Melibee reversed women's incitement of violence against men

women and medieval violence against men

In the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer tells the ridiculous chivalric verse romance of Sir Thopas. Sir Thopas, a knight errant longing for the love of an elf queen, “for love and pleasure” prepared to battle the three-headed giant Sir Elephant. The Host stopped this nonsense and asked for a different story. Chaucer responded with the Tale of Melibee, an English version of Albertanus of Brescia’s Latin work Liber consolationis et consilii. That work reversed women’s incitement of men to do violence against men. Lessening women’s promotion of violence against men is crucial to reducing violence.

Steve Pinker, a Sir Thopas of our time, credits feminization of civilization for contributing to the long-run historical decline in violence. Pinker declares “the most fundamental empirical generalization about violence” is that “it is mainly committed by men.”[1] That’s half right in a tendentiously biased way. Pinker approvingly observes:

At the top, a consensus has formed within the international {elite} community that violence against women in the most pressing human rights problem remaining in the world.

That makes the gender bias obvious. In the U.S. today, four times more men than women die from violence. Around the world, violence overwhelmingly occurs against men. Whether a man’s immediate killer was a man or a woman doesn’t change the reality of the man being dead. Violence against men is much greater than violence against women and of much less social concern. Belief that the most pressing human rights problem today is violence against women is a modern version of ridiculous chivalric behavior.

Violence against men was much more prevalent in medieval Europe. Homicide per capita was roughly thirty times higher in medieval Europe than in high-income countries today. Because men are vastly disproportionately victims of homicide and casualties in war, medieval men’s life expectancy was about nine years less than women’s. Medieval men also experienced considerable non-fatal violence such as castration and vicious beatings.

Violence against men, along with all other evils, tends today to be blamed on men, or among the more sophisticated, blamed on patriarchy. But in the more liberal political circumstances of medieval Europe, thinkers had more respect for women’s agency. Medieval literature of men’s sexed protest emphatically declared that women promoted violence against men:

She sets friends against one another,
Turning brother against brother;
She cleaves the father from the son,
She robs the mother’s nest of one.

Woman fosters strife and wars,
And exiles men from ruined shores;
Castles she burns, cities defeats,
Destroys the towers and the keeps.
Women’s the reason tourneys are born,
Woman’s the reason swords are worn,
Enmity she instigates,
And combat she perpetuates;
The schemes she quickly engineers
Can drown a countryside in tears. [2]

Sefer Shaashuim, a Hebrew book from early-thirteenth-century Spain, described how women caused wars between families. In early-fifteenth-century Spain, the Archpriest of Talavera documented that women’s tears can prompt violence against men. Across world cultures, the classical Arabic poetic laments known as marthiya provide perhaps the most pointed and poignant representation of women’s role in inciting violence against men.

In contrast to literature describing women inciting violence against men, Albertanus of Brescia’s Liber consolationis et consilii described a woman named Prudence acting as a peacemaker. Prudence’s husband Melibee, a young, strong, and rich man, returned home to find that ancient foes had assaulted his wife and grievously injured their daughter. Albertanus made clear his work of gender reversal in depicting the initial interaction of Melibee and Prudence:

But when Melibee returned to his home, he saw what happened and began to weep greatly and tear his hair and rend his clothes like a madman. His wife then began to say, so as to quiet him, that he had wept enough. But he continually cried more. And she, being disturbed a little, remembered the words of Ovid in The Remedy of Love, who said:

Who’d stop a mother weeping, unless he’s mad,
at her son’s grave? That’s not the place to admonish her.
When tears are over, and the sorrowful spirit’s done,
then grief can be given expression in words. [3]

When Melibee finally stopped weeping, he gathered around him “a huge multitude of men” and “showed his strong desire to carry out a vendetta.”[4] Prudence didn’t incite her husband and the other men to violence against men. Drawing upon classical wisdom, Prudence urged her husband to take time to carefully consider the best course of action.[5] Like the initially weepy Melibee and the philosophical Prudence, the rashly violent Melibee and the calm, peace-seeking Prudence reversed long-established gender stereotypes.

In writing his English version of Liber consolationis et consilii, Chaucer understood Albertanus’s theoretical-didactic gender reversal. Immediately following the Tale of Melibee, Chaucer presented in the prologue to the Monk’s Tale medieval folk wisdom on women and violence:

When ended was my tale of Melibee,
And of Prudence and her goodness,
Our Host said, “On my faith,
And by that precious body of Madrian,
{I swear that} I had rather than have a barrel of ale
That Goodelief, my wife, had heard this tale!
For she is in no way of such patience
As was this Melibeus’ wife Prudence.
By God’s bones, when I beat my knaves,
She brings me forth the great knobby clubs,
And cries, ‘Slay the dogs every one
And break them, both back and every bone!’
And if any neighbor of mine
Will not in church bow to my wife,
Or be so bold as to offend her,
When she comes home she shakes her fists in my face,
And cries, ‘False coward, avenge thy wife!
By God’s bones, I will have thy knife,
And thou shalt have my spinning staff and go spin!’
From daybreak to nightfall right thus she will begin.
‘Alas,’ she says, ‘that ever I was created
To wed a milksop, or a coward ape,
That will be browbeaten by every body!
Thou darest not defend thy wife’s right!’
This is my life, unless I will fight;
And out at door immediately I must hasten myself,
Or else I am as good as lost, unless I
Be like a wild lion, fool-hardy.
I know well some day she will make me slay
Some neighbor, and then be on the run;
For I am perilous with knife in hand,
Albeit that I dare not stand up to her,
For she is strong in fighting, by my faith:
That shall he find that does or says something amiss to her —
But let us pass away from this matter.” [5]

Neither Albertanus’s Liber consolationis et consilii nor Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee can be adequately appreciated without recognizing women’s important role in inciting violence against men.

Medieval readers widely understood and valued Albertanus’s Liber consolationis et consilii. Judging from manuscripts and influence, Liber consolationis et consilii was among the most popular medieval works. Renaut de Louhans translated Liber consolationis et consilii into French about 1337. He did so apparently to promote peace in war-torn Burgundy. In the fourteenth century. Liber consolationis et consilii and its many vernacular translations became recognized as “an edifying treatise for women.”[6] The need for such edification is scarcely appreciated today.

Violence has always been highly disproportionately violence against men. International elites today seem to be benighted within ridiculous chivalric romances like that of Chaucer’s Sir Thopas. Even worse, many of them seem to have the character of Shakespeare’s Malvolio.[7] They deserve to be mocked.

Reducing violence, which worldwide is predominately violence against men, depends on both women and men. Women should stop inciting men to violence against men. Men should stand up to women’s social power and start valuing men’s lives more highly.

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Notes:

[1] Pinker (2011) p. 684. On feminization, id. pp. 684-9. The subsequent quote is from id., p. 414. On women’s responsibility for violence against men, Pinker states that women “frequently egg their men into battle.” But he declares, “over the long sweep of history, women have been, and will be, a pacifying force.” Id. pp. 526-7. Over the long sweep of history, the evidence for that claim is very weak.

[2] Le Blasme des Fames ll. 41-44, 53-62, from Old French trans. Fiero, Pfeffer & Allain (1989) pp. 123, 125. The text is probably from the late-thirteenth century. In the Lancelot romance of the Vulgate cycle, Bors carries the white banner of the Lady of Hungerford Castle into battle and joyfully returns with it stained red with the blood of her enemies.

[3] Albertanus of Brescia, Liber consolationis et consilii Ch. 1, from Latin my translation. The quote from Ovid’s Remedia Amoris ll. 127-130 is from A.S. Kline’s translation. Melibee is an English form of the Latin name Melibeus.

Albertanus wrote Liber consolationis et consilii in 1246. He dedicated that work to his son John. Albertanus had at least three sons. He probably didn’t want to see his sons die early, violent deaths.

Arabic literature could have reached Brescia from Sicily or Spain. Albertanus was familiar with the work of the Spanish Jewish convert Petrus Alfonsi (lived c. 1026-1110). Albertanus referred to Petrus Alfonsi 17 times in Liber consolationis et consilii (16 references to Disciplina Clericalis, 1 reference to Dialogus). Petrus Alfonsi was well-versed in Arabic literature.

Prudence tends to be seen as a recasting of Boethius’s Lady Philosophy. While there are some parallels, Liber consolationis et consilii has only one direct citation from Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. The motivation for Prudence much more probably came from immediate experience and the contemporary literature of men’s sexed protest. That literature is well-represented in Petrus Alfonsi’s Disciplina Clericalis.

Although Albertanus wrote in Latin, he was a layman. He worked as a judge, a notary, and a professional legal counselor (causidici). He was also the author of at least three treatises and five sermons. A primary concern in his writings is to “find means to resolve both public and private disputes in accordance with legal principles rather than knives, swords, spears, clubs, and rocks.” Powell (1992) p. 31. In his Genovese sermon of 1243, Albertanus declared:

The sweetest of legal precepts are these: to live honorably, to do no harm to another, to give to each his own. … Nothing, however, is more unsuitable than to be feared. As a matter of fact, men clearly hate the person they fear because everyone seeks the destruction of the person he fears.

Nuccio, Brannan & Felice (2004) pp. 13-14.

[4] Liber consolationis et consilii, from Latin trans. Powell (1992) pp. 80-1. Wars and vendettas were common within tumultuous, factious northern Italy early in the thirteenth century. In 1238, the army of Emperor Frederick II successfully besieged Brescia. Albertanus, whom the Brescians had put in command of a fortress at Gavardo, was taken prisoner of war.

[5] Prudence successfully led the hostile parties of men to repentance, forgiveness, and a “kiss of peace.” Powell (1992) p. 86. Powell declares:

Prudence, the wife of Melibeus, is more than the personification of an abstract virtue: she stands for the female principle.

Id. p. 116. Mann (1991), p. 98, similarly describes patience as a “womanly quality” and declares:

Melibee submits himself to his wife and to patience in one and the same process; his patience must match hers.

In assigning this tale to himself, Chaucer identifies himself with the values it embodies, and with the centrality of women’s role.

These interpretations ignore Liber consolationis et consilii’s gender reversal and implicitly blame men for violence against men. Prudence, like great women writers of the Middle Ages, had more loving appreciation for men.

Prudence herself opposed gender stereotyping. In her response to Melibee’s argument that “women are wicked and no good one may be found” and therefore he shouldn’t listen to Prudence’s counsel, Prudence responded:

I reply (with due respect to you) that you ought not to despise women in such general terms … there are a great many good women.

Liber consolationis et consilii, Ch. 3 & Ch. 4.2, from Latin trans. Blamires, Pratt & Marx (1992) pp. 237-8. For an alternate approach to affirming “not all women are like that” (NAWALT), see the story of the farmer, his wife, and the fish in the field in Sindibad.

[5] Chaucer, The Monk’s Prologue ll. 1889-1923, close modern English translation from Benson (2002). The wife’s name Goodelief literally means “good dear one.”

[6] From the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, Albertanus’s Latin writings were translated into Italian, French, English, German, Spanish, Dutch, and Czech. They  survive in hundreds of Latin and vernacular manuscripts. Many printed editions were produced in the fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries. Powell (1992) pp. 5, 121.

Renaut de Louhans (Renaud de Louens) was a Dominican friar. Renaut’s French translation of Albertanus’s Liber consolationis et consilii was “more a paraphrase and a somewhat shortened version.” On Renaut’s translation, id. p. 124-5. Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee is a very close translation of Renaut’s French version, but in minor differences “draws more attention to the limits of human knowledge, to the difficulty of interpreting.” Grace (2004) p. 396. Le Ménagier de Paris (The Parisian Householder), compiled about 1392-94, includes at sec. 1.9 Renaut’s French translation of Liber consolationis et consilii. Le Ménagier de Paris apparently drew upon a slightly different text than that which Chaucer used. Greco & Rose (2009) p. 41. Greco & Rose, apparently oblivious to the literary context, irascibly interpret the text:

Since every man want to “rule as lord” in his home, the narrator demonstrates that the prudent wife must subdue her anger or grief in order to reform her husband’s foolish and dangerous impulses which would destroy the peace of that home.

Id. p. 147. The literature of men’s sexed protest provides considerable insight into that interpretation.

The description of Liber consolationis et consilii becoming “an edifying treatise for women” is from Mario Roques, cited in Powell (1992) p. 125.

[7] Apparently seeking to flatter international elites and dominant interests in academia and media, Pinker declares, “We are all feminists now” and “rapists are men.” Ignoring forced financial fatherhood, he emphasizes the importance of “women’s control over their own reproduction.” Pinker (2011) pp. 404, 405, 688.

[image] Man killing another man while women watch and applaud. Illustration from Codex Manesse, Zurich, between 1305 and 1315. UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 321v. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Benson, Larry, trans. 2002. Geoffrey Chaucer. The Monk’s Prologue and Tale. The Geoffrey Chaucer Page, Harvard University.

Blamires, Alcuin, Karen Pratt, and C. William Marx. 1992. Men Impugned, Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: an anthology of medieval texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fiero, Gloria, Wendy Pfeffer, and Mathé Allain. 1989. Three medieval views of women: La contenance des fames, Le bien des fames, Le blasme des fames. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.

Grace, Dominick. 2004. “Telling Differences: Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee and Renaud de Louens’ Livre de Mellibee et Prudence.” Philological Quarterly. 83 (4): 367-400.

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.

Mann, Jill. 1991. Geoffrey Chaucer. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International. Republished in 2002 as Feminizing Chaucer. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Nuccio, Oscar, Patrick T. Brannan, and Flavio Felice. 2004. “Genovese Sermon: Albertanus of Brescia.” Journal of Markets & Morality 7(2): 599-638.

Pinker, Steven. 2011. The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined. New York: Viking.

Powell, James M. 1992. Albertanus of Brescia: the pursuit of happiness in the early thirteenth century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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