much he fails to understand about erotic seduction.

Drusiana is the antithesis of the cruel beloved of conventional Roman elegy. To her womanly self-dramatization and her power to impose her own passionate imagination is added extraordinary Christian concern for Calimachus:

Alas, my Lord Jesus Christ, what is the good of the vow of chastity I swore / if this madman is crazed on my beauty’s score? / Oh, Lord, look upon my fear, / look upon the pain I bear! / I don’t know what to do; if I denounce him, there will be public scandal on my account, I’m afraid; / if I keep it secret, I cannot avoid falling into these devilish snare without Thy aid. / Help me, O Christ, therefore, with my plan / and permit me to die so that I won’t become the ruin of that charming young man.[3]

Drusiana dies suddenly in accordance with her prayer. In her mind, Drusiana had transformed Calimachus into a charming young man. She recognized her own potential for illicit passion with a charming young man. Her Christian solution was to lay down her life for the Calimachus she imagined. That is a self-seduction far beyond Calimachus’ feeble art of love.

Calimachus’ subsequent actions show that he lacks both charm and Christian virtue. Apparently suffering from extraordinary oneitis, Calimachus goes to Drusiana’s tomb. To gain access to her dead body, he bribes the tomb guard Fortunatus. Before Calimachus can engage in sexual intercourse with Drusiana’s dead body, a snake kills both Fortunatus and him. A snake is a Christian symbol of seduction. Having a snake kill Calimachus while he pursues necrophilia comically emphasizes his seductive failure.

Resurrected through the grace of God, Calimachus subsequently makes clear that his Christian fault is much broader than his failure in the ways of love. Calimachus acknowledges his madness and his will to necrophilia. He nonetheless blames for his sin “Fortunatus’ fraudulent guile.” Calimachus declares that Fortunatus was “the kindler of my evil, the inspiration of my sin.” Calimachus’ claims are crude lies. Calimachus compounds his gross falsity by arguing against mercy for Fortunatus:

Apostle of Christ, do not deem that traitor, that evildoer, worthy of regaining his breath / of absolving him from the chains of death, / him who deceived me, who seduced me, who prompted me to attempt that horrible deed!

Calimachus, far from being a “charming young man,” shows contempt for truth and mercy. Hrotsvit had keen insight into human passion and greatly appreciated men. She positions Calimachus as a woman betraying Christian mercy in blaming her lover for desired sexual seduction.

Living in myth, men in Hrotsvit’s works are vulnerability to love madness. Drusiana’s husband describes Calimachus as a “madman,” “blinded by carnal desire.” In Hrotsvit’s Basilius, the servant is possessed by the unholy god Amor:

So sharply was the unhappy wretch pricked by the arrows of love, that the more his infatuation increased, the more did he languish.[4]

In another Hrotsvit play, the beautiful, holy virgins Hirena, Agape, and Chionia observe Dulcitius:

Hirena: Look, the fool, the madman base / he thinks he is enjoying our embrace./

Agape: What is he doing?

Hirena: Into his lap he pulls the {kitchen} utensils, / he embraces the pots and pans, giving them tender kisses. /

Chionia: Ridiculous![5]

The virgins describe Dulcitius as possessed by the Devil. Just after the virgins are presented to him as captives, Dulcitius declares, “I am captivated by their beauty.”[6] Hrotsvit, with appreciation for Ovid, understood that eros can dominate and transform men not dedicated to the true god.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Dronke (1984), p. 83, refers to Hrotsvit as a “supersubtle” literary genius. Hrotsvit herself addresses the issue of subtlety in The Resurrection of Drusiana and Calimachus. In that work, Saint John says:

With what exact discernment the Supreme Judge weights all that is done, and how equitably He balances the merits of every one, is not obvious to man nor can it be easily explained / because the subtlety of the Divine Judge far surpasses the human brain.

From Latin trans. Wilson (1998) pp. 59-60.

[2] Id. Wilson (1998), pp. 55-6, with minor modifications. “Love blandishments” above is a literal translation of “amorem blandimentis.” For the Latin text of Calimachus, Strecker (1906) pp. 148-61 (Liber II). All subsequent quotes from Resurrection of Drusiana and Calimachus are from the translation of Wilson (1998), with minor modifications.

[3] Hrotsvit hints that Drusiana’s husband, Lord Andronicus, lacks sexual passion for his wife. Consider:

Andronicus: Alas, my Lord, I am weary of my life./

John: What happened to you, what strife./

Andronicus: Drusiana, your disciple …

John: Did she expire?/

Andronicus: Yes.

A more passionately attached husband probably would have said “Drusiana, my wife” rather than “Drusiana, your disciple.”  In addition, Andronicus first requests of Saint John the resurrection of Calimachus, not Drusiana.

[4] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, Basilius, from Latin trans. Wilson (1998) p. 22. The phrases “pricked by the arrows of love” translates “spiculis perfossus amoris.” Wailes (2006), pp. 94, 235, points out the Ovidian subtext and notes, “Hrotsvit was very interested in the erotic.”

[5] Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, The Martyrdom of the Holy Virgins Agape, Chionia, and Hirena, from Latin trans. Wilson (1998) p. 48.

[6] Hrotsvit forthrightly recognizes that women’s beauty is highly significant to men. In her play The Martyrdom of the Holy Virgins Fides, Spes, and Karitas, Hadrian, upon seeing these virgins, declares, “The beauty of every one of them stuns my senses.” Trans. Wilson (1998) p. 83.

[image] Statue of Ovid. Ettore Ferrari, 1887. Constanța, Romania.Thanks to Romeo Tabus and Wikicommons.


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.

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.

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

Eumolpus pelted for reciting poetry in Satyricon

Eumolpus reciting poetry in Satyricon

“Who wants yesterday’s epics? Who wants yesterday’s boy?” Thus spoke Eumolpus, a white-hair old man with an overwrought expression and guitar slung over his thin shoulder. He seemed to be the sort of celebrity that literary men imagine Homer to have been in the age when listeners were discriminating. Who wants yesterday’s epics? Nobody in the world.

“After this time I finally learned, after the pain and hurt, after all this, what have I achieved? I’ve realized it’s time to leave.” Where will you go? Over the bare peaks of snow and stone, down into the gorge to a time-forgotten stand of trees reaching for the sky? Sing, old man, sing of your rage. Rolling stones will pummel you from the metropolis on the hill. Who knows Virgil? Nobody in the world.

“I’m living a life of constant change. Every day means the turn of a page.” Lust for fame has overturned everything. I tweet a thunderstorm, stick my face all over my Facebook page, and I can’t even attract as many fans as venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. Yesterday’s epics have such old views. The same thing applies to me and you.

I slid my iPhone out of my pants and checked if I had gotten any messages. Eumolpus saw my fingers stroking the screen that shifted colors like a blushing girl. “I’m doing this, and I’m doing that, and I try, and I try, and I try, and I try, and I can’t get no, I can’t get no…” I looked at Eumolpus mournfully. “I can’t get no satisfaction,” he said softly. “I can’t get no poetic reaction.”

Eumolpus began reciting the fall of Troy from Virgil’s Aeneid. A hipster two tables away threw a balled-up napkin at him. Soon everyone in Starbucks was throwing cups, stirrers, and other garbage in our direction. We retreated out to the street, abandoning my Chestnut Praline Latte. I said:

What the hell is wrong with you? We’ve been together only two hours, but you’ve barked more poetry than recognizable human language. It’s no wonder that people throw garbage at you. I’m going to fill my pockets with gumdrops and M&M’s and whenever you start on one of your flights, I’ll pelt you with candy.

Eumolpus nodded gravely and said, “Every time I recite, I am showered with honor in the currency of the day. But so as not to disturb your placidity, I will abstain from the poetic banquet for all of today.” I promised that if he swore off his demented behavior, we would have dinner together at the Cheesecake Factory.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


The above text is very loosely adapted from the Satyricon, attributed to Petronius, c. 60 GE, s. 83-90, from Latin trans. Sarah Ruden. 2000. Satyricon. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co. With contributions from the Rolling Stones “Yesterday’s Papers” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The portrait of Eumolpus is from Firebaugh,W.C., trans. 1927. The Satyricon. New York: Liveright Pub. Corp. Eumolpus means in Greek “skillful singer.”

De Maria Magdalena: a drama of Mary standing and weeping

De Maria Magdalena, wood sculpture

De Maria Magdalena, written in Latin about 1200, responds to the scriptural text of Mary Magdalene standing and weeping at Jesus’ empty tomb. De Maria Magdalena circulated widely in western Europe from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. While probably written for Cistercian monks in France, medieval manuscripts identify De Maria Magdalena as a homily of the early church father Origen.[1] It isn’t your typical father’s homily. It’s theatrical lectio divina. De Maria Magdalena displays from dramatic reading of scripture the beautiful word in the mind of men.

De Maria Magdalena is both highly rhetorical and intensely emotional. It begins:

Mary stood weeping outside the grave-marker. We have heard, brethren, of Mary standing outside the grave-marker. We have heard of her weeping. Let us see, if we can, why she stands, and see why she weeps. May her standing edify. May her weeping edify for us. [2]

While written in prose, De Maria Magdalena uses language poetically with emotive rhythms and sounds. It continues:

Amor faciebat eam stare, dolor cogebat eam plorare.

{Love caused her to stand. Sorrow forced her to weep.} [3]

De Maria Magdalena stands as much as a homily as it weeps like a planctus. Both generic identifiers are incomplete. Mary stood outside the marker. From hearing the scriptural passage, we are to see it and then live it in Christian understanding.

Like the psalms, De Maria Magdalena presents different voices within one mind. The reader’s emphatic identification with Mary prompts emotional inferences:

At first, her sorrow was caused by the loss of the living, but at least she was somewhat consoled by believing that she was in possession of the dead. Now, however, she could feel no consolation for that sorrow because she could not find his body. She even feared that the love for her master might grow cold in her breast, whereas by seeing him again it would be rekindled.

As in common among men throughout history, the reader identifies with the woman and depreciates men:

And thus totally oppressed by sorrow of mind and body, she became exhausted and knew not what to do. For what could this woman do except weep, she who felt intolerable grief but who found no comforter, not even Peter and John who had come with her to the tomb but who had departed when they found no body there.

But Mary stood outside the tomb weeping, almost despairing in her tears. Peter and John were afraid and did not stay. Mary was not afraid because she conceived of nothing beyond this which could frighten her. She had lost her master whom she loved in such a way that, without him, she could love nothing and hope for nothing.

The reader shifts without textual concern to first-person address to Mary:

O Mary, what hope, or what purpose, or what emotion kept you standing alone at the tomb? You came before the disciples {Peter and John}, stood with them and remained after they departed. Why did you do so? Were you wiser than they? Or did you love more than they since you were not afraid as they were?

The reader also hears Mary talking to herself in the “poor dear” mode of men’s identification with women:

I have no wish to see the angels. I have no wish to remain with them because they only add to my sorrow; they cannot end it completely. If they begin to tell me many things and if I should wish to respond to all of them, I fear that they would impede my love more than liberate it. … Woe to me in my misery. Where shall I go? Where has my beloved gone? I looked for him in the tomb and I did not find him; I called to him and he did not answer me. .. O wretched me, I do not know where to search. To leave the tomb is death to me. Yet to stand at the tomb is an incurable sorrow. It is better for me to watch over the tomb of my lord than to go far away from it. For if I go far away, perhaps when I return I shall find him dead or missing. Therefore, I shall stay and die here so that I shall be buried near the tomb of my lord. O how blessed my body will be entombed near my master! [4]

The reader imagines the angels telling Mary to stop weeping. The reader imagines Mary refusing to obey them. As is common in prayer, the reader then speaks to Jesus:

O dearest Jesus, … how could this loving woman have offended the sweetness of your heart that you withdraw from her so? We have not heard that she committed any sin except that she came early in the morning to the sepulcher before the others, carrying oils to anoint your body, and when she did not find you in the tomb she ran and told your disciples. They came, saw, and departed. But this woman stood and wept. If this be sin, we can not deny that she committed it.

The position of “we,” the community of monks, is as an advocate for Mary Magdalene to Jesus. While that advocacy includes common patterns of gendered discourse, it’s nonetheless an extraordinary position for medieval monks to assume. Mary Magdalene was recognized as a saint in medieval Europe. She was institutionally positioned to intercede for men. But the monks, with psychological realism and deep spiritual empathy, dramatically interceded for her.

The reader prays to Jesus with attention to a small difference between what Mary said to the angels and what Mary said to Jesus. Seeking to move Jesus’ heart to compassion for Mary, the reader pleads to Jesus:

Do not consider the error of the woman but the love of your disciple when she cries and says, not in error but for the sake of love and sorrow, “Sir, if you have taken him, tell me where you have placed him.” O how knowing her ignorance; how learned her error when she said to the angels, “They have taken my lord away.” She did not say “you have taken away and you have placed,” since it was not the angels who removed you from the tomb nor put you in another place. How true were her words when she said to you, “If you have taken him away and placed him,” because it was really you who removed the body from the sepulcher and replaced it with your {glorified body}. [5]

As Jesus needs to be persuaded, the reader understands that Mary only superficially misperceived Jesus as the gardener. Jesus is truly a gardener because he plants good seeds in the hearts of Mary and the faithful. Mary asks the gardener, but not the angels, to tell her where the body is because because she implicitly recognized the gardener to be Jesus. In her great love for Jesus, she echoed the words of Jesus to her and Martha lamenting the death of Lazarus. After the reader’s explication of these facts, Jesus should understand.

The reader imagines Mary Magdalene to be more courageously Christian than “the prince of the apostles” Peter. Meditating on the words of scripture, the reader imaginatively creates a new sacred drama:

what is this, O good Jesus, that she says about you, “I shall carry him away.” Joseph {of Aramathea} was afraid and did not dare remove your body from the cross except at night and only with Pilate’s approval. However, Mary neither waited for darkness nor showed fear. But now she boldly promises, “I shall carry him away.” O Mary, if the body of Jesus had been placed by chance in the hall of the chief priest where the prince of the apostles warmed himself by the fire, what would you have done? “I shall carry him away.” And if the handmaid guarding the gate had questioned you, what would you have done? “I shall carry him away.” [6]

The reader responds emotionally to his own imagined sacred drama of Mary Magdalene, understood as a repentant prostitute:

O, the boldness of a wretched woman. O woman, a woman not welcomed anywhere, however, who asked for nothing, says fearlessly and promises absolutely, “Tell me where you have put him and I will carry him away.” O woman, how great is your constancy, how great is your faith.

While imagining Mary to be more courageously Christian than Peter, the reader again intercedes for her with direct address to Jesus:

I beseech you, sweet master, do not seek to prolong her desire since, for three days now, she has endured your absence, you who satisfy her hungering soul. … If you do not wish her to continue languishing on the way, then refresh and comfort the depths of her soul with your sweet taste. For you are the living bread who contains all delight and taste of sweetness in you. She will not be able to live very long in her body unless you quickly manifest yourself, you who are the life of her soul.

The reader then narrates Jesus calling out to her, “Mary.” Mary turns and addresses Jesus as master. She touches him. With poetic language the reader narrates the emotional transformation:

conversus est dolor magnus in gaudium magnum

{great sorrow is changed into great joy}

Regardless of men’s propensity to compete over status, that is the Christian story of Easter for Mary, Peter, and all Christians.

De Maria Magdalena concerns a scriptural text that has under-appreciated drama.  After Mary addressed the angels sitting in the tomb, she turned around and saw Jesus:

she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbi” (which means master). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” [7]

If you read that scripture in its external drama, you might understand actions scripture didn’t explicitly describe. The scriptural text implies that Mary turned away from the gardener when she spoke to him about carrying the body away. Jesus apparently called out “Mary” when she had her back to him. Then she turned again and recognized the gardener as him. After she called out to him, “Rabbi,” she apparently reached out and touched him insistently. That implicit action motivates Jesus’ words, “Do not cling to me.” None of this drama was of interest to the reader in De Maria Magdalena.

De Maria Magdalena is primarily a dramatic reading of scripture in its internal, emotional dimension.The actions of standing and weeping point internally to the emotion of love. In De Maria Magdalena, love and closely associated emotions motivate movement among different persons’ voices. All the voices are inflected with men’s deep preference for women. With its exquisitely constructed rhetorical forms, rhythms, and rhymes, De Maria Magdalena represents words of love as beautiful.

Like the drama of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, De Maria Magdalena is dramatic work that enriches understanding of the history of Christian drama. Unlike the quem quaeritis trope, Le Jeu d’Adam, and various mystery cycles, De Maria Magdalena isn’t an external representation of scripture. De Maria Magdalena reads scripture with human passions dramatically united to Christian understanding. De Maria Magdelana is within the tradition of Hrotsvit, but with scripture replacing hagiography and without Hrotsvit’s particular, transgressive concern for men. Understood primarily as a homily, De Maria Magdalena has been misunderstood.[8]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1]  Over 130 Latin manuscripts of De Mari Magdelena have survived. Origen wrote in Greek. De Mari Magdelena was clearly composed in Latin. For this and other reasons, Origen surely didn’t write De Mari Magdelena. The work may have been attributed to Origen to give it ancient authority. That attribution could have resulted from “omelia oriensis” (homily from unknown author) being scribally corrupted into “omelia origenis.”   McCall (1971) pp. 492-5, esp. n. 11.

[2] Delasanta & Rousseau (1996) provides both a Latin text and an English translation. All the quotes from De Mari Magdelena are from id., with some minor changes that I have made. For example, in the above quote, I have translated “ad monumentum foris” as “outside the grave-marker.” Id. has “outside the tomb.” My translation brings out more the text’s concern for signification. Id. variously translates “monumentum” as “tomb” and “sepulcher.”

[3] The ornate, poetic prose of De Maria Magdalena has similarities to popular medieval Arabic and Hebrew maqama in combining aspects of prose and poetry.

[4] Cf. Song of Solomon 5:6 (“I called to him and he did not answer me.”).

[5] Attention to specific scriptural details and narrative interpretation of those details characterizes rabbinical scriptural interpretation. Kugel (2007), a massive Whig history of biblical interpretation, provides extensive documentation of Jewish scriptural interpretation. De Mari Magdalena hints at close relations between monks and rabbis in twelfth-century France.

[6] Cf. John 18:15-7, 19:38, Luke 22:54-7.

[7] John 20:14-17.

[8] De Maria Magdalena ends with a shift from direct address to Jesus to moral application:

Let us imitate, brothers, the affection of this woman. Let each of us cry to Jesus since he did not hide himself from the woman sinner who sought him. Learn this, sinner, from the woman who sins were all forgiven. Learn to weep because of the absence of God and to desire his presence. … I dare to promise you confidently that if in faith you stand at the tomb of your heart, if crying you search for Jesus, and in seeking persevere, if you bow in humility, if by the example of Mary you wish to receive no other consolation from Jesus except for him when he reveals himself, you will find him and then recognize him so that it is unnecessary to ask others where Jesus is, but rather you will proclaim him to others since “I have seen the Lord and he said unto me,” to whom there is honor and glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen. Thus ends the homily of Origen.

The awkwardly connected final doxology seems to have been appended to an earlier composition, as was the concluding specification “homily of Origen.” A prologue appears in some manuscripts:

As I prepare to address you, dearly beloved, on this present solemnity, I am put in mind of how, by loving our Lord above all else, the blessed Mary Magdalene …

Trans. Waddell (1989) p. 53. On the manuscripts, McCall (1971) pp. 492-3. This prologue seems to me to be of different style than the main text and a likely addition. Assimilating De Maria Magdalena to a homily seems to have begun early in its textual history. The work has attracted little recent attention, mainly by Chaucer scholars. Delasanta & Rousseau (1996) p. 319, Gross (2006).

[image] Mary Magdalene. Sculpture in wood attributed Gregor Erhart (d. 1525). Louvre, Paris. Thanks to Gautier Poupeau and flickr.


Delasanta, Rodney K., and Constance M. Rousseau. 1996. “Chaucer’s ‘Orygenes upon the Maudeleyne': A Translation.” The Chaucer Review. 30 (4): 319-342.

Gross, Karen Elizabeth. 2006. “Chaucer, Mary Magdalene, and the Consolation of Love.” Chaucer Review. 41 (1): 1-37.

Kugel, James L. 2007. How to read the Bible: a guide to Scripture, then and now. New York: Free Press.

McCall, John P. 1971. “Chaucer and the Pseudo Origen De Maria Magdalena: A Preliminary Study.” Speculum. 46 (3): 491-509.

Waddell, Chrysogonous. 1989. “Pseudo-Origen’s Homily on Mary Magdalene at the Tomb of Jesus.” Liturgy 23 (2): 45-65.