Sanger blamed men for prostitution: pioneering social science

man seducing woman to path of prostitution

Socially favored fictions can easily dominate social science. That effect is readily apparent in the horrifying history of domestic violence scholarly study and decades of fallacious public discussion about domestic violence. Today, major media eagerly peddle tendentious, misleading surveys purporting to show that 1 in 5 women on college campuses have been sexually assaulted. Such failure of social science isn’t a new development. William W. Sanger’s pioneering social-scientific study of prostitution, published in 1858, blamed men for women becoming prostitutes.[1] Sanger’s study shows an early, paradigmatic failure of social science.

Sanger, a physician, was a credential, respected, and well-known public health authority. In 1846, he received his medical degree from the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons, the first medical college established in the American colonies. He served as a physician at New York’s Bellevue Hospital Center, the first public hospital established in America, as well as the Marine Hospital, the Clinton Hospital, and the Quarantine of New York. In 1847 and from 1853 to 1860, Sanger served as Physician-in-Chief on New York’s Blackwell’s Island.[2] Blackwell Island contained central New York institutions for the control of deviants: alms house, workhouse, penitentiary, and lunatic asylum, along with associated hospitals. In 1855, the Board of Governors of the Alms-House of New York submitted six questions on prostitution to Sanger in his capacity as Physician of Blackwell’s Island. Sanger wasn’t content with merely answering those specific questions. He contacted the Mayor of New York and other leading authorities and arranged to carry out an extensive study of prostitution in New York.[3] He subsequently extended his study to the history of prostitution and its extent, causes, and effects around the world.

Sanger began his study with a sensational introduction. He positioned himself as a courageous truth-seeker:

Few care to know the secret springs from which prostitution emanates; few are anxious to know how wide the stream extends; few have any desire to know the devastation it causes. … he who dares allude to the subject of prostitution in any other than a mysterious and whispered manner, must prepare to meet the frowns and censure of society. [4]

He depicted prostitution as a grave threat to everyone:

There is an ever-present physical danger, so fatally destructive that the world would recoil, as from the spring of a serpent, could they but appreciate its malignity; a malignity which is daily and hourly threatening every man, woman, and child in the community; which for hundreds of years has been slowly but steadily making its way onward, leaving a track marked with broken hopes, ruined frames, and sad recollections of stricken friends; and which now, in the full force of an impetus acquired and aggravated by concealment, almost defies opposition.

Sanger thus justified his extensive, scholarly study of prostitution:

These reasons were sufficiently powerful to induce the necessary researches for the accomplishment of this work, and they are considered sufficient to justify its publication.

Symbolic works, like physical goods, are commonly sold. Symbolic works are sold in human interactions much more complex than a fee-simple exchange. Sanger was an elite public figure selling his work to other elite public figures. He marketed a lurid story of social-scientific revelations about prostitution. Prostitution in Sanger’s story was a hidden, pernicious social problem much like rape culture on college campuses today.

Sanger directed a large, social-scientific survey of prostitutes and prostitution. The Board of Governors of the Alms-House of New York formally reviewed and approved 37 questions Sanger prepared to be asked of prostitutes in New York City. The questions were pre-printed on a standard questionnaire that police officers filled out during their interviews with prostitutes.[5] Sanger noted:

The mayor, the district attorney, the chief of police, and the captains of the several districts, willingly and zealously co-operated with Governor Townsend and myself, and every possible exertion was used to obtain accurate and extensive information. It became my duty to assist the officers in the execution of their task, and I am thus enabled to speak with certainty as to the authenticity of the statistics given, which were mainly collected under my own observation.

Sanger further documented how the survey was administered so as to control for potential sources of bias:

These women were examined singly and alone, and a person who has been engaged for a number of years in any particular inquiry is able, by his experience, to judge whether his informants are speaking the truth in their replies. For this, among other reasons, we are satisfied that in almost every case there was no deception practiced, but that the answers obtained were true in all essential points. … It is not denied that there were many difficulties to be encountered, although the mode of operation was simple. It may be briefly described as follows. The captain of each police district (and oftentimes the writer with him) explained his object to the keeper of the house, assuring her that there was no intention to annoy, harass, or expose her; and, particularly, that no prosecutions should be based upon any information thus collected. This latter promise was supported by a letter from a high legal functionary addressed to the Mayor and Police Department, assuring them that the particulars they collected should not be used in any manner prejudicial to the women themselves, as it was believed that a collection of the necessary information required by such a work as the present would be productive of good to the city. When satisfied upon the subject of prosecution, they were told that the real motive was to obtain correct particulars of prostitution without exposing individual cases, so as to enable the public to judge of its extent, and assist them in forming an opinion as to the necessity of arrangements which would ultimately become protective to our citizens at large, as well as to housekeepers and courtesans, and many of the housekeepers expressed a hope that the design might be accomplished. Their interests, therefore, led them to speak the truth. In short, from the precautions taken, and from the result itself, very little doubt can be entertained as to the authenticity of the principal part of the replies on all essential points

Complete survey responses were obtained for 2000 prostitutes in 1856-7. That was about a third of known public prostitutes in New York City. In addition, Sanger arranged for the inspectors of all 22 of the New York police precincts each to answer four quantitative questions about prostitution in their districts. Sanger also undertook an extensive survey of brothel keepers. He further surveyed other city mayors with six quantitative questions about prostitution.[6]

In contrast to his pioneering social-scientific surveys, Sanger interpreted the resulting data with fictional ideals of women and acute anti-men bias. In his introductory summary, Sanger described the “most useful portion” of his prostitute survey as prostitutes’ answers to the question: “What was the cause of your becoming a prostitute?” Sanger summarized the empirical findings:

These tend to expose the concealed vices of mankind, and to prove that many of the unfortunate victims are “more sinned against than sinning.” Among the reasons assigned for a deviation from the paths of virtue are some which tell of man’s deceit; others, where the machinations employed to effect the purpose raise a blush for humanity; others, where a wife was sacrificed by the man who had sworn before God and in the presence of men to protect her through life; others, where parents have urged or commanded this course, and are now living on the proceeds of their children’s shame, or where an abuse of parental authority has produced the same effect; and others still, where women, already depraved, have been the means of leading their fellow-women to disgrace.

Prostitutes’ answers to the question “What was the cause of your becoming a prostitute?” seem to have been controlled by a single permitted choice among a standardized list of causes. The 2000 prostitutes surveyed indicated 2000 causes distributed as follows:

  1. Inclination: 513
  2. Destitution: 525
  3. Seduced and abandoned: 258
  4. Drink and the desire to drink: 181
  5. Ill-treatment of parents, relatives, or husbands: 164
  6. As an easy life: 124
  7. Bad company: 84
  8. Persuaded by prostitutes: 71
  9. Too idle to work: 28
  10. Violated: 27
  11. Seduced on board emigrant ships: 16
  12. Seduced in emigrant boarding houses: 8 [7]

Causes that make no reference to others’ actions (1. Inclination, 4. Drink and the desire to drink, 6. As an easy life, and 7. Too idle to work) account for 42% of the causes for women becoming prostitutes. Heading the otherwise descending-frequency list with “Inclination” positioned it for initial dismissal. Sanger declared:

First in order stands the reply “Inclination,” which can only be understood as meaning a voluntary resort to prostitution in order to gratify the sexual passions. Five hundred and thirteen women, more than one fourth of the gross number, give this as their reason. If their representations were borne out by facts, it would make the task of grappling with the vice a most arduous one, and afford very slight grounds to hope for any amelioration; but it is imagined that the circumstances which induced the ruin of most of those who gave the answer will prove that, if a positive inclination to vice was the proximate cause of the fall, it was but the result of other and controlling influences. In itself such an answer would imply an innate depravity, a want of true womanly feeling, which is actually incredible. [8]

The actual facts became hypothetical and “actually incredible” relative to Sanger’s beliefs about “true womanly feeling.” Sanger rationalized:

The force of desire can neither be denied nor disputed, but still in the bosoms of most females that force exists in a slumbering state until aroused by some outside influences. No woman can understand its power until some positive cause of excitement exists.

Sanger without empirical reason believed that women are naturally innocent of what he regarded as sex crimes. “Outside influences” in Sanger’s view are responsible for women’s actions:

What is sufficient to awaken the dormant passion {of women} is a question that admits innumerable answers. Acquaintance with, the opposite sex, particularly if extended so far as to become a reciprocal affection, will tend to this; so will the companionship of females who have yielded to its power; and so will the excitement of intoxication. But it must be repeated, and most decidedly, that without these or some other equally stimulating cause, the full force of sexual desire is seldom known to a virtuous woman. In the male sex nature has provided a more susceptible organization than in females, apparently with the beneficent design of repressing those evils which must result from mutual appetite equally felt by both. In other words, man is the aggressive {emphasis in original} animal, so far as sexual desire is involved.

Like most rape victimization surveys today, Sanger’s survey didn’t survey men victims. In contrasted to his actual empirical findings, Sanger overwhelmingly blamed men, “the aggressive animal,” for women becoming prostitutes.

Sanger imaginatively re-wrote the facts that his social-scientific survey revealed. Regarding the cause “Seduced {by a man} and abandoned,” Sanger reported:

“Seduced and abandoned.” Two hundred and fifty-eight women make this reply. These numbers give but a faint idea of the actual total that should be recorded under the designation, as many who are included in other classes should doubtless have been returned in this. It has already been shown that under the answer “Inclination” are comprised the responses of many who were the victims of seduction before such inclination existed, and there can be no question that among those who assign “Drink, and the desire to drink” as the cause of their becoming prostitutes, may be found many whose first departure from the rules of sobriety was actuated by a desire to drive from their memories all recollections of their seducers’ falsehoods. Of the number who were persuaded by women, themselves already fallen, to become public courtesans, it is but reasonable to conclude that many had previously yielded their honor to some lover under false protestations of attachment and fidelity.

It is needless to resort to argument to prove that seduction is a vast social wrong, involving in its consequences not only the entire loss of female character, but also totally destroying the consciousness of integrity on the part of the male sex. It matters not under what circumstances the crime may be perpetrated, none can be found that will exonerate the active offender from the imputation of fraud and treachery. [9]

Blaming men and criminalizing men dominated Sanger’s social science on prostitution. At its center, his study devolved into stereotypes of feminine goodness and feminine natural affection:

A woman’s heart longs for a reciprocal affection, and, to insure this, she will occasionally yield her honor to her lover’s importunities, but only when her attachment has become so concentrated upon its object as to invest him with every attribute of perfection, to find in every word he utters and every action he performs but some token of his devotion to her. Love is then literally a passion, an idolatry, and its power is universally acknowledged.

With his feminine fantasies, Sanger left empirical study far behind. Idealizing women as perfect, he imagined that women become prostitutes because they wrongly idealize men as perfect. According to Sanger, women become prostitutes because of their rich, pure, unbounded love for men:

But how account for the participation of the female in the crime? Simply by viewing it as an idolatry of devotion which is willing to surrender all to the demands of him she worships; to the intensity of her affections, which absorbs all other considerations; to a perfect insanity of love, excited and sustained by a supposed equal devotion to herself. As soon as this conviction of a mutual love possesses her mind, as soon as her heart responds to its magic touch, she lives in a new atmosphere; her individuality is lost; her thoughts revert only to her lover. Devoted to the promotion of his happiness, she thinks not of her own; and only when it is too late does she awake from the spell that lures her to destruction. In such a case as this, a woman does not merit the contempt with which her conduct is visited. She has sinned from weakness, not from vice; she has been made the victim of her own unbounded love, her heart’s richest and purest affections. [10]

Sanger views men, in contrast, as vicious animals who engage in the crime of seducing women:

specious arguments and false promises are continually resorted to by many men for the express purposes of seduction; and, nefarious as these cases confessedly are, still they form common incidents in the lives of some who claim to be what the world calls respectable! Men who, in the ordinary relations of life, would scruple to defraud their neighbors of a dollar, do not hesitate to rob a confiding woman of her chastity. They who, in a business point of view, would regard obtaining goods under false pretenses as an act to be visited with all the severity of the law, hesitate not to obtain by even viler fraud the surrender of woman’s virtue to their fiendish lust. …  Unprincipled men, ready to take advantage of woman’s trustful nature, abound, and they pursue their diabolical course unmolested. Legal enactments can scarcely ever reach them, although sometimes a poor man without friends or money is indicted and convicted. The remedy must be left to the world at large. When our domestic relations are such that a man known to be guilty of this crime can obtain no admission into the family circle; when the virtuous and respectable members of the community agree that no such man shall be welcomed to their society; when worth and honor assert their supremacy over wealth and boldness, there may be hopes of a reformation, but not till then.

Along with his astonishing anti-men bias, Sanger imagined social bias against women:

Seduction {meaning men seducing women} is a social wrong. … The probabilities of a decrease in the crime of seduction are very slight, so long as the present public sentiment prevails; while the seducer is allowed to go unpunished, and the full measure of retribution is directed against his victim; while the offender escapes, but the offended is condemned.

Sanger’s argument is about as reasonable as focusing concern for gender equality on corporate and government elites and ignoring gender inequality in criminalizing and incarcerating persons. In short, Sanger’s discourse is today’s U.S. discourse.

Socially favored fictions subtly manipulate concepts and language of social science. To his estimate of 6000 public prostitutes in New York City, Sanger added “women who visit houses of assignation for sexual gratification” (estimated at 1260). A “house of assignation” was a place, other than their normal home, where persons could go to have consensual sex. A motel offering an hourly rate is a more recent form of “house of assignation.” In addition, Sanger added to his estimate of prostitutes “kept mistresses” (estimated at 200).[11] A kept mistress is much different from a woman paid by the act for sex and not seen in any other context.

Sanger actually considered prostitution to be any sex outside of marriage. Sanger buried in technical obscurities the big picture of what he meant by prostitute. He thus added for kept mistress half his estimate of kept mistresses, “assuming the other half to be included in those who visit houses of assignation.”[12] Campus sexual assault surveys likewise add sexual touching and kissing when the respondent reports being drunk. Sex with a buzz has a similar relation to sexual assault as sex outside of marriage has to prostitution. Sexual assault in today’s campus sex-scare surveys and prostitution in Sanger’s mid-nineteenth-century study are conceptually misleading terms within socially favored fictions.

Social science can degenerate into just another plot element instrumentally deployed in socially favored fictions. Despite the facts that his social-scientific prostitution survey showed, Sanger imagined sex outside of marriage as the crime of prostitution. In his imagination, that crime resulted from bad men seducing good women. Methodically collecting data is no substitute for distinguishing between fact and fiction. To do better social science, one must read fiction discerningly and develop better imagination.[13]

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[1] Sanger (1858). Sanger’s book was printed in New York and London in 1858, and frequently reprinted. It was reprinted in 1859, 1869, 1876, 1895 (by New York’s American Medical Press), 1897 (new and revised edition by New York’s Medical Publishing Co.), 1899, 1900, 1900, 1906 (new edition), 1910, 1913 (new edition), 1919, 1921, 1927, 1937 (by New York’s Eugenics Publishing Co.), 1939, 1972 (Arno Press reprint), 1974 (New York’s American Medical Press), 1984, 1986 (in New Delhi, India), 1996, 2002 (in Amsterdam, The Netherlands), and 2004 (electronic edition by Harvard University).

[2] The biographical information on William Wallace Sanger is based on the entry for him in Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography, information following his name on the title page of Sanger (1858), and Carlisle (1893) p. 146.

[3] Sanger (1858) pp. 28-32.

[4] Sanger (1858) p. 17. Subsequent quotes are from id., p. 18 (There is an ever-present physical danger … ; These reasons …), p. 31 (The mayor …), pp. 674-5 (These women were examined …), p. 33 (These tend to expose …), pp. 488-9 (First in order …; The force of desire …; What is sufficient …), pp. 492-3 (“Seduced and abandoned” …; A woman’s heart …; But how account …), pp. 495-6 (specious arguments …; Seduction is a social wrong)

[5] Id. pp. 450-1.

[6] Id. p. 575 (2000 prostitutes, about a third of total), pp. 579-80 (survey of police precincts), p. 553 (survey of brothel keepers), p. 609 (survey of mayors of other cities).

[7] Id. p. 488 (the causes are listed in the order Sanger listed them). Sanger added below his table “Total 2000.” That indicates that each of the 2000 prostitutes were associated with only one cause of becoming a prostitute.

[8] The actual results from Sanger’s survey are credible. A recent scholarly study of prostitution in mid-nineteenth-century New York observed:

For many, prostitution was not far removed from viable “respectable” alternatives, and thus it was taken up by a relatively broad group of women. Prostitution was not an occupation for only the most desperately poor and outcast but was an easy one to pursue if a young woman fell on hard times or wanted to establish her financial independence.

Hill (1993) p. 62.

[9] Gynocentric society favors criminalizing men relative to women:

Many stories of seduction reinforced the popular notion that men, even apparently trustworthy men, were really lechers. … few explanations of a woman’s fall could elicit as much sympathy as that of seduction and abandonment.

Hill (1993) p. 70. Hill (1993), Sánchez (2008), and Renner (2010) show no concern about discriminatory criminalization of men, punitive state regulation of men’s sexuality today, and the large gender disparity among persons incarcerated.

[10] For examples of Sanger mythologizing specific women’s responses, see e.g. Sanger (1858) p. 510. In mid-nineteenth-century American, the term “pornography” referred both to obscene texts and “supposedly well-intentioned examinations of prostitution.” Renner (2010) p. 190. Sanger was sensitive to questions of propriety. Sanger (1858) p. 21. He positioned his study as elite, authoritative, scientific work. Nonetheless, Sanger’s social science yielded to the story he wanted to tell:

History {Sanger’s History of Prostitution} blithely ignores distinctions of genre and style as it follows its fallen women from one scene of victimization to another, offering forgiveness, solidarity, sympathy, and asides about heroines and villains. Thus what would appear to be the most significant difference between the History and panic fiction— that the former is not, in fact, fictional— blurs as William Sanger and other moral reformers work to transform the fallen woman into one thing she has never been, a romantic ideal. … At times, it is unclear whether reformers like William Sanger remembered the difference between fictional fallen women and real fallen women … such blurring reminds us of the power of imaginative writing, and of sentimental narrative’s ability to move readers. Thus, it makes clear fiction’s appeal to reformers. Ultimately, the blurring of reality and fiction, of Blackwell’s girls and imagined girls, tells us that what reformers understood to be true about fallen women could not be contained in neat narrative categories. It could only be expressed in terms of which stories were wrong and which stories got it right.

Sánchez (2008) pp. 92, 96. The Rolling Stone rape hoax illustrates a similar effect with a less elite, less scientific text.

[11] Id. p. 584.

[12] Id. Sanger surveyed New York City police precincts with the question, “how many women in your district, who are not impelled by necessity, prostitute themselves to gratify their passions?” These women, whom Sanger associated with meetings in houses of assignation and kept mistresses, Sanger called “private prostitutes.” Id. p. 583. Describing his own study of New York City, Sanger reported “the most diligent search can discover in 1858 only 7860 public and private prostitutes.” Id. p. 616. He observed “all are included who are suspected to be lost to virtue, although of the number who visit houses of assignation for sexual gratification many are guiltless of promiscuous intercourse.” Id. p. 584. New York City then had a female population of about 366,000.  Sanger’s surveys were completely unsuited to estimating the number of women who had non-commercial sex outside of marriage. That number probably would be much greater than Sanger’s estimate of total public and private prostitutes. Accepting Sanger’s definition of prostitutes, Hill (1993) p. 30, Table 1, reports his figure of 7860 simply as “prostitutes.”

[13] Within his study, Sanger displayed his erudition with quotes from, among others, Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (title page), Alexander Pope’s poetry (p. 21), Shakespeare’s King Lear (p. 33, cf. King Lear 3.2.60: “More sinn’d against than sinning”), and Byron’s The Giaour (p. 486, substituting “her soul” for “his soul”). Sanger may have quoted some of his own poetry (p. 23). He also displayed considerable knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman literature and modern European literature. Nonetheless, Sanger’s imagination seems to have been constrained in a highly conventional way:

reading through Sanger’s stories of individual prostitutes, it is hard not to suspect that he is falling for them. As Sanger and reformers write about fallen women, they appeal to readers’ most intimate feelings about the female kin for whom they already care— daughters, sisters, mothers, and perhaps wives

Sánchez (2008) p. 94. The women-are-wonderful effect provides an alternate social-science perspective on Sanger’s narrow imagination.

[image] Illustration: “Dangerous Amusements — The Brilliant Entrance to Hell Itself.” From Bell, Ernest A. 1911. Fighting the traffic in young girls, or, War on the white slave trade: a complete and detailed account of the shameless traffic in young girls. Chicago.  Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Carlisle, Robert J. 1893. An account of Bellevue Hospital: with a catalogue of the medical and surgical staff from 1736 to 1894. New York: Society of the Alumni of Bellevue Hospital.

Hill, Marilynn Wood. 1993. Their sisters’ keepers: prostitution in New York City, 1830-1870. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Renner, Karen J. 2010. “Seduction, Prostitution, and the Control of Female Desire in Popular Antebellum Fiction.” Nineteenth-Century Literature. 65 (2): 166-191.

Sánchez, María Carla. 2008. Reforming the world: social activism and the problem of fiction in nineteenth-century America. Iowa City: University of Iowa 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.

Antoninus of Piacenza’s strange sense in the Holy Land

Mona Lisa

Antoninus of Piacenza wrote an account of his travels in Palestine about 560-570 GC. He wrote like tourists through the ages: I went there, I saw that, then I went to another place and saw another thing. Yet Antoninus’s account also documents him experiencing biblical history particularly and sensuously. His account is factual in ways completely inconsistent with modern practices of distinguishing between fact and fiction.

Antoninus indicated his particular Christian-realistic sensibility from the beginning of his book. He began:

I will take care to explain in what parts I traveled, desiring to follow the footsteps of Christ, and to see the miracles of the prophets. So starting from Placentia {Piacenza}, we came to Constantinople, from which we came to the island of Cyprus, to the city of Constantia, where St. Epiphanius rests. It is a beautiful and agreeable city, and is adorned with date-palms. Thence we came into the parts of Syria, to the island of Antaradus; and thence we came to Tripolis, in Syria, where St. Leontius rests, which city, together with some others, was destroyed by an earthquake in the time of the Emperor Justinian. [1]

The earthquake is well-documented as factual. The places Antoninus mentioned exist, and he plausibly traveled through them. In contrast to that simple realism, to follow the footsteps of Christ is now understood as a spiritual metaphor. To see the miracles of ancient prophets long afterwards would be supra-miraculous.

Different senses are completely mixed in Antoninus’s account. Consider:

From Ptolemais, by the seaside, we came to the borders of Galilee, to the city of Diocaesarea, in which we adored with reverence the pail and basket of Blessed Mary. In that place was also the chair in which she was sitting when the angel came to her. Three miles farther we reached Cana, where our Lord was at the wedding. We reclined upon His very couch, upon which I, unworthy that I am, wrote the names of my parents. There are two water jars there. One of them I filled with water and brought forth from it wine. I raised it when full upon my shoulder and carried it to the altar. We bathed in the fountain for a blessing.

Antoninus had an immediate, material sense of biblical history: here’s Mary’s pail, here is the chair in which she sat at a specific moment. At the same time, Antoninus wasn’t experiencing a state of other-worldly consciousness. He physically wrote the names of his parents on the chair. He tasted wine just transformed from water, and he bathed in the source of that water. He later declared that he drank water from the sponge that the soldier put to Jesus’s mouth when Jesus was dying on the cross. Antoninus’s ordinary sense was perfectly united to Christian sense.

Antoninus noted personally realistic details and expressed concern for truth. He stated that he traveled to Jericho and saw the fountain the water of which the prophet sweetened. He noted:

There grow dates, some of which I brought home to my own country, and one I gave to the Lord Paterius, a nobleman.

He further stated:

Not far from the city of Jericho is the tree into which Zacchaeus climbed that he might see the Lord. It is enclosed in an oratory. When looked at from above through the roof it appears withered. Leaving Jericho, proceeding from the east towards the west, we had on our left hand the ashes of Sodom and Gomorrah, over which country there always hangs a dark cloud with a sulfurous odor. But as for what they say about Lot’s wife, that she is diminished in size by being licked by animals, it is not true. She stands just in the same condition as she originally was.

A specific crag apparently was thought to be Lot’s wife turned to stone. Animals licking a stone, such as one containing salts, is creatural-realistic. Antoninus asserted, contrary to false claims, the size of the stone wasn’t being diminished.

An influential literary scholar described the antithetical fusion of high and low styles and sublimely figural writing as being “Christian in spirit and Christian in origin.”[2] Antoninus of Piacenza’s account of his travels in the Holy Land took the Christian mixed style to an astonishing extreme.

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[1] Antoninus of Piacenza, Of the Holy Places Visited by Antoninus Martyr, from Latin trans. Stewart (1887) Ch. 1, pp. 1-2. The name Antoninus Martyr probably reflects confusion with Saint Antoninus of Piacenza, who was martyred in 303 GC. That confusion evidently existed from no later than the ninth century. The three manuscripts, which survive from the ninth century, begin awkwardly:

The blessed Antoninus the Martyr going on his way together with his companion, after he left Placentia, I will take care to explain in what parts I traveled, …

Id pp. viii; Ch. 1, p. 1. I’ve omitted the two prefatory phrases above. Subsequent quotes from Antoninus above are from id. Ch. 4, p. 4; Ch. 14, p. 13; Ch. 15, p. 13. I’ve made some superficial changes in the translations to enhance readability.

[2] Auerbach (1953) p. 198. See also id. pp. 153-6.

[image] Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci, 1519. Held in Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Auerbach, Erich. 1953. Mimesis: the representation of reality in Western literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Stewart, Aubrey, and Charles William Wilson, ed. and trans. 1887. Of the holy places visited by Antoninus Martyr (circ. 560-570 A.D.). London: Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society.

rebellion over too few men teachers in elementary schools

men protesting amid lack of men teachers in elementary schools

With the world preoccupied by serious wars, an unimportant incident paralyzed Washington. A boy in second grade was suspended for three months for sticking his tongue out at a girl. In a press release addressing the matter, the elementary school principal Andrea Matronreich declared that her school has a zero-tolerance policy for violence against women and rape culture.

After learning of the boy’s suspension, a group of video-gamers denounced elementary schools for boring and drugging boys and vastly under-representing men among teachers. Leading media described the video-gamer group as uncivilized, misanthropic loners who mainly play video games and view pornography while living in small, badly decorated apartments. Nonetheless, men, boys, and their sisters rallied to the video-gamers’ side. Boy supporters streamed into Washington, filling streets and blocking access to office buildings and the Capitol. They pleaded with law makers and civic leaders to establish a strong affirmative-action program to increase the number of men teachers in elementary schools.

The Association of Elementary School Teachers and Supervisors (AESTAS) convened an emergency meeting to address the matter. Catherine McKillum, a highly respected scholar on gender in elementary education, addressed the AESTAS meeting. She proclaimed:

If we had, each of us, made it a rule to uphold the rights and authority of women in relation to children, we would not now have this trouble about men teaching children. As things are now, our liberty of action, which has been checked and rendered powerless by patriarchy within the workplace, is crushed and trampled on by men, boys, and their sisters here in Washington. Because we failed to dominate husbands sufficiently within the home, men, boys, and their sisters have now come together to threaten us in elementary schools. The wonderful story in which the whole of the male sex was extirpated now seems farther than ever from realization.

There is no class of males from which the gravest dangers may not arise. If we allow males to meet without the presence of women, intrigues, plots, and secret cabals against the good order of society will result. I can hardly make up my mind which is worse: allowing men to have physical custody of children, or the disastrous precedent that it creates. That latter concerns me as a gender scholar; the former has more to do with you as elementary school teachers. Whether affirmative action for men teachers in elementary schools is good for women and should be allowed is for you to determine by your votes.

This tumult against women teachers, whether a spontaneous movement or due to the instigation of that gamer group and other hate mongers, certainly points to failure in education. Whether you have failed in educating children and men, or they have somehow learned in other ways, I do not know. It brings greater discredit on you if you have failed in teaching so far as to create agitation among men, boys, and their sisters, and on us gender scholars, more disgrace if we have to submit to gender equality being imposed on us through fear of rebellion, as we formerly had when plebs rebelled against mixed-sex bathrooms.

It was not without a feeling of shame that into this meeting I made my way through a throng of men, boys, and their sisters. Had not my respect for the dignity and virtue of their sisters, more than any consideration for them as a whole, not restrained me from lecturing them publicly, I would have said:

Rapists! Wife-beaters! Girl-molesters! Why have you formed this habit of running free and blocking the streets and harassing gender scholars who care nothing for you? Could not each of you be confined in abjection and servitude to women? Why aren’t you in prison? Surely you do not make yourselves more attractive in the streets than in prisons, as if you should be allowed to associate with women other than your mothers. If males were kept by proper policing within the limits of their rights, it would be most inadvisable for you to associate even with your mothers, whom you often criminally abuse.

Our ancestors would have no man address a woman, except to be directed into mortal battle as duly established through the mass voice of women-society. We suffer men now to dabble with visitation provisions for their children and mix themselves up with coaching children’s sports and meeting with their children’s women teachers. What are they doing now in the public roads and street corners but recommending to all that they be allowed to be part of the life of their biological progeny. Give the reins to headstrong nature, to a creature that has not been civilized, and then hope that they will themselves set bounds to their license if you do not restrain them yourselves. Imposing women teachers on males is the smallest of those means of control that have been imposed upon males by ancestral custom or by laws. They now submit to this with such impatience. What men really want is unrestricted freedom, reproductive rights, equal child custody provisions, and equal criminal justice under law, or to speak the truth, license. If they win on this occasion, what will they not attempt?

Call to mind all the regulations respecting men by which our ancestors curbed their license and made them obedient to women. Yet in spite of all those restrictions, you scarcely control them. If you allow them to pull away these restraints and wrench them out one after another, and finally put themselves on equality with women, do you imagine that you will be able to tolerate them? From the moment that they become your gender equals, they will become your masters. But surely, you say, what they seek is equal rights to parent and teach children, not a privilege but a fundamental aspect of human life. No, they are demanding the abrogation of gynocentrism that you created and which the practical experience of all these years has approved and justified. This they would have you overturn. By overturning gynocentric society, they would weaken all. No society is equally agreeable to everybody. The only question is whether it is beneficial on the whole and good for the majority. If everyone personally aggrieved by gynocentrism is to destroy it and get rid of it, what is gained by having a majority women electorate enact laws against men and have them in short time teach against them?

I want, however, to learn the reason why men, boys, and their sisters have run out into the streets and scarcely keep away from institutions of social control. Is it that the vast number of men incarcerated — their fathers and husbands and children and brothers — may be ransomed? The republic is a long way from this misfortune, and may it ever remain so! Still, when mass incarceration of men emerged, you refused to show concern despite dutiful entreaties. But, you may say, is it not dutiful affection and solicitude for those they love that has brought them together? They want to welcome back rightly maligned Priapus from his deservedly icy exile. What pretext in the least degree respectable is put forward for this male insurrection? “That we may enjoy,” they say, “teaching children and spending time with our children,” as though in triumph after forcing you to hire more men as elementary school teachers.

You have often heard me complain of men’s violence against women, not only that of bad men but that of all men. I have often said that the community suffers from two opposite vices — men and boys. They are pestilent diseases that have proved the ruin of all great empires. The brighter and better the fortunes of the republic become day by day, and the greater the growth of its economy, the worse becomes the position of women. So much the more do I dread the prospect of men captivating us rather than us taking them as captives. It was a bad day for this city, believe me, when men were first allowed to adopt children. I hear far too many people praising and admiring those fathers, and scorning struggling single mothers and their rapaciously suckling children. I for my part prefer mothers who have loved us. I trust that mothers will continue to love us so long as we continue to allow them to control and teach their children.

In the days of our foremothers, Ovid attempted to tamper with men’s relation to women by means of his teaching. Women were not then teaching in elementary schools, yet not a single man admitted to learning from Ovid. What do you think was the reason? The same reason that our foremothers had for not pushing men teachers out of elementary school: there were no elementary schools. Women dominated teaching within the home, and within the home women taught children that teachers like Ovid are sick. Disease must be recognized before remedies are applied. So men’s passion to be more for their children than wallets for their children’s mothers must exist before social institutions restrain it. What called out child support laws except forcing men into work outside the home? What led to alimony laws except men moving into wage servitude from which they could pay money to women? It is not therefore in the least surprising that neither child support payments nor alimony were imposed when both men and women worked in a home-based, non-cash economy. Today women can acquire enormous monthly payments fallaciously called child support simply by sleeping with a high-income man and becoming a single mother with his child.

There are some desires of which I cannot penetrate either the motive or the reason. That what is permitted to women should be forbidden to men may naturally create a feeling of shame or indignation, but when gender equality is proclaimed to all why should any man resent being subjected to forced financial fatherhood? The very last thing to be ashamed of is supporting gender equality, but promoting affirmative action for men elementary school teachers deprives women of their dominate position as teachers. The wealthy woman says, “This idea of men parenting and teaching children is just what I do not tolerate. Why am I not to receive large monthly payments from the man with whom I had sex? Why is the womb-lessness of men to be disguised under the appearance of their parenting and teaching children, so that they might be thought to possess, if it were possible, that which is quite out of their power to possess?”

Do you want, teachers and mothers, to plunge men into a rivalry of this nature, where women risk losing what no one else can do to women’s liking, and men desire to have what none of them can truly acquire? Count upon it, as soon as a woman begins to be ashamed of what she ought to be ashamed of she will cease to be able to shame men. He who is in a position to get an elementary school teaching job will get one under affirmative action for men. He who does not seek to teach children within school will feel affirmed to teach children within the home. The wife is in a pitiable plight whether she yields or refuses. In the latter case, he and his children will find another mother who better respects men as fathers and teachers. Now they are soliciting other men’s wives, and seeking their support for men as teachers and parents, and are getting support from some, against the interests of you and your profession and your relation with your children.

Once the affirmative action law for men elementary school teachers has validated men’s relation to children, you will never constrain them to be merely father-wallets. Do not imagine that things will be the same as they were before affirmative action for men teachers. It is safer for a father to be ignored than for him to be acknowledged and then thrown out of his children’s lives by a family court. Treating fathers as wallets would have been more tolerable if men had never gotten the idea that they could teach children. They will now be like wild beasts that have been irritated by their chains and then released. I give my vote against every attempt to increase the number of men elementary school teachers. I pray that all the gods may give the action you choose a fortunate result for women.

Gender scholar Catherine McKillum, faced flushed with anger, returned to her honorary chair at the front of the meeting. The president of AESTAS then announced that she saw no need for further discussion. All the leaders of the meeting nodded uniformly in agreement. “Our solemn concern is teaching children during the school year,” said the president of AESTAS. “Think of the children.” Then the president queried, “All in favor of opposing men elementary school teachers, say us.” There was a roar of us’es. “All against, say them.” There was just one soft, quiet voice saying “them.” The Association of Elementary School Teachers and Principals thus resolved to oppose strongly men elementary school teachers.

The next day, men, boys, and their sisters poured out into the streets of Washington in even greater numbers. However, a leading newspaper reported that some of the protesters had opposed allowing a woman to have two husbands. Soon major media were filled with bitter debates about polygamy and whether the protesters were fundamentally misogynists. The boys and their sisters were baffled. Before men could teach the children how the world works, all protesting men were made subject to arrest and incarceration for disrupting public order. For fear of providing a bad example for their children, the men took their children back to the day-care centers. The men then returned to their jobs to earn money to make their alimony and child support payments.

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Men accounted for only 10.7% of primary school teachers in public schools in the U.S. in 2011-12. A primary school is defined as “a school offering a low grade of prekindergarten to 3 and a high grade of 8 or lower.” See table from U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), “Public School Teacher Data File,” 2011–12.

The text above is closely adapted from Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri (History of Rome) 34.1-8, from Latin translated Roberts (1905). I have mainly adapted a speech that Livy attributed to Cato the Elder. Cato ostensibly made the speech against repeal of the Lex Oppia in 195 BGC. Livy almost surely fabricated Cato’s speech:

{Cato’s} reference to treasures brought in from Asia and Valerius’ reference to the Origines are rare instances of anachronism in Livy, and it is hard to believe that they are not deliberate.

Chaplin (2000) p. 101. The speech Livy scripts for Cato is “at most minimally Catonian.” Milnor (2005), p. 164. In scripting speeches for Cato and Valerius, Livy set up an already conventional polarization between conservative and progressive. Id. p. 172, n. 57.

Within Livy’s history, the debate about repeal of the Lex Oppia occurs in the context of past and future wars. Wars underscore men’s position as relatively disposable persons. Shortly after narrating the Roman women and their advocates forcing repeal of the Lex Oppia, Livy narrated slaughter of Celtiberian soldiers and civilian men:

Valerius states that they amounted to 20,000 men and that 12,000 were killed, the town of Iliturgi taken and all the adult males put to the sword.

Livy, Ab Urbi Condita 34.10. For criticism of women’s luxuries in the context of men’s deaths, see e.g. words of Isaiah to the women of Jerusalem.

Cato’s speech is stylistically similar to Hitler’s celebrated rant in Downfall (2004). Hilter’s rant has spawned a vibrant culture of parodies. Those works have in turn fostered publicly important legal understanding. Classicists failure to appreciate adequately Cato’s speech in Livy has contributed to the marginalization of classics.

The final paragraph above adapts the claim that Papirius Praetextatus told his mother: the Roman Senate was considering allowing one man to have two wives or one woman to have two husbands. Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 1.23. Gellius attributes that story to Cato the Elder in his speech, To the soldiers against Galba. That speech hasn’t survived. The story of Papirius Praetextatus evidently isn’t historical. It was transmitted to medieval Europe through Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.6.18-25. Ziolkowski (2008) p. 230.

Plutarch’s Lives includes a lengthy account of Cato the Elder’s life. For Cato’s views of men in relation to women, see Cato the Elder, De Agri Cultura 143 and Gellius, Attic Nights 17.6. Juvenal followed Livy’s Cato the Elder in imagining an earlier age before opportunities for luxury corrupted women.

[image] Protesting in Washington. Thanks to Yoke Mc / Joacim Osterstam and Wikimedia Commons.


Chaplin, Jane D. 2000. Livy’s exemplary history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Milnor, Kristina. 2005. Gender, domesticity, and the age of Augustus: inventing private life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

Margery Kempe’s husband: humiliation of sexless married men

In Margery Kempe’s early-fifteenth-century English spiritual autobiography, Margery’s husband is a marginal figure. He followed and supported her in her travels, yet his words hardly appear. Of his desires, wants, and aspirations, only one is reasonable clear: he enjoyed having sex with his wife. Yet like too many husbands today, Margery Kempe’s husband had his marriage transformed into a sexless relationship and a source of personal humiliation.

frozen Artic: Laptev Sea

Hearing heavenly music prompted Margery to no longer desire to have sex with her husband. How exactly such music was produced isn’t known. Others apparently didn’t hear it. But her sense of hearing heavenly music profoundly affected Margery:

from this time she never desired to have sex with her husband, for the sexual obligation of matrimony was so abominable to her that she would rather, she thought, eat or drink the ooze, the muck in the channel, than to consent to any sexual intercourse, except only out of obedience. And so she said to her husband, “I may not deny you my body, but the love of my heart and my affection is withdrawn from all earthly creatures and set only in God.” He would have his will with her, and she obeyed with great weeping and sorrowing that she might not live chastely. [1]

Margery explained to her husband that excessive lovemaking displeased God:

she counseled her husband to live chastely, and she said that she knew well that they often had displeased God by their inordinate love and the great delight that they both had in sexually using one another, and that now it was good that they should, by both their wills and consent of them both, punish and chastise themselves willfully by abstaining from their lust of their bodies.

Margery’s husband had a more naturalistic understanding of God’s will:

Her husband said it was good to be chaste, but he might not yet; he would when God wished it. And so he sexually used her as he had done before; he would not abstain. [2]

To chastise herself, Margery began to wear a hair shirt through day and night. Her husband patiently ignored that extraordinary behavior (she implausibly claimed that he didn’t notice). He continued to have sex with her despite her wearing a hair shirt and behaving erratically. Margery claimed to have had fourteen children, including more than one after she had sought to end sexual relations with her husband. Amid detailed descriptions of her extensive travels and spiritual turmoil, Margery wrote almost nothing about her care for her children.[3]

Margery’s account of how she ended sexual relations with her husband encompasses both divine action and human bargaining. According to Margery, Christ made her a promise and acted to bring it about:

as this creature {Margery} prayed to God that she might live chastely with the permission of her husband, Christ said to her mind, “You must fast on Friday both from food and drink, and you shall have your desire before Whitsunday, for I shall suddenly slay your husband.” Then on the Wednesday in Easter week, her husband sought to know her sexually as he typically did, and when he came near her, she said, “Jesus, help me,” and he had no power to touch her at that time in that way, nor never after did he sexually know her.

Whitsunday is seven Sundays after Easter. Elsewhere Margery indicated that she and her husband stopped having sex about May 5.[4] That date might have occurred before Whitsunday, but it’s too late to be the Wednesday before Easter. Margery’s claim that Jesus physically suppressed her marital sexual activity has some factual problems.

Margery Kempe’s husband experienced sexless marriage not only as unexpected deprivation, but also as personal humiliation. Consider what Margery said to him on Midsummer Eve in 1413. That night in medieval England was associated with revelry and joyful sexuality. Margery and her husband were walking together. She was carrying a bottle of beer; he, a cake. He asked:

“Margery, if there came a man with a sword and would slice off my head unless I should have sex with you as I have done before, tell me the truth from your conscience — for you say you will not lie — whether you would allow my head to be sliced off or allow me to be intimate with you, like in the past?”

“Alas, sir,” she said. “why do you bring up this issue, when we have been chaste for the past eight weeks?”

“I want to know the truth of your heart.”

And then she said with great sorrow, “Truthfully, I would rather see you be slain than that we should turn again to the impurity of sexual activity.”

Those are cutting words for a husband to hear from his wife. Margery Kempe’s husband replied only, “You are not a good wife.” Margery then taunted her husband, and he admitted that he was afraid:

then she asked her husband why he had not been intimate with her for eight weeks, since she lay with him every night in his bed. And he said he became so afraid when he touched her that he dared not do more.

Husbands today might not have sex with their wives for fear of being accused of rape. Husbands might endure a sexless marriage for fear of being deprived of custody of their children through anti-men gender bias of family courts. Margery recounted Christ’s promise that her husband would be suddenly slain. That connects to the husband’s hypothetical about the man threatening him with a sword. As Margery understood, being deprived of sex was for her husband similar to being killed.

Margery Kempe’s husband made the best marital bargain he could under the circumstances. Margery wanted him to make a vow of chastity before a bishop. That would add the weight of sin to challenging her sexual rebuffs of him. He countered with three requests:

  1. You resume having sex with me like we did before you imposed sexlessness on our marriage.
  2. You pay pay off my debts before you take your trip to Jerusalem. Under the oppressive medieval law of coverture, a husband was responsible for his wife’s debts.
  3. You eat with me on Fridays like you did in the past, instead of fasting and leaving me to eat alone.

Margery insisted that she would never again eat with her husband on Fridays. Since this was before non-forcible martial rape (sex that one spouse doesn’t want) was criminalized, her husband declared in response that he would have sex with her. As if she were about to be executed, Margery asked to be allowed first to say her prayers. In that prayer, Jesus urged her to bargain with her husband. Jesus declared that he would permit her to eat and drink with her husband on Fridays. Margery thus offered her husband a bargain:

  1. I’ll eat and drink with you on Fridays, and
  2. I’ll pay off the debts you owe on account of me and you, if
  3. You consent willingly to renounce any further interest in having sex with me for the rest of your life.

Margery’s husband, who may well have been heavily indebted as a result of her trips and her failed business ventures, agreed to this marital deal.[5]

Margery’s husband faithfully fulfilled the terms of their marital deal. He took a formal vow of chastity before a bishop. To quell gossip that they were still having sex, after a while they moved to separate residences.[6] Margery regarded her husband as a good man:

he was ever a good man and an accommodating man to her. Though he sometimes out of panic and fear left her side, he always returned to her, and had compassion for her, and defended her as much as he dared for fear of the people. … her husband was always there for her when all others failed her and he went with her wherever our Lord would send her

Both in his sexlessness and his subordination to his wife, Margery Kempe’s husband uncannily anticipated the modern ideal husband.

Margery heard God telling her that other wives would like to have a sexless marriage. According to Margery, having sex with their husbands prevents wives from loving and serving God. She recounted that God told her:

if you knew how many wives there are in this world who would love me and serve me very well and properly, if they might be as free from their husbands as you are from yours, you would say that you were very much beholden to me. And yet many wives are put off from their wills and suffer fully great pain. They shall have very great reward in heaven, for I receive every good will as for the deed.[7]

Medieval Christian understanding of marital sexuality included the concept of marital debt. That meant that both spouses owe each other sex. In modern secular societies, spouses aren’t considered to owe each other sex. Modern societies thus provide better conceptual support for sexless marriages.

Although Margery stopped having sex with her husband, she lusted after other men for years afterwards. She could not quell the natural yearnings of her body:

for so long she was tempted with the sin of lechery despite her efforts to avoid it. She often went to confession; she wore a hair shirt and did great bodily penance and wept many a bitter tear and prayed fully often to our Lord that he would preserve her and keep her so that she would not fall into temptation. She thought she would rather be dead than consent to lechery. And in all this time she had no sexual desire for her husband, and the thought of sex with her husband was very painful and horrible to her.

One evening a man that Margery desired told her that he would like to sleep with her. Margery, in emotional turmoil, said little in reply. But her mind was filled with lecherous thoughts about that man. Later that evening, she approached him and sought to accept his proposition:

she went to the man so that he should have his lust, as she thought that he had desired, but he reacted so ambiguously that she could not know his intent, and so they parted asunder for that night.[8]

Not able to free herself from her lust for him, Margery approached him again:

At last, through irrepressible temptation and lack of discretion, she was overcome and consented in her mind and went to the man to learn if he would then consent to her. And he said that he wouldn’t for all the good in this world; he would rather be chopped up as small as meat for the pot. She went away all shamed and confused within herself, seeing his stability and her instability. [9]

That’s a hash rejection of her sexual overture. But it’s probably not as emotionally wounding as being continually sexually rejected by one’s spouse. Margery was “constantly troubled with horrible temptations of lechery and despair for nearly all the next year.” Scholars have failed to appreciate Margery’s sexual complexity. Margery regarded Mary Magdalen as the worthiest person to be with her soul.[10]

Very few medieval texts document men’s sexual deprivation within marriage. A medieval scholar has described Margery Kempe’s book as “a precious work for anyone interested in the history of gender, subjectivities, and English culture.”[11] He rhetorically questioned:

could it be that at least some of her struggles resonate in our domestic culture and have not been transcended?

The account of Margery Kempe’s husband provides vital insights into men’s lived experiences. Sexless marriages, like anti-men bias in child custody decisions and forced financial fatherhood, are fundamental injustices that our domestic culture has not transcended. Struggles with these injustices are scarcely even acceptable to notice.

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[1] Book of Margery Kempe 1.3, from Middle English my translation following closely Staley (2001) p. 10. I refer to passages in the Book of Margery Kempe by book.chapter and page number in id.

The only surviving manuscript of the Book of Margery Kempe is viewable online. A well-edited representation of the Middle English text is available online in Staley (1996), and with additional metatext at the Mapping Margery Kempe site. Staley (2001) has the benefits of being a closely literal translation, but includes archaic words and awkward constructions. Skinner (1998) is a highly readable translation, but not accurate enough for close analysis. Bale (2015) is the best close rendering into fluent modern English. Here are summaries of the book’s chapters.

The text is written as Margery’s account related through a scribe. The third-personal references to “this creature” and “she” may reflect Margery’s self-references. Above I often refer to Margery Kempe as Margery. Her contemporaries would have referred to her as Margery, not Kempe.

Margery never mentioned her husband’s name. He was John Kempe of Lynn. His name (as John) occurs only in the Bishop of Lincoln’s address to him questioning whether he consents to a chaste marriage (1.15, p. 26). I don’t use Margery Kempe’s husband’s name above to reflect his subalternity within the Book of Margery Kempe and within the dominant, gynocentric medieval scholarship on that book. For a gynocentric review of the gynocentric scholarship on the Book of Margery Kempe, Mitchell (2005).

Subsequent quotes from the Book of Margery Kempe are from: 1.3, pp. 10-1 (she counseled her husband …; Her husband said); 1.9, p. 17 (as this creature …); 1.11, pp. 18-9 (Margery, if there came a man …; then she asked her husband … ); 1.15, p. 25 (he was ever a good man …); 1.86, p. 154 (if you knew …); 1.4, pp. 12-3 (for so long she was tempted …; she went to the man … ; as last through irrepressible temptation … ; constantly troubled …).

[2] Margery’s husband echoed the prayer of Augustine of Hippo, “Lord, make me chaste and celibate – but not yet!” Confessions 8.7.

[3] A pregnant Margery asked God what she should do about caring for her forthcoming child. God responded, “I shall appoint a care-taker.” 1.21, p. 36. Subsequently Jesus told her to have no more children. 1.17, p. 29. In response to the Mayor of Leicester’s inquiry into Margery’s adherence to the articles of faith, Margery stated that she has fourteen child (1.48, p. 85). Margery at other times also reported fourteen cryings in one day and staying fourteen days in various places. Margery “bore children” during the three or four years after she sought a sexless marriage and before she achieved that (1.3, p. 11). Margery referred only to one of her sons (2.1, p. 161). She discussed his actions as an adult. Some scholars regard the Book of Margery Kempe to be a self-fashioning fiction. See, e.g. Staley (1994). Staley’s book, like scholarship on Margery Kempe more generally, largely ignores Margery Kempe’s husband and her children.

[4] On Midsummer’s Eve in 1413, Margery stated that she and her husband had been chaste for the past eight weeks (1.11, p. 18). Midsummer’s Eve was celebrated in medieval England on June 23.

[5] The marital deal-making is narrated in 1.11, pp. 19-20.

[6] “They parted asunder with respect to their meals and sleeping quarters.” 1.76, p. 131. Margery’s commitment to eat with her husband on Fridays may have been nullified by these new living arrangements. Others regarded these separate living arrangements as contributing to a serious injury that Margery’s husband experienced as an old man. Gravely injured, he was first helped by neighbors. Id.

[7] Margery perceived in prayer other husbands’ sins. When Margery told a widow that her husband was in purgatory, the lady objected:

the lady was displeased and said her husband was a good man; she believed that he was not in purgatory.

1.19, p. 34. Margery told another widow that her husband would spend thirty years in purgatory unless he benefited from effective prayers for intercession. 1.19, p. 35.

[8] Margery’s redundant use of “asunder” in conjugal and sexual contexts may indicate conceptual influence from biblical teaching, e.g. Mark 10:9, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”

[9] Margery latter used the same figure, “chopped up as small as meat for the pot,” in prayer:

If it were your will, Lord, I would for your love and for the magnifying of your name be chopped up as small as meat for the pot.

1.57, p. 105. This figurative echo might be interpreted as an implicit rebuke to the lover she sought. Margery imagined herself as the wife of Christ. She imagined Christ being in bed with her and being physically intimate with her. 1.14, p. 24; 1.36, p. 66.

Margery’s sexual values, desires, and behavior are complex and ambiguous. The mayor of Leicester called her “a false strumpet, a false Lollard, and a false deceiver of the people.” 1.46, p. 82. Margery subsequently declared to the mayor:

I take witness before my Lord Jesus Christ, whose body is here present in the sacrament of the altar, that I never had part of a man’s body in this world by actual deed by way of sin, but only of my husband’s body, whom I am bound to by the law of matrimony

1.48, p. 85. Within her Christian faith and medieval English culture, Margery could not have made a stronger statement about her chastity. Moreover, her qualifier “by actual deed” indicates careful phrasing. Cf. Matthew 5:27-8.

A secret sin initiates the Book of Margery Kempe. Shortly after she had her first child as a young wife, Margery suffered greatly from a guilty conscience:

she sent for a priest, for she had a thing on her conscience which she had never confessed before that time in all her life. For she was always hindered by her enemy, the devil, constantly saying to her that, while she was in good health, she needed no confession but could do penance by herself alone, and all should be forgiven, for God is merciful enough. And therefore this creature often did great penance in fasting on bread and water and other deeds of alms with devout prayers, except that she would not show this sin in confession. And, when she was at any time sick or troubled, the devil said in her mind that she should be damned, for she had not confessed of that sin. Therefore, after her child was born, she sent for a priest, wanting to confess fully as nearly as she could. And when she came to the point to say that thing which she had long concealed, her confessor was a little too hasty and began sharply to reprove her before she had fully said her intent, and so she said no more no matter what he said.

1.1, pp. 6-7. Margery apparently never revealed the tormenting thing on her conscience. In context, the thing seems to be related to marriage, sex, and childbirth. In any case, she heard Jesus telling her that he has never forsaken her. Her conscience was then freed from its burden and she began her extraordinary spiritual life.

[10] Book of Margery Kempe 1.86, p. 153. In a prayer, Margery heard God comfort her with holy examples:

Consider, daughter, what Mary Magdalene was, Mary the Egyptian, Saint Paul, and many other saints who are now in heaven; for unworthy I make worthy, and sinful I make rightful.

1.21, p. 37.

[11] Aers (1988) p. 74. The subsequent quote is from id. According to one scholar, among Margery Kempe’s struggles was “battling an uxorious husband.” Mitchell (2005), p. 133.

[image] Ice hummocks in Laptev Sea, off northern cost of Siberia, Russia, on 27 April 2013. Thanks for Aerohod and Wikimedia Commons.


Aers, David. 1988. Community, gender, and individual identity: English writing, 1360-1430. London: Routledge.

Bale, Anthony Paul, trans. 2015. Margery Kempe. The book of Margery Kempe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mitchell, Marea. 2005. The book of Margery Kempe: scholarship, community, and criticism. New York: Peter Lang.

Skinner, John, trans. 1998. Margery Kempe. The book of Margery Kempe: a new translation. New York: Image Books/Doubleday.

Staley, Lynn. 1994. Margery Kempe’s dissenting fictions. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Staley, Lynn, ed. 1996. Margery Kempe. The book of Margery Kempe. Kalamazoo, Mich: Published for TEAMS (the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Staley, Lynn, trans. 2001. Margery Kempe. The book of Margery Kempe: a new translation, contexts, criticism. New York: Norton.

Priapea critique brutalizing & commodifying stereotypes

Priapus weighs penis against money

Today even in societies professing ideals of gender equality, men’s bodies are brutally penetrated in institutionally structured men-on-men violence. Outside of battlefields, men’s sexual value is commonly measured in material resources — whether an outrageously expensive luxury car or state-imposed payments for forced financial fatherhood. These brutal structures of gender oppression are deeply rooted historically. In ancient Roman art and literature, the figure of a man with a rigid, hyper-exaggerated penis, known as Priapus, appears in a variety of contexts. Priapus doesn’t merely represent misandry through a depersonalizing caricature of masculinity. Highly polished and sophisticated Priapea (Priapus poems) became a focal point for urbane critique of the brutalizing social construction of men’s person.

Priapea figure Priapus as a minor god who receives offerings and provides services in return. While such reciprocity was common in ancient Greco-Roman religion, Priapea dedicatory poems are typically parodies. For example, a woman offers Priapus a sex manual illustrating a variety of coital positions and requests that he bring those acts to life with her. A man delivers to Priapus a picture of his penis in fulfillment of a promise to do so if his injured penis were healed. A dancing girl dedicates her instruments to Priapus and requests that she continue to arouse men.[1] No ancient Roman reader could possibly interpret these poems literally. Priapea dedicatory poems are better understood as ridiculing the commodification of men’s sexuality.

Priapea also ridicule stereotypes of Roman masculine sexuality. Priapus emphasizes the size and hardness of his penis and compares it to that of other gods and men.

no other god than Mars has a brawnier chest;
but it’s Priapus who’s much better cocked than the rest.

The size of my member has this great use;
For me no woman can be too loose. [2]

Priapus expresses his insatiable desire to fornicate with young women, boys, and men.

I’ll plainly tell you what I have to say
(My nature is to be open and blunt).
You’d like some apples; I want to stick your ass;
Give me what I seek — you take what you want.

Priapus cruelly disparages the bodies of old women while expressing the evolutionary-biological truism that typically men sexually prefer young women to old women.[3] Modern scholarship has tended to stereotype Roman men’s sexuality.[4] Priapea were an ancient, parodic response to disparaging men with sexual stereotypes.

A conventional setting for an objectified Priapus is guarding a garden. This Priapus is commonly a rustic, wooden statue. The statue threatens to rape any person who steals goods from the garden. Of course, a wooden or stone statute cannot rape anyone, but that reality is no more relevant than the reality of rape is to social discourse today. The rigid statue doesn’t question why guarding the garden is his responsibility.  In one poem, Priapus observes:

You will say that this is a shameful duty for a god to have. I know myself that it is shameful, but I would have you know that for this purpose I was set up. [5]

Priapus, like men generally, are socially set up in a degrading position. For the set-up statue, his penis is a weapon at the service of protecting the household’s goods.[6] The penis is thus alienated from the person of the man.

A significant protrusion in Priapea arises from conjoining penis as weapon with penis as means of desired pleasure. In another poem, a Priapus guarding a garden angrily complains that the householder has built a fence around the garden. That fence punishes Priapus by denying him the vigorous sexual activity of punishing thieves. Undermining a crude interpretation of Priapus as a sexual sadist, Priapus elsewhere appeals:

O citizens, Romans, I pray you, please,
There must be a limit — I’m brought to my knees;
For passionate women from hereabout
Importune me nightly and tire me out [7]

Lamentationes Matheoluli, a medieval masterpiece of men’s sexed protest, provides a highly sophisticated commentary on the figure of penis as weapon. Matheolus laments:

Ha! often, often I played! My summer passes,
Winter follows, and no power for erection.
And why do I further endure? Now that winter has yielded to spring,
I am not what I was, my manliness has totally faded,
who once nine times his wife’s garden tilled,
I have been made frigid who used to be hot.
My wife wants it, but I can’t. She petitions for her right.
I say no. I just can’t pay.

Then she sharpens her claws, and devours me. They
without grace rain on me, and I lose a thousand hairs.
After this, face painted with blood, I leave.
Every day the wife renews her curses.
My sword and shield are worth nothing against her;
I always yield, or retreat out into the street. [8]

Without a vigorously functioning penis, Matheolus experiences brutal punishment from his wife. His penis isn’t an instrument of violence, but a key to peace.

Some recent scholarship has recognized that Priapea aren’t a description or celebration of the Roman masculine ideal. Brutish, farcical representations of Priapus serve an urbane critique of cultural crudeness. That critique aims at crudeness in reading as well as in other forms of behavior.[9] Within the large Priapea collection Carmina Priapea, the poems are ordered so as to lead to Priapus experiencing sexual problems and impotence.[10] That’s far from any plausible ideal of Roman masculinity. The sensuous poetry of the Carmina Priapea enacts within the reader the pleasure of being a receptive body, whether man or woman.[11] Beautiful poetry isn’t brutal rape. Priapea critique the mass-media popularity of extreme, wildly unrepresentative stories of sex and violence.

Ancient Rome encompassed an alternate perspective on masculine sexuality. A singular ancient Roman Priapus poem teaches:

Assemble together, each and every one of you,
young women who dwell in the sacred grove
and the sacred waters,
assemble all and in winning tones
say to charming Priapus,
“Hail, Priapus, holy father of the world.”
Fasten a thousand kisses on his crotch,
gird his phallus with fragrant garlands
and again all say,
“Hail, Priapus, holy father of all things.”

All of you say, “Kindly Priapus, show favor;
hail, holy father Priapus, hail.
Priapus, potent friend, hail,
whether you desire to be called parent
and origin of the world or nature itself and Pan, hail.
For it is through your potency that everything is conceived
that fills sky, sea and land.
Therefore hail, Priapus, hail, holy one.”

Priapus, potent friend, hail.
Chaste maidens call on you in prayer
that you untie their girdle long knotted,
and married women call on you that their husbands
have penises often erect and always potent.
Hail, holy father Priapus, hail. [12]

Charming and kindly, holy father, potent friend — that’s an understanding of Priapus far from his narrow job of guarding a garden. That understanding doesn’t serve to draft men into military service on behalf of the Empire. It doesn’t value men’s sexuality relative to fungible commodities. Not surprisingly, that understanding has long been socially disfavored. A highly cultured and discerning Roman poet responded:

Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo.
{I will fuck you in your ass and fuck you in your mouth.} [13]

Priapus as Mercury, racing to provide money

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[1] Carmina Priapea 4 (Obscaenas rigido deo tabellas), 37 (Cur pictum memori sit in tabella), 27 (Deliciae populi, magno notissima circo), Latin text with English translation available in Parker (1988) and Hooper (1999), and online in Smithers & Burton (1890). The Erotopaegnion of Hieronymus Angerianus (Girolamo Angeriano), published in Florence in 1512,  provides Priapea in Latin. An edition of the Erotopaegnion published in Paris in 1798 is available online. Priapea formally have a distinctive Latin poetic meter, but here I use the term Priapea thematically.

The number of poems associated with Carmina Priapea varies somewhat. The poems probably were written sometime between the establishment of the Roman Empire and the early second century. Subtle connections between the poems and the ordering of the poems suggest that they are the work of a single author. Holzberg (2005) pp. 369-70.

[2] Carmina Priapea 36 (Notas habemus quisque corporis formas) excerpt, trans. Hooper (1999) p. 70; and Carmina Priapea 18 (Commoditas haec est in nostro maxima pene),  trans Parker (1988) p. 87. The medieval woman physician Calabre of Paris reportedly could make women’s vaginas small again. The subsequent quote is Carmina Priapea 38 (Simpliciter tibi me, quodcunque est, dicere oportet), trans. Parker (1988) p. 129. Id. translates pedicare volo as “I want your back way.” Above I have substituted “I want to stick your ass.”

[3] E.g. Carmina Priapea 12 (Quaedam serior Hectoris parente), 32 (Uvis aridior puella passis). Some sophisticated Hellenistic epigrams celebrated the sexual allure of old women. In a famous early Arabic love poem, Jamil laments that Buthaynah describes him as old. Jamil declares that Buthaynah hasn’t aged at all, or at least as he sees her.

[4] In a text that reflects contemporary academic orthodoxy, Williams declared:

{Priapus} can be seen as something like the patron saint or mascot of Roman machismo, and his vigorous exploits with women, boys, and men indiscriminately are clearly a mainstay of his hyper-masculine identity. Like this phallic deity, a Roman man is ideally ready, willing, and able to express his domination over others, male or female, by means of sexual penetration.

Williams (1999) p. 18. Reasoning superficially from the brutalizing and commodifying Priapus stereotypes of men, Hooper opines:

Since men controlled both the political and economic worlds, the phallus, as the organ of penetration, came to symbolize the right to rule.

Hooper (1999) p. 16. Similarly, Richlin (1992) p. 127.

[5] Greek Anthology 16.260, from Greek trans. Paton (1920) vol. V, p. 315. Priapus threatens to rape women vaginally, boys anally, and men orally. That’s known as the tripartite punishment.

[6] Amid discussion connecting patriarchy, pornography, sadism, and rape, Richlin described the Carmina Priapea as “hymns to phallocentrism — not serious, of course.” Richlin (1992) p. 79. Scholars who ignore violence against men, social contempt for men’s paternity interests, gross anti-men bias in determinations of child custody, and imprisoning men for being too poor to pay state-ordered sex payments are not serious, of course. Id., p. 8o declares: “The arguments in favor of humor and against it reach no conclusion.” Nonetheless, “humor itself is a patriarchal discourse.” Id. p. xvii. Keuls (1985) and much similar work provide a strong argument for obscene humor.

In reviewing Hooper (1999), Butrica (2000) dared to speak truth to dominant ideology:

more surprising is the suggestion that these poems — apparently dolo malo — “increase societal violence” and “institutionalize” the “debasement of women.” First of all, I wonder whether even in the collection itself women are “debased” any more than the male thieves who are to have a penis shoved down their throats; nor do I perceive any opportunity for “institutionalization” of Priapus’ behaviour. Hooper has earlier cited the Priapea as “an excellent illustration of the subordinate position of women in Roman society” on the grounds that “the male narrator consistently defines women according to his standards” (4-5), which seems nothing more than an inevitable consequence of human nature. Determined to find hostility toward women, Hooper continues: “They are beautiful if he desires them, ugly if he does not (no surprise here), and unbelievably ugly if they are old and lust after him” (one would hardly guess that there is not a single poem in the collection where an ugly old woman lusts after Priapus). … That wit and humour {of the Priapus poems} is unfairly reduced to brutal invective against women and cinaedi, so that one is left wondering why one should bother to read this poetry at all, except as a curiosity from an intolerably primitive age. Recent advances in Puritanism now allow us to read and speak the dirty words, but it seems we must still tut about something.

[7] Carmina Priapea 26 (Porro — nam quis erit modus? — Quirites) excerpt, trans. Parker (1988) p. 111. The Priapus poem with a fenced garden is 77 (Immanem stomachum mihi videtis). Medieval European literature recognized women’s vigorous sexuality.

[8] Lamentationes Matheoluli ll. 571-78, 585-590, from Latin my translation. Van Hamel (1892) vol. 1, pp. 40-1, provides the Latin:

Ha! quociens, quociens lusi! Mea preterit estas,
Cui succedit hiems, est nulla morosa potestas,
Et cur plura feram? Ver brume jam quia cessit,
Non sum quod fueram, virtus mea total recessit,
Olim qui novies uxoris claustra colebam,
Factus sum glacies qui fervidus esse solebam.
Vult uxor, sed ego nequeo; petit hec sua jura;
Non sovendo nego factus; …
Tunc ungues acuit, ut eis me devoret; illi
Gratia nulla pluit; pereunt michi mille capilli.
Post hec cum facie discedo sanguine picta.
Hec quasi quottidie renovat conjunx maledicta.
Nil adversus eam michi prosunt ensis et umbo;
Semper succumbo vel ei dimitto plateam.

On tilling the garden nine times and then failing, cf. Ovid, Amores 3.7.23-26, and Greek Anthology 11.30.1-2, from Greek into Latin trans. Paton (1920) vol. IV, p. 83, from Greek into English trans. Richlin (1992) p. 117. Jehan Le Fèvre summarized Matheolus’s experience:

he tells us how forcefully he used to dig long ago, but now he complains that he can’t plow anymore; this is what made him cry that times were bad for him, and that he couldn’t do it anymore, even in Parrette’s little garden, for his quiver was empty and his bow could no longer stretch. So he had no way to defend himself. He who has nothing to make peace with must suffer forever after.

Le livre de Leesce (The Book of Gladness), ll. 720-32, from French trans. Burke (2013) p. 80. Amid considerable attention to domestic violence in recent years, domestic violence against men has largely been ignored.

Poem 8 of the Arundel Lyrics provides an earlier, contrasting narrative of a man’s sexuality in relation to the seasons and beasts:

Sevit aure spiritus
et arborum
come fluunt penitus
vi frigorum,
silent cantus nemorum.
Nunc torpescit vere solo
fervens amor pecorum;
semper amans sequi nolo
novas vices temporum
bestiali more.

{The wind’s blast rages and the leaves stream away from the trees completely before the violent frosts. The birdsong in the woodlands falls silent. Now the sexual passion of animals, ardent only in the spring, becomes inactive. Ever the lover, I refuse to follow new changes in the seasons like a beast.}

Latin and English from McDonough (2010) pp. 36-7. Matheolus’s phrase gratia nulla pluit also recalls the common phrase gratia plena.

[9] Uden (2007).

[10] Holzberg (2005).

[11] Young (2015).

[12] Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum 14.3565, from Latin trans. Courtney (1995) p. 149, with my minor adaptations to more closely reflect the Latin. Parker (1988), pp. 28-9, and Hooper (1999) pp. 118-21 provide alternate, looser English translations. The latter also provides the Latin text. Antonio M. Fuentes’s transgressive Himno a Príapo page provides the full Latin poem and a variety of translations into a variety of languages, along with many images of Priapus.

The text reportedly was inscribed  on the sides of a herm-pillar at Tibur (now known as Tivoli). Located about 30 kilometers northeast of Rome, Tibur was a resort area with elite Roman villas, including that of Maecenas. The text includes a dedication:

To the genius of the mighty, powerful, invincible god Priapus, (set up) by Julius Agathemerus, freedman of Augustus and in charge of access to the emperor, on the admonition of a dream.

Courtney (1995) p. 149. The stone containing the inscription apparently hasn’t survived. Id. pp. 148, 18 (indication of double asterisk is that the actual inscription “not seen by the compilers of CIL or their informants nor since”). Courtney dates the inscription to the first century and notes some suspicion that it’s a humanistic forgery. Id. pp. 356-7. The text has considerable similarities with the Greek girl’s ode to the penis in Maximianus, Elegies 5.86-104. Maximianus is generally regarded to date to the mid-sixth century.

[13] Catullus 16. In Horace, Satires 1.8, a statue of Priapus scares away two witches with an enormous fart. Farting is as much an ideal of Roman male sexuality as is raping.

[images] (1) Fresco of Priapus in the Casa dei Vettie, Pompeii. First-century Italy. Priapus, wearing a soldier’s helmet, weighs his hyper-exaggerated, erect penis against a bag of gold. The fruit basket below similarly indicates commodity wealth. Thanks to Fer.filol and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Fresco of Priapus, from Pompeii. Priapus, with the attributes of the commercial Mercury, races to deliver a bag of gold. Fresco currently in the Secret Room, National Archaeological Museum, Naples. Thanks to Carole Raddato and Wikimedia Commons.


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

Butrica, James L. 2000. Review of Richard W. Hooper (ed.), The Priapus Poems. Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.23

Courtney, Edward. 1995. Musa lapidaria: a selection of Latin verse inscriptions. Atlanta (Georgia): Scolars Press.

Holzberg, Niklas. 2005. “Impotence? It Happened to the Best of Them! A Linear Reading of the Corpus Priapeorum.” Hermes. 133 (3): 368-381.

Hooper, Richard W. 1999. The Priapus poems: erotic epigrams from ancient Rome. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Keuls, Eva C. 1985. The reign of the phallus: sexual politics in ancient Athens. New York: Harper & Row.

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

Parker, W. H., ed. and trans. 1988. Priapea: poems for a phallic god. London: Croom Helm.

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

Richlin, Amy. 1992. The garden of Priapus: sexuality and aggression in Roman humor. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smithers, Leonard C. and Richard Francis Burton. 1890. Priapeia, or, The sportive epigrams of divers poets on Priapus: the Latin text now for the first time Englished in verse and prose (the metrical version by “Outidanos”). Cosmopoli.

Uden, James. 2007. “Impersonating Priapus.” The American Journal of Philology. 128 (1): 1-26.

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

Williams, Craig A. 1999, 2nd ed. 2010. Roman homosexuality: ideologies of masculinity in classical antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Young, Elizabeth Marie. 2015. “The Touch of the Cinaedus: Unmanly Sensations in the Carmina Priapea.” Classical Antiquity. 34 (1): 183-208.

Margery Kempe’s husband as figure of Christian abasement

Margery Kempe's husband in bed after fall

In a leading medieval work of men’s sexed protest, a husband compared his experience of marriage to Christ being crucified. Margery Kempe’s husband provides a less poetic, more idiosyncratic representation of a husband’s abasement. Senile and befouling his clothes with bowel movements, Margery Kempe’s husband ended his life in degrading suffering like that of Christ on the cross.

Margery’s account of her husband’s serious injury lacks compassion and engages extensively in self-rationalization and self-justification. The date and other significant aspects of his injury she didn’t recount or remember:

It happened one day that the husband of the said creature, a very old man more than sixty years old, as he came down from his bedroom bare-footed and bare-legged, he slipped or else lost his footing and fell down to the ground from the steps. His head was under his body and grievously broken and bruised, injured so badly that he had in his head for many days five rolls of soft material to drain the wounds while his head was healing. As God willed, some neighbors became aware that he had fallen down the steps, perhaps through the din and scraping of the falling. And so they came to him and found him lying with his head under him, half alive, all streaked with blood, never likely to have received final confession unless by high grace and miracle. Then the said creature, his wife, was sent for, and so she came to him. Then he was taken up and his head was sewn, and he was sick a long time after, so that men thought he should have been dead. [1]

This account includes no sense of Margery’s fear for her husband’s life. Margery was most concerned with what others said:

people said, if he died, his wife deserved to be hanged for his death, for she could have lived with him as a care-giver and did not. They didn’t dwell together or sleep together, for as is written before, they both with one assent and with free will of the other had made a vow to live chastely. And therefore to avoid all perils they dwelt and traveled in separate places where no suspicion would arise of them having sex. First they dwelt together after they had made their vow of chastity, and then people slandered them and said they used their lust and pleasure as they did before their vow-making. When they went on pilgrimage or to see and speak with other spiritual persons, many evil folk speaking in worldly ways, people lacking respect and love for our Lord Jesus Christ, thought and said that they went rather to the woods, groves, or valleys to use the lust of their bodies so that people should not see or know of it. They, having knowledge of how prone people were to think evil of them, desiring to avoid all occasion, inasmuch as they might be able, by their good will and their mutual consent, they parted asunder with respect to meals and sleeping quarters, and went to take meals in separate places. This was the cause that she was not with him, and also because she did not want to be hindered from her contemplation. And therefore, when he had fallen and was grievously hurt, as is said before, people said, if he died, she deserved to answer for his death.

Margery’s rationalization and justification for her blamelessness is more extensive than her account of her husband’s terrible injury and how it happened. Margery seems to have been an extraordinarily self-centered woman.

Margery took her husband into her home for care only under God’s explicit instructions. In response to her husband’s life-threatening injury, Margery prayed that God would act to save her from blame:

she prayed to our Lord that her husband might live a year and she be delivered from slander if it were the Lord’s pleasure. Our Lord said in her mind, “Daughter, you shall have the blessing you request, for he shall live, and I have done a great miracle for you that he is not dead. And I bid you take him home and attend to him for love of me.

Christianity teaches love of God and love of neighbor. No neighbor is closer than a spouse. To God’s instructions on how to love, Margery responded with a counter-argument:

She said, “No, good Lord, for then I shall not be able to attend to you as I do now.”

Margery seems not to have loved her husband. God, who did not act like a subservient husband, stood up to Margery in her prayer:

“Yes, daughter,” said our Lord, “you shall have as much spiritual reward for caring for him and helping him in his need at home as if you were in church to make your prayers. You have said many times that you would gladly attend to me. I pray that you now attend to him for the love of me, for he has sometime fulfilled your will and my will both, and he has made your body free to me so that you would serve me and live chastely and purely, and therefore I will that you be free to help him with his need in my name.”

The Lord praying suggests blurring of God and self in Margery’s mind. The reference to Margery’s husband as someone who “has sometime fulfilled your will and my will both” associates spousal love with judgment of worthiness through obedience. In Margery’s mind, God indicated that if her husband hadn’t agreed to a sexless marriage, she wouldn’t be under any imperative to care for him in his time of need.

Margery cared for her husband without love for him. She took him into her home and cared for him for years:

she took her husband home with her and attended to him years after, as long as he lived. She had much work in caring for him, for in his last days he became senile and lacked reason. He could not ease his bowels in the proper place, or else he would not, but as a child voided his natural digestion in his linen clothes where he sat, by the fire or at the table. Wherever he was, he would spare no place. Therefore her labors were much increased in washing and wringing and her expense too in making fires. He hindered her greatly from her contemplation, so that many times, she should have been irked at her labor. But she thought to herself how in her young age she had a great many delectable thoughts, fleshly lusts, and inordinate loves for his person. Therefore she was glad to be punished with the same person and took it much more easily. She served him and helped him, in her view, as she would have done for Christ himself. [2]

Desire to punish herself motivated Margery to the burdensome labor of caring for her invalid husband, not love for him. Following several sentences outlining her son’s death, she mentioned her husband’s death only in a single sentence, with a third-person reference to her husband:

In a short time after, his father followed the son the way which every man must go.

Many husbands die knowing and experiencing their wives’ love. That’s not inevitable. Dying within a sense of spousal love for one’s own person probably wasn’t the experience of Margery Kempe’s husband.

A neglected spiritual aspect of Margery Kempe’s book is the figure of her husband’s last years. Crucifying someone was the most degrading form of punishment that the Romans imposed. Lacking one’s reason while being in feces-filled clothes is an end that anyone might potentially meet. A redemptive dimension of such humiliating experience is difficult to perceive. The figure of Margery Kempe’s husband gives readers an experience like that of the first Christians looking upon Christ suffering on the cross. Amid large and growing modern appreciation for Margery Kempe and her book, the figure of her husband’s last years deserves more appreciation.

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[1] Book of Margery Kempe 1.76, from Middle English my translation following closely Staley (2001) p. 131. I refer to passages in the Book of Margery Kempe by book.chapter and page number in id. All the subsequent quotes, except the final one, are from 1.76, pp. 131-2. The final quote is from 2.2, p. 164.

The Middle English, ll. 4240-1, has for the precipitation of his injury “he slederyd er ellys faylyd of hys fotyng … .” Id. translates that as “he slithered or else failed of his footing.” Slithering evokes the serpent of humans’ fall in the biblical book of Genesis.

[2] The chronology of Margery Kempe’s life isn’t well established. She probably was born in 1373. She married her husband when she was “twenty years of age or somewhat more” (1.1, p. 6). Her husband and the one adult son she mentioned probably died in 1432. Bale (2015) pp. xlii-xliii. Margery traveled to Norwich to care for Richard Caister, vicar of St. Stephen’s in Norwich. Caister died shortly before Margery arrived. 1.60, p. 108. That dates Margery’s visit to 1420. She was then newly delivered of a child. According to Margery, Jesus told her to have no more children. Id. That’s a plausible motive for Margery seeking to live chastely with her husband. She and her husband didn’t begin to live chastely for three or four more years. Hence her husband probably suffered his injury in the late 1420s. Margery then would have cared for him for a few years before his death.

[image] Illumination of Mordechai dreaming. Grande Bible historiale complétée. Latin manuscript made in Paris from 1395-1401. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Français 159, folio 256r. Thanks to Gallica.


Bale, Anthony Paul, trans. 2015. Margery Kempe. The book of Margery Kempe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Staley, Lynn, trans. 2001. Margery Kempe. The book of Margery Kempe: a new translation, contexts, criticism. New York: Norton.

Celestina: heroine of the first European novel

The sleep of reason in reading Celestina

The first European novel and the first Spanish best-seller first appeared in 1499 under the title Comedia de Calisto y Melibea. By 1518, its title had become La Celestina. That title change indicates the attraction of one of the work’s characters, the celestial Celestina. A leading scholar of Spanish literature recently explained:

{Celestina} is an old whore and procuress who runs a brothel, restores virgins, arranges for clandestine sexual encounters, and corrupts young men and women. Yet, for all these unsavory characteristics and immoral activities, Celestina is a self-possessed, willful, and courageous character whom the reader cannot but admire. She is a modern tragic heroine [1]

Under a global trend toward repressive orthodoxy in thought and expression, imaginative literature like Celestina now might be regarded as dangerous and unacceptable. Yet Celestina remains “as fresh and relevant a work of fiction as if it had been written today.”

The original title characters Calisto and Melibea are much less interesting than Celestina. Calisto is a young, rich, well-educated noble completely immersed in the foolish delusions of courtly love. Calisto loves Melibea. Calisto’s religion is courtly love of Melibea. He explains:

I am a Melibean, and I worship Melibea and I put my faith in Melibea and I adore Melibea. … She is a goddess! A goddess! [2]

Calisto declares that the sight of her beautiful hair can turn men into stone, while the sight of her breasts rouses them.[3] Calisto perceives Melibea in a mash of classical myth and mundane reality:

Has her equal ever been born in the world? Did God create a sweeter form? Can such features, a model of beauty, be painted? If Helen were alive today, the one for whom so many Greeks and Trojans died, or the beautiful Polyxena, they would obey this comely mistress for whom I pine. Had she been present in that contest among the three goddesses for the golden apple, they would never have given it the name discord because, without dissent, they would have agreed that it be given to Melibea, and thus it would have been called the apple of concord. For women who know of her curse themselves. They wail to God because he did not remember them when he made this my sweet mistress. They use up their lives, envy gnaws their flesh, they inflict brutal martyrdom upon themselves, thinking that with artifice they will equal the perfection nature effortlessly bestowed on her. They thin their eyebrows with eyebrow pluckers and plasters and fine cords; they look for golden herbs, roots, branches, and flowers to make bleaches so their hair will be like hers; and they maul their faces, covering them in various hues of unguents and ointments, acid lotions, white and red paints, and powders that for the sake of brevity I will not detail.

Calisto considers himself unworthy of Melibea. Nonetheless, he intensely desires her.

Melibea lacks an ethical core. Her behavior rapidly shifts across extremes of values and desires. She presents herself as a genteel woman concerned for her reputation and her parents. When Celestina tells Melibea of Calisto’s deep devotion to her, Melibea viciously attacks her:

May you burn at the stake, you deceitful procuress, you vile convent-trotter, you witch, you enemy of decency, you cause of secret sins! Jesú, Jesú! Lucrecia! Take her from my sight. I am through; she has left no drop of blood in my body! The person who gives ear to such women deserves this and more. Were it not that it would reflect upon my purity, and spread the word of the audacity of this brash man, I would, you wicked drab, have seen that your words and your life were quickly ended. [4]

Melibea also cruelly disparages Calisto:

Jesú! I do not want to hear another word about this crazed wall jumper, this night specter, this leggy stork, this badly woven figure in a tapestry, lest I drop dead on the spot! This then is the man who saw me the other day and began to rant and rave and act the gallant. Tell him, my good woman, that if he thought everything already won and the field his, I listened because I thought it better to listen than to publicize his flaws; I wanted more to treat him as a madman than to spread word of his outrageous boldness.

Melibea’s attitude toward Calisto changes rapidly as Celestina spins out a story of Calisto’s toothache and his many noble attributes. Soon Melibea is suffering from exhausting swoons and heartaches. She urgently seeks a return visit from Celestina. Melibea prays to God:

I humbly ask you to bestow upon my wounded heart the patience to conceal my terrible passion! Do not strip away the fig leaf I have placed before my amorous desire, pretending my pain to be other and not what is tormenting me. But how shall I be able, when I am so cruelly aggrieved by the poison dealt me at the sight of that caballero. O shy and timid womankind! Why are women not given the power to reveal their anguishing and ardent love, as men are? O that Calisto should not live with a complaint, nor I with pain.

Subsequently meeting with Celestina, Melibea confesses her love for Calisto:

O my Calisto, my señor, my sweet and gentle joy! If your heart feels as mine does now, I marvel that my absence allows you to live. O Mother, Señora Celestina, if you want to save my life, find the way for me to see him soon.

Melibea subsequently relishes illicit sex with Calisto. After he dies in an accident, she commits suicide by jumping off a tower in the presence of her distraught, loving father.

Unlike Melibea, Celestina is a strong, independent woman, a professional, and a business-owner. One of Calisto’s servants engages her to arrange for Calisto to have sex with Melibea. The servant explains:

From some time now I have known a bearded old crone who lives at no great distance from here. A witch, astute, wise in every wickedness that exists, she calls herself Celestina. I understand that in this city over five thousand maidenheads have been restored and undone by her hand. If she puts her mind to it she can move rocks and stones to lust.

Celestina has six trades:

seamstress, perfumer, wondrous concocter of paints and powders, and restorer of maidenheads, procuress, and, on occasion, witch. The first office was cover for the others, under which pretense many girls, among them servants, came to her house to be stitched and to stitch neck coverings and many other things. None came without a rasher of bacon, wheat flour, a jug of wine, and other provisions they stole from their mistresses. And other thefts of even greater worth were hidden there. Celestina was friend to many students, and stewards, and servants of clerics, and to these she sold the innocent blood of the hapless girls who foolishly took risks on the basis of the restitution she promised them.

Celestina is the leading sex trafficker in the city. She declares:

Few virgins, praise God, have you seen open shop in this city for whom I have not been the agent of their first sale. When a girl is born I enter her name in my register in order to know how many escape my net. What were you thinking? Do you think I live on air? That I inherited an estate?

When Celestina is out walking, a hundred women call out, “old whore.” Dogs bark it, birds sing it, donkeys also bray out “old whore.” So too proclaim frogs. Craftsmen wielding tools of every shape and size hammer out that name. All of creation, even two rocks touched together, proclaim Celestina an old whore.[5]

Celestina is filled with wisdom. She is an expert on the ways of women. To a colleague questioning her ability to get Melibea to have sex with Calisto, Celestina explains:

For even if Melibea is a fierce opponent, she is not, may it please God, the first I have choked the cackle out of. They are all a bit skittish in the beginning, but after they have once been saddled they never want a rest. … And even as old as I am, God knows my longings. How much more these girls who boil without fire!

To a whore affecting reticence toward a suitor, Celestina says:

How plump and fresh you are! What breasts and all so lovely! … Do not be miserly with what has cost you so little. Do not hoard your loveliness, for it is by its nature as good an exchange as money. … Do not believe that you were created for no reason; when a she is born a he is born, and when a he, a she. Nothing is superfluous in the world, nor anything that nature does not provide for. What a sin it is to weary and torment men when they can be helped.

Celestina collects and concocts for medicines and cosmetics a wide array of exotic substances: root of aphodel, bark of sienna, benzoin, serpents’ venom, ointments from bears, horses, camels, whales, and other beasts, fruit pips, St. John’s wort, rosemary, musk, and many different types of threads.[6] Celestina is so learned that she speaks of love in rhetorical contrasts arising from learned Latin literature:

Love is a hidden fire, a pleasant wound, a delicious poison, a sweet bitterness, a delectable hurting, a happy torment, a sweet, fierce wound, a gentle death.

When Celestina tells Calisto that Melibea is in love with him and at his command, Calisto responds naively:

But speak to the conventions of courtly love, Mother. … Melibea is my beloved. Melibea is my goddess. Melibea is my life. I am her captive, I her servant.

Unlike Calisto, Celestina perceives and rejects men’s fruitless subordination in courtly love. She chides Calisto for his lack of self-confidence in relation to Melibea. Wisdom knows that to arouse women, nothing is more important for men than self-confidence. Celestina knows what many men don’t.

Celestina is a treacherous, self-centered, gluttonous schemer and liar. She lies to everyone effortlessly. Her words have no meaning other than her intent to manipulate. She dines on food that others have stolen. To ease her loneliness at night as an old whore, she drinks jugs of wine.[7] She has a knife scar on her face that seems to tell of a scheme gone wrong. When she attempts to cheat two of her men co-conspirators out the share of the booty from procuring Melibea for Calisto, they kill her. These men in turn are killed for their crime. Men’s lives matter much less than the life of the magnificent, admirable, modern tragic heroine Celestina.

Spain’s greatest living writer has applauded Celestina as representing our current world. In a text written about 2009, he declares:

Celestina portrays with disturbing lucidity and precision the fast-approaching universe of chaos and strife we now endure. … The only laws that rule the pitiless universe of Celestina are the sovereign edits of sexual pleasure and the cash nexus. … Does human life exist outside the laws of the market, or is it just one more product for sale? To the anguished question posed by growing inequalities, a close reading of Celestina brings us an inexorably negative answer from five hundred years ago: nature and its blind laws reduce us all to the status of an expendable commodity in a godless, iniquitous world. [8]

Such hackneyed bombast generates warm feels for today’s literary elite. No market has performed worse than the status market for literature and imagination. Celestina no longer represents an aberrational world.

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[1] Roberto González Echevarría, Introduction, in Peden (2009) p. xiii. The subsequent quote is from id. On the title becoming La Celestina in 1518, id. p. xv. Bush & Goytisolo (2010), back cover, describes Celestina as “the first-ever Spanish bestseller.” See also Translator’s Afterword, id. p. 218. About seventy editions of Celestina were printed by 1605. Snow (2008) p. 82. Celestina was translated into Italian in 1505, adapted into English about 1525, and by the end of the seventeenth century translated into French, Flemish, German, Hebrew, and Latin. Celestina had considerable influence on Spanish literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Ayllón (1958) pp. 284-5, Snow (2008).

[2] Celestina, from Spanish trans. Peden (2009) Act 1, pp. 10-2. Calisto’s servant Sempronio tries to enlighten Calisto with a brief review of themes from the literature of men’s sexed protest. Sempronio explains that women taught him that literature. Sempronio also asserts NAWALT:

Listen to Aristotle, look at Bernard. Gentiles, Jews, Christians, and Moors, are all in agreement. But despite what is said, and what women may say, do not commit the error of supposing all women are like that, for they are many, and some are saintly, virtuous, and noble, and their shining crowns exempt them from vituperation.

Act 1, pp. 13-4.

Celestina is available online in the original Spanish. Early editions of Celestina exist in shorter (16 acts) and longer (21 acts) versions. Peden’s translation is the longer version and includes paratext from early editions. In her Translator’s Note, Peden declared:

I wanted what appears on the English language page to be as close as possible to the original Spanish … I wanted to change as little as possible the tone of the original, which would be the inevitable effect in creating a more readable version.

Id. p. viii. Peden also expressed belief in the “true meaning” of words and in the existence of a “perfect translation.” Id. p. viii, x. Even for readers who lack such beliefs, they inspire confidence in Peden’s translation. I find her translation more readable and more enjoyable than that of Bush (2010).

All the subsequent quotes from and references to Celestina are based on Peden’s translation, cited by act and page. The quote sources: Act 6, pp. 95-6 (Has her equal …); Act 4, pp. 67-8 (May you burn …); Act 4, 68 (Jesú! I do not want to hear … ); Act 10, p. 141 (I humbly ask … ); Act 10, p. 149 (O my Calisto …); Act 1, p. 18 (From some time …); Act 1, p. 24 (seamstress …); Act 3, p. 49 (Few virgins …); Act 3, pp. 51-2 (For even if Melibea …); Act 7, 106-7 (How plump and fresh …); Act 10, p. 147 (Love is a hidden fire …); Act 11, p. 154 (But speak to the conventions …).

[3] In Greek myth, Medusa was a woman with a hideous face and venomous snakes for hair. Anyone who looked her in the eyes was turned to stone. Calisto incongruously adapts the Medusa myth in conjunction with a much more naturalistic claim about men’s sexual response.

[4] The epithet “convent-trotter” alludes to Trotaconventos of the fourteenth-century Spanish work Libro de buen amor.

[5] Celestina, Act 1, p. 23. Cf. Psalm 19:1-4. The description is from the servant Parmeno, who grew up with Celestina. Celestina describes much differently how the world addresses her. Act 9, p. 137.

[6] Celestina, Act 1, pp. 25-6; Act 7, p. 107. Other medieval texts similarly describe women collecting exotic materials for medicines, cosmetics, and witchcraft. See, e.g. the Mirror of Jaume Roig. Celestina uses letters written in blood on paper, serpent’s venom, and thread to conjure Pluto. Act 3, p. 55. Her actions in invoking Pluto are similar to erotic spells described in the Greek Magical Papyri, dating from the second to the fifth centuries.

[7] Celestina, Act 9, p. 129. Celestina’s extravagant praise of wine echoes an Arabic poetic tradition (wine poetry, in Arabic khamriyyah) dating from the sixth century. The ninth-century Arabic literary genius al-Jahiz made an important contribution to wine praise.

[8] Juan Goytisolo, Introduction, Bush (2010) pp. x, xi, xvi.  The biography blurb inside the front cover of id. describes Juan Goytisolo as “Spain’s greatest living writer.” In 2014, he won the Miguel de Cervantes Prize.

[image] The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (El sueño de la razón produce monstruos). Etching by Francisco Goya, no. 43 in the series Los Caprichos.  Dated 1797-8.  See also no. 7,  Even Thus He Cannot Recognize Her (Ni así la distingue). Thanks to Museo del Prado (Madrid) and Wikimedia Commons.


Ayllón, Cándido. 1958. “A Survey of Celestina Studies in the Twentieth Century. ” Pp. 283-99 in Mack Hendricks Singleton, trans. 1958. Celestina; a play in twenty-one acts, attributed to Fernando de Rojas. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Bush, Peter R., trans. and Juan Goytisolo, intro. 2010. Fernando de Rojas. Celestina. New York: Penguin Books.

Peden, Margaret Sayers, trans., and Roberto González Echevarría, ed. 2009. Fernando de Rojas. Celestina. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Snow, Joseph T. 2008. “Notes on Cervantes as a Reader/Renewer of Celestina.” Comparative Literature. 60 (1): 81-95.