Gwerful Mechain on women's control of men's sexuality

woman hugging phallus

Gwerful Mechain of Powys, a Welsh poet of the late-fifteenth century, complained of wives’ jealousy. In addition to praising vaginas, Mechain bragged, “every big-cocked lover is after me.” But, Mechain explained, wives strictly control their men’s sexuality:

no virtuous wife will give,
the silly girl, her prick and her pole,
if it follows a cunt in field,
it wouldn’t go one inch from her fist,
not freely, she would not allow it,
nor basely, not for any price;
she would not make a deal with anyone
condoning adultery. [1]

The figure “not one inch from her fist” points to the potency of women’s physical aggression against men. The phrase “not for any price” hints at women’s control of family finances. Medieval literature describes men attempting to guard access to their wives to avoid being cuckolded. Sexual asymmetry in parental knowledge creates through biological evolution men’s concern for biological paternity security. Because women naturally know who their biological children are, women’s control of men’s sexuality is more difficult to understand.

Modern regulation of men’s sexuality works through legal attachments to men’s earning capacity. A plausible evolutionary basis for women’s sexual jealousy is women’s concern for exclusive control over a man’s productive capacity. In Gwerful Mechain’s poem, the “big-cocked lover” can be understood as a sub-conscious metaphor for the rich man. Not surprisingly, Gwerful Mechain weighs the penis against material goods:

Despite giving eighteen
of the lord’s cows, and the plough oxen,
and giving, however much the need,
rash summons, all the sheep,
a shapely girl prefers,
some say, to give the buildings and the land,
and would sooner give her good cunt,
beware, than give her cock;
sooner give her pan from her kitchen and her provision
and her trivet than her fine bare post;
sudden is her haste, sooner give her headdress
and all her possessions than give the prick. [2]

Gynocentrism and the growth of state child-support bureaucracies encode in child-support laws the fierce force of women’s sexual jealousy.[3]

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[1] Gwerful Mechain, I Wragedd Eiddigeddus (To Jealous Wives), from Welsh trans. Johnston (1991) p. 37. Little is known about Gwerful Mechain. She probably lived from c. 1462-1500. Johnston, as if oblivious to violence against men and the legal suppression of men’s sexuality, uncritically describes this poem as a “declaration of female sexuality and the right to satisfaction.” Johnston (1998) p. 71. For further uncritical celebration of Gwerful Mechain, see Gramich (2006).

[2] Id. p. 39. Mechain guilefully distances this claim with “some say.”

[3] In the popular Aesop Romance, written in Greek about the second century, Xanthus’s wife left him after she wrongly perceived that he had insulted her. Aesop induced Xanthus’s wife to return by falsely indicating to her that her husband was preparing to marry another woman. Aesop Romance 50-50a, from Greek trans. Hansen (1998) pp. 132-3.

[image] Woman hugging phallus. At Sex Museum, Tongli, China. Thanks to Stougard and Wikicommons.


Gramich, Katie. 2006. “Orality and Morality: Early Welsh Women’s Poetry.” Acume.

Hansen, William F., ed. 1998. Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Johnston, Dafydd. 1991. Canu Maswedd yr Oesoedd canol = Medieval Welsh erotic poetry. Grangetown: Tafol.

Johnston, Dafydd. 1998. “Erotica and Satire in Medieval Welsh Poetry.” Pp. 60-72 in Ziolkowski, Jan M, ed. Obscenity: social control and artistic creation in the European Middle Ages. Leiden {The Netherlands}: Brill.

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