men inferior in guile and manipulation of paternity

Despite the development of cheap, accurate genetic paternity testing, most men lack this high-quality knowledge about who are their biological children.  Moreover, important legal rulings are rendered without regard for accurate paternity knowledge.  These rulings are part of public actions that deliberately obscure true paternity knowledge.  Biological paternity is fundamental to human evolution.  Why do so many men continue to remain ignorant of their true biological paternity?  The answer may be that men are inferior to women in communicative sophistication, emotional resourcefulness, and guile.

While men’s inferiority is of relatively little public concern today, it has attracted considerable attention in ancient and medieval literature.  Consider, for example, a story included in a thirteenth-century European work:

Guy found his wife in their bedroom underneath Simon, who was humping her on the edge of the bed. After that piece of work, Guy was furious. He scolded and criticized his wife, saying, “Get out, wicked woman, may God destroy you, body and soul, for your wickedness is now only too clear.” But the woman quickly contradicted her husband, replying, “Are you trying to kill me? What’s wrong with you?” And the martyr said to her, “I want a divorce.” “Uuah,” she said “why do you dare to speak such evil words to me? My father was once deluded into thinking that what you accuse me of now happened to him. He imagined that he had seen my mother behaving in a wifely manner underneath another man, but his eyesight was defective. I know that my mother died as a result of such an incident, and just so also my other female ancestors. Dear husband, tell me, where did you get such a crazy idea? Why comes this melancholy mood? Dear friend, do you want to destroy me? Do you want me to live, or to die having done no wrong and without reason? You would be a wicked man indeed. Tell me, what do you want me to do?” The poor wretch wept as he embraced her and said to her, “Sweet sister, I want you to live. If you were ever to be snatched away before a century of life, as your mother was, your death would be for me a blow too bitter.” She replied. “It is therefore necessary that you acknowledge publicly that I was never guilty of this doing, or I will die, and that’s no fable. Go, say that it was a lie and that you dreamed it, for in this way my female ancestors expired.” Against this argument the husband could find no defense, and without further delay, in the presence of their female neighbors, gossips, and cousins, he repented fully and swore that he had lied and had wrongly accused her. [1]

In this story, the wife and husband interact with remarkable emotional realism and depth of personal feeling.  Nonetheless, modern commentators treat such literature as contemptuous or hateful.  They also tend to emphasize the straight-forward moral teaching: a man should not breach a controversial issue with a woman and thus threaten her with death.[2]

Other literature similarly underscores men’s inferiority in wit and subtlety.  A story included in another thirteenth-century work describes a husband deeply worried about his wife’s sexual fidelity.  The husband purchased a caged parrot.  After the husband went out to work, his wife’s lover arrived.  The wife and the lover had sex.  Returning later, the husband ordered the parrot to tell what he saw.  The parrot told of the wife’s infidelity.  The husband, furious, left to spend the night elsewhere.  After nightfall, the wife put the parrot on the floor and poured water over its cage like rain.  With a lamp and a mirror the wife mimicked lightening, and with a grindstone, thunder.  All night long she continued to make weather.  In the morning, the husband returned to the home to get a further report from the parrot.  The parrot stated that he couldn’t see or hear anything because of the night-long storm.  The husband, with direct, contrary knowledge of that night’s weather, denounced the parrot as a liar.  The husband apologized to his wife for accusing her of infidelity and ordered the parrot to be killed.[3]  The husband’s guile thus fell far short of his wife’s.

The literature presents even two men as not equal in guile to one woman.  In this account, a wife had as a lover a high official in the king’s court.  The official-master sent a male servant to the wife to check if she was ready for a tryst.  The wife, finding the servant handsome, propositioned him.  They then had sex.  Wondering what was delaying his servant’s report, the master himself came to the house.  The servant responded to the knock on the door with panic.  The wife calmly commanded him to hide in the alcove.  Just as the master entered, the husband arrived at the door.  The wife then commanded the master to draw his sword and threaten her.  After the husband entered and saw the master with drawn sword, the master left quickly. The wife explained to her husband:

The young man in that alcove came fleeing in terror from him, and finding the door unlocked, he came in crying for help, with his master on his heels ready to murder him. He ran to me, and I stood in front of him and prevented the man from killing him. That is why the man left here insulting and threatening me. But as God is my witness, he didn’t frighten me! [4]

The wife thus described herself as a strong, independent woman.  After checking at the door that the master was gone, the husband summoned the servant from the alcove and told him that he could now safely leave.  The husband praised his wife:

You have played the role of a fine woman and you have done well, and I am very grateful to you. [5]

Just so throughout history have many good men encouraged and empowered women.  Much progress has been made, but much work remains to be done.

Achieving gender equality requires giving men true knowledge about who are their biological children.  Cheap, highly accurate genetic testing technology is readily available.  The main obstacle to its use is men’s inferiority in guile and manipulation.[6]  To encourage and empower men, good women should advocate for paternity testing as a default procedure prior to including a man’s name on a child’s birth certificate.

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[1] Jean le Fèvre, Les Lamentations de Matheolus, Bk. I, ll. 850-899, my translation from Old French, benefiting from Karen Pratt’s translation, Blamires, Pratt & Williams (1992) pp. 179-180.  Le Fèvre’s work, written in 1371-2, is an adaptation of Matheolus’s Latin work Liber lamentationum Matheoluli, written between 1295 and 1301.  Both source texts are in Van Hamel (1892) pp. 27-8.  Matheolus is also known as Mathieu of Boulogne, and by the deprecatory names Matheolulus (a self-description) and Matthew the Bigamist (he married a widow).  Le Fèvre retained the plot, but elaborated upon the husband and wife’s interaction in translating Matheolus’s text.  Here’s my English translation of Matheolus’s Latin text:

Guy sees his wife in their bedroom having sex with Simon. After that deed, Guy exclaims, “Get out, you brazen whore!” Interrupting her husband, the wife says: “My dear sweetie, what’s the problem?” He recounts what he saw. And she says: “Husband! You want a divorce?  Uuah! So it happened to my father before the death of my mother; in this way my forefathers caused the death of all my foremothers, who were innocent. What should I do? Husband, what do you say to me? Behold, I will die soon.” Pro, con, the husband ponders; But in the end he believes his wife and begins to cry. His wife says, “My dear, do you want me to live?” — “I want you to live, sweet, loyal and good sister; your death would be too bitter oh! for me to see.” “Therefore, it is necessary for you to say that you were entirely lying about this matter, or I will die soon, just as my mothers were made to die.” Calling together the neighbors, the husband swears that he lied.

A very similar story exists in Old French among the fables of Marie de France.  Marie de France’s story ends:

And so, forewarned all men should be
That women know good strategy.
They’ve more art in their craft and lies
Than all the devil can devise.

Fables, n. 45 (“The Peasant Who Saw His Wife With Her Lover”), trans. Spiegel (1987) p. 139.  Many similar codas occur in stories within the Book of Sindibad / Seven Sages corpus. Id., p. 3, suggests that Marie de France is “one of the greatest writers of the Middle Ages and one of the greatest of all women writers.”  Not surprisingly, Marie de France recognized men’s inferiority in guile.

Marie de France’s concern for men’s inferiority in guile isn’t limited to one fable.  In Marie de France’s fable collection, the fable immediately preceding “The Peasant Who Saw His Wife With Her Lover” is “The Peasant Who Saw Another With His Wife.”  In the latter fable, a wife convinces her husband to doubt the truth of his sight of her in their marital bed with another man.  The wife shows her husband his reflection in vat of water, urges him to recognize that he is not actually in the vat of water and that, likewise, she was not actually in bed with another man.  The husband defers to his wife’s insight and repudiates his sight.  The fable concludes:

Each one has best believe and know
Whatever his wife says, is so!
And not believe what false eyes see;
Their vision can be trickery!

Fables, n. 44, trans. Spiegel (1987) p. 137.  Matheolus, apparently following in Latin the lead of Marie de France in Old French, similarly groups with the above story another that concludes:

So the sight he sees shows non-sight
Thus is proved that woman can contradict seeing.

Sic visus visum nonvisum testificatur;
Ergo redargutus visus muliere probatur.

Liber lamentationum Matheoluli, Bk. 1, ll. 419-420, Van Hamel (1892), v. 1, p. 29.  The large scholarly literature on Marie de France seems not to have fully seen her contribution to Matheolus’s Lamentations.

[2] This approach, for example, pervades the collection, organization, and comments in Blamires, Pratt & Williams (1992).  For readers with understanding, the editors thus add humor to a rather tiresome collection of texts.

[3] This story is part of the Book of Sindibad / Seven Sages corpus.  Within that corpus, it is known as Avis.  The summary above is based mainly on the English translation in Keller (1956) pp. 22-24, which is based on a medieval Spanish manuscript dated 1253.

[4] Translated id. pp. 25-6.  This story, also from the Book of Sindibad / Seven Sages corpus, is known within that corpus as Gladius. The Lai of the Sparrowhawk {Le lay de l’espervier}, an Old French lai composed at the beginning of the thirteenth century, tells a version of Gladius. For the Old French text and analysis of the lai, Paris (1878). For an English translation, Burgess & Brook (2016) Ch. 16. Boccaccio’s Decameron 7.6 is another version of Gladius.

The Book of Sindibad / Seven Sages corpus includes many other stories of men failing to recognize their wives or mistress’s guile in having sex with another.  Early Hebrew manuscripts in the Book of Sindibad / Seven Sages corpus include a story, not found elsewhere in that corpus, of men’s susceptibility to guile.  A merchant who had a beautiful wife went on a business trip to a far-off land.  While her husband was gone, the wife had trysts with her lover.  Upon returning, the husband noticed on the walls of the room “phlegm” (probably meaning watery signs of heavy breathing).  He accused his wife of adultery.  She denied the affair and declared, “no man has touched me even with his little finger.”  When her husband didn’t believe her denial, the wife said she would take an oath on the matter.  She arranged to have her unrecognized lover spill the contents of a pot in front of her as she walked to take the oath.  She then slipped and fell.  Her lover helped her up.  The wife then swore on the Holy Scroll, “no man has touched me except the man who helped me when I fell in the mud.”  The husband thus believed the wife’s denial of adultery.  The story, in Hebrew and English translation, is available in Epstein (1967) pp. 251-7.  A similar story occurs in the twelfth-century French romance of Tristan and Iseult.  Id. pp. 22-3.  A similar story also exists in a Turkish manuscript that was in the library of the King of France prior to 1770.  Cardonne (1771), “The Wife Justified,” pp. 32-41.

[5] Keller (1956) p. 26. Early in the fifteenth century, the great medieval church official Poggio Bracciolini recorded a version of the story. See Poggio, Facetiae 267, “The clever scheme of a Florentine woman caught in the act {Callida consilia Florentinae foeminae in facinore deprehensae},” Latin text with English translation available in Poggio (1879).

Blamires, Pratt & Williams (1992), p. 130, declares that such fabliaux express “admiration for the ingenuity shown by the women in circumventing sexually unattractive, possessive husbands.” That view shows insufficient appreciation for men’s inferiority and women’s guile.  Women deserve more credit.  Under current regulation of paternity, women can not only circumvent sexually unattractive, possessive husbands, but actually have the force of the state compel the husband to make monthly payments to support his wife’s lover’s child.  Not surprisingly given the book’s failure to appreciate fully women, a review of Blamires, Pratt & Williams (1992) declared:

a feminist perspective does not always inform the editorial commentary, a consideration for faculty using the text in women’s studies courses. … Given this unevenness in perspective, a teacher using the book as a classroom text might want to prepare for additional feminist analysis.

Newlyn (1994) p. 142.

[6] Another medieval text declares that woman’s ingenuity surpasses men’s acuity.  From the fabliau “Le Chevalier a la Corbeille” (The Knight of the Basket), ll. 15-16, surviving in Old French in the manuscript Harley 2253 (copied in 1340).  The fabliau is available in Old French and English translation in Revard (2005) pp. 117-123.  New technology that allows men to see better the truth about paternity is of no value if personal and social forces prevent it from being used.  Technology is not a good substitute for guile.


Blamires, Alcuin, Karen Pratt, and C. William Marx. 1992. Men impugned, woman defamed and woman defended: an anthology of medieval texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Leslie C. Brook, trans. 2016. Twenty-Four Lays from the French Middle Ages. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Cardonne, Denis Dominique. 1771. A miscellany of eastern learning: translated from Turkish, Arabian, and Persian manuscripts, in the library of the King of France. London: Printed for J. Wilkie … and B. Law (originally published in French in 1770).

Epstein, Morris. 1967. Tales of Sendebar. An edition and translation of the Hebrew version of the Seven sages, based on unpublished manuscripts. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.

Keller, John Esten. 1956. The book of the wiles of women. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Newlyn, Evelyn S. 1994. “Review. Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts.” NWSA Journal {National Women Studies Association Journal}. 6 (1): 141-144.

Paris, Gaston. 1878. “Le lai de l’épervier.” Romania. 7: 1-21.

Poggio. 1879. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. The facetiae or jocose tales of Poggio, now first translated into English with the Latin text. Paris: Isidore Liseux (vol. 1, vol. 2).

Revard, Carter. 2005. “Four Fabliaux from London, British Library MS Harley 2253, Translated Into English Verse.” The Chaucer Review. 40 (2): 111-140.

Spiegel, Harriet, trans. 1987. Marie de France. Fables. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. and trans. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

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