He wrote what?

The medieval liberal arts tradition framed a set of questions that introduced the study of a text. Sometimes called the accessus ad auctores, it gave a simple formula for helping readers and students to “approach” an author:

  • Who wrote this? (discuss the author)
  • Why was it written? (discuss the author’s intent)
  • And so forth …

Constantine the African—our Benedictine monk, African immigrant, and translator of Arabic medicine—laid out a list of Accessus questions at the beginning of the Pantegni Theorica: What is the intent and purpose of the book? What is its title? To which part of formal learning does it belong? What is the name of the author? How is the book divided?

The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliothek, MS 73 J 6 (olim 542), last quarter of the 11th century, at Monte Cassino, f. 1va (detail). This is the oldest known copy of the Pantegni Theorica, and was likely made under Constantine’s supervision. This is the beginning of Book I, chapter 3, which does the formal “accessus” analysis of the book, listing the six key questions that needed to be assessed.

There were other ways to frame these questions, and additional issues that could be raised. But once you covered these basics, you could be said to properly understand a given work.

How might we apply this analysis to the text we would be most inclined to call “incongruous” in the Constantinian corpus: out-of-place, anomalous, not fitting our expectations of what a Benedictine monk would be interested in? That work is the De coitu: On Sexual Intercourse. This was the text (if you’re a regular reader of our blog) whose puzzling omission from the original Cassinese bibliography of Constantine’s works we noted before.

So, to our questions. Let’s start with an easy one: What is its title? Here is our first clue that this work was perhaps not as problematic as we might assume. In the earliest copy, it is called Liber coitus: The Book of Intercourse. No apology, no euphemism. The same holds with every other copy we have examined.

To which part of formal learning does it belong? Medicine, clearly. And that is an important point. Although reproduction (specifically the processes of embryonic formation) and women’s medicine had been topics of discussion in several early medieval Latin texts, there was no medical text devoted solely to sexuality prior to Constantine’s translation of the De coitu. The De coitu examines both the physiology of sexual function and surveys the kinds of dysfunctions and diseases that can occur to the sexual organs. Well, the male organs, at least, since the text has little interest in females.

What is the name of the author? The De coitu translates a work of Ibn al-Jazzār (d. ca. 979), the most commonly translated author in the Constantinian corpus. But we would not know that if Constantine was our only informant. Here, as elsewhere, he suppressed the original author’s name. In 1988, the Spanish scholar Enrique Montero Cartelle discovered that there was another translation of Ibn al-Jazzār’s lost text, found uniquely in a manuscript now at the Vatican Library. This translator preserved the original author’s name.

Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1123, f. 172r. This is a second, anonymous translation of Ibn al-Jazzār’s treatise on intercourse, made in the later Middle Ages. This translator, unlike Constantine, retained the original author’s name.

How is the book divided? We’ll let you explore that question yourselves. An older English-language translation exists,1 but readers would do well to consult the superb modern edition of the Latin text that Enrique Montero Cartelle produced in 1983. (It has a facing-page translation into modern Castillian. One hopes a new English translation might be produced soon.)

Last we come to the hardest question: What is the intent and purpose of the book? What Ibn al-Jazzār’s intent was we cannot fully discern, since the original Arabic version no longer survives. But we do know that Ibn al-Jazzār was hardly unique in focusing on the topic of sexual physiology and health. This was a thriving genre of medical writing in the Islamicate world.2

As for Constantine’s intent in translating it, of that, too, we are still unclear. Yes, Constantine was a monk. But he was a monk at Monte Cassino, the center of Benedictine monasticism, at the height of the debates about clerical and monastic celibacy swirling around Latin Christendom in the mid-eleventh century.3 It may even have been those debates that fostered an interest in the text. After all, it opens very clearly stating that sexual function was established by the Creator himself to ensure the propagation of all species, “for if animals disliked intercourse, all the species of animals would certainly have perished.” Many of the same frank attitudes towards sexuality can be found in others of Constantine’s works. In fact, we find in later manuscripts of the Constantinian corpus a short work on the potential harms and benefits of sexual intercourse, called (again, rather unimaginatively) the Liber minor de coitu (The Little Book of Intercourse).4

To Constantine’s six questions in the accessus, we could add a seventh: What was its fate? The De coitu is known now in thirty extant copies; the Liber minor in seven. In twelfth-century copies, neither text seems at all incongruous: andrology was just a normal part of medicine. But such frank attitudes toward sexuality were not sustained throughout the later Middle Ages. It is no coincidence that the most thorough work done on Constantine’s views on sexuality was by the Chaucer scholar, Mary Wack. For the De coitu became, ironically, Constantine’s most prominent claim to fame.

Mentioned in passing in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Constantine’s star turn comes in the Merchant’s Tale. The story is of an old man (January, which used to be one of the latter months in the calendar, hence depicting “age”) who has taken a young wife. On his wedding night, he needs fortification:

Soone after than, this hastif Januarie

Wolde go to bedde, he wolde no lenger tarye.

He drynketh ypocras, clarree, and vernage

Of spices hoote, t’encreessen his corage;

And many a letuarie hath he ful fyn,

Swiche as the cursed monk, daun Constantyn,

Hath writen in his book De Coitu;

To eten hem alle he nas no thyng eschu.

Soon after that this hasty January

Would go to bed, he would no longer tarry.

He drank of claret, hippocras, vernage,

All hot spices to heighten his love’s rage;5

And many an aphrodisiac, full and fine,

Such as the wicked monk, Dan Constantine,

Has written in his book De Coitu

Not one of all of them he did eschew.

The Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (San Marino, CA, Huntington Library, MS EL 26 C 9, f. 102v, detail). The passage mentioning Constantine appears on f. 108v.

Curiously, in both of his references to Constantine, Chaucer only refers to him by his given name– never mentioning Constantine’s own preferred epithet, Africanus. Of course, Chaucer had a lot to say about sex, but this underscores how Constantine simply serves as a prop in his story. Chaucer seems to have known little about the ways that Constantine modified the sexual ethics of his Arabic sources for a Latin audience (a subject we will return to in a later post). Like Chaucer, we can still be surprised by the extent to which a monk engaged in frank discussions of aphrodisiacs and other sexual matters; and it can be difficult to imagine the importance of monasteries like Monte Cassino as vital centers of intellectual inquiry. The works Constantine translated on sex help us to better understand this, and to see what this translator’s original intent and purpose might have been.

Further Reading:

  • Bassan, Maurice. “Chaucer’s ‘Cursed Monk’, Constantinus Africanus,” Mediaeval Studies 24 (1962), 127-140.
  • Delany, Paul. “Constantinus Africanus and Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale,” Philological Quarterly 46 (1967): 560-566.
  • Delany, Paul. “Constantinus Africanus’ De Coitu: A Translation,” The Chaucer Review 4, no. 1 (1969), 55-65.
  • Green, Monica H. “The De genecia Attributed to Constantine the African,” Speculum 62 (1987), 299-323.
  • Green, Monica H. “Constantinus Africanus and the Conflict Between Religion and Science,” in The Human Embryo: Aristotle and the Arabic and European Traditions, ed. G. R. Dunstan (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1990), pp. 47-69.
  • Matheson, Lister. “Constantinus Africanus: Liber de coitu (Liber creatoris),” in Sex, Aging, and Death in a Medieval Medical Compendium: Trinity College Cambridge MS R.14.52, Its Texts, Language, and Scribe, ed. M. Teresa Tavormina, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 292, 2 vols. (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), vol. 1, pp. 287–326.
  • Montero Cartelle, Enrique, ed. Constantini Liber de coitu: El tratado de andrología de Constantino el Africano. Monografias de la Universidad de Santiago de Compostela 77 (Santiago de Compostela, 1983)
  • Montero Cartelle, Enrique, ed. Liber minor de coitu: Tratado menor de andrología. Anonimo Salernitano. Edicion critica, traduccion y notas (Valladolid: Universidad de Valladolid, 1987).
  • Montero Cartelle, Enrique. “Sobre el autor arabe del Liber de coitu y el mode de trabajar de Constantino el Africano.” Medizinhistorisches Journal 23 (1988): 213–23.
  • Musallam, Basim. Sex and Society in Islam: Birth Control Before the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

1. Delany 1967 translated from the 1536 printed edition of the De coitu.

2. See Musallam 1983.

3. Dyan Elliott, “The Priest’s Wife: Female Erasure and the Gregorian Reform,” in: Constance Berman, ed., Medieval Religion: New Approaches (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2005), pp. 111-140.

4. The Liber minor de coitu is documented in seven manuscripts overall. One of these, the Durham, Durham Cathedral Priory, MS C.IV.12, s. xii med. (England), was unknown to Montero Cartelle when he edited the text in 1987; it now stands as the earliest known copy of the text. The Liber minor de coitu is also one of the handful of Constantinian texts for which there was a medieval vernacular translation, in this case, into Catalan. See Michael R. Solomon, The Mirror of coitus: A Translation and Edition of the Fifteenth-Century ‘Speculum al foderi’ (Madison, WI: Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, 1990); and Anna Alberni, Speculum al foder (Bellcaire d’Empordà: Edicions Vitel·la, 2007). For the (partial) Middle English translation of the De Coitu, see edition by Lister Matheson.

5. I have slightly emended the translation to better reflect the medieval concept of the “degrees” of medicines. The reference is to pharmaceutically “hot” drugs, not simply warmed-up drinks.

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