BMCR 2007.04.41

Satiric Advice on Women and Marriage: from Plautus to Chaucer

Smith, Warren S., 1941-, Satiric advice on women and marriage : from Plautus to Chaucer. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. 1 online resource (295 pages). ISBN 9780472026296 $70.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The book under review was composed around a thesis: “the belief that there is a continuity of thought, ideas, and vocabulary throughout Latin satiric literature, from Plautus and Lucretius to Walter Map [12th century] and beyond.” (p. vii) The offspring of the book is neither a conference nor a collaborative research project; the editor got an idea and gathered people who agreed to write contributions for the book. The twelve contributions are presented as chapters, not individual articles. A main problem of the volume lies here, in the difficulty of making a unified book out of the individual contributions, which treat a variety of authors and genres and explore a range of different questions. An afterword might have proved helpful in order to collect the threads. The present review first treats each chapter, and then turns to the book as a whole.

Chapter 1. Warren S. Smith: Satiric Advice — serious or not?

The important first chapter (written by the editor) is presented as follows in the preface (p. vii):

Chapter 1 … looks at the authors who discuss women and marriage from the point of view of what we can deduce about their attitudes and intentions: what makes such advice “satiric” and how the genres of satire and comedy influence our attitude toward the narrative voice, how seriously its message may be intended, and the reader for whom the message is intended.

This programme is ambitious, and perhaps also unrealistic. The editor’s way of solving the task that he has given himself is to present a number of central concepts in recent scholarship concerning satire, for example the satirist’s persona, his “pattern of apology”, and “boundary violation”, but the presentation is not very helpful. Then the chapter turns into a brief discussion of — as it seems — (nearly all) the following chapters. But arguably the introduction would have needed instead to demonstrate that there are connections between Juvenal and Jerome, for example, and it would have been better if Smith had concentrated here on answering the question of “what makes such advice ‘satiric'”. It is emphasised that the line between misogyny and misogamy is blurred. However, when some of the authors advise against marriage because Christians (men and women) should remain virgins, whereas others maintain that men should avoid marriage because man is good and woman is evil, the line seems clear enough.

Chapter 2. Richard Hawley: “In a Different Guise”: Roman education and Greek rhetorical thought on marriage.

Hawley sets out to “consider how Greek literature was embedded in the Roman educational system from an early stage” (p. 26). His article contains interesting examples, but it hardly brings new conclusions regarding the Greek influence on the Romans through their education; it is too superficial. As the author acknowledges, Greek epic and drama contain not only negative but also positive female characters, and, similarly, not all Greek philosophical treatises on the state of marriage attack the institution and are hostile towards women; thus, it seems somewhat problematic to explain the origin of stereotypes and commonplaces from these origins. Furthermore, the article would have benefited from more careful proof-reading, as there are some unfortunate repetitions and other flaws. For example, Juvenal 6 is introduced twice, and even with different plans for how it will be treated in the chapter: “I shall restrain my comments here to Juvenal’s relationship to earlier Greek comic motifs and to rhetorical commonplaces” (p. 32), and (with reference to Courtney, Winkler and Braund1), “I shall here simply summarize their findings” (p. 33). It is hard to agree that Caesennia’s husband in Juv. 6.136 ff. is presented as stupid and as an example of the character of the henpecked husband from Greek comedy. The man may be henpecked, but it is his greed and lack of morals that are targeted — not his stupidity: uidua est, locuples quae nupsit auaro. [She is single, the rich woman who has married a greedy man.]

Chapter 3. Susanna Morton Braund: Marriage, Adultery, and Divorce in Roman Comic Drama.

Susanna Morton Braund demonstrates her skills as a scholar who is very familiar with Roman comedy and who knows how to lead the reader into the problems raised by the three plays she has identified as unusual: Plautus’ Amphitruo and Menaechmi, and particularly Terence’s Hecyra. These plays have in common that they treat marriage in an unusual way for comedia palliata : instead of working up to the usual boy-gets-girl ending, these three plays have adultery and divorce as central themes. But — given that the bulk of the Greek new comedies have not survived — one may question the use of the word “experiment” related to these Roman plays.

Chapter 4. Warren S. Smith: “The Cold Cares of Venus”: Lucretius and anti-marriage literature.

In his chapter on Lucretius, Smith sees the treatment of love in De rerum natura as “one of several major stopping-off places on his survey of the irrational, using his poetry to interconnect love with other destructive forces that assault our minds and bodies, such as the hallucinations of dreams, the terrors of hell, the destructiveness of war, attacks by wild beasts, hunger and thirst, and physical disease” (p. 72). The chapter is structured according to this description, and, like De rerum natura, the chapter ends with the plague in Athens. Thus, the closest one gets to a conclusion comes in the introduction. Along the way the author discusses Lucretius’ vocabulary, and also his influence on later poetry. In the treatment of the terms used to describe love and passion in Latin poetry, Vergil’s vulnus in Aen. 4.2 might have been added to ardor, rabies, and furor. The Epicurean warns against love, but it is not clear “what makes such advice satiric”, to use Smith’s own words in the preface (p. vii). That these themes also occur in satire does not necessarily make the text satiric.

Chapter 5. Karla Pollmann: Marriage and Gender in Ovid’s Erotodidactic Poetry

The works treated are Ars amatoria and Remedia amoris. In the first part of the chapter, Pollmann discusses Ovid’s attitudes to marriage and “free” affairs, in contrast to the Augustan legislation on these matters. She characterizes (p. 94) as a “bold novelty” the fact that Book 3 of Ars amatoria is addressed to women; sex manuals existed, with advice from one prostitute to others, but not anything like this. The starting point in the section on gender is the contrast with the tendency to explain problems in marriage as stemming from the innate wickedness of women; Pollmann then goes on to analyse how Ovid treats both genders “in and out of wedlock” (p. 101). She presents an excellent explanation of Ovid’s understanding of men’s and women’s characters on the basis of the advice he gives to each gender, and, even more importantly, she connects the character traits and the given advice to each gender’s position in society.

Chapter 6. Warren S. Smith: Advice on Sex by the Self-Defeating Satirists (Horace Sermones 1.2, Juvenal Satire 6, and Roman satiric writing)

Broad as it is in its scope, the chapter must have been a challenge for its author. It is also a challenge for the reader because of its somewhat loose composition. The introduction gives some versions of the so-called marriage joke; e.g. Cicero’s in De oratore (2.278): A Sicilian, when told by a friend that his wife had hanged herself from a fig tree, replied, “Please give me some shoots from that tree to plant” (p. 112). This material might as well have been located in the introductory chapter. In its place one would have wished for an introduction to and a plan for the chapter. But, as it turns out, the central passage is a comparison between Horace and Juvenal’s attitudes to sex and marriage. One finds interesting observations, but also passages that merely paraphrase Juvenal. The reference to self-defeat in the title might well have been explained in the chapter; apparently, it refers to a “pattern of apology” that Kenney has found in these satirists, and which Smith has treated briefly in Chapter 1 (p. 6).2

In a section on the satirist or narrator under the heading “Physician, heal thyself”, Smith presents various examples of the usual contradictions between what the narrator in satiric writings says and his message. In my opinion, this trait is an essential part of what makes a text satiric, and Smith’s opinion should have been presented in Chapter 1, as promised in the Preface. Taken as a whole, the chapter is rather general in character; one wonders if it may originally have been written as an introduction?

Chapter 7. Regine May: Chaste Artemis and Lusty Aphrodite: The portrait of women and marriage in three Greek and Roman novels

May’s chapter treats female characters in ancient Greek and Roman novels on the basis of the view that there are two main types of novel: ideal romance and comic realism. Women in the ideal novels are chaste heroines with traits borrowed from drama and epic, as opposed to the ordinary folk who are protagonists in the latter category with traits borrowed from lower genres. These observations form the basis for May’s analysis of marriage as a theme in, e.g., Satyricon, and of the female characters. The chapter is well written, but nevertheless the link to the overall themes of the book— not only women and marriage, but satiric advice — is weak.

Chapter 8. Elisabeth A. Clark: Dissuading from Marriage: Jerome and the asceticization of satire

Clark’s chapter, which is both learned and well written, discusses the relationship between Jerome and Tertullian concerning asceticism and marriage. It creates difficulties for the reader that essential parts of the chapter are presented in the end notes; the 164 notes fill 9 pages, which is 1/3 of the chapter as a whole.

Clark is not the first to characterize certain of Jerome’s works as satiric;3 nevertheless, this is a crucial point. Clark notes that Jerome “deploys the satiric techniques of exaggeration, construction of a fictive adversary, and mimicry of opponents’ voices; he depicts his satiric targets through diminutive and demeaning adjectives and nouns” (pp. 154 f.). But it can be argued that these techniques are also used in other genres, and when they occur without any trace of humour, they might rather be summed up as traits of deliberative rhetoric. The problem occurs again on p. 160, where Clark argues that in Adversus Helvidium“we find a highly satirical depiction of the matron’s lot.” What Jerome does, as illustrated by a long quotation, is to describe a day in the life of a housewife, with the argument that all her duties will take time away from prayer; cf. Paul’s instruction that Christians should “pray always” (1 Thess. 5:17). But not everybody would agree that this is satirical.

Chapter 9. Barbara Feichtinger: Change and Continuity in Pagan and Christian (invective) Thought on Women and Marriage from Antiquity to the Middle Ages

Feichtinger asks why Christians turned to “the traditions of ancient misogamy or to pagan ideals of monogamy and cultic virginity when looking for arguments in favor of their ascetically motivated skepticism toward marriage” (pp. 182 f.). She is completely right in stating that “classical arguments for and against marriage were not simply taken over but underwent a complex process of adaptation” (p. 183). After an excellent analysis of central social functions of the antigamous and misogynic literature (pp. 185 f.), Feichtinger sums up the main points in which early Christian misogamy differs from that of the pagan tradition. Among these is the shift in audience, when women became addressees of the Christian anti-marriage propaganda. Her reflections are essential — also to the volume as a whole — but as they stand, they have not achieved the position they deserve, as part of the basis for the volume as a whole.

Chapter 10. Ralph Hanna III and Warren S. Smith: Walter as Valerius: Classical and Christian in the Dissuasio

This brief chapter treats Walter Map’s Dissuasio Valerii ad Ruffinum 61485; a tract that was widely disseminated during the Middle Ages (131 manuscripts). Map’s style and ideology are compared to that of his younger contemporary, Gerald of Wales, in an epistle to Map. It is argued (p. 214) that the image of “honey” is “itself rich in sensuous overtones”; one might add that honey is used in various ways in literature, e.g. as an image of eloquence.4 Regarding the translation of “pene conscius” as “feels the pain” (p. 218), it is tempting to suggest as an alternative, “almost a conjuror” 61485; interpreting 1485; a tract that was widely disseminated during the Middle Ages (131 manuscripts). Map’s style and ideology are compared to that of his younger contemporary, Gerald of Wales, in an epistle to Map. It is argued (p. 214) that the image of “honey” is “itself rich in sensuous overtones”; one might add that honey is used in various ways in literature, e.g. as an image of eloquence.4 Regarding the translation of “pene conscius” as “feels the pain” (p. 218), it is tempting to suggest as an alternative, “almost a conjuror” 61485; interpreting 1485; interpreting pene as paene instead of poenae. The contribution makes demands of the reader; for example, Canius — mentioned alongside Ulysses and Jason (p. 217) — might well have been presented.

Chapter 11. P.G. Walsh: Antifeminism in the High Middle Ages

Walsh argues, convincingly, that a primary reason for the growth of antifeminist literature in the High Middle Ages was the “interest of insuring greater numbers of well-qualified ordained clergy”, since “once married, they could not be ordained, and their path to a career in the church was accordingly closed” (p. 226). A second reason may have been a need to weaken the image of the ideal lady of twelfth century courtly poetry by Chrétien de Troyes and others (p. 227). The sources for the antifeminist literature were classical Latin texts and works by the Church Fathers, like Jerome. On the use of Juvenal, Walsh writes that “what this poet of the wit wrote tongue in cheek was enthusiastically seized upon by bitter misogynists among the medieval clergy.” Various examples are presented of antifeminist poems, collections of women’s vices, etc. The love story of Abelard and Heloise may also be placed in this context, since Heloise rejected Abelard’s proposal with reference to Jerome’s tract Adversus Jovinianum.

Chapter 12. Warren S. Smith: The Wife of Bath and Dorigen Debate Jerome

Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum was his answer to a tract in which the monk Jovinianus argued that, from a Christian point of view, marriage is on a line with celibacy. Jerome’s text goes far in antifeminism and misogamy. Through a series of quotations from Jerome and Chaucer respectively, Smith demonstrates how Alison, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, argues against Jerome’s polemic and how she adopts an Augustinian — and centrist — position on marriage. A central question is related to Jerome’s attitude. As stated above, this reader is not convinced that Jerome’s work should be characterised as satiric, nor, for that matter, that the following passage in Adversus Jovinianum (on widows) should be labelled “mocking”:

If more than one husband be allowed, it makes no difference whether he be a second or a third, because there is no longer a question of single marriage. “All things are lawful, but not all things are expedient” [1 Cor 6:12, 10:23]. I do not condemn second, third, nor, pardon the expression, eighth marriages; I will go still further and say that I welcome even a penitent whoremonger. Things that are equally lawful must be weighed in an even balance (p. 248, Adversus Jovinianum 1.15).

The reason why I wanted to read this book was the promise extended by the four key words in the title: satiric, advice, women and marriage. True, it is difficult to define “satire” as a genre, and the adjective covers an even broader field — but one possible starting point for the discussion could have been Rudd’s reflections in the introduction to his classical Themes in Roman Satire :

Roman satirists may be thought of as functioning within a triangle of which the apices are (a) attack, (b) entertainment, and (c) preaching. If a poem rests too long on apex (a) it passes into lampoon or invective; if it lingers on (b) it changes into some form of comedy; and if it remains on (c) it becomes a sermon. In this triple function preaching appears to have a less important status than the other two.5

Even though findings from more recent scholarship should be taken into account, these elements would have been useful in this particular book.

The second concept, “advice”, is also problematic. Whereas, e.g., Ovid’s erotodidactic poems are advisory in their character, the same cannot be said about comedies. Even the specifications of “women and marriage” do not apply for all the authors and works treated: the Christian authors strongly recommend celibacy to both genders. Also Ovid creates problems, since he directs his advice to both genders; moreover, its content is related to liaisons more than marriage.

There are few cross-references between chapters, even when the same material is treated. And when certain examples and anecdotes are referred to more than once, it is as though each time is the first. Let us take the famous speech of Q. Metellus Macedonicus, quoted by Gellius, as an example. The fullest treatment of his speech is given on p. 42, where the speech is quoted in Latin, with a translation and a brief commentary by Braund. On p. 183 the speech is quoted again, this time in English only, in a different translation from Braund’s, and commented upon by Feichtinger. And the speech is referred to for the third time on p. 215 (by Hanna and Smith): “Gellius is the sole source for a famous antigamous oration by one Metellus.” If we leave aside the question of antigamous, one gets the impression that Metellus was an obscure character, and again — in a chapter of which the editor is a co-author — there is no reference to the treatment in two preceding chapters. The index has the censor and orator as Macedonicus, with reference to p. 62 (Braund’s conclusion), and as Metellus, with references to pp. 42 and 183 — not to p. 215. A Pammachius occurs on p. 245; he is not in the index, and he should have been presented in the text. The same, as already noted, is the case with Canius, who is mentioned as a hero, alongside Ulysses and Jason, but is unknown to this reader.

The number of apparently unintended repetitions suggests that the book might have profited from re-editing. In Chapter 1 one finds references to Plutarch’s Moralia (the same passage, the same example) on two successive pages. Also in Chapter 1 the same argument (relating to Susanna Morton Braund’s view on Juvenal’s sixth satire) is presented twice (p. 4 and p. 12). Galatians 3.28 is paraphrased on p. 14, quoted on p. 15. On p. 121, the claim (with reference to Lucr. 4.1278-87) that “a persistent woman, even without physical charm”, will have her way is repeated only few lines later in slightly different words: “Lucretius, at the end of De rerum natura 4, admits with some resignation that a woman, even one of plain appearance, will finally succeed in conquering her man by her winning ways …”.

Furthermore, there are some factual errors. In the presentation of the so-called marriage joke in Chapter 6, the Greek version is translated in a way that affects the analysis that follows. κακὸν γυναῖκες does not mean “women are evil”; it means “women are an evil”. It is anachronistic when it is said, on a passage by Ovid in Ars amatoria, that it “is a kind of critical rephrasing of Seneca [the Younger]’s statement …” (p. 95). Similarly, on p. 27, Menander is mentioned among authors who may have influenced (among others) Xenophon and Aristotle in their treatment of marriage.

The majority of the chapters are good, and all chapters present interesting material. However, this reviewer feels that the thematic concept of this book, which was potentially its main strength, turned out to be its main weakness. The absence of a concluding discussion leaves the reader without a clear perspective on the literary treatment accorded to the themes of misogyny and misogamy from Antiquity to the Middle Ages.


W.S. Smith, Satiric Advice — serious or not?, p. 1

R. Hawley, “In a Different Guise”: Roman education and Greek rhetorical thought on marriage, p. 26

S.M. Braund: Marriage, Adultery, and Divorce in Roman Comic Drama, p. 39

W.S. Smith: “The Cold Cares of Venus”: Lucretius and anti-marriage literature, p. 71

K. Pollmann: Marriage and Gender in Ovid’s Erotodidactic Poetry, p. 92

W.S. Smith: Advice on Sex by the Self-Defeating Satirists (Horace Sermones 1.2, Juvenal Satire 6, and Roman satiric writing), p. 111

R. May: Chaste Artemis and Lusty Aphrodite: The portrait of women and marriage in three Greek and Roman novels, p. 129

E.A. Clark: Dissuading from Marriage: Jerome and the asceticization of satire, p. 154

B. Feichtinger: Change and Continuity in Pagan and Christian (invective) Thought on Women and Marriage from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, p. 182

R. Hanna III and W.S. Smith: Walter as Valerius: Classical and Christian in the Dissuasio, p. 210

P.G. Walsh: Antifeminism in the High Middle Ages, p. 222

W.S. Smith: The Wife of Bath and Dorigen Debate Jerome, p. 243.


1. E. Courtney: A Commentary on the Satires of Juvenal, London 1980, M.M. Winkler: The Persona in Three Satires of Juvenal, Altertumswissenschaftliche Texte und Studien 10, Hildesheim 1983, and S.M. Braund: “Juvenal: Misogynist or Misogamist? JRS 82 (1992): 71-86.

2. Smith refers to E.J. Kenney: “The First Satire of Juvenal.” PCPS 8 (1962): 29-40.

3. Cf. David S. Wiesen: St. Jerome as a Satirist: A Study in Christian Latin Thought and Letters, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press 1964.

4. See, for example, Ennodius, Epist. 1.9.1.

5. Niall Rudd: Themes in Roman Satire, London: Duckworth, 1986, p. 1.