rape of men about as prevalent as rape of women

The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) found that 1.1% of non-incarcerated men were forced to have sex with another person in the past year.  Defining rape victimization with the gender-neutral concept of being forced to have sex (including being “made to penetrate”), NISVS found that 1.1% of men and 1.1% of women were raped in the past year among persons outside of jails and prisons.[1]  When is the last time you heard that roughly equal numbers of non-incarcerated men and women are raped?  When is that last time you heard any concern about rape of men?

tree rotten to core

Men being forced to have sex by being forced to penetrate sexually is scarcely recognized.  Before 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) definition of rape explicitly limited rape to rape of females.  The UCR apparently now includes as rape men being made to penetrate.  Making that inclusion explicit is clearly needed for clarification.  The major, annual, government-administered National Crime Victimization Survey doesn’t ask about men being forced to penetrate.  NISVS asked men about being forced to penetrate, but NISVS didn’t include men being forced to penetrate under the category rape.  NISVS pretended that men being forced to have sex with their penises isn’t real rape.  That’s gender bigotry like surveys labeling men, and only men, as rapists in circumstances of true love.

NISVS buried the facts about rape of men.  The executive summery of NISVS’s summary report listed as its first key finding:

Nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives, including completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration. [2]

These statistics don’t include men “made to penetrate” sexually another persons.  NISVS found a lifetime prevalence of men raped in that way to be 4.8%.[3]  Moreover, NISVS asked participants to recall sexual victimization across their whole lifetime and across the past year.  Lifetime recall is much more likely to be faulty and biased than past-year recall.  For example, regretted sex can be rationalized over time in memory as drunken sex.  NISVS classifies drunken hetero-sex as rape of the woman.  The best, non-gender-biased rape measure from NISVS is that 1.1% of women and 1.1% of men were raped in the past year.  Those key statistical findings are nowhere compellingly communicated in the NISVS summary report.  The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention administered NISVS and publicly reported its results.  Burying the facts about rape of men shows anti-men bias shaping public communication of an expert, government agency.

Anti-men bigotry combines with farce in a recent scholarly article.  The scholarly article, entitled “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions,” was published in the prestigious American Journal of Public Health.  It begins thus:

The sexual victimization of women was ignored for centuries.  Although it remains tolerated and entrenched in many pockets of the world, feminist analysis has gone a long way toward revolutionizing thinking about the sexual abuse of women, demonstrating that sexual victimization is rooted in gender norms and is worthy of social, legal, and public health intervention. [4]

This article doesn’t begin with concern about sexual victimization of men in America.  It begins gynocentrically.  A similar rhetorical strategy shapes the introduction to a scholarly article exploring the much neglected topic of men suffering much higher injury mortality than women, including men suffering a death rate from violence 4.1 times higher than that of women.  Here, the scholarly article’s first sentence is simply preposterous.  Sexual victimization of women has been of intense concern across all of recorded history.  False accusation of rape has been of intense concern across all of recorded history until recent decades.  The history of concern about false accusations of raping a woman makes no sense without parallel concern about raping women.

Acknowledging the reality of rape apparently isn’t possible without working earnestly to support entrenched discursive interests.  The scholarly article observes:

The survey {NISVS} found that men and women had a similar prevalence of nonconsensual sex in the previous 12 months (1.270 million women and 1.267 million men).  This remarkable finding challenges stereotypical assumptions about the gender of victims of sexual violence.  However unintentionally, the CDC’s publications and the media coverage that followed instead highlighted female sexual victimization, reinforcing public perceptions that sexual victimization is primarily a women’s issue. {bolding added to original text} [5]

Highlighting female sexual victimization was no more unintentional than is marketing stories with understanding of market demand.  Female victimization attracts massive attention.  No one wants to hear about male victimization.

Entrenched discursive interests are readily apparent in the scholarly article.  With standard academic cant, the article declares:

We have interrogated some of the stereotypes concerning gender and sexual victimization, and we call for researchers to move beyond them.  First, we question the assumption that feminist theory requires disproportionate concern for female victims. [6]

The article’s first concern is what feminist theory requires.  Why should anyone care about requirements of feminist theory, as defined by the ruling feminist theoreticians?  Elites today care, because if they don’t confirm their allegiance to feminist theory, they will be expunged from mainstream public discourse.  The article concludes with a declaration worthy of feminist theory:

Finally, a gender-conscious analysis of sexual victimization as it affects both women and men is needed and is not inconsistent with a gender-neutral approach to defining abuse.  Indeed, masculinized dominance and feminized subordination can take place regardless of the biological sex or sexual orientation of the actors. [7]

Biological sex or sexual orientation shouldn’t be relevant to concern for human suffering.  While discounting those irrelevant factors, the article maps sexual victimization onto “masculinized dominance” and “feminized subordination.”   The difference between hating men and hating masculinity is worse than splitting hairs.  It’s chopping penises.  “Masculinized dominance” and “feminized subordination” are worse abstractions than “feminized dominance” and “masculinized subordination.”  The latter provides a better metaphor for reality today.

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[1] Basile et al. (2011) pp. 18-9, Tables 2.1 and 2.2.  These results are based on non-incarcerated persons’ statements about sexual victimization in response to survey questions.  They are not findings of rape under criminal law.  Rape in NISVS includes “completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration.”  The statistics cited above add to the NISVS “rape” category the sexual violence of men “made to penetrate” sexually another person.

[2] Id. p. 1.  NISVS did not survey incarcerated persons.  Men are highly disproportionately represented among incarcerated persons.  Incarcerated persons suffer a much higher prevalence of sexual violence.  If incarcerated men are appropriately recognized as “men in the United States,” rape of men is considerably higher than the NISVS statistics indicate.

[3] Id. p. 19, Table 2.2.

[4] Stemple & Meyer (2014) p. e19.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. p. e20.

[7] Id. p. e25.  The article pursues “intersectional approaches.”  Intersectional approaches detract attention from the fact that black men, Hispanic men, low-income men, mentally ill men, gay men, disabled men, and homeless men are all men.  Consider, for example, this statement:

Because the United States disproportionately incarcerates Black, Hispanic, low-income, and mentally ill persons, accounting for the experience of the incarcerated population will help researchers and policymakers better understand the intersecting factors that lead to the sexual victimization of already marginalized groups.

Id. p. e25.  The article thus fails to mention that men are highly disproportionately incarcerated.  About ten times more men are currently held in U.S. prisons and jails relative to women there.  Gender-biased understandings of crime, such as gender-biased understanding of the crime of rape, contribute to the highly disproportionate incarceration of men.


Basile, Kathleen C., Michele C. Black, Matthew Joseph Breiding, Jieru Chen, Melissa T. Merrick, Sharon G. Smith, Mark R. Stevens, and Mikel L. Walters. 2011. National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010 summary report. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention.

Stemple, Lara, and Ilan H. Meyer. 2014. “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions.” American Journal of Public Health. 104 (6): e19-e26.


Juvenal’s Satire 6 is no longer laughing matter

In his Satire 6, the Roman poet Juvenal (sounds like juvenile) criticizes marriage and women.  Even worse, he’s an extremist.  Juvenal ridicules marriage and women extremely.  Juvenal’s Satire 6 has nothing like the personal abuse that Warner heaps on the monk Moriuht in an eleventh-century Norman Latin text (“you plant kisses on  her buttocks. … keep your gums moist with shit.”).  Juvenal’s Satire 6 doesn’t describe vicious physical violence like the violence against men in medieval French fabliaux.  Juvenal’s Satire 6 doesn’t disparage women’s genitals like fabliaux disparage men’s penises.  The main point of Juvenal’s Satire 6 is to dissuade his friend Postumus from marrying.  Juvenal declares early in the satire:

And yet, in our day and age, are you preparing an agreement and contract and wedding vows?  Are you already having your hair combed by a master barber and have you perhaps already given her finger your pledge?  Well, you used to be sane, all right.  Postumus, are you really getting married? [1]

The satire ends with references to how wives kill their husbands — double-headed axes, knives, poisons, etc.  Juvenal failed to dissuade his friend Postumus from marrying.  Postumus (sounds like posthumous) apparently died.  Today readers tend to be more comfortable with men’s deaths than with Juvenal’s satire of marriage and women.

old hinny (offspring of female donkey and male horse)

Juvenal’s Satire 6 begins with an ironic description of a primitive, golden age.  It’s a time of pastoral cold, constraint, stink, gloom, viciousness, and ugliness:

the era when a chilly cave provided a tiny home, enclosing the fire and hearth god and herd and its owner in communal gloom, when a mountain wife made her woodland bed with leaves and straw and the skins of her neighbors, the beasts. … she offered her paps for her hefty babies to drain, and she was often more unkempt than her acorn-belching husband. [2]

At least that acorn-belching man wasn’t dead or forcibly separated from his children.  Moreover, the mountain woman didn’t rape the man like the mountain woman did the Archbishop of Hita, lost and looking for directions in the countryside.  And even if she had raped him, he probably wouldn’t have had to pay child support like raped men do today.

Juvenal had great appreciation for women’s strong, independent sexuality.  From the introductory theme of chastity, Juvenal moves on to describe the “moment of pure Woman”:

The shout is repeated in unison from the entire grotto: “Now’s the time! Send in the men!”  If her lover’s asleep, she’ll tell his son to put on his hood and hurry along.  If that’s no good, there’s an assault on the slaves.  If there’s no prospect of slaves available, they’ll pay the water delivery man to come in.  If they can’t find him and there’s a deficit of humans, not a moment passes before she voluntarily offers her arse to be tupped by a donkey. [3]

Juvenal’s reference to a donkey reconfigures the donkey figure in Semonides of Argos’ bestiary of women, written more than 2500 years ago:

Another type is from a drab, gray ass;

She’ll do her work all right, and won’t complain;
but then she eats all day, all night — she eats
everything in sight, in every room.
And when it comes to sex, she’s just as bad;
she welcomes any man that passes by. [4]

While male donkeys readily mate with female horses to produce mules, female donkeys are much less willing to mate with male horses.  But human sexuality is socially constructed to be different from animal sexuality.  Any statement indicating, by what is said or what is not said, that male sexuality is different from female sexuality is essentially sexist and must be forcefully suppressed.  Female sexuality should be understood as the same as male sexuality, only stronger and more independent, because it’s always been suppressed.

While men’s sexuality has never been suppressed, men have had their testicles cut off.  Some men today geld themselves in the hope that doing so will make today’s ideal woman favor them more.  Juvenal indicates that such a strategy worked for some men in ancient Rome:

Some women are delighted by un-macho eunuchs with their ever gentle kisses and their unfulfilled beard — and there’s no need to use abortion drugs.  The height of their pleasure is when a crotch that’s already ripe with the blood of youth and its black quill is taken to visit the surgeons.  So it is that the testicles are allowed to drop and told to grow first and then, once they make two pounds in weight, Heliodorus {a surgeon} tears them off, to the loss of the barber and no one else.  … You can let him sleep with his mistress, Postumus, but don’t entrust your Bromius to a eunuch when he’s no longer soft and needs a haircut. [5]

The mature eunuch with the heavy equipment would be too big for Postumus’ boy-friend Bromius, but not too big for Postumus’ wife, who probably also enjoys donkeys.  Men, unless you are gifted with two-pound testicles and hung like a donkey, don’t allow your testicles to be torn off to satisfy women’s demands for un-macho eunuchs.

The idea that Roman men enjoyed reading to each other work like Juvenal’s Satire 6 is laughable.  Juvenal probably wrote his satires about the year 100, but they were largely unknown until the fourth century.[6]  Work like Juvenal’s Satire 6 discomforts men much more than it does women.  Juvenal wrote:

I’m making all this up, am I, letting satire put on tragic high heels?  I’ve exceeded the legal limits of my predecessors and I’m ranting with rotundity worthy of Sophocles a grand song that’s new to the Rutulian hills and the Latin sky?  If only this were really nonsense! [7]

Juvenal’s Satire 6 became widely read only with historical distance.  That Juvenal’s Satire 6 isn’t widely read today is deeply troubling.

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[1] Juvenal, Satire 6, ll. 25-8, from Latin trans. Braund (2004) p. 235.  All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are trans. id.  Translations of Juvenal’s Satire 6 are available online by A.S. Kline (2011) and by G.G. Ramsay (1918).  Courtney (1980), a massive commentary on Juvenal’s satires, is fully available online.  Braund (1992) points out that Juvenal’s primary orientation in Satire 6 is dissuading men from marriage, not attacking perceived faults of women.  Augustus’ laws encouraging marriage suggests that elite Roman men were reluctant to marry.

[2] Id., ll. 2-7, 11-13.

[3] Id. ll. 328-334.

[4] Semonides of Argos, Catalog of Women, ll. 42, 45-9, from Greek trans. Diane Arnson Svarlien (1995).   Here’s an alternate translation by Wm. Blake Tyrrell.  With an insightful analysis of this poem, Konstan (2014) concludes:

Semonides’ poem is less a critique of the vices of wives than a satire on the fatuousness of husbands.

That understanding is similar to one wave of literary analysis of Boccaccio’s Corbaccio.

[5] Juvenal, Satire 6, ll. 366-78.

[6] Braund (2004), introduction, p. 29.

[7] Id. ll. 634-8.  After much academic posturing and positioning, Toscano (2013) challenges the “settled view of Attic Greek male homosociality that was entirely blind to or unmoved by female desire.”  If only this wasn’t really nonsense!  Id., p. 35, romantically concludes:

Though it is difficult to penetrate the inscrutable gazes of the figures in Attic vase paintings, nevertheless, in the spaces in between them — in the gap between possibility and fulfillment — may be caught a fleeting glimpse of female desire.

In more enlightened times, female desire was well-recognized.

[image] Old hinny (offspring of female donkey and male horse) in Oklahoma, U.S.  Thanks to Ragesoss and Wikipedia.


Braund, Susanna H. 1992. “Juvenal — Misogynist or Misogamist?” The Journal of Roman Studies. 82: 71-86.

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

Courtney, Edward. 1980.  A Commentary on the Satires of Juvenal. California Classical Studies 2 (2013 reprint). Berkeley, CA.

Konstan, David. 2014. “Laughing at Ourselves: Gendered Humor in Classical Greece.”  In Anna Foka and Jonas Liliequist, eds. Humour, Gender and Laughter Across Times and Cultures. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.

Toscano, Margaret M. 2013. “The Eyes Have It: Female Desire on Attic Greek Vases.” Arethusa. 46 (1): 1-40.

Wednesday’s flowers

flower stuck in fence

Frate Alberto, Filostrato, and Mary: ways of love

In Day 4 of the Decameron, the story of Frate Alberto displays extraordinary viciousness.  Filostrato in the preface to that story complained, “every hour of my life I die a thousand deaths without ever having received even a tiny morsel of pleasure.”[1]  He ordered Pampinea to tell “some savage tale that partly resembles my own predicament.”  Pampinea prefaced her story with a savage attack on the clergy.  She concluded her attack by declaring “may it please God that what happened to a Franciscan should happen to them {the clergy} on account of all their lies.”  The Franciscan, Frate Alberto, suffered brutalization.  He was smeared with honey, covered with feathers, had a chain put around his neck, and was publicly displayed for verbal and physical abuse.  He then was incarcerated.  Frate Alberto spent the rest of his life in utter misery.  Pampinea proclaimed that it will give her “the greatest pleasure” to tell the story of Frate Alberto.[2]  She concluded her story of Frate Alberto with a curse, “May it please God that the same thing should befall all the others like him.”

angel Gabriel greets Mary

The story of Frate Alberto, like many stories in the Decameron, describes guile and deception in sexual activity.  Hearing the confession of the married woman Madonna Lisetta, Frate Alberto asked her, unprompted, whether she had a lover.  That’s improper.  Madonna Lisetta responded with a declaration of chastity supported by extreme vanity:

Hey, Messer Friar, don’t you have eyes in your head?  Do you think my charms are just like everybody else’s?  I could have lovers to spare if I wanted, but my kind of beauty is not something for just anybody who happens to be attracted to it.  How many women have you seen whose good looks are anything like mine?  Why, I’d be counted a beauty even in Paradise.

Frate Alberto’s response figured passionate love as inversely related to personal merit:

Frate Alberto saw immediately that this one {Madonna Lisetta} was something of an idiot, and since she seemed like good soil for him to plow, he fell passionately in love with her then and there.

Frate Alberto subsequently told Madonna Lisetta that the angel Gabriel appeared to him, declared her “celestial beauty,” and ordered him to convey a message to her:

he’s sent me to inform you that he wants to come one night and spend time in your company, and because he’s an angel and you would not be able to touch him in that form, he says that for your pleasure he would like to come in the form of a man.  Therefore, you should let him know when you want him to be here and in whose shape, and he’ll do it.

Angels typically act as God’s messengers.  In this story, Madonna Lisetta employed Frate Alberto to send a message to the angel Gabriel about how he could best serve her sexual preferences.  Emphasizing her estrangement from personal reality, she expressed no preferences about the male body angel Gabriel will incarnate for her.  Frate Alberto then reasoned about costs and benefits to her:

you can do me a great favor that will cost you nothing, namely, you should have him use this body of mine when he comes to you.  Let me explain how you’ll be doing me a favor: the moment he enters my body, he’s going to remove my soul and place it in Paradise, where it will remain for as long as he’s down here with you.

Madonna Lisetta readily agreed to that favor.  Frate Alberto, dressed in angelic gewgaws, thus repeatedly enjoyed carnal intercourse with Madonna Lisetta.

The story leads to an extremely unhappy end for Frate Alberto.  Although she had promised secrecy, Madonna Lisetta eventually bragged to a lady friend about her affair with the angel Gabriel.  The lady friend spread that amusing gossip around town.  Madonna Lisetta’s in-laws soon caught her and Frate Alberto in bed.  Frate Alberto escaped with a leap from a high window into a river.  However, subsequently duped into playing the part of a wild man in a carnival, Frate Alberto was exposed, brutalized, and incarcerated.  The story describes no punishment for Madonna Lisetta.  Frate Alberto’s crime was having sex by means of an absurd delusion, like the delusion that a woman will stay young and beautiful forever, without makeup.

The story of Frate Alberto is more than just a story of sexual deception and vicious punishment of the man.  The story of Frate Alberto reconfigures the Christian story of incarnation.  In the Christian story of incarnation, the angel Gabriel came to Mary, who was engaged to Joseph.  The angel Gabriel told Mary that she had found favor with God.  The angel Gabriel told her that God would come to her and impregnate her.  She would become pregnant with a son.[3]  Is Frate Alberto’s story more ridiculous than the Christian story of Mary of Nazareth?  Was Boccaccio formally ridiculing a fundamental Christian belief?

Boccaccio wasn’t the first to present a story like the Christian story of incarnation.  The historian Flavius Josephus told the story of Mundus and Paulina.  Carrying out a scheme for Mundus, the eldest priest of the Temple of Isis in Rome informed Paulina that the god Anubis had fallen in love with her and wanted to have sex with her.  She came to the temple and had sex with Mundus, disguised as the god Anubis.[4]  In the Alexander romance, the last Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo fled Egypt and came to Macedonian.  He told Alexander the Great’s mother Olympias that she must have sex with the god Ammon incarnated as a serpent.  Disguised as that incarnation of Ammon, Nectanebo repeatedly had sex with Olympias.[5]  Boccaccio apparently read Josephus in Latin translation.[6]  He also knew the Alexander romance.  Boccaccio wrote that Alexander would have been more admirable if he hadn’t claimed that his mother had sex with “Jupiter” disguised as a serpent.[7]

Attending to the narrative framework transforms understanding of the story of Frate Alberto.  Filostrato ruled Day 4.  His name has the Greek etymology “lover of war.”  Frustrated with his rejection in love, Filostrato ordered stories of love leading to unhappiness.  To his companions, gathered in a refuge from the plague to enjoy imaginative pleasure, Filostrato explained:

Loving ladies, ever since I could distinguish good from evil, it has been my misfortune, because of the beauty possessed by one of your number, to be perpetually enslaved to love.  I have been humble and obedient and followed his rules, to the extent that I understood them, but all to no avail, for first I would be abandoned for another lover, and then things would always go from bad to worse for me — and I think they will continue to do so from now on until the day I die.  Consequently, it is my pleasure that the subject for us to talk about tomorrow should be none other than the one that fits my situation best, namely, those whose love came to an unhappy end.  For I myself expect a most unhappy one in the long run, and that is the reason why the name you use to address me was conferred on me by someone who certainly knew what it meant.[8]

Filostrato is an Ulrich von Liechtenstein, a Suero de Quinones, and an Elliot Rodgers, all of whom needed professional helpTrue love doesn’t lead to slavery, violence, and an unhappy end.

Providing a shining counterpoint to Filostrato, Boccaccio inserted in the introduction to Day 4 a vigorous, first-person affirmation of true love.  The imagined author of the Decameron declared:

no one can justly say anything about me or any of the others who love you except that we are acting naturally.  In order to oppose the laws of Nature, one has to have exceptional powers,and they are often employed not only in vain, but to to the greatest harm of the person who makes use of them.  Such strength I confess I lack, nor do I have any desire to acquire it for such a purpose.  In fact, even if I did possess it, I would lend it to others rather than use it myself.  Therefore, let my detractors be silent, and if they cannot find any warmth in themselves, let them live in their cold rancor, and while they pursue their own delights, or rather, their corrupt appetites, may they allow me to pursue mine during the brief life that is granted to us.[9]

Frate Alberto and Madonna Lisetta incarnated narrow, selfish love: corrupt appetites.[10]  Their story is narrated via Pampinea’s and Filostrato’s cold rancor.  The Christian story of Mary describes love incarnate joyously making God greater.  That, for Boccaccio, was love according to the laws of Nature.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 4, story 2, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 319.  All subsequent quotes from the story of Frate Alberto are from id. pp. 319-329.

[2] Pampinea included nasty characterizations not necessary to carry the plot.  She referred to Madonna Lisetta as a “frivolous, empty-headed young lady.”  She also called Madonna Lisetta names: Lady Pumpkinhead, Madonna Simple, and Madonna Noodlepate.  She described Frate Alberto as “a pimp, a forger, and a murderer.”  That’s characterization far beyond the story of a guileful seducer.  She declared that Berto della Massa, who became Frate Alberto, moved to “Venice, that receptacle of every sort of filth.”

[3] Luke 1:26-38.

[4] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.4.  The context in Josephus (immediately following his account of Jesus) and a fourth-century description of the text suggests that Josephus was mocking the Christian story of incarnation.  Bell (1976).

[5] Alexander Romance, Bk I.1-7, from Greek trans. Stoneman (1991) pp. 35-41.  A story of a man pretending to be an eminent religious figure in order to be accepted as a woman’s lover exists in an early eighteenth-century collection of Persians tales translated into French.  See François Pétis de La Croix, Les Mille et un jours (1710-1712), Days 109-115 (Historie de Malek).  In that story, the man pretends to the be the prophet of Islam.  A nineteenth-century English translation of the story (“The story of Malek and the Princess Schirine”) changed the religious figure to the King of the Genii.

[6] Kirkham, Sherberg & Smarr (2013) pp. 334, 340.

[7] Id. p. 243, citing Boccaccio, Genealogia deorum gentilium (On the Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles) 13.7.

[8] Decameron, Day 3, Conclusion, trans. Rebhorn (2013) pp. 296-7.  Id, note, and id. p. lxxviii states that Boccaccio thought that Filostrato means “he who is cast down or overcome by love.”  In the broad context of the Decameron, Boccaccio seems to me to have only pretended to be certain of that wrong etymology.

[9] Decameron, Day 4, Introduction, trans. id. p. pp. 306-7.

[10] Marcus (1979) focuses on Frate Alberto’s transgression:

Frate Alberto’s transgression is more than sexual. … When we examine the particular mode of the friar’s misconduct, we learn that his crime is a literary one — that he has appropriated for his own selfish uses the unique poetic strategies of Scriptures.

Separating “unique poetic strategies of Scripture” from myth-making generally is inconsistent with Boccaccio’s general approach to myth.  Gittes (2008).  In addition to uncritically accepting the story’s sexual balance of fault, Marcus (1979) doesn’t recognize the broader narrative connections of the story of Frate Alberto within and beyond the Decameron.

[image] Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo, Annunciation (angel Gabriel’s message to Mary), Spain, 1655.  Held in Hermitage Museum.  Thanks to Enrique Cordero and Wikipedia.


Bell, Albert A. 1976. “Josephus the Satirist? A Clue to the Original Form of the ‘Testimonium Flavianum.’” The Jewish Quarterly Review. 67 (1): 16-22.

Gittes, Tobias Foster. 2008. Boccaccio’s naked muse: eros, culture, and the mythopoeic imagination. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kirkham, Victoria, Michael Sherberg, and Janet Levarie Smarr, eds. 2013. Boccaccio: a critical guide to the complete works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Marcus, Millicent. 1979. “The Accommodating Frate Alberto: a Gloss on Decameron IV, 2.” Italica. 56 (1): 3-21.

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

Stoneman, Richard, trans. 1991. Pseudo-Callisthenes. The Greek Alexander Romance. London, England: Penguin Books.


physical size and voice pitch: biology of physical versus social advantage

silverback gorilla

Among non-human primates, females compete physically and aggressively.  For example, pairs of female chimpanzees have been observed snatching and eating other females’ infants.[1]  Females killing other females’ infants, while discussed much less than male infanticide in the scholarly literature, has been observed in over 50 species.[2]  Females also engage in group physical aggression:

In social primates, aggressive exchanges often involve kin of the principal protagonists. In vervet monkeys, adult females who have been displaced from food sources may seek out and attack their displacer’s relatives. In macaques, members of different matrilineal groups ally with each other and individuals that have been displaced or attacked by members of another matriline commonly respond by attacking a vulnerable member of the aggressor’s matriline. [3]

The general understanding that females are less physically aggressive than males is true for humans.[4]  But that’s not true for all female animals.

Human adult males on average are larger than human adult females.  Across twenty-two small-scale societies for which data are available, a man is typically 7.4 kg heavier and 10.7 cm taller than a woman.[5]  That means in a direct physical confrontation, all else equal, a man is likely to have an advantage over a woman.  Humans are highly social, highly communicative animals.  Communication is valuable for organizing and coordinating coalitions and prevailing in conflicts.[6]  In conflicts between multi-party antagonists, women’s communicative superiority to men becomes more important.

Men’s larger physical size relative to women has a communicative cost.  A larger vocal organ makes a lower frequency sound.  Across animal species, lower frequency sounds are associated with competition for dominance and hostile interactions.  Higher frequency sounds cause less distress and are more associated with affiliative behavior.[7]  Men on average have much lower pitch voices than women do.[8]  This sex dimorphism in vocal pitch implies that, all else equal, both women and men prefer supportive communication with women.  In societies in which persons predominately value and remember how persons made them feel, women’s higher average voice pitch is a biological advantage.

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[1] Pusey, Williams & Goodall (1997).  High-status female chimpanzees have significantly greater reproductive success than low-ranking female chimpanzees.

[2] Digby (2000) p. 429.

[3] Clutton-Brock & Parker (1995) p. 211.

[4] Archer (2004) pp. 302-5.

[5] Calculated using data in Walker et al. (2006), Tables 2 and 3.  Given values calculated based on the median of sex ratios, evaluated at median male figures (weight 55.6 kg, height 158.5 cm). As id., p. 305, notes, male growth rates are less plastic across societies.

[6] Owings & Morton (1998), pp. 101-4, discusses vocal communication as a substitute for fighting with large muscle movements.

[7] Id. pp. 105-25.  Puts, Gaulin & Verdolini (2006).

[8] An average value for the fundamental frequency of human speech is 120 Hz for men and 210 Hz for women. At the fundamental frequencies, this difference amounts to about 10 semitones. The standard deviation for male and female fundamental voice frequencies is about 3 semitones. Traunmüller (1995) p. 1.  In ordinary life, adult voice pitch is a good sex determinant.


Archer, John. 2004. “Sex Differences in Aggression in Real-World Settings: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Review of General Psychology 8(4): 291-322.

Clutton-Brock, T. H. and G. A. Parker. 1995. “Punishment in animal societies.” Nature 373: 209-216.

Digby, Leslie. 2000. “Infanticide by female mammals: implications for the evolution of social systems.” Pp. 423-65 in Carel P. Van Schaik and Charles H. Janson, eds. Infanticide by males and its implications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Owings, Donald H. and Eugene S. Morton. 1998. Animal vocal communication: a new approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pusey, Anne, Jennifer Williams and Jane Goodall. 1997. “The Influence of Dominance Rank on the Reproductive Success of Female Chimpanzees.” Science 277(5327): 828-831.

Puts, Andrew David, Steven J.C. Gaulin and Katherine Verdolini. 2006. “Dominance and the evolution of sexual dimorphism in human voice pitch.” Evolution and Human Behavior 27: 283-296.

Traunmüller, Hartmut and Anders Eriksson. 1995. “The frequency range of the voice fundamental in the speech of male and female adults.”

Walker, Robert, Michael Gurven, Kim Hill, Andrea Migliano, Napoleon Chagnon, Roberta De Souza, Gradimir Djurovic, Raymond Hames, A. Magdalen Hurtado, Richard Kaplan, Karen Kramer, William J. Oliver, Claudia Valeggia and Taro Yamauchi. 2006. “Growth Rates and Life Histories in Twenty-Two Small-Scale Societies.” American Journal of Human Biology 18: 295-311.


Baghdad to Rouen: Warner’s cosmopolitan literary ambition

About the year 1000, eastern Eurasia arguably had a higher level of social development than western Eurasia.  Moreover, within western Eurasia, Normandy was then far from the leading centers of civilization.  The largest cities in western Eurasia about the year 1000 were Córdoba, Constantinople, and Baghdad.  The largest had a population about 200,000.  London then had a population of less than 25,000.[1]  Rouen, the leading city of Normandy, had much less developed culture than London.  Yet Warner, writing in Rouen early in the eleventh century, produced poetry that measures up to the outrageous urbanity of leading Abbasid literary provocateurs.  The only plausible reason for Warner and others producing big-city work in a remote, small town is cosmopolitan literary ambition.

wild man like Moriuht

One of Warner’s poems is a satirical Latin poem concerning an Irishman named Moriuht.  Warner dedicated this poem to Archbishop Robert of Rouen and the Archbishop’s mother.  This poem isn’t the sort of work one now might imagine being written for a leading cleric and his mother.  The poem declares:

This slow-witted Moriuht, named from the origin of death, … in his own eyes lives as a grammarian.  Scholar, rhetorician, geometer, painter, scribe — let him be all things to you; for me he is Caper himself!  For he knows more about his own goat’s cunt than what force dialectic carries, or the nature of geometry’s power. [2]

The phrase “scholar, rhetorician, geometer, painter, scribe” is a quote from a Roman satire of Juvenal, written about 900 years earlier.[3]  The phrase “let him be all things to you” plausibly parodies 1 Corithinians 9:22.   The word caper means “a stinking, randy goat.”  It was also the proper name of a second-century grammarian.[4]  These learned references contrast sharply with the reference to “his own goat’s cunt.”

Moriuht overflows with sexual activity.  Vikings capture Moriuht, piss on his bald head, and anally rape him.  Moriuht is then sold to nuns.  He vigorously and promiscuously services sexually the nuns.  People catch Moriuht having sex with a nun, beat him, and sell him as a slave to a widow.  Moriuht then vigorously has sex with the widow.  He earns his freedom through that work.  While searching for his wife, who was also captured by Vikings, Moriuht has sex with “countless young men, nuns, widows, and married women.”[5]  Moriuht was a man of strong, independent, transgressive sexuality.  Celebrating such sexuality in learned writing isn’t a modern academic development.

Warner’s poem attacks Moriuht’s merits as a poet.  The poem includes insults directly addressed to Moriuht:

Your mistress {the widow} held you dear because of the performance of your dangling penis. This man {Virgil} was valued in Rome for the beauty of his poetry.  He earned his lands because of the nobility of his great verse.  You gained your liberty by fucking her stiffly erect clitoris.

Contrasting Virgil’s poetry with fucking would be unusual in any discourse.  It’s particularly amazing to find in eleventh-century Norman Latin poetry.  While the poem describes Moriuht’s verses as “worthy of little pages made of shit,” is also links such crude insults to sophisticated technical discussion of poetic meter:

You goat!  May you completely eat the cunt of your nanny-goat and, in equal measure, her sexual organs and her buttocks, before the wise poems of our Virgil disappear and before {the syllables} “fo” and “mo” have two tempora {poetic beats}, as well as {the syllable} “fex.” [6]

What did the Archbishiop and his mother think of this?  In addition to coarsely presented sexual activity, Moriuht also includes sacrifices to heathen gods that succeed in producing magical effects.  Who would have appreciated such learned, scurrilous, blasphemous writing in eleventh-century Rouen?

While some Baghdadi sophisticates cherished such writing, Rouen was far from Baghdad.  In the twelfth century, an English chronicler writing a history of Normandy declared that, prior to about 1042, “scarcely any Norman spent his time in liberal studies.”  The chronicler observed:

the Normans, who issuing from Denmark were more addicted to the pursuit of arms than of learning, and up to the time of William the Bastard {1066} devoted themselves to war rather than reading or writing books. [7]

The English chronicler in part seems to be putting forward a claim that post-Norman-conquest England conquered her rude conqueror culturally.[8]  But to be effective such a claim must have been at least plausible.  Careful study of eleventh-century Latin culture at Rouen indicates that “the court at Rouen was by no means an artistic desert.”[9]   Moriuht makes sense as a niche product within a highly developed social-cultural field.   The court at Rouen surely was not such a field.

Moriuht’s manuscript context suggests little interest in the work, but provides closely related poems.  Moriuht survives in a codex written in Caroline minuscule, probably late in the eleventh century in eastern France, perhaps in Metz.  The contents of the codex:

  • 1  blank flyleaf
  • {missing} toponymic work: “provinces, jurisdictions, mountains, rivers”
  • {missing} Vita et actus Tirii Apolonii (Appollonius, King of Tyre)
  • 2r-9r  Warner, Moriuht
  • 9r-11v  Warner, Runaway Monk, a satiric verse dialogue between Warner and a runway monk of Mont-Saint-Michel
  • 11v-27r Pseudo-Plautus, Querolus (a comedy composed in Gaul c. 400)
  • 28r-30r anonymous, satiric, dialogic poem Jezebel
  • 30r-32r anonymous, satiric, dialogic poem Semiramis
  • 33r-33v text describing rules for making organ-pipes
  • 34r-34v blank, except for table of contents written in the 14th century [10]

The missing works, which are listed in the table of contents, apparently were cut away from an earlier binding of the codex.[11]  A note added to the table of contents declares: “They were robbed and cut away by perverse and iniquitous people.”[12]  Moriuht, Jezebel, and Semiramis have survived only in this codex.  Those works apparently were rarely re-copied and weren’t useful or interesting enough to steal.  Moreover, the disparate bundle of works in the codex suggests cultural circumstances in which highly sophisticated literary works were rare.

Moriuht, Runaway Monk, Jezebel, and Semiramis are closely associated, learned literary works.  Consider some lines from Jezebel:

Whence do you come, Jezebel? – From the foul prison of Babel-Babylon.

What do you have to do with Nazareth? — Much, for my bush is in bloom.
Why have your buttocks swollen? — From a sow’s udder.
What power keeps you laughing? — Practice as a prostitute.
For what do you search above all? — Priapus, in a hundred whorehouses.
What do you seek constantly? — To be mounted, pressed down.
What do you desire least? — People chaste in body. [13]

Like Moriuht, Jezebel couples coarse sexual explicitness with academic allusiveness.  For example, the Latinization of Nazareth means flower.  The word for bush resonates with vagina and the sumac bush, which was believed to constrain heavy menstruation.[14]  Moriuht, Runaway Monk, Jezebel, and Semiramis casually invoke pagan gods and acts blasphemous to Christians.  All four feature poetically sophisticated dialogue in leonine hexameters.  Moriuht and Runaway Monk contain dedications identifying their authors as Warner.  The anonymous Jezebel and Semiramis, if not also authored by Warner, seem to have been authored by someone with a very similar cultural and literary orientation.

Plausible immediate social and political contexts for these works further narrow their local audience.  An interpretation of Jezebel’s now highly obscure opening lines suggests that Jezebel is a satire on Ælfgifu of Northampton.[15]  Ælfgifu was King Cnut’s concubine prior to his marriage with Emma of NormandyHarold Harefoot, Ælfgifu and Cnut’s son, reigned as King of England from 1035 to 1040.  Semiramis seems to be a satire on Emma’s marriage to King Cnut, who killed her former husband King Æthelred II.[16]  The figure Semiramis stands for Emma, the horned adulterer for King Cnut, and the augur for Emma’s brother, the Archbishop Robert of Rouen.  In Semiramis, Archbishop Robert in the figure of the augur appears “weak, pompous and rather pitiful.”[17]  Emma as Semiramis, like Moriuht, has strong, independent sexuality:

Never did any courtesan on earth burn more fiercely than wanton Semiramis, taking her paramour from the fields: it was a bull found to be adulterer in Ninus’ reign.  If a queen sought out a rude bull among the vetch, why did a heifer not wear the royal crown? … Such lewd disorder spread from Babylon.  What prostitute in the whole world could have been more debased? … The woman who took Babylon has submitted to the bull.  One of many, she crushed the city, alone she had crushed her modesty. [18]

While Semiramis provides mythic justification for her behavior, doubting rationalizations of a woman’s behavior was possible before our age of enlightenment.  Emma probably wouldn’t have been interested in patronizing, praising, and disseminating the work of Semiramis’ author.[19]  Appreciation for Warner and closely associated poets who wrote work like Moriuht, Runaway Monk, Jezebel, and Semiramis could easily have been politically dangerous in eleventh-century Normandy.

Warner and any other poets among the authors of Moriuht, Runaway Monk, Jezebel, and Semiramis apparently imagined an audience like that which existed in the high Arabic literary culture of the Islamic world.  While Old French fabliaux feature coarse, explicit sexual acts, they lack the literary sophistication of Moriuht, Runaway Monk, Jezebel, and Semiramis.[20]  Moriuht mixes crude sexual references with technical discussions of grammar.  Runaway Monk mixes satire on vocational infidelity with a technical discussion of music theory.[21]  Al-Jahiz (ninth century Baghdad) and al-Maʿarrī (died 1056 in Aleppo) provide good models of such work within the Islamic world.[22]

Moriuht, Runaway Monk, Jezebel, and Semiramis have a broad geographic scope of literary interest.  In addition to references from Latin ecclesiastic culture and Greco-Roman culture, they also refer to pagan Danes, Swabians, and Numidians.  Jezebel in the Hebrew Bible was the non-Jewish princess of Tyre before she became Ahab’s queen.[23]  Semiramis was a legendary Assyrian queen.  Both Jezebel and Semiramis refer to Babel/Babylon.  Those references may have had some contemporary literary resonances.  Buttocks are of particular sexual interest in Moriuht and Jezebel.[24]  Buttocks were also a prominent focus of sexual interest in Arabic literature.  Rouen is known to have attracted foreign scholars, including scholars from Italy.[25]  Perhaps Rouen also attracted some scholars from the world of Arabic literature.

Cosmopolitan literary ambition best explains Moriuht, Runaway Monk, Jezebel, and Semiramis being written in eleventh-century Rouen.  The complex literary allusiveness and crude sexual explicitness of these works indicates niche products in a highly developed literary field.  Possibilities for patronage, praise, and distribution of such work in eleventh-century Rouen, or even across Normandy and England, were very narrow.  Warner and perhaps other closely associated authors seemed to have imagined themselves writing at the forefront of literary culture of their time.  That cosmopolitan ambition would have encompassed literary creativity in Córdoba, Cairo, and Baghdad.

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[1] According to calculations based on the best available evidence, the East had higher social development than the West from 550 GC to 1750 GC.  Morris (2010) Graph 60, p. 193; p. 199.  The historical city size estimates, except for London, are from id. pp. 110, 112.  Other estimates for population c. 1000 GC are 1,200,000 for Baghdad and 450,000 for Córdoba.

[2] Moriuht, ll. 49-54, from Latin trans. McDonough (1995) p. 75.  No specific information about Warner is known outside of the text of the poems Moriuht and Runaway Monk.  Warner almost surely wrote those works within the vicinity of Rouen.  Where Warner was born isn’t known.

[3] Juvenal, Satire 3.76, cited in McDonough (1995) notes, p. 125.

[4] Id. notes, p. 126.

[5] Moriuht, l. 173, trans. id. p. 85

[6] Moriuht, ll.185-8, 338, 447-9 trans. id. pp. 85, 95, 103 (previous three quotes).

[7] Orderic Vitalis, Historia Aecclesiastica, Book 4, 2:250-1, Book 3, 2:2-3, trans. Chibnall, relevant lines given in Ziolkowski (1989) pp. 38-9.

[8] Cf. Horace, Epistles 2.1.156: “Captive Greece took captive her rude conqueror and brought the arts to rustic Latium.”

[9] Ziolkowski (1989) p. 39.

[10] Adapted from id. pp. 28-30, which also provides the judgment of dating and geographic provenance.  The codex is Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, lat. 8121A.  Three scribes wrote the codex:

one wrote folios 2-27, another folios 28-32, and a third folio 33.  The hands of the first two scribes resemble each other closely.  The hand of the third scribe differs from the first two, but nonetheless seems to belong to the same milieu.

Id. p. 29.

[11] McDonough (1995), p. 64, observes that following the blank flyleaf are “remains of two leaves that have been excised.”  More than two leaves undoubtedly were needed to hold the toponymic work and Apollonius, King of Tyre.   Evidently the codex originally had more gatherings at the beginning.

[12] Ziolkowski (1989) p. 29.

[13] Jezebel, ll. 8, 12-17, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (1989) p. 75.

[14] Id. notes, pp. 90-1.

[15] Galloway (1999).

[16] Van Houts (1992)

[17] Id. p. 21.

[18] Semiramis, ll. 5-9, 11-12, 16-17, from Latin trans. Dronke (1970) p. 71.  Van Houts (1992) p. 21 states, “Throughout the poem Semiramis is pictured as a strong, intelligent and brisk woman.”

[19] Id. p. 23 notes of Semiramis:

The author should surely have sought anonymity, not so much to avoid the anger of Emma and her new husband, as to protect himself against reproaches from Emma’s children and to remain in favour with the ducal family and in particular with Archbishop Robert.  The primate of Normandy can hardly have been pleased by his caricature as an effective pagan necromancer.

[20] Cf. McDonough (1995) p. 53.

[21] Id. p. 66.  Ziolkowski (1995), p. 32, summarizes Runaway Monk (Warner Satire 2).

[22] For the latter, see Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, Risālat al-ghufrān, from Arabic trans. van Gelder (2013).

[23] 1 Kings 16:31.  Jezebel was the daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidions.  That made Ethbaal King of Tyre and Jezebel a princess of Tyre.  Perhaps the connection through Tyre helped to motivate the inclusion of Apollonius King of Tyre in the codex.  The plot of Moriuht is also similar to events in Apollonius King of Tyre.

[24] Jezebel ll. 13, 44, 47, 56, 60, 99, 103.  See also note to l. 56, Ziolkowski (1989) pp. 113-4.  Moriuht ll. 22251-44 declares:

all the way up to his buttocks {he was} naked.  And to relate further, his genitals were visible in their entirety, and the black hairs of his arse and groin.  In addition, his anus also constantly gaped so openly when he bent his head and looked down on the ground, that a cat could enter into it and rest {there} for an entire year, passing the winter in company with his consort cat, that in the vast forest of his groin a stork could build its nest and a hoopoe could have a place of its own.

A reviewer of Ziolkowski (1989) complained:

Remarkably, the concept of misogyny is barely acknowledged by Ziolkowski (he occasionally cites it at second hand), and the word “gender” is missing from his otherwise exhaustive commentary.  This curious blind spot ….

Nelson (1995) p. 446.  The more insightful concept of men’s literature of sexed protest has now replaced the misandristic concept of misogyny.  Jezebel could be interpreted as a burlesque of a pious scholar incapable of dealing with the learned guile of a vicious, sex-obsessed woman.   The Old French fabliau La Saineress provides a variation on that theme.

[25] Ziolkowski (1989) p. 40.

[image] Kniender Wild Man, bronze with lacquer patina13.1 x 8 x 5.5 cm, originally attached to a chandelier, 2nd half of 15th century, Frankfurt, Museum of Arts and Crafts. Thanks to Wikipedia.


Dronke, Peter. 1970. Poetic individuality in the Middle Ages: new departures in poetry, 1000-1150. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Galloway, Andrew. 1999. “Word-play and political satire: solving the riddle of the text of Jezebel.” Medium Aevum. 68 (2): 189-208.

Van Houts, Elisabeth M.C. 1992. “A Note on Jezebel and Semiramis, Two Latin Norman Poems from the Early Eleventh Century.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 2 (1): 18-24.

McDonough, Christopher J. 1995. Warner of Rouen. Moriuht: a Norman Latin poem from the early eleventh century. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Morris, Ian. 2010. Social Development.  ianmorris.org

Nelson Janet L. 1995. Review. Ziolkowski (Jan M.). Jezebel. A Norman Latin Poem of the Early Eleventh Century. Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire. 73(2): 444-7.

Van Gelder, Geert Jan. 2013. Classical Arabic literature: a library of Arabic literature anthology. New York: New York University Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1989. Jezebel: a Norman Latin poem of the early eleventh century. New York: P. Lang.

Wednesday’s flowers

purple flower in sea of green leaves

Madonna Filippa ridiculed moralizing formalists

portrait of Italian noblewoman imaginatively representing Madonna Filippa

In Boccaccio’s Decameron, the story of Madonna Filippa explicitly sets up righteous moralizing.  The story begins with a description of a legal statute.  Such descriptions have been fodder for moralizing formalists from the enactment of Hammurabi’s code to the present.  The male story-teller declares the statute to be “no less reprehensible than harsh.”  Then, from his position of moral superiority, he describes it:

a statute … that condemned women taken in adultery to be burned alive, making no distinction between one whose husband caught her with her lover and one who was doing it with somebody for money. [1]

The story itself begins with Madonna Filippa’s husband Rinaldo having discovered her in their bedroom in the arms of a man from an enemy family.  Rinaldo didn’t kill either Madonna Filippa or the man: “it would have been unlawful for him to kill her.”  Laws have commonly allowed a husband to kill a man having sex with the husband’s wife if caught in the act.[2]  Killing men is of much less public concern than is killing women.  The story of Madonna Filippa ignores the fate of the man committing adultery with Madonna Filippa.

Law in action cannot be understood merely by quoting statutes.  Rinaldo denounced Madonna Filippa.  He had her summoned to court.  Her friends advised her to dodge the law:

though many of her friends and relations discouraged her from doing so {obeying the summons}, she was firmly resolved to appear in court, confess the truth, and die bravely rather than flee like a coward and live in exile because she had defied the law

Exile apparently was an alternative to being burned alive under law.  Exile isn’t currently offered as an alternative to the death penalty in U.S.  Between 1973 and 2010, the U.S. executed 1,220 men and 12 women.[3]  Men  in practice have always been much more likely to be subject to the death penalty.  A woman being executed under law is a sensational story.  A man being executed under law is normal practice.

The judge felt pity for Madonna Filippa.  He counseled her about how to avoid the death penalty under the adultery statute:

My lady, as you can see, your husband Rinaldo is here, and he’s lodged a complaint against you, alleging that he caught you committing adultery with another man.  Consequently, he’s demanding that I punish you according to the requirements of a statute that’s in force here and have you put to death.  I can’t do that, however, unless you confess.  So, be very careful now about how you reply, and tell me if what your husband accuses you of is true.”

The judge obviously was encouraging Madonna Filippa to lie.  Instead, she truthfully confessed that she had committed adultery.  She rejected the usual law in action for women.

Madonna Filippa instead presented formal arguments.  She declared:

laws should be impartial and should only be enacted with the consent of those affected by them.  In the present case, these conditions have not been met, because this law applies only to us poor women who are much better than men at giving satisfaction to a whole host of lovers.  Moreover, when it was passed, not only were there no women present to give their consent to it, but since then, not once have they ever been consulted about it.  And that’s why, for all these reasons, it could with justice be called a bad law. [4]

Madonna Filippa was a noblewoman and well-known in her city.  Across medieval Europe, most men were peasants, day labors, and vagabonds.  Property and criminal law was not impartial between nobles and peasants.  Most men had no opportunity to consent to the laws that applied to them, nor were they ever consulted about those laws.  Madonna Filippa’s invocation of “us poor women” should generate derisive laughter.  Yet such remarks don’t do so even in similar circumstances today.

Perhaps frustrated with those too obtuse to recognize the joke, Madonna Filippa turned to a more outrageous joke.  Madonna Filippa declared that she had always fully satisfied her husband sexually.  In response to the judge’s inquiry, her husband affirmed that fact.  Madonna Filippa then declared:

If he’s always obtained what he needed from me and was pleased with it, what was I supposed to do — in fact what am I to do now — with the leftovers?  Should I throw them to the dogs?  Isn’t it much better to serve some of them up to a gentleman who loves me more than his very own life than to let them go to waste and have them spoil?

Madonna Filippa’s argument quotes in Italian translation the first part of Matthew 7:6, “Do not give what is holy to dogs.”  In the Latin Bible pervasive in fourteenth-century Europe, the relevant text is “Nolite dare sanctum canibus.”  In the context of elite theological discourse or courtly love, “sanctum” was a term used for a woman’s body.[5]  In addition, Madonna Filippa’s argument resonates with Jesus mocking his disciples in Matthew 15:21-28.  That joke also has largely been lost.  At a cruder level, serving up Madonna Filippa’s leftover sexuality to dogs suggests bestiality.  The celebrity Madonna of the late twentieth-century U.S. seems to have understood the outrageous sexual suggestion of Madonna Filippa better than have learned Boccaccistas.[6]

In a pattern popular from ancient times to the present, Rinaldo leaves the courtroom “utterly abashed” and Madonna Filippa returns home “in triumph.”  The large crowd at the trial rose in unison to support the woman:

they immediately shouted in one voice that she was right and that it was all well said.  Then, at the suggestion of the podéstà {judge}, before they left, they modified their cruel statute, restricting it so that it only applied to those women who betrayed their husbands for money.

That odd, remaining second provision of the statute encourages more thoughtful interpretation.  What’s the difference between a married woman betraying her husband without monetary return and a married woman betraying her husband for money?  A married woman might commit adultery for money because she loves her husband and her husband desperately needs money.[7]  That’s love in the mercantile spirit of the Decameron.  She might also commit adultery for her own personal, material interests.  That’s simply the mercantile spirit of the Decameron.

The story of Madonna Filippa evokes superficial moralizing for rich humor.  A leading male professor of Romance literature, introducing in 1982 what became the most popular English translation of the Decameron, declared:

if they {readers of the Decameron} want to hear a true spokeswoman of “women’s lib” avant la lettre, let them attend to saucy Filippa of Pisa (VI, 7). [8]

Many readers have followed that line.  Madonna Filippa, in arguing before the judge deciding her fate, was more funny, more crude, and more sophisticated than many readers in our enlightened age.  The interpretive history of the story has augmented its humor.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 6, Story 7, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 494.  All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from id. pp. 494-6.

[2] Under the Roman law of Augustus, a husband catching his wife in the act of adultery with a man could kill the man, but not his wife.  Similar statutes persisted in U.S. states until the 1970s.  Punishment for adulterous wives in Boccaccio’s time was typically much less severe than death.  Pennington (1977) p. 902.

[3] Streib (2010) p. 3.

[4] Knowledgeable persons in medieval Europe recognized women to be sexually more capable than men.

[5] Rebhorn (2013) notes,  n. 3, p. 907.

[6] The singer Madonna’s 1992 book Sex included a photograph suggesting Madonna positioning herself to have a dog lick her vagina.

[7] A wife makes such a suggestion in the Old French fabliau Le sacristain ou Du segretain moine (The Sacristan Monk).  For discussion and references, see note [1] discussing that fabliau.

[8] Introduction by Thomas G. Bergin, Sterling Professor of Romance Languages Emeritus, Yale University, in Musa & Bondanella (1982) p. xxx.  The introduction subsequently appeared in Signet Classics editions of 2002 and 2010.  Boccaccio’s text of the story contains three instances of “Madonna Filippa.”  It never uses the name “Filippa of Pisa.”  At the time of the story, Madonna Filippa lived in Prato.  A scholar has recognized common misunderstanding of the story:

Most importantly, although Madonna Filippa has become famous as an example of Love giving courage and bravery to a woman, Boccaccio used her only as a vehicle: the joke is the important element of the tale, not the characters.

Pennington (1977) p. 905.  The joke goes beyond the tale.  Consider Brown University’s Decameron Web.  It features a page entitled, “Madonna Filippa (VI.7): Feminist Mouthpiece or Misogynistic Tool?”  Many academics today seem oblivious to alternatives to such a dichotomy.  The story of Madonna Filippa has serious points: gynocentrism and social rationalization.

[image] Portrait of a Woman, c. 1590, painting by Alessandro Allori, Italian (Florence, Italy 1535 – 1607 Florence, Italy), thanks to Harvard’s Fogg Museum.


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

Pennington, Kenneth. 1977. “A Note to Decameron 6.7: The Wit of Madonna Filippa.” Speculum. 52 (4): 902-905.

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

Streib, Victor,  2010.  “Death Penalty for Female Offenders, January 1, 1973, through October 31, 2010.”  Death Penalty Information Center website.


COB-96: Cobra Effect highlights Bureaucratic Golden Rule

British civil servants in colonial India were troubled by the prevalence of cobras.  Without drawing up a strategic plan or having a series of meetings to begin asking questions about possibilities for reducing the cobra population, some renegade British bureaucrats established a bounty for every dead cobra.  The industrious Indians began turning in to the British bounty-payers a large number of dead cobras.  The enterprising Indians did so by establishing cobra farms to raise a large number of cobras.  Without proper meetings and document production, the British then decided to stop paying bounties on cobras.  So the cobra farmers shut down their operations and released all their cobras into the wild.  The net effect of the British program to reduce the cobra population was to greatly increase the cobra population.  This story generated the term “Cobra Effect.”  However, some doubt whether the story of the Cobra Effect is true, because no documentary evidence exists of the British cobra bounty program.

Indian cobra

The bureaucratic lesson is obvious.  No new initiative should take place without a formal strategic plan, a large number of meetings, and the creation of an extensive documentary record.  More generally, an action can bring about the opposite result from the intended effect of the action.  That’s why world-class bureaucrats avoid doing anything if at all possible.  If you do something, the results could be worse than doing nothing.  If there’s any possible doubt about the effects of action, don’t do anything.  That’s the Bureaucratic Golden Rule.  The Bureaucratic Golden Rule is much more practically important than the Cobra Effect.

In other bureaucratic issues this month, Dick Lipton found a mistake on the wall of a Bell Phone Company exhibit at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  The Bell exhibit was entitled “From Drumbeat to Telstar.”  It took visitors on a narrated, moving-chair ride through communications history from drumbeats and smoke signals to the Space-Age present.  While traveling through this exhibit, Lipton saw on the wall a part of the quadratic formula with a missing superscript for squaring b.  The letter is the first letter in bureaucracy.  The Bell System, a leading bureaucracy, forgot to square the b.  Is it any wonder that the Bell System’s Picturephone, displayed at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, was a flop?

Parker Higgins received a copyright take-down notice for his use of the famous “Houston, we have a problem” line from the Apollo 13 flight.  As a US government work, that recording is public domain.  Hence the copyright take-down notice looks like an instance of copyfraud.  Higgins observes:

The real problem is that we’ve bought into the rhetoric and the arguments that an unauthorized use is an unacceptable use. As a result our online services have looked less like the public platforms we want, and more like policed spaces where any activity can be interrogated for its papers, please.

Bureaucrats are against violations of rules.  Copyfraud violates rules, so bureaucrats are against it.  But bureaucrats need to have rules for everything so that they can figure out if something is against the rules.  Unauthorized use reduces the importance of producing documents, lowers the employment of bureaucrats, promotes innovation, encourages change, and reduces the number of meetings people have to attend.  Unauthorized use should not be authorized.

Kevin Poulsen reports that a guy has a trademark including the symbol pi.  The trademark owner had his lawyer send a cease-and-desist letter to a t-shirt seller who was selling t-shirts containing the letter pi.  The t-shirt seller then banned the use of the symbol pi on any t-shirt it sells.  If such actions continue, the effects on mathematics journals could be devastating.  The Carnival of Bureaucrats calls on a committee to be formed to study the question of the legal status of common use of the mathematical symbol pi.  Since trademark law is extremely complex, the committee should include leading bureaucratic lawyers from the trademark bar.  It should study the issue for a few years and produce detailed recommendations on how to deal with trademarks on pi and other mathematical symbols.

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.

human vocal communication and humpback whale songs

The social environment is highly relevant to the evolution of human communication capabilities.   Human communication evolved through primates living in groups.  Living in groups creates opportunities for synchronized physiological states, cooperative predator defense, coordinated food acquisition, diffusion and inheritance of behavioral innovations, and exchange of goods such as food, sexual activity, and grooming.  Living in groups also creates opportunities for individual and coalitional action to shift the distribution of food, mating, and physical risks among group members.[1]  Communication capabilities have evolutionary significance both for cooperation and competition within social groups.

15 humpback whales bubble-net fishing

Relative to other animals, humans have greater social complexity and engage in more complex communication.  Consider, for comparison, humpback whales.  Humpback whales work together in role-differentiated teams to feed upon schools of fish.[2]  Male humpback whales also engage in behaviorally elaborate mating competition that includes complex vocalizations (songs).[3]  The coding bandwidth required to communicate a male humpback whale song, however, is roughly fifty times less than the coding bandwidth required to communicate spoken English.[4]  Many organisms are social and communicate with each other in a variety of forms.  Humans form intricate social groups and communicate with each other vocally at a much higher coding complexity per unit time than do other animals.

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Read more:


[1] Mitani (2006) describes the importance of differences in group demographics for differences in chimpanzee behavior.  He notes that demographic context has often been overlooked as a cause of intraspecific behavioral variation.  Laskowski & Pruitt (2014) recently established the importance of group demographics for spider personality.

[2] Such behavior is called bubble-net fishing.

[3] For a review of knowledge about humpback whale song, see Parsons, Wright & Gore (2008).

[4] Humpback whales on the Hawaiian breeding ground communicate in song at 0.6 bits/unit, with 2.5 seconds/unit, giving 0.24 bits/second.  Suzuki (2006) pp. 1860, 1862.  Australian humpback whales migrating away from their breeding ground had coding bandwidth about a third less than the Hawaiian whales.  Miksis-Olds et al. (2008) p. 2391.  I calculate the bandwidth of spoken English as 69 bits/second, based on 1 bit/letter, 5 letters/word, and 200 words per minute.  These figures should be understood as rough approximations.

[image] 15 humpback whales bubble-net fishing off the coast of Alaska on 18 August 2007.  Thanks to Evadb and Wikipedia.


Laskowski Kate L., and Jonathan N. Pruitt. 2014. “Evidence of social niche construction: persistent and repeated social interactions generate stronger personalities in a social spider.” Proceedings. Biological Sciences / The Royal Society. 281 (1783).

Miksis-Olds Jennifer L., John R. Buck, Michael J. Noad, Douglas H. Cato, and M. Dale Stokes. 2008. “Information theory analysis of Australian humpback whale song.” The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 124 (4): 2385-93.

Mitani, John C. 2006. “Demographic influences on the behavior of chimpanzees.” Primates 47: 6-13.

Parsons, E.C.M., A.J. Wright, and M.A. Gore.  2008. “The Nature of Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) Song.”  Journal of Marine Animals and Their Ecology 1 (1): 21-30.

Suzuki, Ryuji, John R. Buck and Peter L. Tyack. 2006. “Information entropy of humpback whale song.” Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 119(3): 1849-1866.


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