grammar of sex in marriage for Matheolus and Petra

Donatus, Ars Grammatica

Matheolus wished he had looked at Medusa rather than married Petra. A well-educated cleric in thirteenth-century France, Matheolus was learned in grammar and logic. Matheolus learned too late that his wife Petra was a superior subject. Even the great scholar Aristotle was subjected to a woman. Turning from laughter to tears, from joy to grief, Matheolus applied his learning to lamenting philosophy’s failure and the book of his life, now gray and sad.[1]

In his book, Matheolus described women’s power to teach. He headed the relevant section, “how a woman leads her husband to the goal of solecism.”[2] Medieval clerics studied exhaustively how to use Latin words correctly. Intentional solecism was a higher literary art in which women led. Citing the leading scholastic learning in medieval Europe, Matheolus declared:

What good is Perihermeneias, the Elenchi, or Prior Analytics
against her? What good is Posterior Analytics or
all of logic and everything in the school curriculum?
If one were to confess the truth, woman made both serve her.
She led Aristotle, the master of the five goals,
to solecism, with reins and halter [3]

Matheolus here referred to the figure of Alexander the Great’s mistress riding Aristotle like a mare. A man’s behavior is always predicated on women modifying it.

Matheolus vehemently protested husbands’ subjection to their unschooled wives. As Aristotle proved, the root of subjection is men’s physical desire for women. The beautiful maiden named Nature in Alan of Lille’s De planctu naturae described desire uniting opposites and up-ending normal order.[4] That’s what happened when Aristotle accepted a bridle in his mouth and lowered himself to his hands and knees to have a woman ride him like a mare. Matheolus protested:

It’s a shameful riding figure called solecistic;
It’s misuse of language, that clearly shows this displacement of tongue.
It’s incongruous, improper to be so ridden
Order is disorder, our signifying
offends in many ways. The art of grammar
is made dazed, the art of logic is embarrassed,
hence also Nature is astonished and in revulsion refuses to speak. [5]

Nature in De planctu naturae did speak. She observed:

Does not Desire, performing many miracles, to use antiphrasis, change the shapes of all mankind? … Here reasonable procedure is to be without reason, moderation means lack of moderation, trustworthiness is not to be trustworthy. He {Desire} offers what is sweet but adds what is bitter. He injects poison and brings what is noble to an evil end. He attracts by seducing, mocks with smiles, stings as he applies his salve, infects as he shows affection, hates as he loves. [6]

This great confusion is enough to baffle even the great scholar Aristotle:

He knew the power of Nature and Reason.
But why is Nature’s own minister of Reasoning
not being helped, is astonished, such a great master?
What we say logically with our words
Concludes like it did for this great scholar?
It’s embarrassing. What will philosophy say
when its great scholar is deceived by amphiboly? [7]

Husbands of ordinary learning are even less discerning. Wives can make husbands deny what their own eyes saw, disbelieve that they can distinguish between a man and an ass in bed, and affirm that anti-men gender bigotry advances gender equality.

Marriage is no longer a figure of the world overthrown, like Alexander the Great’s mistress riding Aristotle. Alan of Lille’s concern for the grammar of sex figured more than a person of one sex conjoined with a person of the same sex.[8] The conjunction of woman and man can also have more than a literal meaning. Using the clerical language Latin in thirteenth-century Europe, Matheolus counseled men not to marry:

Don’t take one woman, but, reader, have a hundred!
Women have bound thousands of persons together in chains.
If a man has a thousand women, none has him; he is his own man. [9]

For fear of violating the new grammar of sex, readers must read Matheolus literally. Now no one knows anything more than being his own person. The marital debt is no longer being paid. Marriage is bankrupt. If Abelard had listened to Heloise, he would have remained the man he was. And the world would have remained as it always was.

Men and women must find a new grammar of sex. Then they can form a new verbal bond of incarnation in which every rule is struck senseless.[10]

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[1] On Matheolus wishing he had looked at Medusa before marrying Petra, Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 111-2:

Obvia cur pridem mihi non fuit ipsa Medusa,
Et licet in lapidem convertere visa sit usa?
{Why didn’t I meet Medusa herself,
And allow myself to benefit from being turned into stone?}

Klein, Rubel & Schmitt (2014) p. 53. All subsequent Latin text is from id., unless otherwise noted. Cited line numbers are the cumulative numbering across the four books of Lamentationes Matheoluli. For an online Latin text, based on just one, quite good manuscript, Van Hamel (1892). Lamentationes Matheoluli was written about 1290.

Matheolus was well-educated and well-connected in clerical circles. He studied law and logic for six years in Orléans. He studied under Jacques de Boulogne, who became Bishop of Thérouenne, and Nicaise, who became Canon of Fauquembergue. Matheolus spent many years living in Paris, practiced canon law as a cleric, and attended the Council of Lyon in 1274. Van Hamel (1892) pp. cx-cxii (pdf pages 578-80).

Matheolus began his Book IV (l. 3768) with:

Risus in lacrimas, in luctus gaudia verto
{I turn from laughter to tears, from joy to tears}

That’s quoting nearly verbatim from Alan of Lille, De planctu naturae I.1. Cf. James 4:9. Book III of Lamentationes Matheoluli draws extensively on De planctu naturae. Van Hamel (1892) pp. cxxxv (pdf page 603).

Matheolus’s section on wives leading their husbands to solecisms ends (l. 503):

Nec titulus minio nec cedro charta notetur.
{May your title not be written with red dye, nor your paper treated with oil of cedar.}

That quotes Ovid, Tristia 1.1.7. It indicates a book that doesn’t have colorful, luxurious materiality.

[2] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 459-503, headed “Quod mulier ducit virum suum ad metam solecismi.” On grammatical metaphors, Ziolkowski (1985).

[3] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 459-64:

Quid Perihermenias, quid Elenchi, quidve Priora
Prosunt adversus illam, quid Posteriora,
Totaque quid logica, trivium quid quadriviumque?
Ut verum fatear, mulieri servit utrumque.
Duxit Aristotilem metarum quinque magistrum
Ad solecismum, cui frenum sive capistrum

The cited works are works of Aristotle newly recovered in western Europe via the Islamic world. The five goals seem to be five categories of sophisms set out in Aristotle’s Elenchi I.3.

[4] De planctu naturae, Metre 5.

[5] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 473-9:

Est equitatura solestica dicta probrosa;
Est barbastoma, quod plane docet hic data glossa.
Est incongruus, est improprius hic equitandi
Ordo non ordo, qui nostros significandi
Offendit quoscumque modos. Ars grammaticalis
Istud posse stupet fieri, rubet ars logicalis,
Hinc etiam Natura loqui miranter abhorret.

Jehan Le Fèvre, responding to Lamentationes Matheoluli in Le Livre de Leesce (The Book of Gladness), interpreted Aristotle’s equine position much differently:

He {Aristotle} was full of great love; he always upheld the truth, for which we should praise him highly. And if he let himself be ridden like a horse, it was for joy and for pleasure. Love led him to do this by his great gentleness; so he ought not to be blamed. He clearly showed that we ought to love women, without slander or ill speaking, for they are not guilty at all for this

l. 885-95, from Latin trans. Burke (2013) p. 82. Le Fèvre’s figure of love lacks imagination. It’s just men as cats for women. Men loving women should not require them to be made like animals in subordination to women and silent about women’s faults.

[6] De planctu naturae, Metre 5, from Latin trans. Sheridan (1980) pp. 150, 152-3.

[7] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 490-6:

Qui vim Nature cognoverat et Rationis
Sed quare Natura suo Ratioque ministro
Non succurrerunt, miror, tantoque magistro.
Nostri verbosi quid dicent inde logiste,
Cum sic conclusus fuerit doctor suus iste?
Erubeo fari. Quid dicet philosophia,
Cum sibi doctorem deceperit amphibolia?

Roman rhetoricians strongly criticized amphibolia (grammatical ambiguity creating multiple possible meanings). Ziolkowski (1998) pp. 49-55. Matheolus himself utilized semantic ambiguity to make points memorable. Consider l. 1724-8:

Si plures tibi queris
Testes, testis in his textus datur Ovidianus:
“Feminee faciunt ad scelus omne manus.”
Quod facere ausa {sua} est, non ausa est scribere dextra;
Ergo, quod restat, hic nondum quere, sed extra!

{If you are seeking more
witnesses, witness what’s given in Ovid’s text:
“the hands of women are fitted for any crime.”
What they dared to do, I did not dare to write;
Therefore, to summarize, there is much more that women have done!}

The term witness could also be translated as testicles/balls, carrying the connotation of male boldness. Matheolus above generalized Ovid, Epistle 6.128: Medeae faciunt ad scelus omne manus.

[8] Ziolkowski (1985) makes clear Alan of Lille’s broad interpretive concerns. Subsequent scholarship has developed Ziolkowski’s insights to the point that “one might claim De planctu naturae as a queer text.” Johnson (2005) p. 189.

[9] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 2286-8:

Non unam capias, sed centum, lector, habeto!
Femina millenis hominem ligat una catenis.
Si quis habet mille, nullas habet; est suus ille.

In case his point isn’t understood, Matheolus goes on to counsel, “No uxorem, sed amicas, lector, habe” {Reader, have not a wife, but girlfriends!}. Id. l. 2297-8.

[10] Alan of Lille’s “De incarnation Domini” speaks of a new translatio (metaphor):

In hac Verbi copula
Stupet omnis regula.
{In this verbal bond
every rule is struck senseless.}

Cited and trans. Ziolkowski (1985) pp. 135-6.

[image] Page from Aelius Donatus, Ars grammatica, Ars minor. Xylographic book printed c. 1500. Thanks to Old Prints Department, University of Wrocław, Poland.


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

Johnson, Michael A. 2005. “Translatio Ganymedis: Reading the Sex Out of Ovid in Alan of Lille’s The Plaint of Nature.” Florilegium 22:171-90.

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

Sheridan, James J., ed. and trans. 1980. Alan of Lille. The plaint of nature {De planctu naturae}. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

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

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1985. Alan of Lille’s grammar of sex: the meaning of grammar to a twelfth-century intellectual. Cambridge, Mass: Medieval Academy of America.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1998. “Obscenity in the Latin Grammatical and Rhetorical Tradition.” Pp. 41-59 in Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1998. Obscenity: social control and artistic creation in the European Middle Ages. Leiden {The Netherlands}: Brill.

Matheolus: medieval Latin literature protesting church & wife

Christ suffering passion in Isenheim Altarpiece

Late in the thirteenth century, Matheus of Boulonge married the widow Petra. Matheus suffered double punishment for his marriage. Because the Council of Lyon in 1274 tightened regulations on clerics marrying, Matheus’s marriage destroyed his church career. Petra delivered a second blow by destroying his personal life. Matheus began referring to himself as Matheolulus — little, little Matheus. Despite Matheus’s reduced stature (his name is commonly reduced only to Matheolus in modern literary study), he retained enormous wit. Matheolus’s suffering from the rule of mother church and his wife prompted him to write Lamentationes Matheoluli. That work is a masterpiece of medieval Latin literature of men’s sexed protest.

While most men are rightfully fearful of criticizing women, Matheolus dared to criticize Christ himself. Matheolus in a dream declared:

Allow me to say — it’s on the tip of my tongue — it may be too bold — Christ, you don’t dare to get married. Why?  Because supposing that, that if you married, you would be expelled from paradise. [1]

Christ, however, had no need of marriage because he was already united to divinity. Ordinary men, in contrast, need marriage to provide for salvation and union with the divine. Christ in Matheolus’s dream explained:

Look, I don’t want sinners to die. I’m their redeemer. I fought for them. When you’ve paid a lot for something you don’t just throw it away, and so I’ve decided to make several purgatories for them to purge themselves in — treatment makes sick people better — and the best one is marriage. You’ve already experienced punishment. I needn’t reopen it; rather, I’d say that even those who have been toasted on a flaming gridiron don’t suffer as much punishment as those who are imprisoned in marriage. There is no greater martyrdom than the day-to-day punishment like yours, refined in the furnace of marriage. You are truly a martyr, and so if you take your suffering well have no doubt that after you die you’re coming straight to me. Nothing will stand in your way, no punishment will intervene. Why? Because you have already been purged under your wife. [2]

Speaking ideas of Genius, Christ instructed church leaders:

It’s necessary and right for cities and towns to be replenished with babies. If male hadn’t joined with female, there would be no religious orders now, no Peter to be keeper of the keys; and so would the clergy please stop contradicting me on this?

The clergy of Talavera with all their heart and soul and might strove to obey such urging.

Matheolus represented his own marital suffering in devotional and liturgical contexts. In the Christian liturgical week of Christ’s passion, the three days preceding Easter in medieval Europe included Tenebrae service. That’s a service of darkness and lamentations. Matheolus in marriage experienced Tenebrae daily all year long from his wife:

She changes the arrangement of the Litany, the word of God, and Mass, and sings Tenebrae to me daily. She curses on every canonical hour, cries and brawls, never holding back her reins. The wife daily chants her hours to everyone. The first response is growling, singing darkly. Then begins the antiphon: “Woe, woe, woe to you husband!” or there are her lamentations or her quarrelsome songs. [3]

The high culture of Latin and church liturgy became for Matheolus a rich resource for protesting his suffering in marriage.

Matheolus broadly considered spirituality and following Christ. Exhausted, wounded, and exasperated, he lamented:

No rest for the husband, when fifteen times night and day he is chosen for the passion. He is continually crucified. It is, my god Hercules! The torment of marriage is far worse than the torment of the Stygian abode. [4]

Matheolus’s lament alludes to the common medieval view of sexual deficit accounting. In that accounting, women when widowed became sexually voracious. Experiencing the passion refers in part to Matheolus’s responsibility to have sex with his wife.

Experiencing the passion fifteen times daily also suggests extreme devotion to Christ’s crucifixion. St. Francis of Assisi in the twelfth century made prominent the Stations of the Cross. In that devotion, the faithful represent Jesus’s condemnation, crucifixion, and burial through fourteen stages of visual representations, narratives, and prayers arranged around a church. Matheolus described his suffering as a crucifixion that occurred daily with one more stage than the Stations of the Cross.

Matheolus in his spirituality of marital suffering encompassed Greco-Roman traditional religion. The ejaculation “It is, my god Hercules!” starts with a statement of being that could be interpreted as a parody of the Mosaic god’s name “I am.” “My god Hercules” was a traditional Greco-Roman invocation that Jews and Christians would associate with following a false god. The Stygian abode similarly was the non-Christian, Greco-Roman underworld. Marriage had become a sacrament in the Christian church by the thirteenth century. In his invocation of god and by describing marriage as far worse than being in the Greco-Roman underworld, Matheolus was playing with Christian heresy.

Matheolus also protested against marriage in economic and legal terms. The conditions of Matheolus’s marriage naturally caused him to lose sexual potency. Unlike in marriage today, spouses in medieval Europe had a legal obligation to have sex with each other even if one of them didn’t want sex. That legal obligation was known as the marital debt. Matheolus lamented:

My wife wants it, but I can’t. She petitions for her right. I say no. I just can’t pay. [5]

Even given his sexual incapacity, Matheolus was subject to corporal punishment:

Acting as her own advocate, Petra {Matheolus’s wife} puts forward the law that if a shriveled purse {scrotum} can’t pay because it’s empty, under statute recompense for that injury is corporal punishment.

A fundamental principle of communication economics is the criminalization of men in relation to women. In this civil case, the injury wasn’t the effect of Petra and Matheolus’s marriage on Matheolus’s genital function. The injury was depriving Petra of sex that Matheolus was required under law to provide non-consensually and regardless of ability. Modern readers should be able to find some appreciation for Matheolus’s sexed protest.

Lamentationes Matheoluli deserves much more attention from scholars and the general public. For decades, scholars have associated Lamentationes Matheoluli with “tired old antifeminist commonplaces” and a “vast echo-chamber of antifeminist commonplaces.”[6] That greatly mischaracterizes the wide-ranging wit and creativity of Lamentationes Matheoluli . Moreover, dividing medieval literature into the binary categories “feminist” and “anti-feminist” is anachronistic and conceptually imperialistic.[7] Most importantly, injustices of institutionalized paternity deception, forced financial fatherhood, acute anti-men discrimination in family law, and social devaluation of men’s lives are important issues suppressed today under dominant ideology. Vibrant intellectual life needs open, diverse, fearless critical thinking. Rebirth of such thinking could start with medieval Latin literature.

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[1] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 2393-7, from Latin, my translation, benefiting from that of Correale & Hamel (2005) p. 392. The Latin text is available in Klein, Rubel & Schmitt (2014) (preferred) and Van Hamel (1892). Jehan Le Fèvre loosely translated the work into French late in the fourteenth century. The English quotations are exclusively based on the original Latin version.

[2] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 3024-38, from Latin trans. Correale & Hamel (2005) p. 392, with some minor changes. The claim that marriage works like Purgatory is taken up in the 15 Joys of Marriage. Matheolus dreamed that, in recognition of their martyrdom in marriage, husbands earned a higher place in heaven than virgins and any conventional martyrs. That reversed common Christian understanding of holy status. Jerome influentially described the Christian status ranking in his work, Adversus Jovinianum. Matheolus is awoken from his dream by his wife’s nagging (l. 372-3767). The subsequent quote above is from l. 3518-18, trans. id.

[3] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 671-8 from Latin, my translation. Tenebrae is known from the ninth century. The underlying Latin:

Litania, Dei verbum versa vice, missa
Et tenebre mihi cottidie cantantur ab issa.
Hec maledicatur, quoniam sub qualibet hora
Flet vel rixatur, numquam retrahens sua lora.
Cottidie sponso canit horas femina quasque,
Primo reponso frendens, cantat tenebrasque.
Incipit antiphona sic: “Ve, Ve veque maritis!”
Vel sunt luctisona, vel sunt sua cantia litis.

Le Fèvre’s French version is translated in Blamires, Pratt & Marx (1992) p. 182.

[4] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 341-4, my translation. The underlying Latin:

Nullo vero requies, cum nocte dieque legatur
Passio quindecies illi: semper cruciatur.
Est, medius fidius, tormentum conubiale
Iam multo gravius quam tormentum Stygiale.

Here’s discussion of medius fidius as an oath/interjection to Hercules. The translation in Correale & Hamel (2005), p. 386, flattens the allusions and pagan references:

There is no rest for the husband, fifteen times a day and night passion is his lot; his is tortured continually. I swear, marital torment is a lot worse than the torment of hell.

Matheolus is far more interesting than merely as a source for Chaucer. Matheolus apparently also was a source for the 15 Joys of Marriage, written in French about 1400. More importantly, Matheolus’s text itself rewards careful study.

[5] Lamentationes Matheoluli l. 577-8, trans. Correale & Hamel (2005) p. 388, modified slightly. The medicalized condition “erectile dysfunction” now supports highly profitable pharmaceuticals. The implicit biological norm seems to be that a properly functioning man should in the presence of a woman be able to get an erection on demand. Such medicine can abuse masculine biology like attention deficit medicine can abuse boys’ natural level of activity.

The subsequent quote above is from id. l. 582-4, trans. id. I’ve brought out the legal terminology obscured in the translation. The underlying Latin:

Intuor aspectus; allegat enim Petra pro se
Ius, quod, si nequeat inopis rugosa crumena
Solvere, pro noxa statuatur corpore pena.

[6] Mann (2002) pp. 28, 40. Among the rare scholarly works that mentions Lamentationes Matheoluli, it is commonly characterized as “antifeminist.” An anthology of texts declared:

Le Fèvre’s version {of Lamentationes Matheoluli} proved an effective propagation of the satire, ensuring that “Matheolus” continued to be a name to match Jean de Meun’s for brutal antifeminism in fifteenth-century debates about women.

Blamires, Pratt & Marx (1992) p. 177. Jean de Meun was an author of the literary masterpiece Romance of the Rose.

[7] After referring to the “monstrous bulk of antifeminist literature in the Middle Ages,” Mann added a footnote explaining:

Since I have recently encountered some misunderstanding of the term “antifeminism” among non-medievalists, I had better make clear that medievalists have traditionally applied it to literary expressions of hostility to women, and not hostility to feminism (which would clearly be anachronistic).

Mann (1991b) p. 2; p. 31, n. 3. Medieval tradition, or the tradition of medievalists, doesn’t provided reasoned justification for conceptual imperialism.

[image] Christ’s passion, detail of Isenheim Altarpiece. Painted by Matthias Grünewald in 1512–1516. On display at the Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace, in France.


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

Correale, Robert M., and Mary Hamel. 2005. Sources and analogues of the Canterbury Tales. Vol. 2. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.

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

Mann, Jill. 1991a/ 2002. Geoffrey Chaucer. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International. Republished as Feminizing Chaucer. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer.

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

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

Sincopus described medieval reasons for castrating men

Attis, castrated priest of goddess Cybele

To make male animals more docile and subservient, their owners commonly castrate them. Reasons for castrating men have been more complex. In the ancient world, men were castrated to serve chastely the great goddess Cybele, to be servants who wouldn’t cuckold the master’s wife, or to be high-voiced, non-threatening singers in courts. Men were also castrated for socially constructed crimes against women. The subordination of men within gynocentric society is the primary and continuing reason for men’s castration. Gynocentrism, however, becomes merely a term of facile intellectual posing if deployed as a totalizing master narrative. Men in part are responsible for their own castration. The medieval poem about Sincopus, written in Latin about the year 1100, documents that men’s greed has contributed to their castration.

The poem about Sincopus directly addresses castration. Sincopus, a castrated man, guarded and served the beautiful woman Flora. Although Flora’s husband hired Sincopus, he didn’t order Sincopus’s castration. The poem’s narrator asked Sincopus why he was castrated:

For what reason do you lack your member and two testicles?
Perhaps Perifras cut them off with sharp metal
And now they are withered with dull sores,
Or perhaps a rupture with its burden grieved you immensely,
Or the decency of a common virgin was ravished,
Or the girl of a scarcely known family was prostituted,
Or the wife of a poor man was deluded by your gift;
Alas, speak! Tell me which of them you will admit is the truth [1]

The possibilities put forward in this question probably were relatively common reasons for castrating men.

Criminalizing men in relation to women contributes to castrating men. The poem about Sincopus describes as a reason for castration that “the decency of a common virgin was ravished.” The decency of a common virgin in public understanding almost surely meant the status of any unmarried woman without a notorious reputation for sexual activity. A charge against a man wouldn’t necessarily be rape. While ravish could mean rape, it could also mean having consensual sex, with penal responsibility for that sex effectively attributed to the man. Regulation of men’s sexuality at U.S. universities is moving back toward such a regime, but without the distinction for sexual reputation.[2]

Other reasons for castrating men underscore criminalizing men in relation to women. Men were castrated for having sex with other men’s wives. Those wives are figured as deluded women merely seeking gifts for sex to help support their impoverished families. Men were also castrated for prostituting a girl. U.S. legislation, building upon the history of the Mann Act, defines any person under age 18 having “any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received” as a victim of “sex trafficking.”[3] In conjunction with that broad definition of prostitution and its victims, the text of the legislation leaves no doubt that the victim-prostitutes of concern are female and the prostitution perpetrators, male.

The poem about Sincopus also indicates that men were castrated as medical treatment. The phrase “a rupture with its burden grieved you immensely” probably refers to a hernia in which a section of the intestine enters the scrotum. That’s a common form of hernia among men.[4] It can cause inflammation of the scrotum and sepsis. Castration is plausible medieval treatment for such a hernia.

The narrator’s reference to Periphras cutting off Sincopus’s genitals is obscure. The German verb fräsen means “to mill.” The Swedish word fräs indicates a milling machine or cutter. Peri is a Greek prefix meaning “around” or “in excess.” Periphras could be a descriptive name for a surgeon who castrated boys at the behest of parents or lords.[5]

“Periphrastic,” however, describes well rhetorically Sincopus’s explanation of his castration. To the narrator’s well-circumscribed question, Sincopus responded:

“Nothing I’ve undergone,” says Sincopus, “has been unworthy of me,
I do not want you to think I am such a base man;
My soul was not remiss as you believe,
Entangling itself in such foul faults.
But since you ask me why I cut off my genitals,
Lest you hope for more, I shall tell you the story briefly.” [6]

In brief, Sincopus cut off his own genitals. The story Sincopus tells begins with a pompous, periphrastic oration:

Swollen with knowledge of the grammatical art,
Overflowing with brains but not wealthy in substance,
I was vexed, irritated with perpetual burning of the breast:
“What are you doing? Look! You have no riches
Or means whence to make a small gain grow;
If you have money you will always be honored;
There is no honor for you destitute, no friends for the needy;
If gold is lacking, no letters are pleasing! [7]

Sincopus felt that his learning made him deserving of wealth. He castrated himself so that he could join the fat Galli serving in luxury the goddess Cybele.

Sincopus’s greedy, self-interested service of the goddess ended badly. So as to ensure and legitimate favorable omens, Sincopus preserved  his severed genitals:

At last let me confess that my member, which I destroyed,
I turned into ash and put aside in the house,
And mixing it with ground pepper, I preserved it like gold. [8]

While performing his holy offices, Sincopus carried with him the pepper-preserved ashes of his genitals.

Having become through his castration an eminent person, Sincopus hosted numerous dinners. Sincopus’s house even hosted guests when Sincopus wasn’t home. At one such dinner, the guests wanted pepper. The servant-waiter searched about the house and couldn’t find any. He then went to seek some from the neighbors. The guests themselves then began to ransack the house for pepper. They broke open the chest in which Sincopus had stored the ashes of his genitals mixed with pepper. The guests used that mixture to season their food.[9]

After returning home two days later, Sincopus discovered the precious, preserved ashes of his genitals were gone. The servant explained that the guests had broken into the chest and used the pepper they found there to season a dinner “rich with fat fowl.” None of the servants knew what had been mixed with the pepper. Sincopus then delivered aloud a prolix lamentation. A servant muttered:

What are these words that our lord, alas! speaks?
Perhaps he pickled his genitals that he cut off;
He burned them in fire and mixed them with pepper.
I would consider myself stupid if I thought pepper thus became aged;
For seasoning his member is brought to our tables;
I dipped my meat in the meat of my lord. [10]

This sensational story rapidly spread from the servants to everyone in the city. Sincopus was disgraced. He lost his high position and was covered in a shower of spit. City leaders planned to dismember Sincopus: break his legs, cut off his hands, and tear out his tongue. Sincopus wisely fled. In a far away place, he found a job as guardian of Flora.

Sincopus ends the poem by requesting the poet not to disclose his secret to all. Castrating men is today of great public importance. After nearly a millennium, Sincopus’s secret must be further revealed. It should be a matter of careful study for all.

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[1] Radulfus Tortarius, Epistle VI, l. 66-73, from Latin trans. Wolterbeek (1991) p. 181.  All subsequent quotes are from id. unless otherwise noted. I cite quotes by “Sincopus” and poem line numbers. I’ve made some minor changes to the translation for clarity and precision. Radulfus Tortarius doesn’t have a well-standardized name. His name also commonly appears as Raoul Le Tourtier and Rodulfus Tortarius. A French Benedictine monk of the Abbey of Fleury-sur-Loire, he was born in the mid-eleventh century and died after 1122.  His poetic works are preserved in only one manuscript, MS. Vat. Reg. 1357. Ogle & Schullian (1933) p. xxxii.

The name Sincopus is similar to the word syncope. The latter is a grammatical term meaning the taking away of sound from within a word. That can be understood as a grammatical metaphor for castration.

The poem about Sincopus has attracted little scholarly attention. A nineteenth-century commentator ignore its contents for being “coarse” and “of little taste.” Wolterbeek (1991) p. 88, referring to the view of Eugène Certain in an 1853 publication. Another scholar called it “strange on all sides” and suggested that it was an in-group burlesque for Radulphus Tortarius’s friends. Bar (1937) pp. 150-1, 158.

[2] Ancient belief about beavers provides an additional, relevant perspective on forced castration:

There are frequent references {in medieval and ancient literature} to the belief that the beaver was hunted for valuable medicine that could be extracted from his testicles and that, when chased, he bit off his testicles and left them to his pursuers with the hope that, satisfied with these, they would abandon the chase.

Sheridan (1980) p. 103, n. 129. Some early literary references are Cicero, Pro Scauro 2.5; Juvenal 12.34; Pliny 8.47. 109. Id. Alan of Lille’s De planctu naturae includes such a reference. Id. p. 103. Men being hounded and harassed on college campuses might sadly consider acting like beavers in similar circumstances.

[3] 114 Stat. 1464, Public Law 106–386 (Oct.  28, 2000), An act to combat trafficking in persons, especially into the sex trade, slavery, and involuntary servitude, to reauthorize certain Federal programs to prevent violence against women, and for other purposes. See Sec. 103(3),(8)(A), and (9).

[4] The ancient Greek text Philogelos refers to hernias. A scholar noted:

In the most common type of hernia suffered by men, some of the lower intestine enters the scrotum (which, of course, a eunuch lacks), distending it. For a joke on that swelling, see #262.

Quinn (2001), n. 10. Joke #262 in an English translation:

Whilst on a trip, a wag contracted the dropsy. When he got back home, his wife asked if he had brought her a present. “Nothing for you. But here’s a pillow for your thighs.”

From Greek trans. Baldwin (1983) p. 49.

[5] Bar (1937), p. 154, suggests that Sincopus was a patient of a surgeon named Periphras. But Sincopus says directly that he castrated himself. Id. also notes references to persons named Periphas in Virgil, Aeneid, II.476; Ovid, Metamorphoses, VII.400; and Statius, Thebaid, VII, 641, 643. Numerous persons carried the name Periphas in Greek mythology. The name Periphras is much more rare. The father of Oedipus’s second wife Euryganeia was Periphras. Robl (2003). That man was also known as Hyperphas.

[6] Sincopus l. 75-80. I’ve substituted “soul” for “mind” in translating animus and “fault” for “sin” in translating maculis.

[7] Sincopus l. 81-88. Cf. Juvenal, Satire 7.

[8] Sincopus l. 139-41. Pepper in medieval Europe was an expensive delicacy. Sheridan (1980) p. 174, n. 14.

The Shahnameh, an epic poem that Ferdowsi wrote in Persian about 1000, includes a story with similarities to Sincopus’s story. In the Shahnameh, King Ardeshir defeated King Ardavan and took his daughter as wife. She, after becoming pregnant, attempted to poison King Ardeshir. The King ordered his vizier to execute the woman. The vizier secretly didn’t carry out the execution and instead hid the woman in his palace. To prove his good intentions, he castrated himself, had his testicles placed in salt, and sealed them in a jeweler’s box.  He dated the box and gave it to the King to keep in his treasury. Many years later the contents of the box were revealed to the King to prove that the vizier had no sexual relations with the woman. For an English translation, see “The Reign of Ardeshir” in Davis (2007) pp. 554-60. I’m grateful to Geert Jan van Gelder for pointing out this story.

[9] For a humorous, twelfth-century Arabic poem of out-of-control guests causing the host great hardship, see van Gelder (1995). Radulfus Tortarius’s second epistle includes the earliest known version of the Ami and Amile (Amicus and Amelius) legend. Like the Tristan and Iseult legend, the Ami and Amile legend involves a protagonist traveling with another’s wife and sleeping with a sword between him and her. That sword figure also occurs in an Arabic tale about Hatim Tai, an Arabic paragon of generosity. See note [4] and associated text in my post on friendship and the tale of Attaf.

[10] Sincopus l. 224-30.

[image] Attis, a castrated priest (Gallus) serving the goddess Cybele. Marble sculpture in Museum of Ephesus, Efes, Turkey. Thanks to Pvasiliadis and Wikimedia Commons.


Baldwin, Barry, trans. 1983. The Philogelos, or, Laughter-lover. Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben.

Bar, Francis. 1937. Les Epîtres latines de Raoul Le Tourtier (1065?-1114?); étude de sources; la légende d’Ami et Amile. Paris: E. Droz.

Davis, Dick, trans. 2007. Ferdowsi. Shahnameh: the Persian book of kings. London: Penguin.

Ogle, Marbury Bladen and Dorothy M. Schullian, eds. 1933. Rudolphus Tortarius. Rodulfi Tortarii Carmina. Rome: American Academy in Rome.

Quinn. John T. 2001. “45 Jokes from The Laughter Lover.” Online at Diotima.

Robl, Werner. 2003. Rudolf Tortarius: Ad Syncopum. Online commentary.

Sheridan, James J., ed. and trans. 1980. Alan of Lille. The plaint of nature {De planctu naturae}. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Van Gelder, Geert Jan. 1995.  “The Joking Doctor: Abū l-Hakam ‘Ubayd Allah ibn al-Muzaffar (d. 549/1155).”  Pp. 217-28 in Concepción Vázquez de Benito & Miguel Ángel Manzano Rodríguez, eds. Actas XVI Congreso UEAI {Union Européene des Arabisants et des Islamisants}. Salamanca.

Wolterbeek, Marc. 1991. Comic tales of the Middle Ages: an anthology and commentary. New York: Greenwood Press.

Nazhun lamented al-Makhzumi loving every one-eyed

Castle at Almodóvar, earlier known as al-Mudawwar al-Adna

Since the beginning of human civilization, war has been predominately organized as men killing men. Yet some men have sought a better way. An Arabic anecdote about Nazhun and al-Makhzumi, poets living in Andalusia probably in the twelfth century, narrates though an invective contest alternatives for men’s lives.

The descriptive frame for the anecdote sets out a key contrast. The narrator explains:

Although the people of Andalusia were champions in the horse race of the holy war, rushing from the mountains and the canyons to respond to its call, they also kept, out of fear of satire, a special place for luxury, pleasure, wantonness, and the patronage of the poets. [1]

The word “people” obscures in generic identity that the persons fighting and dying in holy war were men. The dual spheres of war and luxury parallel the power of the sword and the pen. The man poet al-Makhzumi wielded the pen as a greatly feared satirist. That skill brought him to the place of luxury. Yet places of luxury are sustained as much with eulogy as with satire. Al-Makhzumi wrote weak poetic eulogy.

Al-Makhzumi’s weak poetic eulogy in the place of luxury generated an invective war between him and Nazhun. Positioning herself as one accustomed to living in the place of luxury, Nazhun ridiculed al-Makhzumi’s eulogy. Al-Makhzumi was from Almodóvar. Nazhun described Almodóvar as farm country. Al-Makhzumi’s first response to Nazhun’s attack on him was to spit. Nazhun in turn wished him ill health. They exchanged further verbal blows. With more daring than most educated men would dare today, al-Makhzumi called Nazhun a liar and “a red hot strumpet whose thing admits odors that can be smelled from miles.” The vizier Abū Bakr ibn Sa’id, acting the part of the benighted white knight of European chivalry, intervened to defend Nazhun. Al-Makhzumi then attacked Nazhun with disparagement of men’s genitals:

May God not allow her to hear good tidings, and may he show her nothing but a penis.

A penis is a wonderful organ that brings good tidings of joy, and on some occasions, new life. Appreciating this reality, Nazhun responded to al-Makhzumi:

Why, dirty old man, you contradict yourself! What could be better for a woman than what you have mentioned {a penis}?

Al-Makhzumi, upholding a sort of gender symmetry, then disparaged Nazhun’s vagina as being widely stretched. Within the place of luxury, al-Makhzumi was a verbal warrior willing to attack harshly women as well as men.

While men tend to idealize women as pure, sweet, and innocent, women are as capable of viciousness as are men warriors. Nazhun turned on al-Makhzumi with poetic invective:

Tell the vile one a word
To be recited until he meets his maker
In Almodóvar you were reared
And shit smells sweeter than that place
There the Bedouin have begun
To swing and sway in their walk
Therefore you became
Besotted with everything round
You were created blind
But you get lost in every one-eyed

In its Islamic context, the vague reference to “his maker” implicitly suggests a vile, demonic force. Associating Almodóvar with shit parallels the farm country insult that Nazhun made earlier. But turning Bedouins into effeminate men suggests in contrast urban life. That contrast leads into Nazhun’s new line of attack on al-Makhzumi. The Arabic word for Almodóvar comes from the Arabic word for round. The Arabic word for “one-eyed” naturally extends to mean penis by the penis’s single orifice. But neither “round” nor “one-eyed” are best understood to refer to penis.[2] These words more plausibly figure the low, backside presentation of male hips. Nazhun represents al-Makhzumi as enjoying the position of the pedagogue in an ancient form of male-male sexual-intellectual transmission.[3] Underneath Nazhun’s invective is two-eyed envy of the one-eyed’s special relationship with the blind teacher. Nazhun tried to figure herself as male:

I have responded to a poem in kind
So pray tell me, who is more poetic?
By creation, I may be female
But my poetry is male

Al-Makhzumi in turn poetically disparaged Nazhun as being sexually easily accessible.[4] Al-Makhzumi then amorously departed with a young male slave.

castle at Almodóvar del Río in Andalusia

Al-Makhzumi the pedagogue of invective had a foil in the vizier Abū Bakr. Al-Makhzumi reportedly was Nazhun’s teacher.[5] Abū Bakr defended Nazhun from al-Makhzumi, sought her love, and complained of her promiscuity. She wrote to him:

Oh Abū Bakr, you hold a place forbidden
to others in my heart, reserved for my best friend
However many lovers may be in truth
Love for Abū Bakr would have the foremost place [6]

Those words express what’s now known among men as friend-zoning. Men in the friend zone are loved non-erotically.

Men fight other men primarily to serve women in gynocentric society. So do men leaders of state. An alternative for men is to learn skills of invective and affiliate with men in the place of luxury that women inhabit. In the deep poetic irony of human society, such a turn makes men more erotically attractive to women.

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[1] Anecdote about Nazhun and al-Makhzumi, al-Maqqarī’s version, from Arabic trans. Hammond (2010) p. 139. All subsequent quotes are from id., pp. 139-42, unless otherwise noted. I’ve made a few minor changes to the translations for clarity. The names Nazhun and al-Makhzumi are properly written as Nazhūn (Nazhūn al-Garnatī bint al-Qulā’ī) and al-Makhzūmī (Abū Bakr al-Makhzūmī). I use the former forms for accessibility. Schippers (1993) provides an alternate English translation based on the version in Ibn al-Khatīb’s Ihāta.

[2] Hammond (2010), pp. 135-6, finds “round” (mudawwar) and “one-eyed” (a’war) to refer to a penis. Those references seem to me to generate a less coherent, less meaningful interpretation of the poem. While possible, they are not necessary.

[3] Figural association of eyes, buttocks, and pedagogy occurs in the influential Life of Aesop. That work, written in Greek about the first century, diffused widely throughout the Islamic world.

[4] Al-Makhzumi told Nazhun to listen and recited:

Why don’t you ask Nazhun
Why she gathers her tails so proudly
When she spots a friendly face
She lifts up her shirt as she has done so often for me

[5] Hammond (2010) p. 133, n. 19.

[6] From Arabic trans. Nykl (1946) p. 303, quoted in Segol (2009) p. 156.

[image] Castle at Almodóvar del Río in Andalusia. Thanks to Phillip Capper (first photo), Wolfgang Manousek (second photo), and Wikimedia Commons. A fortress on the hill in Almodóvar dates to 740. Almodóvar was then known as al-Mudawwar al-Adna.


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

Nykl, Alois Richard. 1946. Hispano-Arabic poetry, and its relations with the old Provenc̜al troubadours. Baltimore: J.H. Furst Co.

Schippers, Arie. 1993. “The role of woman in medieval Andalusian Arabic story-telling.” Pp. 139-152 in Jong, Frederick de. 1993. Verse and the fair sex: studies in Arabic poetry and in the representation of women in Arabic literature : a collection of papers presented at the 15th Congress of Union Européenne des Arabisants et Islamisants (Utrecht/Driebergen, September 13-19, 1990). Utrecht: Houtsma Stichting.

Segol, Marla. 2009. “Representing the Body in Poems by Medieval Muslim Women.” Medieval Feminist Forum 45:1: 147-169.

Modus Florum shows poetic, inner-truth alternative to history

So I held my tongue and said nothing;
I refrained from rash words;
but my pain became unbearable.

My heart was hot within me;
while I pondered, the fire burst into flame;
I spoke with my tongue

Literature developed along with concern about misuse of words. With his characteristic subtlety and audacity, Ovid about the time of Jesus proclaimed: “I speak the marvelous lies of the ancient bards.”[1] For the turned-sober fourth-century scholar Augustine, knowledge of actual historical events provided the foundation for speaking and writing with understanding. Augustine warned that without such knowledge, “you will be trying to build castles in the air.”[2] Poetry, however, has long been recognized as being more than lies and castles in the air. The medieval Latin poem Modus Florum provides an exemplum of poetic power relevant from ancient civilization to the present day.

Modus Florum evokes the court of an early emperor. A medieval king set out a poetic game in impersonal, historically distanced terms:

If anyone experienced in lying
should apply himself to deception
so well that he is called a deceiver
by the emperor’s own mouth, that man may marry the daughter.[3]

A man saying that he is lying (is he telling the truth?) was a conundrum that an ancient philosopher put forward.[4] The poetic game was earlier and more serious. Provoking listeners to reject their explicit and willing embrace of deception — willing suspension of disbelief — is a virtuoso display of poetic power.[5]

Modus Florum tells of a Swabian triumphing in that poetic game. The Swabian tells the story of his hunt. On his hunt, he speared a hare. He gutted the hare, cut off its head, and tore off its hide. That could be a parody of brutal philosophical analysis. Then the Swabian turned to fantastic tale-telling:

And as I was lifting the severed head
with my hand,
a hundred measures of honey
spilled out from the wounded ear;
and when I touched the other ear,
it spilled out just as many measures of peas.
I bound them inside the skin and,
while carving the hare itself,
I grasped a royal charter hidden
at the very base of the tail:

That’s a story in the tradition of travelers’ tales and accounts of marvels, but more artful.[6] The Swabian then deftly shifted his story to near reality. The royal charter found at the base of the tail:

It confirms that you are my servant.

Forgetting the agreed frame of deception, the king interjected:

“The charter lies,” the king shouts, “and so do you!”

In the work of a master poet, poetry can deceive so effectively as to compel persons to speak inner truth against their will.[7]

sun flower

The poetry game in Modus Florum is an obscure part of the ancient Story of Ahiqar. Part of that story survives in Elephantine Aramaic papyri dated to more than 2400 years ago. In a Syriac version probably from before the fifth century, the Pharaoh, king of Egypt, challenges Ahiqar, “tell me a word that I have never heard.”[8] That challenge addresses the whole tradition of poetry and story-telling. It’s a creative, linguistic challenge analogous to telling a deception so effectively that listeners are compelled to denounce its falsehood against their own willing suspension of disbelief.

Ahiqar triumphs by fabricating a letter declaring that the Pharaoh owes Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, a huge sum of money. The conclusion of the story isn’t directly recorded. Within understanding of the poetry game of Modus Florum, the conclusion is clear. The Pharaoh is forced to acknowledge that Ahiqar’s poetic skill is sufficient to create a new story against the will of his listeners. The Pharaoh is delighted with Ahiqar. The Pharaoh gives him tribute not related to the size of the loan claimed in the fabricated letter.

In addition to the freely creative poetry game, the Pharaoh sets for Ahiqar more narrow technical challenges related generally to myth-making and story-telling. Simile set-ups challenge Ahiqar to make mythic figures from the dress of the Pharaoh and his counselors. Creating a castle in the air — the poetic figure that Augustine explicitly disparaged — the Pharaoh sets as a challenge for Ahiqar. A challenge involving the interrupted realism of mares and stallions Ahiqar counters similarly with interrupted realism of a cat and a rooster. Ahiqar solves correctly a this-for-that allegory concerning a pillar and associated items. The story of Ahiqar also includes the fantastic challenges of making a rope of sand and sewing together a broken millstone. These seem to be challenges taken from a literature of labors. Unlike heroes in the literature of labors, Ahiqar resolves his tasks mostly through linguistic creativity.

The Life of Aesop, written about the first century, highlights the poetry game of Modus Florum in adapting the Story of Ahiqar. The Life of Aesop expanded the challenge section relative to other sections in the Story of Ahiqar. It eliminated the rope of sand and the millstone sewing challenges. It moved the poetry game to be the concluding challenge.[9] The Life of Aesop thus concludes the Pharaoh’s challenges with Aesop demonstrating complete verbal mastery of his opponents:

King Nectanebo’s friends lied and said, “We’ve seen this and heard of it many times.” Aesop said, “I’m glad you authenticate it. Let him pay the money on the spot, for the due date is past.” King Nectanebo said, “How can you be witnesses to a debt that I don’t owe?” They {Nectanebo’s friends} said, “We’ve never seen or heard of it.” [10]

Aesop, like Ahiqar, made a new account — one never seen or heard before — despite his opponents’ determination to deny to him that creativity.

Compared to the Story of Ahiqar and the Life of Aesop, Modus Florum presents poetic creativity more artfully. Modus Florum means the song of flowers. It depicts poetic creativity not with a conventional monetary instrument, but with a story that prompts an emotional assertion of truth. It ends with the King and the Swabian becoming family through marriage. That’s story and fundamental human experience.[11]

Languishing for love of you
I arose
at dawn
and made my way
across the snows
and cold,
and searched
the desolate seas
to see if I could find
sails flying in the wind,
or catch sight of the prow
of a ship.

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Update: I’m grateful to Professor Ioannis Konstantakos, a leading authority on the Story of Ahiqar and the Life of Aesop, not just for important work informing this article, but also for corrections to it.


Prologue / epilogue: Psalm 39:2-3. Cambridge Songs 14A, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (1994) p. 69.

[1] Ovid, Amores, 3.6.17: Prodigiosa loquor veterum mendacia vatum, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (1994) p. 219.

[2] Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 2.7: ne subtracto fundamento rei gestae, quasi in aere quaeratis aedificare. Similarly, Sermon 8.1: ne substracto fundamento, in aere velle aedificare videamur (“or else after removing the foundation, we seem to seek to build on air”). On the history of Christian concern not to be building the Christian church in the air, see Lubac (2000) pp. 47-50.

[3] Modus Florum, Cambridge Songs 15, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (1994) p. 71. The subsequent three quotes are from id. Modus Florum is the earliest known tale of the type “Hero forces the Princess to say ‘that is a lie'” (ATU 852, Uther (2004) p. 41). Ziolkowski (1994) p. 218. A broader tale type is “contest in lying” (ATU 1920, Uther (2004) p. 514). The earliest known tale within that type is The Tale of Truth and Falsehood, an Egyptian story attested about 3300 years ago. Konstantakos (2011) pp. 229-30.

[4] The philosopher Eubulides of Miletus (4th century BGC), a pupil of Euclid, formulated the paradox, “A man says: ‘What I am saying now is a lie.'” Better known is the Cretan Epimenides of Knossos (c. 600 BGC). He was said to have composed,” The Cretans, always liars.” That’s echoed in Titus 1:12-3. But Epimenides is described as a figure living before Plato formulated philosophy as a rival of poetry. The context in Epimenides and Titus isn’t paradoxical. Analysis of Epimenides’s statement in relation to paradox is an artifact of eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy.

[5] The phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” is from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817), Ch. XIV.  Coleridge sought to invoke “the dramatic truth of such emotions as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real.” Id.

[6] The contrast in quality between the honey and the peas and locating the royal charter at the hare’s rectum are striking poetic choices. For a brief review of ancient tales of marvels, Konstantakos (2011) p. 230.

[7] Modus Florum begins by presenting itself as a ridiculous trifle:

The lying ballad that I sing,
I will give (highly recommend) to little boys,
so that they may bring great laughter
to listeners through lying little measures of song.

Trans. Ziolkowski (1994) pp. 69, 71. The emphasis on lying seems to me programmatic, and the trivialization of the song, ironic.

[8] Story of Ahiqar, from Syriac trans. Conybeare, Harris & Lewis (1913) p. 119. On dating, id. p. 176. Ahikar is another common spelling for Ahiqar.

[9] The expansion and re-arrangement of the challenges (riddles) are described in Konstantakos (2013) pp. 11-4.

[10] Life of Aesop {Vita Aesopi}, from Greek trans. Lloyd Daly in Hansen (1998) p. 157. Kurke (2011) shows that the Life of Aesop provides important insights into the development of Greek prose from Herodotus in the fifth-century BGC. Modus Florum provides a similarly important perspective for understanding the development of poetry in relation to history.

[11] Modus Florum is not the work of merely a lyrical poet. The author of Modus Florum is closely associated materially, thematically, and stylistically with the author of the medieval Latin poem Modus Liebinc (Cambridge Songs 14), an early poetic version of the story of the snow child. Ziolkowski (1994) p. 219. Modus Liebinc provides forceful critique of unjust paternity attribution and forced fatherhood. Few persons throughout history have found potent means to speak about these continuing, oppressive social injustices.

[image] Photograph by Douglas Galbi.


Conybeare, F. C., J. Rendel Harris, and Agnes Smith Lewis. 1913. The story of Ahikar from the Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Old Turkish, Greek and Slavonic versions. Cambridge: University Press.

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

Konstantakos, Ioannis M. 2011. “Ephippos’ Geryones: A comedy between myth and folktale.” Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae. 51 (3-4): 223-246.

Konstantakos, Ioannis M. 2013. Summary of Akicharos, vol. 3: The Tale of Ahiqar and the Vita Aesopi. Athens: Stigmi Publications.

Kurke, Leslie. 2011. Aesopic conversations: popular tradition, cultural dialogue, and the invention of Greek prose. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Lubac, Henri de. 2000. Medieval exegesis. Vol 2. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans.

Uther, Hans-Jörg. 2004. The types of international folktales: a classification and bibliography, based on the system of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Academia Scientiarum Fennica.

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

rape: a fundamental principle of communication economics

Rape of women has been regarded as a serious offense throughout recorded history. Like violence against men generally, rape of men has been a much less prominent public issue. Today’s highly developed communication media make rape an insightful case study in communication economics. A fundamental principle is readily apparent: public communication highly favors criminalizing men in relation to women.

In 2013 the United Nations conducted a major international survey of violence against women (but not violence against men). The survey asked each man surveyed whether he:

Had sexual intercourse with his partner when he knew she didn’t want it but believed that she should agree because she was his wife/partner. [1]

The United Nations should be able to imagine that some persons understand love to encompass mutual sexual self-sacrifice. Mutual sexual self-sacrifice includes having sex with your spouse/partner, even if you don’t feel like having sex, because you love the other person, and you both understand that love encompasses such sex.

The United Nations defined that kind of love as rape. Moreover, it only surveyed the extent to which men receive such love from women. It produced a report that generated headlines in major newspapers. The Guardian of Britain headlined: “Nearly quarter of men in Asia-Pacific admit to committing rape.”[2] Since the survey was gender asymmetric, there was no risk of labeling a large share of women as rapists.

Bias toward declaring men rapists goes far beyond United Nations bureaucracy and sensational journalism. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a leading expert government agency for public health. It sponsors the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. That survey has repeatedly revealed that men suffer rape about as frequently as women do. That important fact hasn’t been effectively communicated publicly.

One can easily see within the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violent Survey the acute anti-men gender bias in public understanding of rape. That survey provides both lifetime and past-year recall surveys of sexual victimization. Lifetime recall is useful for producing shocking share-of-population statistics for press releases. Past-year recall has less cognitive biases and is more scientifically credible. For factual understanding, lifetime statistics should be ignored in reading the survey results.

The definition of rape greatly affects rape statistics. The survey reports “rape” with three sub-headings: “completed forced penetration,” “attempted forced penetration,” and “completed alcohol- or drug-facilitated penetration.” So, if a man and a woman have a few drinks and then sex, the man, but not the woman, is defined in this categorization as a rapist. Some college sex-victimization experts explicitly support that gender bias in adjudicating actual sex-victimization claims. The survey reports a separate, non-rape category “other sexual violence.” Along with unwanted sexual banter, that category includes a sub-heading “made to penetrate” sexually another person. That’s how men are most frequently raped. That should count as real rape. Not including “made to penetrate” under rape shows anti-men gender bias in reporting rape.

According to the best available evidence, reasonably interpreted, women rape men more frequently than men rape women. For past-year recall, the 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violent Survey shows that 1.7% of men are made to penetrate another sexually. That should count as real rape. Under the survey’s categorization of rape, the past-year recall figures indicate that 1.6% of women are raped.[3] These figures indicate that, even outside of prisons and jails, men are raped more frequently than women are.

The figure for women raped, moreover, is inflated by definition. Within the 1.6% estimate of women raped, 1.0% of women are alcohol/drug-sex raped. By definition, no men can be alcohol/drug-sex raped. That’s completely unreasonable. In addition, women and men commonly engaged in alcohol-facilitated sex. Most persons do not regard such behavior as the man raping the woman. A reasonable, gender-neutral definition of alcohol/drug-sex rape is likely to be much less than 50% of the reported figure. Discounting for alcohol-facilitated consensual sex, the total share of women raped is likely to be less than 1.1%.

According to the best available evidence, reasonably interpreted, women rape men more frequently than men rape women. Regarding the perpetrators of sexual victimization of men, the survey report states:

For male victims, the sex of the perpetrator varied by the type of sexual violence experienced. The majority of male rape victims (an estimated 79.3%) had only male perpetrators. For three of the other forms of sexual violence, a majority of male victims had only female perpetrators: being made to penetrate (an estimated 82.6%), sexual coercion (an estimated 80.0%), and unwanted sexual contact (an estimated 54.7%). [4]

Those figures indicate that 1.4% of men were made to penetrate sexually by a woman perpetrator.[5] That’s higher than the reasonably adjusted share of women that are raped. Just as for women’s violence against men, women raping men generates much less public concern than does men raping women. The facts of rape victimization don’t support that gender disparity in public concern.

Public discussion of rape shows that public communication favors criminalizing men in relation to women. Rape is a crime with severity of punishment just below murder. Yet major newspapers unjustly label a large share of men as rapists. On the expert side of public communication, technical victimization surveys define and report rape in a way that highlights women rape victims and obscures men rape victims.

horse manure smells better than public discussion of rape

Public communication favoring criminalizing men relative to women has effects readily apparent in the incarcerated population. The U.S. currently holds in prisons and jails five times as many persons per capita as other high-income democracies do. Among persons incarcerated, men outnumber women ten to one. Men are no more naturally criminal than they are naturally business and political leaders. The lowliest victims of gender bias are men incarcerated.

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[1] Fulu et al. (2013) p. 20.  The corresponding question for women asked whether she:

Had sexual intercourse when she did not want to because she was afraid of what partner might do

Thus, by the United Nations’ measure, if a woman has sex because she is afraid that her partner will go out drinking with his buddies if she doesn’t, then he has raped her.

[2] Hodal (2013).

[3] Breiding et al. (2014) Table 1, p. 5. Under the survey’s definition of rape, rape of men is too infrequent for a population share to be estimated, given the survey’s sample size. Such rape occurs, but it’s relatively infrequent.

[4] Id. pp. 5-6. Apparently the survey, under its gender-biased definition of rape, was able to estimate sex shares of persons raping men, but not the share of men raped.

[5] The share of men suffering rape from a woman making the man sexually penetrate her is (1.7% men made to penetrate sexually another person) x (82.6% of perpetrators of men made to penetrate sexually are women) = 1.4%. The share of men raped is thus at least 1.4%. To the extent that some share of “completed alcohol- or drug-facilitated” sex is declared to be women raping men, rather than exclusively men raping women, the share of men raped by women is higher than 1.4%.

[image] Horse manure. Photo by Douglas Galbi.


Breiding,  Matthew J.,  Sharon G. Smith, Kathleen C. Basile, Mikel L. Walters, Jieru Chen, Melissa T. Merrick. 2014. “Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Violence, Stalking, and Intimate Partner Violence Victimization — National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, United States, 2011.” Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Surveillance Summaries. September 5, 2014 / 63(SS08):1-18.

Fulu, Emma, Xian Warner, Stephanie Miedema, Rachel Jewkes, Tim Roselli, and James Lang. 2013. Why Do Some Men Use Violence Against Women and How Can We Prevent It? Quantitative Findings from the United Nations Multi-Country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific. Bangkok:  United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), and United Nations Volunteers (UNV).

Hodal, Kate. 2013. “Nearly quarter of men in Asia-Pacific admit to committing rape.” The Guardian (London). Sept. 10.

critical understanding of “lover’s gift regained” story motif

A story motif commonly known as “lover’s gift regained” is widely attested in Europe from the thirteenth century. That motif would be better called “man avoids paying for sex with woman.”[1] The motif transgresses entrenched gender asymmetries in sexual value and reverse commonly observed sex differences in guile. Sparkling amid the stories containing this motif is Decameron VIII.2. Using myth for good, Decameron VIII.2 ends in sexual mutuality and happiness.

Gender inequality in the socially constructed sexual value of men and women is deeply entrenched. Men paying women for sex has been prevalent historically. Women paying men for sex is much more rare. Even with intense public concern for gender equality today, women almost never take the initiative to ask men out, and, if not rejected, pay for dinner and entertainment. That gender inequality supports a society of gender entitlement and privilege.

Some men have temporarily subverted a requirement to pay a woman for sex. Consider a story written in Latin early in the thirteenth century:

A clerk rutted with the wife of a nobleman for the price of his cloak and secretly carried away her pepper-mill. The next day he returned, bringing back the pepper-mill, and in the husband’s presence he said, “Give me back my cloak; I bring back your pepper-mill.” “Give it to him,” the husband said. The wife answered, “I will give it to him, but he will not grind again in our pepper-mill.”[2]

While recognizing the fundamental gender inequality in men being cuckolded, this story shows the clerk to be superior in guile to the nobleman’s wife. The clerk implicitly created the fiction that he had left his cloak with the woman as security when borrowing her pepper-mill. That would explain his ability to request an exchange in the presence of her husband. The clerk’s fiction allowed him to avoid paying for sex with his cloak.

The nobleman’s wife, though tricked in that particular affair, re-affirmed dominant values. Her response allegorically declared that the clerk would not have sex with her again: “he will not grind again in our pepper-mill.” With the pronoun “our,” she underscored the false beliefs associated with cuckoldry. She also affirmed that her having sex with the clerk was contingent on her getting his cloak. The clerk subverted gender inequality in sexual value, but only temporarily.

mortar and pestle as means for lover's gift regained

Giovanni Boccaccio, a great humanist, took the motif “man avoids paying for sex with woman” a step forward. The first story of Decameron Day VIII features this motif. Neifile, the story-teller, was keen to promote belief that men are equal to women in guile. Her story ends with an affirmation that a clever man can have sex with a woman free of charge. That’s the standard conclusion of the motif.

The second story of Decameron Day VIII adds a mythic ending to the “man avoids paying for sex with woman” motif. In this story, the married woman Belcolore demanded five lire for sex with a priest. The priest gave Belcolore his cloak as security for that sex payment. After having sex with her, the priest sent a boy to borrow a stone mortar from Belcolore. In the evening, one of the priest’s assistants returned with the stone mortar. In the presence of Belcolore’s husband, he asked for the priest’s cloak given in security. Belcolore didn’t want to reveal that the cloak was security not for the borrowed mortar, but for payment for sex. She gave up the cloak and sent a coded message to the priest:

you’ll never pound any more sauce in her mortar again, considering how much you honored her with the one you made this time. [3]

That’s a similar ending to the thirteenth-century Latin story. Boccaccio, who knew well the give-and-take of mercantile society, had the priest send to Belcolore in response the message:

tell her if she won’t lend us her mortar, I’m not going to let her have my pestle.

Boccaccio’s story thus endorses the virtue of gender symmetry.

Boccaccio took his story beyond antagonistic gender symmetry. He added a coda:

Belcolore was furious with the Reverend Father and refused to speak to him right up to the grape harvest. Then, however, after the priest threatened to have her taken down and put into the very mouth of Great Lucifer himself, she got good and scared, and made peace with him over some new wine and roasted chestnuts. From then on, they had more than one good guzzle together, and to make up for the five lire, the priest not only had her tambourine re-covered with a new skin, but had a little bell hung on it, and then she was happy. [4]

The tambourine and the little bell figure Belcolore’s buttocks and the priest’s scrotum. In short, Belcolore and the priest enjoyed together food and sex. The priest’s masculine sexuality gained value equal to the monetary sex-payment that Belcolore lost. That’s a wonderfully unusual fairy-tale ending.[5]

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[1] In Thompson’s categorization, “lover’s gift regained” (man avoids paying for sex with woman) is motif K1581.Thompson (1960 ) v. 4, p. 411.

[2] From Latin trans. Benson & Andersson (1971) p. 281. Id. translates subegit as “seduced.” Because “seduced” tends to carry anti-men connotations that subegit doesn’t, I’ve replace “seduced” with “rutted with” above. Id. takes its Latin text from Wright (1846) vol. 1, p. 167. That describes the manuscript only as being at Trinity College, England.

[3] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 8, Story 2, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 602. The subsequent two quotes are from id.

[4] Dominant ideology buttresses depreciation of men’s sexuality by claiming that reversing lack of receptivity to a man’s sexuality is a fantasy. That itself is a fantasy in service of dominant ideology.

[5] A version of the “man avoids paying for sex with woman” motif, as well as dominant sexual values projected into marriage (wife pays her husband for monetary debt by having sex with him) occur in “The Shipman’s Tale” of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Ryner (2008) provides additional examples of “lover’s gift regained” mixed in with fashionable moral posing about “commodity fetishism” (monetary transactions, etc.). Critical energy would be much better directed at the current practice of imprisoning men for having consensual sex and being too poor to pay money to women for that sex.

[image] Mortar and pestle made by the Nisenan Maidu of California. Photo © Justin Smith / Wikimedia Commons, CC-By-SA-3.0.


Benson, Larry D., and Theodore M. Andersson. 1971. The literary context of Chaucer’s fabliaux: texts and translations. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

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

Ryner, Bradley D. 2008. “Commodity Fetishism in Richard Brome’s A Mad Couple Well Matched and its Sources.” Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3.

Thompson, Stith. 1960. Motif-index of folk-literature; a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Wright, Thomas. 1846. Essays on subjects connected with the literature, popular superstitions and history of England in the Middle Ages. London: John Russell Smith and Adlard Printers.