varieties of dread game in De amore (On love)

love scene: woman reading note from man

Dread game is a well-recognized technique in the modern empirical science of seduction. In the seduction literature, faking an extramarital affair is a standard prescription for a husband seeking to rekindle his wife’s sexual desire for him.[1] Dread game can be divided into two types: natural and supernatural. Natural dread game involves dread of losing a lover to another. Supernatural dread game involves dread of other-worldly punishment for not loving a person. Andreas Capellanus’s medieval treatise De amore (On love) indicates that in medieval Europe, natural dread game was more important than supernatural dread game.

Supernatural dread game is well-represented in the ancient, widely disseminated weeping-dog tale. To seduce a married woman reluctant to take on a lover, an old-woman go-between showed her a small dog weeping from being feed meat heavily peppered surreptitiously. The go-between explained that the weeping dog was a beautiful woman who had been transformed into a dog because she refused to accept a lover. The married woman, horrified with facing that fate, agreed to accept as lover the man who had hired the go-between.[2]

In De amore, a nobleman tried to run supernatural dread game on a noblewoman. After she rejected his proposition for sex, he declared, “Then hear the endless punishment awaiting you.”[3] He told the story of a squire who saw a procession of riders. Leading the procession was the god of Love. The god of Love rewards and punishes persons “depending on whether their achievements in life have been good or evil.” A beautiful woman riding an ugly, limping horse explained to the squire that the last group in the procession is women, like her, who refused all lovers. They are “the army of the dead”:

those who follow last of all in so mean an assemblage, walking along in miserable garments, deprived of any kind of assistance, and wearied with pains of every sort (you can clearly witness them with your own eyes, and I too have been thrust into their company), are the most pitiable of all women who during life closed the palace of Love on all who wished to enter, and refused to give answer according to their deserts even to those performing good deeds or seeking a motive or support from them for doing good. Instead they repulsed all who asked to serve in the army of Love; they rejected them as though they found them loathsome. They gave no thought to him who is called the god of Love, in whose army those who sought their love were striving to serve.  … Besides this punishment, we have been sentenced to many other kinds of torments which none could know unless schooled by experience. It would be impossible for me to tell them, and quite hard for you to hear them. So women still living in the world should beware not to become our partners in these punishments, for after death no repentance will avail them.

After this lesson in carpe diem, the woman guide showed the squire “greater and sterner punishment” for women who refused all lovers. These women rested in a place of Dryness:

each of the women was prepared there a seat on a bundle of thorns, which was always being rotated … so that the women were more painfully scratched by the points of the thorns, and their bare soles touched the red-hot earth. Such was the pain and suffering there that I can hardly believe it equalled amongst the very demons of Hell.

This depiction of topical torment in a supernatural realm wasn’t enough to prompt the noblewoman to rush to have sex with the tale-teller. She declared that she would test potential lovers for worthiness and accept only a worthy one.

De amore ascribes more effectiveness to natural compared to supernatural dread game. Natural dread game is based on jealousy. According to De amore, sexual jealousy is intrinsic to sexual love; jealousy “is of the nature of love itself and without which true love cannot exist.”[4] Moreover, jealousy increases love:

Love again experiences increase when genuine jealousy preoccupies one of the lovers, for jealousy is called the nurturer of love. In fact even if the lover is oppressed not by genuine jealousy but by base suspicions, love always increases because of it, and becomes more powerful by its own strength.

Jealousy is discussed throughout De amore. Three out of the thirty-one rules of love explicitly reference jealousy. De amore describes dread game in the context of testing love:

if a man wishes really to ascertain the good faith and affections of his lover, he should most circumspectly and skillfully pretend to his partner that he desires the embraces of another, and is beginning to visit her neighborhood more than usual. If he sees that his partner is upset because of this, he can assume that her love is secure, and that she is embedded in it with the utmost constancy. For when one of a pair of lovers suspects that the other is thriving on the embraces of a new love, or is contemplating some such, darts at once begin fiercely to assail her heart and mind, and to wound her inwardly with unbearable jealousy; and her face begins at once to show clearly her inner torment of mind.

The use of dread game for invigorating love isn’t explicitly described, but De amore clearly supports it. In De amore, supernatural dread game generates a skeptical, conditional response: “If your assertion is true … whether your account is true or false….”[5] Natural dread game, in contrast, is closely linked to the jealousy necessary for love.

Through false stereotypes of the Dark Ages, the cultural circumstances of medieval Europe have been deeply misunderstood. Shaping human behavior with supernatural understanding is much more difficult than shaping behavior with interpersonal schemes. For economically reinvigorating sexual love, dread game is men’s rational choice.

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[1] Dread game is much less effective for women to apply to men. Men are more likely to respond to dread game with anger and ejection from the relationship. The implications of gender asymmetry in parental knowledge for evolutionary psychology provides a plausible reason for sex asymmetry in effects of dread game.  In any case, women who engage in extra-pair sex should be concerned for secrecy. Secrecy is of considerable concern in De amore. See, e.g. 1.6.5-6, 1.6.269, 2.1.1, 2.8.46.

[2] The Lai du Trot, probably written only slightly before De amore, most likely was the source for the first part of the supernatural dread game in De amore. The Lai du Trot describes a procession of two groups on horseback. One group consists of one hundred and sixty happy alluring maidens with their elegantly dressed, beloved men. They all ride rapidly, smoothly, and happily on richly equipped horses. The other group consists of a hundred miserable maidens on poorly equipped, emaciated, weary horses moving in a slow, painful trot. A hundred men, as miserable as the maidens, follow unloved behind them. For the French text with English translation, Burgess & Brock (1999). Day 5, Story 8 (story of Nastagio degli Onesti) in Boccacio’s Decameron is an alternate version of supernatural dread game. Supernatural dread game is also known as the purgatory of cruel beauties. For discussion of other versions of supernatural dread game / purgatory of cruel beauties, Neilson (1900) and Battles (2003).

[3] De amore, 1.5.229, from Latin trans. Walsh (1982) p. 105.  The subsequent five quotes are from De amore 1.5.240-263, trans id. pp. 109-115.

[4] De amore 1.6.371, trans. id. p. 147. Similarly, De amore 1.6.377 and 1.6.399. The subsequent two quotes are from De amore 2.2.2, p. 229, and De amore 2.5.6-7, p. 237. On the latter, see the case ruling at De amore 2.7.6-8 (case 2), p. 253.

[5] De amore 1.6.276, id. p. 119.

[image] Woman and Alram von Gresten. Illustration from Codex Manesse, Zurich, between 1305 and 1315. UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 311r. Thanks to the University of Heidelberg and Wikimedia Commons.


Battles, Paul. 2003. “In folly ripe, in reason rotten: The Flower and the Leaf and the ‘Purgatory of Cruel Beauties.'” Medium Aevum 72: 238-258.

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

Neilson, William Allan. 1900. “The purgatory of cruel beauties: a note on the sources of the 8th novel of the 5th day of the Decameron.” Romania 29: 85-93.

Walsh, P.G., trans. 1982. Andreas Capellanus on love {De amore}. London: Duckworth.

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