Helen the Whore and the Curse of Beauty

Bettany Hughes asks why the story of a beautiful woman over 2,500 years ago still has the power to inflame men’s passions.

In the archives of Trinity Hall College, Cambridge, there is an infrequently studied medieval manuscript. Created in 1406 it is an illustrated version of Boethius’ sixth-century ad Consolation of Philosophy. The Consolation is a fusion of Christian and pagan principles written in an attempt to identify the root of happiness – and set down while the author Boethius was awaiting execution in Pavia. On one page of the discoloured parchment, Helen of Troy, dressed in the fashionable robes of the day, stands on a parapet while flags flutter on the towers of the castle behind her; she stares down at Paris who is climbing up to greet her. Helen has a flick of rouge on her cheeks. She grips Paris’ shoulders firmly, hauling him up towards her and to infidelity.

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