Self-determination: phrase origins

self determination 6

Self-determination in reference to determining one’s own thoughts and actions was first used in the 1600s.

Oxford English Dictionary
Personal Self-determination Oxford dictionary

Other meanings of self-determination are cited below:

Oxford English Dictionary
Self-determination Oxford dictionary

Le blasme des femmes: Misogyny in the myth of patriarchy

By Douglas Galbi

Waterhouse decameron Wikipedia commons

Le blasme des femmes (The culpability of women) is medieval vernacular literature of men’s sexed protest. It’s scarcely understood or tolerated today. Many persons now believe that men ruling in patriarchy have brutally oppressed their wives, mothers, daughters and all other women throughout history. Belief in patriarchy and men’s brutality toward women has to explain away the literature of men’s sexed protest. Why have some men cried out about the abuse, deceptions, and betrayals that they felt men suffer from women?

A man cannot withstand her guile
Once she has picked him for her wile;
Her will to power will prevail,
She vanquishes most any male.

Woman lives in constant anger,
Do I even dare harangue her? [1]

Patriarchy myth-makers dismiss men’s sexed protests as misogyny. While ruling over women, exploiting women, and controlling women as their own personal property, men complained bitterly about women simply because men hate women, according to the now dominant mythic view of men. Hate is a word for mobilizing social repression. Calling men’s sexed protest misogyny socially justifies repressing it.

A man who slanders women
Is a man I must condemn,
For a courtier whom one respects
Would never malign the opposite sex. [2]

As master narratives, patriarchy and misogyny are social obfuscation. The lives of men and women have always been intimately intertwined in successfully reproducing societies. Those aren’t plausible circumstances for absolute, hierarchical rule and hatred of the other. Men’s sexed protest doesn’t indicate misogyny. Patriarchy has no significance to most men. Men’s sexed protest, and the social suppression of it, reflect men’s social subordination and women’s social dominance.

I would tell it clearly,
But all truths are not good to say. [3]

Today men are incarcerated for doing nothing more than having consensual sex and being too poor to fulfill their obligations of forced financial fatherhood. Through state-institutionalized undue influence, misrepresentations, and mis-service, forced financial fatherhood is imposed on many men without regard for the biological truth of paternity. Men face massive discrimination in child custody decisions, the criminalization of men’s sexuality is ever-expanding, the vastly disproportionate violence against men attracts no public concern, and men continued to be sex-selected for disposal in military service. Why aren’t more men protesting the privileges of women relative to men?

Therefore each man ought to honor
And value women above all. [4]

When men protest the sex-based injustices they suffer, gynocentric society generates quarrels about women, apologies for women, and defenses of women. Men’s servitude to women is deeply entrenched in European culture. Men historically have tended to understand their worth as persons in terms of defending women and children, and in providing resources to women and children. Women are superior to men in social communication. Women are the decision-makers for a large majority of consumer spending. In many high-income countries, women also make up the majority of voters by a larger margin than that which commonly decides major elections. Myths of patriarchy and misogyny work to keep men in their socially subordinate place.

There’s no clerk so shrewd,
Nor any other so worthy,
Who would want to blame women
Nor argue anything against them,
Unless he be of base lineage.
Because of this, they say nothing but good. [5]

Are women equally to blame for the evil done to men? The current dominant view is that the injustices done to men are all men’s fault. Blame patriarchy for the highly disproportionate suicides of men. Blame patriarchy for the highly disproportionate incarceration of men. Blame “toxic masculinity” for men’s suffering. But don’t blame women. Say nothing but good about women.

Sweet friend, be assured
That he will be cursed by God
Who, with evil and empty words,
Speaks dishonor or contempt to women. [6]

Le blasme des femmes is necessary for true democratic equality.[7] Women and men, whose lives have always been intimately intertwined, are equally responsible for injustices against women and men.


[1] Le blasme des femmes {The culpability of women} ll. 113-6, 142-3, from Anglo-Norman French trans. Fiero, Pfeffer & Allain (1989) pp. 127, 129. Le blasme des femmes appears to have been composed for oral recitation. Manuscripts of it exist with many variations. Fiero, Pfeffer & Allain (1989)’s version is based on the manuscript Cambridge, University Library, Gg I.i, f. 627r. Text dated 1272-1310. Id. pp. 15-6. Another version of Le blasme des femmes exists in the Harley 2253 Manuscript, Art. 77.

The Cambridge manuscript of Le blasme des femmes concludes with five lines of Latin verse. The last line:

uxorem duxi quod semper postea luxi
{Now, ever since I took a wife,
Calamity has marred my life.}

Id. pp. 130-1. The concluding Latin verse has the leonine rhyme that Matheolus used in his seminal work of men’s sexed protest.

Medieval literature of men’s sexed protest was much less prominent and influential than medieval literature of courtly love. Courtly love literature abased men and pedestalized women.

[2] Le bien des fames {The good of women} ll. 1-4, from Francien French trans. Fiero, Pfeffer & Allain (1989) p. 107. Text dated 1272-1310. For the source text word courtois I’ve used “courtier” rather than “chap.”

[3] La contenance des fames {The ways of women} ll. 170-1, from Francien French trans. Fiero, Pfeffer & Allain (1989) pp. 97, 104 (literal translation version). Text dated 1272-1310. The source text:

Cleremont le deviseroie,
Mais touz voirz ne sont bonds a dire.

Above I’ve added the explicit translation “but” for mais.

[4] Le dit des femmes {The song on women) ll. 65-6, MS Harley 2253, Art. 76, from Anglo-Norman French trans. Fein (2014).

[5] Le dit des femmes {The song on women) ll. 51-6, MS Harley 2253, Art. 76, from Anglo-Norman French trans. Fein (2014).

[6] ABC a femmes {ABC of Women} ll. 276-9, MS Harley 2253, Art. 8, from Anglo-Norman French trans. Fein (2014).

[7] Fiero, Pfeffer & Allain (1989) p. xi explains:

The greater space given to the anti-female material in our discussions reflects the misogynic tradition that prevailed in medieval times and subtly persists into our own age. Since, according to Webster’s dictionary definition, the word feminist refers to one who advocates the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes or generally defends the rights and interests of women, we have avoided the words pro-feminist and anti-feminist, preferring instead pro- and anti-female.

The subtle incoherence of Webster’s alternate definitions of feminist seems to have eluded these scholars. The underlying social problem is far from subtle. On the term antifeminist, see my Matheolus post, note [7].

[image] Front page of Pravda (Moscow, USSR) newspaper, 18 November, 1940. It features a photo of Soviet Commissar M.B. Molotov and Adolf Hitler meeting in Berlin. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Fein, Susanna, ed. with David B. Raybin, and Jan M. Ziolkowski, trans. 2014. The complete Harley 2253 Manuscript (vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3). Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University. Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Fiero, Gloria, Wendy Pfeffer, and Mathé Allain. 1989. Three medieval views of women: La contenance des fames, Le bien des fames, Le blasme des fames. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.

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Ulrich von Liechtenstein’s servitude to women

By Gouglas Galbi

representation of knight Ulrich von Liechtenstein in Frauendienst

In Frauendienst (Service of Ladies), written in German about 1250, the knight Ulrich von Liechtenstein describes mis-education, delusion, and suffering. Poets and wise men, the teachers of that time, urged Ulrich to subordinate himself to a woman. Ulrich recalled:

This I heard the wise men say:
none can be happy, none can stay
contented in this world but he
who loves and with such loyalty
a noble woman that he’d die
if it would save her from a sigh.
For thus all men have loved who gain
the honor others can’t obtain. [1]

Men’s lives are thus valued lower than a woman’s sigh. Only a very brave man would dare to reject that honor. Ulrich sought it:

“I’ll give my body, all my mind
and life itself to womankind
and serve them all the best I can.
And when I grow to be a man
I’ll always be their loyal thane:
though I succeed or serve in vain
I’ll not despair and never part
from them,” thus spoke my childish heart.

Whoever spoke of women’s praise
I followed, just to hear each phrase,
for it would make my heart so light
and fill me with true delight.
I heard from many a learned tongue
their excellence and honor sung;
they praised one here and praised one there,
they praised the ladies everywhere. [2]

This is the sort of literature that gave rise to Hitler. If children were to read Theophrastus’s Golden Book rather than Dr. Theophrastus Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, they would recognize that praise of ladies is a funny thing.[3] Or at least they would develop a sense of humor lacking today.

Ulrich pledged servitude to a lady. He engaged his aunt to plead his love suit. The lady replied to the aunt:

That he excels I’ll take your word
(although it’s more than I have heard)
in every virtue, every skill,
yet for a woman it must still
prevent a close relationship
to see his most unsightly lip.
You must forgive my saying so:
it isn’t pretty, as you know. [4]

The lady rejected Ulrich for his cleft lip. Oblivious to the lady’s cruelty, he underwent a painful operation to have his cleft lip joined. Critical post-structuralists and ananavelist scholars have determined that the lady’s rejection of Ulrich on the grounds of his cleft lip figures and problematizes the prevalence of male genital mutilation in medieval European Christian culture. More to the point, Ulrich served a heartless lady.

Ulrich enacted his loving devotion to his lady in various ridiculous ways. In one joust, he damaged a finger. After his lady expressed doubt about the seriousness of his wound, he had his finger cut off. He sent the cut-off finger to his lady along with a poem praising her. She responded to his messenger with a message of scorn:

Go back and tell him my regret;
he’d serve the ladies better yet,
were it not that his hand is shy
a finger. Tell him too that I
shall always keep the finger near,
buried in my dresser here,
that I shall see it every day,
and that I mean just what I say.

Tell him from me now, courtly youth:
I’ll keep the finger — not, in truth,
because my heart at last is moved
so that his prospects are improved
by a single hair. Make sure he hears
this: should he serve a thousand years,
the service I would always scorn.
By my constancy I’ve sworn.

Ulrich was delighted. He thought that his lady continually viewing his amputated appendage was a sign that she loved him. But women preoccupied with amputation of men’s appendages do not truly love men.[5]

Ulrich sought to please his lady by pretending to be a woman. He dressed himself as a woman, called himself Lady Venus, and traveled around Europe participating in dangerous jousting tournaments. He was wounded in the chest and took at least one lance blow to the head. While Ulrich was in a bathtub bathing a wound, an admirer showered him in rose petals.[6] Bodily wounds to men aren’t socially understood to bleed real blood.

One day, Ulrich’s lady summoned him to appear before her in secret. She told him to appear in rags like a leper. Ulrich raced to his lady to fulfill her summons. He donned rags and ate with lepers outside his lady’s castle. His lady forced him to sleep outside the castle overnight in the rough, in the rain. The next morning he was instructed to wait until the evening. That evening, as instructed, he laid in hiding outside the castle. The castle warden making rounds took a long piss on him. After more misadventures, he was finally pulled up with a bedsheet onto the castle balcony.[7] Ulrich then declared to his lady:

Lady, grant me grace.

Lady, you’re my chief delight,
may I be favored in your sight,
may your compassion take my part.
Consider the longing of my heart
which constant love for you inspired.
Consider that I have not desired
a thing more beautiful than you,
a lovelier I never knew.

You’re dearer far than all that I
have ever seen. If I could lie
with you tonight then I’d possess
all that I’ve dreamed of happiness.
My life will gain by your assent
a lofty spirit and content
more and more until it ends.
It’s you on whom my joy depends.

That’s a courtly speech by a man drenched in piss. Ulrich obviously hadn’t learned from Ovid. His lady refused to lie with him.

Exploiting Ulrich’s inferiority in guile, his lady got rid of him with deceptive hand-holding. She explained that she would do his will if he would re-enact his entrance and give her the opportunity to greet him as a lover. That meant for him to get on the bedsheet and be lowered down slightly, and then brought up again. Ulrich rightly was suspicious that she would let him down and never pull him up again. She offered to hold his hand as a good-faith guarantee. Ulrich agreed:

Though worried, I then took my seat
inside the tightly knotted sheet.
They let me down a little ways
to where they were supposed to raise
me up. My sweet continued slyly,
“God knows, I never thought so highly
of any noble in the land
as of the knight that holds my hand.

“My friend,” she spoke, “be welcome so.
We both are freed from care and woe
and I can now invite you in.”
While speaking thus, she raised my chin
and said, “Dear one, give me a kiss.”
I was so overjoyed with this
I let her hand go free and I
quite soon had cause to grieve thereby.

They dropped Ulrich down and pulled the sheet back up over the wall. Ulrich was in deep despair. If not for his comrade’s intervention, he would have drowned himself in a dark lake.

Ulrich von Liechtenstein’s Service of Ladies is far more than a playful game. Like the thirteenth-century Old French nouvelle The Three Knights and the Chainse, Service of Ladies represents the social construction of male disposability. Men will not achieve gender equality until men reject a life of service to ladies.[8]


[1] Ulrich von Liechtenstein, Frauendienst (Service of Ladies) s. 9, trans. Thomas (1969) p. 52. Ulrich’s book is now commonly recognized to be fictional rather than autobiographical. Ulrich von Liechtenstein was historically a knight in thirteenth-century Germanic lands.

[2] Id. ss. 11, 13.

[3] Dr. Theophrastus Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish declares, “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.”

[4] Frauendienst, s. 80, trans. Thomas (1969). Subsequent quotes are from id. ss. 453-4, {1198, 1205-6}, 1267-8. The aunt acts as the old woman go-between common in medieval Iberian literature.

[5] On pre-occupation with castration, see the discussion of the serranas stories in Libro de buen amor, note [8] and comparative criticism of the Old French works, Fisherman of Pont-sur-Seine and Lecheor.

[6] Frauendienst, ss. 733-5.

[7] Stories of Virgil and Hippocrates being suspended in a basket from a women’s window are part of the literature of men’s sexed protests. The summons for the secret meeting is ss. 1114-5; sleeping in the rain, 1168-70; getting pissed on, s. 1189.

[8] Classen (2004) emphasizes the theatrical, ludic element of Frauendienst. But Frauendienst, like Pamphilus, has significance extending all the way to scholarly life today. For example, a recent scholarly analysis of Frauendienst centered on the pleasures of ridiculing masculinity:

Ulrich’s lady openly mocks her male suitor, ridiculing his masculinity. What pleasures does such mockery offer to male and female audiences?

Perfetti (2003) p. 129. As scholarly work, id. could be regarded as a joke. But it’s wide-ranging effects are apparent.

[image] Ulrich von Liechenstein, painting on folio 237r, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift (Codex Manesse). Zürich, ca. 1300 bis ca. 1340,


Classen, Albrecht. 2004. “Moriz, Tristan, and Ulrich as Master Disguise Artists: Deconstruction and Reenactment of Courtliness in Moriz von Crau?n, Tristan als Mo?nch, and Ulrich von Liechtenstein’s Frauendienst.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 103 (4): 475-504.

Perfetti, Lisa. 2003. “‘With them she had her playful game’ The Performance of Gender and Genre in Ulrich von Lichtenstein’s Frauendienst.” Ch. 4 in Women & laughter in medieval comic literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Thomas, J. W., trans. 1969. Ulrich von Liechtenstein’s Service of ladies. Translated in condensed form into English verse with an introduction to the poet and the work. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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Wife of Bath, criminal justice & men’s subordination to women

Article by Douglas Galbi

Wife of Bath illustration from Ellesmere Chaucer

In the Wife of Bath’s Prologue within Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales, Alisoun accused her husband Jankyn of murdering her. Actual murder victims never make such accusations. Alisoun concocted her accusation of murder to strike back at Jankyn and make him subordinate to her. In the subsequent Wife of Bath’s Tale, women court leaders suspended punishing a man for rape in order to promote men’s subordination to women. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale present criminal justice as a pretext for promoting men’s subordination to women.

Alisoun initiated domestic violence against her husband Jankyn. Living within gynocentric society, Jankyn found a measure of humor and enjoyment in reading literature of men’s sexed protest, including the venerable classics Theophrastus’s Golden Book on Marriage and Valerius’s letter to his friend Rufinus. Alisoun responded violently to Jankyn’s peaceful reading:

And when I saw he would never cease
Reading on this cursed book all night,
All suddenly have I plucked three leaves
Out of his book, right as he read, and also
I with my fist so hit him on the cheek
That in our fire he fell down backwards. [1]

Jankyn got back up and hit her back. She fell down and then claimed that he, a battered spouse, murdered her. When Jankyn came to kiss her and apologize, she struck him again. In medieval Europe, men were punished as perpetrators of domestic violence and as victims of domestic violence. Peace came to their household not through criminal justice, but by the husband making himself subordinate to his wife. Alisoun explained:

We made an agreement between our two selves.
He gave me all the control in my hand,
To have the governance of house and land,
And of his tongue, and of his hand also;
And made him burn his book immediately right then.
And when I had gotten unto me,
By mastery, all the sovereignty,
And that he said, ‘My own true wife,
Do as you please the rest of all thy life;
Guard thy honor, and guard also my reputation’ —
After that day we never had an argument. [2]

Alisoun’s sovereignty over Jankyn encompassed what he said, what he did, and even what he read. Political structures of oppression seldom reach that extent of personal domination.

In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, public and personal support for women’s domination of men allowed a knight to escape punishment under law for rape. While out hunting, the knight saw a maiden walking. While most men, like most male primates, don’t rape, this knight raped that maiden. Rape of women has been considered a serious crime throughout recorded history. The Wife of Bath reported that the knight was condemned to death for raping the maiden. However, the queen and other courtly ladies intervened. They were delegated authority to decide whether the knight would be executed.

The queen declared that the knight’s punishment would be remitted if he declared satisfactorily what women most desire. The queen gave the knight up to twelve months to declare publicly what women most desire. The knight desperately searched for the saving answer. What women want has always been a vigorous topic of public discussion in gynocentric society. The knight heard many different answers. He despaired of finding the saving one. Finally, an ugly woman offered to solve the riddle for the knight if he would do whatever she requested of him. The knight agreed. The ugly woman whispered the answer to him.

The knight successfully declared publicly what women want. The queen’s ad hoc court of justice publicly assembled:

Very many a noble wife, and many a maid,
And many a widow, because they are wise,
The queen herself sitting as a justice,
Are assembled, to hear his answer;
And afterward this knight was commanded to appear.
Silence was commanded to every person,
And that the knight should tell in open court
What thing that worldly women love best.

Before that court, the knight courageously declared to the queen:

“My liege lady, without exception,” he said,
“Women desire to have sovereignty
As well over her husband as her love,
And to be in mastery above him.
This is your greatest desire, though you kill me.
Do as you please; I am here subject to your will.”

The women sitting in judgment of him universally acclaimed the knight’s answer. In response to his public recognition of women’s interest in dominating men, the women exercised their dominance by freeing him from the death penalty for raping a woman.

The knight, however, was still beholden to the women who had provided the answer that saved him. She, the “loathly lady,” was low-born, ugly, old, and poor. She ordered the knight to marry her. The knight was horrified at that request. But he had given his word. Empathy and generosity can save women from oppressive terms of ill-considered agreements. Men are much less likely to benefit from such favor. The knight was forced to wed and sleep with the loathly lady. In short, under today’s understanding, he was raped.

Men’s lack of good life choices is sustained through men’s subordination to women and romantic fantasies. In despair at not having fulfilling alternatives for living his life, the knight repressed his desires, nullified his independent thinking, and surrendered his rational agency to his wife, the loathly lady:

“My lady and my love, and wife so dear,
I put me in your wise governance;
Choose yourself which may be most pleasure
And most honor to you and me also.

The loathly lady carefully confirmed her husband’s total subordination to her:

“Then have I gotten mastery of you,” she said,
“Since I may choose and govern as I please?”
“Yes, certainly, wife,” he said, “I consider it best.”

Then, in the fairytale of all fairytales, the wife turned into a beautiful young woman. Men today internalize this fairytale with the common saying, “happy wife, happy life.”[3]

The injustices of criminal justice are in part a problem of imagination. Few today can even imagine asking the question, “what do men most desire?” A satisfactory answer is not that men are dogs. Most men don’t desire sovereignty or mastery over others, be those others women or men. Most men surely desire not to be treated as criminally suspect persons, and to receive due process and equal justice under law. A good beginning to answering the question “what do men most desire?” is to face the highly disproportionate number of men prisoners and ask why they are imprisoned.


[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, ll. 788-93, modernized English from Benson (2008). Subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from id., ll. 812-22, 1026-30, 1037-42, 1230-33, 1236-38.

[2] Mann (2002), p. ix, expresses concern that since 1992, “this reluctance to credit Chaucer with a ‘real sympathy’ with women has persisted and intensified.” Mann earnestly pondered whether Chaucer wrote “without incurring the charge of antifeminism.” Id. p. 25. For scholars today, the charge of antifeminism is as serious as the charge of murder, at least if the victim is a woman. Chaucer probably wrote for noble ladies. See note [14] and related text in my post on the Griseldas of Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Chaucer.

[3] McTaggert (2012) p. 61, n. 3, observes:

Suffice it to say that Chaucer scholarship remains undecided about whether the Wife’s text makes a case for feminism or not.

Such Chaucer scholarship should simply declare its worthlessness and shift to the more important task of appreciating Boccaccio’s Corbaccio.

[image] Wife of Bath illumination from the Ellesmere Chaucer, f. 72r (probably first or second decade of the fifteenth century). MS EL 26 C 9 in Huntington Library, San Marino, California.


Benson, Larry, trans. 2008. Geoffrey Chaucer. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. The Geoffrey Chaucer Page, Harvard University.

Mann, Jill. 2002. Feminizing Chaucer. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer.

McTaggart, Anne. 2012. “What Women Want?: Mimesis and Gender in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture. 19 (1): 41-67.

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Glorification of men’s love abjection

Article by Douglass Galbi

woman blessing knight serving in amour courtois

Since late in the nineteenth century, learned scholars have intensely and earnestly deliberated various historical and technical issues associated with medieval European poésie lyrique and amour courtois. This deliberation, though courteous, has been heated and pointed. Scholarly reputations have risen and fallen in the verbal battles. Just as in war generally, almost all the persons fighting in this field of medieval scholarship have been men. Consistent with the gynocentrism typical of primates, all the leading men have glorified men’s love abjection and men’s love servitude to women.

Narrow historical and technical disputes about amour courtois have obscured broad scholarly endorsement of men’s love abjection and men’s love servitude to women. Claims about medieval European poésie lyrique have been qualified to amour courtois. The latter, however, has been identified as an anachronistic term. Fin d’amor has thus among scholars become a more reputable term for amour courtois. Being French, amour courtois is more stylish than “courtly love.” Both terms are etymologically related to being classy. Embracing the spirit of democratic equality, an elite medieval scholar coined the term “courtly experience.” That term emphasizes that amour courtois is a universal impulse:

I hold that here is a gentilezza {courtesy} which is not confined to any court or privileged class, but springs from an inherent virtù {manly excellence}; that the feelings of courtoisie are elemental, not the product of a particular chivalric nurture. In the poets’ terms, they allow even the most vilain {common} to be gentil {noble}. [1]

“Courtly experience” expressed in poetry can be a way of looking at life even for peasants rolling in the hay:

The courtly experience is the sensibility that gives birth to poetry that is courtois, to poetry of amour courtois. Such poetry may be either popular or courtly, according to the circumstances of its composition. The unity of popular and courtly love-poetry is manifest in the courtly experience, which finds expression in both. [2]

Gynocentrism is typical of primates. It hence encompasses both popular and courtly love poetry. Amour courtois has been described as “un secteur du coeur, un des aspects éternels de l’homme” {a part of the heart, one of the eternal aspects of man}.[3] Stated more literally, gynocentrism is a prevalent aspect of human societies.

The stark, oppressive anti-men gender inequality at the core of amour courtois has often been obscured. In 1896, an eminent European medievalist defined la poésie courtoise {courtly love poetry}:

What distinguishes it is conceiving of love as a cult directed toward an instance of excellence and based, like Christian love, on the infinite disproportion between merit and desire; like a necessary school of honor that makes the lover worthy and transforms commoners into nobles; like a voluntary servitude that has an ennobling power and that consists in the dignity and beauty of passionate suffering. [4]

That definition completely ignores the starkly different positions of men and women in amour courtois. The monumental work Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric, published in 1965, expanded upon that definition:

‘le culte d’un objet excellent’ {cult directed toward an instance of excellence}: such an attitude of the poet towards his beloved is the foundation of the courtly experience. From this arises the ‘infinite disproportion’ between lover and loved one. Yet the entire love-worship of the beloved is based on the feeling that by loving such disproportion may be lessened, the infinite gulf bridged, and a way toward union, however difficult and arduous, begun. … It is what leads to such expressions as: she whom I love is peerless throughout the world; one moment with her is worth Paradise to me; I would gladly go to Hell if she were there; her beauty is radiant as the sun; she mirrors the divine light in the world; she moves among other women like a goddess; she is worshipped by saints and angels; she herself is an angel, a goddess; she is the lover’s remedy; she is his salvation. … winning such a love is infinitely arduous, and would be impossible were it not for the lady’s grace. The value of the way is intimately related to its difficulty; therefore the lady should not take pity too easily. In any case, the lover must orient himself to an absolute love, if necessary a love unto death. [5]

In 1936, an influential medievalist declared the anti-men gender inequality of amour courtois more openly and more realistically:

Every one has heard of courtly love, and every one knows that it appears quite suddenly at the end of the eleventh century in Languedoc. … The lover is always abject. Obedience to his lady’s lightest wish, however whimsical, and silent acquiescence in her rebukes, however unjust, are the only virtues he dares to claim. There is a service of love closely modelled on the service which a feudal vassal owes to his lord. The lover is the lady’s ‘man’. He addresses her as midons, which etymologically represents not ‘my lady’ but ‘my lord’. The whole attitude has been rightly described as ‘a feudalisation of love’. [6]

The scholar rightly identified an “unmistakable continuity” in this idea of love from the Middle Ages right through to the present. Men’s love servitude to women also existed in the Roman Empire in love elegy, in the relation to between caliphs and slave girls in the early Islamic world, and probably in most human societies throughout history.[7]

Scholars have only described and interpreted amour courtois while glorifying it. The scholarly imperative should be to abolish it. Writing in 1936, an influential medievalist observed:

Even our code of etiquette, with its rule that women always have precedence, is a legacy from courtly love [8]

He, however, lamented that courtly love isn’t more prevalent:

The popular erotic literature of our own day tends rather to sheikhs and ‘Salvage Men’ and marriage by capture, while that which is in favour with our intellectuals recommends either frank animalism or the free companionship of the sexes. [9]

In Theft of History, published in 2006, the chapter “Stolen Love: European Claims to the Emotions” takes amour courtois to farce:

the associated claim that love is uniquely European has also had a number of political implications being bound up not only with the development of capitalism but also being used in the service of imperialism. There is a palace in Mérida in Yucatan, the decoration of which portrays helmeted and armoured conquistadores towering over vanquished savages, with an inscription that proclaims the conquering power of love. That emotion, fraternal rather than sexual, had been claimed by the imperialist conquerors from Europe. Love literally conquers all in the hands of the invading military. [10]

Claiming amour courtois for a time or place is no substitute for meaningful ethical judgment. Amour courtois, which has at its core the subordination of men to women, isn’t humane. Amour courtois remains far too prevalent in societies around the world. Medieval European literature, wrongly understood as the source of amour courtois, provides important resources for overcoming it. Everyone needs to be educated through careful study of Lamentationes Matheoluli, Vita Aesopi, Solomon and Marcolf, Old French fabliaux, medieval women’s love poetry, and especially Boccaccio.


[1] Dronke (1965) p. 3. Id., p. 7, refers to “the way of acquiring the virtù that she embodies.” That feminine usage of virtù reflects Dronke’s blurring of stark sex differences in amour courtois.

[2] Id. p. 3. Id, n. 1, explains:

I speak of the courtly experience rather than, say, the courtly manner or fashion because, beyond manners and fashions, it can entail a whole way of looking at life.

Dronke doesn’t speak about how looking at life through amour courtois differs in domination and subordination between women and men.

[3] Marrou (1947) p. 89, cited in Dronke (1965) pp. ix, 46.

[4] Bédier (1896) p. 172, cited in Dronke (1965) p. 4, my translation from French. The original French text:

Ce qui lui est propre, c’est d’avoir conçu l’amour comme un culte qui s’adresse à un objet excellent et se fonde, comme l’amour chrétien, sur l’infinie disproportion du mérite au désir ; — comme une école nécessaire d’honneur, qui fait valoir l’amant et transforme les vilains en courtois ; — comme un servage volontaire qui recèle un pouvoir ennoblissant, et fait consister dans la souffrance la dignité et la beauté de la passion.

Bédier was disputing the views of his contemporary scholars Alfred Jeanroy and Gaston Paris. All are influential figures in scholarship on amour courtois. C.S. Lewis characterized amour courtois as Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love. Lewis (1936) p. 2. The three characteristics other than adultery exist together in some medieval love poetry. That has spurred marginal disputes about amour courtois.

[5] Dronke (1965) pp. 4-5, 7. In his elaboration on Bédier’s definition, Dronke treats gender difference as merely a grammatical formalism. Gender difference emerges only when Dronke moves to “such expressions as.” The subordinate, abject lover is the man (he) and the dominant, paragon of excellence is the woman (she).

[6] Lewis (1936) p. 2. The reference to “unmistakeable continuity” is id. p. 3. Id. pp. 11, 12 calls amour courtois a “new sentiment” and a “new feeling” that originated in the love poetry of the late-eleventh-century Provençal troubadours. Donke, in contrast, declares nothing new and no geographic origin for amour courtois. Dronke also regards amour courtois as not particularly associated with feudal, chivalric society. Dronke (1965) p. ix. His depiction of amour courtois is nonetheless consistent with servant / lord feudal relations.

[7] Dronke (1965), Ch. I, documents the courtly experience of amour courtois in ancient Egyptian literary love songs; medieval Byzantium popular love songs; Rusthaveli’s The Man in the Panther’s Skin, written in Georgian about 1200; in the pre-Islamic Arabic poetry of Jamil and Buthaynah, the early Islamic poetry of ibn al-Ahnaf, and the eleventh-century Persian romance Wis and Ramin; love poetry of Mozarabic Spain; refrains of medieval France and Germany; tenth-century Icelandic skaldic poetry; and medieval love poetry in the Greek-Italian dialect of Calabria.

[8] Id. pp. 3-4. Scholars have provided rationalizations for denying and reversing men’s manifest subordination in courtly love. The collapse of reason is now pervasive in medieval scholarship:

As is now generally recognized, the rhetoric of courtly love is a social discourse of coercive power, asserting the courtier’s dominance over both the female love-object and men of lesser status.

Garrison (2015) p. 323. Anti-men gender bigotry is now similarly interpreted as promoting gender equality. Moreover, as the Costa Condordia disaster made clear, men continue to be denied equal opportunity to get off sinking ships.

[9] Id. p. 1. The term “salvage” apparently is an archaic form of “savage.”

[10] Goody (2006) p. 285. These are the concluding sentences of the chapter. The non-gendered reference to military action underscores lack of concern for men’s lives.

[image] Knight serving woman in amour courtois. Oil on canvas. Edmund Leighton, English, 1901. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Bédier, Joseph. 1896. “Les fêtes de mai et les commencemens de la poésie lyrique au moyen âge.” Revue des Deux Mondes 135: 146-72.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the rise of European love-lyric. Vol I. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Garrison, Jennifer. 2015. “Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and the Danger of Masculine Interiority.” The Chaucer Review. 49 (3): 320-343.

Goody, Jack. 2006. The theft of history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, C. S. 1936. The allegory of love; a study in medieval tradition. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Marrou, Henri-Irénée. 1947. “Au dossier de l’amour courtois.” Revue du Moyen Age Latin 3: 81-89.

Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Pleasure-seeking vs. relationships

Friends in night club

Pleasure-seeking and relationships are the two most powerful forces informing societies, families and the inner life of individuals – and they are often pitted against each other, with one dominating at the expense of the other.

Pleasure-seeking as a philosophical enterprise has been around since at least the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, and was more fully elaborated in the writings of Sigmund Freud whose “pleasure principle” lays at the base of all psychoanalytic theory; “What decides the purpose of life,” writes Freud, “is simply the programme of the pleasure principle.”1

For Freud the human libido is a pleasure seeking force, and his popularization of this idea gave the project of global capitalism part of its internal rationale: every individual is an appetite ruthlessly seeking pleasure, a non-stop consumer. The majority of societies and economies around the world are now reliant on this principle in order to perpetuate themselves.

According to Freud, the pleasure principle is:

– backed by instinctual drive
– selfish
– ruthless
– narcissistic
– focused on the individual above relationships

After 100 years of promoting the importance of the pleasure principle, indeed over-promoting it, today we have become devotees at its shrine, promoting ideas like these:

– narcissism
– sense of entitlement
– pick up artistry
– rampant consumerism
– commodification of interpersonal relationships

How are we feeling about all that pleasure – are we enjoying it yet or are we sick of it? Do you want to dial up the hedonism some more, or do you want to join me in questioning the premise?

Despite capitalism’s incestuous relationship with the pleasure-principle, a behavior it does more to perpetuate than merely serve, early psychoanalysts began to see problems with it. The problem was not with the idea that humans are pleasure seekers, but that the idea had been afforded far more importance in human behavior than it deserved – there were other more important factors to human being that had been given short shrift.

Like relationships.

Early psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn was amongst the first to write about the importance of relationships over pleasure seeking. In 1944 Fairbairn explained the impasse with Freud’s theory as follows;

In a previous paper (1941) I attempted to formulate a new version of the libido theory and to outline the general features which a systematic psychopathology based upon this re-formulation would appear to assume. The basic conception which I advanced on that occasion, and to which I still adhere, is to the effect that libido is primarily object-seeking (rather than pleasure-seeking, as in the classic theory), and that it is to disturbances in the object-relationships of the developing ego that we must look for the ultimate origin of all psychopathological conditions. This conception seems to me not only to be closer in accord with psychological facts and clinical data than that embodied in Freud’s original libido theory, but also to represent a logical outcome of the present stage of psychoanalytical thought and a necessary step in the further development of psychoanalytical theory… 2

This revolution in psychoanalytic thinking launched the school of Object Relations psychology, with the word ‘Object’ standing for real people we enter into relationships with. Object Relations psychology is based more on attachment theory than on the pleasure principle. In a nutshell this school, which superseded psychoanalysis, is described as:

Object relations is based on the theory that the primary motivational factors in one’s life are based on human relationships, rather than sexual or aggressive triggers. Object relations is a variation of psychoanalytic theory and diverges from Freud’s belief that we are pleasure seeking beings; instead it suggests that humans seek relationships.3

Has the mental health industry caught up? Yes, I’m pleased to say that portions of the industry have not only caught up, they are driving the research on attachment forward. Other sections of the industry, however, especially those on the front line of offering services, continue to devote undue importance to pleasure-seeking through the advocacy of self-actualization and ‘me and my wants.’

The problems of gynocentrism and treating of men as utilities will not be addressed until we look at how these things are used to generate pleasure. One reason we have stalled in relativizing the pleasure-principle and affirming the findings of attachment science, is that it’s obviously not in the current society’s interest to do so. To catch up and look in the mirror is to die – the whole goddam system collapses – our beliefs, our customs, our financial systems.

But look at it we must, both collectively and individually if we wish to promote mental health.

Do we really need more shopping, drugs, stimulation, sex and food? Frankly many men are done… they’ve had enough food and sex to last 20 lifetimes. They don’t need more pick-up techniques, they don’t need more research fads focusing on sexual drives a-la-Freud, and they certainly don’t need to consume more – they’ve consumed quite enough, thank you.

If we insist on believing the pleasure principle is paramount, that it is our most pressing genetic imperative, along with the belief that “all men want is sex” that so many men find annoying, then our only escape is to follow a sick, nihilistic version of retreat from the world. How else to escape the call of pleasure? Our western culture’s devotion to the pleasure principle leaves it stuck in its own insoluble loop, like a snake devouring itself and not realizing that the tail it is eating is its own.

I say western culture because there are whispers of an alternative in other cultures that, alas are also being corrupted for the newfangled focus on the pleasure principle that drives the mighty dollar. I have listened to people from various Asian countries – Cambodia, China, Thailand – who talk of valuing their relationships and families somewhat more than their own pleasure-seeking ambitions. Watch how they eat together, having several dishes of food on the table that they all share, not everyman for his own narcissistic pleasure. I have also heard some Asians ask, perplexed, why women wear skimpy clothes in winter, not knowing that our cultures are all about inviting consumption and commodification of every person in order to feed each others’ predatory pleasures.

None of this is to deny the pleasure principle and its powerful pull on men’s lives. But pleasure quickly becomes hedonism without relationship to temper it, and it leads not to a meaningful life but to emptiness and nihilism where ‘opting out’ is the only alternative response – a response that looks more like a sickness than a cure.

Now what does all this mean to the wellbeing of men? In short, everything. Getting these two vital aspects of human nature in balance is not only the secret to psychological health, but our lives may literally depend on it. Regaining that balance can start with paying more attention to our relationship needs and less to pleasure – more to the girl-next-door and less to the girl with the exaggerated cleavage, boob jobs, and love bombs.

Moreover, the problem does not stop at intimate adult relations, and applies to family as well. If every family member is chasing his or her own pleasures, they are more likely than ever to spin off in their own directions like atoms rapping in a void – there’s no glue holding the unit together, no relationship – and custody battles, selfishness and estrangement are the inevitable result: Me and my pleasures first.

To be sure, regular relationships also afford experiences of pleasure or contentment, albeit of lower intensity than the pleasure-seeking described by Freud. Another distinguishing feature is that relationships don’t involve the use of people in the same ruthless manner as does the pleasure principle – ie. not the same as we experience when devouring food or having sex. Relationship is more concerned with situating oneself in a context and gaining emotional satisfactions from that – from belonging, from being-with-others, as contrasted with using objects to satisfy appetite. A second distinguishing feature of intimate relationships is that the individual has concern for the objects of his attachment – whereas the pleasure-seeking appetite has no concern over its use of people nor its destruction of same.

Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson writes about the two impulses as two kinds of “love.” He calls the pleasure-seeking impulse romantic love, and the relationship-seeking version human love. Here is his description of the two;

Many years ago a wise friend gave me a name for human love. She called it “stirring-the-oatmeal” love. She was right: Within this phrase, if we will humble ourselves enough to look, is the very essence of what human love is, and it shows us the principal differences between human love and romance. Stirring the oatmeal is a humble act-not exciting or thrilling. But it symbolizes a relatedness that brings love down to earth. It represents a willingness to share ordinary human life, to find meaning in the simple, unromantic tasks: earning a living, living within a budget, putting out the garbage, feeding the baby in the middle of the night. To “stir the oatmeal” means to find the relatedness, the value, even the beauty, in simple and ordinary things, not to eternally demand a cosmic drama, an entertainment, or an extraordinary intensity in everything. Like the rice hulling of the Zen monks, the spinning wheel of Gandhi, the tent making of Saint Paul, it represents the discovery of the sacred in the midst of the humble and ordinary.

Jung once said that feeling is a matter of the small. And in human love, we can see that it is true. The real relatedness between two people is experienced in the small tasks they do together: the quiet conversation when the day’s upheavals are at rest, the soft word of understanding, the daily companionship, the encouragement offered in a difficult moment, the small gift when least expected, the spontaneous gesture of love. When a couple are genuinely related to each other, they are willing to enter into the whole spectrum of human life together. They transform even the unexciting, difficult, and mundane things into a joyful and fulfilling component of life. By contrast, romantic love can only last so long as a couple are “high” on one another, so long as the money lasts and the entertainments are exciting. “Stirring the oatmeal” means that two people take their love off the airy level of exciting fantasy and convert it into earthy, practical immediacy. Love is content to do many things that ego is bored with. Love is willing to work with the other person’s moods and unreasonableness.

Love is willing to fix breakfast and balance the checkbook. Love is willing to do these “oatmeal” things of life because it is related to a person, not a projection. Human love sees another person as an individual and makes an individualized relationship to him or her.4

I attempted to outline the importance of relational attachments in a past article Sex and Attachment and another sketching a way to build relationships that avoid some of the predatory themes at the heart of Western gynocentrism, entitled Love and friendship. Hopefully these provide some discussion points, but more important is asking of the initial question: are we ready to interrogate the pleasure-principle as the foundation of our society?


[1] Sigmund Freud, Civilization, Society and Religion (PFL 12) p. 263 (1991)
[2] Ronald Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality pp. 82-83 (1952)
[3] Object Relations, definition from (August 2015)
[4] Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, p. 195 (1983)