the question of masculinism in Aucassin et Nicolette

Masculinist literary criticism of the social erection of gender has complicated sexual/textual scenarios of hegemonic negative images of the masculine.  Lack of attention to masculine difference has contributed to a dry gap in medieval literary studies directed toward overcoming traditional forms of gender domination.  I want to situate my work in masculinist readings that validate the multiplicity of voices within the fluid system of gender that throughout history has always been a long hard shaft on men’s bodies.  Unpacking the complicated rhetoric that has always oppressed men requires questioning overdetermined universalizing claims of idyllic innocence, ideologically (im)posed.  Masculinist study of the singular medieval French chantefable Aucassin et Nicolette can contribute to complicating the essential ambiguity of gender.  It serves as a necessary first step for opening the question of masculinism, not just to secure better public appreciation for medieval literature, but also to advance the more general literary project of human emancipation.

Aucassin et Nicolette signifies the merely titular social position of men with its ironic epideictic gesture of supporting class hierarchy through social titles.  In contrast to the obvious performative context of the text, when the parole became the embodied langue in the manuscript materiality, it acquired the title C’est d’Aucasin et de Nicolete (This is of Aucasin and Nicolet).  The acquisition of titles participates in the social process of generating and supporting class structures.  The Lacanian deictic “this” slips the signifier of the manuscript materiality into longer chains of social domination.  The body of the text reveals the inscribed marking of socially constructed gender order in the separate circuit of social performance quite apart from the commodified circulation of textual artifacts:

De deus biax enfans petis,
Nicholete et Aucassins

{Of two small, fair children,
Nicolette and Aucassin}

The bodily characterization of stature, widely mis-interpreted as essentially a biological measurement, floats dialectically against the textual construction of Nicholete and Aucassins as young adults.  That complicating of representation signifies the ensuing inversion of titular positions of Aucassin and Nicolette, refashioned with the violent transformation and displacement of the soft breathing h into the coronal-dental stopped t and terminated with the slippery, unitary-marked s.  These transformations, suppressed in non-masculinist ethics of reading subservient to the capitalist production of standard texts from the multiplicity of individual, personal manuscripts, represent the negative and positive fetishizations of gender polarity and the material imbrication of gyno-primacy.

The displacement and Othering of men as persons to be attacked and laid low, represented in the cultural violence of naming, is embodied in men’s captivity in sickness to be cured only at the effortless whim of the master-woman.  Consistent with the history of oppressive displacement of men from their homes and alienation of men from their children, Aucassin is named as a Muslim Other to be driven from the European home and subject to violent attack.  He is permitted within the home only within conditions of cultural-colonial subservience that produce human psycho-somatic sickness.  That, like everything else, is gendered.  The unknowable gender domination, so difficult to extirpate precisely because of its liminal ontological status in non-masculinist discourse, is evident in the Kristeva-Irigaray reversal of abnegation merely through the presence of the master-woman Nicolette:

On a bed a pilgrim lay,
Who of Limousin was bred,
Sick with fever of the head.
Very sore was he in pain,
With most grievous sickness ta’en.
By his bedside thou didst fare,
And thy long train liftedst there,
And thy dainty ermine frock,
And thy snowy linen smock,
Till thy white limbs he might see,
Straight the pilgrim healed was he.

This ideological cure, figured as a brief displacement of Nicolette’s material wealth in attire, parallels the racist coloring of European racism historically and textually linked to the straight-jacket of hetero-normativity ideologically constructed as healing.  The masculinist work of loosening the tightly bound bindings of these representations is the liberating task of the critical scholar confronting the horrors of imaginative literature.  Much work remains to be done.

The wounding of men is wound within the clash of subordinated signified and signifier in men-on-men violence institutionalized as war.  In Aucassin et Nicolette, war is mediated through universal gender signifiers obscure to the unknowing masculine observers:

“Sir,” said Aucassin, “now take me to where your wife is with the army!” “Sir, willingly!” said the King.  He mounted a horse, and Aucassin mounted his, and Nicolete remained behind in the queen’s chambers.  And the King and Aucassin rode on till they came to where the Queen was, and they found the battle was with roasted crab-apples, and eggs, and fresh cheeses.

Separated from Nicolette who has been left behind in a traditional position of gender power, Aucassin’s request, “take me,” and the King’s response, “willingly,” show the promise of non-hierarchical affiliation among men, underscored in the King’s rejection of his gender-normative role as subject and object of violence in war.  But that gesture is complicit with dominance as seen through the reversed plot trajectory and the symbolic media of war: roasted crab-apples, indicating the expulsion of Adam from Eden and the gender structure of mass incarceration; eggs, implicitly subordinating male homosexual affiliation with a socially constructed signifier of male biological insufficiency; and fresh cheese, which of course is made with richly gendered milk.  Institutional and representational support for violence against men is woven throughout the imaginative terrain of the stories we tell ourselves, reproducing our selves and our reality, as Foucault has shown, in accordance with micro-structures of power and gender oppression.

Continuing along the reversed plot trajectory, the reader immediately recognizes the violence that supports the traditional gender hierarchy within the capillaries of men subordinated into the position of the Other as subject-object of violence.  The King was in bed, having rejected war and instead embracing labor to give birth to a new social order of non-violence, non-subordination, and communal production.  But under the capitalistic order already well-developed in the commercial society of medieval France through to the present, men’s work isn’t recognized as work if it doesn’t serve the traditional gynocentric order of violence against men and alienation of men from their children and homes.  Aucassin, with the false consciousness endemic among oppressed classes exposed through masculinism theory, responds violently to the King’s initiative to overturn the traditional gender order:

When Aucassin heard the king speak thus, he took all the clothes which were on him and flung them down the room.  He saw behind him a stick. He took it and turned and struck him, and beat him so that he nearly killed him. “Ah, fair sir,” said the king, “what do you demand of me? Have you lost your wits, you who beat me in my own house?” “By God’s blessed heart,” said Aucassin, “foul son of a whore, I will kill you, if you do not promise me that never again shall any man in your land lie in bed to give birth!”

Aucassin strips the King naked to present as text the male biology that traditionally has justified men’s subordination and the social system of violence against men, including domestic violence, that denies men even their homes as safe places.  A new social order that liberates men from gender will not be born until men recognize that they as a gender must take the lead in producing that liberating birth.  That means rejecting the hatred of men coded within the gender-educational system that colonizes men’s self-consciousness and even directs them to violence against themselves at the service of gynocentric social values.  The non-masculinist alternative is continuing the regime of personal and civilizational self-destruction resulting from obliteration of men’s independent self-worth:

once you have lain in another man’s bed than mine, think not that I should wait till I found a knife, with which I might strike me to the heart and kill myself! Nay, verily, so long would I not wait; but I would fling myself toward where I might see a wall or a grey stone, and there would dash my head against it so hard that I should make my eyes spurt out and beat my brains out altogether.

This reversed micro-plot trajectory in Aucassin et Nicolette is the historically situated master narrative that masculinist literary understanding, or any literary understanding, must confront.

The question(s) of masculinism should no longer be questioned.  Masculinist literary criticism can push beyond complicating the ambiguities that protrude from the textual body of Aucassin et Nicolette.  Moistening the ground of literary receptivity and planting seeds of literary understanding amid a multiplicity of texts and interpretations is necessary to reproduce a literary civilization and to emancipate men from traditional gender domination in the long history of gynocentrism.  That’s a responsibility that everyone should enjoy.

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The surviving manuscript of Aucassin and Nicolette is Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Fonds Français 2168, ff 70-80.  The Umilita website has an excellent page on Aucassin and Nicolette.  That page includes the Old French source text (from the late-twelfth or early-thirteenth century) and an English translation.  I’ve used that English translation above, with some corrections and adaptations.  Bourdillon (1887) includes the Old French text, an English translation, and a glossary of relevant Old French terms.  Other English translations freely available on line are Lang (1895), Mason (1910), and Kline (2001).  Bourdillon (1887), writing after proliferation of (realistic) novels and widespread commercialization of photography, lamented “these photographic days” in describing Aucassin and Nicolette:

we occasionally turn with relief from the wit and insight and subtlety of our modern novelists to the old uncomplicated tales of faerie or romance, and find them after all more moving, more tender, even more real, than all the laboured realism of these photographic days.  And here before us is of all pretty love-stories perhaps the prettiest.

Lang (1895) hints at mixed genre in Aucassin and Nicolette:

charming medley of sentiment and humour, of a smiling compassion and sympathy with a touch of mocking mirth.  …  What lives in it, what makes it live, is the touch of poetry, of tender heart, of humorous resignation

Mason (1910) describes Aucassin and Nicollete as a lyrical flower of love that miraculously bloomed within the Dark Ages:

The most lyric and lovely of early French romances is preserved to us by a single copy in the National Library of Paris.  Without that one ill-written manuscript the world would have been poorer by how exquisite a dream!  Had not this unique bloom remained, it would have been impossible to imagine so rare and delicate a flower could have sprung in the unsheltered fields of mediaeval France.  … in it he has caged his dream of love, and has revealed so delicate a sense of beauty, as would not have seemed possible to a strolling player of mediaeval France.

Aucassin and Nicolette seems to me to have some similarities with the story of Aziz and Aziza in 1001 Nights.  Harden (1966) and Sargent (1970) provide insightful literary analysis.  In considering Aucassin and Nicolette, Gilbert (1997) describes the dominant, “generally accepted” view of gender among literary scholars:

It has been pointed out repeatedly in recent decades that our society grounds its folk conceptions of gender in a notion of “sexual biology”. Foucault showed how the modern western concept of sex as “before and beyond” culture – untouchable, unchanging, universal – is only a mythologisation of our native notions of gender. In other words, the old distinction between biological Sex and cultural Gender is an unsustainable ideological construction: the whole notion of biological sex is itself a product of the modern West, designed to shore up our gender system. We cannot, therefore, expect other cultures to join us, either in recognising the same “biological facts” of sex as we do, or in giving those “facts” any particular cultural significance.

Gender scholarship within this dominant ideology has utterly failed to understand men being incarcerated for doing nothing more than having consensual sex and being poor, the overturning of the French Revolution’s promise of planned parenthood for men, the naturalization of men’s lifespan shortfall, the social construction of objective measurements of sexism, and many other significant aspects of our gender system.


Bourdillon, Francis William, ed. and trans. 1887. Aucassin et Nicolete: an old-French love story. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co. (revised English translation)

Gilbert, Jane. 1997. “The practice of gender in Aucassin et Nicolette.” Forum for Modern Language Studies. 33 (3): 217-228.

Harden, Robert. 1966. “Aucassin et Nicolette as Parody.” Studies in Philology. 63 (1): 1-9.

Kline, A.S., trans. 2001. Aucassin and Nicolette.  Poetry in Translation, online.

Lang, Andrew, trans. 1895. Aucassin & Nicolette. Portland, Me: T.B. Mosher.

Mason, Eugene, trans. 1910. Aucassin & Nicollete, and other mediaeval romances and legends. London: J.M. Dent & Sons. (more accessible pdf of translation)

Sargent, Barbara Nelson. 1970. “Parody in Aucassin et Nicolette: Some Further Considerations.” The French Review. 43 (4): 597-605.

men are biologically inferior to women in communication

Men’s biological inferiority to women in communication is well-documented and relatively uncontroversial.  A neuropsychiatrist who’s an expert on male and female brains explained:

Males’ and females’ brains are different by nature.  Think about this.  What if the communication center is bigger in one brain than in the other?  What if the emotional memory center is bigger in one than in the other?  What if one brain develops a greater ability to read cues in people than does the other?  In this case, you would have a person whose reality dictated that communication, connection, emotional sensitivity, and responsiveness were the primary values. This person would prize these qualities above all others and be baffled by a person with a brain that didn’t grasp the importance of these qualities.  In essence, you would have someone with a female brain. [1]

A leading psychologist also found significant gender differences in brains:

The female brain is predominately hard-wired for empathy.  The male brain is predominately hard-wired for understanding and building systems. [2]

This biological sex difference is not merely defined by nature, genes, or sex chromosomes, as a crude biological determinist would believe.  The environment plays a crucial role in gender development:

Until eight weeks old, every fetal brain looks female – female is nature’s default gender setting.  If you were to watch a female and a male brain developing via time-lapse photography, you would see their circuit diagrams being laid down according to the blueprint drafted by both genes and sex hormones.  A huge testosterone surge beginning in the eighth week will turn this unisex {female} brain male by killing off some cells in the communication centers and growing more cells in the sex and aggression centers.  If the testosterone surge doesn’t happen, the female brain continues to grow unperturbed.  The fetal girl’s brain cells spout more connections in the communication centers and areas that process emotion. [3]

The criminalization of males is based on biological processes that begin before males are born.

men biologically inferior to women

Although the female brain has developmental priority, genetic sex differences are significant.  Males have only a Y chromosome, rather than a double dose of the larger X chromosome that women have.  This difference has communicative implications.  A male geneticist on the faculty at a leading British university explained:

The chromosome unique to men {Y} is a microscopic metaphor of those who bear it, for – in spite of determined attempts to retain its identity – it is the most decayed, redundant, and parasitic of the lot. [4]

This scholar also revealed that the Y chromosome is associated with lack of useful information, baldness, and bad temperament:

Masculine decadence is such that on the Y, a mere one part in thousands contains useful information. … To half the human race it is the prince of chromosomes, for it commands the testes. That in turn directs those who bear it to their bald, bibulous, and bad-tempered destiny. [5]

Another prominent scientist has supported that finding:

I have a genetic abnormality generally considered to be associated with high rates of certain socially abhorrent behaviors: I am male. Thanks to an array of genes that produce some hormone-synthesizing enzymes, my testes churn out a corrosive chemical and dump the stuff into my bloodstream, and this probably has behavioral consequences. We males account for less than 50 percent of the population, yet we generate a huge proportion of the violence. [6]

However, the problem is not simply male genetics or male hormones:

“Testosterone equals aggression” is inadequate for those who would offer a simple biological solution to the violent male. And “testosterone equals aggression” is certainly inadequate for those who would offer the simple excuse that boys will be boys. Violence is more complex than a single hormone, and it is supremely rare that any of our behaviors can be reduced to genetic destiny. [7]

Life undoubtedly is complex.  By age 45, this scholar had become a high-ranking male in the academic dominance hierarchy.  His ethical guidance for men is remarkably simple and sex-typed:

What’s clear to me now at 45 is, screw the alpha male stuff. Go for an alternative strategy. Go for the social affiliation, build relationships with females, don’t waste your time trying to figure out how to be the most adept socially cagy male-male competitor. Amazingly enough that’s not what pays off in that system. Go for the affiliative stuff and bypass the male crap. I could not have said that when I was 25. [8]

Men’s recognition of their biological nature can help to motivate them to try to act like women.

But biological knowledge should not be sought without first considering the effects of that knowledge on women.  The leading neuropsychiatrist’s book on the female brain promised on its book jacket:

Women will come away from this book knowing that they have a lean, mean communicating machine.  Men will develop a serious case of brain envy. [9]

Nonetheless, a popular weekly U.S. news magazine reported cause for concern about this book’s effect on women.  It reported that a Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at a large mid-western university stated:

she’s disgusted by scientists, writers and publishers who exploit trivial differences between the genders.  Books like this “are bad for my blood pressure,” she says. [10]

The news magazine also quoted another psychiatrist who’s a neuroimaging expert at a large mid-western medical school.  According to the news magazine, she declared:

Nurture plays such a huge role in human behavior that focusing on biology is next to meaningless.  “Whatever measurable differences exist in the brain,” {she says}, “are used to oppress and suppress women.” [11]

A leading biological anthropologist recognized this sort of risk over two decades ago.  She noted:

Biology, it is sometimes thought, has worked against women.  Assumptions about the biological nature of men and women have frequently been used to justify submissive and inferior female roles and a double standard in sexual morality. [12]

Insinuations of inferiority and double standards hurt women, including hurting their self-esteem and discouraging them from seeking high-powered scholarly careers.  Nonetheless, this influential scholar argued that refusing to talk about biology is a mistake:

by refusing to talk about biology, we effectively hide the fact that there are important ways in which human females are in a worse position than are females in other species. [13]

Despite concern about the risks to women, talk about biology has flourished.  Moreover, women have been leaders in talking about biology.

An important book entitled The First Sex documents areas of women’s biological superiority to men.  This book, published in 1999, was authored by a well-regarded woman anthropology professor.  A review of the book in BusinessWeek gushed:

In the past two months, four books have appeared extolling the evolutionary and biological underpinnings that make women equal – nay, superior – to men. … the best of the bunch is The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They are Changing the World. [14]

Over 300 news articles have cited The First Sex since its publication in 1999.

The First Sex made shocking claims.  It declared:

discrimination is only one of the reasons why women are not achieving parity with men at the highest-ranking jobs of the traditional corporate world.  I suspect there is a biological component to this complex situation: as testosterone and other male hormones contribute to men’s drive to reach the top of the business ladder, estrogen most likely contributes to women’s drive to take time out to rear their children – undermining their ability to achieve high-status jobs.

But this author is not a biological determinist.  She also identifies different tradeoffs that males and females make in the social circumstances that shape career success:

Unquestionably, many, many women are ambitious. …

But as a rule, women are not as willing as men to stay late in the office, travel constantly, skip school events, entertain clients in the evening, or relocate, sacrificing their family lives and their personal interests for their careers.

These social circumstances reveal the relative value of women’s and men’s lives, at least from a women’s perspective:

So I am not convinced that women will ever reach parity with men in the highest echelons of the traditional corporate world.  Not because women lack the education or the intelligence.  Not because women fear failure.  Not because men will monopolize these trophy jobs.  But because fewer women are willing to work long hours, take job risks, transfer to other cities, and jeopardize their family and personal lives in other ways to gain the summit.  They feel they have something more important to do. [15]

The expression of such views may hurt women’s self-esteem, discourage them from elite scholarly careers, and contribute to women’s oppression and the perpetuation of patriarchy.  Even if not causing physical harm to women, such as high-blood pressure or nausea, expression of such views might be considered to be verbal violence.  A professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine has declared:

In my view, when faculty tell their students that they are innately inferior based on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, they are crossing a line that should not be crossed – the line that divides free speech from verbal violence – and it should not be tolerated at Harvard or anywhere else. [16]

The First Sex doesn’t state that women are innately inferior.  It declares that women’s under-representation at the top of corporations is because women “feel they have something more important to do.”  The author probably isn’t guilty of verbal violence against women and thus shouldn’t be arrested.

The First Sex describes numerous, communication-related biological advantages of women.  Important points include:

  • At talking, women have the edge.
  • Women are, on average, more articulate at saying what they say.
  • Specific genes may also enable some women {about 50%} to speak more effectively than men
  • Women’s voices are more variable, more musical, and more expressive than men’s – traits shared with other female primates.  Female apes and monkeys produce a larger array of whimpers, coos, barks and other middle-range “social” calls, while male primates have a more restricted repertoire of growls and roars, aggressive strident sounds. [17]

Both nature and environment are important in determining the differences between females and males.  The author explains that the structure of men’s brains favors (small) “step thinking,” while the structure of women’s brains favors “web thinking”:

women, on average, take a broader perspective than men do – on any issue.  Women think contextually, holistically.  They also display more mental flexibility, apply more intuitive and imaginative judgments, and have a greater tendency to plan long term – other aspects of the contextual perspective. [18]

The web, meaning the Internet-based global mesh of information and communication technologies, is becoming hugely important.  This environmental change naturally favors women, since they have an innate advantage in “web thinking.”

Scholars have also documented that women have additional innate communication advantages.   Under-appreciated communication industry analysis suggests that sense of presence, working across all sensory modalities, is an important source of value in communication.  Compared to men, women have biologically superior sense:

  • Women are, on average, more sensitive to touch.
  • Women, on average, also have superior hearing.
  • Women, on average, can taste sweet, sour, salty, and bitter flavors in lower concentrations {than can men}.
  • Women are generally superior at noticing and remembering physical contexts.
  • In the dark woman have superior eyesight.  Women adjust their vision faster to the dark and see more accurately in the dead of night.
  • Women also have keener peripheral vision. …Women literally see the “bigger picture.”
  • women usually distinguish colors, particularly the various shades of red and green, more accurately {than men}. … This feminine talent for perceiving shades of red and green is genetically determined.  The genes for red/green color vision and all combinations of these colors lie on the X chromosome.
  • Women can also remember shades, tones, and color values more accurately than men. [19]

It should come as no surprise to learn that women “live in a richer olfactory world” than men.  Despite some evidence to the contrary, scientific studies also indicate that women “recognize odors more accurately than men.”[20]

Women also have documented superiority in interpersonal sensitivity.  Having a sense for the response of an imaginary reader, listener, viewer, or dialogue partner is important for success in many forms of communication.  Women’s innate advantages encompass that sense:

  • Touch, hearing, smell, taste, night vision, peripheral vision, color vision: women’s sensory acuities give them a remarkable advantage in any occupation where understanding and getting along with people is required.  Yet women have even more arrows in their social quiver.  They have an outstanding ability to read facial expressions.
  • Women are also more skilled at reading all of the nonfacial bodily clues that we unthinkingly transmit.
  • Dozens of psychological tests show that women are, on average, more skilled at what psychologists call interpersonal sensitivity. [21]

Overall, the innate sensory advantages of women foster “an uncanny ability to read your mind, then tell you what you want to hear.”[22]

The innate advantages of women fundamentally affect public communication.  Women’s innate communicative superiority was predicted to make women dominant in communication and education industries:

  • As we move further into the Information Age, it seems likely that women will have an innate advantage in any career that depends on words – particularly in the communications industries and in all of our educational fields.
  • I contend that women will come to dominate many sectors of the communications and education fields. [23]

Echoing such claims, a popular weekly news magazine published an article headlined “La difference: How women won the sex war;  Larry Summers may well have been right, but men are done for anyway.”  The news article explained:

Technology and globalization are undermining the usefulness of male skills.  … Modern professional life is dominated by emotional intelligence, empathy and communication. … It’s a girlie man’s world [24]

The dominance of women in communication and education industries is already obvious.  That’s especially true in public discussion of sex differences and sexism.

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[1] Brizendine (2006) p. 13.  Louann Brizendine is a medical doctor and practicing clinician at the University of California, San Francisco. She founded and directs the Women’s and Teen Girls’ Mood and Hormone Clinic. Brizendine is a graduate of the Yale University School of Medicine and has been on the faculty at Harvard Medical School.

[2] Baron-Cohen (2003) p. 1.  Simon Baron-Cohen is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge.  Some of the responses to his work have been funny.  His cousin is Sacha Baron Cohen.

[3] Brizendine (2006) p. 14.  Brizendine and Baron-Cohen’s work is criticized in Fine (2010).  Fine describes her book thus:

The main message of the Delusions of Gender is that our comforting beliefs about gender – that everything’s fair now, that sex inequality can be blamed on ‘hardwired’ differences between the sexes, and that our failure to rear unisex children just points the same way – just don’t bear up to scrutiny.

Men imprisoned for doing nothing more than having consensual sex, or men facing acute sex discrimination in child custody awards, surely don’t believe that everything’s fair now.  As for rearing unisex children, parents can run their own tests.  But of course, like communism, rearing unisex children is never actually tried and get never gets a true test.

[4] Jones (2003) p. 4.  Steve Jones is a professor of genetics at University College, London.  In 1996, he won the Michael Faraday Prize for “wide ranging contributions to the public understanding of science.”

[5] Id. pp. 4-5.

[6] Sapolsky (1997).  Robert Sapolsky is the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University and a MacArthur Fellow.

[7] Id.

[8] Sapolsky (2003). Urging men to act like women is also a policy direction that has emerged from a scholarly study recognizing that men’s violence-related death rate is about four times that of women’s. However, a sophisticated interpretation of this alpha-male’s advice to young betas is that he’s seeking to forestall them from challenging him for his position at the top of the academic dominance hierarchy.

[9] Brizendine (2006).

[10] Tyre (2006), quoting Janet Hyde, Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

[11] Tyre (2006), quoting Dr. Nancy C. Andreasen of the University of Iowa Medical School.

[12] Hrdy (1981) p. 1.

[13] Id. p. 8.

[14] Arnst, Catherine, “Will the 21′st Century Be a Woman’s World?BusinessWeek, June 14, 1999.

[15] Fisher (1999) pp. 47-9 (previous three quotes).

[16] Barres (2006) p. 135.  Ben Barres is a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine.  On Jan. 14, 2005, Harvard University President Larry Summer gave remarks at an NBER conference on diversifying the science & engineering workforce.  The Boston Globe reported:

The president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, sparked an uproar at an academic conference Friday when he said that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Summers also questioned how much of a role discrimination plays in the dearth of female professors in science and engineering at elite universities.

Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, walked out on Summers’ talk, saying later that if she hadn’t left, “I would’ve either blacked out or thrown up.” Five other participants reached by the Globe, including Denice D. Denton, chancellor designate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, also said they were deeply offended, while four other attendees said they were not.

The above quote is the first two paragraphs in Marcella Bombardieri, “Summers’ remarks on women draw fire,” Boston Globe, Jan. 17, 2005.

[17] Fisher (1999) pp. 58, 62, 64 (bullet points are textually separate quotes).  In a comment in Genome Biology, Petsko (2005), p. 105.2, noted the importance of voice tone:

It’s a pity there isn’t a recording of his speech {Larry Summer’s remarks made to a National Bureau of Economics Research conference}, because tone of voice can make a big difference in matters like this.

Fisher’s findings on the strongly gendered importance of voice tone is consistent with that claim.

[18] Fisher (1999) p. 4. Id., p. 94, reports:

{Employers} will also hire women if they need employees who can use the Net effectively. This feminine edge was demonstrated recently by managers at the {now defunct} telecommunications company MCI. Using its own Web site, MCI asked tens of thousands of male and female computer users to answer five “general interest” questions about the Net. Women, they discovered, use the Web faster and more efficiently than men do.

[19] Id. pp. 85, 86, 89, 94, 90-1 (bullet points are textually separate quotes).

[20] Id. p. 88.

[21] Id. pp. 91, 93, 96 (bullet points are textually separate quotes). Brizendine (2006) Ch. 6 makes similar claims.

[22] Fisher (1999) p. 102.

[23] Id. pp. 65, 57 (bullet points are textually separate quotes). Id. p. 288 declares:

We are inching toward a truly collaborative society, a global culture in which the merits of both sexes are understood, valued, and employed.

Fisher’s The First Sex was not the first book with that title.  Elizabeth Gould Davis in 1971 wrote a book entitled The First Sex.  Like Fisher, Davis presented an optimistic vision of the future:

The ages of masculism are now drawing to a close. Their dying days are lit up by a final flare of universal violence and despair such as the world has seldom before seen. …

In the new science of the twenty-first century, not physical force but spiritual force will lead the way. Mental and spiritual gifts will be more in demand than gifts of a physical nature. Extrasensory perception will take precedence over sensory perception. And in this sphere women will again predominate.

Davis (1971) p. 339.

[24] “La difference: How women won the sex war; Larry Summers may well have been right, but men are done for anyway,” The Economist, Aug. 3, 2006.

[image] Sugar cane workers resting at the noon hour, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, in Dec. 1941.  From Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs.  Thanks to the Library of Congress.


Baron-Cohen, Simon. 2004. The essential difference: male and female brains and the truth about autism. New York, Basic Books.

Barres, Ben A. (2006). “Does gender matter?” Nature 442: 133-136.

Brizendine, Louann. 2006. The female brain. New York: Morgan Road Books.

Davis, Elizabeth Gould. 1971. The first sex. New York: Putnam.

Fine, Cordelia. 2010. Delusions of gender: how our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. New York: W. W. Norton.

Fisher, Helen. 1999. The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They are Changing the World. New York: Random House.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1981. The woman that never evolved. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Jones, Steve. 2003. Y: the descent of men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Sapolsky, Robert. 1997. “Testosterone Rules.” Discover 18(3).

Sapolsky, Robert. 2003. “A Bozo of a Baboon: A Talk with Robert Sapolsky.” The Third Culture. Edge Foundation.

Tyre, Peg and Julie Scelfo. 2006. “Why Girls Will Be Girls.” Newsweek, July 31.


Wednesday’s flowers

western or wild bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa)

Boccaccio’s Ovid wrote the Decameron for men

Boccaccio's Decameron written for men

In the Decameron’s preface, Boccaccio declares that he wrote this book for charming ladies suffering from lovesickness.  The Decameron’s critics, who typically have not closely considered its preface, have tended to take the Decameron’s declared audience literally.  That’s a fundamental mistake.  In writing the Decameron, Boccaccio adopted the literary position of Ovid and wrote Ovidian instruction in love for men.[1]

The Decameron’s preface begins with the author ironically describing himself as lovesick unto death.  A specific description isn’t necessarily, because the author has a classic case of courtly love:

I have been enflamed beyond measure by a most exalted, noble love, which, were I to describe it, might seem greater than what is suitable for one in my low condition.  Although I was praised and held in high regard for that love by those discerning individuals to whose attention I had come, it was nevertheless extremely painful to endure [2]

Unlike the ideal courtly lover, the author doesn’t pursue onerous works of love servitude or organize a wide-ranging contest of men-against-men violence.  The author simply gets over it: “my love abated in the course of time of its own accord.”  Getting over it, not death, is a low-realistic resolution of lovesickness.  It sets an Ovidian tone of irony.

The author then ironically claims to offer a remedy to women in love.  The women in love are women of courtly imagination: charming women who “keep the flames of love hidden within their delicate breasts.”  They are subjugated by men and confined with the home.  That’s an elite fable.  Plain-speaking ordinary folk know better.  Listen to the maid Licisca.  She interrupts the introduction to Day 6 of the Decameron and declares:

this guy is such an ass that he really believes young women are all so foolish that they’re willing to waste their time waiting around for their fathers and brothers to marry them off, which six times out of seven takes them three or four years longer than it should.  Brother, they’d be in a fine state if they postponed it that long!  I swear to Christ — and I should really know what I’m talking about when I swear like that — I don’t have a single neighbor who was a virgin when she got married, and as for the married ones, I sure know about all the different kinds of tricks they play on their husbands and how often they play them.  Yet this muttonhead wants to teach me about women as if I were born yesterday!

Underscoring its literary irony, the Decameron’s preface adapts a passage from Ovid’s Heroides to describe activities that distract men from melancholy and burdensome thoughts.[3]  The courtly ideal of love did not admit such distractions.  Such distractions did not help Ovid to overcome the despair of his exile.  Love and despair debilitate men more than they do women.  Boccaccio taunts men’s unwillingness to acknowledge their weakness by ironically directing the Decameron’s preface to women.

Other parts of the Decameron’s meta-frame also indicate that the Decameron was intended for men.  The Decameron ends with a direct address to ladies and its dual title:

As for you, charming ladies, may His grace and peace be with you always, and may you remember me if perhaps any of you have benefited in any way from having read these stories.

Here ends the Tenth and final Day of the book called Decameron, also know as Prince Galeotto.

In Dante’s Commedia, Francesca declared “a Galeotto was the book and he that wrote it” that caused her and her lover Paolo to fall into the circle of Hell for adulterers.[4]  The author’s plea to be remembered in the context of a blessing jars ironically with the alternate title of his book, Prince Galeotto.

Galeotto, the final word of the Decameron, points to its actual audience of men.  Galeotto is the Italian word for the character Gallehault in the early thirteenth-century French prose romance Lancelot.  In that work, the noble knight Gallehault was lovingly devoted to the noble knight Lancelot.  Boccaccio, writing a highly learned response to Dante, subverted Francesca blaming Gallehault and the author of the book for her fall.  The Decameron, Prince Gallehault, serves its readers, actually gendered as Lancelot.  Boccaccio’s Decameron, like his Corbaccio, presents to men the comic realism of women and their relationships with men.  The Decameron, like the Corbaccio, instructs men in the Ovidian art of love for flesh-and-blood women.

Other parts of the Decameron‘s meta-frame place men in the social position of its readers.  In the introduction to Day 4 and in the Author’s Conclusion, the author addresses five objections to the Decameron from men and women, respectively.  The women’s objections concern the style of the book: too licentious, some stories should have been omitted, some stories were too long, the book is too frivolous and insubstantial, and it shouldn’t have told the truth about the friars.  The women’s objections arise from within the text of the Decameron.  They are not anchored in social reality.  The men’s five objections, in contrast, come from the world outside the text: the author is too devoted to women and thereby neglects men, the author is too old to be orienting his life to women, the author could better enhance his reputation by writing in a high style on lofty matters, the author’s writing won’t earn money, and the stories the author wrote didn’t actually happen.  These objections are anchored in the real social position of men.  Historical evidence indicates that the readers of the Decameron were primarily men in Boccaccio’s social class.[5]

Boccaccio as Ovid, instructing men in love, is evident in the concluding play of the Decameron’s preface.  The preface refers to readers in the second person (“you”) and ladies in the third person (“by the ladies I mentioned”; “the ladies of whom I have been speaking”).  The preface concludes:

I believe that as they read them, their suffering would come to an end.  Should this occur — and may God grant that it should — let them thank Love who, in freeing me from from his bonds, has granted me the ability to attend to their pleasures.

In the context of the preface, attending to the ladies’ pleasures most literally means relieving their lovesickness.  The Decameron’s stories are filled with sexual intrigue.  That’s not sensible medicine for curing lovesickness.  Thanking Love for being cured of lovesickness adds to the irony.

Pressing from behind Boccaccio’s ladies are men.  They are Boccaccio’s you, and Boccaccio’s you becomes they.  Men read women with the useful instruction of the Decameron, and then women’s suffering in lovesickness comes to an end.[6]  Boccaccio more than Ovid makes clear his concern for more than superficial linguistic brilliance.  Boccaccio’s magnanimously uses his freedom from courtly love to attend to women and men’s pleasures of flesh-and-blood love.  Boccaccio seeks to be a blessing.  May God grant through Boccaccio that men and women will be thankful for that love.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Hollander (1997) p. 89 describes the Proemio (preface) as “probably the most neglected part of the Decameron.”  Id. p. 90 further declares that the Decameron is “one of the worst read masterpieces that the world possesses.”  Hollander insightfully relates the Proemio to both Dante and Ovid:

If Boccaccio is Ovid, he is also Dante.  … The sense of an author-protagonist who has recently escaped from a life-threatening situation pervades both proemial passages {of Dante’s Commedia and Boccaccio’s Decameron}.  … In their former difficulty each is aided by the counsel of a ‘friend’: in Dante, this was Virgil, sent by Beatrice; in Boccaccio, as I have proposed, the adviser is Ovid.

Id. p. 101.  Id., pp. 93-100, associates the second part of the Proemio with Ovid’s Remedia amoris.  Hollander seems to me to under-estimate both Boccaccio’s Ovidian irony and his Dantean moral seriousness.

[2] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Preface, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 290.  All subsequent quotes from the Decameron are from Rebhorn’s translation.

[3] Presented and discussed in Hollander (1997) p. 99.  The relevant passage in Ovid is Heroides 19.5-16.

[4] Dante, Inferno 5.137.

[5] Kirkham (1993) pp. 118-9.  In 1373, Boccaccio wrote to Maghinardo Cavalcanti with consternation that “honorable ladies of your household” were reading the Decameron.  Id., p. 121, observes:

Courtly and stilnovistic conventions, which make it de rigueur to privilege woman, easily account for the sex of Boccaccio’s readers.

The privileging of women goes far beyond stilnovistic conventions.  Boccaccio formally writing for women is a far more sophisticated literary move than a mere literary convention.

[6] In the cant of contemporary criticism, the above is a unified reading.  Migiel (2003) and Sherberg (2011) put forward readings of the Decameron unified by contempt for men and ignorance of the realities of men’s lives throughout history.  Both cap their works with misandristic, injury-obscuring invocations of men’s violence against women.  The best response to such oppressive, soul-deadening criticism is to skip the class.

[image] Jean, Duke of Berry, receiving the book from the translator, Laurent de Premierfait; Royal 18 D VII f. 2, from Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by Laurent de Premierfait, De casibus virorum illustrium (Des cas des ruynes des nobles hommes et fammes).  France, c. 1440.  Thanks to the British Library.


Hollander, Robert. 1997. Boccaccio’s Dante and the shaping force of satire. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Kirkham, Victoria. 1993. The sign of reason in Boccaccio’s fiction. Firenze: L.S. Olschki.

Migiel, Marilyn. 2003. A Rhetoric of the Decameron. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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

Sherberg, Michael. 2011. The governance of friendship: law and gender in the Decameron. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.


criminal law doesn’t accommodate men’s sex differences

Why are ten times as many men held in prisons and jails as are women?  That’s because men are more aggressive and more risk-taking, if not just more evil, than women.  Why are five times as many men in the U.S. Congress as are women?  That’s because of discrimination against women and social devaluation of women.  If you don’t know those answers to those questions, you’re not well-educated and don’t belong in polite society.

criminalizing and incarcerating men

Criminal law accommodates sex differences, but not to reduce criminalization and punishment of men.  A leading neuroscientist’s best-selling books provide insight into sex differences and social development.  She describes men as providing the baseline of criminal behavior:

The social and scientific view of innate good behavior in girls is a misguided stereotype born out of the contrast with boys.  In comparison, girls come out smelling like roses. … By all standards, men are on average twenty times more aggressive than women, something that a quick look around a prison system will confirm. [1]

Criminal law doesn’t accommodate men’s greater aggressiveness.  Criminal law does, however, accommodate effects of women’s reproductive biology:

adolescent girls and adult women have regular, dramatic shifts in their moods and behavior because, in fact, the very structure of their brains is changing, from day to day and from week to week.  The medical name for an extreme emotional reaction during the weeks before the period, triggered by ovarian estrogen and progesterone hormones, is premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).  Women who have committed crimes while suffering from PMDD have successfully used it as a defense in France and England by establishing temporary insanity. [2]

In 2001, a woman in Texas confessed to drowning her five children.  At trial in 2002, a jury found her guilty of murder. That verdict was reversed due to the false testimony of an expert witness.  In a subsequent trial in 2006, another jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity.  A leading biological anthropologist provided the sort of view that evidently became influential:

the woman who drowned her five children in the bathtub in Texas is a tragic example of the need for a support system.  “She should not have been alone in that house with five young kids and a record of depression – it’s a no-brainer.  Not even a mentally healthy woman should have to be in that situation.” [3]

The need to have more persons at home with kids to prevent killings underscores the importance of improving men’s opportunities to withdraw from the paid labor force and spend time at home with their children.  More generally, most legal systems at least formally endorse equal justice under law.  But sex differences are significant to criminal law.  The neuroscientific scholar of sex differences observed:

pretending that women and men are the same, while doing a disservice to both men and women, ultimately hurts women. [4]

Human societies reflect human biological nature developed and expressed socially.  Human societies, like other primate societies, are gynocentric.  Humans, with their extraordinary intellectual capabilities and highly developed social institutions, have proven capable of acknowledging sex differences when they hurt women.  At the same time, human societies criminalize men with no regard for sex differences.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Brizendine (2006) p. 29.  Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a leading anthropologist, described id. as “a timely, insightful, readable, and altogether magnificent book” (quotation on book jacket).

[2] Id. p. 48.

[3] Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, in Dowling et al. (2003).

[4] Brizendine (2006) p. 161.

[image] Shata Prison.  Thanks to Ori and Wikipedia.


Brizendine, Louann. 2006. The female brain. New York: Morgan Road Books.

Dowling, Claudia Glenn, Jenny Gage, and Tom Betterton. 2003. “The Hardy Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.” Discover 24(3).


COB-93: best bureaucratic jobs are in paper

Despite the unfortunate development of new information technologies, the best bureaucratic jobs remain concerned with shuffling paper.  Deep within an abandoned coal mine in Pennsylvania, bureaucrats in outstanding jobs have worked for decades to this day processing the retirement paperwork for all federal government retirees.  They collect paper documents into files and then type the files into an electronic database.  Computers and electronic databases have changed a lot over the years.  But the job of collecting paper documents together into a file has changed little.  That job is unlikely to change rapidly in the future.  Shuffling paper makes for secure jobs.

paper is the soul of bureaucracy

The advantages of paper are many.  Paper has extremely low power consumption, is immune to cyber attacks, and doesn’t need to be constantly updated.  Paper is the most general interface technology for connecting different information systems.   Paper thus supports a wide variety of bureaucratic jobs:

I used to work for a medical billing company. My job was to print patient and billing information from a database. Then I would manually type all of the information that I just printed out into another database.  {forkboy2}

I used to work for a place called Orthonet where case managers would type physical therapy costs into a spreadsheet, print it out, and hand it to me and another guy to type it into another spreadsheet. We kept our mouths shut and collected that sweet $14/hr to be that extra cog in a very inefficient machine. {kegtech}

Almost every workplace I have been in has had mind-numbing soul-crushing inefficient manual tasks. Those tasks are almost inevitably designed a decade or more ago by the people who are now seniors/management. They don’t like to see their long refined process and work flushed down the drain and respond to any suggestions with absolute hostility.

It doesn’t matter how nicely you go about it; if you don’t love and adore and gush over their paperwork baby then they will view you and the rest of your opinions with contempt and slowly freeze you out until you’re out of a job. I fell for it the first few times. But eventually I worked out “open door policy” means tow the line or it’s game over. {im_cody}

Most reports, even if they are written electronically and never printed out, are designed to be printed.  They have a first page, and another page, and another page, and another page, etc., until the last page.  That organization allows management to count easily how many pages of work employees have done.  Reports intended to be weighty must be printed on heavy paper.  A paper report must be filed in a cabinet to show that it has enduring value.   No one cares about datasets.  But reports produced are measurable outputs.  Paper, whether actually used or not, is the controlling form for bureaucracy.  Shuffling paper is the soul of bureaucracy.  It’s the substance of the best bureaucratic jobs.

In other bureaucratic issues this month, financial services companies are pondering how to migrate automated teller machines (ATMs) from legacy Windows XP systems.  If financial services companies had remained with tellers processing paper deposit and withdrawal slips, they wouldn’t now be facing the difficult question of how to migrate from Windows XP.

Microsoft recently released the source code for the MS-DOS operating system from 1981.  Releasing this code undoubtedly required many levels of management approval.  Hence it’s not surprising that it took 33 years for the code to be released.  Open-source projects that release code more rapidly should consider whether they are staying current with best bureaucratic practices.

A Harvard Business Review blog has ignored obvious bureaucratic economics in examining “why good managers are so rare.”  These management experts think that the limiting factor is inmate managerial talent:

Most companies promote workers into managerial positions because they seemingly deserve it, rather than because they have the talent for it. This practice doesn’t work. Experience and skills are important, but people’s talents — the naturally recurring patterns in the ways they think, feel, and behave — predict where they’ll perform at their best. Talents are innate and are the building blocks of great performance. Knowledge, experience, and skills develop our talents, but unless we possess the right innate talents for our job, no amount of training or experience will matter.

That’s ridiculous.  The easiest way to look like a good manager to hire a lot of other bad managers.  By continually increasing the ranks of management, bureaucratic development works to increase the number of good managers. If good managers are rare, the cause is bureaucratic under-development.

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.

Wednesday’s flowers

Desert Parsley in Oregon

Alibech, Rustico, and the life of Saint Pelagia

A story in Boccaccio’s Decameron is set in the Egyptian desert of the desert fathers.  The young hermit Rustico dwelling there unexpectedly encountered the beautiful girl Alibech.  Dioneo, the narrator of this story, foretells the story as putting the Devil back into Hell:

I want to tell you how to do it.  Perhaps you’ll even be able to save your souls once you’ve learned it. [1]

Dioneo’s story should be understood in the context of the Life of Saint Pelagia, an early Christian story of ascetic holiness.  Both Dioneo’s story and the Life of Saint Pelagia affirm the natural goodness of human sexuality.  They also recognize the human tendency toward deception and self-centeredness.  At the beginning of the Decameron, Pampinea chartered the brigata with the fullness of good life:

We should go and stay on one of our various country estates, shunning the wicked practices of others like death itself, but having as much fun as possible, feasting and making merry, without ever trespassing the sign of reason in any way. [2]

In Dioneo’s story and the Life of Saint Pelagia, the sign of reason mirrors the sign of selfless self-giving in true love.

He who moves heaven and all of its stars
Made me, for His delight,
Refined and charming, graceful, too, and fair,
To give to lofty spirits here below
A certain sign of that
Beauty abiding ever in His sight.
But mortals imperfect,
Who can’t see what I am,
Find me unpleasing, nay, treat me with scorn. [3]

In the Life of Saint Pelagia, Pelagia’s well-cultivated physical beauty served as inspiration to a higher beauty.  Pelagia was an actress, dancer, and courtesan.  In the company of young men and wearing nothing but jewelry, Pelagia paraded by Bishop Nonnus and other bishops.  Bishop Nonnus intently looked at her.  He delighted in her beauty.  Her beauty inspired him to cultivate beauty of the soul to please God the eternal lover.  His fellow bishops lacked that lofty spirit.  They scorned Pelagia’s obvious physical beauty.  They thus deceived themselves and denied natural male sexuality.[4]

Saint Ursicinus, a hermit saint

The story of Alibech and Rustico plays these keys of asceticism and beauty, self-centeredness and deception.  The story begins with unreason.  Alibech was the fourteen-year-old daughter of a very rich man in the Muslim land of Tunisia.  She was naive and not conscious of her own contradictory motivations:

She was not a Christian, but having heard how greatly the Christian faith and the service of God were praised by the numerous Christians living in the city, one day she asked one of them how God could be served best and with the least difficulty.[5]

Christians praising the Christian faith isn’t reasonably inspiring to non-Christians.  A desire to best serve God isn’t consistent with a desire to serve God with the least difficulty.  In any case, a Christian told Alibech that she could best serve God by becoming a holy recluse in the desert.  Alibech unreasonably sought to do just that:

the following morning, moved not by a reasonable desire, but rather by a childish whim, she set out secretly for the Theban desert all by herself without letting anyone know what she was doing.

Alibech set out into the desert as an unholy fool.

Rustico led himself into temptation with Alibech.  In the desert, Alibech went up to a holy man’s hut and asked him to teach her how to serve God.  The hermit, with appreciation for his natural sexual desire for a beautiful girl, told her that he could not be her teacher.  He advised her to seek someone more capable.  Another hermit similarly advised Alibech.  Then she came to Rustico.  He was willing to put himself to the test.  He took Alibech into his cell and made a bed for her from palm fronds.  His holy resolve soon dissolved.  He designed a scheme to gain consensual carnal knowledge of Alibech.

Rustico told Alibech that the most pleasing service to God is to put the Devil back into Hell.  Rustico told the girl to do whatever he did.  Then he took all his clothes off.  He knelt down and had her kneel down just in front of him:

as they knelt in this way, and Rustico felt his desire growing hotter than ever at the sight of her beauty, the resurrection of the flesh took place.  Staring at it in amazement, she said, “Rustico, what’s that thing I see sticking out in front of you, the thing I don’t have?”

Holy hermits aspired to put their flesh to death symbolically with ascetic practices.  The resurrection of the flesh — Rustico’s penal erection — was a reversal of monastic asceticism.[6]  Echoing the disparagement of men’s genitals in medieval European literature, Rustico described his penis as the Devil.  He described Alibech’s vagina as Hell.  With Alibech’s enthusiatic consent, Rustico put the Devil back into Hell.  They went on to put the Devil back into Hell seven times, a virtuous number, before they rested for awhile.  Alibech came to enjoy immensely putting the Devil back into Hell.  At her insistence, they had sex even when Rustico didn’t want to.  According to the United Nations’ judgment of criminality, Alibech raped Rustico repeatedly.  Rustico became thin and exhausted.   In a symbolic transfer of Alibech’s fiery lust, her father’s house burned down, killing him and all his family except for Alibech.

The story of Alibech and Rustico represents self-centeredness and deception.  Personal whim propelled Alibech out into the desert to seek to serve the Christian understanding of God.  After she experienced sex, she insistently demanded sex with no respect for Rustico’s exhaustion.  Beneath Alibech’s expressed desire to serve God was her own self-centeredness.  Rustico, on the other hand, betrayed his ascetic commitment as a monk and intentionally deceived Alibech with his story of putting the Devil back into Hell.

Beyond Alibech’s and Rustico’s problems of sexual desire are more important problems of self-centeredness and deception.  True love, which can encompass sexual love, is impossible with deception and self-centeredness.  That’s the higher meaning of Boccaccio’s story of Alibech and Rustico.[7]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 3, story 10, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 290.  Id. Notes, n. 1, p. 889 states, “There are only the vaguest antecedents for this story.”  Several early saints were named Rustico (Rusticus): Saint Rusticus of Verona (died c. 290),  Saint Rusticus of Narbonne (died c. 461), and Saint Rusticus of Lyon (died 501).  While two of these saints were bishops, Rustico also suggests “rustic” or uncultured.  Alibech sounds Arabic and is thus appropriate for a girl from Tunisia.  An early fifteenth-century text from North Africa tells the story of men who were sexual heroes and who would have been Alibech’s equals.

[2] Id. Day 1, Intro., trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 16.  I’ve replaced “overstepping the bounds of reason” with “trespassing the sign of reason” based on Kirkham (1993), Introduction.

[3] Decameron, Day 3, Conclusion, Lauretta’s song, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 298.  The first line quoted above parallels the end of Dante’s Commedia in Paradiso, 33.145, “The love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Id. Notes, p. 890, n. 3.  Id n. 4 observes of Lauretta’s song:

Critics have attempted to link it to Boccaccio’s own life and to allegorize it in various ways, but with little success.

The relevant allegory seems to me to be the speaker of the song having been the bride of Christ, also understood as the Church.  In addition to the stanza quoted above, a key line:

Although I’d come to earth
For all men’s good, of one I’m now the slave.

That line makes little sense realistically and personally. It makes sense allegorically as representing the political position of the Church in Florence at a specific time.

[4] The Life of Saint Pelagia was a hagiography that probably originated in a mid-fifth-century Syro-Palestinian milieu.  It was well-known in medieval Italy; a Latin translation survives in a late-twelfth-century or early thirteenth-century Italian manuscript.  Here’s discussion of the Life of Pelagia, with citations to source texts.  Storey (1982), pp. 164-7, discusses the tale of Alibech and Rustico in relation to the literary tradition of Vite Patrum, but doesn’t mention the Life of Saint Pelagia.

[5] Decameron, Day 3, story 10, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 290.  All subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 291-2.

[6] Illustrating perennial social repression of strong, independent male sexuality, the story of Alibech and Rustico was multilated and repressed in editions of the Decameron from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century:  “this story — when printed at all — was sometimes so radically abridged or altered as to be rendered virtually unrecognizable if not downright nonsensical.”  Kirkham (1981) pp. 79-80.  In English translations, sometimes the key passage wasn’t translated.

[7] Emphasizing the story’s context in Day 3, in the Decameron, and in all of Boccoccio’s works, Kirkham (1981) reads the story of Alibech and Rustico to instruct, “Illicit love leads to perdition.”  Id. p. 93.  Alibech is forced to return to town and marry.  Rustico, after burdensome sexual demands, is restored to his betrayed monastic solitude.  Those outcomes are less than Alibech’s and Rustico’s ill-formed desires, but not necessarily equal to perdition.  Moreover, “illicit love leads to perdition” is rather vague instruction for students.  Is sex outside of the legal institution of marriage necessarily illicit?  Boccaccio, one might reasonably suppose, pondered that question.

[image] Saint Ursicinus, a hermit living about 600 in present-day Switzerland. Thanks to Yesuitus2001 and Wikipedia.


Kirkham, Victoria. 1981. “Love’s labors rewarded and paradise lost (Decameron, III, 10).” Romanic Review, vol. LXXII, no. 1, pp. 79-83.  Reprinted as Ch. 6 in Kirkham (1993).

Kirkham, Victoria. 1993. The sign of reason in Boccaccio’s fiction. Firenze: L.S. Olschki.

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

Storey, Harry Wayne. 1982. “Parodic Structure in ‘Alibech and Rustico’: Antecedents and Traditions.” Canadian Journal of Italian Studies 5 (3), pp. 163-176.


gods and physicians in ancient Greek inscriptions and epigrams

In Greco-Roman antiquity, infirm or sick persons seeking cures went to temples dedicated to the Asclepius, the god of medicine.  These temples, called Asclepeia, displayed inscriptions describing cures.  The inscriptions typically described the name of the person, the nature of the infirmity or illness, and the way in which the person was cured.  Cures often involved sleeping in the Asclepeion and having a dream that provided instructions for a cure (incubation).  Here’s a roughly 2400-year-old inscription from the Asclepeion at Epidaurus:

Ambrosia from Athens, blind in one eye.  She came as a suppliant to the god.  Walking about the sanctuary, she ridiculed some of the cures as being unlikely and impossible, the lame and the blind becoming well from only seeing a dream.  Sleeping here, she saw a vision.  It seemed to her the god came to her and said he would make her well, but she would have to pay a fee by dedicating a silver pig in the sanctuary as a memorial of her ignorance.  When he had said these things, he cut her sick eye and poured a medicine over it.  When day came she left well. [1]

This inscription describes a cure of blindness and skepticism.  It also indicates the god, or temple operatives, looking out for their material interests.  Diogenes the Cynic sought to cure entreaties to Aesclepius:

One day he saw a woman prostrating herself before the gods in an indecent position, and wishing to free her of superstition, according to Zolus of Perga, he came forward and said, “Are you not afraid, my good woman, that a god may be standing behind you?  — for all things are full of his presence — and you may be put to shame?”  He consecrated to Asclepius a fierce ruffian who, whenever people prostrated themselves, would run up to them and beat them up. [2]

The account suggests Diogenes viewing the woman from behind and assimilating the god to himself.  Diogenes made praying for blessing into an invocation for a beating.  In the ancient Greco-Roman world of pervasive gods, humans both sought miracles from gods and ridiculed petitions to them.

sculpture of the god Jupiter de Smyrne, a Roman version of Zeus

Physician similarly generated hope, doubt, question, and ridicule.  Physicians presented themselves as inheritors of the healing powers of Asclepius.  An epigram  from the Milan Posidippus celebrates the healing skill of the physician Medeios, son of Lampon:

Like this bronze which, drawing shallow breath up over
its bones, scarcely gathers life into its eyes,
such were the ones he used to save from disease, that man who discovered
how to treat the dreadful bite of the Libyan asp,
Medeios, son of Lampon, from Olynthos, to whom his father
gave all the panacea of Asclepius’ sons.
To you, O Pythian Apollo, in token of his craft
he dedicated this shriveled frame, the remnant of a man. [3]

Living, speaking sculptures are standard figures in ancient Greek epigrams.  In this epigram, the bronze sculpture figures a shriveled man near to death, but not beyond the reach of Medeios’s healing art.  A Greek epigram from the first century presents a sharply contrasting view of a physician:

The physician Marcus laid his hand yesterday on the stone Zeus, and though he is of stone and Zeus, he is to be buried today. [4]

The living sculpture here is Zeus, the King of the gods and the father of Apollo.  The touch of the physician Marcus kills the stone sculpture of Zeus and causes it to be buried.  That could be interpreted as the reverse of dedicating a sculpture.  An insightful reading of the Medeios epigram suggests that it’s implicitly critical of Medeios’s immoderate claim to skill.[5] A physician treating Zeus, in the form of a stone sculpture not rigidly distinct from the god, is highly immoderate.  The Marcus epigram is consistent with criticism of physicians’ presumption.

Both gods and physicians healed.  Both gods and physicians acted within circumstances of swirling beliefs and doubts.

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Read more:


[1] From the shrine of Asclepius at Epidaurus, inscription A4, from Greek trans. LiDonnici (1995) p. 89.  On healing shrines in fifth and fourth-century BGC Greece, Nutton (2013) Ch. 7.

[2] Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Bk. VI.37-38, from Greek trans. adapted from Robert Drew Hicks (1925) and Bing (2009) p. 239.

[3] Posidippus, Epigrams (Pap Mil. Vogl. VIII 309), AB 95, from Greek trans. Peter Bing.  Bing (2009), pp. 217-233, discusses the collection of seven healing epigrams (iamatika) in the Milan Posidippus Papyrus.  He observes that they draw upon the conventions of healing inscriptions (iamata) in Asclepeia.

[4] GA 11.113.  The epigram is attributed to Nicarchus.  Many satirical Greek epigrams directed against physicians exist in the Greek Anthology.  See, e.g. GA 11.112-126, 11.257.  Here’s GA 11.125:

The physician Crateas and the graveyard manager Damon made a joint conspiracy.  Damon sent the wrappings he stole from the grave-clothes to his dear Crateas to use as bandages and Crateas in return sent him all his patients to bury.

The first-century Latin writer Martial also composed epigrams against physicians.  Pliny described physicians as greedy, unscrupulous, and deadly to their patients.  Those were common themes in ancient satire of physicians.  A physician killing a statue of a god is rather more unusual.

[5] Wickkiser (2013).  Zeus punished Asclepius for bringing a dead man back to life.  Restoring the dead was a sign of the perfect physician.   The Libyan asp’s bite was regarded to be incurably fatal.  Claiming to cure its bite was extraordinary.


Bing, Peter. 2009. The scroll and the marble: studies in reading and reception in Hellenistic poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

GA: Paton, W.R. 1920. The Greek Anthology with an English Translation. London: William Heinemann (vol. I, bks. 1-6; vol. II, bks. 7-8; vol. III, bk. 9; vol IV, bks. 10-12; vol. V, bks. 13-16). (epigrams indicated GA {bk}.{epigram # within bk})

LiDonnici, Lynn R. 1995. The Epidaurian miracle inscriptions. Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Press.

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

Wickkiser, Bronwen L. 2013. “The Iamatika of the Milan Posidippus.” The Classical Quarterly. 63 (02): 623-632.


male dominance is socially constructed belief

Highly individualistic, materialistic, and competitive societies favor belief in male dominance.   In an influential book written in 1981, a highly regarded anthropologist in a highly individualistic, materialistic, and competitive society noted:

It has long been customary among members of our species to assume that males are dominant over females.[1]

An intellectual response to a mere custom is to ask “Why assume that?”  Here’s the anthropologist’s answer:

in generation after generation, species after species, or in the human case, culture after culture, primate males have been able to dominate females and to translate superior fighting ability into political preeminence over the seemingly {sic} weaker and less competitive sex. … on those occasions when a male and a female covet the same fig or the same safe crotch of a tree to spend the night, it will typically be the male who gets it.[2]

Concern about the distribution of the richest material goods and the choicest social positions defines a concept of dominance likely to be of acute concern to elites fighting for these goods in an individualistic, materialistic society.  More fundamental measures of welfare are length of lifespan and the share of organisms who produce at least some offspring.  On these measures primate females on average surely rank higher than primate males.  Belief in male dominance shows social vision focused on the best goods and the most privileged individuals.

rabbit doll ponders male dominance

Belief in male dominance isn’t part of reasonable thinking about social reality.  Try thinking about dominance outside of well-entrenched customs of public deliberation and the dominant discourse.  Was your mother’s life less abundant and less full of joy than your father’s life?  Was your grandmother worse off than your grandfather?  Many persons with sensitivity to the fullness of real life would not easily reach a definitive answer to those questions.  Moreover, those questions point to some important objective facts: you may not know your father very well.  Fathers on average are more likely to be displaced from their children’s lives than are mothers.  Fathers also on average die earlier than mothers.  More generally, men tend to predominate among the richest and most powerful persons, and among the poorest and most marginalized persons.  At the level of fundamental reproductive biology, men have paternity legally assigned to them in completely mendacious ways, and men are socially denied practically attainable knowledge of who their offspring actually are.  Belief in male dominance obscures this social reality.

Belief in male dominance is commonly coupled with denial of matriarchy.  The anthropologist who declared the assumption of male dominance also declared, “outside of myth, I know of no evidence that any matriarchal societies ever existed.”[3]  Interpreted literally, matriarchy means rule by mothers.  The rulers of most societies throughout human history have been men, not mothers.  Considerable evidence exists, however, that primate societies are organized around females.  Much evidence also exists of female control over males through sexual power and superior social communication skills.  Matriarchy in an operational sense is best understood as gynocentrism, i.e. society organized around women and predominately concerned about serving women.  Belief in male dominance is socially constructed to obscure the reality of gynocentrism.

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Read more:


[1] Hrdy (1981) p. 11.

[2] Id. pp. 16, 18.  Hrdy’s biography points to important aspects of social dominance apart from physical strength.  Hrdy not only lives in the U.S., but is a member of a family that has been highly successful within the U.S.  Hrdy grew up in Texas, where her father was a wealthy member of an oil-rich family.  Hrdy’s mother attended Wellesley College, an elite women’s college.  Hrdy also attended Wellesley College.  For a featured biography of Hrdy, see Dowling, Gage, and Betterton (2003).

[3] Hrdy (1999) p. 252.


Dowling, Claudia Glenn, Jenny Gage, and Tom Betterton. 2003. “The Hardy Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.” Discover 24(3).

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1981. The woman that never evolved. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1999. Mother nature: a history of mothers, infants, and natural selection. New York, Pantheon Books.


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