Fisherman of Pont-sur-Seine and Lecheor demean men's persons

Written about the thirteenth-century, the Old French fabliau The Fisherman of Pont-sur-Seine reveals that a married man is not loved but for his penis.  The Old French lai Lecheor, from the same period, reveals that all knights’ good deeds arise from their desire to put their penises into women’s vaginas.  These two works together demean men’s persons to a vagina-directed penis.  As these two literary works highlight, men’s problems are not merely generated and obscured through socio-political processes.  Men’s problems are deeply personal.

The fisherman of Pont-Sur-Seine was an ordinary, hard-working man.  He supported his wife through his work fishing.  Despite that gender inequality, husband and wife did not relate to each other in an obtusely simple model of domination and subordination:

He was her lord, and she held sway
over him and all he possessed. [1]

One day as they lay in bed, the wife held her husband’s erect penis in her hand and said:

“Noble man, I love you more,” his wife said,
“more than I love Pierrot, my brother,
even, by God, more than my mother,
more than my sister or my father.” [2]

Most probably, the wife loved her husband in a physically different way than she loved other members of her family.  The specific context of the above speech emphasizes that physical difference.  More subtly, the term of address (“sire” in Old French) evokes a general understanding of personal respect.

From courtly and familial respect and love, the fabliau moves to a more specific examination of the wife’s love for her husband.  The husband, with some appreciation for women’s wiles, dared to challenge his wife’s claim of her love for him.  The wife then elaborated on her love for her husband:

I love you for the love you show me,
because you buy me shoes and clothe me,
and see to it I always have
enough to eat, and just now gave
me a fine new blue coat and jacket. [3]

The husband retorted that providing her with material goods was not enough to support her love.  He then made a bold declaration of male sexual value:

Love would leave, and so would you
Unless I screwed you well.  You’d spurn
Me worse than you would a dog.  I earn
Your love by working for your pleasure.
Never for finery or treasure
Do women love their lords the way
They do for screwing, so I say. [4]

To that affirmation of male sexual value, the wife responded with vicious verbal disparagement of her husband’s sexuality and genitals:

You never would quit pestering
me if I ever dared refuse,
or else I’d never let you use
your little hanging bit of bowel.
There’s nothing else I find more foul.
Do you think it gives me a thrill?
I wish a sow’d eaten her fill
of it, but you might lose your life.

To feel it is most aggravating,
that devilish dingle-dangle thing
between your legs that’s free to swing.
God grant that like a bone it were
stuck in the throat of some stray cur! [5]

The wife’s speech was enough to confuse the husband.  It made him question his own understanding of his sexuality’s value.

Another fabliau tells of a wife wishing that her husband was covered with erect penises.  In that fabliau, a peasant was devoted to Saint Martin.  In appreciation for that devotion, Saint Martin granted the peasant four wishes.  The peasant gave one of his wishes to his wife.  The wife wished that the peasant’s whole body, from head to toe, be covered with erect penises.  So it happened.  After experiencing his body transformed into a mass of erect penises, the husband objected:

This wish was horrible!  Why have you set me up this way?  I would rather have been born dead than have so many cocks! [6]

The wife replied:

Your one cock couldn’t satisfy me, just hanging limp as a length of gut, but now I have a great wealth of cocks. [7]

A leading academic scholar of Old French literature called this fabliau “a virtual paean to the penis.”[8]  The husband wasn’t singing that paean.  Being valued merely for their penises is a reality that men recognized.  It’s not what most men want.

In The Fisherman of Pont-sur-Seine, an occasion arose for the husband to test with actions his wife’s expressed contempt for his penis.  A priest was caught engaging in adultery.  Fleeing with an erect penis, the priest jumped into the Seine and drowned.  The fisherman-husband found in the river the priest’s body, with penis still miraculously erect.[9] He cut off the priest’s penis.  He then went home to his wife.  He told her that three knights had attacked him and declared that they would cut off whatever part of his body that he chose.  Recalling what she said about his penis, he chose, in deference to her values, to have his penis cut off.

After telling his wife this story, he flung onto the ground the priest’s amputated penis.  The wife looked at the organ carefully and observed that it was a long, hard penis.  That generated a sharp change in her feelings toward her husband:

“Fie!” she said.  “You make me sick.
God shorten all your days on earth.
I hate you.  Now your body’s worth
Nothing.  Nothing.  Nothing’s worse.
I’ll go my way.  You go yours.” [10]

The husband, showing guile quite uncharacteristic of husbands in fabliaux, played out the ruse:

“What? Dear sister, didn’t you say
That you would never, in any way,
Hate me if my prick were gone?
Now I’m confused.  What’s going on?” [11]

The wife incredibly insisted that the situation has nothing to do with what she thinks has happened to her husband’s penis:

I’ll say what I’ve said repeatedly:
Your thing doesn’t mean a thing to me.
Your loutishness is what I abhor.
I won’t sleep with you anymore. [12]

The wife prepared to divorce her husband.  She took all their cows and planned to gather all the beans growing in their garden.  Nonetheless, apparently with respect for prevailing social custom, the husband said that he would give the wife half of all the money that he had.[13]  He told her to take the money from his pants’ pocket.  She reached into his pocket and felt a hard, hot penis.  Overcome with joy, her heart leapt.  She fondled her husband’s genitals while hugging and kissing him deeply.

The narrator of The Fisherman of Pont-sur-Seine seems satisfied with reducing men to penises.  The fabliau shows that a wife’s actions reveal better than her words how she loves her husband.  That’s a common insight from the historical men’s literature of sexed protests and modern applied game theory.  The fabliau’s epimythium adds to that common insight literary sophistication:

My lords, believing women is absurd
except for what you’ve seen and heard.

If ladies doubt my honesty,
I’ll let them talk and I’ll be mute. [14]

In the values that the fabliau’s main narrative supports, talking and hearing count much less than doing and seeing done.  Of course, a narrator can do no more than order words.  What’s missing from this work is any concern for demeaning men to penises.

Washington penis Monument being refurbished

The Old French lai Lecheor demeans men as merely seeking vagina in all their deeds.  Lecheor features a gynocentric perspective throughout its text.  Its first four lines set the scene: a festival at which “many people” have assembled.  The next eight lines describe women, their beauty, nobility, and dress.  Much later, “clerics and knights” are first mentioned.  Participants competed to win the honor of having deeds memorialized in a lai (a lyrical narrative poem):

Each one recounted his deeds;
Each one related his adventure
And they came forward one by one. [15]

The judges then pondered what deserved celebrating in a lai:

Then they set about considering
Which one they would put forward.
The ladies sat to one side,
And they gave their opinion;
They were wise and well-bred,
Noble, courtly and esteemed.
They were the flower of Brittany,
Its finest and most worthy women.

While the text is coyly ambiguous about whether any men served as judges, the leading judges apparently were seven women.  That supreme panel of judges perhaps draws on the well-established literary topos of seven sages.  In any case, one lady spoke first.  She explicitly addressed ladies:

Ladies, let me have your advice
On a matter which is a great marvel to me.
I hear these knights talking a great deal
Of tournaments and jousts,
Of adventures and love,
And of entreaties addressed to their beloveds;
They never mention the reason
For which all these great deeds are done.

Why do knights bravely attack each other in tournaments?  Why do young men dress well, and to whom do they send gifts of rings, ribbons, and jewelry?  The lady’s teasing, long-delayed answer is this:

From this come the great benefits
For which all honourable deeds are performed.
Many men have been greatly improved by it,
And increased their fame and reputation,
Who would not have been worth a button
Were it not for their desire for the cunt.

Since all good deeds are performed for it,
Let us not attribute them to any other cause.
Let us compose the new lay about the cunt.

The ladies began composing a lai (lay) honoring the cunt.  The leading lady shrewdly recognized that men would be pleased to be so demeaned:

However well the best composers perform,
You will soon see them all turn toward us.

All those who were at the festival
Abandoned the lay which they were composing.
They turned towards the ladies
And lavished praise on their work.
They composed the lay along with them,
When they heard the excellent subject-matter;
And by clerics and knights
Was the lay preserved and cherished.

Men seeking to have sex with young, attractive, warmly receptive women is wholly natural, although scandalous among some academics today.  Nonetheless, reducing all of men’s deeds to seeking cunt demeans them.  The lai of the cunt became known as the lai of the Lecher (“Lecheor” in Old French):

Many people say of this lay
That it is the lay of the Lecher.
I do not wish to utter the true name
In case I am reproached for it.

With the narrator’s fear of reproach, the lai reduced men not just to seeking cunt, but to seeking cunt disgracefully.

The scholarly literature maintains well-policed silence about demeaning men.   An influential scholarly work provides a now-common gynocentric perspective:

When the female speaker in the Lai du Lecheor tells her female audience that all men want is con {cunt}, we hear on the one hand the stereotypical reduction of women’s anatomy to pleasure-giving genitalia so prevalent in the misogynous registers of Old French farce and fabliau.  But we can also see, as in farce and fabliau themselves, how the status of that con changes significantly when it speaks, rather than functioning as the object of another’s speech.  If in asserting that men really want nothing other than con, the speaking lady of the Lai du Lecheor reiterates the commonplace that men want to possess women as objects, she also reveals that men want what women have, that is to say: the sweet chose {thing} that women, as subjects, can choose to give or withhold.  … There’s no question that this con {cunt} has a head. [16]

A man has a penis with a head, and a body with a head, too.  That’s not a scholarly revelation, nor a good reason for envy.  Men’s heads, and women’s too, have generated little concern in words or action for men.  Introducing The Fisherman of Pont-sur-Seine, a leading scholar of fabliaux declared:

It is a tale about male domination and the fear that castration would reverse the roles in the family. [17]

That general-purpose, misandristic platitude has been prevalent in academic circles since Freud.  Lecheor, while demeaning men to vagina-directed penises, recognized in the figure of any woman the fisherman’s self-understanding.  The leading lady of Lecheor declared:

No woman has such a beautiful face that,
If she had lost her cunt,
She would ever have a friend or lover.

Wanting a friend or a lover is an aspect of being a person.  In The Fisherman of Pont-sur-Seine, the fisherman’s personal love for his wife gives the fabliau poignancy.  The leading lady of Lecheor denies that personal love to men.

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Read more:

Notes:

[1] Le Pescheor de Pont-sur-Seine, ll. 14-5, from Old French trans. Dubin (2013) pp. 439-51.

[2] Id., ll. 28-31, trans. Dubin (2013).  I’ve added to Dubin’s translation the omitted term of address “Noble man” (“Sire”) and changed “his wife maintained” to “his wife said.”  The latter phrase more closely reflects the Old French text (“dist ele”) and avoids foreshadowing subsequent narrative developments.  The husband and wife’s terms of address for each other become more affectionate after the husband exposes the wife’s hypocritical contempt for his penis.  Terms of address shift from “sire,” “suer,” and “suer” to “bele suer,” “douce ami,” and “biaus frere.”  Existing English translations don’t well represent that shift.

[3] Id. ll. 37-41, trans. Dubin (2013).

[4] Id. ll. 44-50, trans. DuVal (1992) pp. 54-59.  For clarity, I’ve changed “They do for screwing’s what I say” to “They do for screwing, so I say.” The first two lines in Dubin (2013)’s translation are more periphrastic and less directly translate the Old French text.

[5] Id. ll. 54-61, 66-72, trans. Dubin (2013).  The reference to the husband’s cock stuck in the throat of a dog seems to be a reference to oral sex.  Cf. Dubin (2013), p. 3, which laments that in fabliaux “oral sex is entirely absent.”  Here’s a perspective on oral sex from the medieval literature of men’s sexed protests.  Other fabliaux also present disparagement of a husbands genitals.  In La Crote, a wife guesses that her husband is holding his penis, and she declares, “may it burn.”  In La Coille Noire, a wife sees that her husband’s penis and testicles are black.  She expresses disgust and declares that she will never sleep with him again.  In Li sohaiz des vez, a wife declares that her husband’s penis is so puny that a basket full of such penises wouldn’t fetch any money at a penis market.  For published English translations of these fabliaux, see the dataset of fabliaux in modern English translation.

[6] Quatre souhais saint Martin (The four wishes of Saint Martin), ll. 122-25, my translation from the Old French.  The translation in Dubin (2013), p. 891, seems to me to make fun of the husband’s unhappiness.

[7] Id. ll 128-9, my translation.  The translation in Dubin (2013), p. 891, uses the Old French text version with “pelice” rather than “boiaus” for the description of the husband’s limp cock.  It also effaces the wife’s reference to herself.  The wife’s statement should be understood as self-centered.

[8] R. Howard Bloch, Introduction, Dubin (2013) p. xxiv.  Bloch is the Sterling Professor of French and Chair of the Humanities Program at Yale University.  The Sterling Professorship represents the highest academic rank at Yale.  Bloch has written extensively on misogyny in Old French literature.  Drawing on his years of scholarly study of fabliaux, Bloch further declares:

Much of the humor of the fabliaux, … like the epic catalogs of genitalia, is alien, and even shocking, to the modern sensibility.  Yet the medieval comic tale unlocks the world of the body and the senses before the Protestant Revolution, which made later generations sheepish and afraid of the appetites and pleasures, the lusts and thrusts, the passions and peccadilloes of a less repressed time.  One can never return, of course, to that happier age before we learned to be ashamed of our desires and fantasies, no matter how absurd

Dubin (2013) pp. xxiv-v.  An alternate scholarly perspective on Quatre souhais saint Martin:

We are dealing with a nasty peasant and his shrewish wife employing words, and wishes, as weapons with which to beat each other.  … the husband’s sprouting penises resemble body tumours, and the wife’s multiple vaginas cover her like so many abscesses.  Not a single one of these extra organs is scheduled to go into regular service: this is the dyspeptic imagery of sex as pain and affliction.

Levy (2000) p. 236.  This second interpretation obscures that the wife is the aggressor in the fabliau’s surrealistic tale of domestic abuse (the husband initially planned to wish for land, riches, gold, and money for himself and his wife).  But “beat each other” is at least a less distorted view of domestic violence than that now prevalent in scholarly literature.  We would have a happier age if more persons were ashamed of misandry and ashamed to have men treated as merely penises, as disposable persons, or as persons whose love is equivalent to money.

[9] The Distaff Gospels, a fifteenth-century French work, proclaims:

If a friar or priest has intercourse with a nun or other religious woman, you should know that he will die with his male member stiff and in greater pain than other people.

Distaff Gospels (Paris manuscript), Day IV, 4th Chapter, trans. Jeay & Garay (2006) p. 141.

[10] Id. ll. 132-6, trans. DuVal (1992).  The first line in Dubin (2013)’s translation is more impersonal and less close to the Old French.

[11] Id. ll. 137-40, trans. DuVal (1992).

[12] Id. ll. 141-4, trans. DuVal (1992).  Dubin (2013) has “this evil,” but the Old French text seems to be referring to the husband’s character more generally (“loutishness” as above).  The medieval literature of men’s sexed protest recognized the problem of women denying the obvious.  See post on men’s inferiority in guile and manipulation of paternity, especially note [1].

In the fabliau Les trois dames qui troverunt un vit (The Three Ladies Who Found a Prick), women, including an abbess, contest possession of “a prick, thick and swollen … long and huge” that they found wrapped in cloth on the ground. The fabliau reduces reduces men’s sexuality to a dismembered penis. Les trois dames qui troverunt un vit is available in Harley 2253, Art. 75a online.

[13] Equal division of marital property is a common rule in current family law.  Gender bias against men in child custody upon divorce probably wasn’t as severe in the Middle Ages as it is today.

[14] ll. 201-2, 214-5, trans. Dubin (2013).  I’ve added the term of address (“Seignor” / “My lords”) that Dubin (2013) moved forward two lines.  Like The Fisherman of Pont-sur-Seine, the fabliau Le fevre de Creeil narrates a women’s actions expressing sexual ardor that her words denied.  Specifically, a blacksmith’s young assistant had a massive, well-formed penis.  The blacksmith told his wife about it.  She expressed no interest.  Later she aggressively sought sex with the lad.

[15] Lecheor, ll. 48-50, from Old French trans. Burgess & Brook (1999) pp. 65-72.  All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from Burgess & Brook’s translation of Lecheor.

[16] Burns (1993) p. 157.  Burns is the Druscilla French Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC).  She’s a member of UNC’s Department of Women’s Studies, which seems to be in the process of being renamed to the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies.  Id., pp. 151-7, tendentiously asserts gender distinctions that Lecheor doesn’t actually indicate.  The overall context of the gathering suggests that women participated in the contest (“deeds were recounted / concerning love and passion“).  The leading lady directly addressed women gathered on one side where all were assembled.  Id. shows no sense that men occasionally listen to a woman addressing women.  Following the lead of id., a young scholar analyzing Lecheor wrote:

the Lai du Lecheor allows itself to make challenging propositions and expose one-dimensional stereotypes of women as such. In contrast to the accepted view that women are capable of producing little more than chaos and anxiety (Bloch, 1987: 3, 4), we see a group of multi-dimensional women, whose combination of traditionally feminine grace and stereotypically male creativity and forthrightness allows them to confront the male knights and clerks as intellectual equals. … the men’s characters and virtues remain relatively undiminished …. Their {the men’s} weaknesses are exposed and recognised, but they retain their social status and recover something of their standing with their ladies, working with them as equals to compose the lai of the con.

Woods (2010).  Surely highly effective education is needed to create such a reading of Lecheor.

[17] Eichmann (1992) p. 54, introducing The Fisherman from Pont-sur-Seine in DuVal (1992).

References:

Burgess, Glyn S., and Leslie C. Brook, trans. 1999. Three old French narrative lays: Trot, Lecheor, Nabaret. Liverpool: University of Liverpool, Department of French.

Burns, E. Jane. 1993. Bodytalk: when women speak in Old French literature. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

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

DuVal, John, trans. and Raymond Eichmann, intro. and notes. 1992. Fabliaux, fair and foul. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.

Jeay, Madeleine and Kathleen E. Garay, ed. and trans. 2006. The distaff gospels: a first modern English edition of Les évangiles des quenouilles. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Editions.

Levy, Brian J. 2000. The comic text: patterns and images in the Old French fabliaux. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Woods, Rebecca. 2010. “Men’s Words in Women’s Mouths: Why Misogynous Stereotypes are Humorous in the Old French Fabliaux.” Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research v. 3, n. 2.

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