Corbaccio’s guide recognized humane social position for men

Men killing other men, with incitement and support from women, vastly predominates among deadly interpersonal violence.  Violence against women, rather than violence against men, has nonetheless become a major public concern.  Whether through sexist Selective Service registration or requiring men to be the last off sinking ships or ignoring serious injuries to men or many other ways, men’s lives have long been socially devalued.

upper body of knight in full combat armor

The fourteenth-century Italian humanistic writer Giovanni Boccaccio celebrated a more humane social position for men in his under-appreciated comic masterpiece of love, Il Corbaccio.  In that work, a ghostly guide counseled the narrator about his failed courtship of the guide’s former wife.  That lady delighted in “men full of prowess and vigor {uomini pieni di prodeza e di gagliardia}.”  The guide explained to the benighted narrator:

I believe you thought she liked, wanted, or desired the sight of brave and vigorous men jousting with iron-tipped lances, or in bloody battle amid a thousand mortal perils, or besieging cities and castles, or, with sword in hand, killing each other.

{ credo che tu credevi ch’ella volesse o disiderasse o le piacesse di vedere gli uomini pro’ e gagliardi, colle lance ferrate giostrando, o nelle sanguinose battaglie tra mille pericoli mortali o combattendo le città e le castella o colle spade in mano insieme uccidersi. }[1]

That’s a life-depriving social position for men.  Women and men have long supported that sort of social position for men.  But the guide’s former wife was more humane.  The guide described her good reason and humanity:

She is neither so cruel nor so treacherous as you seem to believe, that she loves men so that they kill each other.  And what would she do with the blood which gushes forth red as a man dies?  Her thirst is for the more refinèd kind that living, healthy bodies can render without needing to have it back again.  The prowess which she likes, then, no one knows better than I.  It is not used in public squares, or in fields, or upon city walls, or with breast plates on, or with basinet upon the head, or with any slashing sword. It is used in the boudoir, in hidden places, beds, and similar locations suited to it, where without the coursing of horses, or the sound of brass trumpets, one goes to the joust at a slow place.

{ non è costei così crudele né così perfida, come mostra che tu creda, ch’ella voglia bene agli uomini perché s’uccidano. E che farebbe ella del sangue che, morendo l’uomo, vermiglio si versa? La sua sete è del digesto che i vivi e sani possono, senza riaverlo, prestare. Quella prodeza addunque, che le piace, niuno la sa meglio di me. Ella non s’usa nelle piaze né ne’ campi né su per le mura né con coraze indosso né con bacinetti in testa né con alcuno offendevole ferro: ella s’usa nelle camere, ne’ nascosi luoghi, ne’ letti e negli altri simili luoghi acconci a ciò, dove, senza corso di cavallo o suono di tromba di rame, alle giostre si va a pian passo }[2]

Medieval men faced the now inconceivable danger of sexual exhaustion.  Nonetheless, men having sex with women is a much more humane social position for men than is men killing other men.

A central challenge for societies today is to create a humane social position for men, one that gives men human dignity and value equal to that of women.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Il Corbaccio 263, Old Italian text from Padoan (1992) via Decameron Web, Italian trans. Cassell (1993) p. 49.

[2] Corbaccio 264, similarly from id. pp. 49-50.  The lady almost surely would have rejected the celebration of a knight’s bloody wounds in the mid-thirteenth-century French courtly nouvelle, Des trois Chevaliers et del Chainse.  The lady’s valuation of men recovers the lost ideal of chivalry. She appreciated truly chivalrous men:

She considers a man to have the prowess of either Lancelot, Tristan, Roland, or Oliver if with six, eight, or ten jousts in one night his lance doesn’t bend in such a way that it isn’t raised again. She loves such men as these above everything else, even if they have a face like the Saracen of the Piazza.

{ colui tiene ella che sia o vuogli Lancelotto, o vuogli Tristano, Orlando o Ulivieri di prodeza, la cui lancia, per sei o per otto o per dieci aringhi, la notte non si piega in guisa che poi non si dirizi. Questi così fatti, se eglino avessono già il viso fatto come il saracino della piaza }

Corbaccio 264-5, similarly from id. p. 50 (modified slightly).

[image] Armor of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, c. 1590,  Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, no. 51.585.


Cassell, Anthony K. trans. 1993. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Corbaccio, or, The Labyrinth of Love. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.

Padoan, Giorgio, ed. 1994. Giovanni Boccacio. “Il Corbaccio.” In Carlo Delcorno, ed. Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio. Volume 5, Book 2. Milano: Mondadori.

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