men’s position in social communication in human evolution

coal miner

Human societies typically prefer to sacrifice men’s lives relative to women’s lives.  A scholarly analysis explained:

It is morality that enables us to shame our males into putting their lives on the line for the group, while it is innate altruistic propensities that help to motivate those males to suffer and die in the interest of the rest of the group.[1]

Both morality (social values) and innate altruistic propensity of individuals evolve through time with the differential reproductive success of humans and human groups.  The evolved social preference for sacrificing men’s lives is more complex than simply sex differences in parental investment, sex differences in the operational sex ratio, sex differences in potential rates of reproduction, or anisogamy.[2]  Men’s relative disposability developed in human evolution through mutual re-enforcement between social values and sex differences in social communication.

Consider the relationship between parents and their biological children.  Parental support for children depends on the combination of many different factors – biological capabilities (gestation, lactation, etc.), behavioral patterns (feeding, protecting, and teaching young), social resources (availability of social substitutes for parental roles) and other aspects of the environment (such as the prevalence of food and predators, which determine the survival value of different parental activities).  Suppose that all these factors combine to produce an observable effect: if a father dies, his offspring is more likely to survive than if the mother dies.   Such an effect favors social communication valuing fathers as being more disposable than mothers.

Dependence relations are a general feature of social groups.  Men’s and women’s contributions to the average reproductive success of all group members depend on a variety of factors.  A small number of men can provide sperm to a large number of women, and thus, apart from other considerations, additional men are a cost to the average reproductive success of the group.  But many other group effects also are relevant.  For example, in small, technologically primitive human societies, the meat that male hunters secure is typically shared among the whole group.[3]  In such circumstances, the value of men to the group depends on the value of this common food provision.  Similar considerations apply to men’s contribution to territorial defense, defense from predators, and to reproductively harmful within-group behaviors such as intrasexual and intersexual hostility and violence.  Suppose that all these factors combine to produce a commonly recognized effect: the death of a man reduces the expected reproduction of the group by less than does the death of a woman.  Such an effect favors social communication valuing men as more disposable than women.[4]

Socially constructed, sex-biased morality connects social values to individual behavior.  Humans plausibly evolved in circumstances in which, among breeding pairs, fathers have had less reproductive value than mothers, and, within groups, men have had less reproductive value than women.[5]  These social values suggest that, in competition to acquire resources and avoid harm, a woman can more effectively make claims in social communication than a man can.  That makes social communication more valuable to women than to men.[6]  Human evolution has thus favored women’s social communication capabilities over those of men.  That sex difference in turn supports lack of social concern about men’s lives.

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[1] Boehm (1999) p. 254.

[2] For an example of simplistic evolutionary-psychological reasoning justifying men’s relatively high death rate from violence, see Daly & Wilson (1988).

[3] E.g. Woodburn (1998) and Hawkes (2001).

[4] See, e.g. Hawkes (2004), pp. 464-5, which emphasizes infanticidal males, the dangers of male mating competition, and the relative unimportance of males’ contributions to group reproductive success.

[5] These social values do not necessarily imply that men maximize their inclusive fitness by being more aggressive, taking more risks, and committing more crimes than women.  Arguments that higher male reproductive variance explains male risk-taking are remarkably ad hoc. See, e.g. Daly & Wilson (1988) Ch. 7.  Social life enables and shapes possibilities for behavioral exchanges.  The price of mates, like the price of food, is part of an aggregate budget constraint.  Suppose prices are measured in energy expenditure.  A fitness-maximizing response to a higher price of mates might be substitution into more food collection and less risk of harm to self.  On biological markets, see Noë (2001).

[6] This is a general implication of cooperative game theory.  In cooperative game theory, payouts are typically directly related to expected marginal contributions averaged across a large number of possible coalitions. Roughgarden et al. (2006) forcefully advocates the importance of such models.  Criticisms of id. have focused on whether Darwin’s theory of sexual selection needs to be replaced.  The argument here is that the cooperative distribution of fitness benefits determines the individual value of communication capabilities.

[image] Harry Fain, coal loader. Inland Steel Company, Wheelwright 1 & 2 Mines, Wheelwright, Floyd County, Kentucky.  Thanks to the National Archives and Wikipedia.


Boehm, Christopher. 1999. Hierarchy in the forest: the evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Daly, Martin and Margo Wilson. 1988. Homicide. New York, A. de Gruyter.

Hawkes, Kristen. 2001. “Is meat the hunter’s property? Ownership and explanations of hunting and sharing.” Pp. 219-236 in C. Stanford and H. Bunn, eds. Meat-Eating and Human Evolution.  Oxford: Oxford University Press: 219-236.

Hawkes, Kristen. 2004. “Mating, Parenting, and the Evolution of Human Pair Bonds.”  Pp. 443-473 in Bernard Chapais and Carol M. Berman, eds. Kinship and behavior in primates.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Noë, Ronald. 2001.  “Biological markets: partner choice as the driving force behind the evolution of mutualisms.” Pp. 93-118 in Ronald Noë, Jan A.R.A.M. von Hooff and Peter Hammerstein, eds. Economics in nature: social dilemmas, mate choice and biological markets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roughgarden, Joan, Meeko Oishi and Erol Akçay. 2006. “Reproductive Social Behavior: Cooperative Games to Replace Sexual Selection.” Science 311: 965-969.

Woodburn, James. 1998. “Sharing is not a form of exchange: an analysis of property sharing in immediate return hunter-gatherer societies.” Pp. 48-63 in C.M. Hann, ed. Property Relations: Renewing the Anthropological Tradition.  Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.


Wednesday’s flowers

lines in blue and green

beyond Origen: Jerome, spiritual doctor in Galen’s persona

Late in the fourth century, Jerome brought the Greek biblical scholarship of Origen to the Latin-speaking western Roman Empire.  From Jerome’s perspective, Origen’s primary merits were:

  1. Origin was an extremely hard-working scholar.  He produced an enormous body of biblical scholarship.
  2. Origin engaged in thorough textual study.  He knew the original languages of scripture and compared manuscripts and translations.
  3. Origin produced a precious scholarly legacy of enduring value.  His work deserves continued, careful study. [1]

Those merits also characterize well Galen in relation to the Hippocratic corpus.  In his efforts to instruct, in his pugnaciousness, and in his melding of scholarship and practice, Jerome advancing himself among Christian authorities writing in Latin was much like Galen advancing himself among non-Christian authorities writing in Greek.

Jerome in the desert

In a letter written in 384, Jerome claimed to have vowed to forsake worldly books.  Jerome as a young man received a broad education  in non-Christian Greek and Latin works.  He found Cicero and Plautus particularly attractive.  However, one night early in his life he dreamed that he was  caught up in the spirit and dragged to the judgment seat.  Amid dazzling light:

I was asked to state my legal status; I replied that I was a Christian.  But He who presided said: “You lie.  You are a follower of Cicero, not a follower of Christ.  ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’”  Straightway I became dumb, and amid the strokes of the whip — for He had ordered me to be scourged — I was even more bitterly tortured by the fire of conscience [2]

Angelic bystanders gave Jerome an opportunity to repent:

At last the bystanders fell at the knees of Him who presided, and prayed for Him to pardon my youth and give me opportunity to repent of my error on the understanding that the extreme of torture should be inflicted on me if ever I read again the works of Gentile authors.  In the stress of that dread hour I should have been willing to make even larger promises, and making an oath I called upon His name: “O Lord, if ever again I possess worldly books or read them, I have denied you.”

Jerome’s vow, contained within a tissue of allusions to Virgil, is best understood as a literary bow to  Origen.[3]  Origin reportedly gave away his library of ancient Greek literature in turning from a career as a Greek grammarian to a new career of sacred studies.  In his dream, Jerome followed Origen.[4]

Jerome remained engaged with non-Christian literature and rhetoric throughout his life.  Jerome’s writings are filled with references to Horace, Terrence, Virgil, and Cicero.  His library at Bethlehem, where he retreated to live as a Christian scholar-monk, contained a wide range of non-Christian books.[5]  Jerome apparently first read Juvenal between 382 and 385.[6]  Juvenal was an important literary influence in Jerome’s construction of Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage.  In a letter to an orator dated to 397, Jerome discretely observed:

You ask me at the close of your letter why it is that sometimes in my writings I quote examples from secular literature and thus defile the whiteness of the church with the foulness of heathenism. … You must not adopt the mistaken opinion, that while in dealing with the Gentiles one may appeal to their literature in all other discussions one ought to ignore it; for almost all the books of all these writers — except those who like Epicurus are no scholars — are extremely full of erudition and philosophy.  I incline indeed to fancy — the thought comes into my head as I dictate — that you yourself know quite well what has always been the practice of the learned in this matter. [7]

Jerome’s letters are written in highly polished literary Latin.  After he spent about two years in Constantinople from 380, Jerome became a proponent of Greek Christian learning.[8]  He probably also gained greater appreciation for Greek non-Christian literature.

Jerome seems to have first read Galen in or shortly before 393.   Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum, written in 393, explicitly cited Galen twice.  In the course of making functional-teleological arguments common in Galen, Jerome declared:

Hyena’s gall restores brightness to the eyes, and its dung and that of dogs cures gangrenous wounds. And (it may seem strange to the reader) Galen asserts in his treatise on Simples, that human dung is of service in a multitude of cases. [9]

Galen here appears as an authority capable of carrying a surprising claim.  The reference to the specific Galenic work underscores that Galen’s surprising claim isn’t a commonplace.  Later in Adversus Jovinianum, Jerome explicitly specified Galen’s authority and cited him congenially:

Galen, a very learned man and the commentator on Hippocrates, says in his exhortation to the practice of medicine that athletes whose whole life and art consists in stuffing cannot live long, nor be healthy: and that their souls enveloped with superfluous blood and fat, and as it were covered with mud, have no refined or heavenly thoughts, but are always intent upon gluttonous and voracious feasting. [10]

Both of these citations to Galen are accurate, technical, and specific.  While Jerome had an extraordinarily good memory, he probably didn’t remember these citations from long before.[11]

Galen would have been an attractive figure for Jerome.  Galen studied the Hippocratic corpus with the reverence and textual-philological attention that Jerome brought to the Bible.  Galen emphasized that a good physician must be extremely hard-working.  Galen produced an enormous corpus of scholarly work.  His work presents a persona “combative, opinionated, pedantic, long-winded, even unscrupulous.”[12]  Those adjectives also characterize Jerome’s persona.  Galen harshly attacked the Epicureans.  Galen declared:

{the excellent physician} will, necessarily, not only despise money, but also be extremely hard-working. And one cannot be hard-working if one is continually drinking or eating or indulging in sex: if, to put it briefly, one is a slave to genitals and belly. [13]

In Adversus Jovinianum, Jerome attacked Jovinian as “the Epicurus of Christianity.”  Jerome’s rhetoric, translated from Latin into Greek, would need no other modification to fit within a Galenic work:

I must in conclusion say a few words to our modern Epicurus wantoning in his gardens with his favourites of both sexes.  On your side are the fat and the sleek in their festal attire.  If I may mock like Socrates, add if you please, all swine and dogs, and, since you like flesh so well, vultures too, eagles, hawks, and owls.  We shall never be afraid of the host of Aristippus.  If ever I see a fine fellow, or a man who is no stranger to the curling irons, with his hair nicely done and his cheeks all aglow, he belongs to your herd, or rather grunts in concert with your pigs. [14]

Both Jerome and Galen positioned themselves as critics of their contemporary scholarly world and as seekers of true knowledge.[15]  Both were anti-sophists working in the style of sophists.

Both Jerome and Galen advanced scholarship from within another profession.  Galen treated patients in his long and laborious clinical practice as a doctor.[16]  Jerome spent perhaps eighteen months living as a hermit in the desert outside Antioch.[17]  He spent much of his later life living as a monk in a small monastery in Bethlehem.  While Jerome built for himself in Bethlehem an expensive library, he did not live the life of an urban orator or teacher seeking to develop a school of rich and well-connected male students.[18]  Women financially supported Jerome.  He in turn instructed them in Christian ascetic living.  Jerome, like Galen, had a profession open to persons with little formal learning.

Galen wrote a treatise declaring that the best physician is also a philosopher.  Jerome through his work implicitly claimed that the best Christian ascetic is also a biblical scholar.  Both attacked what they regarded as bad scholarship in ways that scholars (at least today) regard as uncollegial.  Seeing Jerome in the persona of Origen obscures Jerome and Galen’s common position across Greek and Latin, Christian and non-Christian knowledge competition.

Institutionalization of knowledge competition naturally tends to generate intellectual cartelization, disciplinary barriers, and self-interested discursive civility.  Latin classics, Greek classics, and patristics have thus developed as separate spheres of professional scholarship.  Professional scholars, keenly aware of the importance of collegiality for professional advancement, shun pugnacious, opinionated, and outrageous work.  More appreciation for Jerome and Galen might help to spark renaissance and enlightenment.

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[1] Vessey (1993) pp. 141-3.

[2] Jerome, Letter 22 (To Eustochium, dated 384) s. 30, from Latin trans. Wright (1933) pp. 127-9, with amendments, e.g. modernizing archaic English.  The translation in Freemantle (1892) is similar.  The quote within the quote is from Matthew 6:21, Luke 12:34.  The subsequent quote is also from Letter 22.30.

[3] Williams (2006) pp. 27.   Id. pp. 26-7 observes, “it seems like that the story of the dream is a fiction.”

[4] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Bk. 6, states:

having come to the conclusion that he ought not to depend on the support of others, he {Origen} gave away all the books of ancient literature that he possessed, though formerly he had fondly cherished them, and was content to receive four obols a day from the man who purchased them.

Trans. Williams (2006) p. 133.  Origen apparently had a material interest in “giving away” his books of ancient literature.  Id. p. 134 asks:

Could Eusebius’s account of the fate of Origen’s library have played a role — perhaps an unconscious one — in Jerome’s concoction of the story of his dream?

Jerome was highly creative.  Jerome seems to me likely to have constructed his dream to follow Origen giving up pagan literature.  Jerome probably regretted that he didn’t have a daily financial stipend to support his scholarly work.

[5] Id. pp. 36, pp. 162-5.  Rufinus accused Jerome of working in Bethlehem as a grammaticus, teaching boys to read Virgil, Horace, and Terence.  Jerome didn’t deny that charge.  Williams (2006) pp. 163-4.  In his De viris illustribus (On Illustrious Men), Jerome eulogized Origen:

his immortal genius, how that he understood dialectics, as well as geometry, arithmetic, music, grammar, and rhetoric, and taught all the schools of philosophers, in such wise that he had also diligent students in secular literature, and lectured to them daily, and the crowds which flocked to him were marvelous.  These, he received in the hope that through the instrumentality of this secular literature, he might establish them in the faith of Christ.

De viris illustribus, s. 54.  Jerome probably followed Origen in such practice.

[6] Adkin (2000) p. 126.

[7] Jerome, Letter 70 (To Magnus an Orator of Rome, dated 397) s. 2, 6, from Latin trans. Freemantle (1892) pp. 368, 374.  In his Adversus Rufininus (dated 402), Jerome claimed that he merely remembered secular literature from his boyhood education:

I learned the seven forms of Syllogisms in the Elements of logic; I learned the meaning of an Axiom, or as it might be called in Latin a Determination; I learned how every sentence must have in it a verb and a noun; how to heap up the steps of the Sorites, how to detect the clever turns of the Pseudomenos and the frauds of the stock sophisms. I can swear that I never read any of these things after I left school. I suppose that, to escape from having what I learned made into a crime, I must, according to the fables of the poets, go and drink of the river Lethe.

Jerome, of course, knew “the fables of the poets.”  His claims in Adversus Rufininus about this knowledge of worldly literature is best understand as participating in sophistic argument.

[8] Williams (2006) p. 28.

[9] Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum (Against Jovinian, dated 393) Bk. 2, s. 6, from Latin trans. Freemantle (1892) p. 865.  On Galen’s discussion of the use of human feces, see Keyser (1997) p. 189, citing Galen, De Simp. Medicament. Facultatibus (On the Powers of Simple Remedies) 10.2.14.

[10] Id. Bk. 2, s. 11, Freemantle (1892) p. 871.  Cf. Galen, An Exhortation to Study the Arts, s. 11.

[11] Another explicit citation to Galen is in Jerome, Letter 54 (To Furia, dated 394), s. 9:

Physicians and others who have written on the nature of the human body, and
particularly Galen in his book entitled On matters of health, say that the bodies of boys and of young men and of full grown men and women glow with an interior heat and consequently that for persons of these ages all food is injurious which tends to promote this heat: while on the other hand it is highly conducive to health in eating and in drinking to take things cold and cooling. Contrariwise they tell us that warm food and old wine are good for the old who suffer from humours and from chilliness.

Trans. Freemantle (1892) p. 276.  I haven’t been able to find any other explicit reference to Galen in Jerome’s corpus besides the three cited.  The three references to Galen all date to 393-4.  This is when controversy over Origen’s orthodoxy emerged.  Jerome may have considered Galen as an additional model of work apart from the controversy over Origen.

[12] Nutton (2013) p. 234.  Mattern (2013), p. 4, observes of Galen’s personality:

{it} was typical of his time, place, and social strata, and Galen was not more competitive, hostile, or self-aggrandizing than his peers.

That persona arose within knowledge competition that wasn’t highly institutionalized.

[13] Opt. Med., from Greek trans. Singer (1997) p. 33.   Jerome declared of Jovinian:

For although he boasts of being a monk, he has exchanged his dirty tunic, bare feet, common bread, and drink of water, for a snowy dress, sleek skin, honey-wine and dainty dishes, for the sauces of Apicius and Paxamus, for baths and rubbings, and for the cook-shops. Is it not clear that he prefers his belly to Christ, and thinks his ruddy complexion worth the kingdom of heaven?

Adversus Jovinianum, Bk. 1, s. 40, trans. Freemantle (1892) p. 837.

[14] Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, Bk. 2, s. 36, trans. Freemantle (1892) p. 904.  Id. also mocks Jovinian’s followers as declaring, “we follow vice, not virtue; Epicurus, not Christ; Jovinianus, not the Apostle Paul.”  The reference to “the Epicurus of Christianity” is from id. Bk. 1, s. 1.

[15] In Letter 52 (To Nepotian, dated 394) s. 4, Jerome declares:

To what end, you ask, these recondite references? To show that you need not expect
from me boyish declamation, flowery sentiments, a meretricious style, and at the close of every paragraph the terse and pointed aphorisms which call forth approving shouts from those who hear them.

Trans. Freemantle (1892) p. 246.  The “recondite references” were merely citations of scripture in a letter instructing clergy.  In Letter 28 (To Marsella, dated perhaps 384), Jerome disparaged “foolish knowledge of the knowing.”  That’s a key theme in Galen’s writings.

[16] On Galen’s practice of medicine, Mattern (2013) esp. Ch. 7.

[17] Williams (2006) pp. 29, 273.  Jerome lived as a hermit in Chalcis.  The length of that experience isn’t clear and tends to be exaggerated.

[18] Id., Ch. 4, describes Jerome’s large, expensive library.

[image] Jerome in the desert, meditating on the cross. Angelo Caroselli (Italian, 1585-1652). Painting, Rome, c. 1620-1630. The Walters Art Museum 37.1910.


Adkin, Neil. 2000. “Jerome, Seneca, Juvenal.” Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire 78 (fasc. 1, Antiquite – Oudheid): 119-128.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Keyser, Paul T. 1997. “Science and Magic in Galen’s Recipes (Sympathy and Efficacy).” Pp. 175-98 in Armelle Debru, ed. Galen on Pharmacology: Philosophy, History and Medicine. Proceedings of the 5th International Galen Colloquium, Lille, 16-18 March 1995, Leiden, New York, and Cologne, 1997 .

Mattern, Susan P. 2013. The prince of medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Nutton, Vivian. 2013. Ancient medicine. 2nd. ed. London: Routledge.

Singer, P. N., trans. 1997. Galen. Selected works. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vessey, Mark. 1993. “Jerome’s Origen: The Making of a Christian Literary Persona.” Studia Patristica: Papers Presented to the International Conference on Patristic Studies 28: 135–45.

Williams, Megan Hale. 2006. The monk and the book: Jerome and the making of Christian scholarship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Wright, F.A., trans. 1933. Jerome: select letters. Loeb Classical Library. London: W. Heinemann.

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Smithsonian Museum: the matter of history

relics of George Washington's Mount Vernon

The public meaning of history, like the public meaning of news, is easiest to understand functionally.  News is what major news sources choose to report.  History is what gets published in books successfully promoted as history books, and what gets taught to students in history classes.  History and news are only tenuously related to the fullness of reality.

Many persons crave a more essential sense of historical reality.  For example, Plymouth Rock has traditionally been thought to be the location of English settlers’ first landing in American.  In the early 1800s, tourists visiting Plymouth Rock were provided with a hammer to acquire a piece of the rock.  Lewis Bradford at 4:15 pm on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 1830, chipped a piece off the “Mother Rock” of Plymouth Rock.  That piece, with those identifying details painted onto it, has been preserved in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History.  It’s a tangible understanding of national history and personal history.

Lewis Bradford’s piece of Plymouth Rock indicates common human behavior.  The physical form of communicative representations (“content“) is significant to many humans.  The Smithsonian Museum of American History holds a piece of unfinished wood from the Connecticut Charter Oak, a piece of George Washington’s mahogany coffin, a piece of wood cut from old ivy growing at Mount Vernon, a brick from George Washington’s boyhood home, a collection of pieces of hair from the first 14 U.S. presidents, and many other similar pieces associated with history.  Many of these pieces are now collected together and on display in the Smithsonian’s wonderful Souvenir Nation exhibit.  With its idiosyncratic content, that exhibit profoundly educates about the fundamental human propensity to seek physical objects for a sense of history.

Physical objects remain enmeshed in the complexities of meaning.  Theodore Belote, a senior Smithsonian curator with advanced degrees in history from Harvard and two German universities, advocated in the 1920s that the Smithsonian take a scientific approach to history.  That meant history documenting the progress of civilization, a scholarly approach prominent in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Germany.  Belote evidently lacked appreciation for bureaucracy in the progress of civilization.  After World War II, probably in the 1950s:

Belote, dispirited by the chronic lack of resources {in the Smithsonian’s historical division}, brushed “historic dust” from certain of the relics in his care, putting it into small envelopes that he labeled and left with the collection.  The envelopes read “dust from G. Washington relics,” “dust from Jefferson relics,” and so on. [1]

In 1982, the Washington Post ran a story on the conservation of the Star Spangled Banner Flag.  That story declared:

{in 1907} the flag’s conservation was the charge of Theodore Belote, an assistant curator of history, remembered at the Smithsonian for such attention to duty that he saved packets labeled “dust from G. Washington relics,” “dust from Jefferson relics,” and so on. [2]

Those packets of dust aren’t best understood as representing earnest attention to duty.  They are better understood as “a biting comment on the dilapidated condition of the scientific-historical museum whose cause he {Belote} had championed.”[3]  They are best understood as representing belief in the progress of civilization, turned to dust.

We humans are flesh-and-blood creatures living in a world that we cannot fashion to be as we wish.  Yet we can make new meanings with words and things.

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[1] Bird (2013) p. 43.  Belote was born in 1882.  On Belote’s biography, id. p. 40.  The date of Belote’s dust collecting was after WWII and apparently before a culling of miscellany in 1962.  Id pp. 41-3.

[2] Thomson (1982).  Bird (2013), p. 43, notes that the dust packets “were misinterpreted as earnestly preserved reliquarian curiosities.”

[3] Bird (2013) p. 43.


Bird, William L. 2013. Souvenir nation: relics, keepsakes, and curios from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. New York: Princeton Architectural Press in association with Smithsonian Museum of American History (U.S.).

Thomson, Peggy. 1982. “The Dust-Strangled Banner.” The Washington Post {Washington, D.C} 18 June 1982: W37.

mocking stork gesture in Persius and Comoedia Lydiae

In his first, programmatic satire, the Roman poet Persius addressed the relationship between writer and patron.  Acclaimed by the patron with “Bravo!” and “Lovely!”, the writer imagines saying to the patron:

You know how to serve up hot tripe, you know how to give some poor shivering fellow writer a worn-out cloak, and then you say, “I love the truth.  Tell me the truth about myself.”  How, actually?  Do you really want me to?  You’re a fool, baldy, your fat paunch sticking out with an overhang of a foot and half.  Lucky Janus, never banged from behind by a stork or by waggling hands imitating a donkey’s white ears or by a tongue as long as a thirsty Apulian dog’s.  You, of patrician blood, who have to live without eyes in the back of your head, turn around and face the backdoor sneer! [1]

The patron rewards the writer with neither meaningful appreciation for his work (only “Bravo” and “Lovely”) nor sufficient material support (only a “worn-out cloak”).   The patron only pretends to want to know the truth.  The writer imagines telling the patron the truth: the patron is old, fat, and a fool.  Then the writer describes three mocking gestures that are being made at the patron behind his back.  Waggling hands imitating a donkey’s ears is easy to understand as mocking the patron as an ass.  The mocking stork gesture hasn’t even been clearly understood formally.  The long-tongued, thirsty-dog gesture hasn’t been understood meaningfully.[2]

head of stork

Comoedia Lydiae, a late twelfth-century Latin elegiac comedy, provides key context to understand the mocking stork gesture.  In this tale, Lidia, the wife of the duke Decius, is deeply in love with the knight Pearus.[3]  To demonstrate the depth of her love for Pearus, Lidia wrings the neck of Decius’ prized falcon in front of Decius and guests, plucks hairs out of his beard, and yanks out one of his healthy teeth.  To further display her mastery of her husband, Lidia arranges to have sex with Pearus while Decius watches.  While Lidia is going with Decius and Pearus to the garden to perform that feat of cuckoldry, the servant-woman Lusca follows them.  She is in on the cuckolding scheme: “mouth agape, she trails along behind, making at Decius the gesture of the stork.”[4]  Lusca means in Latin “one-eyed.”  That name playfully contrasts with Persius’ Janus, a two-faced god who has eyes in the front and back of his head.[5]  Lusca’s mocking of Decius behind his back in Comoedia Lydiae evokes the mocking of the patron behind his back in Persius’ satire.  The context in Comoedia Lydiae suggests that the stork gesture ridicules male heterosexual failure.  Decius failed to fulfill his wife’s sexual desire and was thus cuckolded.

A gesture plausibly similar to the stork gesture has endured through millennia.  Near Boston in the late 1980s, a young man of first-generation Italian-American heritage and of strong, independent heterosexual desire would regularly make to his male friends a gesture plausibly similar to the stork gesture.  He would point an index finger straightly erect, and then droop it into a curved position.  That gesture declared a perceived lack of heterosexual vigor in the guy to whom it was directed.

finger in mocking stork gesture

The three mocking gestures in Persius have subtle complexity.  In the focal passage from Persius, I translated the Latin verbal form pinsit as “banged from behind.”  The most recent, authoritative academic translation of Persius translated pinsit as “pummeled from behind.”  The verb pinsit is difficult:

pinsit, ‘strikes’, an extension based on the analogy of the partial synonym tundit, pinso usually means “crushes, grinds, pounds”, but {Persius} seems to have none of these senses in mind.  pinsit, rather than say, ludit, is of course prompted by what the gesture represents. [6]

However, the stork gesture occurs in Jerome without any verb like pinsit:

They will fawn upon you with fulsome praise and do their best to blind your judgment; yet if you suddenly look behind you, you will find that they are making gestures of derision with their hands, either a stork’s curved neck or the flapping ears of a donkey or a thirsty dog’s protruding tongue. [7]

Moreover, the verb pinsit grammatically applies to the other two gestures:

The lines involve a zeugma.  From pinsit (58), the idea of ‘mock’ has to be supplied. [8]

With the stork gesture interpreted as mimesis of male erectile dysfunction, pinsit works as verbal irony.  A penis in the condition of the stork gesture is incapable of pinsit, meaning heterosexual intercourse of reproductive type.  Flapping could evoke lack of testicular tension as well as being an ass.  The thirsty dog’s protruding tongue adds a concluding note of male sexual frustration.  Rather than being crudely transparent, Persius’ three mocking gestures are highly literary.

Centuries of male scholars scrutinizing Persius’ satire failed to generate appreciation and insight into the mocking stork gesture.  Male scholars haven’t been reading texts with sufficient male consciousness.

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[1] Perseus, Satires 1.53-63, from Latin trans. Braund (2004) p.53.  I’ve replaced “pummeled from behind” by “banged for behind” for reasons subsequently explained above.  I’ve also replaced “client” with “fellow writer” for clarity.  The underlying Latin word is “comitem.”  Gildersleeve (1875) provides an online version of the Latin text.  A.S. Kline has generously provided an online translation into English.

[2] “The exact nature of this ‘stork’ gesture is not discoverable.”  Harvey (1981), p. 33.  “Perhaps symbolising cacophony,” according to Bramble (1974) p. 116.  Id. notes that a sign of a thirsty dog, an ass, and a parrot occurs in Callimachus’ second Iambus.  How that recognition helps to read Persius isn’t clear.  In ancient Sanskrit literature, a parrot is linked with intended cuckoldry.  A recent scholarly work, “drawing upon recent scholarship in gender studies and Lacanian film theory,” interprets the mocking gestures in Persius as evoking elite male anxiety about anal penetration.  King (2006) p. 74, p. 249 n. 18.

[3] Elliott (1984), pp. 126-46, provides an English translation of Lidia, with some translation notes.  The poem is attributed to Arnulf of Orléans.  Boccaccio adapted Lidia in Decameron 7.9.

[4] My translation of the Latin, “Rictibus ora trahit Decioque ciconiat usu.”  Elliott (1984), p. 141, has as the translation:

Her lips curve up into a smile, and at Decius
she makes the gesture of the crane

That seems to me less exact.  The full Latin text is available online in Du Méril (1854).  See esp. id. p. 371.  Boccaccio’s version of Lidia, Decameron 7.9, doesn’t include the mocking stork gesture.

[5] The prologue to Lidia refers to a parrot imitating human speech.  A parrot imitating human speech also figures in the prologue to Persius’ satires.

[6] Harvey (1981) p. 33.  The relevant Latin lines from Persius, 1.58-60:

o Iane, a tergo quem nulla ciconia pinsit
nec manus auriculas imitari mobilis albas
nec linguae quantum sitiat canis Apula tantum.

From Braund (2004) p. 52.  Gildersleeve (1875) notes for l. 58:

ciconia pinsit = pinsendo ludit. The fingers of the mocker imitate the clapping of the stork’s bill.  Pinsit, ‘pounds,’ because the ciconia levat ac deprimit rostrum dum clangit, Isidor., Orig., 20, 15, 3.  ‘Pecks at’ is not correct; ‘claps’ is nearer.  What seems to be meant is mock applause.

[7] Jerome, Letter 125 (To Rusticus, dated 411) s.18, from Latin trans. Freemantle (1892) p. 597.  I’ve inserted “curved” within “stork’s neck.”  The underlying Latin:

si subito respexeris aut ciconiarum deprehendes post te colla curvari aut mans auriculas agitari asini aut aestuantem canis protenti linguam.

[8] Harvey (1981) p. 33.


Bramble, J. C. 1974. Persius and the programmatic satire: a study in form and imagery. Cambridge: University Press.

Braund, Susanna Morton, trans. 2004. Juvenal and Persius. Loeb Classical Library 91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Du Méril, Édélestand.  1854. Poésies inédites du moyen âge, précédées d’une histoire de la fable ésopique. Paris: Franck.

Elliott, Alison Goddard, ed. and trans. 1984. Seven medieval Latin comedies. New York: Garland.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Gildersleeve, Basil L. 1875. The satires of A. Persius Flaccus. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Harvey, R. A. 1981. A commentary on Persius. Leiden: Brill.

King, Richard Jackson. 2006. Desiring Rome: male subjectivity and reading Ovid’s Fasti. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Wednesday’s flowers

red flowers in rich foliage

Decameron X.3: horrible generosity of Nathan and Mithridanes

The price of material goods relative to self-esteem and social status has fundamental economic importance.  That price structures the macroeconomics of persons’ self-interest.  In Decameron X.3, Boccaccio imagined a society in which material goods were cheap, while self-esteem and social status were dear.  Competition in generosity reached a horribly high level.  This story provides a critical perspective on the Arabic tradition of hospitality, the Christian understanding of salvation, and the role of media, particular social media, in serving self-esteem and social status.

Portrait of a Bolognese Gentleman in a Fur-lined Coat

Boccaccio ironically distanced Decameron X.3 to the realm of fantasy.  The story’s narrator presented it as being from a far-away land:

It is beyond doubt, if the reports of various men from Genoa and elsewhere who have been to those parts may be trusted, that in the region of Cathay there once lived a man of noble lineage named Nathan who was rich beyond compare. [1]

Cathay is northern China, far from Boccacio’s Florence.  Travelers’ reports commonly contain stories of wondrous sights, beasts, and events.  The clause “it is beyond doubt” is immediately qualified with reason for doubt.  It should be interpreted ironically.  The two main characters in the story are named Nathan and Mithridanes.  Nathan is a Jewish name.  Christians in medieval Europe stereotyped Jews as being ungenerous.[2]  Mithridanes is a name associated with pre-Christian Roman cultic belief.[3]  Christian nobles and merchants in fourteenth-century Florence would understand Decameron X.3 to be fantastical.

In Decameron X.3, Mithridanes sought to surpass Nathan’s fame for generosity.  Nathan lived in a huge, luxurious palace next to a main thoroughfare.  For many years, everyone who passed by Nathan hosted “in a most agreeable and festive manner.”  Nathan thus acted as the proprietor of a bizarre combination of a motel and a country estate.  Nathan’s renown spread throughout the East and the West.  Mithridanes, another rich man who lived near Nathan, grew envious:

he resolved that through an even greater display of liberality he would either obliterate the old man’s renown or overshadow it.  And so, after having had a palace built similar to Nathan’s, he began to bestow the most extravagant courtesy ever seen on everyone who passed by, going in either direction, and there is no doubt that in a short time he became very famous.

One day, a little, old, poor woman begging for alms from Mithridanes happened to remark that Nathan was more generous than he.  Her remark ignited Mithridanes to raging fury:

How can I ever match Nathan’s greatest acts of generosity, let alone surpass him as I’ve sought to do, when I can’t come close to him in the smallest things?  All my efforts will truly be in vain unless I wipe him off the face of the earth, and since old age isn’t carrying him away all by itself, I’ll have to do the job with my own hands, and that without delay.

Competition in generosity thus led to intent to murder.

Nathan subsequently offered Mithridanes horrible generosity.  Traveling to Nathan’s palace to fulfill his plan to murder him, Mithridanes encountered an old man.  Mithridanes asked the old man for directions to Nathan’s palace.  Mithridanes also requested that, “if possible, he did not want Nathan to see him or to know that he was there.”  The old man was actually Nathan.  He cheerfully and deceptively agreed to Mithridanes request.  Claiming to be one of Nathan’s menial servants, Nathan led Mithridanes to the palace.  There Nathan arranged with his servants not to reveal his identify.  Acting as a menial servant, he won the confidence of Mithridanes.  Mithridanes then told him of his plan to murder Nathan and sought his help.  Nathan agreed to help to arrange for his own murder.

With this horrible generosity, Nathan prevailed over Mithridanes.  Nathan strolled by himself in the woods.  That was the opportunity that Nathan had offered to Mithridanes to murder him.  Mithridanes jumped him, seized him by the turban, and exclaimed, “Old man, you’re as good as dead.”  In a parody upon a parody of Christian self-abnegation, Nathan responded only, “Then I must deserve it.”  Immediately events turned in a different direction:

Upon hearing his voice and looking him in the face, Mithridanes instantly recognized him as the man who had received him with such kindness, had kept him company like a friend, and had advised him so faithfully.  Consequently, his fury immediately subsided, and his anger was transformed into shame.  Hurling away the sword, which he had already drawn out in order to strike his adversary, he dismounted and flung himself down in tears at Nathan’s feet.

Nathan absolved Mithridanes of any wrong-doing in pursuing his murderous scheme:

call it evil or not as you will, there’s no need to ask for my forgiveness or for me to grant it, because you didn’t pursue it out of hatred, but in order to be held in greater esteem. … you have dedicated yourself not to the amassing of wealth, which is what misers do, but to spending what you have accumulated.

That’s a ridiculous justification, made from the perspective of nobles and courtiers looking down on merchants.  With further sarcasm, Boccaccio has Nathan expand upon this justification:

In order to increase their realms, and thus their fame, the most illustrious of emperors and the greatest of kings have practiced almost no art other than killing, not just one man as you wanted to do, but an infinite number of them, as well as putting entire countries to the torch and razing cities to the ground.  And so, if, to achieve renown, I was the only person you wanted to kill, you were not doing anything extraordinary or unusual, but something actually quite commonplace.

Citing his desire to preserve his unblemished record for generosity, Nathan then implored Mithridanes to kill him.  Mithridanes refused.  Nathan’s concern to be generous generated his grotesque devaluation of his own  life.  Only Mithridanes lack of generosity saved Nathan’s life.

Nathan further underscored the perversity of social status-seeking.  In gratitude to Nathan for not condemning his evil intent, Mithridanes offered the platitude that he would like to give years of his life to Nathan.  Nathan, greedy to add to his public record of generous acts, proposed a mechanism to effect that gift.  Nathan proposed that Mithridanes subsequently pretend to be Nathan, and Nathan pretend to be Mithridanes.  The young man Mithridanes could then deceptively add many more years of deeds of generosity to Nathan’s public record.  Mithridanes refused that absurd scheme only out of appreciation for his own inferiority in generosity:

If I knew how to comport myself as well as you do now, and as you’ve always done, I”d take your offer without giving it a second thought, but because I feel quite certain that my actions would only serve to diminish Nathan’s fame, and because I have no intention of marring in another what I cannot make perfect in myself, I won’t accept it.

This isn’t just a story of two gentlemen donkeys stuck at a door, insistently saying to each other, “No, please, you first.”  The story of Nathan and Mithridanes describes perverse effects of social status being much more dear than material goods.[5]

Arabic culture has a deep tradition of hospitality as measure of social status.  Hatim Tai, a Christian Arab who lived in the sixth century, became a focal point for stories about generosity in Arabic culture.  In a book by Saadi, a major Persian poet writing in the thirteenth century,
Hatim Tai is the renowned generous person in a story much like that of Decameron X.3.[4]  Another story about Hatim Tai is preserved in Arabic in the 1001 Nights.  That story places Hatim Tai’s generosity squarely within pre-Islamic Arabic culture.  Travelers at the top of a mountain came across Hatim Tai’s grave.  One traveler said mockingly, “We are your guests tonight, Hatim, and we are hungry.”  After falling asleep for the night, the traveler had a dream:

I saw Hatim approaching me with a sword.  “You have come to me,” he said, “but I have no provisions.”  He then struck my camel with his sword [6]

The traveler’s own camel thus provided the meat that the host offered.  Slaughtering a camel for a shared meal is a typical feature of a pre-Islamic ode.[7]  Hatim Tai’s slaughter of the traveler’s camel, like Decameron X.3, shows a perverse effect of intense concern for maintaining social status of generosity.[8]

In the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches extreme generosity.  Jesus declares:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. [9]

From a Christian perspective, Jesus realized God, love, and salvation for humanity by allowing himself to be crucified.  Jesus’ words “love one another as I have loved you” mean love one another with complete self-giving, even to the point of death:

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. [10]

Like the Decameron‘s story of Frate Alberto, Decameron X.3 superficially looks like a parody of Christian scripture.  But Christian extreme generosity isn’t about social status.  Jesus was the son of a carpenter from a provincial town of Judea.  Crucifixion was a degrading means of execution.  Jesus frequently disparaged prayers and pious acts intended to garner social acclaim.[11]  The distinction between outer and inner generosity is crucial in Christian understanding.  That distinction is also crucial for fully understanding Decameron X.3.

Accumulating material wealth, dissipating human sense of divine favor, and powerful new communication technologies are increasing the price of self-esteem and social status relative to material goods.  The dehumanization of materialism and consumerism is becoming less of a personal risk.  The social position of nobles and courtiers is being democratized.  Competition for social status encourages disconnection between the outer and inner person.  Decameron X.3 provides a critical perspective on new personal risks in the Facebook-Twitter-smartphone social economy.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 10, Story 3 (story of Nathan and Mithridanes), from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 763.  The narrator is Filostrato.  In Boccaccio’s text, Mitridanes represents Mithridanes.  All subsequent quotes are from id., unless otherwise noted.

[2] The southwestern Eurasian tribal value of generosity is not surprisingly an aspect of Jewish tradition.  The prophet Isaiah in Hebrew scripture expressed that value:

All you who are thirsty,
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, receive grain and eat;
Come, without paying and without cost,
drink wine and milk!

Isaiah 55:1.  The underlying idea is that the Lord is a good (generous) host.

[3] The Roman deity Mithras was the focus of a popular Roman cult.

[4] Saadi Shirazi, Bustan, ll. 306-342, from Persian trans. Clarke (1879) in Crane (1921) pp. 212-14, and Edwards (1911) Ch. II (Concerning Benevolence), “Story of Hatim and the Messenger Sent to Kill Him.”  Hatim Tai is more properly transliterated as Ḥātim al-Ṭāʾī.  It is found variously transliterated as Chatemthai, Chatemtai, and Hatam Taei.  Hatim was of the Tayy tribe of Arabia.

[5] Readers can easily interpret this story superficially.  Crane (1921) called it a “noble story.” F.W.V. Schmidt, writing in Berlin in 1818, declared:

The sentiment in this divine story so far exceeds all the bounds of the most daring fancy of our ancient and modern times, that one cannot help thinking that this work of fiction had its source in the sunny plains of the Orient, and was the offspring of a bright and peaceful mind.

Cited in id. pp. 196-7.

[6] 1001 Nights, Night 271, from Arabic trans Lyons (2008) vol, 1, p. 885.  The text is Calcutta 1839-42 (Calcutta II, also called Macnaghten).  According to Geert Jan van Gelder, earlier versions of the story are found in Ibn Qutaybah (d. 889), al-Shi`r wa-l-shu`ara’ (ed. Shakir, 249), in al-Mas`udi (d. 956), Muruj al-dhahab (ed. Charles Pellat, ii, 298-99 = para. 1213-14), and a little later, with two versions, in Abu l-Faraj al-Isfahani, al-Aghani (ed.Cairo) xvii, 374-75, 392.

[7] Examples of pre-Islamic odes (qasā’id) that describe killing a camel and sharing a meal of its meat are the Muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays and the Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab.

[8] Abū l-Ḥakam al-Maghribī, Maʿarrat al-bayt (The Domestic Scandal), written in twelfth-century Damascus, provides a light-hearted view of the hardships of a hospitable host.  In the penultimate line, the host concludes:

At other people’s places drinking
Is better, in my way of thinking.

From Arabic trans. van Gelder (forthcoming).

[9] John 15:12.

[10] John 15:13.

[11] E.g. Matthew 6:1-18, Mark 12:40.

[image] Portrait of a Bolognese Gentleman in a Fur-lined Coat, c. 1523-25, by Giuliano Bugiardini (Italian, 1475-1554).  The Walters Art Museum, 37.1101.  Special thanks to the Walters for their leadership in making art accessible worldwide on the Internet.


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

Edwards, A. Hart, trans. 1911. The Bustān of Sadi. London: J. Murray.

Gelder, Geert Jan van. “Abū l-Ḥakam al-Maghribī, Maʿarrat al-bayt (‘The Domestic Scandal’).”  Forthcoming in A Literary History of Medicine: “The Best Accounts of the Classes of Physicians” by Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿah (d. 1270).  University of Oxford & University of Warwick.

Lyons, Malcolm C. 2008. The Arabian nights: tales of 1001 nights. vols. 1-3. London: Penguin.

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


COB-97: training essential for bureaucracy

University of Bologna, interior

The machinery of bureaucracy depends on a trained workforce.  Modern societies have thus established special educational institutions.  In these institutions, uneducated young persons are grouped together so that they can better learn from each other.  The young persons are separated from the workforce so as to avoid real-world distractions.  They are then passed through courses and requirements.  That makes them certified as educated throughout their subsequent working lives.  While traditional educational institutions have considerable bureaucratic merit, they no longer suffice for the needs of today’s bureaucracies.

Today’s bureaucracy must be a learning organization.  Learning must be added to the job description of every person in the bureaucracy.  Every document created within the bureaucracy, including substantive emails copied to more than five persons, must have a separate learning section describing the learning associated with the document.  Highlighting the importance of learning, many organizations are establishing Chief Learning Officers to supervise and coordinate learning.

In today’s online, digital world, learning is necessary to maintain business advantage.  Consider DAFTA’s implementation of online timekeeping for its employees.  DAFTA (Document Assembly/Fastenings Trade Association) is the leading Washington-based trade association for the manufacturers of document clasps, paper clips, staples, and related office document technologies.  Until last year, DAFTA employees had punched-hole timecards.  They also wrote out on paper requests for sick time and vacation time.  After being informed of the advent of the new online, digital world, DAFTA’s leadership decided to implement an online, digital timekeeping system.

DAFTA’s implementation of online timekeeping nearly failed from lack of attention to learning.  Employees struggled to figure out how to use the online timekeeping system.  That raised the question of the proper time code to use to record time spent trying to figure out how to use the online timekeeping system.  No one knew.  Several meetings about the issue raised the question of how to record time spent trying to figure out how to record time spent trying to figure out how to use the online timekeeping system.

With the situation threatening to spiral out of control, the Chief Learning Officer stepped in and pointed out the need for training.  She established a new, online training course on how to use the new timekeeping system.  The training course had a special training module addressing how to record time spent discussing how to record time spent trying to figure out to use the new timekeeping system.  Employees, however, couldn’t figure out how to register for the new online training course.

Emphasizing the importance of training, the Chief Learning Officer set up a new training course on how to register for training courses.  Colleges champion “learning how to learn,” she declared, “we will train how to train.”  The Chief Learning Officer coordinated with the Chief Data Officer to establish a schema for collecting data on registrations for the training course on how to register for training courses.  The DAFTA Head, recognizing the importance of big data and being a data-driven organization, agreed to allow one year for data to accumulate on registrations for the training course on how to register for training courses.  She also allowed employees to use the old punchcard and paper timekeeping system in the interim.  The Chief Learning Officer thus transformed DAFTA into a learning organization.  You can do the same for your organization!

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of Bureaucrats.  Enjoy previous bureaucratic carnivals here.  Nominations of posts to be considered for inclusion in next month’s carnival should be submitted using Form 376: Application for Bureaucratic Recognition.

Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage: Jerome’s creativity

The late-fourth-century Christian ascetic and scholar Jerome had such extraordinary literary creativity that scholars to this day have barely recognized his genius.  Jerome wove Christian scripture, non-Christian Greco-Roman literature, and the work of early Christian thought leaders into innovative, outrageous, transgressive forms.  One of Jerome’s greatest and most influential works, Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage, has been so badly misunderstood that many scholars believe that Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor at the Athenian lyceum, wrote it.  Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage is a sophisticated literary artifice.  Written by Jerome from his personal perspective as a man, Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage inconceivably tells women what men want.[1]

Golden Book, after that of Theophrastus

With remarkable daring, Jerome addressed Theophrastus’ Golden Book to women.  Theophrastus’ book occurs as a small section in Jerome’s voluminous treatise, Adversus Jovinianum.  Jerome sought in Adversus Jovinianum to confute a theologian’s claim that “virgin maidens, widows, and married women” have statuses of equal merit as Christians.  Immediately before citing Theophrastus’ Golden Book, Jerome declares:

what am I to do when the women of our time press me with apostolic authority, and before the first husband is buried, repeat from morning to night the precepts which allow a second marriage?  Seeing they despise the fidelity which Christian purity dictates, let them at least learn chastity from the heathen. [2]

Jerome thus constructed Theophrastus’ Golden Book as instruction for women.  As Aristotle’s successor in leading the Athenian lyceum, Theophrastus was an eminent classical philosophical authority.  Through Theophrastus, Jerome provided authoritative heathen teaching for women.

Jerome introduced Theophrastus’ Golden Book with a parody of wisdom attributed to Solomon.  Solomon is traditionally identified as the author of the biblical book Proverbs.  Like the biblical book Sirach, Proverbs concludes with a Hebrew acrostic.  Proverbs’ concluding acrostic has a genre that was probably as popular in the ancient world as it is today: an encomium to the strong, independent woman.  The first and last two lines of Proverbs’ encomium carry its main points:

A woman of strength, who can find?
Her price is greater than rubies.

Comeliness is deceit and beauty a vapor,
but a woman who fears the Lord — she will be praised.
Give her the fruit of her hands,
and let her deeds praise her in the gates. [3]

Proverbs’ strong woman works outside the home, independent of her husband, in the breadwinner role that traditionally has been imposed on men as their exclusive, natural burden.

Jerome reconfigured the values of Proverbs’ encomium to the strong, independent woman.  Jerome artfully declares:

Theophrastus’ book about marriage, in which he asks whether a wise man should marry, is said to be worth its weight in gold.  And after specifying that, yes, occasionally a wise man might venture on marriage — if the woman is beautiful, of good character and honest parentage, and he himself healthy and rich — he immediately concludes, “but all these things rarely coexist in a marriage.  Therefore, a wise man should not marry.” [4]

Because the woman that Proverbs’ praises is actually rare, Theophrastus’ book is worth its weight in gold.  It prevents a mistaken evaluation of the worth of a wife.  Proverbs disparages the value of a wife’s beauty and emphasizes her earning potential.  But if a man is already rich, a woman’s earning potential has little marginal value to him in marriage.  Theophrastus’ book highlights a woman’s beauty and her social status.  In addition, the husband being healthy alludes to him being able to exercise fully the sexual opportunities that marriage potentially provides.  In short, Jerome through Theophrastus instructs Christian women that Proverbs’ encomium to the strong, independent woman is bunk.[5]

Jerome also reconfigured in non-Christian terms the Christian gospel’s wisdom about serving two masters.  The gospel of Matthew declares:

No one can serve two masters: for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth. [6]

Jerome explains:

marriage impedes the pursuit of philosophy, nor may any man serve both books and wife.

Books here substitute for seeking God, and a wife, for seeking wealth.  Jerome immediately expands satirically the latter point:

There are many things which are necessary for married women’s practices: expensive clothes, gold, gems, shopping sprees, maids, all kinds of furniture, litters, a gilt two-wheeled chariot.

Jerome also represents the reversal of love and hate.  He describes the wife’s jealousy of others and the husband’s attempts to establish friendships with others.  Jerome observes:

She {the wife} suspects that her husband’s love goes the same way as her hate.

In Jerome’s creative allegory, just as marriage impedes a non-Christian pursuing learning, marriage impedes a Christian serving God.

Biblical wisdom presents contrasting views of women.  Chapter 26 of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) alternates twice between describing the wicked wife and the good wife.  The obvious question is how to get a good wife rather than a wicked one.  Jerome through Theophrastus reasons:

there is no picking out a wife, but we have to take whatever comes along.  If she has a temper, if she is foolish, malformed, proud, smelly, whatever vice it is, we learn it only after the wedding.  A horse, a donkey, a bull, a dog, and the most worthless slaves, even clothes and kettles, a wooden stool, a goblet, and an earthen pitcher all are tested first and then bought or not.  Only a wife is not shown, lest she should displease before she is wed.

Jerome through Theophrastus thus instructs women about men’s reluctance to marry.  Men cannot distinguish between good and bad women before marriage.[7]  Out of respect for men’s lack of knowledge, even a woman who believes herself to be good should not urge a man to marry her.

With Theophrastus’ Golden Book, Jerome displayed his mastery of Juvenal’s towering classical work of men sexed protests.  Like Juvenal, Jerome through Theophrastus protests wives’ rule of the household.[8]  Juvenal’s mimesis of a wife’s words is stilted and tendentious, with a style little different from his rhetorical questions.[9]  Jerome’s mimesis of a wife’s words is more realistic and more comic:

That woman looks so much prettier when she goes out; this one is honored by everyone; when women get together, they despise me as a wretch.  Why were you staring at the woman next door?  What were you talking about with the maid?  What did you bring home from the forum? [10]

Jerome makes similar points of protest to Juvenal, but in a more refined, more charitable way.  In protesting wives’ sexual relations with household eunuchs, Juvenal graphically describes a young man getting his testicles torn off so as to serve better sexually the mistress of the house.  Jerome more decorously mentions, “her eunuch, gelded to prolong her pleasure and to make it safe.”  Juvenal describes wives brutally flogging household servants.[11]  Jerome merely hints discretely about workplace sexual harassment:

Upon whomever she sets her heart, they must have her love though they want her not.[12]

Juvenal graphically describes wives sneaking out at night to work in brothels and having sex with gladiators.  He also describes men having consensual sex with other men’s wives as if those men were brutish attackers:

her lover lurks concealed, impatiently keeping quiet while drawing back his foreskin. [13]

Jerome, in contrast, more charitably recognizes men’s attractive qualities:

One man tempts by his shape, another by his brains, another by his jokes, yet another by his generosity.  What is attacked from all sides will fall, one way or another.

Juvenal suggests as an alternative to a wife a boy sex-object.[14]  Jerome more humanely suggests a faithful servant, friends, and relatives.  Juvenal elaborates at length about wives’ propensities toward superstition and willingness to poison their husbands.[15]  Jerome addresses these problems briefly and pragmatically.  In a key symbolic gesture, Jerome refers to a good and kind wife as “a rare bird.”  He thus cites Juvenal’s description of a suitable wife as “a rare bird on this earth, exactly like a black swan.”[16]  Jerome, with brevity and graciousness, trumped Juvenal in addressing this earthly life.

Within Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage, Jerome also poignantly points to a greater life.  Describing a husband’s solicitude for a good and kind wife, Jerome declares:

when she gives birth, we groan with her; when she is in danger, we, too, are tortured with her.

The husband experiences continually being with his wife.  Jerome implicitly recognizes the good of that experience with an abrupt shift to describing an alternate experience:

A wise man can never be alone.  He has with him all men who are and who have ever been good, and he turns his free mind wherever he likes.  What his body cannot do, he embraces in this thought.  And if he lacks men to speak to, he speaks with God.  He will never be less alone than when he is alone.

Jerome thus described his experience of Christian ascetic life.  Jerome’s Christian ascetic life encompassed strenuous scholarly study and writing.  Wealthy women who admired and patronized Jerome provided vital support for his scholarly study and writing.  Jerome concluded Theophrastus’ Golden Book with fitting words for patrons:

to spend your money well while you are still alive would be a more certain inheritance than to leave what you acquired by your own hard work to be used for who knows what.

Juvenal’s satire is all bite.  Jerome made with Juvenal’s satire a much greater work.  Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage explains to women the value of men’s Christian ascetic life.  It also suggests to wealthy women that they should financially support men in Christian ascetic life.[17]

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[1] Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage (Aureolus Liber de Nuptiis) was widely disseminated throughout medieval Europe.  Jerome, however, was not credited with writing it.  The most extensive recent scholarly analysis of Jerome’s satire takes literally Jerome’s claim that Theophrastus wrote that book.  It also provides this fine piece of learned, ingenuous analysis:

Bickel explained the resemblances between Juvenal and the extract from Theophrastus as follows: when Jerome was copying Theophrastus from Porphyry, memories of Juvenal’s sixth satire entered his mind and he added these reminiscences to the extract … These views were seriously challenged by J. van Wageningen, who explained the apparent reminiscences of Juvenal by the theory that Jerome derived the ecloga Theophrasti from Seneca’s De matrimonio, which was also used by Juvenal in composing his sixth satire.  Van Wageningen’s argument takes too little account of Bickel’s cogent demonstration that the ecloga Theophrasti shows numerous traces of Jerome’s own Latin style. … In praise of Jerome, however, it may be said that if he had not admitted that Theophrastus’ attack on women was not his own original work, the reader would hardly have guessed it, so markedly is his adaptation of the passage stamped with his own satiric style.

Weisen (1964) pp. 153-5.  A scholarly work published in 1997 and focusing on Chaucer wisely observed:

the evidence suggests strongly that no such book {Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage} ever existed in Greek and that it was Jerome who composed it and simply invented the ascription.

Hanna & Lawler (1997) p. 8.  In a magisterial commentary on Jerome’s Libellus de Virginitate Servanda (Letter 22, to Eustochium), a leading scholar of Jerome greatly disparaged Jerome’s creativity:

Jerome’s brilliance often turns out to be no more than the glitter of pilfered tinsel.  … Any meretricious formulation that caught Jerome’s eye was memorized for redeployment later … Jerome recognized the limitations of his own intellectual ability: he knew that he was not really capable of independent and creative thought. … it is precisely originality of form which is often lacking in Jerome. … Jerome’s own contribution to the debate {about virginity} is often tasteless and bizarre.

Adkin (2003) pp. 2-5.  Properly attributing to Jerome Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage should help to correct that mistaken evaluation.

[2] Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, I.47, from Latin trans. Freemantle (1892) p. 846.  Jerome was confuting Jovinian.  Jerome’s quotation of Jovinian’s claim is in I.3.

[3] Proverbs 30:10, 30-1, from Hebrew trans. Fox (2009) pp. 888-9.  The above English translation presents the Hebrew lines as paired English lines.

[4] Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, I.47, trans. Hanna & Lawler (1997) p. 150.  This translation is similar to that in Freemantle (1892) p. 846.  I’ve represented the text after “concludes” as a quotation, as in id.  In addition, I’ve replaced “virtuous, and from a good family” with “of good character, and honest parentage,” as in id.  The underlying Latin is “si bene morata, si honestis parentibus.”  All subsequent quotations of Jerome, unless otherwise noted, are from Adversus Jovinianum, I.47 (Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage), trans. Hanna & Lawler (1997).

[5] Solomon and Marcolf, a work widespread in fifteenth-century Europe, similarly challenges and parodies the wisdom of Solomon.

[6] Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13.

[7] Many men today attempt to learn about a women through cohabitation before marriage.  Such an approach has serious problems with incentives and ecological relevance.  It also ignores the significance of marital law.  In any case, non-marital cohabitation was less feasible in the fourth century because fewer men and women had the resources to maintain households separate from their families.  Cohabitation choices had then broader social significance.

[8] Cf. Juvenal, Satire 6, ll. 149-52, 210-24.

[9] Consider, for example this dialog between husband and wife:

{wife} “Crucify that slave.”
{husband} “What crime has he committed to deserve punishment? Who says they witnessed it? Who accused him? Give him a hearing!  No hesitation is ever long enough when a person’s life is at stake.”
{wife} “You idiot! Is a slave a person?  All right, let’s accept that he hasn’t done anything.  But it’s my wish and my command.  Let my will be reason enough.”

Juvenal, Satire 6, ll. 219-23, from Latin trans. Braund (2004) p. 253.

[10] Jerome is thus an unappreciated father of the scintillating dialogue in the medieval (c. 1400) French work 15 Joys of Marriage.

[11] Juvenal, Satire 6, ll. 366-78 (man having testicles torn off).  Here’s discussion of the sexual merits of eunuchs in Juvenal.  Id. ll. 474-93 (wife flogging household servants).

[12] Trans. Fremantle (1892) p. 847.  Hanna & Lawler (1997), p. 152, has for this line:

Those whom she loves must be loved in return, whether they want to or not.

That translation has similar meaning, but is more obscure.

[13] Id. ll. 237-8.

[14] Id. ll. 33-7.

[15] Id. ll. 542-91 (superstition), ll. 659-61 (poisoning husband).

[16] Id. ll 165.

[17] Not all men favor a Christian ascetic life.  A leading scholar of Jerome observed:

Despite all his austerities J.’s {Jerome’s} mind still seethed with lust.

Adkin (2003) p. 59.  In other words, Jerome had sexuality like that of an ordinary, healthy man.  Nonetheless, Jerome chose a Christian ascetic life.  Women can show love for men who do not choose such a life by taking care of them sexually in addition to financially supporting them.  That would be enough for most men.  Most men don’t demand to have it all.

[image] Modified version of Binding from Five Poems (increased color saturation, intensified highlights). Original 16th century Persia, The Walters Art Museum, W.610.binding.  Thanks to the Walters for preserving this binding and sharing liberally an image of it.


Adkin, Neil. 2003. Jerome on virginity: a commentary on the Libellus de virginitate servanda (Letter 22). Cambridge: Francis Cairns.

Braund, Susanna Morton, trans. 2004. Juvenal and Persius. Loeb Classical Library 91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fox, Michael V. 2009.  Proverbs 10-31: a new translation with introduction and commentary.  The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries. Vol. 18B. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

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.

Wiesen, David S. 1964. St. Jerome as a satirist: a study in Christian Latin thought and letters. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.


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