De coniuge non ducenda: angels save Gawain from marriage

Gawain tempted by wife of Bercilak de Hautedesert: De coniuge non ducenda!

Sometimes your friends really aren’t looking out for your best interests. Especially if they’re married, and they’re urging you to marry. About not getting married {De coniuge non ducenda}, a Latin work of men’s sex protest written between 1225 and 1250, tells how three angels saved Gawain from marriage.

The married men who were Gawain’s friends didn’t act like angels. They instead sought company to the end of their miserable days. Gawain easily could have joined them:

And all these made wild,
by women that they used.
though I be now beguiled,
I think I might be excused.

{ And alle þay were biwyled
⁠With wymmen þat þay vsed.
⁠Þaȝ I be now bigyled,
⁠Me þink me burde be excused. }[1]

Gawain explained:

I once had planned to take a wife
(to follow others’ wretched life),
a tender, juicy, winsome maid —
by her alone my heart was swayed.

Some friends advised me on the spot
to run and tie the nuptial knot
(“The married life’s the way for you!”),
to join me in their woeful crew.

My hasty wedding they did press
to cheer their gloom by my distress,
but through three angels all was well:
God snatched me from the gates of hell.

{ Uxorem ducere quondam volueram,
ut vitam sequerer multorum miseram,
decoram virginem, pinguem, et teneram,
quam inter alias solam dilexeram.

Hinc quidam socii dabant consilium
ut cito currerem ad matrimonium.
vitam conjugii laudabant nimium,
ut in miseriis haberent socium.

Tam cito nuptias volebam fieri,
ut de me misero gauderent miseri,
sed per tres angelos quos missos repperi
me Deus eruit a porta inferi. }[2]

Gawain’s vigorous, celebrated knightly life could have ended with a lament like that of Matheolus in a Latin work of the late-thirteenth century:

Just as I, though sad, am less disturbed in marriage
Because my fellow husbands provide solace in their misery.
Oh, single life! Be sad that single life ends in sadness
Increased only because it is allowed to end.

{ Sicut ego, tristis, minus hinc conturbor in istis;
Ut socios habeant solacia sunt miserorum.
Ve solis! doleant, quia solis puncta dolorum
Augmentatur eo quod eam soli paciuntur. }[3]

What made all the difference was the appearance of three angels. Just as three angels appeared to Abraham at Mamre, so too three angels came to Gawain at Mamre.[4] Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

One angel was Peter of Corbeil, elevated to archbishop of Sens in 1200. Courtly poets described abstractly men’s love servitude to women. Peter of Corbeil described the life of the ordinary, married working man:

Who takes a wife a millstone ties
around his neck until he dies.
The wife commands, the man obeys;
he once was free, but slave he stays.

His work piles up in rows and rows;
where one job ends, another grows.
The man’s an ass pricked on by spur
to feed the brats produced by her.

{ Qui ducit conjugem se ipsum onerat,
a cujus onere mors sola liberat.
vir servit conjugi, et uxor imperat;
et servus factus est qui liber fuerat.

Semper laboribus labores cumulat,
et labor preterit, et labor pululat.
ipse est asinus quem uxor stimulat,
ut pascat filios quos ipsa bajulat. }[5]

Patriarchy is a hateful fiction beguiling foolish students. Husbands have long lacked equal opportunities with wives to withdraw from paid work. The angel Peter proclaims, “Let Gawain shun having a wife {Gauinus igitur uxorem fugiat}!”

The second angel was Lawrence. He was probably the poet Lawrence, prior of Durham, who died in 1154. Lawrence explained how biological inequality in parental knowledge works to oppress men:

So rancour grips the married male
who keeps a wife who’s up for sale.
He names as heir another’s brat
and feeds what someone else begat.

Thus bitter grief and shame begin —
the child that’s been conceived in sin.
Its mother knows its bastard line,
the foolish husband says, “It’s mine.”

{ Qui ducit conjugem rancorem induit;
pascit adulteram qui se prostituit.
partum alterius heredem statuit,
et nutrit filium quem alter genuit.

Hic dolor maximus est et opprobrium,
conceptus filius per adulterium.
quem uxor propria scit esse spurium,
maritus fatuus appellat filium. }

Under English common law, a child born within a marriage is indisputably presumed to be the husband’s responsibility. Thus a New York court in 1975 ruled that a prisoner was the father of four children his wife had while he was securely locked away from her in prison. The angel Lawrence proclaims, “Let Gawain therefore wife eschew {desistat igitur Gauinus nubere}!”

The third angel was John Chrysostom. Known in the ancient world as the golden-mouthed, with God’s grace he spoke harsh truth to men:

A married man’s a slave for sure,
His flesh and spirit pain endure —
Like ox from market homeward led
To work the plough until he’s dead.

Who takes a wife accepts a yoke;
Not knowing pain, with pain he’ll choke.
Who takes a wife, himself is caught
And to eternal serfdom brought.

A wife’s demands are always met;
If not, she’ll quarrel, rage and fret.
The noise defeats the patient spouse;
He yields to her and quits the house.

{ Vere conjugium est summa servitus,
duplex angustia carnis et spiritus.
sic homo trahitur sicut bos venditus
ut sit perpetuo labori subditus.

Qui ducit conjugem ad jugum ducitur,
et penam nesciens ad penam nascitur.
uxorem capiens plus ipse capitur,
nam semper serviens servus efficitur.

Voluntas conjugis semper efficitur;
sin autem, litigat, flet et irascitur.
maritus paciens clamore vincitur,
et cedens conjugi domum egreditur. }

Is it any wonder that men’s lifespan is on average shorter than women’s? Some say that’s because men prefer to die than remain married. In truth, the matter hasn’t been seriously investigated. International authorities don’t care about gender inequality in lifespan that shortchanges men. The angel John advises, “If wise, then marriage you’ll forbear {uxorem igitur, si sapias, fugias}!”

Marriage is a foolish game in which a wife is entitled to swing a legal axe at her husband’s neck. There is no equal exchange under gynocentric law. When the axe strikes the husband’s neck, his head will be severed from his body. It will never re-attach. Gawain had magic that Merlin lacked. But magic didn’t save Gawain’s neck. Against the selfish advice of his married friends, the Holy Trinity of angels Peter, Lawrence, and John interceded on Gawain’s behalf. Give thanks and glory to them!

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

[1] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ll. 2425-8, close translation from Middle English by Benson (2012) p. 179. Like the knight Gawain, the bookish scholar learned from experience of the superior wiles of women. The verse romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was probably written in the latter half of the fourteenth century. Surviving only in one manuscript (British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x.), it’s written in an English dialect associated with Cheshire (northwestern England). On Gawain’s relation to the literature of men’s sexed protest, Dove (1972).

[2] About not getting married {De coniuge non ducenda} I2-I4, Latin text (modified to classical orthography) and English translation from Rigg (1986) pp. 67-9. A Latin text is freely available online in Wright (1841) pp. 77-85. Another version of the Latin text is titled Golias on not getting married {Golias de conjuge non ducenda}. Golias was a common name for an imaginary rogue bishop. The poem allows for swapping the names Golias, Gawain, or perhaps another man getting married.

De coniuge non ducenda is also known by the title About the best marriage {De optimo matrimonio}. The best marriage from a medieval clerical perspective was spiritual marriage to Mary, the mother of God.

De coniuge non ducenda probably was written in northern France or England between 1222 and 1250. It survives in at least 55 Latin manuscripts. Some manuscripts cite its author as Peter of Corbeil {Petrus de Corbolio}. Peter of Corbeil was a canon of Notre-Dame in Paris and archbishop of Sens from 1200 to 1222. A conductus for the Feast of the Ass is attributed to Peter of Corbeil.

Considerable variation among manuscripts suggests transmission through scribal memory. Rigg’s text is based mainly on the manuscript Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 450, dating from about 1310. Rigg chose it to represent the best-known and earliest form of the work. Rigg (1986) pp. 1, 61. Like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, De coniuge non ducenda encompasses realistic descriptions of mundane, non-bookish activities.

Various versons of De coniuge non ducenda exist. For a version from a French manuscript, Hanne (2010). A French-language version of De coniuge non ducenda exists in the Harley 2253 manuscript as Article 83, De Mal Mariage (Against Marriage). Fein (2014). The Harley version, which is less sophisticated than Andreas Capellenus’s De amore, inserts qualifiers limiting claims to “bad women” and “bad marriages.” Another French-language version, Douce 210, lacks those qualifiers. Dove (2000) p. 341. There’s also a Middle English version of De coniurge non ducenda attributed to John Lydgate and entitled Payne and Sorowe of Evyll Maryage. Salisbury (2002).

De coniuge non ducenda is part of the Latin tradition of men’s sex protest that encompasses Juvenal’s Satire 6, Jerome’s Golden Book on Marriage attributed to Theophrastus, Walter Map’s Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum, and Lamentationes Matheoluli. Rigg (1986), pp. 101-2, outlines parallels between De coniuge non ducenda and Lamentationes Matheoluli. He argues that the former, written in the second quarter of the thirteenth century, influenced the the latter, written about 1290.

[3] Lamentationes Matheoluli ll. 326-9, my translation from the Latin text of Van Hamel (1892) vol. 1, p. 23.

[4] On the three angels appearing to Abraham at Mamre, Genesis 18:1-15.

[5] De coniuge non ducenda P2-P3, trans. Rigg (1986) p. 73. The subsequent quotes are from id. L6-7, J2-3, J14. The text emphasizes the reality of the husband’s continual, pressing work for money for his family:

He pursues labor for money,
so that hunger doesn’t burden his family’s bellies.
He works constantly and without rest,
and tomorrow he begins again what he did today.,

Indeed, always serving, he is made a slave.

{ Instat laboribus causa pecunie,
Ne fames urgeat ventres familie.
Laborat iugiter et sine requie,
Et cras incipiet, ut fecit hodie.

Nam semper seruiens servus efficitur. }

De coniuge non ducenda P9, J3.4, Latin text of Rigg (1986), my English translation. The fourteenth-century French allegory The Way of Poverty and Riches {Le Chemin de Povreté et de Richesse} similarly depicts a husband’s anxieties to earn money for his family.

The burdens husbands endure, including gross anti-men bias in family law, have long been trivialized. Kuczynski (2000) reports:

one nineteenth-century reader of De conjuge non ducenda (no. 83), one of Harley’s antifeminist diatribes, spoke for many when he scrawled above the title of the Latin text in a book at the Tulane University Library, “A brutal piece of Monkish foulness, worse than any Classical smuttishness. Luther is here justified.”

Id. p. 141. Rigg (1986), in contrast, observes that De coniuge {conjuge} non ducenda is “a cheerful poem and not very serious.” The poem’s assertions:

stress not the obstacles that marriage poses to the scholar or cleric but the disadvantages for the ordinary working man. … the context is an ordinary working man’s household, beset above all by financial worries.

Id. preface, p. 4. Men’s burdens historically have tended to be disparaged and depreciated.

[image] Wife of Bercilak de Hautedesert attempts to seduce Gawain in bed. Illumination detail from f. 125/129 recto from British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x, the only surviving manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Thanks to the Cotton Nero A.x. Project.


Benson, Larry Dean, trans. 2012. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: a close verse translation. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

Dove, Mary. 1972. “Gawain and the Blasme des Femmes Tradition.” Medium Aevum 41: 20-26.

Dove, Mary. 2000. “Evading textual intimacy: the French secular verse.” Pp. 329 – 349 in Fein, Susanna Greer. 2000. Studies in the Harley manuscript: the scribes, contents, and social contexts of British Library MS Harley 2253. Kalamazoo, Mich: Published for TEAMS in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Fein, Susanna, ed. with David B. Raybin, and Jan M. Ziolkowski, trans. 2014. The complete Harley 2253 Manuscript (vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3). Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University. Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Hanne, Olivier. 2010. “De optimo matrimonio: Edition et traduction de la satire sur le mariage attribuée à Pierre de Corbeil (d’après le manuscrit Paris, BNF, Lat. 3343).” Online. HAL Id: halshs-00769219, version 1.

Kuczynski, Michael P. 2000. “An ‘electric stream’: the religious contents.” Pp. 123-161 in Fein, Susanna Greer. 2000. Studies in the Harley manuscript.

Rigg, A. G. 1986. Gawain on Marriage: the textual tradition of the De coniuge non ducenda with critical edition and translation. Toronto, Ont., Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Salisbury, Eve. 2002. The trials and joys of marriage. Kalamazoo, Mich: Published for TEAMS in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

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.

Wright, Thomas, ed. 1841. The Latin poems commonly attributed to Walter Mapes. London: Printed for the Camden Society, by J.B. Nichols and Son.

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