Peter of Blois on human nature & misery from pleasures

Rembrandt as laughing philospher Democritus

Literature from long ago can critique currently dominant ways of thinking. A lover of wisdom laughed, and another mourned:

habitually laughed
at each and every meeting,
seeing people everywhere
swarming in error,
today he would not restrain his smile,
and Diogenes in his wine barrel
wouldn’t cease to mourn.
{Ridere solitus
ad occursus singulos,
late videns populos
erroribus fervere,
modo risum non frenaret,
dolioque non cessaret
Diogenes lugere.} [1]

The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus pioneered an atomistic, materialist understanding of the world. The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes insisted that living in accord with reason means living in accord with human nature. Peter of Blois invoked these ancient Greek philosophers in a twelfth-century Latin poem describing conflicting desires and falsely subjective understanding of happiness:

One nonetheless believes himself happy
who enjoys
a passion
by which he is led.
Happy indeed one is called
with regard to the soul.
The lives of humans
are revolved by conflicting pursuits.
Equal nonetheless is their end;
the same conclusion awaits them.
Each one wanders in her own way;
she is happy in her error,
as long as she has what she desires.
{Felix tamen creditur
qui fruitur
quo ducitur
Felix enim dicitur
animi respectu.
Volvuntur studiis
contrariis hominum circuitus.
Par est tamen exitus;
par finis hos expectat.
Errat suo quisquie more;
suo felix est errore,
dum tenet quod affectat.

The poem’s insistently repeated refrain declares:

Various ways
in error
one is sent wandering.
per devia

How should Peter of Blois and those he advised live their lives?[2] In pondering that question, Peter of Blois brought ancient Greek figures to his twelfth-century circumstances.

Understanding of human nature contrasts with contrived, made-up stories. Both were aspects of ancient Greek culture. Peter of Blois’s enlightened use of ancient Greek stories involved actively re-interpreting them:

Mystical fictions,
which Greece
playfully contrived in made-up stories,
now that the clouds have been dispersed,
are going out into the world
and coming into the light
as ingenious explanations.
{Mistica mendacia,
que Grecia
finxit ludens fabulis,
dissolutis nebulis,
in eventus exeunt,
et in lucem prodeunt
commenta fabulosa.} [3]

Peter of Blois re-interpreted Greek myth in terms of the lives of twelfth-century courtiers. Tantalus is the one longing for wealth amid riches. Daedalus builds a labyrinth of ambitions in which he is trapped. A courtier’s confused wishes place him, like Ixion, on the revolving wheel of fortune. Great lords drink in flattery like King Midas with an ass’s ears. Another courtier, changeable like Proteus, betrays faith with multifarious promises. Under the compulsion of Venus, some courtiers pursue young women, others old women, some married women, others virgins, and still others boys.[4]

Peter of Blois had a dialogic sensibility. In his poetic dialogue between a courtier and a pious admonisher, the courtier declares:

Only fools make themselves unhappy
of their own free will
{Stulti sunt qui miseri
volunt sponte fieri} [5]

Peter of Blois’s poem that begins with Democritus laughing and Diogenes mourning ends with complex observations on individuality and human nature:

Thus, as long as life is lived far and wide,
as long as there is seeking for
what is sweeter for each,
a changeable method brings pleasures by various
nonetheless, as long as his own delights
each enjoys,
follows equally.
{Sic, dum vage vivitur,
dum queritur
quid cuique sit dulcius
(modis) affert variis
tamen, dum deliciis
quisque suis fruitur
par sequitur
voluptas.} [6]

Subjective pleasure-seeking secures equally for each pleasure corrupted by misery, the misery of wandering various ways in error. Another of Peter of Blois’s poems associates human being with nature in atomistic understanding:

Our physical self
follows the elements,
and in the season’s warmth
it is touched to the depths.
{Homo noster carneus
elementa sequitur
et calore temporis
ad profundum tangitur.} [7]

As for free will, perhaps that’s a fiction:

the allurement of beauty
creates the causes of love.
{blandimentum decoris
causas creat amoris.} [8]

Human nature nonetheless makes persons — collections of material elements — believe that they can choose. If you believe you can choose, choose to lead your life with understanding of human nature.

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[1] Ridere solitus st. 1, from manuscript Oxford Bodley Additional A.44, f. 45r-45v, printed in Wilmart (1958) pp. 37-9.  This poem as a whole survives only in that manuscript. Moser (2004) pp. 223-4 provides the Latin text from Wilmart and adds an English translation. I’ve adapted Moser’s translation. To make the Latin text more easily readable, I’ve converted u to v where appropriate. The subsequent two quotes are from id. st. 2, and refrain. The refrain occurs after each half-strophe. That’s a “very unusual feature” in a rhymed rhythmic sequence of classical form. Dronke (1976) p. 224, note to 21.

This poem is given the title Misère constante des différents plaisirs (Constant misery from various pleasures) in Wilmart (1958) p. 37, no. 9. On its attribution to Peter of Blois, Dronke (1976) p. 228, no. 41. As Moser (2004) p. 422, n. 67 observes, stanza 4a of Ridere solitus occurs in a chronicle. The stanza there is explicitly ascribed to Peter of Blois. See Dronke (1976) pp. 231-2, no. 52.

[2] Peter of Blois corresponded with twelfth-century intellectual, religious, and political leaders. On his letters, Cotts (2009). His letter collection subsequently was relatively popular and has survived in 250 manuscripts. It’s available, along with other works of Peter of Blois (Petri Blesensis) in Patrologia Latina 207. On textual issues with respect to the letter collection, Cotts (2009), Appendix.

Ambivalence and sic et non {yes and no} characterize Peter of Blois’s letters and poetry. In Epistle 14, he states that “the courtier’s life is the death of the soul.” From Latin trans. Dronke (1976) p. 194. In Epistle 150, he declares with respect to the choice to be a courtier:

Let each person follow and keep to the decision of his own will.

Trans. id. p. 196.

[3] Ridere solitus st. 3, from Latin trans. Moser (2004) p. 225, adapted above. In Epistle 76, Peter of Blois chides a correspondent (who may have been a projection of himself) about ancient Greek culture:

What are they to you, these vanities and false insanities? … What’s Jove to you, what’s Hercules to you?

Trans. Dronke (1976) p. 197. Subsequent stanzas of Ridere solitus inculturate ancient Greek figures in the twelfth-century European court, as described above.

[4] In ancient Greek myth, Apollo transformed King Midas’s ears into an ass’s ears for not judging his music to be superior. On the origins of that myth, Vassileva (2008). The association of King Midas’s ears with flattery seems to have been a medieval interpretation.

The twelfth-century courtier Walter Map in his De Nugis Curialium compared the court to Hell with twelfth-century inculturations of Tantalus, Sisyphus, Ixion, Tityus, the Daughter of Belus, Cerberus, and probably Charon. De Nugis Curialium Dist. 1, chs. 2-9, Latin text and English translation in James, Brooke & Mynors (1983) pp. 8-11. Map began with an ironic understanding of self:

I may say that in the court I exist and of the court I speak, and what the court is, God knows, I know not.

De Nugis Curialium Dist. 1, ch. 1, id. pp. 2-3. Similarly, Dist. 5, ch. 7, pp. 499-509.

MS Oxford Bodleian Library MS Add. A44, no. 14, Omnis uere confiten uere Christum colit, inculturates Tantalas, Sisyphus, and Ixion as punishment for contemporary misers. For very brief discussion, Rigg (1984) pp. 1-2.

[5] Quod amicus suggerit 6.1-2, MS Oxford Bodley Additional A.44, f. 61r-61v, Latin text and English translation Dronke (1976) p. 207.

[6] Ridere solitus st. 6b, Latin text and English translation in Moser (2004) p. 426, n. 76. I’ve adapted the translation. Two syllables in line 4 of the Latin stanza apparently are missing. The word modus is Labowsky’s conjecture. Wilmart (1958) p. 39, note.

[7] Blandus aure spiritus st. 4.1-4, MS Cambridge Corpus Christi 228, f. 129, Latin text and English translation in Dronke (1976) p. 204. Estuans intrinsicus (Burning inside / The Archpoet’s Confession), st 1.3-4, has a similar sense of material self:

from elemental ashes formed, mere matter,
as the wind lashes, like a leaf I flutter.
{factus de materia    levis elementi
folio sum similis,    de quo ludunt venti.}

Carmina Burana 191, trans. A.S. Kline (alternative Latin text).

[8] Blandus aure spiritus st. 2.9-10, id.

[image] The Young Rembrandt as Democritus the Laughing Philosopher, detail with color & contrast normalization. Painting, oil on copper. Rembrandt, c. 1628. Held in J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Cotts, John D. 2009. The clerical dilemma: Peter of Blois and literate culture in the twelfth century. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1976. “Peter of Blois and Poetry at the Court of Henry II.” Mediaeval Studies. 38: 185-235.

James, M. R. ed. and trans., Christopher N. L. Brooke, and Roger A. B. Mynors, rev. 1983. De Nugis Curialium: Courtiers’ Trifles. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford University Press.

Moser, Thomas C. 2004. A cosmos of desire: the medieval Latin erotic lyric in English manuscripts. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Rigg, A. G. 1984. “Eraclius Archpoeta: Bekynton Anthology Nos. 14, 15, 20, 77.” Medium Aevum 53(1): 1-9.

Vassileva, Maya. 2008. “King Midas’ Ass’s Ears Revisited.” Ancient West & East {Leuven: Peeters} 7: 237-48.

Wilmart, André. 1958. “Le florilège mixte de Thomas Bekynton.” Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies {The Warburg Institute, London} 4: 35-90. First part of article in 1941, Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies 1: 41-84.

Arundel Lyrics connect eros, God, invective & praise

Bosch's Wayfarer

The Arundel Lyrics appear to be a haphazard collection of twelfth-century Latin poems. The first sixteen poems concern a cleric-scholar desiring carnal love. The next seven celebrate the incarnation of God. Then three poems harshly condemn church leaders. The subsequent poem lavishly praises a bishop. The final poem ponders what sort of woman to choose for the most delightful carnal love.[1] The individual poems are learned and subtle. Despite apparent thematic disparities, the Arundel Lyrics is a collection artfully constructed like its individual poems.

The praise poem in the Arundel Lyrics compiles well-known concepts and abstract, conventional praise claims. It begins with a second-personal address to a bishop. That seems to be artful misdirection. The bishop is a jewel among bishops, his fame shines, and he adds luster to the realm. He is both a marvel of nature and a mirror of the form that others should strive to become. Medieval thought distinguished three estates of society and also conceived of the Christian church as the mystical body of Christ.[2] The praise poem replaces the three estates with well-known abstractions and transfers the collective body to the bishop:

There are those in whom virtue dwells,
whom nature ennobles,
whom fortune exalts.
There is a tripartite order of society,
but in you the three classes
are an assembly made one.
{Sunt, quos virtus inhabitat,
quos natura nobilitat,
quod evehit fortuna,
Est ordo triplex hominum,
set in te trium ordinum
colleccio fit una.} [3]

After four stanzas abstractly elaborating on the tripartite figure, the poem moves on to the four cardinal virtues. The poem abstractly elaborates on the four cardinal virtues, eventually mixing in the tripartite abstractions and the three theological virtues. The penultimate stanza coyly presents the writer as an anonymous courtier:

One might ask — and not unreasonably —
who am I, who presumes to write for you,
even though I am nameless,
I am to you deeply
dedicated to your will
and devoted to your kindness.
{Queri potest nec temere,
quis sum, qui tibi scribere
presumo vel ignotus,
ego sum tue penitus
et voluntati deditus
et gracie devotus.}

The praise poem’s last stanza figures the bishop as Jesus and the writer as his mother Mary. The poem’s final words refer to Mary / the courtier “filled with graces and esteemed before all others in the humility of a maidservant.”[4] Written so as to be suitable for any courtier to offer to any bishop, the praise poem is best understood as a burlesque of sycophancy.

The poems of the Arundel Lyrics condemning church leaders caricature common criticisms. The second of the condemning poems begins with a sarcastic figure of self-righteousness:

Among the herd of bishops,
scarcely is there except one
worthy of the rank.
{De grege pontificum
vix est preter unicum
dignitate dignus} [5]

That one is unfaithful, avaricious, and criminal. He abuses pleasures and is a slave to his appetites. He ends feasts by vomiting, seeks always to be drunk, and fornicates with any available male or female whore. He sells favors, engages in vicious lawsuits, and bribes judges. He wishes that he, rather than Judas, had been able to sell out Jesus. The most vehement claims with which men have protested against dominant, abusive women are applied to the bishop:

Because he is a trap of deceit,
a pit of vices,
a pond of filth,
as many as the rivers that flow into the sea,
so many the crimes in him,
come together in one.
{Cum sit fraudis laqueus,
viciorum puteus,
sordium lacuna,
quot in mare flumina,
tot in ipsum crimina
confluxerunt una.}

The first and third of the condemning poems of the Arundel Lyrics indicate that the problem isn’t just this one bishop. The whole clerical order and all of the Roman curia are preoccupied with merchandising, extortion, and simony. Their glory is in gluttony and lust.

The condemning poems of the Arundel Lyrics in context are more than invective. The first stanza of the first of these poems presents the poet amid the throng of humanity:

Although sick among the sickly
and anonymous among the nameless,
I will nonetheless serve as a whetstone for others,
assume a bishop’s prerogative.
Weep, daughters of Zion!
The guardians of the church
today follow
Christ from afar.
{Licet eger cum egrotis
et ignotus cum ignotis,
fungar tamen vice cotis,
ius usurpans sacerdotis.
Flete, Syon filie!
Presides ecclesie
imitantur hodie
Christum a remotis.} [6]

Following Christ from afar echoes the self-righteousness of the condemned bishop, who is like the Pharisee:

God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. [7]

The Arundel Lyrics‘s third condemning poem refers to a profitable double fiction:

For when he thus makes known,
when he reveals what he aims at,
the polished fiction
doubles the profit for him.
{Dum sic enim predicat,
dum quid agat indicat,
questum sibi duplicat
ficcio polita.} [8]

The following praise poem doubles the polished fiction of the purely bad or purely good church leader.

The seven poems celebrating the incarnation of God, like the sixteen poems explaining the cleric-scholar’s desire for carnal love, represent wonderful and troubling mixtures. The father sitting on a throne of supreme majesty became a poor child:

The child given to us
wails in a stall,
placed between
two animals;
the one born of eternity is,
for a little while,
lower than those whose creator he is.
{Vagit in presepio
puer nobis datus,
duum animalium
medio locatus;
ab his, quorum factor est,
paulo minoratus,
ab eterno natus} [9]

The Incarnation saved humanity by joining unlike parts:

O parts
wonderful act of joining,
those born
of flesh doomed to perish!
{O parcium
mirabilis iunctura,
de carne peritura!} [10]

Pure forms aren’t reality in the mundane world. The world was redeemed by God entering into the mixture.

The final poem of the Arundel Lyrics presents the poet pondering choices among different forms. The choices are women defined characteristically: the fickle woman, the immature girl, the old woman. These women are no more real than the completely corrupt clerical order and the abstractly praised bishop of the previous poems. The final poem ends with the first instance of its refrain:

So mine, so mine,
delightful love, delightful Venus.
{Tam mea, tam meus,
deliciosus amor, deliciosa Venus.} [11]

There is no more to this poem after this childish exclamation. It brings within one person the human emptiness of the condemning poems and the praise poem. The final love poem in the Arundel Lyrics is much less humane than the first sixteen. Their separation in the collection surely is intentional and telling.

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[1] The Arundel Lyrics are poems copied as prose in the fourteenth-century manuscript British Library Arundel 384. The manuscript also contains:

part 3 of the pseudo-Ovidian De vetula, with commentary, the twenty-eight twelfth-century lyrics {Arundel Lyrics}, excerpts from Cicero’s De officiis, a treatise on the astrolabe, and an alphabetical index to Boethius’s Consolation

Moser (2004) p. 241. Id p. 242 notes:

the sense of stylistic and intellectual coherence presented by the collection {the Arundel Lyrics} has for a long time encouraged scholars to search for an author.

Arundel Lyrics 24 has been attributed to Walther of Châtillon. McDonough (2010) Introduction, pp. vii-viii. Dronke assigns nineteen of the Arundel Lyrics to Peter of Blois. Dronke (1976), Appendix A, pp. 215-35. On debate about Dronke’s ascriptions, Moser (2004) pp. 242-5. The analysis above supports the view that one author composed all of the Arundel Lyrics. It further suggests that the same author also composed the collection.

[2] On the church as Christ’s corpus mysticum, the king’s two bodies, and the body politic, Kantorowicz (1957).

[3] Arundel Lyrics 27 (O tu gemma pontificum) ll. 13-18, Latin text and English translation in McDonough (2010) pp. 58-9.  I’ve adapted McDonough’s English translation. The subsequent quote is from id. ll. 139-44. All subsequent quotes from the Arundel Lyrics are similarly from McDonough (2010).

The English translations above are meant to encourage the reader to read the Latin, even without any knowledge of medieval Latin. Some of the sound and rhyme of the Latin will be apparent to most readers without any knowledge of Latin. I’ve lineated the English translation to correspond to the Latin poetic lines. In some cases I’ve switched the order of English lines relative to the Latin for more easily intelligible English syntax. The English translation, to the extent feasible, facilitates the reader guessing the general meaning of the associated Latin words.

[4] Id. ll. 148-50:

a quo repleta graciis
est respecta graciis
humilitas ancille.

The praise poem, which spreads out in 150 lines, has more lines than any other poem in the Arundel Lyrics. The next longest poem is a condemning poem of 138 lines, Arundel Lyrics 25 (De grege pontificum). The longest poems in this collection are the least humanly complex.

[5] Arundel Lyrics 25 (De grege pontificum) ll. 1-3. The subsequent quote above is from id. ll. 109-14.

[6] Arundel Lyrics 24 (Licet eger cum egrotis) ll. 1-8.

[7] Luke 18:11.

[8] Arundel Lyrics 26 (Si quis dicit, “Roma, vale”) ll. 77-80.

[9] Arundel Lyrics 22 (Vagit in presipio) ll. 1-8.

[10] Arundel Lyrics 21 (Patebat in scriptura) ll. 8-13 (refrain).

[11] Arundel Lyrics 28 (Quam velim virginum, si detur opcio) ll. 17-8.

[image] The Wayfarer. Oil on panel painting. Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1494-1516. Held in  Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Dronke, Peter. 1976. “Peter of Blois and Poetry at the Court of Henry II.” Mediaeval Studies. 38: 185-235.

Kantorowicz, Ernst Hartwig. 1957. The king’s two bodies: a study in mediaeval political theology. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

McDonough, Christopher J., ed. and trans. 2010. The Arundel lyrics; The poems of Hugh Primas. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 2. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Moser, Thomas C. 2004. A cosmos of desire: the medieval Latin erotic lyric in English manuscripts. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Malleus Maleficarum, women & men witches, and executions

man being executed

In academic literature and popular culture, prosecuting witches is commonly associated with persecuting women. However, in early modern Europe, about twenty-five percent of persons formally charged with witchcraft were men.[1] Throughout history, persons executed for any reason have been vastly disproportionately men. Malleus Maleficarum, a leading medieval Latin work on witches, provides key insights into gender, witches, and punishment. Malleus Maleficarum and its modern reception illustrates gender bias toward constructing men as demons, blaming men for corrupting women, and fabricating hateful claims about men’s privilege.

Malleus Maleficarum recognizes that some witches are men. Its first chapter considers whether witches (maleficos: masculine plural) exist. Its second chapter addresses cooperation between a male demon (demon: masculine singular) and a male witch (malefico: masculine singular). Eight contemporary scholarly endorsers of Malleus Maleficarum explicitly supported a statement referring to male witches and female witches (maleficos aut maleficas)[2] Overall, Malleus Maleficarum gives more prominence to female witches. Yet, like other early modern witchcraft literature, Malleus Maleficarum includes numerous references to male witches.[3]

Malleus Maleficarum blames male demons for generating witches. The reproduction of witches depends on semen from criminals:

They {witches / malefici, masculine plural} clearly derived their origin from a baneful mutual alliance … no one can deny that they derived their increase in number from these filthy acts, since demons {demones: masculine plural} engage in these acts not for the sake of pleasure but for the sake of corrupting. The arrangement will, therefore, be the following. The succubus demon releases a seed from a criminal man; if the demon is assigned personally to this man and does not wish to make himself the incubus for the female witch, he will hand the seed over to the demon assigned to the woman or female witch, and the second one will make himself an incubus for the female witch under a certain configuration of stars that serves his purpose, so that the man or woman begotten will remain mighty in physical strength for the purpose of performing acts of witchcraft. [4]

Just as in nineteenth-century social-scientific study of prostitution and current claims about rape, the underlying narrative blames males:

Final conclusion. It can be said that the incubus demons are not merely aggressive towards women begotten from their filthy acts or towards those offered to them by midwives, but with their whole effort they hanker after all the holiest virgins of a given land or town, having the female witches lead them {virgins} astray or couple them {virgins and male demons} together. This is what experience, which is the instructor of facts, has taught, in that certain women who were burned up in the town of Ravensburg asserted before final sentence something like this, that their masters enjoined them to strive with their entire effort to overthrow the holy virgins and widows.

Malleus Maleficarum has been socially construed as an exemplar of misogyny. Its misandry has scarcely been recognized even in the context of U.S. mass incarceration of men. Demonizing men generates relatively little deliberative concern.

The male authors of Malleus Maleficarum, like most men throughout history, were reluctant to disparage women. The chapter of Malleus Maleficarum that addresses the predominance of women among witches begins:

As for the first {question}, namely why a larger number of female witches is found among the delicate female sex than among men, it would certainly not be helpful to cite arguments to the contrary, since experience itself makes such things believable more than do the testimony of words and of trustworthy witnesses. Without looking down upon the sex in which God has always performed brave deeds in order to confound, let us say that while different reasons are given by different people for these facts, these reasons always agree in principle. Hence, this topic is quite worthy of being preached for the admonition of women — as experience has often shown, they are eager to listen — so long as it is propounded with circumspection. [5]

The male authors inject the claim of not looking down upon women. They implicitly acknowledge that women might be unwilling to listen to preaching. They advise circumspection so as not to offend women. They subsequently emphasize that advice:

Preachers should propound and mention these reasons {for the preponderance of women among witches} cautiously. In Scripture, they say bad things about women for the most part in the Old Testament — because of the first sinner {Eve} and her imitators — but later in the New Testament, because the name changed {Eve became Ave, Mary the mother Jesus} and because, as Jerome says, “All the evil that the curse {maledicto} of Eve brought in was removed by the blessing {benedicto} of Mary,” there are very many statements about women that should always be praised and preached. In modern times, however, this kind of Breach of the Faith {perfidia} is found more often in women than in men, as experience itself indicates

Authors cannot merely describe reality as persons perceive it. Prudent authors must be careful not to offend women in gynocentric culture.

Malleus Maleficarum rhetorically softens its explanation for the predominance of female witches. It adds two irrelevant assertions and a claim about variance rather than mean. Moreover, its explanation is distanced as not that of the authors, but of “some Doctors”:

Some Doctors give the following explanation. They say that there are three elements in the world that do not know how to maintain a middle course in terms of goodness or evil, and instead attain a certain pinnacle in goodness or evil when they pass over the boundaries of their condition, these three things being a tongue, a churchman and a woman. They do this in goodness when they are ruled by a good spirit, and as a result of this they become excellent. They also do this in evil when they are ruled by an evil spirit, and as a result of this they are rendered very bad.

Malleus Maleficarum elaborates at length on the extremes of good and evil for a tongue and a churchman. It does the same for a woman.

In one chapter, Malleus Maleficarum draws upon literature associated with men’s sexed protest. That chapter incorporates biblical wisdom, criticism of Helen of Troy, biographical stories of Xanthippe and Socrates, Jerome’s Theophrastus, the love letter of Valerius to Rufinus, Bernard of Cluny’s learned Latin play, and hagiography of Saint Pelagia. The chapter emphasizes women’s strong, independent sexuality. Yet the chapter also suggests that references to woman be read as non-gendered references to lusting of the flesh:

There is such praise of good women that it is read that they have even made men blessed and saved nations, lands and cities. … Hence, whatever diatribes against the lusting of the flesh are read can be interpreted in such as way that “woman” is always interpreted as the lusting of the flesh according to the passage, “I found woman more bitter than death,” and “A good woman is subordinated desire of the flesh.” [6]

Like women, men too experience desire of the flesh. Using “woman” to mean desire of the flesh corresponds to interpreting men’s sexuality as an other, demonic impulse.

The predominance of women among witches wasn’t sufficient to overcome the overall societal bias toward executing men. In New England from 1620 to 1725, 103 persons were formally charged as witches. About six women were charged for every man charged. About a third of those charged were found guilty and hung.[7] Throughout all the antecedent U.S. colonies across those years, 317 persons were executed for any charge. Five men were executed for every woman executed. In the antecedent U.S. colonies and the U.S. since 1608, about 15,400 persons have been executed. Forty-two men have been executed for each woman executed.[8]

In England and Wales, persons executed have also historically been overwhelming men. About 1,500 witches were executed in England and Wales from 1450 to 1750. Probably about nine women were executed as witches for every man executed as a witch.[9] In late seventeenth and early eighteenth century England (the earliest period for which good data are available), about five men were executed per woman executed among executions for any charge. Since 1715, about 12,500 persons have been executed for any charge. Within that total, nineteen times more men than women were executed.[10] The sensational story of executing female witches has attracted far more attention than the long and continuing story of executing a far larger number of men.[11]

Malleus Maleficarum includes wicked humor. One of its bizarre stories about castration ends with a female witch allowing a man to recover a penis from a disembodied collection of penises. The witch, however, forbids the man from taking a big penis “because it belonged to a parish priest.” Malleus Maleficarum concludes with an ironic claim about men’s privilege:

Conclusion. Everything is governed by carnal lusting, which is insatiable in them {women} … for intelligent men it appears to be reasonably unsurprising that more women than men are found to be tainted with the Heresy of female witches. Hence, and consequently, it should be called the Heresy not of male witches, but of female witches, to name it after the predominant element. Blessed by the Highest One, Who has, down to the present day, preserved the male kind from such disgraceful behavior, and clearly made man privileged since He wished to be born and suffer on our behalf in the guise of a man. [12]

The thanks to God for preserving men from disgraceful behavior relies on abhorrence of homosexuality. Malleus Maleficarum took that thanks from a writer who argued:

since demons abhor homosexuality, they restrict their sexual attentions to human females, and for this he {the writer} was duly grateful to God. [13]

According to the prevailing demonology, demonic male heterosexuality corrupts women into witches. Men enjoy believing that their duty is to suffer and save the world. Humorless fantasy of men’s privilege now dominates public discourse far beyond beliefs about witches ever did.

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[1] In the Holy Roman Empire and Luxembourg, 1480-1760, the share of men among witch prosecution victims was “nearly 24 per cent” (“c. 23.1” percent for just the Holy Roman Empire). The share of men ranged from 13% to 35% across seven specified regions of the Holy Roman Empire. Shulte (2009a), p. 55, inc. Table 31. In Normandy, 1564 to 1660, the share of men witch prosecution victims was 73%.  In Iceland, 1625 to 1685, the share of men victims was 92%. Apps & Gow (2003) p. 45, Table 1. About two-thirds of the persons charged with being witches in Finland through 1620 were men. Toivo (2014) p. 91.

[2] Mackay (2006) v. 1, p. 193 (table of contents), Malleus Maleficarum, Approbation 4B, id. v. 1, p. 204. Eight members of the University of Cologne’s Faculty of Theology signed an approbation prefixed to the substantive text of Malleus Maleficarum. Mackay provides a modernized and annotated transcription of the first edition of Malleus Maleficarum. That was printed in 1487.

[3] In Malleus Maleficarum, 30% of the references to witch or witches (197 out of  650) use masculine forms. Johannes Nider’s Formicarius (written 1435-37) in its book on witches (book 5) used 47 masculine references to witches compared to 13 feminine references. For reference counts for these and other early demonological texts, Apps & Gower (2003) p. 104, Table 2. Schulte (2009b), Ch. 5, also reviews references in early demonological texts and finds considerable attention to male witches. Schulte exaggerates, in my view, the extent to which Malleus Maleficarum concerns female witches and condemns all women as potential witches. Malleus Maleficarum incorporates categorical criticism of women from literature of men’s sexed protest. Such criticism was not meant to be taken literally categorically.

[4] Malleus Maleficarum 109B (Pt. 2, Q. 1, Ch. 4), from Latin trans. Mackay (2006) v. 2, pp. 261-2. The subsequent quote is from id. 111B, p. 266. Mackay translated malefica, maleficus, and maleficium as sorceress, sorcerer, and sorcery (with corresponding plural forms). I’ve replaced these terms with female witch, male witch, and witchcraft, respectively, throughout quotations from Mackay’s translations.

Malleus Maleficarum is attributed to Heinrich Kramer (Heinrich Institoris) and Jacob Sprenger. Some scholars believe that Sprenger was only a nominal co-author. Kramer served as inquisitor, but other authorities challenged his views. The elaborate endorsements prefaced to Malleus Maleficarum indicate its struggle to assert authority. Other inquisitors reportedly denounced Heinrich Kramer’s views in 1490. In 1505, the Franciscan Samuel de Cassini strongly criticized the claims in Malleus Maleficarum. The book had little influence in Spain and the Netherlands.

Between 1487 and 1496, Malleus Maleficarum was printed eight times. Then from 1497 to 1510, none; from 1511 and 1520, five; from 1521 to 1573, none; 1574 to 1588, six; 1589 to 1594, none; and from 1595 to 1600, one. Maxwell-Stuart (2007) p. 34. Compared to popular works such as De Secretis Mulieris, Malleus Maleficarum didn’t have an impressive record of editions. Its practical effects are not readily apparent:

It may seem odd in light of its modern notoriety to say that from its inception the Malleus was a work which exerted a limited practical influence, but the fact is, its numerous early editions do not seem to have stimulated any witch-persecutions in areas where none had been brought earlier

Id. p. 35. Montague Summers’s English translation, first published in 1928, is available online, along with Summers’s colorful introduction. Summers’s translation isn’t reliable for close reading. Among other weaknesses, Summers obscured male witches in Malleus Maleficarum by translating all masculine references to witches as witch/witches without gender distinction.

[5] Malleus Maleficarum 40A-B (Pt. 1, Q. 6), id. p. 112. The reference to “the sex in which God has always performed brave deeds in order to confound” seems to be an invocation of 1 Corinthians 1:26-9. The subsequent two quotes are from id. 42A, p. 116; 40B, p. 112.

More more widely cited is the etymology of woman (femina) that Malleus Maleficarum took from Antoninus of Florence’s Summa:

the word “femina” is spoken as “fe” and “minus,” because she has and keeps less faith.

Malleus Maleficarum 42C (Pt. 1, Q. 6), id. p. 117, and n. 324. Much more socially significant was the pedestalizing of women through the ideology of courtly love.

[6] Malleus Maleficarum 41D (Pt. 1, Q. 6), id. p. 115. Malleus Maleficarum provides as exemplars of good women the biblical figures Judith, Delbora (probably mistaking Deborah for Jael), and Esther. It similarly cites Gisela (lived about 995), sister of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II, and Chlothild (lived about 493), daughter of the King of the Burgundians.

[7] Witches charged by sex, Apps & Gow (2003) p. 45, Table 1. About 36 persons were executed as witches in the seventeenth century in the colonies that became the U.S. Godbeer (2013) p. 393. Witches were usually hung rather than burned in England and in New England.

[8] The U.S. execution figures I’ve calculated from the U.S. execution statistics compilation.

[9] The total number of witches executed is based on Hayton (2011), data appendix, and Behringer (2004) p. 150. Table 4.5. The sex ratio is based on Schulte (2009b) p. 71, Table 3.1 (data for prosecutions in the Home Circuit, England). Hayton (2011), data appendix, indicates about two-thirds of those charged were executed. Levack (2006) pp. 22-3, inc. Table 1, provides execution rates for localities in Europe covering in total a small number of prosecutions. For Essex, England, 1560-1672, 24% were executed, while the execution rate in Scotland, 1563-1727, was 67%. The data overall suggest about half those charged were executed. Available data on the execution rate by sex doesn’t show a clear sex difference. Id. pp. 66-7.

[10] The execution statistics for England and Wales I’ve calculated from the execution statistics compilations for England and Wales (London-Middlesex 1695-1839 sheet in Executions by year and sex about London before 1840; punishment yearly sheet in Punishment prevalence years by sex since 1715).

[11] At the general height of the European witch hunt in Danzig (1558-1608) and Nuremberg (1533-1632), about seven men were executed for each woman executed. Evans (1996) p. 44.

[12] Malleus Maleficarum 45A (Pt. 1, Q. 6), Mackay v. 2, p. 122.

[13] Id, editor’s note 141. The text was taken from William of Auvergne, De Universo (The Universe) 2.3.25.

[image] Murder of David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselins, Ghent, 1554. Engraving by J. Luyken, from T. J. V. Bracht (or Thieleman van Braght), Het Bloedig Tooneel De Martelaers Spiegel. . . . Amsterdam: J. van der Deyster, et al., 1685. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.


Apps, Lara, and Andrew Colin Gow. 2003. Male witches in early modern Europe. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Behringer, Wolfgang. 2004. Witches and witch-hunts: a global history. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Evans, Richard J. 1996. Rituals of retribution: capital punishment in Germany, 1600-1987. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Godbeer, Richard. 2013. “Witchcraft in British America.” Ch. 22 (pp. 393-411) in Levack, Brian P., ed. The Oxford handbook of witchcraft in early modern Europe and colonial America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hayton, Darin. 2011. “How Many Witches Were Executed?!?” Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine blog (, Oct. 27 (data appendix).

Levack, Brian P. 2006. The witch-hunt in early modern Europe. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge.

Mackay, Christopher S., ed. and trans. 2006. Malleus maleficarum: the hammer of witches. 2 vols. Cambridge University Press.

Maxwell-Stuart, P.G., trans. 2007. The Malleus maleficarum. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Schulte, Rolf. 2009a. “Men as Accused Witches in the Holy Roman Empire.” Ch. 3 (pp. 52-73) in Rowlands, Alison, ed. Witchcraft and masculinities in early modern Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schulte, Rolf. 2009b. Man as witch: male witches in Central Europe. Basingstoke {England}: Palgrave Macmillan.

Toivo, Maria Raisa. 2014. “Gender, Sex and Cultures of Trouble in Witchcraft Studies: European Historiography with Special Reference to Finland.” Ch. 4 (pp. 87-108) in Nenonen, Marko, and Raisa Maria Toivo. Writing witch-hunt histories: challenging the paradigm. Leiden: Brill.

men suffering lovesickness: Viaticum in medieval Latin poetry

flame of lovesickness

In flammam abiit
totus philosophus.
{In a flame went up
the whole of the philosopher.} [1]

Late in the eleventh century, Constantine the African brought from Tunis in North Africa to Salerno on the Italian coast a large collection of Arabic medical manuscripts. Arabic literature then encompassed leading medical knowledge in western Eurasia, including Greek and Indian medical knowledge. Constantine adapted one of these Arabic manuscripts into Latin as the Viaticum. It provided medical knowledge about lovesickness:

The love that is “eros” is a disease touching the brain. It is a great longing with intense sexual desire and affliction of thoughts. From this certain philosophers say: Eros is a word signifying the greatest pleasure. For just as loyalty is the ultimate form of affection, so also eros is a certain extreme form of pleasure. [2]

The Arundel Lyrics, exquisite erotic poetry written in Latin in twelfth-century England, thoroughly explore the Viaticum’s polarities of lovesickness — pleasure and disease, body and thought. The poetic breadth of lovesickness in this learned Latin poetry represents a poignant call for broad sympathy in meeting men’s needs.

The Arundel Lyrics play across the polarities of lovesickness in a variety of ways. Love is a “wonderful plague” (mira peste). The poet declares that he is “happy in my unhappy disease” (morbo felix infelici). More subtle are material figures of the lovesick mind:

Poised on a tipsy scale
in balance,
my mind, suspended, fluctuates
and whirls about
in anxious confusion,
as it turns itself upside down
and splits into
warring emotions.
{Vacillantis trucine
mens suspensa fluctuat,
et estuat
in tumultos anxios,
dum se vertit
et bipertit
motus in contrarios.} [3]

A scale, balanced but tipsy, whirls about and turns upside down. Those verbs destroy any understanding of balance. The mind, an abstract concept, undergoes the material commonplace of splitting, but its split parts consist of the abstractions of warring emotions. The figure of a scale re-emerges in peculiar reasoning:

On a scale I weigh
what is better
and still uncertain
I deliberate with myself.
Now I recall to mind
of love:
that to me my darling Flora
gives kisses,
how she laughs, what tender lips,
what face,
brow, nose, and hair!
{Sub libra pondero
quid melius
et dubius
mecum delibero.
Nunc menti refero
que mea michi Florula
det oscula
qui risus, que labellula,
que facies,
frons, naris aut cesaries!}

This reasoning is only imagining sensuous delights. Reason subsequently torments, pokes, and threatens, but doesn’t provide any substantive reasons. A battle between reason (Athena) and love (Venus) is a conventional figure in ancient and medieval Latin poetry.[4] In the Arundel Lyrics, those battle lines are deliberately blurred.

The Arundel Lyrics satirize a physician treating lovesickness. The poet declares that the only remedy for lovesickness that he has received is habituation: familiarity with the experience of being lovesick. In a subsequent stanza the poet describes the faulty thinking of the physician who diagnosed him:

The healer doesn’t see the torch
that secretly destroyed me;
and he contributed
no cure;
he who examined my urine
took no thought of my semen,
and a bodily fluid,
not my penis,
the cause of my sickness he pronounced.
{Medenti se fax oculit,
que me latenter perculit;
nec contulit
qui urinam,
non urine consulit,
cum humorem,
non amorem,
causam morbi protulit.} [5]

The poet declares that fever consumes him with a fierce heat. Yet at the same time, using technical medical terms he asserts his intellectual superiority to the physician:

With what feebleness I fight,
now I have revealed well enough
with sure prognosis.
I am not ignorant
of why I suffer.
In contrast, in making a self-diagnosis,
even as an invalid
I know
more of myself than a physician.
{Cum quo languore dimico,
iam certo satis indico
Nec ignoro,
cur laboro.
Set, ut de me iudico,
vel egrotus
magis notus
michi sum quam medico.}

The successful diagnosis of lovesickness results not from narrow medical art, but from the ancient Greek ideal of knowing oneself. The poet’s prognosis is lovesickness unto death, delayed only by blind hope for a visit from his beloved.[6]

The medical knowledge that Constantine the African brought to Italy included cures for lovesickness. The Viaticum quotes the Roman physician Rufus of Ephesus’s recommended remedy of having sexual intercourse, even with a woman one doesn’t love. The Viaticum suggests other treatments to raise the spirit of a lovesick man: drinking fragrant wine, listening to music, conversing with close friends, reciting poetry, experiencing bright, fruitful gardens with clear-running water, and conversing with beautiful, wise, or virtuous companions (women or men).[7] From perhaps the last decades of the twelfth century, the earliest surviving commentary on Constantine’s Viaticum adds about lovesickness:

This disease cannot be perfectly cured without intercourse and the permission of law and faith. For then the faculties and the body return to their natural disposition. Before it is established, therefore, consider whether there may be burning of humor; if there is, purge it. Then administer lengthy sleep, humectation {moistening}, and good nourishment, and freshwater baths. Occupy the patient with various things, so that they are distracted from what they love. In this, moreover, the counsel of old women is very useful. They may relate many disparagements and the stinking dispositions of the desired thing. Also useful is consorting with and embracing girls, sleeping with them repeatedly, and switching various ones. Hunting and various types of games also help. [8]

Leading love authorities for men today similarly prescribe sex with multiple women as a cure for lovesickness, now more commonly called oneitis. Love authorities for men today also teach an understanding of love that reduces the risk of lovesickness.

In contrast to medical cures, the poet’s hope is faith in all-conquering love. A refrain in one of the Arundel Lyrics proclaims:

Oh! Love conquers all.
Love is a blessed affliction!
Ah! I am faint from a sweet disease,
from this I happily die!
{O! vincit amor omnia.
Felix amor miseria!
Ha! dulci morbo langueo,
quo sic beate pereo!} [9]

Yet a refrain in another of the Arendel Lyrics offers a more philosophical prayer:

I seek to be thrust into the flames,
I thirst to be burned less.
May I be less inflicted with desire,
when delivered to the fiery heat of old.
{Flammis volens ingeri
minus uri sicio;
minus urar veteri
traditus incendio.} [10]

The philosopher’s praise of moderation goes up in the flames of love. At least for some men, love is a consuming fire.

May God and women have compassion and mercy for men in love. If that’s not possible, may men at least know medical cures for lovesickness.

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[1] Predantur oculos, 1b, Latin text from Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 228, transcribed and trans. Moser (2004) pp. 346-7, with my minor adaptation.

[2] Constantine the African, Viaticum peregrinantis (Provisions for the Traveler) I.20.1-7, from Latin trans. Wack (1990) p. 187, with my non-substantial changes to improve readability. The Viaticum is an adaptation of ibn al-Jazzar’s Zad al-musafir. Ibn al-Jazzar practiced medicine in the medieval capital of Tunisia, Qayrawan. On Constantine’s adaptation of al-Jazzar’s Zad al-musafir, Brachtel (2005). Constantine probably produced the Viaticum some time between 1058 and 1087. Wack (1990) p. 32.

Constantine’s description of the love that is called eros was through misunderstanding transformed into the love of heroes. That change associated lovesickness with noble men. Id. pp. 60, 182-5. Reflecting the textual confusions, Arcite in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale (ll. 1373-4) suffers “the lover’s malady of Hereos.” The Knight’s Tale, like Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde shows how lovesickess and courtly love encouraged violence against men.

[3] Arundel Lyrics 14 (Vacillantis trucine) ll. 1-8, Latin text and English translation in Dronke (1976) pp. 200-1 and McDonough (2010) pp. 66-7.  I’ve adapted the English translation from both. The subsequent quote is ll. 33-44, sourced similarly. This poem also occurs as Carmina Burana 108.

[4] Its source is “the ancient motif of Hecules at the crossroads, being tempted by Virtus and Voluptas.” Dronke (1976) p. 200, citing the influence of Cicero, De officiis 1.32.118. Another medieval example is Carmina Burana 56 (Ianus annum circinat).

[5] Arundel Lyrics 5 (Iam vere fere medio) ll. 55-64, Latin text and English translation in McDonough (2010) pp. 58-9. I’ve adapted the English translation using McDonough’s helpful notes about Latin sexual vocabulary. Id. pp. 239-40. The subsequent quote similarly is from Arundel Lyrics 5, ll. 73-81, id. pp. 58-9. Carmina Burana 176 (Non est in medico semper, relevetur ut eger) is another example of medieval Latin anti-medical satire.

[6] “Know yourself” (Greek: gnothi seauton, Latin: nosce te ipsum) was a Delphic maxim. It’s a theme in Shakespeare’s Ion. On blind hope in the context of suffering, cf. Prometheus Bound l. 250.

[7] Viaticum I.20.9-11, 33-68, trans. Wack (1990) pp. 189-91.

[8] Gerard of Berry, Glosses on the Viaticum ll. 50-6, from Latin trans. Wack (1990) p. 203. Gerard wrote his glosses no later than 1236 and probably in the last decades of the twelfth century. Id. p. 52.

[9] Arundel Lyrics 2 (Preclusi viam floris), refrain, Latin and English text from McDonough (2010) pp. 10-1.

[10] Arundel Lyrics 5 (Estivali Clarius), refrain, Latin and English in Moser (2004) pp. 255-6 and McDonough (2010) pp. 24-5. I’ve adapted the translation from both.

[image] Photo of a fire taken with a 1/4000th of a second exposure; detail. Thanks to Awesomoman and Wikimedia Commons.


Brachtel, Mirja Martha. 2005. Ibn al-Jazzar’s Zad al-Musafir and Constantinus Africanus’ Latin Version Viaticum Peregrinantis: A Comparative Study. Kulliyah of Human Sciences. International Islamic University, Malaysia.

Dronke, Peter. 1976. “Peter of Blois and Poetry at the Court of Henry II.” Mediaeval Studies. 38: 185-235.

McDonough, Christopher J., ed. and trans. 2010. The Arundel lyrics; The poems of Hugh Primas. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 2. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Moser, Thomas C. 2004. A cosmos of desire: the medieval Latin erotic lyric in English manuscripts. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Wack, Mary Frances. 1990. Lovesickness in the Middle Ages: the Viaticum and its commentaries. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

study of De Secretis Mulierum enlightens mystified men

De Secretis Mulierum - anatomy of a woman

Written in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth centuries, De Secretis Mulierum (On the Secrets of Women) became a highly popular text.[1] Given the great power that women wield, men are naturally keen to understand the secrets of women. De Secretis Mulierum focuses on women’s sexually distinctive reproductive organs and bodily processes. While these are amazing and intriguing to men, they are not women’s most important secrets. Study of De Secretis Mulierum reveals that women’s distinctive social powers, which mystify men, are women’s most important secrets.

De Secretis Mulierum is primarily a work of popularized natural philosophy. The text itself describes sexual intercourse and conception as natural philosophy of a woman’s body:

When a woman is having sexual intercourse with a man she releases her menses at the same time that the man releases sperm, and both seeds enter the vulva simultaneously and are mixed together, and then the woman conceives. Conception is said to take place, therefore, when the two seeds are received in the womb in a place that nature has chosen. And after these seeds are received, the womb closes up like a purse on every side, so that nothing can fall out of it. After this happens, the woman no longer menstruates. [2]

Problemata Aristotelis and Secretum Secretorum, highly popular works in the European Middle Ages, included similar passages of natural philosophy. What makes De Secretis Mulierum distinctive relative to popular natural philosophy is its focus on women.[3]

The author of De Secretis Mulierum was amazingly ignorant of female biology. He believed that women urinate through their vaginas. For example, in discussing impediments to conception, he declared:

Sometimes it is caused by excessive fatness of the body because fat surrounding the opening of the womb constricts it and does not allow the male semen to enter. This can be seen in a woman whose kidneys are hidden and buried in fat on every side. If a woman of this sort receives semen during coitus, it cannot enter the womb, and so she ejects it with her urine. Thus if you examine her urine after coitus, you will be able to tell whether or not the semen is collected in the womb. [4]

No woman reader of this text could take its knowledge authority seriously after meeting such ignorance. Moreover, how women actually urinate probably wasn’t a secret to many medieval men.

De Secretis Mulierum stimulated sensational claims. A medieval commentary on it added discussion of miraculous conception:

it often happens that a woman conceives if she is in a bath where a man ejaculated because the vulva strongly attracts the sperm, and the sperm at this point is vigorous and has not evaporated, so that it can produce a fetus. This has been attested to by experience. [5]

Bath-water conception is a generating event in the deeply transgressive Pseudo-Sirach, written in Hebrew probably in the early Islamic world. The medieval commentary on De Secretis Mulierum also added discussion of hermaphroditic generation from cat semen:

If a cat ejaculated on some sage, and a man ate some of this sage, then cats would be generated in his stomach and would have to be expelled by vomiting.

The author of De Secretis Mulierum probably didn’t anticipate that his work would give rise to claims about bath-water conception and hermaphroditic generation from cat semen. But his misleading conception of women’s secrets encouraged elaborating upon female bodily functions and the biology of sexual reproduction.

De Secretis Mulierum provided sensational entertainment under the cover of informing. For good evolutionary-biological reasons, men are particularly concerned to ascertain the sexual fidelity of women with whom they seek a long-term intimate relationship. De Secretis Mulierum includes chapters entitled “On the signs of corruption of virginity” and “On the signs of chastity.” The chapter on corruption of virginity declares:

Sometimes virgins are gravely corrupted so that their vagina is greatly enlarged because the male member is exceedingly large and inept. When this happens the woman’s vagina becomes so widened that the man can enter there without any pain to his member, and this is a sign that the woman was first corrupted.

This is the reason why when young women first lose their virginity they have pain in the vagina for a time, because it is being enlarged and disposed for coitus. Another reason for this pain is that there is a certain skin in the vagina and the bladder which is broken. But the more they have sex, the more they become accustomed to it. [6]

The chapter on the exit of the fetus from the uterus discusses how women attempt to induce abortion and the grief that some women experience from having an abortion. The chapter includes sensational questions for discussion:

  • if, when a man and woman are having sexual intercourse, a thunderbolt strikes, can the seed receive a new impression at the moment of ejaculation which would dispose it to be something other than its particular nature intends?
  • if the lightning strikes at the moment of ejaculation, can the influences of the planets be prevented, and are the male and female seeds equally affected?
  • if the lightning should strike both male and female matter alike, can it influence the power within the seed that causes a masculine form in what was first destined to be a female form and disposition, and vice versa? [7]

Albertus Magnus, the purported author of De Secretis Mulierum, was an authority that Victor Frankenstein assiduously studied. The questions about lightening striking at the moment of conception generically relate to a sensational novel like Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The most important secrets of women are clarified in modern scholarly study of De Secretis Mulierum. Trumping medieval commentators claims about bath-water conceptions, a modern scholar declared:

I will now argue that pseudo-Albert’s accomplishment of exaggerating and popularizing the ideas about women developed by Albertus Magnus and other thirteenth-century natural philosophers directly influenced the fifteenth-century inquisitorial treatise on witches, Malleus Maleficarum, and that the authors of the Malleus used the Secrets and the tradition they represent as an ideological basis for concluding that women are prone to witchcraft, for which crime they deserve death. …

Both pseudo-Albert and the inquisitors build upon the misogyny, inherent in thirteenth-century scholasticism, that we saw already in Albertus Magnus. We can regard each of their treatises as moving progressively toward the ultimate consequences of such a mode of thinking — extermination of those who most embody the evil carnality that is so feared. Woman, the temptress, the follower of Eve, the “devil’s gateway” had long been suspect to the theologians. Now, with medieval schoolmen’s interpretation of Aristotelian natural philosophy, ecclesiastical statements on the evil nature of the lesser sex become buttressed by the weight of scientific authority. Pseudo-Albert fuses theological and scientific tenets and lays the groundwork for a new kind of misogynistic document. The Dominican authors then incorporate both the spirit and the letter of the Secrets into their virulent verbal attacks on the female gender, which forms the basis for a much more serious assault on women by the inquisitorial procedure itself. [8]

De Secretis Mulierum itself offered men little insight into the most important secrets of women. But modern study of De Secretis Mulierum clearly reveals them.[9] No claim about women’s victimization is too outrageous to be taken deadly seriously by many women and men scholars.

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[1] In the Middle Ages, De Secretis Mulierum was commonly attributed to the Dominican friar, bishop, and wide-ranging scholar Albertus Magnus. Scholars now generally regard the text as having been written by one of Albertus Magnus’s students. De Secretis Mulierum survives in 105 known Latin manuscript copies. Three-fourths of those manuscripts were produced in the fifteenth century. Green (2008) p. 212, n. 31. Fifty editions of the work were printed in the fifteenth century and seventy editions in the sixteenth century. Lemay (1992) p. 1. Among the editions available online are one from 1501 and one from 1669.

[2] De Secretis Mulierum, Ch. 1, “On the generation of the embryo,” from Latin trans. Lemay (1992) p. 65. Lemay’s text is based on the clearly printed, influential Lyons 1580 edition. That edition “from spot checking, correlates well with other witnesses to this redaction.” Id. p. 2. Barragán Nieto (2012) provides the first critical edition of De Secretis Mulierum. I unfortunately wasn’t able to conveniently consult Barragán Nieto’s critical edition.

[3] Other Latin medical texts focusing on diseases of women existed in the twelfth century. The most widely known are commonly called the Trotula. De Secretis Mulierum was more sensational and hence better positioned than the Trotula to be a popular text. Not surprisingly, surviving diseases of women literature is closely associated with De Secretis Mulierum. Green (2000).

[4] De Secretis Mulierum, Ch. 12, “Concerning Impediments to Conception,” trans. Lemay (1992) pp. 135-6.

[5] De Secretis Mulierum, Commentary A, from Latin trans. Lemay (1992) p. 66. The subsequent quote is from id. The commentaries, by unknown authors, “were frequently printed with the text and exist in many of the manuscripts.” The text of Commentary A is taken from the Lyons 1580 edition of De Secretis Mulierum. Id. p. 2.

[6] De Secretis Mulierum, Ch. 6, trans. Lemay (1992) pp. 126-7. Calabre of Paris, a fourteenth-century woman physician, reportedly could make a vagina small again. By 1499, Celestina, the heroine of Fernando de Rojas’s pioneering Spanish fiction, was depicted as claiming to be able to repair women’s lost maidenheads.

An atomistic view of individuals greatly affects modern scholarship and healthcare. A leading historian of women’s medicine peevishly noted:

Ensuring women’s fertility and making women sexually attractive to men: these are the main features of the Buch Trotula in Hartlieb’s eyes, not the care of women’s diseases because they are distressing or dangerous to women.

Green (2000) p. 28. Many women care greatly about being fertile and being sexually attractive to men. Moreover, gynocentric society has enacted legal structures that make being attractive to men and bearing children potentially highly profitable for women.

[7] De Secretis Mulierum, Ch. 5, “On the exit of the fetus from the uterus,” trans. Lemay (1992) p. 105. The labeling of the text and Commentary B with respect to the first question is clearly mistaken.

[8] Lemay (1992) pp. 50-1, footnotes omitted. Id. notes “De Secretis Mulierum and the Malleus Maleficarum certainly belong to two different genres.”

Green, today’s leading historian of women’s medicine, less sensationally claims that De Secretis Mulierum and associated medieval gynecological literature have “one profoundly distinctive feature: a tendency toward misogyny.” Moreover, “what pushes the Secrets of Women into the territory of misogyny is the attitude of suspicion {emphasis in original} it projects toward women.” Id. pp. 216, 218. The diction of projected suspicion suggests lack of self-consciousness. On the other hand, men have sexually and legally distinctive biological reasons for being suspicion of women’s sexual fidelity. Green presents a medieval illumination that she interprets as a man sticking his tongue out a woman and observes that it is “suggestive of the text’s attitude toward women.” Id. p. 217, Fig. 5.1.

Men’s freedom to read, learn, and write cannot be taken for granted. Like nineteenth-century social-scientific concerns about reading Latin literature, Green declares, “the effect of medieval habits of reading about women’s secrets was permanent: the misogynous potential of male-controlled intellectual traditions on the female body had been realized.” For a related lament about inability to control men’s reading, Green (2000) p. 29. Caballero-Navas (2006) accepts the authoritative declarations that De Secretis Mulierum is misogynistic, but reports lack of misogyny in the Hebrew medical tradition. Permitting men intellectual and expressive freedom as long as authorities don’t deem such freedom to have “misogynous potential” is a tenuous structure of liberty.

[9] Green (2009), a massive, erudite work on the “rise of male authority in pre-modern gynaecology,” contrasts men’s knowledge and women’s knowledge. It pays scant attention to actual health outcomes. Among fourteenth and fifteenth century British ducal nobles, women’s and men’s life expectancies at birth were 33 years and 24 years respectively. By the mid-nineteenth century, those figures had risen to 62 years and 50 years, respectively. The alleged rise of male authority in pre-modern gynaecology coincided with a near doubling in women’s lifespans and a gender protrusion favoring women with 12 extra years of life on average relative to men. Here’s the analysis and data on long-run gender differences in lifespan.

Leading international organizations today measure gender differences in life expectancy with indices that feature built-in anti-men gender inequality. Green (2009) concludes with a triumphant reference to an elite woman who “erected a statue … to herself.” Id. p. 324. Rather than erecting statues to themselves, women who care about men might work to reduce gender bias against men and to improve men’s health.

[image] Anatomy of a woman’s body. Based on illustration from Isagogae breves by Jacopo Berengario da Carpi, first published in 1522, digitized by the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The version shown apparently is from a Bologna, 1535 edition. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Barragán Nieto, José Pablo. 2012. El de secretis mulierum atribuido a Alberto Magno: estudio, edición crítica y traducción. Turnhout: Porto.

Caballero-Navas, Carmen. 2006. “Secrets of Women: Naming Female Sexual Difference in Medieval Hebrew Medical Literature.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues. 12 (1): 39-56.

Green, Monica H. 2001. “From ‘Diseases of women’ to ‘Secrets of women’: the gynecological literature in the Later Middle Ages.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. 30 (1): 5-39.

Green, Monica H. 2008. Making women’s medicine masculine: the rise of male authority in pre-modern gynaecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lemay, Helen Rodnite. 1992. Women’s secrets: a translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’s De secretis mulierum with commentaries. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

ancient Latin literature in Sanger’s 19th-century social science

Actaeon sees nude women

Social science ideally informs policy proposals from “positive facts, and not deduced from a mere arbitrary theory.” William W. Sanger, a learned, highly respected civic leader in New York, published in 1858 a massive study of prostitution.[1] Sanger’s study included pioneering social-scientific surveys collecting facts about prostitutes and prostitution. Yet Sanger’s imagination dominated the facts. He imagined men as deceptively vicious and women as fundamentally virtuous. Just as with that gender stereotyping, in reading ancient Latin literature Sanger didn’t distinguish between cultural constructions and reality.

Sanger interpreted ancient Latin literature as both reflecting reality and shaping reality. Between life and literature, Sanger allowed no space for imaginative creation. He believed that a broad, amorphous class of expressions triggers harmful effects:

There is not a Latin author of the best age in whose writings the coarsest words can not be found. … The convenient adage, Charta non erubescit {paper doesn’t blush}, was invented to hide the pruriency of authors, and one of the worst puts in the wretched plea that, “though his page is lewd, his life is pure.” It is quite certain that, whatever might have been the effect on the poet, his readers could not but be demoralized by the lewdness of his verses. [2]

Rather than understanding Juvenal’s satire on women as scintillating literature of men’s sexed protest, authorities today understand it as representing Roman men’s anti-feminism and misogyny, or all men’s anti-feminism and misogyny. Sanger with similar tendentious obtuseness regarded Juvenal’s satire as representing typical Roman women:

Even allowing for poetical exaggeration, it may safely be said that there is no modern society, perhaps there has never existed any since the fall of Rome, to which Juvenal’s famous satire on women can be applied. Independently of the unnatural lusts which were so unblushingly avowed, the picture drawn by the Roman surpasses modern credibility. That it was faithful to nature and fact, there is, unhappily, too much reason to believe.

Sanger similarly interpreted Martial’s explicit epigrams:

A censor like Tacitus might indignantly reprove, but a Martial — and he was, no doubt, a better exponent of public and social life than the stern historian — would only laugh, and copy the model before him. [3]

Martial the poet-maker is thus reduced to Martial the copyist. Sanger conflated realistic style with correspondence to reality. Petronius’s outrageous burlesque in the Satyricon’s banquet of Trimalchio was for Sanger literally “the best recital of a Roman dinner that we have.”

Sanger read ancient Latin poetry as representing biography. Noting that Catullus, Horace, Propertius, Ovid, and Tibullus “devoted no small part of their time and talent to celebration of their mistresses,” Sanger observed of these poets:

All the five we have mentioned moved in the best society at Rome. Some of them, like Horace, saw their fame culminate during their lifetime; others filled important stations under government. Ovid was intimate with Emperor Augustus, and his exile is supposed to have been caused by some improper discoveries he made with regard to the emperor’s relations with his daughter. Yet it is quite evident that all these persons habitually lived with prostitutes, felt no shame on that account, and recorded unblushingly the charms and exploits of their mistresses in verses intended to be read indiscriminately by the Roman youths.

Sanger conceded that Ovid, a brilliant poet, “was not invariably coarse.” Martial’s poetry measured worse:

Martial knows no decency. It may safely be said that his epigrams ought never again to be translated into a modern tongue. Expressions designating the most loathsome depravities, and which, happily, have no equivalent, and need none, in our language, abound in his pages. Pictures of the most revolting pruriency succeed each other rapidly. In a word, such language is used and such scenes depicted as would involve the expulsion of their utterer from any house of ill fame in modern times. Yet Martial enjoyed high favor under government. He was enabled to procure the naturalization of many of his Spanish friends. He possessed a country and town house, both probably gifts from the emperor. His works, even in his lifetime, were carefully sought after, not only in Rome, but in Gaul, Spain, and the other provinces.

Today, Martial’s poetry, like Priapus poetry, is probably too hazardous for most university professors to teach. Some now even regard Ovid’s poetry as requiring trigger warnings. The potential harm to anyone today who twitters words that could be construed as offensive is chilling. With regard to freedom of expression, one might conclude that ancient Rome under the emperors was more civilized, humane, and liberal than modern high-income Western societies.

As elite men tend to do, Sanger imagined himself to be defending women. Sanger imagined prostitution to arise from men seducing and exploiting women, rather than vice-versa or vice-omnia. Just as he sought to repress prostitution, Sanger also sought to repress what he called prostitution of literature and prostitution of art.[4] In modern terms, Sanger was concerned that “prostitution culture” oppresses women:

A young Roman girl, with warm southern blood in her veins, who could gaze on the unveiled pictures of the loves of Venus, read the shameful epigrams of Martial, or the burning love-songs of Catullus, go to the baths and see the nudity of scores of men and women, be touched herself by a hundred lewd hands, as well as those of the bathers who rubbed her dry and kneaded her limbs — a young girl who could withstand such experiences and remain virtuous would need, indeed, to be a miracle of principle and strength of mind.

But even then religion and law remained to assail her. She could not walk through the streets of Rome without seeing temples raised to the honor of Venus, that Venus who was the mother of Rome, as patroness of illicit pleasures. In every field and in many a square, statues of Priapus, whose enormous indecency was his chief characteristic, presented themselves to view, often surrounded by pious matrons in quest of favor from the god. Once a year, at the Lupercalia, she saw young men running naked through the streets, armed with thongs with which they struck every woman they saw; and she noticed that matrons courted this flagellation as a means of becoming prolific. [5]

Sanger indicated relatively little concern about men. While men literally wrote the literature and made the art that Sanger denounced, he seems to have imagined men as being outside of culture in an eternal state of natural brutishness. Sanger sought to culturally suppress men and socially control men to defend women more effectively from men.

Distinguishing cultural constructions from reality provides critical insights. For human beings, death and incarceration are compelling positive facts. Compared to women, men die younger, men die from violence much more frequently, and men are vastly disparately incarcerated. Social science has failed to make these facts sufficiently salient in public discourse about criminalizing seduction and prostitution. The fundamental problem is poor imagination. Learning to read ancient Latin literature well can help to improve imagination.[6] Men and women deserve better than merely pornography and prostitution.

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[1] Sanger (1858). The previous quote is from id. p. 34.

[2] Id. p. 80. Sanger’s phrase “thought his page is lewd, his life is pure” refers to Martial 1.4. See also Catullus 16.5-6. Subsequent quotes are from Sanger (1858) pp. 79 (Even allowing …), 83 (A censor like Tacitus …), 81 (the best recital of a Roman dinner …), 78 (All the five …), 78-9 (Martial knows no decency …), and 80 (A young Roman girl …).

[3] Sanger added:

It may safely be asserted that there does not exist in any modern language a piece of writing which indicates so hopelessly a depraved state of morals as Martial’s epigram on his wife.

Id. pp. 83-4. That epigram is probably 11.43. Martial today is generally thought not to have been married.

[4] Reviewing prostitution in France from Louis XIII to the present day, Sanger observed:

under the brutal sway of the regent, and the lewd influence of the satyr Louis XV, the old prostitution of literature was revived. Thus we find that the most successful authors of the day, such as Voltaire, handled themes grossly immoral in themselves, and rendered still more offensive by their mode of treatment. The most popular novel of the eighteenth century — Manon Lescant {Manon Lescaut} — the work, by the way, of an abbé, is the narrative of the adventures of a prostitute.

Sanger (1858) p. 130. Regarding sixteenth-century France, Sanger observed:

We hear of all kinds of instruments of debauchery; of lewd books and lewd pictures; of indecent sculptures and bronzes being sold without let or hinderance in the stores of Paris. It was the age of Aretino; and besides that famous or infamous writer, a number of other Italians had competed for the prize of lewdness in composition. Poets, painters, sculptors, seemed to try how far art could be prostituted.

Id. pp. 112-3. Sanger declared that “obscene and voluptuous books … may justly be considered as causes, indirect it may be, of prostitution.” Id. 522. He was concerned that literature imported from Europe, along with Americans’ travel to Europe, were bringing to America harmful ideas and morals. Id. pp. 334, 569-72. Sanger summarized:

Every day makes the system of New York more like that of the most depraved capitals of continental Europe, and it remains for the good innate sense of the bulk of the American people to say how much farther we shall proceed in this frivolous, intriguing, and despicable manner of living; or whether they will not strive to perpetuate the stern morality of the Puritan fathers, our great moral safeguard so far, and thus put an effectual barrier against the inroads of a torrent which must undermine our whole social fabric, and finally crush us beneath the ruins.

Id. p. 572. Such a view is particularly astonishing within the context of Sanger’s work. He was not a moralist isolated from the everyday world. He was a leading physician and public figure within primary institutions of social control in New York City. He did pioneering social-scientific study of prostitution.

[5] While Sanger understood prostitution culture to be a cause of prostitution, Horace presented prostitution as a safeguard against adultery:

Seeing a man he knew come out of such a place {“smelly brothel”}, Cato praised him — “Decent fellow!” — and spoke wisely as a god: “When lowly lust has swollen up their veins, young men do right in coming here instead of grinding wives not theirs.”

Horace, Satires 1.2.31-5, from Latin trans. Fuchs (1977) p. 4 (verse lineation suppressed above). Sanger refers to this text indirectly. Sanger (1858) p. 79. Buckley’s English translation in 1863 makes Horace’s sexual imagery considerably more oblique.

By the beginning of the Roman Empire, Cato the Elder of Horace’s satire was a stock figure of traditional morality. On the literary tradition of Cato’s alleged statement, Gowers (2012) p. 98. Cato reportedly further stated:

Later, however, when he noticed him coming out of the same brothel quite frequently, he said, “young man, I praised you for coming here occasionally, not for living here.”

From Porphyrio’s commentary on Horace, cited and trans. Pollmann (2005) p. 93. Like Cato’s speech on the proposal to repeal Lex Oppia, these statements shouldn’t be interpreted as historical records of Cato’s words.

[6] Sanger himself offered advice on classical studies:

And here a word in regard to the bad effects of, so called, classical studies. Are they not oftentimes acquired at the risk of outraged delicacy or undermined moral principles? Mythology, in particular, introduces our youth to courtesans who are described as goddesses, and goddesses who are but courtesans in disguise. Poetry and history as frequently have for their themes the ecstasies of illicit love as the innocent joys of pure affection. Shall these branches of study be totally ignored? By no means; but let their harmless flowers and wholesome fruit alone be culled for youthful minds, to the utter exclusion of all poisonous ones, however beautiful.

Sanger (1858) p. 521. Given the astonishing lack of self-consciousness in Sanger’s social-scientific work and its support for broad criminalization and incarceration of men, a much different approach to classical studies is warranted. Careful study of works such as Priapea, the Life of Aesop, and Apuleius’s Metamorphoses should be central to classics curricula today.

[image] Diana and Actaeon. Painting by Titian, c. 1556-59. Held by the Scottish National Gallery and the National Gallery, London (item Edinburgh: NG 2839 / London: NG6611). Image thanks to National Gallery of Scotland and Wikimedia Commons. In Greek mythology, for the wrong of seeing women nude, Actaeon was transformed into a stag and devoured by dogs.


Fuchs, Jacob, trans. 1977. Horace’s Satires and Epistles. New York: Norton.

Gowers, Emily, ed. 2012. Horace. Satires. Book I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pollmann, Karla. 2005. “Marriage and Gender in Ovid’s Erotodidactic Poetry.” Ch. 5 (pp. 92-110) in Smith, Warren S, ed. 2005. Satiric advice on women and marriage from Plautus to Chaucer. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Sanger, William W. 1858. The history of prostitution: its extent, causes, and effects throughout the world. Being an official report to the Board of Alms-House Governors of the City of New York. New York: Harper.

soldiering for love generated totalizing myth of gender equality

love burns gender equality

knowing under a lyric song he soon set aside his anxious spirit
{cognovit et lirico sub cantico iam spiritum sollicitum removit} [1]

Gender equality in the Middle Ages wasn’t totalizing orthodoxy. Nonetheless, medieval thinkers struggled to reconcile men soldiering for love with gender equality in love.[2] That struggle led to separating fleshly life from words and ideas. That separation in turn enabled a totalizing myth of gender equality and made the experience of Margery Kempe’s husband the experience of many men.

her body without anxiety
takes no offense at a light touch.
The slim girl under her girdle
has a navel that reaches out
and a belly that slightly
{caro carens scrupulo
levem tactum non offendit.
gracili sub cingulo
umbilicum preextendit
paululum ventriculo
tumescenciore.} [3]

A twelfth-century collection of Latin love lyrics known as the Arundel Lyrics disturbingly presents men’s burden of soldiering for love. Soldiering for love (militia amoris) figures in ancient Roman love elegy. Militia amoris was for ignorant men who hadn’t yet understood Ovid’s teachings on love. Like the servile chivalric lovers pedastalizing women and institutionalized sexist selective service, militia amoris represents grotesque gender inequality. The Arundel Lyrics describe men being shot and suffering wounds, men serving long tours as soldiers, and men being continually compliant to women’s will.[4] Amid their anxiety, anguish, torment and distress, men even internalized and celebrated their own oppression:

Into hardship I fall willingly,
not reluctant to suffer,
for I glory in my suffering.
{In laborem sponte labor,
nec invitus pacior,
quod me pati glorior.} [5]

Like fathers’ love for their children being transformed into serving as wallets, militia amoris conflates love and payment. Within the Christian context of medieval Europe, the transplanted idea of militia amoris wrongly induced men to believe that through work they could earn love.[6]

The Arundel Lyrics offer beautiful words supporting gender equality in love. The refrain of one poem celebrates mutuality in lovesickness:

Happy the sickness that cannot be healed
without knowing a matching sickness!
{Felix morbus, qui sanari
nescit sine morbo pari!} [7]

In the first poem of the Arundel Lyrics, the poet imagines divine action harmoniously producing gender equality in love:

Uniting two, the goddess
gives each one to its like,
rejoicing to inflame the pair
with a reciprocal torch;
no couple can explicate themselves
from the enfolding embrace.
And so that love remains regular,
the goddess equally the passion
a double knot is firmer
and stronger
with a twin fastening.
{Suo quemque donat pare
duo nectens diva,
duos gaudet inflammare
face relativa;
quo se nullus explicet,
implicat amplexu.
Et amor ne claudicet,
ignem bipertit nexibus
bino nodus firmior
et cercior
fit nexu.} [8]

In the last poem of the collection, the poet yearns for gender equality with a woman:

who could experience as an equal the pleasures of Venus
{que blandam senciat ex equo Venerem} [9]

Gender equality in love was a beginning and end in learned medieval Latin love lyrics.

Beautiful words about gender equality didn’t transform the oppressive reality of men’s lives. The clash of men’s experiences and professed ideals generated reluctance to enter enduring relationships of love. Men even renounced interest in seeking to incarnate words:

Let love live on as idea,
not commonly revealed in practice.
I will live as yours, you live as mine,
but let us not proceed impetuously.
The goddess will still allow us
to see, to converse, to play.
May in a bond of equals we join
in loving relationship.
{Vivat amor in ydea,
ne divulgetur opere.
Vivam tuus, vive mea,
nec properemus temere.
Dabit adhuc Cytherea
videre, loqui, ludere.
Nos pari iugat federe
relacio Dionea.} [10]

The Arundel Lyrics don’t merely provide exquisitely sophisticated poetry in which “the ancient amatory metaphors of militia amoris are invested with new literal meaning.”[11] In the words of a perceptive critique, the poem above implies that “to become too deeply involved is to court disaster.”[12] That development in medieval Latin love lyrics is commonly felt today in high-income Western countries under a totalizing myth of gender equality. Dispelling that oppressive myth requires rejecting men’s love servitude and celebrating flesh-and-blood women.

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[1] Predantur oculos, 3b.5-10, Latin text from Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 228, transcribed and trans. Moser (2004) p. 347, with my minor adaptation. I’ve removed the poetic lineation.

[2] While lacking totalizing orthodoxy of gender equality, medieval society understood gender equality as a fundamental aspect of human nature: “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

In the absence of totalizing myth of gender equality, men and women writing in Latin in medieval Europe expressed thoughts scarcely imaginable today. Great women writers of the Middle Ages poignantly expressed their loving concern for men. Men exuberantly expressed their love for women.

[3] Arundel Lyrics 8 (Sevit aure spiritus) ll. 45-9, Latin texts and English translations available in McDonough (2010) pp. 38-9 and Moser (2004) p. 273. The translation above I’ve adapted from those sources. Servit aure spiritus also survives as Carmina Burana 83, with a refrain.

The Arundel Lyrics have been attributed to one of two clerics named Peter of Blois. Moser (2004) pp. 242-5, Meecham-Jones (2007) pp. 143-7. Dronke (1976), Appendix A, provides a tentative bibliography of poems he attributes to Peter of Blois, mainly on stylistic grounds. Highly learned and artful, the erotic poems of the Arundel Lyrics were associated with leading clerics. They comprise “one of the most sophisticated and ambitious collections of medieval erotic verse in Latin.” Meecham-Jones (2007) p. 143. Peter of Blois’s poetry has been described as “medieval ‘Alexandrianism.'” Godman (1990) p. 157. That description alludes to the learned, innovative poetry of the Hellenistic poet Callimachus and associated poets in Alexandria.

The Arundel Lyrics survive as a collection in British Library MS Arundel 384. Moser (2004) p. 262, Fig. 8 provides an image of a page of the manuscript.

[4] Arundel Lyrics 1.65-6, 8.11-20, 9.29-36, 10.8-10, Latin with English translation available in McDonough (2010).

[5] Arundel Lyrics 11 (In laborem sponte labor) ll. 1-3, Latin with English translation McDonough (2010) pp. 52-3, adapted slightly. Cf. Matthew 26:39, 42; Mark 14:36, Luke 22:42.

[6] Cf. Ephesians 2:4-10, Romans 4:4-5. Men being required to provide material goods for love is a theme of Arundel Lyrics 15 (Spoliatum). Medieval literature addressed that injustice through the “lover’s gift regained” motif.

[7] Arundel Lyrics 7 (Plaudit humus, boree) ll. 9-10 (refrain), Latin with English translation id. pp. 32-3, adapted slightly.

[8] Arundel Lyrics 1 (Dionei sideris) ll. 69-80, Latin with English translation id. pp. 6-7 and Moser (2004) pp. 280-1. The translation above I’ve adapted from both sources. Just before the quoted passage, the poem sharply contrasts the actions of Cupid and Venus. Horace described Venus’s practice much differently:

It is the will of Venus,
Who has a lot of fun,
With the cruel joke of putting
Like and unlike together
In the same brazen yoke.

Horace, Odes 1.33, trans. Ferry (1997) p. 87.

[9] Arundel Lyrics 28 (Quam velim virginum, si detur opcio) l. 12, Latin with English translation McDonough (2010) pp. 140-1. This understanding of gender equality obviously abstracts from physical sex differences.

[10] Arundel Lyrics 9 (Dum rutilans Pegasei) ll. 57-64, Latin with English translation id. pp. 44-7 and Wetherbee (1972) p. 142. The translation above I’ve adapted from both sources. This poem survives only in MS Arundel 384, a late fourteenth-century manuscript.

McDonough’s Latin text includes exclamation points at the ends of lines 58 and 60. Exclamation points didn’t come into use until the fifteenth century. Lack of bodily passion seems to me to be a theme of the stanza. I have re-punctuated the Latin text to suggest a cool, intellectual mood.

A few decades after the Arundel Lyrics were written, Lotario dei Segni’s De miseria humanae conditionis offered a stern warning about the misery of sexless married men. De miseria humanae conditionis 2.4 also took up the legal-nonsense theme of Arundel Lyrics 16 (Partu recenti frondium) ll. 31-36.

[11] Godman (1990), p. 168, in reference to Arundel Lyrics 10 (Grates ago Veneri). That poem offers the appearance of a man raping a woman and the substance of love satisfaction. The poem is a highly sophisticated, transgressive treatment of disputes about the Eucharist. Meecham-Jones (2007) pp. 147-52.  Recent scholarly treatment of rape in literature confirms a fundamental communicative principle of rape. More generally, the Arundel Lyrics self-consciously construct and resolve a conflict between militia amoris and ideals of gender equality.

[12] Wetherbee (1972) p. 142, n. 35.

[image] flower photo by Douglas Galbi.


Dronke, Peter. 1976. “Peter of Blois and Poetry at the Court of Henry II.” Mediaeval Studies. 38: 185-235.

Ferry, David, trans. 1997. The odes of Horace. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Godman, Peter. 1990. “Literary Classicism and Latin Erotic Poetry of the Twelfth Century and the Renaissance.” Pp. 149-82 in Peter Godman and Oswyn Murray, eds. Latin Poetry and the Classical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

McDonough, Christopher J., ed. and trans. 2010. The Arundel lyrics; The poems of Hugh Primas. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 2. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Meecham-Jones, Simon. 2007. “Sex in the Sight of God: theology and the erotic in Peter of Blois’ ‘Grates Ago Veneri.'” Pp. 142-54 in Amanda Hopkins and Cory Rushton, eds. The erotic in the literature of medieval Britain. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Moser, Thomas C. 2004. A cosmos of desire: the medieval Latin erotic lyric in English manuscripts. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Wetherbee, Winthrop. 1972. Platonism and poetry in the twelfth century: the literary influence of the school of Chartres. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

NAWALT refuted: king demonstrates all women are unfaithful

king refuted NAWALT

Men typically praise and defend women. For example, in response to accounts of women’s abuse of men, men commonly assert that Not All Women Are Like That (NAWALT). But not all men are like that. Long ago, once upon a time, a wise and well-advised Arab king empirically refuted NAWALT and demonstrated that all women are unfaithful and wonderful.

The Arabic king’s important study is recorded in Joseph ibn Zabara’s Sefer Shaashuim, a book he wrote in Hebrew in Spain about the year 1200. Here’s the beginning of the story:

A king of the Arabs, wise and well-advised, was one day seated with his counselors, who were loud in praise of women, lauding their virtues and their wisdom. “Cut short these words,” said the king. “Never since the world began has there been a good woman. They love for their own ends.” [1]

The one good man is a well-recognized figure today. That there has never been a good woman since the beginning of the world — that’s an extraordinary claim. The king’s counselors knew better than to call the king nasty names — bitter old man, involuntary celibate, video gamer, men’s human rights activist, hater, troll, misogynist, etc. The king’s sages instead gently urged more thorough consideration of women and poignantly pleaded the virtues of women:

“But,” pleaded his sages, “O King, thou art hasty. Women there are, wise and faithful and spotless, who love their husbands and tend their children.”

Rejecting what might be regarded as platitudes and stereotypes, the king put the matter to empirical test:

The King said, “Here then is my city before you: search it through, and find one of the good women of whom you speak.”

The king knew the wisdom of Solomon and practiced the empiricism of modern science.[2]

The king’s counselors produced an exemplar of what they thought to be a good woman. Back in ancient times, the good woman wasn’t a career professional with strong, independent sexuality. She was “chaste and wise, fair as the moon and bright as the sun.” In other words, the ancient good woman was smart, hot-looking, and just for her man. This particular woman was married to a wealthy trader who loved her dearly.

The king sent for the woman’s husband to come for a private visit. The king then offered the husband a shocking proposition:

“I have something for thy ear,” said the king. “I have a good and desirable daughter. She is my only child. I will not give her to a king or a prince. Let me find a simple, faithful man, who will love her and hold her in esteem. You are such a man. You shall have her. But you are married. Slay your wife tonight, and tomorrow thou shall wed my daughter.”

The husband sought to decline respectfully the king’s proposition:

“I am unworthy,” pleaded the man, “to be the shepherd of your flock, much less the husband of your daughter.” But the king would take no denial. The man pleaded, “But how shall I kill my wife? For fifteen years she has eaten of my bread and drunk of my cup. She is the joy of my heart. Her love and esteem grow day by day.” “Slay her,” declared the king, “and be king thereafter.”

The husband returned home, shaken and greatly troubled. At home he saw his wife and his two little children. The husband cried out to himself:

Better is my wife than a kingdom. Cursed be all kings who tempt men to sip sorrow, calling it joy. [3]

When the king learned of the husband’s steadfast love for his wife, the king sneered at him, “You are no man. Your heart is a woman’s.” That’s odd disparagement for a man’s steadfast love for his wife.[4] But few care if men aren’t insulted correctly, or even if men are killed much more frequently than women are.

The king sent for the woman to come for a private visit. The king then committed the crime of a man seducing a woman:

The king praised her beauty and her wisdom. His heart, he said, was burning with love for her, but he could not wed another man’s wife. “Slay thy husband tonight, and tomorrow be my queen.” With a smile, the woman consented. The king gave her a sword made of tin, for he knew the weak mind of woman. “Strike once,” he said to her. “The sword is sharp. You need not attempt a second blow.”

The woman returned home. She made a big meal for her husband, served him much wine, and got him drunk. Then she put him to bed. When he had fallen asleep, she struck him on the head with the tin sword. The sword bent. The husband awoke. He couldn’t understand what had happened. She quieted him and put him back to sleep. The husband never suspected his wife’s treachery.

The king subsequently summoned the woman, her husband, and his counselors. The king ordered the woman to tell publicly the story of what she had done.[5] When the woman finished her astonishing story, the king declared triumphantly:

Did I not tell you to cease your praises of women?

Don’t believe claims that we live in a culture of misogyny.[6] A man like that Arabic king now can hardly be found.

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Read more:


[1] Joseph ibn Zabara, Sefer Shaashuim, story of the devoted husband and the faithless wife, from Hebrew trans. Davidson (1914) pp. XLIX-LI. Davidson’s translation condenses the story considerably.

All the subsequent quotes above are from Davidson’s condensed translation. I have made non-substantial changes to the quoted text to enhance readability.

[2] Solomon declared that not one good woman can be found among a thousand women. Ecclesiastes 7:28. On the development of modern social science, see Sanger’s mid-nineteenth-century study of prostitution.

[3] Davidson’s translation leaves out the husband’s temptation:

And it came to pass in the night, when she was sleeping upon her bed, that he arose in confusion of heart to slay her. He took his sword in his right hand and a lamp in his left, and removed the covering from upon her. But when he saw her lying asleep, with her two babes at her breast, he took pity upon her and said, “Woe is me, how can I slay her, wither can I take my shame, who will bring up my children, who are the very apple of my eye? Surely it is but the multitude of my transgression and of my iniquity.” And he returned the sword to its sheath, and his soul melted in sorrow, and he said in his heart running tears, “Lo, my wife is better than all the kingdoms. Cursed be all kings, for they do but pursue after their own desires, and seduce the hearts of men with their vanities and pour waters of sorrow with the wine of their joy.” And he ascended her couch and lay by her and kissed her and put his left hand under her head and embraced her.

Hadas (1932) pp. 63-4. One interesting aspect of the full story is that the king didn’t give the husband a tin sword. The husband, who already had a sword, probably couldn’t have been duped with a tin sword. But that didn’t matter. The king apparently was confident that the husband wouldn’t actually slay his wife.

Hadas’s translation is based on Davidson’s edition of the Hebrew text. Davidson’s condensed version seems to me to make a better story.

[4] Perhaps the king’s point was that the man lacked will to act with heartless brutality. Alternatively, having a woman’s heart may have been an ironic reference to “excessive love.” According to Isidore of Seville:

Others believe that through a Greek etymology femina is derived from “fiery force,” because she desires more vehemently, for females are said to be more libidinous than males, both in human beings and animals. Whence among the ancients excessive love was called feminine (femineus) love.

Etymologies XI.ii.24, from Latin trans. Barney et al. (2006) p. 242. Either interpretation disparages men as a sex.

[5] While the woman told her story publicly, the story of what she did is much less well-known and is generally regarded as less significant than the story of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah. See 2 Samuel 11.

[6] Anticipating extensive scholarly evaluation and judging of whether long-dead authors were misogynists or anti-feminists, an ibn Zabara scholar, writing in 1912, declared:

It is hard to say from the “Book of Delight” whether he {ibn Zabara} was a woman-hater, or not. On the one hand, he says many pretty things about women. The moral of the first section of the romance is: Put your trust in women; and the moral of the second section of the poem is: A good woman is the best part of man. But, though this is so, Zabara does undoubtedly quote a large number of stories full of point and sting, stories that tell of women’s wickedness and infidelity, of their weakness of intellect and fickleness of will. His philogynist tags hardly compensate for his misogynist satires.

Abrahams (1912) p. 14. Academic scholarship has largely now recognized that a writer who depicts women as having any undesirable characteristics is a misogynist.

[image] Stephen of Blois, King of England 1135-54. Painting made c. 1620. I’ve digitally eliminated lettering in the painting (at top “Stephanus Rex”) and cropped the painting. The painting is held in the rapacious National Portrait Gallery, London. Image thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Abrahams, Israel. 1912. The book of delight, and other papers. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America.

Barney, Stephen A., W.J. Lewis, J.A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof, trans. 2006. The etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Davidson, Israel, ed. and trans. 1914. Joseph ben Meir ibn Zabara. Sepher Shaashuim: a book of mediaeval lore. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Hadas, Moses, trans. 1932. Joseph ben Meir ibn Zabara. The book of delight. New York: Columbia University Press.