Decameron X.3: horrible generosity of Nathan and Mithridanes

The price of material goods relative to self-esteem and social status has fundamental economic importance.  That price structures the macroeconomics of persons’ self-interest.  In Decameron X.3, Boccaccio imagined a society in which material goods were cheap, while self-esteem and social status were dear.  Competition in generosity reached a horribly high level.  This story provides a critical perspective on the Arabic tradition of hospitality, the Christian understanding of salvation, and the role of media, particular social media, in serving self-esteem and social status.

Portrait of a Bolognese Gentleman in a Fur-lined Coat

Boccaccio ironically distanced Decameron X.3 to the realm of fantasy.  The story’s narrator presented it as being from a far-away land:

It is beyond doubt, if the reports of various men from Genoa and elsewhere who have been to those parts may be trusted, that in the region of Cathay there once lived a man of noble lineage named Nathan who was rich beyond compare. [1]

Cathay is northern China, far from Boccacio’s Florence.  Travelers’ reports commonly contain stories of wondrous sights, beasts, and events.  The clause “it is beyond doubt” is immediately qualified with reason for doubt.  It should be interpreted ironically.  The two main characters in the story are named Nathan and Mithridanes.  Nathan is a Jewish name.  Christians in medieval Europe stereotyped Jews as being ungenerous.[2]  Mithridanes is a name associated with pre-Christian Roman cultic belief.[3]  Christian nobles and merchants in fourteenth-century Florence would understand Decameron X.3 to be fantastical.

In Decameron X.3, Mithridanes sought to surpass Nathan’s fame for generosity.  Nathan lived in a huge, luxurious palace next to a main thoroughfare.  For many years, everyone who passed by Nathan hosted “in a most agreeable and festive manner.”  Nathan thus acted as the proprietor of a bizarre combination of a motel and a country estate.  Nathan’s renown spread throughout the East and the West.  Mithridanes, another rich man who lived near Nathan, grew envious:

he resolved that through an even greater display of liberality he would either obliterate the old man’s renown or overshadow it.  And so, after having had a palace built similar to Nathan’s, he began to bestow the most extravagant courtesy ever seen on everyone who passed by, going in either direction, and there is no doubt that in a short time he became very famous.

One day, a little, old, poor woman begging for alms from Mithridanes happened to remark that Nathan was more generous than he.  Her remark ignited Mithridanes to raging fury:

How can I ever match Nathan’s greatest acts of generosity, let alone surpass him as I’ve sought to do, when I can’t come close to him in the smallest things?  All my efforts will truly be in vain unless I wipe him off the face of the earth, and since old age isn’t carrying him away all by itself, I’ll have to do the job with my own hands, and that without delay.

Competition in generosity thus led to intent to murder.

Nathan subsequently offered Mithridanes horrible generosity.  Traveling to Nathan’s palace to fulfill his plan to murder him, Mithridanes encountered an old man.  Mithridanes asked the old man for directions to Nathan’s palace.  Mithridanes also requested that, “if possible, he did not want Nathan to see him or to know that he was there.”  The old man was actually Nathan.  He cheerfully and deceptively agreed to Mithridanes request.  Claiming to be one of Nathan’s menial servants, Nathan led Mithridanes to the palace.  There Nathan arranged with his servants not to reveal his identify.  Acting as a menial servant, he won the confidence of Mithridanes.  Mithridanes then told him of his plan to murder Nathan and sought his help.  Nathan agreed to help to arrange for his own murder.

With this horrible generosity, Nathan prevailed over Mithridanes.  Nathan strolled by himself in the woods.  That was the opportunity that Nathan had offered to Mithridanes to murder him.  Mithridanes jumped him, seized him by the turban, and exclaimed, “Old man, you’re as good as dead.”  In a parody upon a parody of Christian self-abnegation, Nathan responded only, “Then I must deserve it.”  Immediately events turned in a different direction:

Upon hearing his voice and looking him in the face, Mithridanes instantly recognized him as the man who had received him with such kindness, had kept him company like a friend, and had advised him so faithfully.  Consequently, his fury immediately subsided, and his anger was transformed into shame.  Hurling away the sword, which he had already drawn out in order to strike his adversary, he dismounted and flung himself down in tears at Nathan’s feet.

Nathan absolved Mithridanes of any wrong-doing in pursuing his murderous scheme:

call it evil or not as you will, there’s no need to ask for my forgiveness or for me to grant it, because you didn’t pursue it out of hatred, but in order to be held in greater esteem. … you have dedicated yourself not to the amassing of wealth, which is what misers do, but to spending what you have accumulated.

That’s a ridiculous justification, made from the perspective of nobles and courtiers looking down on merchants.  With further sarcasm, Boccaccio has Nathan expand upon this justification:

In order to increase their realms, and thus their fame, the most illustrious of emperors and the greatest of kings have practiced almost no art other than killing, not just one man as you wanted to do, but an infinite number of them, as well as putting entire countries to the torch and razing cities to the ground.  And so, if, to achieve renown, I was the only person you wanted to kill, you were not doing anything extraordinary or unusual, but something actually quite commonplace.

Citing his desire to preserve his unblemished record for generosity, Nathan then implored Mithridanes to kill him.  Mithridanes refused.  Nathan’s concern to be generous generated his grotesque devaluation of his own  life.  Only Mithridanes lack of generosity saved Nathan’s life.

Nathan further underscored the perversity of social status-seeking.  In gratitude to Nathan for not condemning his evil intent, Mithridanes offered the platitude that he would like to give years of his life to Nathan.  Nathan, greedy to add to his public record of generous acts, proposed a mechanism to effect that gift.  Nathan proposed that Mithridanes subsequently pretend to be Nathan, and Nathan pretend to be Mithridanes.  The young man Mithridanes could then deceptively add many more years of deeds of generosity to Nathan’s public record.  Mithridanes refused that absurd scheme only out of appreciation for his own inferiority in generosity:

If I knew how to comport myself as well as you do now, and as you’ve always done, I”d take your offer without giving it a second thought, but because I feel quite certain that my actions would only serve to diminish Nathan’s fame, and because I have no intention of marring in another what I cannot make perfect in myself, I won’t accept it.

This isn’t just a story of two gentlemen donkeys stuck at a door, insistently saying to each other, “No, please, you first.”  The story of Nathan and Mithridanes describes perverse effects of social status being much more dear than material goods.[5]

Arabic culture has a deep tradition of hospitality as measure of social status.  Hatim Tai, a Christian Arab who lived in the sixth century, became a focal point for stories about generosity in Arabic culture.  In a book by Saadi, a major Persian poet writing in the thirteenth century,
Hatim Tai is the renowned generous person in a story much like that of Decameron X.3.[4]  Another story about Hatim Tai is preserved in Arabic in the 1001 Nights.  That story places Hatim Tai’s generosity squarely within pre-Islamic Arabic culture.  Travelers at the top of a mountain came across Hatim Tai’s grave.  One traveler said mockingly, “We are your guests tonight, Hatim, and we are hungry.”  After falling asleep for the night, the traveler had a dream:

I saw Hatim approaching me with a sword.  “You have come to me,” he said, “but I have no provisions.”  He then struck my camel with his sword [6]

The traveler’s own camel thus provided the meat that the host offered.  Slaughtering a camel for a shared meal is a typical feature of a pre-Islamic ode.[7]  Hatim Tai’s slaughter of the traveler’s camel, like Decameron X.3, shows a perverse effect of intense concern for maintaining social status of generosity.[8]

In the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches extreme generosity.  Jesus declares:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. [9]

From a Christian perspective, Jesus realized God, love, and salvation for humanity by allowing himself to be crucified.  Jesus’ words “love one another as I have loved you” mean love one another with complete self-giving, even to the point of death:

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. [10]

Like the Decameron‘s story of Frate Alberto, Decameron X.3 superficially looks like a parody of Christian scripture.  But Christian extreme generosity isn’t about social status.  Jesus was the son of a carpenter from a provincial town of Judea.  Crucifixion was a degrading means of execution.  Jesus frequently disparaged prayers and pious acts intended to garner social acclaim.[11]  The distinction between outer and inner generosity is crucial in Christian understanding.  That distinction is also crucial for fully understanding Decameron X.3.

Accumulating material wealth, dissipating human sense of divine favor, and powerful new communication technologies are increasing the price of self-esteem and social status relative to material goods.  The dehumanization of materialism and consumerism is becoming less of a personal risk.  The social position of nobles and courtiers is being democratized.  Competition for social status encourages disconnection between the outer and inner person.  Decameron X.3 provides a critical perspective on new personal risks in the Facebook-Twitter-smartphone social economy.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 10, Story 3 (story of Nathan and Mithridanes), from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 763.  The narrator is Filostrato.  In Boccaccio’s text, Mitridanes represents Mithridanes.  All subsequent quotes are from id., unless otherwise noted.

[2] The southwestern Eurasian tribal value of generosity is not surprisingly an aspect of Jewish tradition.  The prophet Isaiah in Hebrew scripture expressed that value:

All you who are thirsty,
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, receive grain and eat;
Come, without paying and without cost,
drink wine and milk!

Isaiah 55:1.  The underlying idea is that the Lord is a good (generous) host.

[3] The Roman deity Mithras was the focus of a popular Roman cult.

[4] Saadi Shirazi, Bustan, ll. 306-342, from Persian trans. Clarke (1879) in Crane (1921) pp. 212-14, and Edwards (1911) Ch. II (Concerning Benevolence), “Story of Hatim and the Messenger Sent to Kill Him.”  Hatim Tai is more properly transliterated as Ḥātim al-Ṭāʾī.  It is found variously transliterated as Chatemthai, Chatemtai, and Hatam Taei.  Hatim was of the Tayy tribe of Arabia.

[5] Readers can easily interpret this story superficially.  Crane (1921) called it a “noble story.” F.W.V. Schmidt, writing in Berlin in 1818, declared:

The sentiment in this divine story so far exceeds all the bounds of the most daring fancy of our ancient and modern times, that one cannot help thinking that this work of fiction had its source in the sunny plains of the Orient, and was the offspring of a bright and peaceful mind.

Cited in id. pp. 196-7.

[6] 1001 Nights, Night 271, from Arabic trans Lyons (2008) vol, 1, p. 885.  The text is Calcutta 1839-42 (Calcutta II, also called Macnaghten).  According to Geert Jan van Gelder, earlier versions of the story are found in Ibn Qutaybah (d. 889), al-Shi`r wa-l-shu`ara’ (ed. Shakir, 249), in al-Mas`udi (d. 956), Muruj al-dhahab (ed. Charles Pellat, ii, 298-99 = para. 1213-14), and a little later, with two versions, in Abu l-Faraj al-Isfahani, al-Aghani (ed.Cairo) xvii, 374-75, 392.

[7] Examples of pre-Islamic odes (qasā’id) that describe killing a camel and sharing a meal of its meat are the Muʻallaqah of Imruʼ al-Qays and the Lāmiyyat al-‘Arab.

[8] Abū l-Ḥakam al-Maghribī, Maʿarrat al-bayt (The Domestic Scandal), written in twelfth-century Damascus, provides a light-hearted view of the hardships of a hospitable host.  In the penultimate line, the host concludes:

At other people’s places drinking
Is better, in my way of thinking.

From Arabic trans. van Gelder (forthcoming).

[9] John 15:12.

[10] John 15:13.

[11] E.g. Matthew 6:1-18, Mark 12:40.

[image] Portrait of a Bolognese Gentleman in a Fur-lined Coat, c. 1523-25, by Giuliano Bugiardini (Italian, 1475-1554).  The Walters Art Museum, 37.1101.  Special thanks to the Walters for their leadership in making art accessible worldwide on the Internet.


Crane, Thomas Frederick. 1921.  “The Sources of Boccaccio’s Novella of Mitridanes and Natan (Decameron X, 3).”  The Romanic Review 12(3): 193-215.

Edwards, A. Hart, trans. 1911. The Bustān of Sadi. London: J. Murray.

Gelder, Geert Jan van. “Abū l-Ḥakam al-Maghribī, Maʿarrat al-bayt (‘The Domestic Scandal’).”  Forthcoming in A Literary History of Medicine: “The Best Accounts of the Classes of Physicians” by Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿah (d. 1270).  University of Oxford & University of Warwick.

Lyons, Malcolm C. 2008. The Arabian nights: tales of 1001 nights. vols. 1-3. London: Penguin.

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


COB-97: training essential for bureaucracy

University of Bologna, interior

The machinery of bureaucracy depends on a trained workforce.  Modern societies have thus established special educational institutions.  In these institutions, uneducated young persons are grouped together so that they can better learn from each other.  The young persons are separated from the workforce so as to avoid real-world distractions.  They are then passed through courses and requirements.  That makes them certified as educated throughout their subsequent working lives.  While traditional educational institutions have considerable bureaucratic merit, they no longer suffice for the needs of today’s bureaucracies.

Today’s bureaucracy must be a learning organization.  Learning must be added to the job description of every person in the bureaucracy.  Every document created within the bureaucracy, including substantive emails copied to more than five persons, must have a separate learning section describing the learning associated with the document.  Highlighting the importance of learning, many organizations are establishing Chief Learning Officers to supervise and coordinate learning.

In today’s online, digital world, learning is necessary to maintain business advantage.  Consider DAFTA’s implementation of online timekeeping for its employees.  DAFTA (Document Assembly/Fastenings Trade Association) is the leading Washington-based trade association for the manufacturers of document clasps, paper clips, staples, and related office document technologies.  Until last year, DAFTA employees had punched-hole timecards.  They also wrote out on paper requests for sick time and vacation time.  After being informed of the advent of the new online, digital world, DAFTA’s leadership decided to implement an online, digital timekeeping system.

DAFTA’s implementation of online timekeeping nearly failed from lack of attention to learning.  Employees struggled to figure out how to use the online timekeeping system.  That raised the question of the proper time code to use to record time spent trying to figure out how to use the online timekeeping system.  No one knew.  Several meetings about the issue raised the question of how to record time spent trying to figure out how to record time spent trying to figure out how to use the online timekeeping system.

With the situation threatening to spiral out of control, the Chief Learning Officer stepped in and pointed out the need for training.  She established a new, online training course on how to use the new timekeeping system.  The training course had a special training module addressing how to record time spent discussing how to record time spent trying to figure out to use the new timekeeping system.  Employees, however, couldn’t figure out how to register for the new online training course.

Emphasizing the importance of training, the Chief Learning Officer set up a new training course on how to register for training courses.  Colleges champion “learning how to learn,” she declared, “we will train how to train.”  The Chief Learning Officer coordinated with the Chief Data Officer to establish a schema for collecting data on registrations for the training course on how to register for training courses.  The DAFTA Head, recognizing the importance of big data and being a data-driven organization, agreed to allow one year for data to accumulate on registrations for the training course on how to register for training courses.  She also allowed employees to use the old punchcard and paper timekeeping system in the interim.  The Chief Learning Officer thus transformed DAFTA into a learning organization.  You can do the same for your organization!

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of Bureaucrats.  Enjoy previous bureaucratic carnivals here.  Nominations of posts to be considered for inclusion in next month’s carnival should be submitted using Form 376: Application for Bureaucratic Recognition.

Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage: Jerome’s creativity

The late-fourth-century Christian ascetic and scholar Jerome had such extraordinary literary creativity that scholars to this day have barely recognized his genius.  Jerome wove Christian scripture, non-Christian Greco-Roman literature, and the work of early Christian thought leaders into innovative, outrageous, transgressive forms.  One of Jerome’s greatest and most influential works, Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage, has been so badly misunderstood that many scholars believe that Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor at the Athenian lyceum, wrote it.  Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage is a sophisticated literary artifice.  Written by Jerome from his personal perspective as a man, Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage inconceivably tells women what men want.[1]

Golden Book, after that of Theophrastus

With remarkable daring, Jerome addressed Theophrastus’ Golden Book to women.  Theophrastus’ book occurs as a small section in Jerome’s voluminous treatise, Adversus Jovinianum.  Jerome sought in Adversus Jovinianum to confute a theologian’s claim that “virgin maidens, widows, and married women” have statuses of equal merit as Christians.  Immediately before citing Theophrastus’ Golden Book, Jerome declares:

what am I to do when the women of our time press me with apostolic authority, and before the first husband is buried, repeat from morning to night the precepts which allow a second marriage?  Seeing they despise the fidelity which Christian purity dictates, let them at least learn chastity from the heathen. [2]

Jerome thus constructed Theophrastus’ Golden Book as instruction for women.  As Aristotle’s successor in leading the Athenian lyceum, Theophrastus was an eminent classical philosophical authority.  Through Theophrastus, Jerome provided authoritative heathen teaching for women.

Jerome introduced Theophrastus’ Golden Book with a parody of wisdom attributed to Solomon.  Solomon is traditionally identified as the author of the biblical book Proverbs.  Like the biblical book Sirach, Proverbs concludes with a Hebrew acrostic.  Proverbs’ concluding acrostic has a genre that was probably as popular in the ancient world as it is today: an encomium to the strong, independent woman.  The first and last two lines of Proverbs’ encomium carry its main points:

A woman of strength, who can find?
Her price is greater than rubies.

Comeliness is deceit and beauty a vapor,
but a woman who fears the Lord — she will be praised.
Give her the fruit of her hands,
and let her deeds praise her in the gates. [3]

Proverbs’ strong woman works outside the home, independent of her husband, in the breadwinner role that traditionally has been imposed on men as their exclusive, natural burden.

Jerome reconfigured the values of Proverbs’ encomium to the strong, independent woman.  Jerome artfully declares:

Theophrastus’ book about marriage, in which he asks whether a wise man should marry, is said to be worth its weight in gold.  And after specifying that, yes, occasionally a wise man might venture on marriage — if the woman is beautiful, of good character and honest parentage, and he himself healthy and rich — he immediately concludes, “but all these things rarely coexist in a marriage.  Therefore, a wise man should not marry.” [4]

Because the woman that Proverbs’ praises is actually rare, Theophrastus’ book is worth its weight in gold.  It prevents a mistaken evaluation of the worth of a wife.  Proverbs disparages the value of a wife’s beauty and emphasizes her earning potential.  But if a man is already rich, a woman’s earning potential has little marginal value to him in marriage.  Theophrastus’ book highlights a woman’s beauty and her social status.  In addition, the husband being healthy alludes to him being able to exercise fully the sexual opportunities that marriage potentially provides.  In short, Jerome through Theophrastus instructs Christian women that Proverbs’ encomium to the strong, independent woman is bunk.[5]

Jerome also reconfigured in non-Christian terms the Christian gospel’s wisdom about serving two masters.  The gospel of Matthew declares:

No one can serve two masters: for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth. [6]

Jerome explains:

marriage impedes the pursuit of philosophy, nor may any man serve both books and wife.

Books here substitute for seeking God, and a wife, for seeking wealth.  Jerome immediately expands satirically the latter point:

There are many things which are necessary for married women’s practices: expensive clothes, gold, gems, shopping sprees, maids, all kinds of furniture, litters, a gilt two-wheeled chariot.

Jerome also represents the reversal of love and hate.  He describes the wife’s jealousy of others and the husband’s attempts to establish friendships with others.  Jerome observes:

She {the wife} suspects that her husband’s love goes the same way as her hate.

In Jerome’s creative allegory, just as marriage impedes a non-Christian pursuing learning, marriage impedes a Christian serving God.

Biblical wisdom presents contrasting views of women.  Chapter 26 of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) alternates twice between describing the wicked wife and the good wife.  The obvious question is how to get a good wife rather than a wicked one.  Jerome through Theophrastus reasons:

there is no picking out a wife, but we have to take whatever comes along.  If she has a temper, if she is foolish, malformed, proud, smelly, whatever vice it is, we learn it only after the wedding.  A horse, a donkey, a bull, a dog, and the most worthless slaves, even clothes and kettles, a wooden stool, a goblet, and an earthen pitcher all are tested first and then bought or not.  Only a wife is not shown, lest she should displease before she is wed.

Jerome through Theophrastus thus instructs women about men’s reluctance to marry.  Men cannot distinguish between good and bad women before marriage.[7]  Out of respect for men’s lack of knowledge, even a woman who believes herself to be good should not urge a man to marry her.

With Theophrastus’ Golden Book, Jerome displayed his mastery of Juvenal’s towering classical work of men sexed protests.  Like Juvenal, Jerome through Theophrastus protests wives’ rule of the household.[8]  Juvenal’s mimesis of a wife’s words is stilted and tendentious, with a style little different from his rhetorical questions.[9]  Jerome’s mimesis of a wife’s words is more realistic and more comic:

That woman looks so much prettier when she goes out; this one is honored by everyone; when women get together, they despise me as a wretch.  Why were you staring at the woman next door?  What were you talking about with the maid?  What did you bring home from the forum? [10]

Jerome makes similar points of protest to Juvenal, but in a more refined, more charitable way.  In protesting wives’ sexual relations with household eunuchs, Juvenal graphically describes a young man getting his testicles torn off so as to serve better sexually the mistress of the house.  Jerome more decorously mentions, “her eunuch, gelded to prolong her pleasure and to make it safe.”  Juvenal describes wives brutally flogging household servants.[11]  Jerome merely hints discretely about workplace sexual harassment:

Upon whomever she sets her heart, they must have her love though they want her not.[12]

Juvenal graphically describes wives sneaking out at night to work in brothels and having sex with gladiators.  He also describes men having consensual sex with other men’s wives as if those men were brutish attackers:

her lover lurks concealed, impatiently keeping quiet while drawing back his foreskin. [13]

Jerome, in contrast, more charitably recognizes men’s attractive qualities:

One man tempts by his shape, another by his brains, another by his jokes, yet another by his generosity.  What is attacked from all sides will fall, one way or another.

Juvenal suggests as an alternative to a wife a boy sex-object.[14]  Jerome more humanely suggests a faithful servant, friends, and relatives.  Juvenal elaborates at length about wives’ propensities toward superstition and willingness to poison their husbands.[15]  Jerome addresses these problems briefly and pragmatically.  In a key symbolic gesture, Jerome refers to a good and kind wife as “a rare bird.”  He thus cites Juvenal’s description of a suitable wife as “a rare bird on this earth, exactly like a black swan.”[16]  Jerome, with brevity and graciousness, trumped Juvenal in addressing this earthly life.

Within Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage, Jerome also poignantly points to a greater life.  Describing a husband’s solicitude for a good and kind wife, Jerome declares:

when she gives birth, we groan with her; when she is in danger, we, too, are tortured with her.

The husband experiences continually being with his wife.  Jerome implicitly recognizes the good of that experience with an abrupt shift to describing an alternate experience:

A wise man can never be alone.  He has with him all men who are and who have ever been good, and he turns his free mind wherever he likes.  What his body cannot do, he embraces in this thought.  And if he lacks men to speak to, he speaks with God.  He will never be less alone than when he is alone.

Jerome thus described his experience of Christian ascetic life.  Jerome’s Christian ascetic life encompassed strenuous scholarly study and writing.  Wealthy women who admired and patronized Jerome provided vital support for his scholarly study and writing.  Jerome concluded Theophrastus’ Golden Book with fitting words for patrons:

to spend your money well while you are still alive would be a more certain inheritance than to leave what you acquired by your own hard work to be used for who knows what.

Juvenal’s satire is all bite.  Jerome made with Juvenal’s satire a much greater work.  Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage explains to women the value of men’s Christian ascetic life.  It also suggests to wealthy women that they should financially support men in Christian ascetic life.[17]

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[1] Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage (Aureolus Liber de Nuptiis) was widely disseminated throughout medieval Europe.  Jerome, however, was not credited with writing it.  The most extensive recent scholarly analysis of Jerome’s satire takes literally Jerome’s claim that Theophrastus wrote that book.  It also provides this fine piece of learned, ingenuous analysis:

Bickel explained the resemblances between Juvenal and the extract from Theophrastus as follows: when Jerome was copying Theophrastus from Porphyry, memories of Juvenal’s sixth satire entered his mind and he added these reminiscences to the extract … These views were seriously challenged by J. van Wageningen, who explained the apparent reminiscences of Juvenal by the theory that Jerome derived the ecloga Theophrasti from Seneca’s De matrimonio, which was also used by Juvenal in composing his sixth satire.  Van Wageningen’s argument takes too little account of Bickel’s cogent demonstration that the ecloga Theophrasti shows numerous traces of Jerome’s own Latin style. … In praise of Jerome, however, it may be said that if he had not admitted that Theophrastus’ attack on women was not his own original work, the reader would hardly have guessed it, so markedly is his adaptation of the passage stamped with his own satiric style.

Weisen (1964) pp. 153-5.  A scholarly work published in 1997 and focusing on Chaucer wisely observed:

the evidence suggests strongly that no such book {Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage} ever existed in Greek and that it was Jerome who composed it and simply invented the ascription.

Hanna & Lawler (1997) p. 8.  In a magisterial commentary on Jerome’s Libellus de Virginitate Servanda (Letter 22, to Eustochium), a leading scholar of Jerome greatly disparaged Jerome’s creativity:

Jerome’s brilliance often turns out to be no more than the glitter of pilfered tinsel.  … Any meretricious formulation that caught Jerome’s eye was memorized for redeployment later … Jerome recognized the limitations of his own intellectual ability: he knew that he was not really capable of independent and creative thought. … it is precisely originality of form which is often lacking in Jerome. … Jerome’s own contribution to the debate {about virginity} is often tasteless and bizarre.

Adkin (2003) pp. 2-5.  Properly attributing to Jerome Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage should help to correct that mistaken evaluation.

[2] Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, I.47, from Latin trans. Freemantle (1892) p. 846.  Jerome was confuting Jovinian.  Jerome’s quotation of Jovinian’s claim is in I.3.

[3] Proverbs 30:10, 30-1, from Hebrew trans. Fox (2009) pp. 888-9.  The above English translation presents the Hebrew lines as paired English lines.

[4] Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, I.47, trans. Hanna & Lawler (1997) p. 150.  This translation is similar to that in Freemantle (1892) p. 846.  I’ve represented the text after “concludes” as a quotation, as in id.  In addition, I’ve replaced “virtuous, and from a good family” with “of good character, and honest parentage,” as in id.  The underlying Latin is “si bene morata, si honestis parentibus.”  All subsequent quotations of Jerome, unless otherwise noted, are from Adversus Jovinianum, I.47 (Theophrastus’ Golden Book on Marriage), trans. Hanna & Lawler (1997).

[5] Solomon and Marcolf, a work widespread in fifteenth-century Europe, similarly challenges and parodies the wisdom of Solomon.

[6] Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13.

[7] Many men today attempt to learn about a women through cohabitation before marriage.  Such an approach has serious problems with incentives and ecological relevance.  It also ignores the significance of marital law.  In any case, non-marital cohabitation was less feasible in the fourth century because fewer men and women had the resources to maintain households separate from their families.  Cohabitation choices had then broader social significance.

[8] Cf. Juvenal, Satire 6, ll. 149-52, 210-24.

[9] Consider, for example this dialog between husband and wife:

{wife} “Crucify that slave.”
{husband} “What crime has he committed to deserve punishment? Who says they witnessed it? Who accused him? Give him a hearing!  No hesitation is ever long enough when a person’s life is at stake.”
{wife} “You idiot! Is a slave a person?  All right, let’s accept that he hasn’t done anything.  But it’s my wish and my command.  Let my will be reason enough.”

Juvenal, Satire 6, ll. 219-23, from Latin trans. Braund (2004) p. 253.

[10] Jerome is thus an unappreciated father of the scintillating dialogue in the medieval (c. 1400) French work 15 Joys of Marriage.

[11] Juvenal, Satire 6, ll. 366-78 (man having testicles torn off).  Here’s discussion of the sexual merits of eunuchs in Juvenal.  Id. ll. 474-93 (wife flogging household servants).

[12] Trans. Fremantle (1892) p. 847.  Hanna & Lawler (1997), p. 152, has for this line:

Those whom she loves must be loved in return, whether they want to or not.

That translation has similar meaning, but is more obscure.

[13] Id. ll. 237-8.

[14] Id. ll. 33-7.

[15] Id. ll. 542-91 (superstition), ll. 659-61 (poisoning husband).

[16] Id. ll 165.

[17] Not all men favor a Christian ascetic life.  A leading scholar of Jerome observed:

Despite all his austerities J.’s {Jerome’s} mind still seethed with lust.

Adkin (2003) p. 59.  In other words, Jerome had sexuality like that of an ordinary, healthy man.  Nonetheless, Jerome chose a Christian ascetic life.  Women can show love for men who do not choose such a life by taking care of them sexually in addition to financially supporting them.  That would be enough for most men.  Most men don’t demand to have it all.

[image] Modified version of Binding from Five Poems (increased color saturation, intensified highlights). Original 16th century Persia, The Walters Art Museum, W.610.binding.  Thanks to the Walters for preserving this binding and sharing liberally an image of it.


Adkin, Neil. 2003. Jerome on virginity: a commentary on the Libellus de virginitate servanda (Letter 22). Cambridge: Francis Cairns.

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

Fox, Michael V. 2009.  Proverbs 10-31: a new translation with introduction and commentary.  The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries. Vol. 18B. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Hanna, Ralph and Traugott Lawler, eds. 1997. Jankyn’s book of wikked wyves. Vol. 1: The Primary Texts (with translations). Walter Map’s Dissuasio; Theophrastus’ De Nuptiis; selections from Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum. University of Georgia Press: Athens.

Wiesen, David S. 1964. St. Jerome as a satirist: a study in Christian Latin thought and letters. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.


Wednesday’s flowers

house with flowers landscaping

William, Nastagio, Federigo: ignorant men in love

Before the scientific advances of sexual selection field reports, men in love lived in ignorant self-abasement.  Many men still do.[1]  Empirical science alone cannot produce loving enlightenment.  To move beyond the dark ages of chivalric self-abasement, men must understand the stories of William, Nastagio, and Federigo.

William, said to be a bright, young man, desired his master’s wife.  She was beautiful:

She was exceeding beautiful.
The wild flowers blooming on the hill,
The lily flower, the rose of May —
She was more beautiful than they.

The narrator, undoubtedly like William, let her bodily beauty lead to where a beautiful women’s beauty naturally leads men:

For when her hair was left untied,
It shone so bright that anyone
Who saw would swear that it was spun
From purest gold.  Her forehead shone
Like finely cut and polished stone,
Her eyebrows brown and widely spread,
Her eyes were laughing in her head,

{continuing down through nose, mouth, chin, throat}
Her breast were round as little apples,
Firm and small with little nipples,
There’s nothing more for me to say:
To lead men’s hearts and minds astray [2]

Men who aspire to be more than beasts understand and respect their own sexuality.  Appreciating a young, beautiful woman’s physical attractiveness doesn’t require a man to be subjugated by it.

William was both stupid and timid.  He stayed in his beloved’s household for seven years, pining away in love for her, never saying a word to her.  Finally he accosted her:

William looked long and longingly
Upon her, then he said, “Hello.”

No, no, no.  “Lady, go make me a sandwich” would have been better.  Even worse, William then deployed a stock tactic of a lovestruck adolescent:

Lady, I beg of you, pay heed
To what I ask of you.  I need
Your counsel.  Tell me what you’d say ….”
— “Of course I’ll give it.  Ask away.”
— “If clerk, or knight of high degree,
Or someone from the bourgeoisie
Should fall in love — or even a squire —

What would your opinion be
If he has loved her seven years
And kept it hidden and he fears
Still to tell her anything —
What martyrdom he’s suffering —
And yet he still could tell his love
If only he were brave enough
And the occasion would appear
To open up his heart to her,
And what I really wish I knew
Is what you think he ought to do
And whether he does right or wrong
To keep his love from her so long.”

She declared that the hypothetical lover should bravely tell his love.  She also said of the beloved:

She’d have to pity the poor man.
It would be very foolish of her
Not to accept the love he’s offered
And one day wish to God she had. [3]

William moaned and sighed and then said, “Lady, behold the man.”[4] The lady asked if he were joking and then told him to shut up and get out.  The lady was false to her counsel.  She was true to human nature.  Women naturally don’t desire sexually pathetic men.

William nearly killing himself stirred the lady’s desire.  William announced a starvation strike for love:

Kill me and get it over with.
Listen, I asked for your love.
I beg a gift, and I will prove
My need for it.  I will not eat
Until the day that you see fit. [5]

Since pathetically abasing himself didn’t work to stir the lady’s love, William resolved to abase himself even further.  He refused to eat until the lady acknowledged his love.  That’s not a rational response to the lesson of experience.  Only within the conventions of chivalric fiction is such a tactic ever successful.  So it was here.  The lady and his master implored William to eat.  Without acknowledgement of his love, William resolutely refused to eat, sweating and trembling, with every limb filled with pain, potentially facing death at the hand of his master for desiring his wife should she acknowledge his love.  His suffering and bravery stirred the lady’s sexual desire.

falcon with kill

The lady arranged to cuckold her husband with doublespeak.  She said that William was sick to death with desire for his master’s faucon.  The master readily granted his faucon to William to save his life.  Faucon is Old French for falcon.  Faucon can also be interpreted as “false cunt.”  The lady understood faucon to mean both falcon and false cunt.  Her husband gave his falcon to William, and she gave herself to William.  William instantly became well.  In representing herself as a false cunt, she made effective for William the counsel that she had betrayed.

Boccaccio, who was keenly concerned about men in love, seems to have responded to William of the Falcon with two adjacent stories in the Decameron.  In Decameron 5.8, Nastagio degli Onesti nearly squandered his fortune unsuccessfully seeking the love of a beautiful, young woman.  At times Nastagio was so filled with despair about his unrequited love that he wanted to commit suicide.  Lost in a pine forest, Nastagio had a Dantesque vision of a beautiful, young women, completely naked, running from two ferocious dogs and a knight.  Nastagio intervened to defend the woman.  The knight explained that both he and the woman were spirits undergoing God-ordained punishments:

I, who once loved her so dearly, was to pursue her as my mortal enemy rather than the woman I once loved.  And every time I catch up to her, I kill her with this same sword with which I slew myself {in love suicide}. Then I rip open her back, and as you are about to see for yourself, I tear from her body that cold, hard heart of hers, which neither love nor pity could ever penetrate, and together with the rest of her inner organs, I give it to these dogs to eat.  In a short space of time, as the justice and power of God ordain, she rises up as if she never died and begins her woeful flight all over again, with the dogs and me in pursuit. [6]

Nastagio, although full of pity and fear from the vision, realized that it could be useful to him.  He arranged to have the woman he loved see the vision.  Realizing the lady’s words to William in William of the Falcon, the lady in Boccaccio’s story understood:

She’d have to pity the poor man.
It would be very foolish of her
Not to accept the love he’s offered
And one day wish to God she had. [7]

She thus agreed to marry Nastagio.  They lived happily ever after.  In William of the Falcon, the bravery of a man enduring extreme, self-imposed suffering stirred the lady to sexual desire.  In Boccaccio’s more humane story, the lady’s vision of her own future suffering from rejecting a man’s love stirred her to accept his love.

In the subsequent story in the Decameron, the man in love gives up his falcon but gets the false cunt.  Filomena, who narrates this story, declares that it “partly resembles the preceding one.”  Like Nastagio, Federigo was a rich young man profligately and futilely courting a beautiful woman.  Federigo was in love with Monna Giovanna, who was married to a rich man.  Federigo’s courtship left him with nothing but a falcon:

As Federigo continued to spend money well beyond his means, while acquiring nothing from his lady in return, he went through his entire fortune, as can easily happen, and wound up a poor man, left with nothing except a tiny little farm, the income from which was just enough for him to live very frugally, and a single falcon, which was among the finest in the world. … There he would go hunting with his falcon, whenever he could, and without asking assistance from anyone, he bore his poverty with patience. [8]

Monna Giovanna’s husband died.  While spending the summer at their country estate, her son became acquainted with Federigo and his falcon.  The boy happened to fall ill.  He told his mother that he would get better if she would get for him Federigo’s falcon.  Monna Giovanna had never paid any attention to Federigo’s love for her.  But now that she needed a falcon, she decided to visit him personally, invite herself to have dinner with him, and ask him for his falcon.

Federigo responded to Monna Giovanna’s visit with self-abasement and extravagance.  Surprised and delighted by her visit and her self-invitation to dinner, Federigo wanted to “honor the noble lady” with a worthy meal.  But he had nothing suitable, except for his falcon.  He cooked his falcon and served it as dinner for the lady.  That extravagant charity is as false to reason and nature as the rich lady’s surprise visit and self-invitation to dinner at her spurned lover’s poor home.  It’s as false to reason and nature as the son’s claim that getting Federigo’s falcon would cure his illness.

The story ends with intimations of falsity.  Having failed to acquire Federigo’s falcon other than as a piece of dead, cooked meat, Monna Giovanna returned “utterly despondent” to her son.  Her son then died.  That actually was in Monna Giovanna’s material interests, for when her rich husband died:

he left his entire estate to his son, who was still a growing boy, and since he also loved his wife very dearly, he made her his heir in the case that he son would die without lawful issue. [9]

Monna Giovanna wanted to remain a rich widow.  But her brothers pressured her to remarry.  Mona Giovanna recalled “Federigo’s great worth and his last act of generosity, that is his having killed such a splendid falcon in her honor.”  She might more realistically have recalled Federigo as a foolish, self-abasing man who had caused her utter despair.  Monna Giovanna and Federigo married.  Federigo reportedly lived happily ever after:

Federigo, finding himself not just married to the great lady he had loved so dearly, but a very rich man to boot {through his share in Monna Giovanna’s inherited wealth}, managed his fortune more prudently than he had before and lived with her happily to the end of his days. [10]

A profligate man doesn’t plausibly become prudent by marrying a rich widow.  Monna Giovanna treated Federigo selfishly and instrumentally.  Read against William of the Falcon, Monna Giovanna seems like the false cunt, and Federigo, the foolish, self-abasing man.  That doesn’t suggest a happy end for Federigo.

Everyone in the brigata “praised God for having given Federigo the reward he deserved.”[11]  In truth, Federigo undoubtedly received the reward he deserved.  To move beyond self-abasement, men must understand.

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[1] Societies have always required men to sacrifice their lives in group-structured men-on-men violence (war).  That discourse colonizes men’s personal lives.  Men come to believe that they must desperately fight for love, rather than be loved for who they are.

[2] Guilluame au Faucon (William of the Falcon), fabliau, 1st half of the 13th century, from Old French trans. Duval (1982) p. 92 (inc. previous quote).  For alternate English translations, see the Fabliaux English Translation Index.

[3] Id. pp. 94-5 (previous three quotes).

[4] Cf. John 19:5. That parallel suggests that William feels he isn’t guilty of any offense.  He is guilty of fearing to give offense.

[5] Id. p. 97.

[6] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 5, Story 8 (story of Nastagio degli Onesti), from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 448.  The story of Nastagio degli Onesti is the subject of four paintings that Sandro Botticelli produced in the 1480s.  Botticelli’s paintings focus on the woman.

[7] Guilluame au Faucon, trans Duval (1982) p. 95.

[8] Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 5, Story 9 (story of Federigo degli Alberighi), from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 453.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. p. 458. The Bustan of Saadi (written in Persian in 1257) includes a story with some similar features.  The Sultan of Turkey decides to ask Hatim Tai, an Arab renowned for generosity, for his fabulous horse.  But before the messenger conveyed the Sultan of Turkey’s request, Hatim slaughtered his horse because it was all he had to provide a meal for the messenger.  Trans. Edwards (1911) Ch. II (Concerning Benevolence), “Story of Hatim Taei.”  The additional context of courtly love in the Decameron‘s story of Federigo degli Alberighi highlights the sexed structure of self-abasement in generosity.

[11] Introductory sentences to Decameron, Day 5, Story 10, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 459.


DuVal, John, trans. and Raymond Eichmann, text, notes, intro. 1982. Cuckolds, clerics, & countrymen: medieval French fabliaux. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.

Edwards, A. Hart, trans. 1911. The Bustān of Sadi. London: J. Murray.

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

Tagged: ,

strong reciprocity depends on communication

Humans frequently behave cooperatively.  Human cooperation is obvious to ordinary persons in everyday life.  In laboratory experiments, a large share of humans cooperate according to social norms if others cooperate likewise, even if not cooperating offers a higher, immediate objective reward.  Similarly, a large share of humans also punish others who do not cooperate according to social norms, even if punishing has immediate, objective net cost to the person who does the punishing.  These two patterns of behavior together are called strong reciprocity.[1]

Strong reciprocity is sensitive to subtle aspects of communication.  The social norms that are the reference points for strong reciprocity are products of social communication.[2]  In laboratory experiments, participants who engage in relevant pre-play verbal communication, who engage in oblique eye gaze, who tap each other lightly on the shoulder or arm, or who use a computer displaying eyespots, behave more cooperatively.[3]  Given the importance of human cooperation for humans’ ecological position relative to other animals, humans have likely undergone natural selection for effectively signaling cooperation.

Experimental work on strong reciprocity hasn’t adequately accounted for individual differences. Experiments have found that, among persons in common cultural circumstances, a sizable share of persons act according to strong reciprocity, and a sizeable share do not.[4]  Experiments have found that demographic characteristics, including sex, do not significantly differentiate between these two groups of persons.[5]  The existence of considerable individual differences in strong reciprocity within a culture isn’t well explained.

elephant herd

Experimental findings of the insignificance of demographics for strong reciprocity concern demographics of individual participants who understand themselves to be playing with anonymous others.  Such demographic information is not ecologically relevant.  Moreover, abstracting from the demographics of opponents or assuming that the demographics of opponents are irrelevant to participants is not consistent with testing the significance of participants’ demographics.[6]  Demographics, in particular sex, may in fact be highly relevant to propensity to engage in strong reciprocity.

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[1] For differing perspectives on strong reciprocity, see Bowles & Ginis (2011) and Guala (2012).

[2] On subtle aspects of social circumstances, see, e.g. Bardsley (2005) and Bardsley (2008).  The issues are not limited to whether persons who interact with participants understand the structure and purpose of the experiments.   What participants understand themselves to be doing can depend on where the experiment takes place, differences in status between participants and non-participants with whom the participants interact, participants’ sense of the specific circumstances of interaction (e.g., via computer terminals in a relatively quiet and barren room), and other subtle aspects of participants’ full sense of their circumstances. Controlling vocal communication with participants is a weak control on communication with participants.

[3] See Valley et al. (2002), Kurzban (2001), and Haley & Fessler (2005).  Kurzban (2001) found effects of eye gaze and touch only for male subjects:

This finding is alarming in that it seems that males are ready to accept extremely scant evidence that they are in a meaningful group capable of cooperating. If indeed male psychology is well designed for cooperating because of adaptations for intergroup conflict, then the ease with which males form cooperative associations is also the ease with which males can form groups for the purpose of intergroup conflict {references omitted}.

Id. pp. 256-7.  The risk of males cooperating to address the demonization of males and the social disposal of males in intergroup conflict seems remote.

[4] The split is close to equal:

Taken together, the fraction of subjects showing strong positive reciprocity is rarely below 40 and sometimes 60 percent whereas the fraction of selfish subjects is also often between 40 and 60 percent.

Fehr, Fischbacher & Gächter (2002) p. 8.  This remarkable division has attracted relatively little attention in scholarship on cooperation.

[5] Henrich et al. (2001) p. 76. Using subjects from U.S. universities, Cox & Deck (2006) found in laboratory behavioral experiments that women’s behavior was more sensitive to the costs of generosity than was men’s.   That result is consistent with more developed social intelligence in women.

[6] In experimental games testing cooperation among nonhuman animals, ensuring that animals sense that they are playing against another animal is in tension with preventing communication between the animals. Noë (2006), pp. 11-12, provides an insightful discussion of this problem. Because humans have a more developed capacity to make sense of human presence, this problem is less significant in experiments involving humans. Nonetheless, the issue of sense of presence in anonymous human cooperation experiments deserves further consideration.

[image] Elephant herd at Ambroseli National Park (Kenya), with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background.  Thanks to Amoghavarsha and Wikipedia.  Elephant herds consist of adult females and young of both sexes.  Male elephants are forcibly excluded from herds at puberty.


Bardsley, Nicholas. 2005. “Experimental Economics and the Artificiality of Alteration.” Journal of Economic Methodology. 12: 239-251.

Bardsley, Nicholas. 2008. “Dictator game giving: altruism or artefact?Experimental Economics. 11 (2): 122-133.

Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. 2011. A cooperative species human reciprocity and its evolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Cox, James C. and Cary A. Deck. 2006. “When are Women More Generous than Men?Economic Inquiry. 44(4): 587-598.

Fehr, Ernst, Urs Fischbacher and Simon Gächter. 2002. “Strong reciprocity, Human Cooperation and the Enforcement of Social Norms.” Human Nature. 13: 1-25.

Guala, Francesco. 2012. “Reciprocity: Weak or strong? What punishment experiments do (and do not) demonstrate.”  With discussion and response. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 35 (01): 1-15.

Haley, Kevin J. and Daniel M.T. Fessler. 2005. “Nobody’s watching? Subtle cues affect generosity in an anonymous economic game.” Evolution and Human Behavior. 26: 245-256.

Henrich, Joseph, Robert Boyd, Samuel Bowles, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr, Herbert Gintis and Richard McElreath. 2001. “In Search of Homo Economicus: Behavioral Experiments in 15 Small-Scale Societies.” American Economic Review. 91(2): 73-78.

Kurzban, Robert. 2001. “The Social Psychophysics of Cooperation: Nonverbal Communication in the Public Goods Game.”  Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. 25(4): 241-259.

Noë, Ronald. 2006. “Cooperation experiments: coordination through communication versus acting apart together.” Animal Behaviour. 71: 1-18.

Valley, Kathleen, Leigh Thompson, Robert Gibbons and Max H. Bazerman. 2002. “How Communication Improves Efficiency in Bargaining Games.” Games and Economic Behavior. 38: 127-155.

Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum: method in madness about marriage

In 393, in his lengthy treatise Adversus Jovinianum, Jerome confuted Jovinian’s position on marriage for women.  Jovinian had declared that “virgin maidens, widows, and married women” have statuses of equal merit as Christians.[1]  Jerome fundamentally disagreed.  He strongly urged women not to marry and to remain virgins.[2]  Elite academic schools today have largely adopted a variant of Jerome’s position, with lesbianism understood to have no implications for the bodily integrity of virginity.  Nonetheless, the brilliance of Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum remains under-appreciated.

Jerome’s emphasis on urging women not to marry is a significant, largely ignored aspect of Adversus Jovinianum.  The literature of men’s sexed protests, which has existed since men learned to write, commonly urges men not to marry.  The Roman poet Juvenal urged his friend Postumous, and by extension men in general, not to marry.  Juvenal was well-known by the fourth century.[3]  The Roman Emperor Augustus passed specific laws to punish men unwilling to marry.  The prominence of literature and policies concerning men marrying contrasts with Jerome’s focus.  By focusing on urging women not to marry, Jerome pushed into virgin territory in elite Roman discourse.

Scholars have struggled to understand Jerome’s method in Adversus Jovinianum.  In a preliminary section of that work, Jerome declared:

we do not follow the {heretical} views of Marcion and Manichæus, and disparage marriage; nor, deceived by the error of Tatian, the leader of the Encratites, do we think all {sexual} intercourse impure … We are not ignorant of the words, “Marriage is honourable among all, and the bed undefiled.” … while we honour marriage, we prefer virginity, which is the offspring of marriage. [4]

Nonetheless, Jerome analogized marriage to excrement.[5]  Moreover, in a parody of the Pauline injunction, “it is better to marry than to burn {with lust},”  Jerome disingenuously praised Dido, the first Queen of Carthage, for preferring to burn rather than to marry.[6]  Jerome observed of Greco-Roman culture:

It is a proof of the little esteem in which they held marriage that among the scorpions, centaurs, crabs, fishes, and capricorn {the signs of the Zodiac}, they did not even thrust in a husband and wife. [7]

Jerome put forward transparently ridiculous reasoning:

“It is good,” he {Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:1} says, “for a man not to touch a woman.” If it is good not to touch a woman, it is bad to touch one: for there is no opposite to goodness but badness. [8]

Jerome was one of the most learned men of his time.  Nonetheless, a late-twentieth-century scholar complained:

Jerome proves himself again and again in Adversus Jovinianum incapable of sustained and systematic logical argumentation. … {in addition} He quite simply presents as historical fact a number of examples which he (or anyone conversant with Roman history) must have known were untrue. [9]

Jerome might produce another obscene gesture in response to such misunderstanding of what he was doing in Adversus Jovinianum.

bonobos mating

With Adversus Jovinianum, Jerome brilliant satirized Jovinian’s work supporting women marrying.  Jerome accused Jovinian of bombast, vile language, and not making sense.  Jerome reproduced and exaggerated those faults in Adversus Jovinian.  Jovinian wrote voluminously.  Adversus Jovinianum piled up a voluminous array of texts and examples from the Old and New Testaments and Greek and Roman literature.  At the same time, Jerome expressed concern about being tedious and claimed to be running quickly through his arguments and examples.[10]  In the context of women pressing him to authorize their second marriages, Jerome included a book he attributed to Aristotle successor Theophrastus.  Theophrastus declared that a wise man doesn’t marry.  Theophrastus described hardships of marriage from a male perspective.  Jerome’s ridiculous argument seems to be that out of Christian charity for men’s suffering in marriage, women shouldn’t seek to marry.[11]  In a letter defending Adversus Jovinianum against its many contemporary critics, Jerome wrote of one such critic:

he must condescend to send me his account of the matter, and to correct my indiscreet language, not by censure but by instruction. … if he refuses to write, and fancies that abuse is as effective as criticism, then, in spite of all the lands and seas and peoples which lie between us, he must hear at least the echo of my cry, “I do not condemn marriage,” “I do not condemn wedlock.” Indeed — and this I say to make my meaning quite clear to him — I should like every one to take a wife who, because they get frightened in the night, cannot manage to sleep alone. [12]

That men should marry if they are afraid of sleeping alone at night should not be interpreted in its clear literal meaning.  Jerome was a highly satirical writer.  To read Jerome well, readers must appreciate his sophisticated satire.

grasshoppers mating

Jerome was deeply dependent on women who patronized and supported him.  These women evidently appreciated Jerome’s thinking and writing in a way hardly conceivable today.  Readers today might best understand Jerome’s outrageous, pugnacious satire by imaginatively inhabiting his circle of women admirers — Paula, Marcella, Lea, Eustochium, Blesilla, Asella, and undoubtedly others.[13]

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[1] Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, I.3, Jerome quoting Jovinian.  Jovinian explicitly specified all else equal: “if they are in par in other respects.”   The Latin text is “virgines, viduas, et maritatas.”  All three words are specific to women.

[2] Augustine of Hippo, while agreeing that virginity was superior in Christian merit to marriage, declared that readiness for martydom had superior Christian merit relative to virginity.  Disposition to Christian martydom was less observable in the late fourth century than it was in earlier centuries.  Moreover, the problem of observability implied humility:

Since it is possible that a virgin may not be ready for martydom and that a married person may be, Augustine argued, no virgin could ever legitimately consider herself to be superior to a married person. … Augustine urged all Christians to meditate on the fact that they do not know the limits of their own virtues, nor do they know the hidden and, perhaps, superior virtues that other people may posses.

Hunter (2007) p. 280, citing Augustine, De sancta virginitate (Of Holy Virginity) 47.

[3] Jerome in his Epistle 50 (“To Dominio”) quoted Juvenal Satire I.15.  That epistle was written in 394 in response to criticism of Adversus Jovinianum.  On Jerome’s knowledge of Juvenal, Adkin (1994) and Adkin (2000).

[4] Id., from Latin trans. Freemantle (1892).  The quote is Hebrews 13:4.

[5] Id. I.7.

[6] 1 Corinthians 7:9, Adversus Jovinianum I.43.  In Virgil’s Aeneid, Dido intensely sought to marry Aeneas.  She committed suicide by sword and was immolated when Aeneas left her and Carthage.  Fraioli (1988), p. 178, observes that this quip apparently originated in Tertullian’s De exhortatione castitatis 13.3 and De Monogamia 17.2.

[7] Adversus Jovinianum I.41, trans. Freemantle (1892).

[8] Id. I.7.

[9] Hanna & Lawler (1997) pp. 18, 27.  On Jerome’s misuse of Greek and Roman history, Fraioli (1988) pp. 176-9.

[10] Adversus Jovinianum I.13 (“our author is so voluminous that we cannot linger over every detain”); I.6 (“I have perhaps explained his position at too great length, and become tedious to my reader”); I.21 (“my purpose is at full speed to touch lightly on each topic and to sketch the outline”); I.36 (“I shall briefly reply”); I.39 (“The day would not be long enough were I to attempt to relate all”), etc.  Trans. Freemantle (1892).

[11] Id. I.47.  Fraioli (1988), pp. 181-3, insightfully identifies this satire.  Theophrastus’ book is known as Liber aureolus de nuptiis (The Golden Book of Marriage).  No evidence exists of the book apart from Jerome’s inclusion of it.  Jerome apparently composed Liber aureolus de nuptiis and falsely claimed it to be translated from a Greek work of Theophrastus.  Hanna & Lawler (1997) pp. 8-9 and further discussion.

[12] Jerome, Epistle 50 (“To Domnio”) s. 5, trans. Freemantle (1892).  Adversus Jovinianum is filled with Jerome’s abuse of Jovinian.  Weisen (1964), p. 261, states:

Jerome was fully aware that malice and acid bitterness have no place in the Christian heart.  He would hardly have mentioned the odiousness of invidia so frequently had he not felt deeply uneasy about his own penchant for malevolence.

Another possibility is that Jerome regarded himself as a highly sophisticated rhetorician battling for Christian ascetic values while otherwise living those values.

[13] A study of Jerome’s satire observed:

The biography of Jerome reveals that he was able to evoke in women an enthusiasm and devotion which counterbalanced the hostility which men so frequently felt toward him.

Weisen (1964) pp. 117-8.  Jerome carried on a voluminous correspondence with women.  On Jerome’s circle of elite Roman women interested in ascetic living, Cain (2009) pp. 35-37, 68-78.

[images] Bonobos mating, thanks to Rob Bixby and Wikipedia; grasshoppers mating, thanks to Crisco 1492 and Wikipedia.


Adkin, Neil. 1994. “Juvenal and Jerome.” Classical Philology. 89 (1): 69-72.

Adkin, Neil. 2000. “Jerome, Seneca, Juvenal.” Revue Belge De Philologie Et D’histoire. 78 (1): 119-128.

Cain, Andrew. 2009. The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford University Press.

Fraioli, Deborah A. 1988.  “The importance of satire in Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum as an argument against the authenticity of the Historia calamitatum.”  Fälschungen im Mittelalter Hannover: Hahn, Bd. 5, pp. 167-200.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Hanna, Ralph and Traugott Lawler, eds. 1997. Jankyn’s book of wikked wyves. Vol. 1: The Primary Texts (with translations). Walter Map’s Dissuasio; Theophrastus’ De Nuptiis; selections from Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum. University of Georgia Press: Athens.

Hunter, David G. 2007. Marriage, celibacy, and heresy in ancient Christianity: the Jovinianist controversy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wiesen, David S. 1964. St. Jerome as a satirist: a study in Christian Latin thought and letters. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.


Wednesday’s flowers

tulip landscape

Pirro learned from Lidia in Decameron 7.9

Samson and Delilah, foremother of Lidia

Boccaccio’s Decameron 7.9 seems like just another story about the deception and abuse of men.  In that story, Nicostrato was a rich and noble elderly man living in the ancient Greek city Argos.[1]  He had a young and beautiful wife named Lidia.  To win the love of Pirro, a young retainer in their household, Lidia killed Nicostrato’s treasured hawk, pulled out a tuft of hair from his beard, and yanked out one of his healthy teeth.  To further display her mastery of Nicostrato, Lidia arranged to have sex with Pirro while Nicostrato watched.[2]  This horror story highlights the importance of men’s ability to perceive the truth and adapt to women’s dominance.

Lidia rationalized extra-marital sex within her privileged life.  Lidia explained to her chambermaid-confidante:

I’m young and vigorous, as well as being abundantly supplied with everything a woman could desire.  In short, I have nothing to complain about, with one exception, which is that my husband is too old for me, so that I have been getting too little of that which gives young women the greatest pleasure. [3]

She meant the sex that a truly chivalrous husband provides.  Lidia decided to “try to find another way to obtain my happiness and my salvation.”  Lidia sought that “my enjoyment in this should be as complete as it is in everything else.”  From a Christian perspective, sex is necessary neither for happiness nor salvation.  Jesus said that he offered his teaching so that “your joy may be made complete.”[4]  Lidia’s way to happiness, salvation, and complete joy is a parody of the Christian way.  Lidia’s way is also a parody of reason through her assumption of sexual entitlement.[5]

Lidia sought extra-marital sex as a ruler relating to a servant.  She was the lady of the house.  Pirro was a servant.  She told her chambermaid:

I’ve decided that our Pirro is the one to take care of my needs with his embraces, for he is worthier in this regard than any other man, and such is the love I bear him that I feel sick whenever I’m not gazing at him or thinking about him.  In fact, unless I can be with him very soon, I truly believe I’m going to die.  Therefore, if you value my life, you must acquaint him with my love for him in whatever way you think best, and beg him on my behalf to be so good as to come to me whenever you go to fetch him.

Lidia thus sought to expand Pirro’s responsibilities as a servant to servicing her sexually.

Pirro at first gave priority to Nicostrato’s interests.  Pirro abruptly rejected the proposition that the chambermaid conveyed from Lidia.  He told the chambermaid, “never talk to me about such things again.”  The chambermaid made clear to Pirro that Lidia’s interests ruled:

 if my lady orders me to speak to you about this, or about anything else, I’ll do so as often as she tells me to, whether you like it or not.  But you now, you really are an ass!

Pirro was an ass because he didn’t understand who really ruled the house.

The chambermaid subsequently brought the matter up again to Pirro.  She explained to him that he should be grateful for Lidia’s proposition.  She pointed out the material benefits and status promotion Lidia would provide him if he sexually serviced her.  She argued that Nicostrato really wasn’t loyal to him.  She also suggests that he would be responsible for Lidia’s death from lovesickness if he didn’t acquiesce to her sexual demands.  In short, Decameron 7.9 depicts a classic case of workplace sexual harassment.  But just as for rape, that offense attracts much less public concern (and interest from literary critics) when the victim is a man.

After mulling the matter over for a long time, Pirro recognized reality and also verified it.  Pirro told the chambermaid to tell Lidia that he would “do whatever she wishes without a moment’s hesitation” if she first killed Nicostrato’s treasured hawk in his presence, plucked a tuft of hair from his beard, and pulled out one of his healthy teeth.  Lidia agreed to these conditions.  She gratuitously added that she would arrange for them to have sex in front of Nicostrato.  Then she would convince Nicostrato that the sex he saw didn’t actually happen.  With boldness and guile, Lidia promptly accomplished all these mock-chivalric feats.

Boccaccio adapted Decameron 7.9 from Lidia, a twelfth-century Latin elegiac poem.  The summary that prefaces Lidia declares:

I have shown all that a woman is capable of
so you may flee forewarned: after all,
you too may have a Lidia in your life. [6]

The Decameron’s account of Lidia’s domestic violence against her husband concludes more subtly:

so, the wretched, deluded husband returned with his wife and her lover to the palace, where from that time on, it became much easier for Pirro to get together with Lidia at frequent intervals for their mutual pleasure and delight.  And may God grant as much to all of us. [7]

The difference between fleeing from Lidia and having sex with her is the difference between Nicostrato, her husband, a rich noble, and Pirro, her lover, their household retainer.  Nicostrato lost faith in his ability to perceive the truth.  Pirro recognized the truth that women are superior to men in guile and that women’s interests dominate men’s interests.[8]  Pirro made the best of that situation.  In their own way, men today must do likewise.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] In adapting the twelfth-century Latin elegiac poem Lidia, Boccaccio changed the husband’s name from Decius to Nicostrato and located his house in “Argos, that most ancient Greek city.”  See Elliott (1984) pp. 126-46.  Argos might be an allusion to the mythic, 100-eyed giant Argos.  Ovid wrote:

We always strive for what’s forbidden: want what’s denied:
so the sick man longs for the water he’s refused.
Argus had a hundred eyes, at front and back –
but Love alone often deceived them

Ovid, Amores, Book III, Elegy IV.  This passage was well-known in the European Middle Ages.  Forbidden love and deception are central themes of Decameron 7.9.

[2] Variants of this tale exist across central and western Eurasia.  The claim of an enchanted tree (the pear tree) and the issue of seeing the truth connect these tales to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve.  See Wicher (2013).  One literary critic declared that the tale of Lidia “pleases because it is so amusing … {it} teaches as well as delights.”  Kuhns (1999) pp. 724, 726.  Boccaccio, who wrote the Decameron for men, describes the ladies’ response to Decameron 7.9: “mourning for the innocent pair tree that had been chopped down.”  See introductory text for Decameron 7.10.  Boccaccio’s satire on misandry remains vibrant and unrecognized among literary critics.

[3] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 7, story 9, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 573.  All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the Decameron’s story of Lida (Decameron 7.9), id. pp. 572-82.

[4] John 15:11.

[5] A literary critic described Lidia’s speech to her chambermaid as “a fine example of forensic oratory justifying her adulterous appetite.”  He also noted, “She {Lidia} is reminiscent of Madonna Filippa, whose eloquent defence of her rights to adultery is a high point of Decameronian rhetoric.”  Usher (1989) p. 344, inc. n. 15.  This critical analysis reflects the social dynamics and quality of reason well-represented in the medieval French work 15 Joys of Marriage.

[6] From Latin trans. Elliott (1984) p. 146.  The summary prefacing the poem is known as the argumentum.

[7] In Rebhorn’s translation above, I’ve replaced “poor, deluded husband” with “wretched, deluded husband.”  The original Italian is “misero marito schernito.”  Given that the husband is rich and the group is returning to their palace, “wretched” rather than “poor” seems to me a clearer translation for “misero.”  “Poor” has a polysemous irony that could cause confusion.

[8] Panfilo tells the story of Lidia.  He prefaces that story with incoherent self-assurance:

I do not believe, esteemed ladies, that there is any enterprise, no matter how difficult or dangerous, that someone passionately in love would not dare to undertake. … In it {the story of Lidia} you will hear about a lady whose deeds were far more favored by Fortune than guided by reason, which is why I do not advise any of you to risk following in her footsteps, because Fortune is not always so well disposed, nor are all the men in the world equally gullible.

His first sentence above describes the ideal behavior of the conventional chivalrous man.  The second sentence describes risks that the first sentence has dismissed for women and men.  Moreover, the story doesn’t indicate that Lidia’s deeds were favored by Fortune.  All men in the world need not be equally gullible for men in general to be subordinate through women’s guile.

[image] Samson and Delilah, Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, Kronach 1472–1553 Weimar) , ca. 1528-30, oil of wood.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976.201.11.  Bequest of Joan Whitney Payson, 1975.


Elliott, Alison Goddard, trans. 1984. Seven medieval Latin comedies. New York: Garland.

Kuhns, Richard Francis. 1999. “Interpretative Method for a Tale by Boccaccio: An Enchanted Pear Tree in Argos (Decameron VII.9).” New Literary History. 30 (4): 721-736.

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

Usher, Jonathan. 1989. “Rhetorical and Narrative Strategies in Boccaccio’s Translation of the Comoedia Lydiae.” The Modern Language Review. 84 (2): 337-344.

Wicher, Andrzej. 2013. “Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale, Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Tale of the Enchanted Pear-Tree, and Sir Orfeo Viewed as Eroticized Versions of the Folktales about Supernatural Wives.” Text Matters – A Journal of Literature, Theory and Culture. 3 (3): 42-57.


indirect aggression through social communication

Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre-Auguste Renoir

From an evolutionary perspective, sophisticated social communication plausibly has been more significant for woman than for men.  Among non-human primates, both females and males compete physically and aggressively with other group members.  Among humans, physical aggression is more characteristic of men than of women.[1]  That sex difference doesn’t mean that women are essentially more peaceful and cooperative than men.  Aggression can be indirect:

just like the other primates, coalitional relationships among women also function to facilitate aggressive within-group competition for valuable, monopolizable resources; unlike other primates, this aggression {women’s aggression} relies not on physical but informational capabilities. [2]

Arguments that physical aggression is more costly for women than for men indicate that, all else equal, indirect aggression is relatively more valuable for women than for men.[3]

According to scholarly research, women collect, analyze, and disseminate information to attack the reputations of other women in competition for material and social resources.  Indirect aggression is much more characteristic of adolescent girls than of adolescent boys.[4]  Human evolution plausibly has generated greater capabilities for indirect aggression in women than in men:

Because gossip is an excellent strategy for the high within-group competition females face, and because it is effective in attacking and defending difficult-to-assess aspects of reputation, gossip may have been a more effective weapon in female intrasexual competition than it was in male intrasexual competition, increasing selection for psychological adaptations for informational aggression in females. It follows that women should be better than men in using informational aggression, and that women should be more sensitive than men to threats of informational aggression. [5]

Women are intelligent organisms whose purposeful activities have evolutionary significance.[6]  Human communication capabilities affect not only humans’ success in competition with other species, but also competition among humans.  Indirect aggression or informational aggression and attacks on reputation makes sense within social-evolutionary understanding of humans.

An abstract concept of reputation, however, does not relate well to empirical knowledge about actual practices of communicative competition.  Consider this hypothesis:

Compared to men, a greater fraction of female reputation depends on difficult-to-confirm dimensions of reputation [7]

Because reputation has many possible dimensions, evidence relevant to this hypothesis isn’t easy to assess.  Moreover, the implications of different dimensions of reputation depend on the particular circumstances under consideration.  A woman’s reputation for being easily sexually accessible might have positive value in competition among women for copulations with males, but negative value in competition among women for male parental investment.  Competition among daughters for maternal resources is one possible type of competition.  Competition among daughters for life-long male mates is another.  The balance between these two forms of competition and the distribution of resources between women and men affects whether a reputation of loyalty to one’s mother has positive or negative overall reproductive value for women.

Indirect aggression is becoming more important with the expansion of communication networks.   Competition among women and men is primarily intrasexual.  Women’s indirect aggression is primarily directed at other women.  Yet women increasingly believe that their most important rivals are men.  Greater indirect aggression in the context of intersexual competition is likely to contribute to women’s dominance.

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Read more:


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

[2] Hess & Hagen (2006) p. 112.

[3] Campbell (2002) and Taylor et al. (2000) emphasize the cost of physical aggression to women.

[4] Archer & Coyne (2005) pp. 223, 225. 226.  Sex differences in indirect aggression among adults aren’t well-documented.  Hess & Hagen (2006) found that, compared to young men, young women expressed a stronger desire to aggress indirectly.  Women’s indirect aggression can be seen, for example, in scholarly work concerning the French Revolution, evolutionary psychology, violence against men, and rape of men.

[5] Hess & Hagen (2006) p. 66.  See also Hess & Hagen (2003).

[6] Exposition of this obvious point is central to the work of the influential scholars Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Anne Campbell.

[7] Hess & Hagen (2006) p. 60.  See also Hess & Hagen (2003).

[image] Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, French, c. 1880.  In The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.  Thanks to Google Art Project and Wikipedia.  The sex differences in social communication depicted in this painting differ from general patterns of sex differences in communication found in social-scientific studies.


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

Archer, John and Sarah M. Coyne. 2005. “An Integrated Review of Indirect, Relational, and Social Aggression.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 9(3): 212-230.

Campbell, Anne. 2002.  A mind of her own : the evolutionary psychology of women. Oxford ; New York, Oxford University Press.

Hess, Nicole H. and Edward H. Hagen. 2006. “Informational Warfare.”

Hess, Nicole H. and Edward H. Hagen. 2006. “Sex Differences in indirect aggression: Psychological evidence from young adults.” Evolution and Human Behavior 27: 231-245.

Taylor, Shelley E., Laura Cousino Klein, Brian P. Lewis, Tara L. Gruenewald, Regan A.R. Gurung and John A. Updegraff (2000). “Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females: Tend-and-Befriend, not Fight-or-Flight.” Psychological Review 107(3): 411-429.


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