ass for lover: failing to distinguish men’s physical masculinity

In classical literature, both Greek and Latin, women favored male asses for their large masculine member. By the Middle Ages, the status of physical masculinity had degenerated. The medieval Latin tale Asinarius figures a woman as preferring the masculine physicality of a man over that of an ass.[1] A leading medieval work of men’s sexed protest, Lamentations of Matheolus, depicts the depreciation of physical masculinity even more starkly. Masculinity was so devalued that Matheolus believed that he couldn’t confidently distinguish between a female ass and a man.

Matheolus was in bed with his wife when her male lover crept under their covers. Matheolus felt that man in their bed in the dark of night and thought he was a thief. He told his wife to hold that thief. Then he jumped out of bed and ran to get a dagger. His wife quickly switched her lover with a female ass. When Matheolus returned, he killed the body she was holding. Then in the light he saw that he had martyred his good ass Burnelle. His wife insisted that his sense of touch was mistaken and that there was never a man under their covers. In response to his wife’s declaration, Matheolus accepted and believed that he couldn’t feel the difference between a female ass and a man.[2] He had internalized the obliteration of masculinity.

Another medieval story affirms Matheolus’s difficulty in sensing the difference between an ass and a man. A merchant had to take many business trips in the traditional, burdensome gender role of men. His wife entertained a lover while her husband the merchant was away on his business. A neighbor informed him of his wife’s affair. The husband then pretended to go on a business trip. He set watch to catch his wife’s lover. Seeing her lover in front of their house, the husband approached unrecognized and claimed that she sent him to hide her lover in a chest in the house. The husband had the lover get into the chest and locked him in. Then he went to his wife’s family and declared her betrayal. He explained:

in order that you shall not say that I blame your daughter without cause, you shall both see and touch the scoundrel who has done us this dishonor, and I beg that he may be killed before he can get away. [3]

The reference to “both see and touch” connects this story to Matheolus’s account.

ass in chest

Seeing and touching don’t matter when persons can’t distinguish between an ass and a man. While the husband was informing his wife’s family of her betrayal, the wife unlocked the chest, released her lover, and replaced him with an ass. The husband brought a crowd armed with swords and hammers back to his house. He publicly accused his wife of adultery. He proposed to kill her lover and send his wife back to her family.[4] His wife denied the charge of adultery. The husband then opened the chest. Everyone saw an ass. Everyone turned on the husband for lying about his wife. If the husband hadn’t fled, his wife’s brothers would have killed him.

With mediation from town officials and strict promises from the husband, his wife’s family relented from killing him. The husband and wife were re-united:

ever after that he was all kindness and consideration, and never did a man conduct himself better to his wife than he did all his life; and thus they passed their days together.

That’s a significantly different ending from “they lived happily ever after.” Not recognizing and appreciating men’s physical masculinity eliminates happiness.

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[1] See my post concerning Onos, Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, and Asinarius.

[2] The story is from Les lamentations de Matheolus I.421-34. From the Latin critical text, Klein, Rubel & Schmitt (2014) pp. 76-77:

Tactum confutat mulier. Probo per Framericum,
Qui juxta lectum per crines cepit amicum
Uxoris de nocte sue. “Soror! ecce latronem.”
Inquit, “eum teneas! eo quesitum pugionem.”
Sed mox uxor eum dimittit abire receptum
Illi substituens asinum, quem clam per ineptum
Isse consilium mactat vir. Martyriato
Sic asino statim lumen petit ille ; parato
Lumine Burnellum stratum videt. Inde flet, isti
Dicens: “Burnelle, bona bestia, non meruisti
Hanc mortem.” Mire culpat tactum referentem
Falsa sibi somnumque suum, fatuam quoque mentem.
Ecce, redarguitur exemplo tactus in isto
Per mulierem, que capto providit Egistho.

Cf. Van Hamel (1892) pp. 30-1 (nearly the same). The context in Matheolus is five ways in which women confound men: tongue, sight, touch, falsehood, and false belief. Sight, which immediately precedes the above story about touch, involves men not being able to believe what they see (the story of Guy, his wife, and her lover Simon). The name Egistho refers to Aegisthus, who committed adultery with Clytemnestra.

The first-century writer Latin writer Phaedrus recorded a fable similar to Matheolus’s story of Framericus. In Poeta de Credere et non Credere (Phaedrus 3.10), a husband suspecting adultery mistakenly kills his son in the conjugal bed.

The fabliau De la dame qui fist entendant son mari qu’il sonjoit (from the first half of the thirteenth century) is similar to the story from Matheolus. But in the fabliau, the husband recognizes the difference between a she-ass and a man and doesn’t kill the ass. He does, however, dream of having intercourse with the she-ass. De la dame qui fist entendant son mari qu’il sonjoit is a variant (I, manuscript B) of the fabliau Les Tresces (The Tresses). The Old French texts of both that fabliau and the main variant (II) are available as #69 in Nouveau recueil complet des fabliaux 6, Nooman (1991) pp. 209-58. An English translation of variant II is available in DuVal & Eichmann (1982) pp. 63-76. Cutting off a woman’s hair in the context of adultery and a substitute woman occurs in both Les Tresces and Decameron VII.8.

The protagonist in Nigel of Canterbury’s Speculum stultorum (Mirror of Fools) is an ass named Brunellus. Speculum stultorum, written in the late twelfth century, was a highly popular work. Klein, Rubel & Schmitt (2014), p. 77, notes that Burnelle may be a metathesis of Brunellus.

In translating Les lamentations de Matheolus into French about 1380, Jehan Le Fèvre changed the ass’s name from Burnelle to Brunel. Id. That change undoes a significant poetic choice and makes the story less wonderful.

Apparently alluding to Brunellus in the Speculum stultorum, Chaucer referred to “Daun Burnel the Asse” in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale (VII.3312–19). Burnel could also connect to the name of the ass in the Latin Lamentations of Matheolus or in Le Fèvre’s French translation. Chaucer’s version suggests that the name of the ass may itself have become a foolish game.

Brunellus, ass in Speculum stultorum

[3] Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles, story 61, from French trans. Douglas (1899). The underlying French for “you shall both see and touch the scoundrel who has done us this dishonor” is je vous monstreray à l’oeil et au doy le ribauld qui ce deshonneur nous a fait. CNN-1876 pp. 275-6. Recent English translations obscure the reference to seeing (to the eye / à l’oeil ) and touching (by the finger / au doy). For example, “I will show you the debauched fellow who is dishonoring us.” Diner (1990) p. 232. Rather than relying merely on individual deception, cuckoldry is now institutionalized in official procedures for establishing paternity.

Antoine de la Sale was probably the author of Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles. It is thought to have been first published as a printed book about 1460. It was subsequently republished many times. The subsequent quote is also from the English translation of Douglas (1899).

[4] For the illicit sex, the planned punishment of the man is characteristically more severe than the punishment of the women. Historians who claim that women were more severely punished for illicit sex than were men lack appreciation for reality. Today few even recognize that violence against men is much more severe and common than violence against women.

[images] (1) Cuckolded and Duped, illustration for story 61 in Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles. Léon Lebèque, illustrator. From Douglas (1899). (2) Brunellus, in the Speculum Stultorum, illumination from British Library Additional MS 38665, f.114v (manuscript written around 1420s).


CNN-1876. Les Cent Nouvelles nouvelles. Texte revu avec beaucoup de soin sur les meilleures éditions et accompagné de notes explicatives. 1876. Paris: Libr. Garnier.

DuVal, John, and Raymond Eichmann. 1982. Cuckolds, clerics, & countrymen: medieval French fabliaux. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.

Klein, Thomas, Thomas Rubel, and Alfred Schmitt, eds. 2014. Matheolus. Lamentationes Matheoluli. Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann.

Diner, Judith Bruskin, trans. 1990. Antoine de la Sale. The one hundred new tales = Les cent nouvelles nouvelles. New York: Garland.

Douglas, Robert B., trans. 1899. Antoine de la Sale. One hundred merrie and delightsome stories: right pleasaunte to relate in all goodly companie by joyance and jollity : les cent nouvelles nouvelles. Paris: Charles Carrington.

Noomen, Willem. 1991. Nouveau recueil complet des fabliaux 6. Assen, Pays-Bas: Van Gorcum.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. 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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