is Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo anti-meninist?

man needs woman

Imaginative literary work that disparages men as a group, such as literature depicting men as ugly, stupid, sexually defective subhumans, is anti-meninist. Not all men are like that. Literature that represents a man or men disparaging women is also anti-meninist. Such literature contributes to stereotyping men as hateful persons. Medieval Europe lacked today’s widely supported codes governing personal expression. Moreover, medieval writers developed clever means for supporting freedom of expression. Literature such as the astonishingly abusive late-medieval Scottish masterpiece The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo regrettably flourished.

The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo begins with the scent of joyous flowers, birds singing in greenery, and beautiful women. The narrator, weary with the merry revelry of Midsummer’s Eve, approached a hedge to lie still in the dark unseen and rest from the revelry.[1] But his restful solitude was interrupted with what seemed to him to be haughty words of lofty conversation. He, like men acting in accordance with the ideals of courtly love, badly misunderstood reality.

The narrator overheard two married women and a widow talking about their husbands. They all spoke strongly against marriage. Juvenal urged his friend Postumus not to marry. Valerius urged Rufinus not to marry. Three angels talked Gawain out of getting married. Speaking against marriage and urging women and men not to marry shouldn’t be forbidden. Even if authorities favor marriage, summoning those speaking out against marriage to an inquisition of orthodoxy is worse than medieval.

The two married women and the widow vigorously disparaged their husbands and former husbands. Among the words of the first married woman :

I have a slob, a snail, an old creepy caterpillar,
A used-up hog, not worth but words to clatter;
A bum-sitter, a drone bee, a bag full of phlegm,
A scabby slop, a scorpion, a flabby ass;
To see him scratch his own skin — great disgust I think.
When that cannibal kisses me, then kindles all my sorrow;
His brim boar beard is as stiff as burrs,
But soft and supple as silk is his sorry cock;
He may well assent to the sin, but harmless are his deeds.
With gore his two grim eyes are gunked all about,
And gorged like two gutters that were with glop stopped;

The love-looks of that bogle from his bleary eyes
As if Beelzebul had given me a long look, makes my spirit sink;
And when the sniveler smirks at me with his moldy mug,
He drivels like a decrepit mule that leers at a mare. [2]

This married woman extracted from her husband material goods in exchange for sex:

Ay, when that cannibal creep would climb on my womb,
Then am I dangerous and disdainful and dour of will;
Yet I never let that lard-ass go between my legs
To file my flesh, and fumble me, without a great fee;
And though his penis poorly me pays in bed,
His purse pays richly in recompense after:
For, before that cannibal beast can climb on my body,
I impose the condition of a kerchief costly and distantly bought,
A gown of richly dyed cloth, right gaily fur-beaming,
A ring with a royal stone, or other rich jewel,
Or rest of his rusty rod, though he rage madly. [3]

Hearing these abusive words, all three women laughed loudly and merrily and passed around a cup of rich wine.

The second married woman complained bitterly about her husband’s lack of sexual potency. The issue was appearance versus reality:

As courtly of his clothing and combing of his hairs,
As he that is more valiant in Venus’s chamber;
He seems to be worth something, that cipher in bed,
He looks as if he would make love, but he be of little valor;
He does as a dotty dog that dribbles on all bushes,
And lifts his leg up aloft, thought he nothing leaves of piss;
He has the look without lust, and life without courage;
He has a form without force, and fashion but no man-action,
And fair words but effect — fruitless of deeds;
He is for ladies in love a right lusty shadow,
But in private at the deed, he shall be found drooping;
He royal prances, and makes randy with riotous words,
Ay, regaling of his riding and raiding in bed;
But God knows what I think when he so brazenly speaks,
And how it suits him so badly what he says of such matters. [4]

The woman knew that her husband loved her. She pretended to love him.  For women who “hated men with hard gear for hurting of flesh,” she wished on them her husband. She herself fantasied about having a bold, vigorous knight.[5] The other women laughed loudly, praised her highly, and drank more rich wine.

The widow then told of her husbands. Her first husband she cuckolded so well that he bequeathed a mansion estate to a child who was not his own. The widow described her husbands and her behavior toward them:

One was a decrepit dotard, that dished out phlegm,
I hated him like a hound, though I hid that privately:
With kissing and comforting I made the clown fawn;
Well could I scratch his crooked back, and comb his balding pate,
And with tongue thrust in cheek taunt him from behind,
And with a curtsy turn about and bait his old eye,
And with a kind countenance kiss his crinkled cheeks,
In my mind making mockery of that mad father,
Thinking that I with true love was treating him so fair.

As a wise woman I managed and not like a mad fool,
For more with wiles I won than with strength of hands.

The widow abused her second husband for his social class:

Then I married a merchant, mighty of goods:
He was a man of middle age and mean stature;
But we weren’t matched in friendship or class,
In freedom nor favorable bearing nor fairness of person,
Which ay the fool did forget, for feebleness of knowledge,
But I so oft told him again, till his heart grew angry,
And once I put forth my voice and “peddler” called him;
I would right touchingly talk how I was twice married,
And how my old husband had ended my sexual innocence.

I made the husband-butler obey — there was no but else —
He made me right high reverence, for he my right knew;
And, thought I say it myself, the mismatch was mighty
Between his bastard blood and my noble birth.
That page was never of such price to presume once
Unto my person to be peer, had I pity not granted.
But mercy in womanhood is a mighty virtue,
And never but in a gentle heart arises compassion.
I held it green in his mind that I only of grace took him,
And that he rightly recognize himself I courteously taught him.
He dared not sit once my summons, for before the second call,
He was ready to run, so reluctant he was for blame.
But ay my will was the worse of womanly nature;
The more he labored for my love, the less of him I reckoned;
And hey, this a strange thing: before I married him,
I had such favor to that man, and then since hatred forever.
When I had control cleanly and fully and him overcome wholly,
I crowed above that coward, as a cock that were victor;
When I saw him subject and set to my bidding,
Then I despised him as a loon and loathed his manners.
Then I grew so unmerciful I thought to martyr him,
For as a beast I prodded him to all burdensome labor;
I would have ridden him to Rome with rope on his head,
Would that not ruffle my renown and cause rumors among people.

I made that wife-man work all women’s works,
And denied him all manly matters and dignity on this earth.
Then I said to my gossips gathered about,
“See how I cabled that colt over there with a keen bridle!
The horse that carried baskets to the trash-heap
So courteously now the cart draws, and responds with no rearing,
He’s not restive, nor jumpy, nor jerks to the side,
And thus scorn nor injury escapes him neither. [6]

The widow extracted many expensive goods from this husband while cuckolding him with lusty young men. She refused to allow her husband’s family to be within her sight. When her husband died, she rejoiced.[7]

Perhaps with the benefit of having acquired her husbands’ estates, the widow relished widowhood. Under the pretense of mourning and praying, she surveyed and appraised as potential lovers the men present in church. She proclaimed:

Faith has a fair name, but falsehood fares better,
Fie on her who cannot feign her fame to save her name!

The widow found a discreet servant with a sure tongue to provide her with pleasure under her shirt until the sun rose. Mocking the Belle dame sans mercy, the widow declared herself all-merciful:

To every man I specially speak some words,
So wisely and so womanly, till their hearts warm.
There is no living lad of so low degree
That shall love me unloved, I am so loving-hearted;
And if his lust be longingly to play on my lyre
That he be lost or with me lie, his life shall not danger.
I am so merciful in mind and pity all men,
My poor soul shall be safe, when Sabaoth all judges.

The widow advised her woman-friends to learn from her life. The widow’s life wasn’t written as a Latin legend. It didn’t have to be. The other women readily took to her teaching.[8] They laughed raucously and enjoyed more rich wine.

With respect to medieval literature, influential modern scholarly judgements take the form of determining whether a given work is anti-meninist. Is The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo anti-meninist? Compare that work to Lamentationes Matheoluli and Boccaccio’s Corbaccio. Which of these three works, my distinguished readers, would you most confidently classify as anti-meninist?[9]

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[1] The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo (The Treatise of the Two Married Women and the Widow) is also known by its first line, Apon the Midsummer Evin, Mirriest of Nichtis (Upon the Midsummer Eve, Merriest of Nights). The poem’s author, William Dunbar, was a Lowland Scot probably born about 1460. He apparently was a priest and seems to have been associated with the court of the Scottish King James IV. He died sometime between 1513 and 1530. When Dunbar wrote Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo isn’t known, but that work survives in text printed about 1507. Dunbar is regarded as one of the greatest Middle Scots poets.

The narrator of Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo has been commonly misinterpreted as spying on the women or being a voyeur. Overhearing was a well-recognized poetic convention. Moreover, “dirkin efter” in l. 9 is misunderstood to mean “lie low in search of.” In its specific Middle Scots context, that phrase actually means  “lie still in the dark.” Bawcutt (1992) p. 331.

Scholars have thoroughly discussed whether the genre of Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo is a débat on love and marriage, chanson de mal mariée, jugement, or demandes d’amour. Id. pp. 325-7. That question seems to me less important than the unexamined question of whether Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo is anti-meninist.

[2] A leading scholar of Dunbar’s poetry observed that Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo employs literary artifice and comic stereotypes, but:

the poem also reflects social reality. The First Wife bemoans the misery of marriage to an old, virtually senile man; and the Second Wife curses the ‘wekit kyn’ {wicked kin} (214) who compelled her to marry in accord with their wishes rather than her own. Such disparity in the ages of wife and husband and such forced marriages were facts.

Bawcutt (1992) pp. 344-5. The facts suggest that such marriages were in fact highly unusual. Evidence on late-medieval differences by sex in age at first marriage suggests that husbands averaged about five years older than wives in first-time marriages. Very few men or women were actually forced to marry a particular person. The hardships of poor men’s lives could, of course, strongly encourage them to marry a relatively wealthy widow.

One medieval scholar working on laughter determined Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo to be “a clear example of medieval antifeminism.” Perfetti (2003) p. 125. Another scholar complained:

lack of bias attributed to a text that nevertheless manages to define textual authority as a masculine privilege over impudent feminine speech is, in my opinion, one of the more insidious achievements of such antifeminist satire.

Neufeld (1999) p. 424. Bawcutt (1992), p. 326, perceives that the women “increasingly speak on behalf of all women, irrespective of age and class.”

[3] William Dunbar, Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo ll. 89-99, 111-4, my translation from Middle Scottish. Salisbury (2002) and Conlee (2004), no. 84, provide online the Middle Scottish text, with glosses. Murphy (2010) provides the text with normalized spelling and glosses. Hope (1970) Appendix, pp. 270-99, provides a translation into modern English. My translation has benefited from these scholars’ work. Subsequent quotes from Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo are from ll. 131-41; 182-96; 270-80, 294-5; 296-304, 309-32, 351-8; 460-1; 495-502, in my translation of the Middle Scottish.

Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo employs an unrhymed, alliterative line. Alliterative poetry was regarded as an antique English form as early as the late-fourteenth century. In the Parson’s Prologue to the Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Parson declares:

But trust well, I am a Southern man;
I cannot recite ‘rum, ram, ruf,’ letter by letter,
And, God knows, rhyme I consider but little better;

ll. 42-4. Later the Host, fed up with Sir Thopas’s ridiculous romance, interrupted and said:

Let’s see whether thou can tell anything in alliterative verse,
Or tell something in prose, at the least

The Prologue to and Tale of Sir Thopas, and the Host’s Interruption, ll. 33-4. My translation attempts to preserve some of the poetry of Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo.

[4] The theme of appearance versus reality occurs repeatedly in the widow’s speech. She explained that she was shrewish, dour, and disdainful, but contrived to appear sober, sweet, and simple. She counseled her women-friends:

Though you be forward, inconstant, and cruel of mind,
Though you be as fierce as a tiger, be tractable in love,
And be as turtledoves in your talk, though you have hot tails.
Be dragons both and doves, ay in double form,
And when you need do, anon, note both their strengths;
Be amiable with humble face, as angels appearing,
And with a terrible tails be stinging as adders;
Be of your look like innocents, though ye have evil minds.

Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo, ll. 173-80. Cf. Matthew 10:16.

[5] In a refreshing analysis that’s less anti-meninist than many others, a medieval literature graduate student declared of Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo:

To read this as a simply parody of women, a straightforward piece of antifeminism, misses the delicate literary game with which Dunbar’s poem is engaging. … It is lack of, not talk of, sex in the Tretise that is the cause of the failure of the courtly mode. Perhaps if their husbands were all such vigorous lovers as the couple in In Secreit Place, all would be happier.

Harrill (2013) pp. 17-8. William Dunbar’s poem In Secreit Place features contrasting refrains. In a modern English translation, the man’s refrain to his beloved woman is “You break my heart, my pretty one.” The woman’s refrain to the man she consents to have sex with is “Very dear to me is your ugly mug.” Dunbar seems to be engaged in subtle critique of men’s abjection in courtly love.

[6] In the final chapter of his book-length fantasy on the Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo, Alec Derwent Hope observed:

The inner mystery of the poem is its union of beauty and power, with laughter as the catalyst. It presents a vision of woman which is much more than a satirical caricature. It has in it something heroic, portentous, and magnanimous.

Hope (1970) p. 266. Hope, who seems to have been a dog-headed man, is widely regarded as one of the best Australian poets of the twentieth century. Another scholar reads the poem as part of “conventional antifeminism” and a “long tradition of medieval misogynist literature.” However, drawing on the insights of Michel Foucault, she uncovered within Dunbar’s poem an  “authoritative, literate, masculine effort to define and control women.” She reports:

Dunbar’s poem reflects on the weaknesses of patriarchal power and the dangers of men’s control over women, dramatizing the concern that women can undermine men’s authority and pose a serious threat to patriarchal hierarchy.

Matlock (2004) pp. 211, 230.

[7]  In the Middle Ages, persons were less prone to stereotyping old women in ways they are today:

Although the matron and the matronly values she personified were lauded in ancient Rome in particular, both she and the meek little old lady of the twentieth century who is helped across the street by the Boy Scout are not characteristically medieval constructs. In the literature of the Middle Ages, the typical little old lady would have either propositioned the boy herself or else would have coached him in having his way with a girl he wanted.

Ziolkowski (1998) p. 73. Old women were associated with worldly experience, orality, and vernacular language. Indicating social-structural tension, learned, literary, Latin culture tended to depict old women with particular negative characteristics. Ziolkowski (2002). Those negative characteristics are well represented in the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo. Yet in that poem, Dunbar counterpoised courtly diction with colloquial diction, archaic poetic form with everyday interests, and literary virtuosity with mimesis of speech. Dunbar similarly suggested that all three women were not old:

Their mantles were green as the grass that grew in May season,
Fettered with their white fingers about their fair sides.
Of wondrously fine favor were their faces meek,
All full of flourishing fairhood as flowers in June —
White, seemly, and soft as the sweet lilies
Now upspread upon spray, as newly blossomed rose

ll. 19-24.

[8] Learned, literary, Latin culture commonly expressed both loathing and fear of “old wives’ tales.” Ziolkowski (2002). Those tales were associated with the worldly, oral, vernacular life that women dominate. Women, not Latin clerics, were always the most important teachers in society. Latin clerics’ hostility to old wives’ tales reflects in part that reality.

The narrator ends the lengthy Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo with brief references to his pen and his having written the text. He also makes an appeal for judgment to an imaginary audience of men. The husbands in his text have not a single word. They represent men’s position in key worldly social institutions such as family courts.

[9] Summarizing her extensive scholarly study of this poem, the leading scholar of Dunbar’s poetry declared:

Dunbar’s view of women in this poem is not wholly unsympathetic — the Wives, in particular, have genuine grievances, and there is occasional pathos in their depiction. The Widow is horrifying, yet undoubtedly abounds in the “exuberance of life” — beside her men seem puny. The husbands indeed are repellent, both physically and morally. One might well feel that such men get no more than they deserve.

Bawcutt (1992) pp. 345-6. Salisbury (2002), Introduction, describes Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo as debating the “case of the neglectful and impotent old husband.” That case serves to “keep women firmly in their place”:

As in the anonymous A Talk of Ten Wives, Dunbar constructs a feminine community and a collective female voice that has gained credibility among some scholars. Yet, the very freedom with which these women speak, the social and linguistic liberties performed here, are precisely the factors that mark the text as fabliau. These aggressive and forceful females participate in the carnivalesque by mocking the traditions that define social status and keep women firmly in their place.

Distinguishing between anti-meninist literature and much recent literary scholarship is rather difficult. Perhaps that contributes to relatively little scholarly discussion of anti-meninism.

[image] Homeless man in Anchorage, Alaska, 5 July 2006.  Thanks to Josh Swieringa and Wikimedia Commons.


Bawcutt, Priscilla J. 1992. Dunbar the makar. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Conlee, John W. 2004. William Dunbar: the complete works. Kalamazoo, Mich: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Harrill, Claire. 2013.  “‘He wald have fukkit’: Sex and courtly love in the poetry of William Dunbar.” Birmingham Journal of Literature and Language 5: 12-19.

Hope, A. D. A midsummer eve’s dream; variations on a theme by William Dunbar. New York: Viking Press.

Matlock, Wendy A. 2004. “Secrets, Gossip and Gender in William Dunbar’s The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo.” Philological Quarterly 83(3): 209-235.

Murphy, Michael. 2010. William Dunbar. The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo (The Treatise of the Two Married Women and the Widow), Normalized and Glossed. Available online at

Neufeld, Christine. 1999. “Speakerly Women and Scribal Men.” Oral Tradition 14(2): 420-9.

Perfetti, Lisa Renée. 2003. Women & laughter in medieval comic literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1998. “Obscenities of Old Women: Vetularity and Vernacularity.” Pp. 73-89 in Ziolkowski, Jan M., ed. 1998. Obscenity: social control and artistic creation in the European Middle Ages. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2002. “Old Wives’ Tales: Classicism and Anti-Classicism from Apuleius to Chaucer.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 12 (1): 90-113.

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