participation in contest judgment in medieval literature

Medieval literature occasionally sets up a contest among story characters.  A well-known example is Geoffrey Chaucer’s late-fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales.  In that work, pilgrims compete with each other to tell the best story while traveling on pilgrimage between Tabard Inn and Canterbury Cathedral.  The winner receives a Tabard Inn dinner paid for by the other contestants.  The contest creator and judge is the Host (Bailey), the owner of Tabard Inn.[1]  As in most contests disseminated through commercial media today, the contest creator-judge benefits financially from sponsoring the contest.

Medieval literature also contains more democratic, more participatory, non-commercial contests.  For example, an Old French fabliau from about the thirteenth century sets up a contest between three wives for a ring that the three found.[2]  The wife winning the ring will be the one who exploits most impressively a husband’s inferiority in social ingenuity in the course of cuckolding him.  The narrator ask the reader or auditor to participate in judgment of the characters’ performances:

I want you to explain
which one you think should have the ring.

Let’s have no lies, now; you decide,
and honestly and wisely choose,
The ring in question should be whose? [3]

For your judgment, consider the three wives’ exploits.

One wife got her husband into a drunken sleep.  She and her lover then tonsured her husband, dressed him in monk’s clothes, and dropped him off at the door of a monastery.  When the husband awoke from his stupor, he concluded from his inexplicable circumstances that God wanted him to join the monastery.  The family house, some land, and some property he signed over to his wife.  She then had complete freedom to enjoy her life with her lover.

Another wife enacted a variation of the punishment of a husband who disparaged all women.  For a noon meal, the husband asked the wife to roast on a grill some dried and preserved eels.  The wife went out and spent the week cavorting with her lover.  The following Friday, she asked a neighbor to grill the eels to fulfill her husband’s request.  The wife returned and presented the cooked eels to her husband as if a week had not passed.  The husband angrily confronted his wife.  She cried out to the neighbors.  They came running.  The wife declared that the husband had gone mad, imagining a week’s passing.  The neighbors believed the wife and shackled the husband.  After the neighbors left, the wife called in her lover.  They then enjoyed the company of each other with a view of the hog-tied husband.

The third wife managed to get her husband to give her away in marriage to her lover. The wife instructed her lover to ask at night her husband to give him in marriage the husband’s niece.  The wife, who the husband thought was back at their home, was in fact disguised as the niece.  The story emphasized that giving away a woman in marriage is for life:

“If he freely makes me your own,
I say, a gift is not a loan.”

Because he didn’t lend his wife,
he couldn’t get her back again. [4]

The wife’s trick was to make her lover’s borrowing of her into her being his own.

You choose which wife best deserves to win the ring for her exploits.  The absence of online polls in medieval Europe didn’t impede the popularity of works offering open, democratic participation in contest judgment.  At least five such works have survived in written medieval texts.[5]

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[1] Who wins the contest in the Canterbury Tales isn’t told.  That seems to be a result of Chaucer never finishing the work.  Competing stories within a frame narrative were a component of the early, eastern Book of Sindibad corpus.

[2] Contests between three women exist in earlier literature.  For example, the story Al-Asma’i and the Girls of Basra from the 1001 Nights existed in eleventh-century literature from the Islamic world. See my post on courtly and Bedouin love poetry, note [4].  The Judgment of Paris from ancient Greek literature also has three women competitors.

[3] From Les trois dames qui troverent l’anel, trans. from Old French in Dubin (2013) p. 599.

[4] Id. pp. 597, 599.

[5] The Les trois dames qui troverent l’anel  exists in two manuscripts versions.  An alternate version has the narrator supporting the third wife as winner, but still appealing for participation in contest judgment.  Pearcy (1980) pp. 63-4.  The Old French fabliau Le Jugement des cons has three girls competing for the hand of a handsome young man.  The contest is to best answer the riddling question, “which came first, your vagina or you?”  Such riddles have a long history in literature, philosophy, courtly debates about wisdom before kings, and intellectual disputes.  In the Jugement des cons, a mock court declares the winner, but the narrator concludes:

I’m travelling the wide world over
to ask: “Was the right verdict given?
and pray your sins may be forgiven.
If you’d amend this verdict, now
I call on you to tell me how.

Trans. Dubin (2013) p. 917.  Two other short, Old French stories in verse from the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries similarly seek extra-diegetic participation in judging contests among three women: Watriquet Brassenel de Couvin’s Les Trois Chanoinesses de Couloingne and the fragmentary Jugement.  Pearcy (1980) pp. 65-6, 68.  William Dunbar’s The Tretis of the Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo (dated c. 1500) also has that structure.


Dubin, Nathaniel. 2013. The fabliaux. New York: Liveright.

Pearcy, Roy J. 1980. “The Genre of William Dunbar’s Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo.” Speculum v. 55, n. 1,  pp. 58-74.

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