Marbod of Rennes c. 1035–1123
Marbod of Rennes
Marbod of Rennes was a French writer, theologian, and teacher who grew up in Angers and became chancellor in 1069. Other significant positions he held included archdeacon of Angers and bishop of Rennes. Along with the writings of his contemporaries in the "Loire Circle," Baudri of Bourgueil (1046–1130) and Hildebert of Lavardin (1056–1134), Marbod's poetry has a tantalizing erotic voice that seems to be incongruous with his religious vocation.
Marbod's writings are wide-ranging in scope and theme. His surviving prose works include official letters and local saints' lives; his extant poetic works include biblical stories in verse, poems on the suffering and martyrdom of saints, a lapidary (a text describing the uses of various rocks, stones, and gems, often focusing on their pseudo-scientific curative properties) titled Liber lapidum (The Book of Gems), and a rhetorical work De ornamentis verborum, (On the Adornments of Words). Liber decem capitulorum (The Book of Ten Little Headings) often is considered Marbod's most impressive accomplishment; it is a ten-chapter meditation on the human condition that addresses themes such as writing, time, women, old age, astrology, death, and the resurrection of the body. This work masterfully and poetically discusses the condition of humanity in a fallen world.
Marbod's epistles and poetry strike many modern readers as disarmingly sexual in terms of both heterosexual and homosexual attraction. For example, "Dissuasio amoris venerei" (Argument against the love of Venus) describes a love triangle that ultimately leaves the speaker unfulfilled:
Hanc puer insignis, cujus decor est meus ignis,
Diligit hanc, captat, huic se placiturus adaptat;
Quae, puero spreto, me vult, mihi mandat:
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.
This distinguished boy whose beauty is my fire,
Loves her, desires her, changes himself to please her;
She, disdaining the boy, wants me and commands me [to] desire [her].
She coaxes me, [but] because I scorn [her], she almost dies.
Once if a base woman had done the same thing to me,
I would have been wholly lascivious, moved to Venus;
Now with a hard heart, I care neither for [her] words nor [her] kisses.
The sexual desires expressed in this poetic love triangle are surprisingly fluid as the speaker suggests that he formerly was attracted to women but now finds this young man more to his taste despite the boy's apparent heterosexual inclinations. It is difficult to understand the cultural milieu of this strikingly erotic verse, and theories to explain its brash voicing of illicit desire include the idea that Marbod was writing for a small community of like-minded men, that such depictions of love conceived of as an ennobling force ultimately bereft of sexual connotations, and that such desires were expressed only to be repudiated to sanctify the poet within a Catholic understanding of salvation.
Marbod's oeuvre represents some of the finest medieval Latin verse. The declarations of apparently transgressive sexual desires in his poetry remain intriguingly difficult to contextualize as he appears to celebrate flagrantly sexual sensibilities that mostly were taboo in the medieval world.
Migne, J.-P., ed. 1844–1864. Patrologia Latina, vol. 171, cols. 1458-1782.
Stehling, Thomas, trans. 1984. Medieval Latin Poems of Male Love and Friendship. New York: Garland.
Boswell, John. 1980. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jaeger, C. Stephen. 1999. Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost Sensibility. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Pugh, Tison. 2004. Queering Medieval Genres. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.