THE GREEK LOVE POEMS OF MARBOD OF RENNES
Marbod (ca. 1035-1123) was archdeacon and a schoolmaster at Angers, near where he was born, in the county of Anjou, and then bishop of Rennes in Brittany. He was widely renowned in his lifetime for his Latin writing, both verse and prose. The former included love poems about both women and boys.
Presented here are Marbod’s poems on the subject of Greek love. Both the Latin text and the translation are from Thomas Stehling’s Medieval Latin Poems of Male Love and Friendship (New York, 1984), pp. 30-39. Stehling’s footnotes on variant readings of the manuscripts are not included here.
1. To an Absent Friend
If you cherish anything in the city which you love and don't want to lose,
And if you cherish it chastely, you should not care about the court.
Cut short all delays; hour by hour your loss increases,
A loss all the greater since it can never be made up.
Put off everything which makes you stay in Chalonnes; 5
You are losing more here than you are getting there.
For what is as valuable as a boy who plays fair with his lover?
He is even-tempered now but with further delays he'll turn wicked
Since, in fact, he is being tempted with many enticements, 9
And if a boy can be tempted there is good reason to worry that he can be netted.
Therefore, return quickly if you want to keep what you love.
Give up the castle if you want to keep your puppy.
I. Ad amicum absentem
Si quid in urbe colis quod ames, quod perdere nolis,
idque colis pure, non tibi curia curae.
Omnes rumpe moras; damnum tibi crescit in horas;
hoc autem damnum, quia non reparabile, magnum.
Postpones omne quod te facit esse Callone. 5
Perdes in hac villa plusquam lucraris in illa:
namque quid tanti, quanti puer aequus amanti?
Qui nunc est aequus, fiat mora, fiet iniquus.
Blanditiis siquidem tentatur pluribus idem; 9
et qui tentatur, metus est ne decipiatur.
Ergo redi propere, si vis quod amas retinere.
Desine castellum, si vis retinere catellum.
2. A Satire on a Young Boy’s Lover in an Assumed Voice
Horace composed an ode about a certain boy
Who could easily enough have been a pretty girl.
Over his ivory neck flowed hair
Brighter than yellow gold, the kind I have always loved.
His forehead was white as snow, his luminous eyes black as pitch; 5
His unfledged cheeks full of pleasing sweetness
When they gleamed bright white and red.
His nose was straight, lips blazing, teeth lovely,
Chin shaped after a perfectly proportioned model. 9
Anyone wondering about the body which lay hidden under his clothes
Would be gratified, for the boy's body matched his face.
The sight of his face, radiant and full of beauty,
Kindled the observer’s heart with the torch of love.
But this boy - so beautiful, so extraordinary,
An enticement to anyone catching sight of him - 15
Nature had molded wild and stern:
He would sooner die than consent to love.
Rough and thankless, like a tiger cub,
He only laughed at the gentlest words of a suitor,
Laughed at attentions doomed to have no effect, 20
Laughed at a sighing lover's tears.
He mocked those he himself caused to die.
Wicked indeed, this one, and as cruel as wicked,
Who with this vice in his character keeps his body from being his glory.
A handsome face demands a good mind, and a yielding one, 25
Not puffed up but ready for anything.
The little flower of youth is fleeting and too brief;
It soon withers, falls, and knows not how to revive.
This flash is now so smooth, so milky, so unblemished,
So good, so handsome, so slippery, so tender. 30
Yet the time will come when it will become ugly and rough,
When this flesh, dear boyish flesh, will become worthless.
Therefore, while you flower, take up riper practices.
While you are in demand and able, be not slow to yield to an eager lover.
For this you will be prized, not made less of made less of. 35
These words of my request, most beloved,
Are sent to you alone; do not show them to many others.
II. Satyra in amatorem puelli sub assumpta persona
De puero quodam composuit Horatius odam,
qui facile bella possit satis esse puella.
Undabant illi per eburnea colla capilli,
plus auro flavi, quales ego semper amavi.
Candida frons ut nix, et lumina nigra velut pix, 5
implumesque genae grata dulcedine plenae,
cum in candoris vernabant luce ruboris.
Nasus erat justus, labra flammea densque
Effigies menti modulo formata decenti.
Qui corpus quaeret quod tectum veste lateret, 10
tale coaptet ei quod conveniat faciei.
Haec species oris radians, et plena decoris,
cor spectatoris face succendebat amoris.
Sed puerum talem, pulchrum nimis et specialem,
irritamentum quorumlibet aspicientum, 15
sic natura ferum plasmaverat atque severum,
vellet ut ante mori, quam consentiret amori.
Asper et ingratus, tanquam de tigride natus,
ridebat tantum mollissima verba precantum,
ridebat curas effectum non habituras, 20
et suspirantis lacrymas ridebat amantis.
Illos ridebat quos ipse mori faciebat;
impius ille quidem, crudelis et impius idem,
qui vitio morum corpus vetat esse decorum.
Bella bonam mentem facies petit, et patientem, 25
et non inflatum, sed ad haec et ad illa paratam.
Flosculus aetatis citus est, nimiae brevitatis.
Postquam marcescit, cadit, et revirescere nescit
haec caro tam levis, tam lactea, tam sine naevis,
tam bona, tam bella, tam lubrica, tamque tenella. 30
Tempus adhuc veniet, cum turpis et hispida fiet:
cum fiet vilis caro chara caro puerilis.
Ergo dum flores, maturos indue mores.
Dun potes et peteris, cupido dare ne pigriteris,
per quod carus eris, nec ob hoc minor efficieris. 35
Haec mandatorum, carissime, verba meorum
missa tibi soli multis ostendere noli!
3. An Argument Against Sexual Love
An extraordinary face enhanced by a slight plumpness,
Shining whiter than snow, blushing redder than spring rose;
A starlike gaze, a smile promising tenderness,
Flamelike libations of swollen lips;
Good, straight teeth, shining white, 5
Vigorous limbs, guileless good manners –
All these has the girl who wants to unite herself to me.
And the remarkable boy whose beauty sets me on fire
Loves her, longs for her, adapts himself to please her. 9
But she, spurning the boy, yearns for me and commands, “Desire me.”
She fawns on me and almost dies because I reject her.
At one time if a shameless woman had done the same to me,
I would have been aroused to Venus and become all lust,
But my heart is now hard. I care for neither her words nor her kisses:
Kisses – filled with all that’s good in lecherous ruin, 15
Whose enticements ensnare the man chasing after love -
And words - spoken to force a way into the heart, so flattering, so sweet.
That they would bend a mind of flint or steel.
But as long as my own madness grows, it knows no bending.
When I reject her kisses, even as I spurn them I feel other kisses, 20
And as for her words, so sweet with their sound, ready to move even a eunuch's spirit,
Although I hear them, I cannot help but reject them.
The arrow which has wounded me and sent me astray is harder than steel.
The kindling of this new vice kills the other's power.
How remarkable it is! love giving pledges which conflict. 25
Look at me; the vice of lechery makes me completely chaste.
The vice which usually makes hard men soft takes away my softness.
What does it mean, I ask, that Venus herself displeases
A man wounded by love's arrow? What greedy man scorns profit? 29
What laborer refuses his pay? What plowman plows under his crops?
Nature has been overturned, and ancient laws changed
If food makes man hungry and lechery makes him chaste,
If fear makes him rash and an untroubled mind makes him flighty.
Many such things form the cords of this knot,
But then certainly discord plagues the kingdom of Satan 35
And divides it, one sin shoving another.
Harmony keeps the kingdom of virtue safe,
And will not see it destroyed as long as it is rooted in its own peace.
It is therefore better to join the camp of a kingdom 39
Fortified by its own peace than the camp of a kingdom punished by discord;
What will endure is better than what totters on the verge of collapse.
III. Dissuasio amoris Venerei
Egregium vultum modica pinguedine fultum,
Plus nive candentem, plusquam rosa verna rubentem,
sidereum visum, spondentem mollia risum,
flammea labrorum libamina subtumidorum,
dentes candentes modicos seriemque tenentes, 5
membraque cumn succo, moresque bonos sine fuco
illa puella gerit quae se mihi jungere quaerit.
Hanc puer insignis, cujus decor est meus ignis,
diligit hanc, captat, huic se placiturus adaptat; 9
quae, puero spreto, me vult, mihi mandate: Aveto:
et mihi blanditur, quia respuo, pene moritur.
Si fecisset idem mihi turpis femina pridem,
ad Venerem motus fierem lascivia totus;
pectore nunc duro, nec verba, nec oscula curo,
oscula plena bonis lascivae perditionis, 15
illecebris quorum capitur captator amorum,
verba cor intrantum blandissima dulcia tantum
ut lectant mentem silices ferrumque gerentem;
sed mea dum crescit flecti vesania nescit;
oscula dum sperno spernens tamen oscula cerno, 20
verbaque blanda sonis animum motura spadonis,
quod quamvis cernam, non possum quin eas spernam;
durius est ferro telum quo saucius erro.
Vires alterius vitii fomes, necat hujus;
o res digna nota! dat amor contraria vota; 25
luxuriae vitio castissimus en ego fio,
quod duros mollit, hoc molitiem mihi tollit.
Quid sibi vult, quaeso, quod amoris cuspide laeso
displicet ipsa Venus? Quis avarus spernere fenus? 29
Quis lucra mereator? Quis fruges novit arator?
Versa natura mutantur pristina jura,
si cibus impastum facit, et lascivia castum,
si metus audacem, si mens secura fugacem.
Talis multa modi sunt hujus vincula nodi,
sed regnum Satanae vexat dissensio plane, 35
et se divellit dum culpam culpa repellit.
Regnum virtutum servat concordia tutum,
et solvi nescit dum pace sua coalescit.
Est igitur satius, ut castris applicer hujus, 39
quod sua pax munit, quam quod discordia punit,
quod stat mansurum, quam quod titubat ruiturum.
4. An Argument Against Copulation Between People of Only One Sex
There are a hundred thousand sins invented by
|Daemonis inventum scelerum sunt milia
in quibus hunc mundum trahit ad poenale
quo qui clauduntur, neque undo mori
vellent quippe mori, quia par mors nulla
quo miser ille furit, quem flamma perennis
frons, oculi, nares, cervix, locus,
os, guttur, mammae fiunt ibi pabula
Dorsa, latus, venter flagrant indeficienter
nec frigent coxae nec mentula conscia
O quantum est tristis qui traditur ignibus
Quam fit lugubris, qui traditur esca
quin vim foetoris vix sustinet omnibus
saevi tortoris qui tunditur undique loris.
Sed licet inmitis sit in omnibus ultio Ditis,
est tamen ipsorum distantia
quae sic pensantur, ut crimina
poenas maiores maiora, minora minores.
Ergo concubitus, quem sexus perficit unus,
culpa minor nulla punitur non minus ulla.
Unde timens poenas sceleri non laxet
Qui non laxavit, retrahat, qui foeda
O scelus foedum, quasi si caper appetat
cum capra non desit cui prodolor orbis
Ut minus est nullo; punitur non minus
5. Repentance for Lecherous Love
Even recently I was bound by the reins of insane love,
Caught in birdlime, but now I'm ashamed - I have come to my senses.
The fury has dwindled and already I burn less and less.
My mind and color return, pallor and fury withdraw.
O good Savior! how a lover is deceived! 5
He thinks the foul beautiful and trades white for black,
Believes slime's stink to be spice’s aroma,
And claims things sweet as honey to be bitter as bile.
When he eats a stone he thinks he enjoys bread
And he drinks serpent’s venom as if it were wine. 10
As long as I nurtured vice, I didn’t know what I now know;
With a heart empty of virtue I was simply blind.
Deceived by my ill-got gains I thought I had achieved my goal.
If occasionally I merited a few kisses for the asking,
The smell of that mouth seemed like a flower’s perfume, 15
But now it is judged worse.
Like a rose blending at once white with red,
So that face then appeared to me; now it has the pallor of death.
It is not that the odor or the face I loved has changed;
It’s I who have changed; I reread things once dear to me. 20
For my mind erred then and valued the wrong things,
And my mind erred because it was crazy with lust’s heat
And no less overheated than a furnace slaking rocks.
Why do those dearer to me than my eyes, either he or she,
Scarcely want to talk as long as they feel they are loved? 25
If a lover's heart weren't so tortured in so many ways,
This disdain would he enough to make me rather live rather chastely.
Therefore, stay away winged boy, author of love;
There is no room for you, Cytherea, in my house.
The embraces of both sexes now displease me, 30
But he wounds me more who has wandered further from the law.
Away all delights of my former life!
For I have spurned them all and wept for all of them;
I have changed outlooks and for each of them have I wept.
If I look for wine again, let it become vinegar for me; 35
Let bread become mud, meat worms, and milk venom.
Let me eat toad instead of crane, snake instead of fish.
V. Poenitudo lascivi amoris
Strictus eram loris vesani nuper amoris,
captus eram visco, sed nunc pudet, et resipisco,
deficit ille furor, et jam minus et minus uror,
mensque colorque redit, pallorque furorque
O bone Salvator! quam decipit omnis amator! 5
Turpia pulchra putat, pro nigris candida mutat.
Coeni fetorem pigmenti credit odorem;
dulcia sicut mel testatur amara velut fel;
dum comedit lapidem, se pane frui putat idem,
et serpentinum virus potat quasi vinum. 10
Dum vitium fovi, non noram quae modo novi;
caecus eram plane cor habens virtutis inane,
praemia deceptus mihi magna videbar adeptus
oscula si quando meruissem pauca rogando,
sicut odor floris sic tunc odor illius oris 15
esse videbatur, qui nunc secus esse probatur.
ut rosa candorem miscens simul atque ruborem,
sic mihi tunc vultus qui nunc pallore sepultus;
non quia mutatus fit odor, vel vultus amatus,
sed mutatus ego, quondam mihi chara relego. 20
Nam mens errabat mea tunc, reprobemque probat;
errabat mea mens fervore libidinis amens,
nec succensa minus quam solvens saxa caminus.
Quid quod pupilla mihi charior ille, vel illa,
vix vellet fari dum se sentiret amari. 25
Si tot vel tantis cor non crucietur amantis,
sufficit hic fastus ut malim vivere castus.
Ergo maneto foris, puer aliger, auctor amoris.
Nullus in aede mea tibi sit locus, o Cytheraea!
Displicet amplexus utriusque quidem mihi sexus, 30
sed plus me laedit qui plus a jure recedit.
Omnia sunto foris vitae delicta prioris.
Omnia nam sprevi, multumque per omnia flevi;
nutavi vultum, flevique per omnia multum;
si repetam spretum vinum, mihi fiat acetum. 35
Et panis coenum, vermis caro, lacque venenum,
pro grue bufonem comedam, pro pisce draconem.
On Marbod’s apparent inconsistency
In the last poem, “Repentance for Lecherous Love”, Marbod repents of his former lust: “the embraces of both sexes now displease me”. Clearly there is nothing contradictory or even surprising about a bishop’s feelings about the value of eros changing as he reaches a certain age, grows less libidinous, and very likely thinks himself wiser. Is there, however, a contradiction between, on the one hand, his encouragement of a friend’s love affair with a boy in the first poem and the strongly boysexual feelings and admonition of a boy for refusing to “consent to love” in the second, and, on the other hand, his fierce denunciation of “copulation between people of only one sex” as “a crime less serious than none” and apparently a particularly wicked sin because it is “it is as if a billy goat went after a kid when there was no lack of female goats”?
Thomas Stehling, the scholar whose translations have been used here, sees Marbod’s “conflicting attitudes” as a steady progression from the first to the fifth poem, as he grew older. However, this presumes that the order in which the poems were written has been correctly preserved, which we do not know, and it ignores Marbod saying in the very last poem that “even recently I was bound by the reins of insane love.” Marbod’s tone throughout this poem is one of fairly sudden disillusionment with eros rather than a gradual shift in viewpoint.
A more serious objection, however, is the assumption that his attitudes were conflicting at all. In their twelfth-century context, it is entirely possible that he held consistent and non-contradictory views that loving boys for their erotic appeal was fine or even praiseworthy, but that “concubitus” (copulating) with them was the gravest of sins. This was the newly emerging age of chivalry, in which the leading poets of the day began to extol courtly love, love of women, often married, inspired by their beauty and therefore erotic, but generally expected to be more or less chaste. As Capellanus put it in 1184:
It is the pure love which binds together the hearts of two lovers with every feeling of delight. This kind consists in the contemplation of the mind and the affection of the heart; it goes as far as the kiss and the embrace and the modest contact with the nude lover, omitting the final solace, for that is not permitted for those who wish to love purely.
This is entirely consistent with all the sentiments expressed and sensual acts described in Marbod’s poems. Putting their Greek love character in its 12th-century context, it must also be remembered that the only homosexual act that was condemned was “sodomy”, the definition of which varied, but was sometimes taken to refer only to pedication. The development of courtly love owed much to Moslem literature: in the Islamic world, liwāt, the koranic equivalent of sodomy, was always interpreted as meaning pedication only, with other pederastic acts generally regarded lightly. Moreover, a then influential strand of Moslem thought, most often expounded in Sufism, considered that loving boys for their beauty in a manner very similar to the courtly love of women brought one closer to God.
 Chalonnes was a town in Anjou.
 Horace’s ode, the tenth in his fourth book of odes, is eight lines long, much shorter than Marbod’s poem. [Translator’s note].
 In view of the comparative rarity of mediaeval European writing expressing homoerotic longing, it is worth pointing out that Marbod shares the assumption common to Greek, Roman, Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Japanese writers that a male will no longer be desired by men once his physical development from boy to man is complete.
 Dis is god of the underworld. [Translator’s note]
 Note the clear assumption here that the “copulation between people of only one sex” of the title is about adult males (“a billy goat”) going after kids (and not other billy goats).
 Cytherea is a name for Venus because the island of Cythera was famous for its worship of her. [Translator’s note].
 Thomas Stehling, Medieval Latin Poems of Male Love and Friendship (New York, 1984), p. xxiv.
 Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love (Columbia University Press, New York, 1964), p. 122.
 This restrictive definition does not seem to have been predominant in the 12th century, but that need not have stopped an individual learned in the Bible from sincerely insisting on it. Take, for an example from the 17th century, James I King of England, learned and conscientious in a pedantic manner, who fondled and petted handsome youths in public (unsurprisingly leading to suspicion of greater liberties taken in private) and strongly defended his love of them (“Christ had his John and I have my George,” he told his Privy Council about the best-known one), whilst also fiercely denouncing “sodomy” in a published pamphlet.