Secret men’s business

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  • Published 20130604
  • ISBN: 9781922079978
  • Extent: 288 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

Twelfth-century author Walter Map, on hearing that St Bernard had thrown himself on the body of a dead boy, praying for his revival, quipped: ‘He was the most unlucky of monks. I have never heard of any monk lying on a boy without the boy immediately getting up afterwards.’


WHAT’S IN, WHAT’S out; who’s hot, who’s not? In-groups and out-groups have been around ever since primeval slime split into the greens and the reds. As for cricket teams, the Gatcombe Greens, otherwise known as ‘Them’, are obviously up themselves, and the Royal Park Reds (‘Us’) are not. What have algae and cricket teams got to do with the Christian canon and the medieval church? Like Hesiod – who tells us that men lived as gods until Zeus, in order to punish them, invented woman – the founder of Western theology, Tertullian, decreed Adam, Cain and Abel hot and Eve not.

In Tertullian’s On the apparel of women (Christian Literature Publishing, 1885), a second-century letter to his ‘best beloved sisters’, he bids each woman dress to ‘affect meanness of appearance, walking about as Eve mourning and repentant’ that she might better atone for the ‘odium’ and ‘ignominy’ she has inherited from Eve. ‘The sentence of God on this sex of yours,’ says Tertullian, ‘lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. Do you not know that you are (each) an Eve?’:

You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert – that is, death – even the Son of God had to die.

Apart from the obvious, what is Western theology saying about women, and what might be in it for the church? As a way of situating the question, I begin with Tertullian in the second century, a time when one of myriad out-groups – the Christians – was being accused by the Romans of every known crime from sexual licentiousness to ritual murder and cannibalism. These fabricated charges were faithfully recorded by Christian patriarchs in theological works preserved in monastic libraries and endlessly recopied. So says historian Norman Cohn in Darren Oldridge’s The Witchcraft Reader (Routledge, 2002). When came the Christians turn to accuse some new religious out-group of heresy, it was as simple as drawing from the stock of slanderous clichés (which always included participation in orgies and child-eating).

Such charges were resurrected repeatedly across centuries, territories and out-groups. During several hundred years before the early modern witch hunts, various popes oversaw the burning of thousands of so-called heretics at the stake. What were their heresies? Most if not all the victims, says Cohn, were from groups of peasant and working-class Christians (Waldensians, for example) who had publicly criticised the church for its un-Christlike interest in wealth accumulation. Their preoccupation with orgies and child-eating was not apparent even to their prosecutors. Then, as now, the ‘heretic’ label was applied in the main to the insider turned public critic.

Prefiguring the early modern church’s definition of the witch as female (witchcraft enjoyed gender equality up until that time), from the beginning, the church fathers used the problem of lust as an opportunity to denounce women. Historian Joseph Klaits’s Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts (Indiana University Press, 1985) explains how the fathers turned Jesus’s warning – ‘lusting after a woman in the heart is an adulterous sin’ – into grounds for blaming women for their sexual attractiveness. Despairing, perhaps, of his capacity to avoid this particular kind of lusting, third-century Alexandrian theologian, Origen, allegedly castrated himself. And the fourth-century priest, Jerome, says Klaits, discovered that only by working on his Bible translation ‘could he sublimate his passion and be rid of the tormenting visions of dancing girls’. Patristic blame for all this fell on women: ‘What is the difference,’ writes Jerome’s contemporary, Augustine, ‘whether it is in a wife or a mother; it is still Eve the temptress that we must be aware of in any woman’.

Also in the fourth century, the so-called golden-mouthed Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, sublimated his passion by cultivating both his rhetoric and his young priests. In ‘Two Exhortations to Theodore after his Fall’ (into the arms of one comely Hermione) (Christian Literature Publishing, 1889), Chrysostom writes to Theodore, begging him to extricate himself and return to his ‘heavenly bridegroom’ against whom he is currently committing adultery, not to mention desertion.

‘I know that you are now admiring the grace of Hermione,’ writes Chrysostom, ‘and you judge that there is nothing in the world to be compared to her comeliness.’ But if Theodore chooses correctly, he, Theodore, says Chrysostom, shall exceed Hermione in comeliness and grace, ‘as much as golden statues surpass those which are made of clay.’ ‘Your beauty,’ Chrysostom continues, excels hers ‘as heaven is superior to earth; or rather it was much better and more brilliant than this’. The beauty of men, who God designed in His image, is incomparable to that of women, who were fashioned from a piece of rib – thus forever bent – and a bit of clay. Hermione’s ‘corporeal beauty,’ says Chrysostom, ‘is nothing else but phlegm, and blood, and humor, and bile, and the fluid of masticated food’:

So that if you consider what is stored up inside those beautiful eyes, and that straight nose, and the mouth and the cheeks, you will affirm the well-shaped body to be nothing else than a whited sepulchre; the parts within are full of so much uncleanness.

As Theodore remains, apparently, both fallen and unmoved to right himself, Chrysostom pleads again. It’s not grievous for a wrestler to fall, or a warrior to be wounded, he writes, but to despair or to neglect the wound! A soldier who deserts his post may still become a champion and prevail over the enemy. Just because ‘the enemy has shaken you a little from your position,’ says Chrysostom, ‘do not thou give yourself an additional thrust into the pit, but stand up bravely, and return speedily to the place from which you have departed’.

‘But marriage is right,’ Theodore had protested. ‘God has not forbidden to marry’.

‘God has not forbidden to marry; I know this as well as you,’ retorts Chrysostom. ‘For marriage, we read, is honourable and the bed undefiled, but fornicators and adulterers God will judge. He has forbidden to commit adultery,’ says Chrysostom:

It is no longer possible for you to observe the right conditions of marriage. For if he who has been attached to a heavenly bridegroom deserts him, and joins himself to a wife the act is adultery…May you be preserved from ever engaging yourself in marriage!

Chrysostom’s ‘whited sepulchre’ might well have been the subtitle of the treatise Women’s secrets a millennium later, translated by Helen Lemay (State University of New York Press, 1992). Putatively written by a student of Albert the Great and ostensibly intended to instruct clergy in the nature of women’s ‘infirmities’ and devising appropriate advice and penances, Secretsclaims to ‘bring to light certain hidden, secret things about the nature of women’ – things that women hide from men. Addressed ‘to my dear companion and friend in Christ’, Secrets includes chapters on: ‘The signs of corruption of virginity’, ‘The signs of chastity’, ‘A defect in the womb’ and ‘The impediments to conception’.Secrets, says a commentator of the time, will enable clergy:

to provide a remedy for [women’s] infirmities, and so that in confessing them we might know how to give suitable penances for their sins…women are so full of venom in the time of their menstruation that…whenever men have sexual intercourse with them they are made leprous and sometimes cancerous.

Then comes the sales pitch. Those who wish to avoid these leprous, cancerous evils, says the commentator, ‘must abstain from this unclean coitus and from many other things which are taught in this book’.

What is the real secret in Secrets? The secret, say contemporary historians Karma Lochrie, in Covert operations (Pennsylvania University Press, 1999), and Monica Green, in Making Women’s Medicine Masculine (Oxford University Press, 2008), is women’s bodies, their sexualities, and their devious natures, which it is the task of religious men (the narrator and reader) to expose and defuse. Secrets generated enormous interest among thirteenth-century clerics, physicians and educated laymen, says Green, and represented a profound change in the way gynaecological literature was being read. Its speculative character differed from formal gynaecological texts, but as Secrets gained ground the genres became virtually interchangeable.

Vernacular sexual material about women was being written for a male audience and proving a hit. Country gentlemen, urban merchants, noblemen, physicians and clergy were reading it to satisfy their curiosity about women’s bodies and procreation. A novelistic version of Secrets claimed to tell: ‘of all the infirmities of women which cause displeasure to men, be they infirmities of the vagina, of the hands, mouth, teeth, or skin’. Secrets, says Green, fed into the clerical tradition of compiling litanies of the evils and deceits of women to dissuade celibate clergy from consorting with them.

And, as Secrets describes them, one might think twice about dating the women who conceal iron in their vaginas to harm the penis during intercourse or who choose to have intercourse at the most dangerous times for men (dictated by the phase of the moon). But how is one to tell the deadly from the less deadly? Even the women themselves don’t know, says the author of Secrets, although many ‘are familiar with the effect’:

For when men have sexual intercourse with these women it sometimes happens that they suffer a large wound and a serious infection of the penis because of iron that has been placed in the vagina, for some women or harlots are instructed in this and other ill deeds.

At this point, the author becomes coy: ‘And if it were right to talk about this,’ he says, ‘I would say something about them, but because I fear my creator I shall say nothing more about these secrets at present’.

Who holds these secrets about women’s sexuality? Certainly not women, who, according to the narrative, neither know them nor have the power to withhold them. Rather, it is the author who has the feminine secret, while woman is the secret that men know.

If the author’s sole purpose is to dissuade clergy from courting women, why does he whet the clerical appetite by using explicitly sexual material in an explicitly titillating way? Furthermore, why does he arouse this clerical desire for knowledge and more, and then break off abruptly, leaving his reader hanging? Self-evident, you might say. But there’s more to it, a certain spin-off for the church.

The author drops hints about the existence of dangerous (exciting) secrets about female sexuality (which, although not explicated, the priestly reader knows relate to the woman’s insatiable desire for the phallus and her animalistic capacity at best to diminish it, at worst, rip it to shreds). Does the author hope, as did Chrysostom, to coax the young priest back into the arms of his heavenly bridegroom and his earthly father? What is the nature of that relationship anyway? And, more importantly, how is the notion of Woman used to foster it?


IN JEHAN BONET’S pre-1303 Placides et Timèo, noted in William Kibler’s Medieval France (Routledge, 1995), Timèo instructs Placides on what happens during the act of heterosexual intercourse. The woman – who, according to Aristotle, by nature is cold and damp – naturally enough begins to steal the man’s heat: ‘The more she feels [his heat], the more she desires’. Stopping mid-sentence, Timèo says to Placides, ‘when you have been more obedient, when I have received from you more marks of affection, then I will tell you the deep secrets that must not be revealed to anyone, except to one’s dearest friend.’

At this point the reader’s urgent desire to know encounters, in Lochrie’s words, discursus interruptus. The result is that the seductive and awful secrets remain intact as backdrop for the next intimate encounter between men – the pupil who is desperate to know and the master who pulls his strings. In this context, says Lochrie, the condition of homoerotic desire is the gift of knowledge, while the hidden secret of female desire becomes its site. In order to increase the pupil’s desire, the master withholds the secret; he may even destroy and revive it in the interest of masculine intimacy – to stimulate the pupil’s desire to know and his reverence for the master. In the process, the danger of man’s refrigeration by she-who-steals-heat is averted, or rather, deferred.

Another reason why manly men are naturally indisposed toward women is explained in Plato’s Symposium (Oxford University Press, 1953) during a putatively fictitious and probably satirical speech by the playwright Aristophanes about how man originally had eight limbs and two faces. Ever since Zeus punished man for his insolence, says Aristophanes, by splitting him in half, each half yearns for his lost other. ‘They who are a section of the male follow the male,’ he says, ‘and these are the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature’. And, in an apparent coup de grâce, Aristophanes continues, ‘these when they grow up become our statesmen, and these only, which is a great proof of the truth of what I am saying’:

When they reach manhood they are lovers of youth, and are not naturally inclined to marry or beget children…And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight.

Satire or not, that is the view from on top. When it comes to the relationship between master and pupil in ancient Athens, as in Christendom, there is no social equality[i]; the pupil is allotted the ‘naturally’ inferior position in both didactic and erotic terms. What, then, of that homoerotically charged association? Who or what protects the pupil’s natural desire for knowledge, acceptance and connection from intentional or unintentional exploitation? How easy is it for the master, wittingly or not, to coax his pupil into the adoringly passive, that is, ‘feminine’ (read, dangerously vulnerable), position?

Michel de Montaigne writes in his essay ‘On affectionate relationships’ (Penguin, 1989) that the friendship between intimate equals that he enjoyed with his late friend La Böetie is not to be found within the homosexual tradition of the Greeks, ‘since as they practised it, it required a great disparity of age and divergence of favours between the lovers’. And how could it be otherwise in a culture that defines the active (penetrating) partner as masculine and superior and the passive (accepting) partner as feminine and inferior? Nor is egalitarian friendship to be found with women, says Montaigne, as women are ‘not normally capable of responding to such familiarity and mutual confidence as sustain that holy bond of friendship, nor do their souls seem firm enough.’ There is, he says, ‘no example yet of woman attaining to it and by the common agreement of the Ancient schools of philosophy she is excluded from it’.


RETURNING TO MY key question, what was in it for the medieval church to construct woman as concealing dreadful secrets about the extent of her capacity and desire to harm men? In this case, male fear of the feminine (in others or themselves) is being exploited in the interest of reinforcing in-group cohesion. What is the real and open secret about woman? In the tradition of concocting women’s secrets to foster bonding among men (and simultaneously rattle them about their own ‘feminine’ propensities), the secret is that woman is the instrument by which men both bond with and punish other men to keep them in the fold.

How men are broken – in military training and war, for example – is by placing them in the passive position of woman. Male fear of being feminine or feminised (femiphobia) manifests as the entirely legitimate fear of being treated as a woman, that is, of being treated as women are treated in patriarchal cultures, that is, as nothing. Without using woman as measure of abasement, might these practices lose some of their traumatogenic potency? Power is always in a position to exploit community fears for its own ends, feeding those fears with beguiling narratives about clear and present dangers. Men’s highly conditioned femiphobia is no exception to the rule. The difference is that in this case the out-group comprises half the population.

[i]Parties in a teacher-student relationship involving rational authority, says Erich Fromm, are perceived as social equals, notwithstanding that the teacher holds a certain authority of knowledge and experience.

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About the author

Andee Jones

Andee Jones is an author, retired psychologist and academic and holds a PhD from Monash University. Her current research is in gender studies.Jones's opinion...

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