play of contrasts in Dhuoda’s learned work

Amerika by Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival

Near the beginning of Liber Manualis, the learned Duchess Dhuoda wrote to her fifteen-year-old son, “You and I must quest for God, my son.” To him she declared her unworthiness and feebleness. She then offered a metaphor:

Now it sometimes happens that a troublesome little female puppy among the other whelps under the master’s table can seize and devour the crumbs that fall. He who made the mouth of a dumb animal speak has the power, according to his mercy from of old, to open my senses and give me understanding. … At least I may gaze from under his table, that is to say, within the Holy Church, at the little male whelps in the distance, those who are ministers to the sacred altars. From among the crumbs, I shall be able to gather — by spiritual wisdom — for myself and you, William, my beautiful son, words that are beautiful and luminous and worthy.[1]

William probably wouldn’t have understand well his mother as a “troublesome little female puppy.” A sense of Dhuoda’s inadequacy is only the beginning of her meaning. Her metaphor grows into much different understanding.

Dhuoda’s metaphor discards worldly distinctions in the quest for God. Dhuoda’s metaphor doesn’t hierarchically distinguish priests, herself, and her son. Dhuoda, not “ministers to the sacred altars,” acts to serve William. Dhuoda’s reference to making a dumb animal speak comes from a similar self-reference by the eminent bishop Gregory of Tours.[2] In Dhuoda’s metaphor, the male priests are, like her, whelps within the mother Holy Church. Dhuoda’s metaphor is based on the biblical pericope of the Canaanite woman and Jesus. That pericope is plausibly interpreted as showing Jesus mocking his disciples’ arrogance. The Canaanite woman, tried in ways that didn’t demean pagan heroes, emerged as a Christian hero in service to her daughter. Dhuoda wanted to be such a woman for her son William.

With considerable literary skill, Dhuoda mocked a writer’s figure of  professional self-importance. A classical Sanskrit text from roughly 2000 years ago declares:

if the whole sea were filled with ink, and the earth made of paper, and all the inhabitants of the terrestrial globe were only employed in writing, that would not suffice to give an exact account of all the miracles Krishha has performed [3]

One of the earliest and most secure jobs for persons with literary learning has been and remains to recognize, support, and praise the important and great acts of a patron. Implicit in the “sea of ink” figure is the importance of the writer’s job. Dhuoda ridiculously expanded the writer’s figure of professional self-importance and balanced it with an expansive description of God’s greatness:

if heaven and earth were extended through the sky like a charter on a spread-out sheet of parchment, and if all the gulfs of the sea were transformed, tinged like inks of many colors, and if all the earth’s inhabitants born in the world from the beginning until now were — through some increase of human wisdom, an impossibility contrary to nature — writers, they would not be able to capture the grandeur, the breadth, the loftiness, and be able to tell of the depth, of the sublimity and divinity, and wisdom, and goodness, and mercy of him who is called God.[4]

Dhuoda’s literary reconstruction of the “sea of ink” figure preceded by more than a millennium a related deconstruction of it by the celebrated U.S. public figure Oliver Wendall Holmes. In 1890, he wrote:

If all the trees in all the woods were men,
And each and every blade of grass a pen;
If every leaf on every shrub and tree
Turned to a sheet of foolscap; every sea
Were changed to ink, and all the earth’s living tribes
Had nothing else to do but act as scribes,
And for ten thousand ages, day and night,
The human race should write, and write and write,
Till all the pens and paper were used up,
And the huge inkstand was an empty cup,
Still would the scribblers clustered round its brink
Call for more pens, more paper, and more ink.[5]

Dhuoda was more subtle than Holmes, and less cynical. She also seems to have truly believed that God is great and uncircumscribable.[6]

Dhuoda’s discussion of fornication includes a subtle, playful contrast. The headline contrast seems to be a highly formulaic contrast between fornication and chastity. Dhuoda gave her son relevant biblical wisdom:

Avoid fornication, my son, and drive your thoughts away from any harlot woman.[7]

She also implicitly acknowledged the difficulty of following that wisdom. Since eyes may stray, she counseled William to have inner strength. She also warned of the sexual “shamelessness of women,” implicitly meaning some women in particular circumstances. When women illicitly approach lustfully, she urged him, “Fend them off!” Sexuality in marriage is a sharply contrasting affair. Dhuoda enumerated holy biblical men who married and had children. She joyfully envisioned William having children. Dhuoda commended as husbands:

{men} who soldiered within the marriage-bed and applied themselves to keeping a heart pure in Christ.[8]

The late-eighth-century Arabic text Bilauhar and Budasaf described a knight who recognized his foremost martial-marital responsibility: to be always ready to satisfy his wife’s sexual desire, lest she stray from the marriage bed. Whether Dhuoda knew that story or a similar story is lost in history. But even without that context, her marital advice to her young, unmarried son has personal sparkle.

Dhuoda’s love for her son is at the core of her writing for him. Her writing conveys the immediacy of a specific relation of love. Yet Dhuoda is also a subtle, complex writer. She offers a sophisticated, Trinitarian understanding of love and much joy in play of contrasts.

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[1] Dhuoda, Liber manualis, 1.2, from Latin trans. Thiébaux (1998) p. 61. I’ve changed “its master’s table” to “the master’s table” to indicate that the master is the master of all the whelps. Similarly, I’ve changed “their crumbs” to “the crumbs”: the crumbs are from the master for everyone. The word for whelps is catulos. That can mean either whelps in general or male whelps specifically. The second instance of that word refers to “ministers of the sacred altars.” For that instance only, I’ve replaced “whelps” with “male whelps.” Subsequent text from Liber manualis is from id., with some minor changes I’ve made.

[2] Dronke (1984) pp. 49-50, with additional explanation printed in Thiébaux (1998) p. 242, n. 7. Dronke notes “certain fundamental tensions in what Dhuoda says.”

[3] For source notes, see my post, “sea of ink: writing across Eurasia,” note [3].

[4] Liber manualis, 1.6, pp. 67-8. The translation above incorporates the adaptation of Nelson (2007) p. 117, inc. n. 48.

[5] Oliver Wendall Holmes, Sr. “Cacoethes Scribendi.

[6] That the fullness of God is all encompassing and beyond human understanding is a theme in Dhuoda’s work. Liber manualis, Bk 1-2.

[7] Liber manualis, 4.6, p. 143.

[8] Id. 4.6, pp. 143, 145. I’ve adapted Nelson’s correction of Thiébaux’s minor translation error. Nelson (2007) p. 115, n. 42. Dhuoda referred to the “shameless of women” in the context of Potiphar’s wife accosting Joseph and then falsely accusing him of rape. Liber manualis, 3.3, p. 91. “Fend them off” is from id. 4.6, p. 143.

[image] Amerika — A Refuge, detail. Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), Acrylic paint on printed paper on canvas, 1990-91, 91.34, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC.


Dronke, Peter. 1984. Women writers of the Middle Ages: a critical study of texts from Perpetua († 203) to Marguerite Porete († 1310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nelson, Janet L. 2007. “Dhuoda.” Pp. 106-20 in Wormald, Patrick, and Janet L. Nelson. Lay intellectuals in the Carolingian world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thiébaux, Marcelle, trans. 1998. Dhuoda. Liber manualis: handbook for her warrior son. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Perpetua resolutely rejected her father’s pleas & got killed

wisdom of an ass

The formal Roman law of pater familias, like the social construction of patriarchal understanding, suppressed and silenced the lived experience of almost all fathers. The public record has largely worked to support the dominant public ideology.  Yet occasionally a transgressive challenge has appeared at the margins of public discourse. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity was such a challenge. In it, Perpetua described the socially marginalized reality of a daughter’s relationship with her father.

When she was arrested on suspicion of being a Christian, Perpetua was about twenty-two years old. She was “well-born, liberally educated, and honorably married.” Although breast-feeding a child, she made time to write. She left a precious, first-person diary of her experiences in prison and on trial. She understood the public importance of what she was doing. Unable to write about her own execution, she wrote “let whoever wishes to write about it, do so.” Her writing should be taken seriously.[1]

The first words of Perpetua’s prison diary describe her father’s love for her. Her father knew that she was planning to declare herself a Christian and be killed. Perpetua wrote, “my father, because of his love for me, wanted to change my mind and shake my resolve.” He tried to argue with her. That of course was futile. He got angry, got in her face, and glared at her furiously.[2] Then he left, having failed to dissuade his daughter from getting herself killed. He stopped coming to her in prison for the next few days. She seemed to have been pleased with her success in turning away her father’s love. She wrote that she was “refreshed by my father’s absence.” In reality, daughters often don’t appreciate their father’s love.

Perpetua’s father tried again to save her. He was “worn with worry” for her. Rather than attempting arguing, he sought her pity:

My daughter, have pity on my gray hair, have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be called father by you, if with these hands I have raised you to this flower of youth, if I have preferred you to all your brothers, do not shame me among men.

He also reminded her of her importance to other members of their family:

Think about your brothers, think about your mother and your mother’s sister, think about your son who will not be able to live without you. Give up your pride; do not destroy us all. For, if you are punished, none of us will be able to speak freely again.

Perpetua noted that her father acted as a suppliant to her:

My father said these things to me, as a father would, out of his love for me, kissing my hands and throwing himself at my feet. Weeping, he no longer called me daughter, but lady.[3]

These weren’t one father’s extraordinary actions. Perpetua recognized that her father acted “as a father would, out of his love” for his daughter. Perpetua understood that the formal Roman law of pater familias and pater potestas was nonsense.

Fully engaged in care for children from the cradle to adulthood, Perpetua’s father took custody of his baby grandson and cared for him. Biologically he was incapable of breast-feeding the child. However, in the Roman Empire, upper-class families commonly hired wet-nurses for their children.[4] At the same time, oppressive gender norms imposed on men nearly all the responsibility for earning money to support the household. That included providing money for purchasing the services of a wet-nurse. Perpetua’s words implicitly indicated the double-burden of child-care and money-earning that fathers carried. Perpetua’s father desperately reminded Perpetua that he and his grandson — her baby son — would be crushed under the double burden of fathers’ work.

Perpetua’s father desperately intervened in her trial. He grabbed hold of Perpetua and attempted to pull her to safety. Disregarding his own life, he pleaded to Perpetua for the life of her child:

Offer the sacrifice. Have pity on your baby.

The presiding Roman official took up her father’s plea and rightfully incorporated her father in it. The Roman official declared to Perpetua:

Spare the gray hair of your father, spare your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the health of the emperors.[5]

In words that fathers in real life have often heard, Perpetua resolutely responded, “I will not.” Under official questioning, she then affirmed that she was a Christian. That meant death for her. Perpetua choosing death also meant that her infant son would most likely die and that her father would suffer terrible pain, if not death from sorrow and grief. In contrast to the Roman official inserting respect for Perpetua’s father in his plea to Perpetua, the father, out of love and grief for his daughter, in turn disrespected the Roman official. He defied the official proceeding and insistently and continually pleaded with his daughter. The Roman official ordered Perpetua’s father to be “thrown to the ground and beaten with a rod.” That’s extraordinarily harsh and demeaning treatment of a elite Roman citizen.[6] Fathers’ love for children is less strongly supported publicly than is mothers’ love for children. That gender inequality reflects the underlying gynocentrism of human society.

Perpetua’s father was acutely concerned for his grandson’s welfare. After the trial, he retained custody of the baby. That’s extraordinary under formal Roman family law.[7] Perpetua seemed relatively unconcerned about the child’s welfare. Her account is unclear about whether or not the child was with her at particular points in her prison stay.[7] Roman prisons were harsh, disease-ridden places. Perpetua’s father apparently was determined to do the very best he could for his baby grandson.

Perpetua’s father grieved inconsolably about his daughter’s rejection of his pleas and her impending death. Perpetua wrote that after she was sentenced to death:

my father, devastated with worry, came to visit me, and he began to tear out his beard and to throw it on the ground. He then threw himself on his face and, cursing his years, spoke such words to me as might move creation itself [8]

Her father’s grief took Jewish or Jewish-Christian forms. Sacrificing to Roman gods may well have been abhorrent to him.[9] But Perpetua’s father valued his daughter’s life and his grandson’s life far above formal religious ritual. Perpetua grieved for her father’s “unhappy old age.” She didn’t change her life course. She included in her diary two visions that she had about herself. She didn’t have any visions about her father and her young son.

Just as for fathers and daughters throughout history, ancient Roman fathers could tell their daughters what to do. And daughters could do what that they wanted to do, even onto death. That’s the reality underneath the ideology of pater familias and the social construction of patriarchal understanding. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity has generated an enormous volume of scholarship.[10] That scholarship largely celebrates Perpetua’s actions and ignores her father. One scholar reflected:

This is one of the very rare pieces written by a female hand that is known from antiquity. It was, even in its own day, a small and fragile thing. Yet even this exiguous voice could not be left alone. From the very start it was buried under an avalanche of male interpretations, rereadings, and distortions. What chance, one must wonder, was there for Perpetua to tell her story? Despite all this, there is that other demon – hope. Perpetua’s words are still with us. Her experiences, her thoughts and her visions have, after all, survived.[11]

This “poor dear” understanding of Perpetua (creating a “small and fragile thing”; “buried under an avalanche”; those other men are treating her badly!) is a common pattern of men’s thinking from present-day academic officials, to twelfth-century monks meditating on Mary Magdalene at Jesus tomb, probably back to the first man who had a daughter. Such understanding has perpetuated falsehoods and injustices right up to the present.

Perpetua wrote inspired, revelatory words about her relationship to her father. Those words deserve to be heard throughout the world and taken seriously.[12] Perpetua’s publicly written words are important even if most persons, in their own personal life, already know them.

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[1] The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity (Passio Sanctarum Pertetuae et Felicitatis), from Latin trans. Heffernan (2012): “well-born, liberally educated, and honorably married,” II, p. 126; “let whoever wishes to write about it, do so,” X, p. 130. All subsequent quotes from the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity (Passion) are in translation from id., by text section and page number. A translation by R.E. Wallis (1925) is freely available online, as is the translation of Musurillo (1972). Here’s an online review of a few manuscripts. Id. Appendix 1 provides a thorough review of the manuscripts, with some photos of them. The Latin original for the first quote is prefaced by fuller name for Perpetua, “Vibia Perpetua, honeste nata, liberaliter instituta, matronaliter nupta.” Vibia appears to be her nomen, and Perpetua her cognomen. “The Vibbi, attested both in North Africa and in Italy, were a large family of some distinction.” Id. p. 105 (Latin text), 150 (Commentary).

[2] Passion, III, p. 126. A sentence in this section is translated literally: “Then my father, angered by this name {Christian}, threw himself at me, in order to gouge out my eyes.” Some have interpreted this sentence to imply that Perpetua’s father actually assaulted her physically. That’s as ridiculous as believing that her father could literally throw himself. Heffernan (2012) Commentary, p. 157, states:

Her father’s behavior frightened her. She was uncertain, if only for an instant, if he would attack her.

That highly conjectural and highly implausible given the figurative language that Perpetua uses and the sophisticated literary context.

[3] Id. V, pp. 127-8. The word “lady” translates dominam, a term of respect for a woman.

[4] Cooper (2011) p. 688.

[5] Passion, VI, p. 128. Dronke (1985), p. 5, declares that Perpetua’s father “is claiming her with possessive love.” That’s an uncharitable, other-worldly interpretation.

[6] In the redactor’s introduction (II), Perpetua is described as honeste nata (well-born). That indicates that Perpetua was of the upper honestiores class. Heffernan (2012), Commentary, p. 150. Persons of that class weren’t subject to corporal punishment under Roman law. Cooper (2011) p. 694.

[7] Cooper (2011) pp. 688-9.

[7] In Passion, III, Perpetua initially had her baby in prison. There she worried about the conditions for him and nursed him. Then she entrusted her baby to her mother and brother. Then she arranged to have the baby stay with her again in prison. She expressed delight to have her baby with her. Then, with no further remarks on the matter from Perpetua, her father showed up with the baby in a visit to her (Passion, V).

[8] Id, IX, p. 129.

[9] Heffernam (2012), p. 28, observed, “his behavior reminds one more of an ancient Jew than a Roman male.” If Perpetua’s father was Jewish or Jewish-Christian, sacrificing to Roman gods would have been abhorrent to him.

[10] Bremmer & Formisano (2012) presents recent work. It’s a collection of papers resulting from a 2007 scholarly conference on the Passion. While offering scant consideration of Perpetua’s father, it features on its front cover Gustav Klimt’s Danaë. The Danaë erotically aroused by Zeus’ golden shower here seems meant to suggest Perpetua’s passion for God.  Caroline Walker Bynum noted that she and colleagues taught the Passion “as part of the required syllabus in Columbia University’s western civilization course in the mid-1990s.” She also described the cover of Bremmer & Formisano (2012) as an “egregious misjudgment.” Bynum (2013) p. 135. Friesen (2014) documents pernicious effects of narrow-minded scholarship and teaching about the Passion.

[11] Shaw (1993) p. 45.

[12] Heffernan’s magisterial critical edition of the Passion states:

This Roman father, however, does not behave like an elite Roman male. He overturns all our stereotypical understanding of the paterfamilias. … They {Perpetua’s descriptions of her interactions with her father} are the only records which depict such interactions, and should be read with some skepticism.

Heffernan (2012) p. 26. There are no other such ancient Roman records of a daughter documenting in detail tense, momentous interactions with her father. Perpetua’s words should be evaluated with respect to common life experiences of fathers and daughters. Skepticism should be directed at stereotypical understandings of gender relations. One might also be skeptical of the claim in id., p. 38, that Perpetua read and alluded to Plato’s Cratylus. In Roman competition for honor, members of the domus were interested in shielding the pater familias from shame. However, “Perpetua’s self-understanding as a Christian visionary allowed her to expose what the better-socialized members of her family preferred to hide.” Cooper (2007), p. 8.

[image] Balaam, the Angel and the Ass. Woodcut, 1493. Nuremberg Chronicle, f. 30r. Thanks to Wikicommons. For the underlying biblical narrative, Numbers 22-24.


Bremmer, Jan N., and Marco Formisano, eds. 2012. Perpetua’s passions: multidisciplinary approaches to the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. 2013. “The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity / Perpetua’s Passions: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the “Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis.” Common Knowledge. 20 (1): 134-135.

Cooper, Kate. 2007. “Closely Watched Households: Visibility, Exposure and Private Power in the Roman Domus.” Past and Present. 197 (1): 3-33.

Cooper, Kate. 2011. “A Father, a Daughter and a Procurator: Authority and Resistance in the Prison Memoir of Perpetua of Carthage.” Gender & History. 23 (3): 685–702.

Dronke, Peter. 1984. Women writers of the Middle Ages: a critical study of texts from Perpetua († 203) to Marguerite Porete († 1310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Friesen, Gabrielle. 2014. “Perpetua Before the Crowd: Martyrdom and Memory in Roman North Africa.” University of Colorado, Boulder. Undergraduate Honors Theses.

Heffernan, Thomas J. 2012. The passion of Perpetua and Felicity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shaw, Brent D. 1993. “The Passion of Perpetua.” Past & Present. 139 (1): 3-45.

from Dhuoda to her son William: loving touch in text

handcraft from Dhuoda to William

Incipit textus. The text begins. So begins the one surviving text that Dhuoda wrote for her fifteen-year-old son William. Dhuoda had decades of experience in the high politics of ninth-century Carolingian royal courts. In tense political circumstances, Dhuoda’s husband had placed William in sworn military service to the new Carolingian king. William needed skills that 800 years later would be called statecraft. Rather than merely tutoring him in statecraft, Dhuoda gave to her son William a way of being: a text for success in this world and the world to come.

Naming Dhuoda’s text in English provides an insightful exercise in understanding Dhuoda. For Dhuoda, names weren’t merely conventional, but carried essential significance. Dhuoda’s third word following “Incipit textus” described her text as libellus (little book). She described her little book as revealing a threefold design: Norma, Forma et Manualis. Further indicating her deeply Trinitarian orientation, Dhuoda also used the word Manualis to refer to her whole text. Even before ending her text’s prefatory text, she additionally referred to it as liber (book), opus (work), and codex (a book of bound pages), as well as various combinations and diminutives of these words. Her prefatory text includes an elaborated naming:

Incipit liber Dhuodane Manualis quem ad filium suum transmisit Wilhelmum.
{Here begins the book Dhuoda’s Handcraft which she has sent to her son William.}[1]

The text concludes with a reference to libellus (little book) and then an elaborated naming in a haunting chiasmus:

Finit hic, Deo gratias, liber Manualis Wilhelmi, in eo quod ait Evangelium: Consumatum est.
{Here ends, thanks be to God, the book of Handcraft for William, in the words the Gospel speaks: “It is finished.”[2]

The diverse forms that begin and end Dhuoda’s text tend to be interpreted as indicating her shyness, reticence, or uncertainty, or as a gesture of maternal swaddling.[3] Those diverse forms are better understood as indicating her literary sophistication in representing the all-encompassing personal breadth of her relation to her son William.

Dhuoda expected persons other than William to encounter her text. The intimacy of the text’s personal address to William doesn’t limit it to his solitary reading. Another might have another read aloud to William and his fellow soldiers, who would then together discuss and re-read the relevant passage. William might read a section to his younger brother. The text might be passed down in William’s family, with his children reading it to their children.[4] In addressing William, Dhuoda mentions “those to whom you show this little book for the purpose of study.” She instructs William that when his younger brother reaches the age of “speaking and reading,” to urge him to read the text. Just before writing the epitaph that she fervently asks William to have inscribed for her, she writes:

As for those who will some day read this Handcraft which you are reading, let them also meditate on what follows [5]

Her epitaph calls upon persons of any age and sex to pray for her. That plea is within the universal Christian understanding of personal sinfulness and of personal hope for redemption. Everyone is invited to travel the Christian way, yet that way is deeply personal. Dhuoda’s text similarly allows everyone to enter into her deeply personal love for her son William.

Scholarly objectification and analysis of Dhuoda’s work has given it names. The leading Latin-English edition of her text has on its title page Dhuoda, Handbook for her Warrior Son / Liber manualis.[6] But Dhuoda wasn’t writing foremost about Dhuoda. The term “handbook” is objective and commodified in a way that Dhuoda’s handcraft isn’t. Dhuoda wrote to her son William. That William was in active military service had little specific significance to her. Dhuoda referred to her text as Liber manualis. She also referred to it as libellum moralis and many other varying terms.[7]

Dhuoda’s play with her own references to her text direct attention to her and to her insistently addressing the text to her son William. Dhuoda’s handcraft of writing made her text available to others, including us in our far distant world. Having received it and read it, we should realize its meaning is inextricably related to being from Dhuoda to her son William.[8]

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[1] Dhuoda, Liber manualis, second prefatory section, headed “In the name of the Holy Trinity,” Thiébaux (1998) pp. 42-3, Latin and English translation. I have modified the translation slightly based on my sense of a better translation. All quotations from Liber manualis are by book.section and page in id.

[2] Id. 11.2, pp. 238-9, with English translation modified slightly.

[3] Dronke stated:

It is as though a series of barriers had to be surmounted before Dhuoda felt the confidence to set out a discussion freely and directly. The prolegomena are, as it were, so many hesitations about embarking upon the rôle of instructress; at the same time they constitute the writer’s way of gaining assurance towards that rôle, of getting her bearings in it.

Dronke (1984) p. 39. “Dhuoda begins her work again and again, as if shyly.” Neel (1991) p. 114, n 18. “The mother’s gift to her son must be wrapped, enfolded, swaddled in protective layers of greetings, and leavetakings.” Thiébaux (1998) intro., p. 34.

[4] Nelson (2011), p. 44, insightfully suggests that Dhuoda and William read the psalter together. I’m grateful to Jonathan Jarrett for pointing me to this reference.

[5] Liber manualis, 10.6, p. 229. Previous quotes: “those to whom you show this little book”, 1.1, p. 59; urge little brother to read it, 1.7, p. 71. In a shift toward introspective address, Dhuoda wrote at the end of her prefatory verses:

With Christ’s help I shall embark on the work I have begun for my children.

Id. p. 47. Yet the verses themselves are explicitly addressed to one particular child, William. The later reference “for my children” (ad prolem) is probably best understood in the dynastic sense of offspring.

[6] Thiébaux (1998). Libraries, e.g. the Library of Congress, cataloged it with the title Liber manualis: handbook for her warrior son.

[7] For “libellum moralis,” 1.7, p. 68.

[8] Asking “was Dhuoda also an intellectual in Raymond Williams’ sense, in Bourdieu’s sense, in our sense?” {emphasis in original}, Nelson answered:

She wrote, in short, not only as a mother for her son (and that repeated invocation of him is itself perhaps a bit of literary legerdemain), but as a would-be giver of a second birth in the mind and spirit to other women’s sons.

Nelson (2007), pp. 117, 121-2. That answer obscures the possibility of second-personal address having broad, communal significance.

[image] Hand of the Lord above the Chariot of Abinabad, f. 39r, Morgan Picture Bible, 1240s, France. MS M. 638, Morgan Library, New York.


Dronke, Peter. 1984. Women writers of the Middle Ages: a critical study of texts from Perpetua († 203) to Marguerite Porete († 1310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Neel, Carol, trans. 1991. Dhuoda. Handbook for William: a Carolingian woman’s counsel for her son. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Nelson, Janet L. 2007. “Dhuoda.” Pp. 106-20 in Wormald, Patrick, and Janet L. Nelson. Lay intellectuals in the Carolingian world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nelson, Janet L. 2011. “Dhuoda on Dreams.” Pp. 41-54 in Conrad Leyser and Lesley Smith. Motherhood, religion, and society in medieval Europe, 400-1400: essays presented to Henrietta Leyser. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.

Thiébaux, Marcelle, trans. 1998. Dhuoda, Handbook for her Warrior Son: Liber manualis. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Liber Manualis: mother wanted perfect son & provided handbook

representing Dhuoda, Liber Manualis, and her son

Image a mother writing to her fifteen-year-old son: “I urge you to be a perfect man. … And I would show you how to become such a man with God’s help.” Her son was already in active military service. She declared to him that she would be “your mentor in all things.” Those aren’t the words of a delusional single mother from Hell. They are the words of Dhuoda.[1]

Dhuoda loved and appreciated men personally. She was intensely loyal to her husband and two sons. Since Dhuoda shouldered significant administrative burdens in the ninth-century European royal court of Louis the Pious, she undoubtedly knew well men outside of her immediate family.[2] But the burdens of public work and divisions of gender meant less to Dhuoda than her relation to her son. She confessed her weaknesses and failings to her son.[3] She nonetheless believed that she could, with God’s help, show her son how to be a perfect man. Such a man, “traversing the earth, tramples mud and clay underfoot because of his worthy merits.” Men traversing the earth could be treasures far above earthen vessels. She wanted her “noble boy” to be such a man: “I wish you to show him to me.”[4]

Dhuoda’s love for her son was deeply Trinitarian. Not actually attempting to be his mentor in all things, she demurred from explicating for him the Holy Trinity:

The Holy Trinity, then, as we read, my son, encompasses Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What I might be capable of composing for you in this portion of my little book, I neither dare, nor have the right. Read the volumes of the orthodox Fathers, and you’ll find what the Trinity is.

Dhuoda described understanding of the Holy Trinity as arising in holy Fathers’ mirror vision:

Many among them contemplated as in a mirror the figure of the Holy Trinity, before the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and they confessed and worshiped the Most High. So it is told that one of them, while seated beneath the oak of Mamre, saw three men coming down the road toward him. Gazing on them as the semblance of the highest Trinity, he speaks to the three as one, and so on. “He saw three, and worshiped one.” One in three and three in one, that is the Trinity.

Dhuoda also recognized the Trinity in threefold patterns of words. Showing confidence in her son’s capacity to perceive what she didn’t mention explicitly, Dhuoda wrote:

another among the Fathers, whose name I believe is not hidden from you, expressed himself this way in one of his poems, saying, “May God bless us, our God, may God bless us!” The first time he says ‘God,’ he means the Father. The second time he says ‘God,’ he means the Son. The third time he says ‘God,’ he means the Holy Spirit.[5]

Dhuoda didn’t understand the Trinity atomistically. Discussing the Trinity led her to writing on hope, faith, and love. She quoted the Apostle Paul, “There are three things — hope, faith, and love –and the greatest of these is love.”[6] Like the Libro de buen amor, Dhuoda’s book is generically diverse. The unity is in love.

Dhuoda didn’t believe in or impose on her son an oppressive, totalizing ideology of matriarchy. Trinitarian love is key to understanding the mysterious beginning of her text for her son:

This little book has been set up to reveal a threefold design. Read the whole work, and by the end you’ll be able to grasp it more fully. I want the three guidelines to be marked with equal emphasis in the very useful sequence of my teachings: Precepts, Form, and Handcraft. Each of these parts of the discourse pertains to us both in every way. Precepts come from me, the Form they realize is within you; Handcraft is as much from me as it is for you, composed by my hand and received in yours.[7]

Dhuoda summarized her little book of handcraft in a way that might evoke in a teenage boy tedium, misery, and chores:

hoc est sermo ex me, opus in te
{this is a speech from me, giving work to you}[8]

Elsewhere, however, Dhuoda summarized her handcraft more elaborately in a simile connecting response to the Holy Trinity to response to her work:

Sicut in hoc opusculo parvitatis meae inveneris, tene, crede, et opere comple
{(As with the Trinity) just as with what you have found in this little work of my insignificance — take it, believe in it, and complete the work}[9]

Dhuoda called her son to complete with her the work of living a life of love. Precepts, Form, Handcraft — Father, Son, Holy Spirit: these trinities express relationships of love. “Each of these parts of the discourse pertains to us both in every way.”[10] The Holy Spirit is Dhuoda’s love for her son and his love for her. It will be realized in the breath of her son reading aloud the handcraft that he received in his hands from her. The Precepts are from God for Dhuoda and her son. The work of realizing the Precepts in this world gives Dhuoda and her son the Form of the Son. If that seems mysterious, just understand that it mirrors the Holy Trinity.[11] It’s not about authority, but about love.

For Dhuoda, Godly love is inextricably associated with worldly joy. She began her text with the Trinitarian description of its design. Following that she wrote, “In the name of the Holy Trinity.” Then she wrote more clearly in a variety of ways. She wrote a simple section of longing and concern for her son. She wrote acrostic verses spelling, “Dhuoda, to her beloved son William. Read!” Far from sermonizing, she wrote heartwarming blessings for her son:

In jubilant joy, may he run a glad course,
shining with virtue and reaching the heights.
Obtaining all just things — may this be his aim
You who give without scorn, grant him good sense
Verily to know you, to believe you, to love you,
and praise you with redoubled thanks, Holy One.
Visit upon him your bounteous grace,
with peace and safety of body and mind.
In this world may he and his children flourish,
and have good things here, while not losing them there.[12]

Dhuoda complemented the profundity of her Trinitarian design with figures of simple pleasure:

The game of backgammon, among other pleasurable pursuits, is agreed to be a most congenial and apt pastime for young people. And some women will customarily peer at their own faces in the mirror so that they may cleanse away the spots of dirt and show themselves radiant and, in a worldly way, give pleasure to their husbands. In just such a way, I would like you, in spite of the pressures of your worldly occupations, to give your devoted attention — for my sake — to the reading of this little book which I have addressed to you. Give it that same degree of attention and zeal that others give to looking in the mirror or playing backgammon.[13]

That last line is better interpreted as subtly playful, rather than sarcastic. Dhuoda’s text has similarities to a mirror for princes. She almost surely was familiar with the mirror for princes genre.[14] Love can be a simple pleasure, like playing backgammon or pleasing your spouse. Whether rewriting an Ovidian love elegy or advising her son to take as “mistress” of his fleshly birth “the Greek system of numerical calculation,” Dhuoda subtly played with the popular mirror for princes genre to express love and joy.[15]

The mirror for princes genre concerns seeing yourself  in the other. That’s a common human mode of personal imposition. Dhuoda was a holy, loving mother, as well as an elite public figure in the ninth-century Frankish royal court of Charlemagne’s son. Rather than offering her son a conventional mirror for princes, she lovingly offered him a mirrored Trinity of relationships: Father, Son, Holy Spirit — Precepts, Form, Handicraft.

Dhuoda didn’t seek to circumscribe Williams’ development. She encouraged him to pursue a broad course of book learning. She urged him to cultivate friendships with young and old men. She implored, “learn all that you can from men who are great and intellectually able.” She showed William that he could learn from behavior of animals such as stags and doves.[16] Dhuoda was Williams’ mentor in all thing in the fullness of her Christian love.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Dhuoda, Liber Manualis (Book of Handcraft), “The chapters of this book” & 6.2 (be perfect man), 7.1 (active military service), 11.1 (mentor in all things), from Latin trans. Thiébaux (1998) pp. 55, 185, 191, 233. Id. includes the Latin text. All subsequent quotes are from id. with minor changes reflecting my sense of better translation. Neel (1991) provides an alternate English translation. Dhuoda’s text has prompted monstrous interpretations of her:

Once “entombed,” Dhuoda continues her utterances from the vantage point of the next world, all the while perpetuating her authorial stance. … The stratagem of the epitaph seems paradoxically to energize the speaker, to reaffirm her creative vitality. The unextinguishable mother rises up out of the grave, exhuming herself to start a new chapter, for now she must instruct William on the Psalms!

Thiébaux (1998) intro., p. 34. The son to whom Dhuoda wrote was William. A early medieval scholar declared:

William could have been a highly placed and a lifelong adviser to the king if things had worked out differently. Perhaps, if William had followed the examples his mother provided on giving advice at court, things would have.

Chandler (2010), p. 271. Dhuoda was far from a guilt-tripping parent. She cannot fairly be imagined to have ever uttered a “if you had just listened to me …” reproach after her husband or child experienced painful failure. Id. doesn’t suggest that she would have uttered such a reproach.

[2] Dhuoda, Liber Manualis, 10.4, id. pp.227. In 2012 Janet Nelson presented a paper at Oxford entitled, “Putting Dhuoda in Context.”  Jonathan Jarrett reported his impression of that paper:

Looking back at this paper, therefore, apart from the affection that Jinty {Professor Dame Janet Nelson} brought to her subject and which the capacity crowd demonstrated for her, what stands out for me is that if all we had was the career pattern, some kind of itinerary (which in fact we don’t have) and the odd reference in other texts, except for being married to a man this career would look like a respectable one for any courtier of the period: get educated at court, marry someone you met there, wind up with an administrative position for which you’re partly qualified by your ancestry in a difficult position during a time of civil war that ultimately costs you most of your family … I mean, there are male relatives of Bernard’s about whom we cannot say as much or even demonstrate them as important. Just because the title of countess was not yet used by powerful women of the Midi as it would be a century later doesn’t mean that we’re not looking at one of them when we read this text

Although titles like courtier or king typically haven’t been applied to women historically, women have always been intimately associated with power. One under-appreciated gender difference, however, is that men have been more likely to be killed, and their deaths have been of less social concern. A similar pattern also holds for rape.

[3] Dhuoda confessed that she was “sluggish in praising God.”  Id. 10.4, p. 225. She declared, “I, Dhuoda, slothful and negligent, fragile and always inclining toward the abyss, do not delight in prayers — not only long ones, but not even short ones.” Id. 2.2., p. 79. Regarding her instruction to William about God, she stated: “I am not able to deliver a wholly perfected discourse, nor have I the power, nor is it my responsibility.” Id. 1.4, p. 63.

[4] Id. 6.2, p. 185 (perfect man traversing the earth). Cf. 2 Corinthians 4:7. Dhuoda called her son’s attention to “him who formed you from clay.” Id. Prologue, p. 49. Dhuoda refers to Willam as “noble boy” (nobilis puer) four times. Id. 4.7, p. 145; 9.5, p. 215; 10.4, p. 227; 11.2, p. 237. “Show him {perfect man} to me.” Id. 6.2, p. 185. Isaiah 64:8 (“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; / we are the clay, and you are our potter; / we are all the work of your hand.”) excuses failings. Dhuoda’s Liber Manualis provides further handcraft to seek perfection.

[5] Id. 2.1, p. 73 (three prior quotes). The Psalm verse in contemporary numbering is Psalm 67:6-7. The Psalms are traditionally attributed to King David.

[6] Id. 2.2 p. 75.

[7] Id. Incipit textus, p. 41. I’ve used “Precepts, Form, and Handcraft” for the Latin “Norma, Forma et Manualis.” Thiébaux has “The Rule, the Form, and the Handbook.” After stating, “this little book in the form of handcraft consists of speech from me, giving work to you” (see subsequent text above), this section concludes pointing to God: “I have taken my work to its end in him who is called God.”

[8] Id. Incipit textus, p. 42, my Latin translation. Id. combines the relevant Latin into a broader clause: “this little book in the form of a handbook consists of words from me, and their actualization in you.”

[9] Id 2.1, p. 74, my Latin translation. Sicut (like / as) seems to me to be quite significant in context (see above). Thiébaux gives sicut no significance and has: “What you will have found in this little work of my insignificance — take it, believe in it, complete the task.” The translation in Neel (1991), p. 16, also gives sicut no significance.

[10] Id. Incipit textus, p. 41.

[11] Mayeski (1995), which addresses Dhuoda’s Christian understanding at length, fails to recognize Dhuoda’s original use of Trinitarian understanding:

Her book on the search for God is followed by some chapters on the Trinity and the theological virtues. Dhuoda seems greatly concerned that William’s understanding of this central Christian teaching be completely orthodox. Undoubtedly this is a reflection of the trinitarian controversies that had divided the Carolingian kingdom in the previous century, and Dhuoda’s thought contributes nothing original.

Id p. 58. Liber Manualis in modern published versions consists of 11 books. That division doesn’t imply that Dhuoda abandoned her “threefold design.” The division of Liber Manualis into 11 books is a modern textual convention.

[12] Dhuoda, Liber Manualis,verse inscription, p. 45. These verse in id. are indented as couplets. Blessing is an important component of Dhuoda’s work. A common pattern in Liber Manualis: Dhuoda offers precepts (moral rules of conduct) not of her own, but taken from scriptural texts and theologians, and then she invokes related blessings for William.

[13] Id. prologue, p. 49. Translating tabularum lusus and tabulis,  I’ve used the more specific “backgammon” rather than Thiébaux’s “game of tables” and “board game.” Cf. id. n. 23, p. 241 and p. 28.

[14] In addition to the women looking at their own faces in a mirror to see how to make themselves more beautiful for their husbands, Dhuoda refers to a mirror three other times. Immediately following the figure of the women looking at their own faces in a mirror, she writes:

You will find in this book in succinct form all that you want to know. You will also find in it a mirror, in which without a doubt you can fix your gaze upon the health of your soul.

Id. Prologue, p. 49. Another figure of mirror replaces William’s self with Dhuoda:

you have here as a memento of me this little book of moral counsels. And you can gaze upon me as an image in a mirror, by reading with mind and body and by praying to God

Id. 1.7, pp. 69. 70. The references to body and praying to God turn that figure away from visualizing a spiritual master. Dhuoda refers to Abraham “contemplating as in a mirror” the Holy Trinity in seeing three angels. Id. 2.1, p. 73. That’s not a simple typological figure. It presents Abraham as a typological interpreter avant la lettre (and before the New Testament) who is himself implicated in the mirroring. Taken together, Dhuoda’s figuring of a mirror is far from simple and conventional.

[15] Id. 7.1, p. 191, rewrites a quote from Ovid, Amores 3.11b. In Amores 3.11b, the poet’s voice laments that he is enslaved to his lover’s carnal beauty, but repelled by her lack of virtue. Dhuoda insist that William understand Ovid’s verse as meaning that spiritual and fleshly life cannot be separated: “The one cannot exist in the human race without the other.” Dhuoha’s brilliant re-writing of Ovid leads immediately into her witty figure of a mistress:

No one is ignorant of the fact that in our our first birth {in the flesh} each one of us is born in sin. You will gain an insight into this, to some extant, from the Greek system of numerical calculation, which I entreat you to learn. This is an art worthy of the most expert scholars and in all ways a mistress who will provide great illumination.

Id. 7.2, p. 191. Scholars have tended to under-appreciate Dhuoda’s joyful whimsy, while making her into much more of a contemporary over-bearing mother than her personal sophistication and deep Christian love suggest.

Dhuoda’s Handbook for William, then, presents itself as a source of consolation for a grieving mother. Through this work, she represents her influence on and her love for her absent children. … Dhuoda’s work belongs, like these, to the long-lived genre of the enchiridion or speculum, the moral handbook or mirror.

Neel (1991), introduction, pp. ix, xvii.

Her support of the patriarchy is unimpeachable; yet with all her humble protestations, she expresses a vigorous subtext of maternal authority. … Dhuoda endures as a mother’s voice from the grave, a mother’s mirrored image, her name and book in her own words.

Thiébaux (1998) pp. 3, 37.

Gender did not preclude Dhuoda’s writing for a public, nor the transmission of her work. … She wrote, in short, not only as a mother for her son (and that repeated invocation of him is itself perhaps a bit of literary legerdemain), but as a would-be giver of a second birth in the mind and spirit of other women’s sons.

Nelson (2007) pp. 119-20. Primate societies, which include human societies, have always been and still remain gynocentric. A self-absorbed, over-bearing mother is a microcosm of gynocentric society. But Dhuoda was no such a mother.

[16] Chandler (2010) makes clear that Dhuoda encouraged William to pursue a broad course of book learning. On cultivating friendships with young men and old men, Liber Manualis 3.5, p. 99; great men, id. 3.9. p. 109; stags, id. 3.10, p. 133, and doves, id. 4.1, p. 129.

[image] Composite work meant to evoke Dhuoda and her son. On left, portrait of Isabella of Portugal, from Portrait of Philip the Good and Isabella of Portugal, 16th century, oil on panel. On right, young nobleman, first half of 16th century, Portugal, oil on panel. Images thanks to Museum of Fine Arts (Ghent, Belgium), National Museum of Ancient Art (Lisbon, Portugal), and Wikicommons. Dhuoda lived in the ninth century. To some eyes, she and her son may have little resembled the image I have constructed to evoke them.


Chandler, Cullen J. 2010. “Barcelona BC 569 and a Carolingian programme on the virtues.” Early Medieval Europe. 18 (3): 265-291.

Mayeski, Marie Anne. 1995. Dhuoda: ninth century mother and theologian. Scranton: University of Scranton Press.

Neel, Carol, trans. 1991. Dhuoda. Handbook for William: a Carolingian woman’s counsel for her son. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Nelson, Janet L. 2007. “Dhuoda.” Pp. 106-20 in Wormald, Patrick, and Janet L. Nelson. Lay intellectuals in the Carolingian world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thiébaux, Marcelle, trans. 1998. Dhuoda. Liber manualis: handbook for her warrior son. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

how Thecla was saved from her evil mother and terrifying death

Although Thecla was engaged to Thamyris, she fell in love with Paul. Just hearing Paul speak captivated Thecla. It wasn’t her fault. It was just the way she felt.

Thecla’s mother was furious at her for being in love with Paul. Her mother called Thamyris to their house. That really wasn’t necessary. Everyone was weeping bitterly, pleading with Thecla, and berating her. So cruel. That’s not the way a mother should treat her daughter just because she doesn’t want to go through with a wedding because she loves someone else.

The situation got worse. Her mother accused Paul of upsetting the whole city of Iconium. Two of Thamyris’ friends, who also knew Paul, blatantly lied and said that Paul said that women and men shouldn’t sleep together. That’s crazy. Paul didn’t say that. Even the tyrants running our schools haven’t tried to totally end sex. Or gender. Whatever.

So, get this, Thecla’s mother got her in trouble with the Governor. The Governor called Thecla up and said:

Why dost thou not marry Thamyris, in accordance with the law of the Iconians?

Thecla said nothing and just stared at Paul. She is so in love with him! Then her evil mother, that witch, cried out:

Burn the wicked one; burn her who will not marry in the midst of the theatre, that all the women who have been taught by this man (she meant Paul) may be afraid!

While the Governor seemed to like Paul and listened to him gladly, he knew he couldn’t rule against a mother. So he condemned Thecla to be burned. A rainstorm put out the fire, thank God. Otherwise, she would have burned.

Thecla left home and went to be with Paul. After the way her mother treated her, how could she stay at home? Thecla had been everywhere in Iconium. I hate that place, too. She and Paul went to Antioch, which is a big city with great night life. Before they went to a restaurant or club, a creepy guy named Alexander hit on her. Right out in the open street, with Paul next to her! Thecla tore Alexander’s fancy clothes, knocked him in the head, and made him the laughing-stock of Antioch.

Thecla got in trouble with the authorities for that. Alexander had friends in high places and pulled strings to get back at her. So Thecla rejected that beast Alexander, and she got condemned to the beasts! A lot of women in Antioch stood up for Thecla. They cried out: “Evil judgement! Impious judgement!” And Queen Tryphaena, who was a close friend of the Emperor, befriended Thecla. Queen Tryphaena’s daughter had died. But her daughter spoke to her in a dream:

Mother, receive this stranger, the forsaken Thecla, in my place, that she may pray for me and I may come to the place of the just.

I always pray for all the souls of the faithful departed, and a queen hasn’t adopted me. Well, I haven’t been thrown to beasts, either. When they threw Thecla to the beasts, all the women sat together to watch. Some yelled: “Away with the sacrilegious person!” But other women yelled: “O that the city would be destroyed on account of this iniquity! Kill us all, proconsul; miserable spectacle, evil judgement!” Divided, the women couldn’t rule.

A lioness and God saved Thecla. Thecla was put in the arena, and beasts were sent at her. But the lioness lay down lovingly at her feet. When a bear tried to attack her, a man bear I’m sure, the lioness defended Thecla and tore the bear apart. Then Alexander sent his lion to attack Thecla, but the lioness defended her. Both the lion and the lioness died fighting. They fought a spectacularly bloody fight over Thecla. More beasts were sent at Thecla, but she jumped into a pit of water and was what the Christians call baptized. There was a lightening flash, and then all the seals that were going to eat her died. Thecla emerged in a cloud of fire. More beasts were sent at her. A lot of women were yelling and throwing fragrant plants at her so that the whole arena smelled like perfume. All the beasts were calm as if they were asleep. It was exciting and dreamy.

Then Alexander did something really awful. You know how guys seem to be driven by their balls? Well, Alexander tied Thecla to two bulls, then poked the bulls’ balls with a red-hot iron. They went wild.  But Thecla in her robe of flames burned through the ropes tying her to the bulls. She got away unharmed from the bulls.  Then Queen Tryphaena fainted. I thought I was going to faint, too. All the Queen’s maids yelled, “The Queen Tryphaena is dead!” Alexander became very afraid. He fell at the Governor’s feet and pleaded:

Have mercy upon me and upon the city and set the woman prisoner free, lest the city also be destroyed. For if Caesar should hear of these things, he may destroy the city along with us because his kinswoman, Queen Tryphaena, has died at the theatre gate.

Alexander couldn’t even stand up to Thecla. I knew the Queen’s maids could fool him.

The Governor decided to release Thecla to the maids. They all cried out in praise to God: “One is God, who has delivered Thecla.” The whole city was shaken by the maids’ cries. Thecla was saved from death. Queen Tryphaena returned to life. She said to Thecla:

Now I believe that the dead are raised up! Now I believe that my child lives! Come inside, and I will assign to you all that is mine.

Queen Tryphaena took Thecla into her big house and gave her jewels and luxurious robes. Now all us girls want to become Christians like Thecla.

*  *  *

Thecla, Paul, and Theocleia in fresco in Cave of St. Paul, near Ephesus

In the sixth century, in a cave reputed to be the place where the Apostle John had taken Mary, the mother of Jesus, a fresco was made of Thecla, Paul, and Thecla’s mother Theocleia. Theocleia stands to the viewer’s right of Paul. Theocleia’s hand has two fingers raised in a gesture signaling that she, like Paul, is seeking to teach Thecla. Some time later, someone scratched out Theocleia’s eyes and blacked out her two-fingers teaching gesture. That person passionately identified with Thecla’s love of Paul and despised Thecla’s evil mother Theocleia.

*  *  *  *

Read more:


The text above is adapted from the Acts of Paul and Thecla, written in Greek in the second century. Barrier (2009) provides a critical edition. The quotes above are from the translation of Elliott (1993), with minor modifications. A nineteenth-century English translation is available online in the Ante-Nicene Christian Library. A scholarly consensus now exists that a woman or a community of women wrote or created orally the Acts of Paul and Thecla prior to Tertullian’s apparent reference to a presbyter producing the Acts of Paul. Barrier (2009) p. 22.

The fresco shown above is in a cave, called the Cave of St. Paul, in Bülbüg Dag near Ephesus in present-day Turkey. The image of the fresco is fairly used from the Ephesus Foundation website. Crossan & Reed (2004), for its book cover, featured that fresco, tendentiously cropped and highlighted. That book’s preface declared:

An earlier image in which Thecla and Paul were equally authoritative apostolic figures has been replaced by one in which the male is apostolic and authoritative and the female is blinded and silenced. … here are our questions. Is Thecla still departing or now returning? Does a search for Paul push female leadership, authority, and apostolicity off to the side and finally off that cover, or does a search for Paul bring Thecla, women, and equality back steadily and inevitably into the light until female and male stand together side by side in the full life of the center?

Id. pp. xii-xiv. That’s only rhetorical posing. The figure on the viewer’s left is clearly Thecla at her window. The figure in the center is explicitly labeled in Greek as Paul, and the figure on the right, as ΘΕΟΚΛΙ (THEOCLI).  Hence the figure on the viewer’s right (on Paul’s left, with the left side having disparaging biblical significance) surely is Thecla’s mother Theocleia, not Thecla herself. The absurd analysis in Crossan & Reed (2004) is disseminated worldwide about a decade latter in a Wikicommons page featuring the fresco, tendentiously cropped. Humane imagination provides better understanding.


Barrier, Jeremy W., ed. and trans. 2009. The Acts of Paul and Thecla: a critical introduction and commentary. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. Based on dissertation, freely available online.

Crossan, John Dominic, and Jonathan L. Reed. 2004. In search of Paul: how Jesus’s Apostle opposed Rome’s empire with God’s kingdom. New York, N.Y.: HarperSanFrancisco.

Elliott, J. K., trans. 1993. The Apocryphal New Testament: a collection of apocryphal Christian literature in an English translation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

the pregnant abbess, nun of Watton & cuckolded husbands

pregnant abbess delivered of her child

The story of a pregnant abbess miraculously delivered of a unwanted child was highly popular in medieval Europe. The story is first attested in Latin in the 1120s. It became part of many Latin collections of miracle stories throughout Europe. By the thirteenth century, vernacular versions existed in England, France, Spain, and Italy. By the fifteenth century, the story was known from Iceland to Ethiopia. The story of the pregnant abbess had such broad appeal that it was made into a drama presented to the Paris Goldsmiths in 1340. About a century later , the story was made into a drama presented in public processionals at Lille.[1] The miracle of the pregnant abbess wasn’t regarded as scandalous or ridiculous.[2] It was celebrated as revealing the mercy and grace of God.

In the story of the miracle of the pregnant abbess, an abbess ruled her convent with rigorous piety. The nuns under her disliked her severity. They sought her downfall. By the instigation of the devil and her own weakness (and implicitly by the prayers of her sister nuns), the abbess became pregnant through sex with a table servant. The sisters found out about the abbess’ pregnancy and secretly informed the bishop. He came to the convent to investigate. The abbess fled to an altar of the Virgin Mary and prayed for mercy. The Virgin Mary appeared with a retinue of angels. She induced the abbess to give birth. The angels took away the child and gave it to a hermit to raise. When the bishop sent representatives to examine the abbess, they found no indication of pregnancy. The bishop, astonished, himself examined the abbess. He too found no indication of pregnancy. Horrified at the injustice done to the abbess, he threw himself at her feet and begged her forgiveness. He ordered harsh punishment for the false accusers. The abbess, not wanting her sisters to be unjustly punished, confessed her pregnancy and the miracle to the bishop. The bishop praised the Virgin Mary, forgave the abbess, and took care of the child. The abbess’ child eventually succeeded the bishop in his episcopal office.[3]

Aelred of Rievaulx’s account of the nun of Watton includes a miracle like the miracle of the pregnant abbess delivered of her child. Aelred of Rievaulx wrote about 1160 of recent events concerning a nun at the Watton monastry. In Aelred’s account, the nun of Watton, like the abbess, was despised by her sister nuns. The nun of Watton, like the abbess, got pregnant. The nun of abbess was also miraculously freed of her pregnancy by angels.[4] In addition to hatred of men’s genitals, Aelred’s account is colored with hatred for bodily effects of pregnancy. The miracle of the pregnant abbess doesn’t describe the abbess’ body after her pregnancy is ended. Aelred, in contrast, described with evident contempt for natural effects of pregnancy the rejuvenation of the nun of Watton:

When the morning had come her guardians {sister nuns} were there looking at her. They saw her womb had shrunk, that her girlish — I will not say virginal — face had put on comeliness, and that her clear eyes had lost their leaden color. … They prodded her womb, and behold, such slimness had succeeded the swelling that you would think her belly attached to her spine. They prodded her breasts but drew no liquid from them. Not sparing her, however, they pressed harder, but they expressed nothing. They ran their fingers over each of her members, they explored everywhere, but they discovered no sign of a birth, no indication of a conception.[5]

Recent scholarly work has focused on women to celebrate Aelred of Rievaulx as a champion of gender equality:

Without apology or drama he praises women in the highest social ranks for their virtue, their strength, and their concern to build up the Church and the kingdom, and he shows ordinary English women receiving God’s blessing through his saints. His women are remarkable for their virtue, faith, and social or domestic roles rather than for their sex. Aelred recognizes not only kings and saints as models of human virtue and faith but all sorts and conditions of women as well. As he declares that God created men and women as equals, he portrays them as equally sinners and lovers of God, equally recipients and ministers of God’s loving-kindness to his creation.[6]

Aelred’s account of the nun of Watton contains hatred for the sexual biology of men and women in roughly equal measures. Unlike the miracle of the pregnant abbess, the account of the nun of Watton apparently didn’t circulate widely.[7] Medieval readers probably didn’t disseminate the story of the nun of Watton because they disliked its contempt for natural, biological effects of pregnancy on a woman’s body.

Medieval literature doesn’t include stories of men miraculously delivered of unwanted children. The nearest story concerns a Swabian husband whose work to earn money for his family kept him away from home for two years. When he came home to his wife, she had a young boy. The wife explained that she had eaten heavily of snow to quench her thirst and had thus become pregnant. About five years later, the cuckolded husband took the boy on a business trip. In a faraway land, he sold the child to a trader. When he returned home, the husband explained to his wife:

Give solace, dear wife,
give solace;
I lost your child,
whom not even you yourself
loved more
than I.
A storm arose
and a raging wind drove us,
too tired to resist,
onto sandy shoals;
and the sun scorched us all
and that child of yours

The story of the cuckolded husband delivered of his unwanted child doesn’t tell of a Godly miracle. It describes tit-for-tat morality among fraudsters:

Thus the treacherous
Swabian tricked
the wife;
thus fraud overcame fraud:
for the child whom the snow engendered
quite rightly melted
under the sun.[8]

Unlike the miracle of the pregnant abbess, the story of the cuckolded husband delivered of his unwanted child wasn’t included in medieval handbooks for preparing homilies. It hasn’t been celebrated as a portrayal of men and women as equally guileful. From the beginning of Christianity to the present, neither the Virgin Mary nor Saint Joseph miraculously arrived, even just in a story, to deliver a cuckolded husband from a child he didn’t want.[9]

Unplanned parenthood can be a wonderful surprise. It can also be a major burden. In the U.S. today, a woman who finds herself pregnant can choose to abort the pregnancy, or choose to carry the pregnancy to term. She can also choose to give up the child for adoption or choose to legally abandon it. Men facing unplanned parenthood have no equivalent choices. States, in fact, unnaturally force financial fatherhood on men. Even worse, cuckolding men has become institutionalized through grotesquely unjust state procedures for establishing paternity. Men and women today can’t even imagine the miracle of a cuckolded husband delivered of his unwanted child.

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[1] Knight (2008) p. 1. The Lille play, sponsored by the collegiate church of Saint Peter, had as its principal purpose to edify. The Paris Goldsmith’s play was presented to a confraternal audience seeking “to reconcile spiritual and material concerns.” Id. p. 147. A critical edition of the Lille play, entitled “Le Miracle de L’Abbesse Grosse,” is published in Knight (2011) no. 71, pp. 223-270. Metzler (2001), Ch. 1, reviews the manuscript history and distribution of the miracle of the pregnant abbess. By the late twelfth century, Nigel of Canterbury had made the story into Latin verse. Ziolkowski (1986) pp. 91-9, “De abbatissa inhonesta.” In the thirteenth century, the story became a song in the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Here’s a list of cantiga manuscript instances of the miracle of the pregnant abbess.

[2] Boccaccio’s Decameron includes playfully scandalous stories of lascivious abbesses: the story of Masetto de Lamporecchio’s sexual over-work as gardener at a convent (3.1), and the story of the abbess, wearing a man’s britches mistaken for a headdress, catching one of her nuns with a lover (9.2).

[3] The earliest surviving manuscript of the miracle of the pregnant abbess is part of the Latin collection of miracles of the Virgin Mary that Dominic, Prior of the English monastery of Evesham, compiled in the early 1120s. Boswell (1988), pp. 259-60, provides an English translation. A Latin text providing a 13th or 14th century version (MS Harl. No. 2316, fol. 6) is available in Wright (1842), pp. 38-40, “De abbatissa a dapifero suo impregnata.” An English translation of that version is available in Metzler (2001) pp. 3-5. A Middle English version is available online from the Northern Homily Cycle, Homily 13, Purification, ll 291-448. Metzler (2001), Appendices 3 & 4,  provide manuscript and collection indices for the miracle of the pregnant abbess. While some details vary across instances, the summary above describes almost all versions. William Adgar’s late-twelfth-century Anglo-Norman collection of Marian miracles, Le Gracial, includes the miracle (“De l’abesse enceintee,” Miracle XLIX). It added relevant normative context:

Whoever deliberately prevents natural conception commits a grave fault against God. It
is a great sin to prevent conception, but a greater sin to kill the child conceived.

Vv. 40-44, trans. Knight (2008) pp. 136-7, with original Anglo-Norman text.

[4] The nun of Watton was also miraculous freed of fetters in which her sister nuns had bound her in a prison cell. Merciful freeing of prisoners is deeply rooted in human understanding of compassion. Miraculous freeing of prisoners is described in Acts 12:6-11, 16:25-34. Coptic Christian Marian prayers from the early centuries of Christianity included prayers for setting prisoners free. A study of the affair of the nun of Watton stated:

Of the two miracles involved in the affair, that concerning the delivery of the child was probably less impressive to contemporaries than the freeing from the fetters, which was one of the oldest and best established types of miracles and therefore convincing testimony both of God’s favour and of Henry Murdac’s powers of intercession.

Constable (1978) p. 212. That’s conceptually confused. Eliminating a women’s pregnancy is unusual and not closely related to central Christian beliefs. Eliminating the nun of Watton’s pregnancy is by far the more interesting miracle in the account of the nun of Watton.

[5] Aelred of Rievaulx, The Nun of Watton, s. 10, from Latin trans Freeland & Dutton (2006) pp. 119-20.

[6] Dutton, introduction, id. p. 31.

[7] It has survived in only one manuscript and attracted little medieval interest, nor much through to the present.

[8] The raging storm and the sun suggest metaphorically the wife’s relationship with her lover and God. The version quoted here is a tenth or eleventh-century Latin verse version, Carmina Cantabrigiensia 14, trans. Ziolkowski (1994) pp. 67, 9 (with original Latin). It is the earliest surviving version of the tale, which is commonly called “The Snow-Child.” The tale has been widely disseminated, in primarily entertaining and diverting contexts, from the Middle Ages to the present. Id. pp. 211-12. The fabliau version is entitled, “L’enfant qui fu remis au soleil,” or “L’enfant de noif.” While it has been translated into English, it hasn’t been included in English-translated collections of fabliaux published since 1982. Removing unwanted children from a parent’s life was common prior to the twentieth century. Means of doing so were exposure, commitment to a religious institution, commitment to domestic servitude, or sale into slavery/service through a trader. Boswell (1988) describes practices of child abandonment through the Renaissance. Placing young children as live-in domestic servants and farm laborers continued through the nineteenth century in England.

[9] Boswell (1988), in its appendices of translations, pp. 449-60, provides serially translations of “The Snow Child,” “The Nun of Watton (Aelred of Rievaulx),” and “The Abbess Who Bore a Child and Was Saved by the Holy Virgin.”Id., however, failed to recognize how these three stories relate to men’s lives and men’s social position. Scholarship on the miracle of the pregnant abbess has served mainly to obfuscate the gynocentric structure of primate societies, including human societies.  Consider:

veneration of the Virgin did not have particularly positive implications for the position of actual women in the Middle Ages; the analysis of this story indicates that even the Virgin embodied and promoted negative aspects of the feminine, and that tales told about her promoted masculine control of women’s institutions.

Karras (1988) p. 126. Medieval men, on the other hand, complained of lack of appreciation for even basic aspects of men’s sexuality. Claiming that everything degrades women, and, deep down, is misogynistic, is a way of focusing concern on women. Consider:

The Miracle of the Pregnant Abbess, therefore, which seems so woman-friendly at first glance because it celebrates woman as both redeemer and redeemed turns out to be profoundly misogynist upon closer inspection. … The way the Pregnant Abbess advances the doctrinal party-line on women’s sexuality may well explain the great popularity and wide dissemination of a tale which seems permissively to excuse the breaking of vows of chastity and the indulgence in wanton lust.

Metzler (2014) p. 203. Men today are subject to crushing, state-imposed financial payments for doing nothing more than having consensual hetero-sex that results in a child that they didn’t want. Men are subject to hate rape culture worldwide. Medieval historians who cannot understand basic aspects of the world in which they live don’t inspire confidence in the value of their study of medieval history.

[image] Pregnant abbess delivered of her child. The abbess is asleep before an altar. The Virgin Mary takes the abbess’ child and gives it to an angel. Book of Hours, Use of Sarum (“The Taymouth Hours”), England, 2nd quarter of 14th century. British Library MS Yates Thompson 13, f. 156v, detail.


Boswell, John. 1988. The kindness of strangers: the abandonment of children in Western Europe from late antiquity to the Renaissance. New York: Pantheon Books.

Constable, Giles. 1978. “Aelred of Rievaulx and the Nun of Watton: An Episode in the Early History of the Gilbertine Order.” Pp. 205-26 in Derek Baker, ed. Medieval Women. Oxford: Published for the Ecclesiastical History Society by B. Blackwell.

Freeland, Jane Patricia, trans. and Marsha L. Dutton, intro., ed. 2006. Aelred of Rievaulx: the lives of the northern saints. Cistercian Father Series 71. Kalamazoo, Mich: Cistercian Publications.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. 1988. “The Virgin and the Pregnant Abbess: Miracles and Gender in the Middle Ages.” Medieval Perspectives. 3: 112-132

Knight, Alan E. 2008. “The Pregnant Abbesses of Paris and Lille.” Pp. 135-47 in Maddox, Donald, and Sara Sturm-Maddox. 2008. Parisian confraternity drama of the fourteenth century: the Miracles de Nostre Dame par personnages. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols.

Knight, Alan E. 2011. Les Mystères de la Procession de Lille. T. 5. Légendes Romaines et Chrétiennes. Genève: Droz.

Metzler, Eric T. 2001. The Miracle of the Pregnant Abbess: texts and contexts of a medieval tale of sexuality, spirituality, and authority. Thesis (Ph. D.)–Indiana University, 2001.

Metzler, Eric T. 2014. “The Miracle of the Pregnant Abbess: Refractions of the Virgin Birth.” Pp. 195-206 in Robert L.A. Clark, ed. Romard 52-53. The Ritual Life of Medieval Europe. London, Ontario, Canada: First Circle Publishing.

Wright, Thomas. 1842. A selection of Latin stories: from manuscripts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries : a contribution to the history of fiction during the middle ages. London: Printed for the Percy Society

Ziolkowski, Jan M. ed. 1986. Negellus Wireker (Nigel of Canterbury). Miracles of the Virgin Mary, in verse = Miracula sancte dei genitricis Virginis Marie, versifice. Toronto: Published for the Centre for Medieval Studies by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Ziolkowski, Jan M., ed. and trans. 1994. The Cambridge songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland Pub.

how Paul seduced Thecla in Iconium and brought her to God

Saint Paul, displaying large sword

In the non-biblical Acts of Paul and Thecla, Paul is described as short, bald, and bow-legged. In a biblical epistle, Paul described himself as poorly dressed and homeless.[1] Nonetheless, Paul in Iconium attracted the love of the wealthy, beautiful, young woman Thecla. Her enthrallment with his words and Godly mission prompted her to break off her betrothal to another man. Persecution and imprisonment of Paul didn’t deter Thecla’s love for him. Thecla loved Paul through vicious punishments imposed on her. Acts of Paul and Thecla describes how Paul so completely seduced Thecla.

Paul boldly defied the dominant culture and stood as a man proclaiming the truth as he understood it. In a culture that emphasized men competing for worldly status at sumptuous, sensuous banquets, Paul was a renegade. He urged purity of heart, chastity, renunciation of the world, and following Jesus Christ. Sitting at a window, Thecla heard Paul’s words. She stayed at that window for three days and three nights. She eagerly sought every word that Paul said. She also saw many young single women and married women going to see Paul.[2] Thecla’s mother observed:

my daughter … clinging to the window like a spider, catches his words and grows with a strange eagerness and a fearful passion; for the young woman hangs upon the things he says and has been captivated.[3]

When Thecla’s fiancé Thamyris pleaded to her to leave her position at the window and come to him, she ignored him. Thamyris had “much wine, great wealth, and a splendid table.” Marriage contracts and wealth didn’t matter. Thecla wanted to be with Paul before Paul even noticed her.

Paul being sent to prison prompted Thecla to acts of loving devotion. Thecla was from a wealthy family of Iconium. Her family had slaves that guarded the door of the family home. Thecla nonetheless sought to be with Paul in prison. At night, Thecla bribed the door-keeper with her bracelets to get out of her house unnoticed. She gave a silver mirror to the jailer to get in to see Paul. There she sat at Paul’s feet and kissed his fetters. Paul confidently proclaimed to her the might of God. After some time, Thecla was discovered in prison. She was there affectionately bound with Paul. When Paul was taken away for questioning, Thecla “pressed herself to the place where Paul had sat and taught in the prison.”[4] Thecla yearned for Paul in his absence.

Paul appreciated Thecla’s feminine beauty. Thecla declared to Paul:

I will cut my hair short and follow you wherever you go.[5]

Both in the ancient world and today, men tend to prefer women with long hair. Paul obliquely acknowledged the hostile circumstances for feminine beauty and implicitly indicated that he preferred Thecla to retain her long hair. He also brought up her former betrothal and questioned her faithfulness in their circumstances:

The times are evil, and you are beautiful. May no other temptation come upon you, worse than the first {agreeing to marry Thamyris}, and you do not withstand it but act cowardly in love.

Men who put women on pedestals earn only their frigid praise. Paul had the confidence and skill to tell Thecla of her potential weakness. Thecla responded with eagerness to please Paul and God. Most scholars read the Acts of Paul and Thecla to imply that Thecla cut her hair short. That interpretation lacks understanding of love between a woman and a man. Thecla wanted to be beautiful in Paul’s eyes. She didn’t cut her hair short and didn’t act cowardly in love.

Paul at times acted aloof towards Thecla. Paul took Thecla to Antioch. There Paul rejected the immoral role of pimp or the conventional role of male protector. He required Thecla to act decisively to defend herself:

as soon as they had arrived a Syrian named Alexander, who was one of the leading citizens of Antioch, seeing Thecla, became enamored of her. He sought to persuade Paul as a pimp with money and gifts. But Paul said: “I do not know the woman of whom you speak, nor is she mine.”

Paul then apparently walked away from the scene. Thecla had to deal with the importuning Alexander herself:

{Alexander}, being a powerful man, embraced her on the open street. She however would not tolerate that. She looked about for Paul and cried out bitterly, “Do not force the stranger, do not force the handmaid of God! Among the Iconians I am a leading citizen, and because I would not marry Thamyris, I have been cast out of the city.” And taking hold of Alexander, she tore his cloak, pulled off the crown from his head, and made him a laughing-stock.[6]

Men in general are personally reluctant to be physically aggressive to women. Societies tend to sanction more severely men’s physical aggression to women compared to women’s physical aggression toward men. Paul knew that Thecla could make a laughting-stock of Alexander “on the open street.” Through his actions, he gave her the opportunity to act courageously. She rose to the occasion.

With Thecla facing punishment, Paul left her. Thecla was brought before the governor for her physical and symbolic violence against Alexander. Alexander had embraced Thecla against her will. Perhaps the charge against Thecla was that her response went beyond actions permitted in self-defense. Thecla was a stranger in Antioch. Alexander was a leading citizen of Antioch. Their case apparently was tried in Antioch. Those circumstances don’t favor equal justice, even given justice systems’ typical favoritism toward women. Thecla was condemned to the beasts. But with the vigorous support of the local women and the favor of God, Thecla miraculous prevailed over various trials. Paul, apparently with confidence in such an outcome and dedication to his big mission, didn’t stay in Antioch for Thecla’s trials. He went to work in Myra, about 200 kilometers distant from Antioch. Paul was no Ulrich von Liechtenstein.

Paul’s dedication to his big mission didn’t diminish Thecla’s love for him. After Thecla prevailed over the beasts and was released, she was invited to share the home and wealth of her friend and benefactor, Queen Tryphaena.  Tryphaena was a kinswoman of the Roman emperor. After eight days living with Tryphaena, Thecla yearned for Paul:

Thecla yearned for Paul and sought him, looking in every direction. And she was told that he was in Myra. And wearing a mantle that she had altered so as to make a man’s cloak, she came with a band of young men and young women to Myra. There she found Paul speaking the word of God and went to him.[7]

Paul took Thecla by the hand and led her into a house. There Thecla told Paul all that had happened to her. Thecla’s mother, who had treated her horribly, lived in Iconium.  Thecla declared to Paul, “I am going to Iconium.” Paul responded, “Go and teach the word of God!”  When she arrived in Iconium, Thecla “threw herself down on the floor where Paul had sat and taught the oracles of God.” Thecla wept and praised God. Then she found her mother. Thecla offered her mother not justified reproach or condemnation, but money and her daughter’s presence. After this Christian act of familial forgiveness and love, Thecla went off to witness to the word of God in Seleucia.

Early Christians recognized both Thecla and Paul to be Christian heroes and saints. The Acts of Paul and Thecla was known within the second century of Christianity.[8] In the biblical book Acts of the Apostles, Paul enters and leaves Iconium with Barnabas.[9] Barnabas, however, is effaced from Acts of Paul and Thecla. Women are superior to men in social communication. Concern about women dominating early Christian church life might be perceived in Christian scripture.[10] Yet Acts of Paul and Thecla shouldn’t be interpreted as indicating efforts to have women dominate all aspects of Christian life. Acts of Paul and Thecla teaches men how to realize their wonderful and beneficial power to seduce women and bring them to God.

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[1] 1 Corinthians 4:11. For the description of Paul in Acts of Paul and Thecla, see its s. 2. For available English translations, see note [3] below. Acts of Paul and Thecla is chapters 3 & 4 in a larger work, Acts of Paul. Many other non-biblical texts of acts of the apostles (conventionally called apocryphal acts of the apostles) have survived. These include Acts of John, Acts of Peter, Acts of Andrew, Acts of Thomas, Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles, and Pseudo-Clementines. These works typically center on a woman who converts to Christianity and visits the apostle in prison. Elliott (1993) provides English translations of these and other early Christian texts similar to those in the New Testament.

[2] In terms of modern applied erotic psychology, Thecla saw social proof of Paul’s extraordinary attractiveness. Thecla remained at the window for three days without taking food and drink. That’s a conventional indication of love sickness. Barrier (2009) pp. 90-1, discusses the erotic coloring of the story. There’s no indication that Paul displayed his large sword to Thecla.

[3] Acts of Paul and Thecla, s. 9, from Greek trans. Elliott (1993), adapted slightly to improve the translation.  All subsequent quotes from Acts of Paul and Thecla are similarly from id. Barrier (2009) provides a critical edition with the Greek. R. McL. Wilson’s translation of the German translation of Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher (1959), Neutestamentliche Apokryphen in deutscher Übersetzung, is reprinted in Hansen (1998). A nineteenth-century English translation is available online in the Ante-Nicene Christian Library.

[4] Acts of Paul and Thecla, s. 20. Being “affectionately bound to Paul” has erotic resonances, particularly in the original ancient Greek.

[5] Id., s. 25 (including subsequent quote). Apuleius’ Golden Ass, probably from the mid-second century, provides in the male narrator’s voice extravagant claims about the important of women’s hair:

May there never by an example of a thing as hideous as this! — if you rob a woman’s head of her hair, be she ever so beautiful, ever so extraordinary, if you strip from her face its inborn attraction, well! Even if she were to come down from heaven like a thunderbolt, even if she were born from the sea, brought into being from the waves; even, I say, if she were Venus herself, even if surrounded by the entire chorus of the Graces, even if escorted by a whole nation of Cupids and wearing Venus’ own girdle, smelling of cinnamon and dripping with balsam — should she make her entrance bald, she wouldn’t be able to please even her husband Vulcan.

Golden Ass, s. 2.8, from Latin trans. Relihan (2007) pp. 28-9.  See similarly s. 11.3, id. p. 234. In the subsequent quote, Thecla’s words evoke the words of Ruth to Naomi, Ruth 16.

[6] Id., s. 26 (sec. 4.1 in the Acts of Paul). Barrier (2009), p. 140, notes that Paul’s acts in this section “have been grossly misinterpreted.” Id. interprets them in terms of the plots of the Greek novels and the over-all trajectory of Acts of Paul and Thecla. I favor above a more immediately contextualized interpretation in terms of Paul’s aversion to being cast as a pimp and his natural behavior as a man to whom women are passionately attracted.

[7] Acts of Paul and Thecla, s. 40 (sec. 4.15 in the Acts of Paul).

[8] Tertullian apparently referred to the account:

if certain Acts of Paul, which are falsely so named, claim the example of Thecla for allowing women to teach and to baptize, let men know that in Asia the presbyter who compiled that document, thinking to add of his own to Paul’s reputation, was found out, and though he professed he had done it for love of Paul, was deposed from his position.

Tertullian, De baptismo (On baptism), s. 17, from Latin trans. Evans (1964).

[9] Acts 14:1-5.

[10] E.g. 1 Corinthians 14:26-39. For compelling examples of modern gynocentrism, see Kraemer (2011) Ch. 4, and Ratcliffe (2014). Consider: “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” (1 Corinthians 14:36). That verse reads prophetically today like literature of men’s sexed protests. However, the underlying Greek for “you” is the masculine plural. The masculine plural was used generically to encompass women and men. See D.A. Carsen, “Silent in the Church,” ft. 47. From a Christian perspective, the word of God was born of a woman. But that doesn’t necessarily imply the inevitability of woman’s dominance of Christian theology, Christian literature, and Christian churches.

[image] Saint Paul, displaying large sword. Detail from work of Bernardo Daddi, 1333, tempera on panel. Thanks to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.


Barrier, Jeremy W., ed. and trans. 2009. The Acts of Paul and Thecla: a critical introduction and commentary. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Elliott, J. K., trans. 1993. The Apocryphal New Testament: a collection of apocryphal Christian literature in an English translation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hansen, William F., ed. 1998. Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kraemer, Ross Shepard. 2011. Unreliable witnesses: religion, gender, and history in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ratcliffe, Rosie. 2014. “The Acts of Paul and Thecla: Violating the Inviolate Body – Thecla Uncut.” Ch. 10 in Taylor, Joan E., ed. The body in biblical, Christian and Jewish texts. London; New York: Bloomsbury.

Relihan, Joel C., trans. 2007. Apuleius. The golden ass, or, A book of changes. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub.