men are dogs: important truth in disparaging men

dog seeking compassion and consolation

Declaring that men are dogs is a common sort of disparagement of men today. Such disparagement has a long history. It’s typically associated with condemning men’s strong, independent sexuality. For example, Andreas Capellanus’s late-twelfth-century Latin text On love {De amore} declares:

Even after they have long thought about a woman or have enjoyed her fruits, as soon as they see another they long for her embraces, becoming forgetful of and ungrateful for the services obtained from their former lover. Such men as these wish to indulge their lust with every woman they see. Their love is like that of a shameless dog, or rather they are, I think, to be compared with donkeys, for they are affected solely by that natural urge which puts men on a level with the rest of the animal kingdom.

{ qui post multas etiam de muliere cogitationes habitas vel fructus assumptos, postquam aliam vident statim illius concupiscunt amplexus, et obsequii a priore amante suscepti obliviosi et ingrati exsistunt. Illi tales quot vident tot cupiunt libidini immisceri. Istorum talis amor est qualis est canis impudici. Sed nos credimus asinis comparandos; ea namque solummodo natura moventur quae ceteris animantibus homines ostendit aequales, non vera quae rationis differentia nos a cunctis facit animalibus separari. }[1]

Thinkers throughout history have declared that “reason” distinguishes humans from all other animals.[2] Many animals have a large, complex repertoire of behaviors. They pursue easily understandable interests (food, security, reproduction) in ways that rapidly adapt to specific circumstances. Do animals reason? Describing the distinctiveness of (human) reason has been a highly successful job-creation scheme for philosophers. In today’s common-sense reality of human-created artifacts (intricately cooked meals, movies, airplanes, spaceships, etc.), humans are obviously very special animals.

Although very special animals, humans are animals. Lack of appreciation for that reality has been pervasive in elite thought throughout history. For example, comparing the pleasure (consolation) from the upper part of a woman’s body (intelligent conversation) to the pleasure from the lower part of her body (genital intercourse), De amore declares:

Who could doubt that he who chose the consolation of the upper part is to be preferred to him who chose the lower? So far as the consolations of the lower part is concerned, we are in no sense separated from the brute animals. Nature herself has joined us to them in this respect. But the consolations of the upper part have been granted particularly to human nature and denied to all other animals by nature herself. So he who chose the lower part should be rejected from love as unworthy, like a dog. The one who chose the upper part should be accepted, as embracing his nature.

{ Quis enim dubitat partis eminentioris solatii electorem inferiora praeferendum petenti? Quantum enim ad partis pertinet inferioris solatia, a brutis in nullo sumus animalibus segregati, sed eis nos hac parte ipsa natura coniungit. Superioris vero partis solatia tanquam propria humanae sunt attributa naturae et aliis animalibus universis ab ipsa natura negata. Ergo inferioris partis elector tanquam canis ab amore repellatur indignus, et superioris tanquam naturae amplexator admittatur elector. }[3]

Humans can forgo sexual activity. Humans can also fast for a time, eat limited portions of healthful food, or gorge themselves on junk food and become grotesquely obese. None of these facts change the reality of human nature. Separating a man’s head from his genitals destroys his life. Much more terrible than men being dogs are men’s dismembered, bleeding body parts.

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[1] Andreas Capellanus, De amore 1.5.7-8, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Walsh (1982) pp. 40-1. Reference to a dog as a man’s best friend occurs in twelfth-century Latin literature. Understanding of a dog as man’s best friend seems unrelated to the claim that men are dogs. At least in medieval European understanding, referring to men as dogs would be less disparaging than referring to men as cats. Any symbolic relation between dog and Doug is purely coincidental.

[2] Aristotle was particularly influential in developing understanding of humans as the rational animal. See, e.g. De anima III, Nicomachean Ethics I.13.

[3] De amore 1.6.536-7, Latin text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Walsh (1982) pp. 200-1.

[image] Dog. Thanks to Soggydan Benenovitch for sharing his photo.


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

gender discrimination in child custody prevalent historically

gender discrimination in child custody

Among separated parents with financial child support agreements, fourteen times more mothers than fathers have physical custody of their children. Such anti-men gender discrimination in child custody decisions is deeply rooted historically. In contrast to mythic child custody history, children weren’t legally fathers’ property a century ago, or two centuries, or three centuries ago.[1] Living within the gynocentric social structure that humans share with most other primates, men have been historically disadvantaged in legal decisions about custody of their children.

De Manneville v. De Manneville, an English case decided in 1804, commonly headlines mythic child custody history. Lord Eldon did not declare that “the law is clear that the custody of a child, of whatever age, belongs to the father, if he chooses.” That was actually a statement of the advocates for the father. Lord Eldon actually declared:

It has been truly observed, that, the petition being presented upon the part of an infant, the Court will do what is for the benefit of the infant, without regard to the prayer {petitioner}. … This is an application by a married woman, living in a state of actual, unauthorized separation, to continue, as far as the removal of the child will have an influence to continue, that separation, which I must say is not permitted by law. [2]

Lord Eldon ruled that a mother couldn’t just move with the couple’s child out of the marital home and then, when she lost custody in an extra-legal wrangle, expect the court to order the child to be returned to her. Lord Eldon made conventional perfunctory reference to the best interests of the child. That abstract touchstone has long justified courts’ child custody decisions. Nonetheless, Lord Eldon’s ruling generated outrage. In response to De Manneville and other cases publicly depicted as showing insufficient solicitude for women, the British Parliament explicitly supported women’s custody rights with The Custody of Infants Act of 1839 (Talfourd Act).[3] Public outrage and responding legislation suggest that cases like De Manneville were aberrational in the socio-legal history of child custody.

Men have long lacked equal rights with respect to child custody under English common law. Under English common law, women had a natural right to custody of children they bore outside of marriage. An unmarried father, in contrast, had no right to custody of his child. The unmarried father had only a legal obligation to provide periodic payments to the mother (“child support”).[4] Relative to unmarried women, unmarried men have long lacked equal rights to custody of their children. Unmarried men have long suffered the injustice of forced financial fatherhood.

De Manneville didn’t address child custody upon legal divorce or legal separation. English chancery courts before and after De Manneville justified child custody decisions with the abstract “best interests of the child” standard.[5] De Manneville applied only to actions in response to child abductions among spouses. In De Manneville, the wife moved out of the marital home and took their child. She refused to give custody of the child to her husband. On a visit to his wife, the husband took the child and refused to return custody of the child to his wife. The wife by guile then took the child back. The husband then forcefully took the child again.[6] The court was required to decide whether husband or wife would have custody of their child. A Solomonic decision wasn’t possible. Under the coverture doctrine shielding wives from mass imprisonment for debt, the court decided that father-husbands (at least those not imprisoned) had the first right to child custody in a custody dispute among married parties.[7]

Historical distance makes anti-men gender stereotypes in child custody decisions easier to perceive. Consider Nickols v. Giles, a Connecticut case decided in 1796. Nickols brought a writ to regain custody of his three-year-old daughter. The mother, Nickols’ wife, had left him and taken their daughter. The wife went to live with her father. The report of the Court’s decision was brief and direct:

Upon inquiry it appeared that the child was with its mother, who lived with her father the said Thomas Giles; that the child was well provided for; and said Nickols having no house and very little property, and very irregular in his temper and life, his wife had left him and went and lived with her father, where both she and her child were well provided for. Upon which the court refused to grant said writ. [8]

Poor mothers could retain custody of their children and receive financial child support from the father or others. Fathers who were poor were much less likely to receive financial support and much more likely to be deprived of custody of their children.

Discrimination in child custody was not just in favor of women relative to men, but also against poor men in general. In 1816, the Supreme Court of New York in In re Waldron refused to vindicate Waldron’s claim to custody of his child against his deceased wife’s father, M’Gowan. M’Gowan had taken Waldron’s pregnant wife into his home without her or her husband’s consent. There she gave birth. Shortly thereafter she died. The maternal grandfather M’Gowan retained physical custody of the child. Waldron applied to the Court for physical custody of his daughter. The Court refused to grant. It reasoned:

M’Gowan is a man in very affluent circumstances, and abundantly able to educate and maintain his granddaughter; and it appeared, that Waldron was insolvent, and unable to pay certain trifling debts which he had contracted, although it was alleged that his mother, with whom he lived, was competent and willing to support him and his daughter. … It is to the benefit and welfare of the infant to which the attention of the Court ought principally to be directed … We think, therefore, that it will be a due exercise of the discretion with which the law has invested us, to deny the present application … We think proper, however, to suggest, that the father ought, on all suitable occasions, to be permitted to see the child [9]

Men historically have been treated as socially disposable persons. If the maternal grandfather is more affluent than the father, then the father could legally be reduced to a visitor in his child’s life.

Deeply entrenched gender stereotypes have long justified anti-men gender discrimination in child custody decisions. A Philadelphia court in 1840 declared:

The reputation of a father may be stainless as crystal; he may not be afflicted with the slightest mental, moral, or physical disqualification from superintending the general welfare of the infant; the mother may have separated from him without the shadow of a pretence of justification; and yet the interests of the child may imperatively demand the denial of the father’s right, and its continuance with the mother. … The tender age and precarious state of its {the child’s} health, make the vigilance of the mother indispensable to its proper care; for, not doubting that paternal anxiety would seek for and obtain the best substitute which could be procured, every instinct of humanity unerringly proclaims that no substitute can supply the place of HER, whose watchfulness over the sleeping cradle or waking moments of her offspring, is prompted by deeper and holier feelings that the most liberal allowance of a nurse’s wages could possibly stimulate. [10]

Views about commercial daycare and hired childcare have changed greatly. But anti-men gender discrimination in child custody decisions has change little. In discriminating against fathers in child custody, the Illinois Supreme Court in 1849 less floridly invoked gender stereotypes:

it can not be expected that he would bestow that personal care and attention upon a girl seven or eight years old, which may be expected from a mother, who appears to be well qualified for the care of the child, and against whom no just objection is shown to exist. If left with the father, the child must, to a great extent, be entrusted to the superintendence of others; her nature will lead her to associate with her own sex, by whom her manners will be formed, her thoughts and tastes directed, and, in truth, her character mainly moulded. His occupations will doubtless prevent that constant watchfulness over her, so essential to her proper cultivation, and which could be better contributed by a vigilant and tender mother. We shall, therefore, leave her for the present, at least, where she has been placed by the circuit court. [11]

Men today are commonly recognized to have equal capability to women in child care, including care for female children. Moreover, having an occupation outside the home is not now regarded as an essential barrier to having custody of children. Nonetheless, anti-men gender discrimination in child custody decisions remains large. Across the U.S. in the nineteenth century, courts decided child custody “on the basis of the best interests of the child, with a strong presumption that maternal custody was in a child’s best interests.”[12] The main change in anti-men gender discrimination in child custody has been in the details of the justifications put forward for it.

Mythic history of paternal preference / patriarchy dominates peer-reviewed legal history of child custody. That’s not independent thought. Such work documents the anti-men gender bias long at work in child custody decisions.

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[1] Mason (1994) is a fine example of such tendentious and misleading scholarship.

[2] De Manneville v. De Manneville, 10 Ves. Jun. 53, 58, 61; 32 English Reports 763, 765, 766 decided in Court of Chancery, July 26-28, 1804, by the Lord Chancellor {Eldon}. Legal scholarship published in peer-reviewed journals has misrepresented Lord Eldon’s opinion. For example, Wright (1999), pp. 247-8, states:

Lord Eldon agreed that “the law is clear that the custody of a child, of whatever age, belongs to the father.” (footnote. 3) |  footnote 3: De Manneville v. De Manneville, 10 Ves. 52, 53 (1804), “In whatever principle that right is founded, it is unquestionably established, and is not disputed.”

The footnoted text, which id. used to support the main-text quote that’s not actually from Lord Eldon, concerns Lord Eldon’s judgment about jurisdiction, not who gets custody. Wright (2002), which suggests that family law has evolved historically to maintaining “patriarchal relationships within families under the guise of legal formalism” (id p. 182), is simply risible in light of current injustices in paternity establishment and large anti-men bias in child custody decisions.

Kohm (2008), p. 356, similarly misrepresents Lord Eldon’s opinion in De Manneville. This peer-reviewed legal scholarship states:

Despite the fact that it might be best for a nursing infant child of eleven months to remain with his mother, the court had no problem removing the child from the mother’s care and giving custody to the father, as a matter of law. “The law is clear, that the custody of a child, of whatever age, belongs to the father, if he chooses.” (fn. 123) De Manneville clarified and emphasized that a British court cannot interfere with a father’s right to his child.(fn. 124) | fn. 123:  (1804) 32 Eng. Rep. 762, 764 (Ch.). fn. 124: Id. An extremely thorough examination of the De Manneville case is contained in Danaya C. Wright, De Manneville v. De Manneville: Rethinking the Birth of Custody Law under Patriarchy …

The free-floating quote dodges the need to acknowledge explicitly who made that statement. The context misleadingly suggests that the Court’s opinion in De Manneville contained the quoted statement. The footnote referring to an “extremely thorough examination of the De Manneville case” refers to Wright (1999). See above.

James (2014) is a self-published book that a practicing lawyer apparently wrote as an independent researcher. This book makes clear that anti-men gender bias is deeply entrenched in legal scholarship on child custody. While providing much insight that existing legal scholarship has missed, this important book follows existing legal scholarship in misunderstanding De Manneville v. De Manneville:

Explaining his refusal, Lord Eldon stated that unless a child was in danger of being harmed, “the law is clear that the custody of a child, of whatever age, belongs to the father.” (ft. 189) | ft. 189: De Manneville v. De Manneville, 10 Ves. 52, 63, 32 Eng. Rep. 762 (Ch. 1804).

Id. p. 72.

[3] The Custody of Infants Act of 1839 explicitly authorized the Lord Chancellor to order a wife to receive custody of a child that was being held in her husband’s custody. As De Manneville indicates, courts had already long been issuing such orders. The Custody of Infants Act of 1839, like legislation addressing violence against women, reflects social power, not aggregate statistical reality. That’s evident in parliamentary debate about the Custody of Infants Act (more) and historical accounts of that debate.

[4] James (2014) pp. 83-5.

[5] Id. pp. 64-7. In apparent play to intellectual patriotism, Kohm (2008), p. 338, declares: “the best interest of the child doctrine is uniquely established in American law and has set the trend for the treatment of children throughout the rest of the world today.” That’s false, as actually reading De Manneville v. De Manneville makes clear. See above. Apparently attempting to foreclose working for social justice, Kohm opens with the claim “The best interests of the child doctrine is … relied upon because there is nothing better.” Id. p. 1. A “best interests of the child” standard with affirmative action to address deeply entrenched historical gender discrimination against men in child custody decisions might be fairly regarded as better. Such affirmative action continues to be far outside the bounds of acceptable scholarly discussion.

affirmative action fatherhood

[6] Wright (1999) begins her ostensibly scholarly article with the sensational claim that de Manneville “wrenched his eight-month-old daughter from her mother’s breast, and absconded with the naked child in an open carriage in inclement weather.” Id. p. 247. That account comes from Caroline Norton, an obviously and intensely biased source. Norton is no more credible in reporting the facts of the case than are the father’s advocates for reporting the law governing the case. See note [2] above and associated text. Wright (1999) used an ironically suitable introduction to her deeply biased and tendentious scholarly article.

[7] Anti-men bias in child custody decisions and anti-men bias in responding to domestic violence has spread across legal history and popular history. For example, the official website of the U.K. Parliament declares on a page entitled Custody Rights and Domestic Violence:

The custody of children had already been the subject of parliamentary action in 1839 {The Custody of Infants Act of 1939}. Previously mothers had no rights at all over their children if the marriage broke down.

Women could and did ask courts for custody of children of a marriage. Within competing custody claims of husband and wife, courts invoked “bests interests of the child” and commonly issued child custody to the wife. James (2014) pp. 64-7. For example, in 1774 Lord Mansfield ruled:

If the parties are disagreed, the Court will do what shall appear best for the child … The natural right is with the {married} father; but if the father is bankrupt, if he contributed nothing for the child or family, and if he be improper, for such conduct as was suggested at the Judge’s chambers, the Court will not think it right that the child should be with him.

In this case, the Court ordered that the father not be allowed to take custody of his six-year-old child. That child was in the custody of the wife, who had moved out of the marital home. Blissets Case, Lofft 748, a habeas corpus case at the King’s Bench, 1774.

[8] Nickols v. Giles, 2 Root 461, September Term, 1796, Superior Court of Connecticut. Divorce cases recorded in surviving records from Connecticut in 1676 and 1692 also show mothers awarded custody of children following divorce. Dayton (1995) pp. 122-5. Id., providing tendentious, misandristic history in support of dominant myths, explains these cases as “Puritan foreshadowings” of the exceptional American “tender years” doctrine. More realistically, these cases were probably business as usual in maternally biased child custody decisions. In New Haven County Superior Count, 1711-1789, 2.5 times as many women filed for divorce as did men. Id. p. 135, Table 6. That filing skew is consistent with courts favoring women.

[9] In re Waldron, 13 Johns. 418, August 1, 1816, Supreme Court of New York.

[10] DH-Sears (1840) pp. 292-3, reporting Commonwealth ex. rel. d’Hauteville v. Sears, July Term, 1840, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Court of General Sessions.

[11] Miner v. Miner, 11 Ill. 43, December Term, 1849, Supreme Court of Illinois. The Court noted the father had an “ignorant housekeeper.” The Court’s concern for the daughter’s female associations plausibly reflects racial and class bigotry toward a black woman who served as Miner’s housekeeper.

[12] James (2014) p. 146. Here’s a less detailed review of historical maternal preference in child custody.

The Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals of Tennessee in 1825 declared:

Perhaps the strongest law in animated nature, is the disposition of the female to protect and support her offspring; … The mother is the natural guardian of the child. The father, if it is born in wedlock, is the municipal guardian of both the mother and the child; and why? Because he is bound to support them. The mother has no rights that are not merged in the rights of her husband, and in whose name she is compelled to act. The married woman becomes the bounden servant of the husband to all political purposes, by the common law; and he is entitled to the custody of the mother, and of course the child also. But it never was intended, even by the marital relation of husband and wife, that the great law of nature should be violated by a separation of the mother from her infant.

Lawson v. Scott, 9 Tenn. 92, August, 1825, Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals of Tennessee. The “great law of nature” is now widely recognized to be a gender stereotype. The role of that gender stereotype in continuing anti-men gender discrimination in child custody decisions hasn’t been widely appreciated, or at least not openly acknowledged.

[images] Gender egalitarian marriage. Photos courtesy of Elmer Galbi.


Dayton, Cornelia Hughes. 1995. Women before the bar: gender, law, and society in Connecticut, 1639-1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

DH-Sears. 1840. Report of the D’Hauteville case, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, at the suggestion of Paul Daniel Gonsalve Grand D’Hauteville versus David Sears, Miriam C. Sears and Ellen Sears Grand D’Hauteville: habeas corpus for the custody of an infant child. Philadelphia: Printed by William S. Martien.

James, Tom. 2014. The History of Custody Law. 2nd ed. ISBN-13: 978-1499182033, available from Amazon.

Kohm, Lynne Marie. 2008. “Tracing the Foundations of the Best Interests of the Child Standard in American Jurisprudence.” Journal of Law & Family Studies 10: 337-76.

Mason, Mary Ann. 1994. From father’s property to children’s rights: the history of child custody in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wright, Danaya C. 1999. “De Manneville v. De Manneville: Rethinking the Birth of Custody Law under Patriarchy.” Law and History Review. 17 (2): 247-307.

Wright, Danaya C. 2002. “The Crisis of Child Custody: A History of the Birth of Family Law in England.” Columbia Journal of Gender & Law 11(2): 175-270.

Boccaccio’s Griselda in new contexts of Petrarch & Chaucer

Griselda being exiled

In the last story of the last day of Boccaccio’s Decameron, Gualtieri imposed brutal tests of fidelity on his wife Griselda. That Griselda story has the moral starkness of Abraham’s binding of Isaac. However, marriage, unlike child sacrifice, was a matter of ordinary life in medieval Europe. The Griselda story works within the Decameron’s program of confronting moral absolutes with ordinary life.[1] In translating Boccacco’s Griselda story, Petrarch shifted it to clerical moralization, while Chaucer moved it toward noble ladies’ amusement.

In the Decameron, Dioneo’s first words in framing the Griselda story contrasted ideals of hospitality with guileful behavior. The theme for the stories of Day 10 is “those who acted with liberality or magnificence.” The story preceding Dioneo’s told of Messer Torello’s great hospitality and courtesy to a disguised Saladin. Subsequently, after Muslims had captured Torello during a Crusade, Saladin in appreciation for Torello’s earlier hospitality magically enabled Torello to return home. Dioneo laughed at that story and said:

The good man who was looking forward to raising and lowering the bogeyman’s tail the next night would have given less than two cents for all the praise you are bestowing on Messer Torello. [2]

Dioneo’s statement apparently refers to the lover having sex with another man’s wife after he and she had outrageously duped the husband about their extra-marital affair. Dioneo contrasted the mundane intrigue of ordinary life with an extraordinary romance of intercultural hospitality. Such polarization is central to Boccaccio’s Griselda story.[3]

Gualtieri’s marriage proposal to Griselda is more ordinary in Boccaccio’s Griselda than in Petrarch’s and Chaucer’s versions. Caliphs in the ancient Islamic world became subservient to their slave-girl wives. Before wedding the peasant Griselda, the lord Gualtieri asked her some questions:

He asked her whether, if he were to wed her, she would do her best to please him and never get upset at anything he ever said or did, and whether she would be obedient, and many other things of this sort, to all of which she replied that she would.

These questions aren’t marked with cruelty.[4] Petrarch’s version is significantly different. In Petrarch’s version, Gualtieri hinted at objectifying Griselda, who in turn explicitly invoked thought control and a commandment to death:

“I {Gualtieri} must ask you {Griselda} whether … you are ready and willing never to disagree with my will in anything, just as I agree with you in everything, and whatever I wish to do with you, you will let me with all your heart, without any gesture or word of repugnance.”

To this she replied, trembling with astonishment, “I know, my lord, that I am unworthy of so great an honor. But if it is your wish and if it is my lot, I will not only never knowingly do, but not even think anything that is against your wishes, nor will you ever do anything, even if you order me to die, that I would bear grudgingly. [5]

Chaucer’s version backed away from Griselda’s self-depersonalization and added sadistic specificity to Gualtieri’s request:

“I say this: are you ready to submit with good heart
to all my desires, and that I may freely,
as seems best to me, make you laugh or feel pain,
and you never to grouch about it, at any time?
And also when I say `yes,’ you will not say `nay,’
neither by word nor frowning countenance?
Swear this, and here I swear our alliance.”

Wondering upon these words, trembling for fear,
she said, “Lord, unsuitable and unworthy
am I of that same honor that you offer me,
but as you desire yourself, right so I desire.
And here I swear that never willingly,
in deed nor thought, will I disobey you,
even to be dead, though I would hate to die. [6]

Boccaccio’s version could pass as medieval marital pieties for both Gualtieri and Griselda. Griselda’s response is inhumanely extreme in Petrarch’s version, while Gualtieri’s proposal is sadistically extreme in Chaucer’s version.

In reclothing Griselda before the wedding, Boccaccio’s version moved to the inhumane extreme. Imagine:

Gualtieri, taking Griselda by the hand, led her outside and in the presence of his entire company as well as all the other people living there, he had her stripped naked. Then he called for the clothing and shoes he had ordered for her and quickly had them dress her

Gualtieri directed this action in specific steps. There he was, looking at his naked wife-to-be, in the presence of all the people. She should have been outraged. Her father should have been outraged. All the people there should have vigorously condemned Gualtieri’s shameless behavior. The story should have ended right there.

Petrarch’s and Chaucer’s versions mitigated Boccoccio’s shocking disrobing and reclothing of Griselda. Petrarch separated Gualtieri’s overall order from its discrete and loving implementation:

Lest Griselda bring into her new home any trace of her former condition, he Gualtieri ordered her to be undressed and to be clothed from head to foot in new garments. This was carried out discreetly and speedily by the ladies in waiting, who vied in cuddling her in their bosom and on their lap.

Chaucer left the people in the background and ironically shifted attention from Griselda’s body to her old clothes:

And so that nothing of her old belongings
she would bring into his house, he ordered
that women should undress her right there.
These ladies were not very happy
to handle her clothes, in which she was clad.
But nevertheless, this maid bright of hue
from foot to head they have clothed all new.

The maid bright of hue might have been embarrassed to be so undressed. In Petrarch’s and Chaucer’s versions, both Gualtieri’s marriage proposal to Griselda and his publicly redressing of her have notes of extraordinary inhumanity. Boccaccio’s version is polarized: the marriage proposal is ordinary, and the redressing is extraordinary.

Dioneo framed the Griselda story with contrasts between moral absolutes and ordinary life. Before telling the story of Griselda, he declared:

I want to tell you about a Marquis whose behavior was not an example of magnanimity, but of senseless brutality. And even though things turned out well for him in the end, I would not recommend that you follow his lead

Dioneo concluded the story with commentary similarly invoking moral extremes and connecting them to ordinary life:

What more is there left to say except that divine spirits may rain down from the heavens even into the houses of the poor, just as there are others in royal palaces who might be better suited to tending pigs than ruling men. Who, aside from Griselda, would have suffered, not merely dried eyed, but with a cheerful countenance, the cruel, unheard-of trials to which Gualtieri subjected her? Perhaps it would have served him right if, instead, he had run into the kind of woman who, upon being thrown out of her house in her shift, would have found some nice guy to give her fur a good shaking and got a nice new dress in the bargain. [7]

Dioneo challenges the reader of Boccaccio’s Griselda to connect moral absolutes to ordinary life. When Gualtieri proposed to divorce Griselda, after he had already pretended to kill their two children, an Italian reader late in the fourteenth century wrote in his copy of the Decameron in the voice of Griselda:

Go piss on your hand, Gualtieri! Who’ll give me back twelve years? The gallows? [8]

No earthly punishment could suffice for what Gualtieri appeared to do, or even for what he did do. Another fourteenth-century reader, however, explained that Gualtieri’s father had been cuckolded and war had resulted among his two sons, each claiming legitimacy. According to this account, Gualtieri’s extreme testing of Griselda resulted from his personal trauma and intense concern for paternity certainty.[9] Abraham’s binding of Isaac was an other-worldly horror of fidelity to God. Obedience and betrayal in marriage were concerns of ordinary life.

Petrarch’s version turned Boccaccio’s Griselda story from flesh to spirit, from muddling through to moral inspiration. Petrarch translated Boccaccio’s vernacular Griselda to the clerical language of Latin. In addition to expanding references to virtues, Petrarch also appended a moralization:

I decided to retell this story in another language {Latin} not so much to encourage the married women of our day to imitate this wife’s patience, which seems to me hardly imitable, as to encourage the readers to imitate at least this woman’s constancy, so that what she maintained toward her husband they may maintain toward our God.

According to Petrarch, a Paduan friend broke down weeping and could not continue reading the Griselda story that Petrarch had translated into Latin. A Veronese read that translation and didn’t weep because “the whole thing was made up” and that no woman could act like Griselda. Petrarch suggested that these readers didn’t understand his translation.[10] With greater sophistication, Petrarch suggested that these readers responded not to the moral teaching of his Latin translation, but as readers of Boccaccio’s Griselda. Petrarch’s self-criticism with regard to his Griselda version seems actually directed at Boccaccio:

If ever I need to write either to you or to others, I shall write so as to be understood but not to amuse myself.

Petrarch seems not to have appreciated Dioneo amusingly connecting moral absolutes to ordinary life in telling Boccaccio’s Griselda. Dioneo’s telling of Griselda provided no moralization. Within the Decameron, Boccaccio’s Griselda prompted lengthy discussion: “the ladies inclined to one side or the other in their responses, some criticizing one detail in it, some praising another.”[11]

While Boccaccio pretended to write the Decameron for noble ladies, Chaucer actually shifted Boccaccio’s Griselda toward noble ladies’ amusement. Taking down a big man is a favored pattern for a man entertaining women. In his version of Griselda, Chaucer took down Petrarch. Petrarch was a cleric. Chaucer told the Griselda story as The Clerk’s Tale. Its prologue teased the clerk:

For God’s sake, cheer up!
It is no time to study here.
Tell us some merry tale, by your faith!
For whatever man is entered in a game,
he of necessity must assent unto the rules.
But preach not, as friars do in Lent,
to make us weep for our old sins,
And let not your tale put us to sleep.
Tell us some merry thing of adventures.
Your technical terms, your figures of speech, and your rhetorical devices —
keep them in reserve until it so be that you compose
high style, as when men write to kings.
Speak so plainly at this time, we pray of you,
that we can understand what you say.

The prologue proceeded to refer to a “worthy clerk … now dead and nailed in his chest.” Chest most directly means coffin, but being nailed in the chest also ironically suggests restraining a demonic figure.[12] The clerk is then explicitly identified as “Francis Petrarch, the laureate poet.” According to Chaucer, being a laureate poet didn’t make Petrarch immortal. Death “as if it were a twinkling of an eye” had slain Petrarch, as it will everyone else in the mass of humanity from which Petrarch self-consciously distinguished himself. Moreover, “a twinkling of an eye” alludes to a Biblical verse that highlights change in resurrecting the dead.[13] Chaucer’s  prologue explicitly referred to the long proem that begins Petrarch’s Griselda in high style. Chaucer’s prologue noted of Petrarch proem, “It seems to me a thing irrelevant.” Chaucer made fun of Petrarch while translating the Griselda story.

In translating Petrarch’s and Boccacio’s Griselda versions, Chaucer added narrative interruptions in support of wives. Noble ladies in Chaucer’s audience would have nodded in agreement with the narrator’s interjection:

He had tested her enough before,
and found her always good. Why was it needed
to test her, and always more and more,
though some men praise its ingenuity?
But as for me, I say that it ill befits one
to test a wife when there is no need,
and put her in anguish and in dread.

The narrator also interrupted with an explicit address to women:

But now I would like to ask of women
if these tests might not suffice?
What could a cruel husband more devise
to test her wifehood and her steadfastness,
and he continuing ever in cruelty?

These interruptions emphasize questioning Gualtieri’s testing and devalue moral absolutes of fidelity or obedience. They undercut Petrarch’s attempt to inspire persons with extreme virtue. They also lessen Boccaccio’s challenge to readers to reconcile ordinary life with moral absolutes.

Chaucer included at the end of his Griselda another explicit reference to Petrarch and high style. Chaucer translated Petrarch’s moralization:

And listen to what this author says there before.
This story is said not so that wives should
follow Griselda in humility,
for it would be intolerable, though they would,
but so that every person, in his station in life,
should be constant in adversity
as was Griselda. Therefore Petrarch writes
this story, which with high style he composes.

The imperative “listen to what this author says” easily carries a shade of incredulity. Chaucer translated Petrarch’s Latin moralization into the vernacular piety “be constant in adversity.” The closing reference to “high style” in this context seems gently mocking.

Following his translation of Petrarch’s moralization, Chaucer apparently alluded to Boccaccio’s Griselda, but developed that allusion in a different direction. At the end of Boccaccio’s Griselda, Dioneo suggested that no one other than Griselda could have endured Gualtieri’s tests. Chaucer’s clerk storyteller similarly concluded:

It would be very difficult to find now-a-days
in all the town Griseldas three or two.

Dioneo described a possibility after marital breakdown: the ex-wife seeking sex and getting paid for it. Chaucer’s alternative was narrower and more gender-symmetric. With a prayer for the Wife of Bath and her sect to be masters of their husbands, Chaucer reversed the direction of cruelty. He urged wives:

Fear them not. Do them no reverence,
for though your husband be armed in chain-mail,
the arrows of your spiteful eloquence
shall pierce his breast and also his neck-guard.
In jealousy I advise also that you bind him,
and you shall make him cower as does a quail.
If you be fair, where folk are present,
show your visage and your apparel;
If you are ugly, be lavish in your expenditures.
To get friends for yourself always work hard.
Be ever in behavior as light as a leaf on a linden tree,
and let him grieve, and weep, and wring his hands, and wail!

Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale explicitly called for an end to serious matter. It continued with song and intricate literary play. Chaucer translated Petrarch’s Griselda into entertainment, most probably for noble ladies.[14] That isn’t a true restoration of Boccaccio’s Griselda.[15]

In medieval and early modern Europe, Petrarch’s Griselda story was much more influential than Boccacio’s Griselda.[16] In English-language scholarship and teaching today, Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale gets much more attention than either Petrarch’s or Boccaccio’s Griselda. That’s a parochial failure like the medieval reception of the Decameron. Recognizing moral ideals and struggling to reconcile them with ordinary life enriches human life.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 1, Introduction, describes the plague that ravished Florence. Those extreme conditions generated a wide range of behaviors. Some Florentians abandoned fundamental moral commitments: “even worse, and almost unbelievable, is that fathers and mothers refused to tend to their children and take care of them, treating them as if they belonged to someone else.” From Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 9.

[2] Decameron, Day 10, Story 10, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 839. Dioneo’s symbolically obscure statement refers to Day 7, Story 1, a story about a cuckolded man. In context, “raising and lowering the bogeyman’s tail” suggests motion characteristic of sexual intercourse. The term “good man” is a common, ironic medieval term for a cuckolded man. But here it seems to have a different irony.

All subsequent quotes from Boccaccio’s Griselda, unless otherwise noted, are from id. pp. 839-50.  The theme for Day 10 is declared in the conclusion of Day 9. Id. p. 749.

[3] A man named Gualtieri also figures in Decameron 2.8. That story contrasts virtue in ordinary life with rationalizations of romance.

[4] The Decameron addresses Ephesians 5:22-33 in the context of the brigata ladies’ demand for service from men.

[5] Francis Petrarch, Rerum senilium libri (Letters of Old Age} XVII.3 (to Boccaccio), from Latin trans.  Bernardo, Levin & Bernardo (1992) v. 2, p. 660. Subsequent quotes from Petrarch, unless otherwise noted, are from id. pp. 665-8. Letter XVII.3 has prefatory text, the Griselda story, and subsequent text. An online version in translation extracted the Griselda story and appended to the remainder of Letter XVII.3 part of Letter XVII.4. See mislabeled letter to Boccaccio.

Griselda’s willingness to die at her husband’s command echoes the understanding of love (kenosis) in Philippians 2:6-8. Goodwin (2004) p. 56 observes:

he {Petrarch} overloads the narrative’s didactic content as he deepens the reader’s emotional response. Petrarch boldly purples the prose, and we should recognize as Petrarch’s artistic, experimental choices the surfeit of moral didacticism and the increased emotional involvement of the reader.

The increased emotional involvement is imaginatively third-personal. Boccaccio’s Griselda makes emotional involvement more specific and relevant to the particular reader.

Le ménagier de Paris (The Householder of Paris), compiled about 1393, includes an Old French translation of Petrarch’s Griselda. The translation follows Petrarch’s text closely. However, Griselda’s response to Gualtieri’s marriage proposal omits her willingness to be ordered to die. Le ménagier de Paris, 1.6.8, trans. Greco & Rose (2009) p. 108.

[6] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Clerk’s Tale ll. 351-64, in modernized English by Benson (2006), with my slight changes. Subsequent quotes from The Clerk’s Tale are from Benson’s modernization, ll. 372-8, 7-20, 31-41, 53-4, 456-62,  696-700, 1142-8, 1164-5, 1201-12.

[7] The contrast between “senseless brutality” and “divine spirits” suggests poles of Aristotle’s moral spectum from vice to virtue (Nichomachean Ethics, Bk. 7). Goodwin (2004) p. 47.

[8] Marginal comment of Francesco d’Amaretto Mannelli in his copy of the Decameron in 1384, from Italian trans. Green (2012) p. 49, citing K.P. Clarke’s study of Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Plut. 42,1. The husband-narrator of Le Ménagier de Paris observed that the Griselda story “contains excessive accounts of cruelty, in my opinion more than was fitting.” See 1.6.10, trans. Greco & Rose (2009) p. 119.

[9] As recounted in Thomas III, Marquis of Saluzzo (ca. 1355-1416), Le chevalier errant, s. 512-528, from Old French trans. Green (2012) pp. 51-62.

[10] Petrarch, Rerum senilium libri (Letters of Old Age} XVII.4 (to Boccaccio), from Latin trans.  Bernardo, Levin & Bernardo (1992) v. 2, p. 669-70. The subsequent quote is from id. p. 671.

[11] Staking a vampire through the heart existed in written literature probably only from the 18th century. But in Aeschylus’s 5th-century Greek play Prometheus Bound, the rebel Prometheus was staked through his chest to a desolate crag.

[12] Decameron, Day 10, Conclusion, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 851.

[13] 1 Corinthians 15:52.

[14] Chaucer, on the margin of the English court as a member of the gentry, plausibly wrote at least partly for women meeting separately from the royal court. The Garter sorority might have provided such a context. McDonald (2000) pp. 26-9. Something like Madeleine de Scudéry’s seventeenth-century French salon might have existed in fourteenth-century England.

Green (1983) argues that women weren’t in the English royal court “in significant numbers until the final years of the fourteenth century.” Id. p. 153. Yet less often noticed are Green’s comments buried in the concluding endnote:

This paper … is intentionally speculative; if it merits publication at all, it is as a stimulus to further investigation, and no one would be less surprised than myself if such investigation were to prove its conclusions nugatory.

Id. p. 154, n. 28. Perhaps Chaucer also wrote for women within the English royal court.

[15] Schwebel (2013) p. 275 states:

it is not in vague, verbal echoes that we see the ghost of Boccaccio’s original work in the Clerk’s Tale but in Chaucer’s methodical undoing of the editorial adjustments that Petrarch first made to Decameron X.10. The Clerk’s Tale is thus less of a translation than a restoration, as it brings us closer to the Boccaccian original than Petrarch ever desired to reach.

That Chaucer knew the Decameron seems probable. Id. See also Harkins (2013). The Clerk’s Tale is closer in its moral openness to Boccaccio’s Griselda than to its more direct source, Petrarch’s Griselda. But the Clerk’s Tale adds considerable literary posing and surface artifice that Boccaccio’s Griselda doesn’t have.

Academics working and writing in English overwhelmingly favor Chaucer over Boccaccio. Harkins (2013), p. 273, concludes that Chaucer’s translation made Boccaccio’s Griselda “something richer and stronger.” Academics writing in English have commonly evaluated similarly Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde relative to Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato. Such evaluations deserve more broad-minded and less orthodox reconsideration.

[16] Goodwin (2003) p. 130.

[image] Griselda being exiled. Painting from the Spalliera Panels’ story of Griselda. Oil, with some tempera on wood. Ca. 1494. In National Gallery, London. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Benson, Larry, trans. 2006. Geoffrey Chaucer. The Clerk’s Tale (including its Prologue). The Geoffrey Chaucer Page, Harvard University.

Bernardo, Aldo S. , Saul Levin, and Reta A. Bernardo, trans. 1992. Francesco Petrarca {Petrarch}. Letters of old age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Goodwin, Amy W. 2003. “The Griselda Story in France.” Pp. 130-67 in vol. 1, Correale, Robert M., and Mary Hamel. 2003. Sources and analogues of the Canterbury Tales. Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer.

Goodwin, Amy W. 2004. “The Griselda Game.” Chaucer Review. 39 (1): 41-69.

Greco, Gina L., and Christine M. Rose, ed. and trans. 2009. The good wife’s guide; Le ménagier de Paris: a medieval household book. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Green, Richard Firth. 1983. “Women in Chaucer’s Audience.” The Chaucer Review. 18 (2): 146-154.

Green, Richard Firth. 2012. “Why Marquis Walter Treats His Wife So Badly.” The Chaucer Review. 47 (1): 48-62.

Harkins, Jessica. 2013. “Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale and Boccaccio’s Decameron X.10.” The Chaucer Review. 47 (3): 247-273.

McDonald, Nicole F. 2000. “Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, Ladies at Court and the Female Reader.” Chaucer Review. 35 (1): 22-42.

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Schwebel Leah. 2013. “Redressing Griselda: Restoration through translation in the Clerk’s Tale.” Chaucer Review. 47 (3): 274-299.