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Alain of Lille [Alanus de lnsulis]: The Complaint of Nature. [ d. 1202.] - Extracts


Along with Peter Damian's Book of Gomorrah and the sermons of Bernardine of Siena, Alain of Lille's Plaint of Nature constitutes a spectacular attack on homosexual activity. Its special interest is the extraordinary way in which Alain goes about this: in a scenario reminiscent of Boethius Consolation of Philosophy, Nature personified visits Alain in a vision and condemns homosexual activity as unnatural. The specific terms however are drawn from grammatical rules, and biological gender is merged with grammatical gender. The full text, which is available in etext form, contains much else besides. The passages here focus on the issue of sexuality.

METRE I.

In lacrimas risus, in luctus gaudia verto.

I change laughter to tears, joy to sorrow, applause to lament, mirth to grief, when I behold the decrees of Nature in abeyance; when society is ruined and destroyed by the monster of sensual love; when Venus, fighting against Venus, makes men women; when with s her magic art she unmans men. It is not pretense that travails with sorrow, O adulterer! nor the tears of pretense, nor dissimulation; rather is it grief, and birth itself is given to sorrow. The Muse requests, this very grief commands, Nature implores that, as, I weep, I give them a mournful song. Alas! Whither has the loveliness of Nature, the beauty of character, the standard of chastity, the love of virtue departed? Nature weeps, character passes away, chastity is wholly banished from its former high station, and become an orphan. The sex of active nature trembles shamefully at the way in which it declines into passive nature. Man is made woman, he blackens the honor of his sex, the craft of magic Venus makes him of double gender. He is both predicate and subject, he becomes likewise of two declensions, he pushes the laws of grammar too far. He, though made by Nature's skill, barbarously denies that he is a man. Art does not please him, but rather artifice; even that artificiality cannot be called metaphor; rather it sinks into viciousness. He is too fond of logic, with whom a simple conversion causes the rights of Nature to perish. He strikes on an anvil which emits no sparks. The very hammer deforms its own anvil. The spirit of the womb imprints no seal on matter, but rather the plowshare plows along a sterile beach. Thus the iambic measure goes badly with the dactylic foot of earthly love, in which always the long syllable does not permit a short. Though all the beauty of man humbles itself before the fairness of woman, being always inferior to her glory; though the face of the daughter of Tyndaris is brought into being and the comeliness of Adonis and Narcissus, conquered, adores her; for all this she is scorned, although she speaks as beauty itself, though her godlike grace affirms her to be a goddess, though for her the thunderbolt would fail in the hand of Jove, and every sinew of Apollo would pause and lie inactive, though for her the free man would become a slave, and Hippolytus, to enjoy her love, would sell his very chastity. Why do so many kisses lie untouched on maiden lips, and no one wish to gain a profit from them? These once pressed on me would sweeten my lips with flavor, and, honeyed, would offer a honeycomb to the mouth; the spirit would go out in kisses, all given over to the mouth, and play on lips with itself. So that until I should in this way die, my course finished, I, as another self, would in these kisses enjoy a happy life to the utmost. Not only does the adulterous Phrygian pursue the daughter of Tyndaris, but Paris with Paris devises unspeakable and monstrous acts. Not only does Pyramus seek the kisses of Thisbe through the chink, but no small opening of Venus pleases him. Not only does the son of Peleus counterfeit the bearing of a maiden, that so to maidens he may prove himself dear, but he wickedly gives away the gift of Nature for a gift, in selling for the love of money his sex. Such deserve anathema in the temple of Genius, for they deny the tithes of Genius and their own duties.

***

PROSE IV.

Praefala igitur virgo hujus quaestionis solutionem in vestibulo excubare demonstrans.

Then the virgin, showing that the answer to this question lay watchful on its threshold, said:

'Can it be that thou dost not know that the transgression of the earthly sphere, that the disorder in the ordering of the world, that the carelessness of government, that the unjustness of law, have forced me to descend from the innermost sanctuaries of heavenly mystery to the common brothels of earth? If thou wert willing to gather up in the loving sympathy of thy mind and to treasure in the closet of thy heart that which I would say, I would unfold the labyrinth of thy perplexity.'

To these words I returned, with strict restraint of my voice, a fitting reply.

For nothing,' said I, 'O heavenly queen, do I hunger with a more eager desire than the explanation of this question.'

Then said she:

'Since all things are by the law of their being held subject to my laws, and ought to pay to me a rightful and established tribute, almost all, with just dues and with seemly presentation, regularly obey my commands; but from this general rule man alone is excluded by an abnormal exception. He, stripped of the cloak of decency, and prostituted in the shameless brothel of unchastity, dares to stir tumult and strife not only against the majesty of his queen, but also to inflame the madness of intestine war against his mother. Other creations, on which l have bestowed the lesser gifts of my favor, throughout the rank of their activities are bound in willing subjection to the inviolability of my commands. But man, who exhausted the treasury of almost all my riches, tries to overthrow the natural impulses of nature, and arms against me the violence of wicked lust. Consider how almost all things, according to the proclamation of my command, perform. reasonably as their native character demands, the fixed duties of my law. The firmament, according to my principle and teaching, leads all things not in vain in daily circuit, and with identity of turning advances its course, and retreats from whither it has advanced. The stars, as they shine for the glory of the firmament itself, and clothe it with their splendors, and complete the short day of their journey, and compass the celestial space with their various orbits, serve my majesty. The planets, according to the going forth of my command and order, restrain the rapid motion of the firmament, going to their rising with contrary steps, and afterward repairing to the place of their setting. Thus, too, the air, disciplined under my instruction, now rejoices with a kindly breeze, now weeps in the tears of the clouds as if in sympathy, now is angered by the raging of the winds, now is shaken by the threatening rumble of thunder, now is parched in the furnace of heat, now is sharpened with the severity of cold. The birds, which have been fashioned in various forms under my supervision and ordering, marvel greatly at my teachings, as they cross the floods of air on the oarage of their wings. Because of my intervening mediation, the sea is joined closely to the earth by the firm bonds of friendship, and does not dare to violate its solemn obligations of faith sworn with its sister. and fears to stray further into the habitations of earth than the limit established for its wandering. At my mere I will and wish it is now vexed into the wrath of the storm, now returns to the peace of tranquillity, now, borne aloft by its swelling pride, rises to the likeness of a mountain, now is leveled out into a smooth plain. The fish, bound to their vow of my acknowledgment, fear greatly to detract from my rules and canons. By my order and edict, the rains are married to the earth in a kind of imperial embrace. They, laboring with untiring production at the creation of progeny, cease not to be parents of the various species of things. The terrestrial animals beneath my examination and management do not profess activities at variance with the sovereignty which is over their obedience. The earth now whitens with the hoariness of frosts, now is fringed with flowery vegetation. The forest now has grown its leafy hair, now is shorn by the sharp razor of winter. Winter holds the buried seeds deep in the lap of mother earth, spring sets the captives free, summer ripens the harvests, autumn displays her riches. But why should I permit the course of my narration to stray to instances? Man alone rejects the music of my harp, and raves under the lyre of frenzied Orpheus. For the human race, derogate from its high birth, commits monstrous acts in its union of genders, and perverts the rules of love by a practice of extreme and abnormal irregularity. Thus, too, man, become the tyro of a distorted passion, turns the predicate into direct contraposition, against all rules. Drawing away from power to spell of love aright, he is proved an unlettered sophist. He avoids the fitting relation of the Dionean art and falls to vicious perversion. And while he subverts me with such pursuit, he also in his frenzy plots execution against me. I grieve that I have widely adorned men's natures with so many privileges and beauties, for they abuse and bring the honor of honor to disgrace, deform the fairness of the body with the ugliness of lust, mar the color of beauty with lurid paint - the hue of adulterous desire-and even, as they blossom into vices, deflower the bloom of Flora. Why did I deify the countenance of Helen with divine grace, who forced the use of her beauty awry into the abuse of harlotry, breaking her faith with her royal couch, and binding herself in marriage with Paris? Pasiphae, also, driven by the madness of inordinate lust, in the form of a cow corruptly celebrated her bestial nuptials with a brute animal, and, concluding with a viler error, ended by the miscreated enormity of the bullock. Myrrha, roused by the stings of myrrh-breathing Venus, and fallen from the affection of a daughter to a lust for her father, filled and renewed with her father the office of her mother. Medea, cruelly treating her own son in order that she might erect the inglorious work of love, destroyed love's small and glorious work. Narcissus, when his shadow falsely told of another Narcissus, was filled with dreamy thoughts, and, believing his very self to be another, ran to the danger of passion for himself. And many other youths, clothed by my favor with noble beauty, who have been crazed with love of coin, have turned their hammers of love to the office of anvils. Such a great body of foul men roam and riot along the breadth of the whole earth by whose seducing contact chastity herself is poisoned. Of such of these men as profess the grammar of love, some embrace only the masculine gender, some the feminine, others the common or indiscriminate. Some, as of heteroclite gender, are declined irregularly, through the winter in the feminine, through the summer in the masculine. Some, in the pursuit of the logic of love, establish in their conclusions the law of subject and the law of predicate in proper relation. Some, who have the place of the subject, have not learned how to form a predicate. Some only predicate, and will not await the proper addition of the subject's end. Others scorning to enter into the court of Dione devise a miserable sport below its vestibule. Against all these justice makes her complaint, the law is armed and together they strive to avenge their wrongs with the sword of retribution. Thou wilt not marvel, then, if I depart into these strange, unholy words, since unholy men dare to practice licentiousness. For I throw them forth indignantly, to the end that virtuous men so may respect the character of chastity, and that the shameless may be restrained from the lewd practices of lust. Indeed, a knowledge of evil is expedient for security, for it punishes the guilty, branding them with the mark of shamelessness, and fortifies those who are without the armor of caution. Now my explanation has filed away and erased the worry of thy doubt. For these reasons, then, did I pass from the secret places of the heaven's court above, and descend to the lowlands of this mortal earth, that I might, With thee as with my friend and confidant, lay down my sad burden of the accursed vices of men, and with thee determine what answering punishment should be given to such rebellion in crime, in order that the sting of the punishment might be made as great as the scourge of those crimes, and might equal them in retribution.'

Then said 1:

`O thou who directest all things, did I not fear to provoke loathing in thy kindness by the number of my questions, I would expose to the light of thine understanding the shadows of another doubt of mine.'

'Nay, rather,' she answered, 'do thou impart to our hearing all thy questions, not only those of recent birth but also those aged in the rust of years, that the agitatiton of thy doubts may be quieted by the sure strength of our explanations.'

Then said I:

`I marvel as I think of the compositions of the poets, why thou armest the points of these invectives solely against the faults of human kind, while we also read that the Gods limped with the same steps of transgression. For Jupiter, who carried away the Phrygian boy to the upper world, bore for him there a proportionate desire; and while he appointed him -as the charge of bearing him the cup at his table during the day, he made him his bedfellow on the couch at night. And Bacchus and Apollo, co-heirs of the paternal lewdness, turned to women, not in the power of godlike strength, but by the trick of superstitious glove, feigning to be boys.'

Then she, her first calm look much disquieted, said:

What! in thine asking dost thou clothe in the likeness of a doubt a question which is not worthy to take the form of a doubt? Dost thou attempt to give faith to the dreamy fancies of the poets, which the activity of poetical art has portrayed? Does not philosophy's saner treatment file away and erase with higher understanding that which is learned in the child's cradle of poetic teaching? Can it be that thou dost not know how poets expose naked falsehood to their hearers with no protecting cloak, that they may intoxicate their ears, and, so to speak, bewitch them with a melody of honeyed delight; or how they cloak that same falsehood with a pretense of credibility, that, by means of images of objective things, they may mold the souls of men on the anvil of dishonorable assent ; or that in the shallow exterior of literature the poetic lyre sounds a false note, but within speaks to its hearers of the mystery of loftier understanding, so that, the waste of outer falsity cast aside, the reader finds, in secret within, the sweeter kernel of truth? Sometimes poets combine historical events and imaginative fancies, as it were in a splendid structure, to the end that from the harmonious joining of diversities a finer picture of the story may result. But yet, when the great body of the gods is spoken of by the poets idly and vainly, or the very deities are said to have stealthily withdrawn their hands from the chastening rods of Venus, there dawns the shadow of untruth, nor in such matter is the poet found varying from his peculiar quality. For surely, when the dreams of Epicurus are put to sleep, the madness of Manichaeus cured, the intricacies of Aristotle argued out, the fallacies of Arius refuted. reason then proves the sole unity of God, the universe declares it, faith believes it, Scripture attests it. In Him is no spot found, Him no evil fault attacks, with Him no tempting passion abides. Here is splendor never failing, life untiring and immortal, a fountain always springing, a fruitful conservatory of being, the great source of wisdom, the primal origin of goodness Then what of it if many, as in the case of the poets, have distorted the ultimate categories of love for purposes of literature ? The view either that there are gods, or that they wanton at the sports of love is false [1] reme and darkens to depths of extreme falsehood.' Over that I have drawn the cloud of silence, but the other I have unfolded in the light of a true explanation.'

At this I said:

`Now I see, mother, that my question savors of a most childlike ignorance. Still, if another very small inquiry, which promises at least a certain worth, may dare to appear in thy hearing for consideration, my wish would be to question thee of a certain matter, not merely in query but in lament.'

To these words she replied:

Have I not before this extended to thee free reins to ask without any hindrance or restraint by me?' I marvel " then I said, wherefore certain parts of thy tunic, which should be like the connection of marriage, suffer division in that part of their texture where the fancies of art give the image of man.'

'Now from what we have touched on previously,' she answered, I thou canst deduce what the figured gap and rent mystically show. For since, as we have said before, many men have taken arms against their mother in evil and violence, they thereupon, in fixing between them and her a vast gulf of dissension, Lay me the hands of outrage, and themselves tear apart my garments piece by piece, and, as in them, force me, stripped of dress, whom they ought to clothe with reverential honor, to come to shame .like a harlot. This tunic, then, is made with this rent, since by the unlawful assaults of man alone the garments of my modesty suffer disgrace and division.'

Then said I:

Now the stream of my doubts is calmed by the light of thine explanations, and grants my mind a rest from disquiet. But should it commend itself to thy favor, I would eagerly strive to learn what irrational reason, what indiscreet discretion, what- misguided affection, has so forced man's little spark of reason to slumber, that, he, drunk, with the Lethean cup, of sensuality, not only has become an apostate from thy laws, but also unrighteously rebels against them.'

Then she answered:

'If thy wish is to learn the seeding and origin of this evil, thou shouldst rouse the flame of higher thought, and creep on to seek with a more eager desire for understanding. Let keenness expel the intellect's stupidity, let constancy of attention check flooding thoughts. For as I make my beginning in a loftier and nobler style, and desire to weave the line of my story, I do not wish as before to explain my principles on a dead level of words, nor yet to pollute unholy subjects with new profanities of speech, but rather to gild with the olden ornaments of chaste words matters of shame, and to deck them in the various colors of beautiful expression. For it is fitting to purple the dross of the aforesaid vices with glowing phrase, to perfume the foulness of evil with the odor of sweet words, in order that the stench of such great filth may not go abroad far upon the winds, and bring many to indignation and loathing disgust. Sometimes, no doubt, as we have touched on hitherto, since speech should be related to the matters of which we speak, deformity of expression ought to be molded I to ugliness of subject. But in the coming theme, in order that evil words may not offend the readers' hearing, nor establish an abode in the mouth of a virgin, wish to give to these monstrous vices a cloak of well-sounding phrases.'

'Now the hunger of my intellect,' I said, 'the sharpness of my burning desire, the ardor of my fervent spirit, the constancy of my heightened and firm attention, request the things which thou promisest.'

Then said she:

'When God wished to bring the creation of His worldly palace out from the spiritual abode of His inner preconception into external mold, and to express, as in a material word and by its real existence, the mental word which He had conceived from the everlasting foundation of the universe, like a splendid world's architect, like a goldsmith working in gold, like the skilful artisan of a stupendous production, like the industrious workman of a wonderful work, He fashioned the marvelous form of His earthly palace, not with the laborious assistance of an exterior agency, nor by the help of material lying there at hand, nor because of any base need, but by the power of His sole independent will. Then God added to this worldly palace various kinds of things, and these, though separated by the strife of different natures, He governed with harmony of proper order, furnished with laws and bound with ordinances. And thus He united with mutual and fraternal kisses things antagonistic from the opposition of their properties, between which the space had made its room from contraries, and He changed the strife of hatred into the peace of friendship. All things, then, agreeing through invisible bonds of union, plurality returned to unity, diversity to identity, dissonance to harmony, discord to concord in peaceful agreement. But after the universal Maker had clothed all things with the forms for their natures, and had wedded them in marriage with portions suitable to them individually, then, wishing that by the round of mutual relation of birth and death there should to perishable things be given stability through instability, infinity through impermanence, eternity through transientness, and that a series of things should be continually woven together in unbroken reciprocation of birth, He decreed that similar things, stamped with the seal of clear confirmity, be brought from their like along the lawful path of sure descent. Me, then, He appointed a sort of deputy, a coiner for stamping the orders of things, for the purpose that I should form their figures on the proper anvils, and should not let the shape vary from the shape of the anvil, and that through my activity and skill the face of the copy should not be changed by additions of any other elements from the face of the original. Accordingly, obeying the command of the Ruler, in my work I stamp, so to speak, the various coins of things in the image of the original, exemplifying the figure of the example, harmoniously forming like from like, and have produced the distinctive appearances of individual things. Yet beneath the mysterious, divine majesty, I have so performed this work and service that the right hand of spiritual power should direct my hand in its application, since the pen of my composition would stray in sudden error, should it not be guided by the supreme Supporter. Without the help, however, of an assisting worker, I could not perfect so many classes of things. Therefore, since it pleased me to sojourn in the grateful palace of the eternal region, where no blast of wind destroys the peace of pure serenity, where no dropping night of clouds buries the untired day of open heaven, where no violence of tempest rages, where no rioter's madness impends in thunder, in the outskirt world I stationed Venus who is skilled in the knowledge of making, as under-deputy of my work, in order that she, under my judgment and guidance, and with the assisting activity of her husband Hymen and her son Cupid, by laboring at the various formation of the living things of earth, and regularly applying their productive hammers to their anvils, might weave together the line of the human race in unwearied continuation, to the end that it should not suffer violent sundering at the hands of the Fates.'

While, in the progress of this narrative, mention was being made of Cupid, I slipped a question of the following tenor into an interruption, with which I had broken in, saying:

`Stay! stay! Did I not fear to incur disfavor from thy kindness by rude division of thy speech, and by the burden of my questions, I would desire to know, from thy discernment and by thy delineation, the' nature of Cupid, on whom thy speech has touched before with some slight mention. For though various authors have pictured his nature under the covering wrap of allegory, they have yet left us no marks of certainty. And his authority over the human race is seen from experience to be so powerful that no one, whether marked with the seal of nobility, or clothed in the beauty of exceptional wisdom, or fortified with the armor of courage, or robed in the garment of loveliness, or honored with distinctions of other graces, can except himself from the comprehensiveness of the power of love.'

Then she, slowly shaking her head, said in words foretelling rebuke:

'I believe that thou art serving as a paid soldier in the camp of Cupid, and art connected with him by some relationship and close intimacy. For thou dost eagerly try to explore his tangled maze, though thou oughtest rather to be applying thy mind's attention the more closely to my discourser rich in treasures of thought. But nevertheless, before it advances into the course of my further speech, since I sympathize with the weakness of thy humanity, I am obliged to dispel, as far as in my small ability lies, the shadows of thine ignorance. Besides I am bound to the solving of thy problems by solemn obligation and promise. So, either through describing with faithful description, or defining with correct definition, a matter that is non-demonstrable I shall demonstrate, one that is inextricable I shall untangle, albeit this, which is not bound in obedience by connections with any substance, and does not desire the scrutiny of the intellect, cannot be stamped with mark or any description. Then let there be given this representation of the subject, as I have determined it, let this issue as the explanation of a nature inexplicable, let this be the conception of a subject unknown this theory be given of a matter not ascertainable and yet, withal, in chastened and lofty style:

***

from PROSE IX.

...'By the authority of the Absolute Being and of His eternal thought, and with the approbation of the celestial soldiery, and the agreement of Nature and the assisting ministry of the attendant virtues beside, let him be separated from the kiss of heavenly love, as the desert of ingratitude demands, let him be degraded from the favor of Nature, let him be isolated from the harmonious assembly of the things of Nature, whoever turns awry the lawful course of love, or is often shipwrecked in gluttony, or swallows greedily the delirium of drunkenness, or thirsts in the fire of avarice, or ascends the shadowy pinnacle of insolent pride, or suffers the deep-seated destruction of envy, or keeps company with the false love of flattery. Let him who makes an irregular exception to the rule of love be deprived of the sign of love. Let him who is deep in the abyss of gluttony be chastised by shamefaced beggary. Let him who sleeps in the Lethean stream of drunkenness be tormented with the fires of perpetual thirst. Let him in whom burns the passion to possess incur the continual needs of poverty. Let him who, exalted on the precipice of pride, throws out a spirit of arrogance, fall ingloriously into the valley of dejected humility. Let him who envies and gnaws like the, moth of detraction at the riches of another's happiness first find himself an enemy to himself. Let him who hunts gifts from the rich by the hypocrisy of flattery be cheated by a reward of deceptive worth.'


from Alain of Lille [Alanus de lnsulis], d. 1202., The Complaint of Nature., Yale studies in English, v. 36 (1908), translation of De planctu natura by Douglas M. Moffat, [Reprinted 1972 as an Archon Book by The Shoe String Press, Inc., Hamden, Connecticut]


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(c)Paul Halsall Mar 1996
halsall@murray.fordham.edu