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Concerning the Wicked Woman | De Muliere Mala

British Library MS Additional 47682, f. 4 [Public Domain]

Introduction to the Text

Petrus Pictor, a canon (resident clergyman) at Saint-Omer in northern France, composed De Muliere Mala (“The Wicked Woman”) in the late eleventh or early twelfth century. In his poem, Pictor first cites a litany of historical and biblical examples on the evil of womankind before detailing the fatal vengeance of a rebuffed mother-seducer who falsely accuses her own son of rape. De Muliere Mala thus participates in a long tradition of misogynistic Christian writing as embodied by Tertullian, a pioneering theologian from the second and third centuries AD, who interpreted Eve’s fall from grace as a warning that women are “the Devil’s gateway” (De Habitu Mulierum 1.1). Nevertheless, it is far more than a mere moralising text, for its explicit treatment of incestuous lust looks to Classical models: Pictor accords a literary status to his verses by referencing ancient erotic writers such as Ovid (43BC-17/18AD) and Apuleius (c. 124-170 AD). The rhetoric of the poem is reinforced by its aggressive anaphoras (repeated phrases at the beginnings of certain lines) and pounding polysyndetons (lists of words linked only by conjunctions, typically “and...and”), which simultaneously drive home the notion that all women are malicious and evoke the eponymous Wicked Woman’s uncontrollable frenzy. Owing to these complex layers, this rarely-studied poem has the potential to please a diverse crowd. It is especially interesting to consider its portrayal of sexual aggression in the light of current debates on this topic, and to question its support of gender essentialism, that is, the notion that all women share the same malevolent characteristics. The poem is, moreover, an enjoyable read as it constitutes a thrilling psychological portrait on the extremities to which lust and pride can lead.

Introduction to the Source

The De Muliere Mala was first compiled in the Liber Floridus, an 1120 encyclopedia containing what Lambert, a later canon of Saint Omer, considered to be the most important knowledge in his possession. The “autograph copy,” written in Lambert’s own hand, is currently stored in the Ghent University Library as MS 92. The manuscript includes other Pictor poems, for example a satire on money narrated by the personified Denarius (“Dollar”). The fact that Pictor’s work was deliberately excerpted for inclusion in this collection, alongside more well-known texts such as Isidore’s Etymologiae, indicates that contemporaries appreciated its literary and moral value. While there are no exact duplicates, dozens of partial copies survive, including the twelfth-century French manuscript upon which this edition is based. Their proliferation suggests that Petrus Pictor, and by extension the De Muliere Mala, were frequently read in medieval European monasteries.

Further Reading

Carver, Robert H. F. “Apuleius in the High Middle Ages.” The Protean Ass: The Metamorphoses of Apuleius from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Oxford UP, 2007, pp. 61-107.

  • Elaborates on how Pictor borrowed specific elements of his De Muliere Mala from Apuleius’ descriptions of lustful women.

Derolez, Albert. The Making and Meaning of the Liber Floridus: A Study of the Original Manuscript. Ghent, University Library, MS 92. Brepols, 2015.

  • A comprehensive introduction to the manuscript in which Pictor’s poems were first transmitted.

Muir Tyler, Elizabeth. “Reading through the Conquest.” England in Europe: English Royal Women and Literary Patronage, c. 1000-1150. U of Toronto P, 2017, pp. 260-301.

  • Describes the link between Pictor’s life experiences (e.g. his travels outside Flanders) and his poetic style, while also highlighting key contemporaries.

Van Acker, Lieven, editor. Petri Pictoris Carmina. Nec Non Petri de Sancto Audemaro Librum de Coloribus Faciendis. CCCM 25. Brepols, 1972, pp. 103-116.

  • Most recent Latin edition of Pictor’s complete works, including the De Muliere Mala.

Wieser, Marie T. “Zu Petrus Pictors misogynem Carmen 14.” Wiener Studien, vol. 115, 2002, pp. 315-20.

  • The best introduction to this text is in German. This article discusses the structure and misogynistic themes of the De Muliere Mala, and demonstrates that Pictor borrowed heavily from Roman declamation.


Transcription by Astrid KhooTranslation by Astrid KhooEncoded in TEI P5 XML by Irene Han

Suggested citation: Petrus Pictor. "Concerning the Wicked Woman." Trans. Astrid Khoo. Global Medieval Sourcebook. Retrieved on July 02, 2022.