medieval amplification of husband’s suicide quip in Cicero

Bust of Cicero, orator

Within the Golden Age of Latin literature, Cicero was the preeminent orator and prose stylist. Cicero included within his masterly text on oratory a witticism about a husband, his friend, his friend’s wife, and suicide:

Other witticisms are those that suggest a joke that is not quite on the surface; to this group belongs the quip of the Sicilian to whom a friend was lamenting because, as he told him, his wife had hanged herself from a fig-tree, and who replied, “Do please let me have some cuttings from that tree of yours to plant.”

{ Salsa sunt etiam quae habent suspicionem ridiculi absconditam, quo in genere est Siculi illud, cui cum familiaris quidam quereretur quod diceret uxorem suam suspendisse se de ficu, “amabo te,” inquit, “da mihi ex ista arbore quos seram surculos.” }[1]

Cicero today is more likely to be condemned for that “witticism” than are persons who ignore the suicide of a York University student after his university refused to allow men’s issues to be voiced. Cicero today is more likely to be condemned than persons who don’t care that a hard-working advocate for providing domestic violence services for men, frustrated with hostility to his efforts, committed suicide in despair. Cicero today is more likely to be condemned than a leading U.S. newspaper that writes about suicide without any reference to the vast predominance of men victims. Of course Cicero, who has been dead for about 2058 years, cannot defend his now-peculiar prose choice with eloquent oratory.

What Cicero wrote almost surely wasn’t marked as objectionable during the Golden Age of Latin literature. Other Roman writers produced or reproduced similar quips. A celebrated Roman writer of sexually explicit epigrams also wrote this epigram:

Fabianus, every girlfriend Lycoris has had, she’s buried them all. I hope she makes friends with my wife.

{ Omnes quas habuit, Fabiane, Lycoris amicas
extulit: uxori fiat amica meae. }[2]

Later during the Roman Empire, another writer reported a Greek philosopher’s nasty quip:

Seeing some women hanged from an olive-tree, he said, “Would that every tree bore similar fruit.”

{ ἰδών ποτε γυναῖκας ἀπ᾿ ἐλαίας ἀπηγχονισμένας, “εἴθε γάρ,” ἔφη, “πάντα τὰ δένδρα τοιοῦτον καρπὸν ἤνεγκεν.” }[3]

In the classical Greco-Roman world, men freely expressed their dissatisfaction with women and marriage in ways that are nearly unimaginable in our more repressive age. Juvenal’s Satire 6 is probably the most forceful and scintillating work of men’s sexed protest ever written. At a more mundane level, Roman men wrote graffiti declaring no further interest in having sex with women. Elite Roman men’s reluctance to marry was a matter of serious public concern. Today, even the ultimate expressive act of men committing suicide, which men do at a rate four times that for women, generates almost no public concern.

husband gets planting from suicide tree

The husband’s suicide quip in Cicero’s text was characteristically amplified in its most widely distributed medieval version. That medieval version expanded the hanging to three successive wives:

Valerius tells us that a man named Peratinus one day burst into a flood of tears. Calling his son and his neighbors around him, Peratinus said, “Alas! Alas! I have now growing in my garden an unlucky tree, on which my first poor wife hung herself, then my second wife, and after that, my third wife. Have I not therefore cause for my wretchedness?” “Truly,” said one that was called Arrius, “I marvel that you should weep at such an unusual instance of good fortune! Give me, I pray of you, two or three sprigs of that tree. I will divide them with my neighbors. That will afford every man an opportunity of allowing his wife to hang herself.” And so he did.

{ Refert Valerius, quod homo quidam nomine Peratinus flens dixit filio suo et omnibus vicinis suis: Heu, heu michi! habeo in orto meo arborem infelicem, qua uxor mea prima se suspendit, postmodum secunda, modo tercia, et ideo dolor est michi miserabilis. Ait unus, cui nomen Arrius: Miror, te in tantis successibus lacrimas emisisse. Da michi, rogo te, tres surculos illius arboris, quia intendo inter vicinos dividere, ut quilibet arborem habeat ad uxorem suam suspendendam. Et sic factum est. }[4]

The medieval version expands the suicides from one to three wives. Moreover, the one friend becomes a son and many neighbors. The medieval version expands the opportunities of wives to commit suicide to all of Arrius’s neighbors. This expansion might serve in vehement literary protest against women and marriage. But the application of the medieval version is a highly abstract spiritual allegory:

Beloved, the tree is the cross of Christ. … In this tree are hung the man’s three wives, that is, pride in life, lust of the flesh, and lust of the eyes. The man married to the world has three wives. One is the daughter of the flesh, who is called lust. Another is the daughter of the world, who is called avarice. The third is the daughter of the devil, who is called pride. But when the sinner with the grace of God clings to penance, these wives willingly have themselves hung. Avarice hangs itself with the rope of generosity, pride with the rope of humility, and lust hangs itself with the rope of indifference and chastity. He who sought a sprig is a good Christian.

{ Carissimi, hec arbor est sancta crux, in qua pependit Christus. … In ista arbore tres uxores hominis suspenduntur, scilicet superbia vite, concupiscencia carnis et concupiscencia oculorum. Homo enim datus mundo tres uxores ducit: una est filia carnis, que vocatur voluptas, alia filia mundi, que vocatur cupiditas, tercia filia diaboli, que vocatur superbia. Sed cum peccator gracia dei adheret penitencie, iste uxores voluntates suas non habentes se suspendunt. Cupiditas se suspendit fune elemosyne, superbia fune humilitatis, voluptas se suspendit fune jejunii et castitatis. Iste, qui quesivit surculos, est bonus Christianus }

European medieval culture celebrated men’s abject subordination to women in courtly love. Medieval fabliaux made fun of the physical abuse of men and men being cuckolded. Medieval men had legitimate reasons to engage in vehement verbal protests against the marital circumstances of their lives.[5] Yet from a medieval perspective, following the Christian way of the cross was far more important.

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[1] Cicero, About the Orator {De oratore} 2.69.278, from Latin trans. Sutton & Rackham (1942) p. 409. Jokes about hoping that one’s wife dies go back in Latin to no later than Plautus. Donkeys {Asinaria}, v. 901: “I wish she were dead {periisse cupio}.” See also Asinaria, v. 905, as well as Plautus’s Pot of Gold {Aulularia} vv. 155-7, and Three Coins {Trinummus}, vv. 51-65. Quintilian elaborated upon Cicero’s text:

Related to this are remarks that depend on insinuation: when a man complained to Cicero that his wife had hanged herself from a fig tree, Cicero replied “I wish you would give me a slip of that tree to graft”; what is unsaid here is understood. Indeed, the whole principle of witty speech consists in expressing things in a way other than the direct and truthful one.

{ Ei confine est quod dicitur per suspicionem, quale illud apud Ciceronem querenti quod uxor sua ex fico se suspendisset: ‘rogo des mihi surculum ex illa arbore ut inseram’; intellegitur enim quod 89non dicitur. Et hercule omnis salse dicendi ratio in eo est, ut aliter quam est rectum verumque dicatur. }

Quintilian, The Orator’s Education {Institutio Oratoria} 6.3.88, Latin text and English translation from Russell (2002). For Institutio Oratoria in a freely available English translation,  Butler (1921-22) via LacusCurtius.

Plutarch recorded a version of the quip in which men seek suicide. Timon says to the men of Athens:

I have a small building lot, men of Athens, and a fig-tree is growing in it, from which many of my fellow citizens have already hanged themselves. Accordingly, as I intend to build a house there, I wanted to give public notice to that effect, in order that all of you who desire to do so may hang yourselves before the fig-tree is cut down.

{ Ἔστι μοι μικρὸν οἰκόπεδον, ὦ ἄνδρες Ἀθηναῖοι, καὶ συκῆ τις ἐν αὐτῷ πέφυκεν, ἐξ ἧς ἤδη συχνοὶ τῶν πολιτῶν ἀπήγξαντο. μέλλων οὖν οἰκοδομεῖν τὸν τόπον ἐβουλήθην δημοσίᾳ προειπεῖν, ἵνα, ἂν ἄρα τινὲς ἐθέλωσιν ὑμῶν, πρὶν ἐκκοπῆναι τὴν συκῆν, ἀπάγξωνται. }

Plutarch, Life of Mark Anthony 70.3, from Greek trans. Perrin (1920).

[2] Martial, Epigrams 4.24, from Latin Nisbet (2015) p. 71, adapted non-substantially.

[3] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers IV.52 (Diogenes), from Greek trans. Hicks (1925).

[4] Gesta Romanorum Tale 33, “About boasting {De iactantia},” Latin text of Oesterley (1872), English trans. (modified significantly to follow the Latin) from Swan (1894) p. 66. The subsequent quote is similarly sourced. Gesta Romanorum was probably compiled at the end of the thirteenth century.

While Gesta Romanorum was a widely distributed work, the husband’s suicide quip was also known through other works, including Cicero’s De oratore itself. Walter Map’s influential Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum includes a version much like the one in Gesta Romanorum, but without the allegorization. Map’s essay is lovingly addressed from Valerius to his friend Rufinus, who is planning to marry. Valerius appends to the quip an expression of concern:

Friend, I am afraid lest you should need to beg cuttings from that tree at a time when they cannot be found.

From Latin trans. Hanna & Lawler (1997) p. 136. A version of the quip with two wives committing suicide exists in the collection of sermon exempla of Jacques de Vitry. A version of the quip also exists in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale ll. 757-64.

A early sixteenth-century French version of Gesta RomanorumLe Violier des histoires romaines, records more extensively the spiritual allegorization of the suicide quip. It describes the man “who is married to the world.” Through the grace of God and penance, he overcomes his three sins (wives). Cupidity is hung (overcome) with the cord of almsgiving, sensuality is hung with the cord of chastity and fasting, and pride, the devil-woman, is hung with the cord of humility. Brunet (1858) pp. 88-9. Swan significantly abbreviated the allegorization. Swan (1894) p. 67.

[5] Literature of men’s sexed protest historically has been misandristically misread. That tendency is evident in the historical reception of the classical suicide quips. Erasmus recounted the suicide quips of Cicero and Diogenes. He added a comment that Diogenes was “implying jokingly that he hated his wife.” The sixteenth-century Domenichi joke collection recorded Cicero’s quip and added the marginal note Empio e inhumano (“impious and inhumane”). Bowen (1998) pp. 426-7. It apparently wasn’t recorded how the author of that marginal note felt about pervasive violence against men and the large lifespan shortfall of medieval men relative to medieval women. But surely the United Nation’s current approach to evaluating gender inequality in life expectancy should today be noted as impious and inhumane.

[images] (1) Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome (inv. MC0589), first half of 1st century GC. Thanks to Glauco92 and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Sharing plantings from suicide tree. Image on folio 174 in Les fantasies de Mere Sote {French adaptation of Gesta Romanorum}, Pierre Gringore, printed 1518, Paris.


Bowen, Barbara C. 1998. “Ciceronian Wit and Renaissance Rhetoric.” Rhetorica. 16 (4): 409-429.

Brunet, Gustave. 1858. Le violier des histoires romaines; ancienne traduction françoise des Gesta Romanorum. Paris: P. Jannet.

Butler, Harold Edgeworth Butler, trans. 1921-22. The institutio oratoria of Quintilian. Loeb Classical Library. London: W. Heinemann.

Hanna, Ralph and Traugott Lawler, eds. 1997. Jankyn’s book of wikked wyves. Vol. 1: The Primary Texts (with translations). Walter Map’s Dissuasio; Theophrastus’ De Nuptiis; selections from Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum. University of Georgia Press: Athens.

Hicks, Robert Drew, trans. 1925. Diogenes Laertius. Lives of eminent philosophers. London: W. Heinemann.

Nisbet, Gideon, trans. 2015. Martial. Epigrams. Oxford World Classics. Oxford: New York : Oxford University Press.

Perrin, Bernadotte. 1920. Plutarch’s Lives. Vol. 9. Loeb Classical Library. London: W. Heinemann.

Russell, Donald A., ed. and trans. 2002. Quintilian. The Orator’s Education. Volume III: Books 6-8. Loeb Classical Library 126. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sutton, E.W. and H. Rackham, trans. 1942. Marcus Tullius Cicero. De oratore. London: W. Heinemann.

Swan, Charles, trans. and Wynnard Hooper, ed. 1894. Gesta Romanorum; or, Entertaining moral stories; invented by the monks as a fireside recreation, and commonly applied in their discourses from the pulpit: whence the most celebrated of our own poets and others, from the earliest times, have extracted their plots. London: George Bell & Sons.

Marie de France appreciated women’s carnal desire for men

knight becomes hawk in Marie de France's Yonec

Marie de France’s lai Yonec poignantly expresses a young, noble woman’s carnal desire for a noble, young man. Like Matheolus, the lady was deeply unhappy within her marriage to an older, unpleasant spouse. She lamented:

I have often heard tell that in this country one used to encounter adventures which relieved those afflicted by care: knights discovered maidens to their liking, noble and beautiful, and ladies found beautiful and courtly lovers, worthy and valiant men. [1]

Then a young hawk flew into her bedroom. After she had gazed upon the hawk, it turned into a beautiful and noble knight:

The lady was astonished by this. Her face became flushed, and she trembled and covered her head, being very afraid. [2]

She strove to retain her modesty. She seems to have been afraid of her own carnal desire. The knight declared to her:

I have loved you for a long time and desired you greatly in my heart. I never loved any woman but you, nor shall I ever love another. Yet I could not come to you, nor leave my country, unless you had wished for me; but now I can be your beloved!

The knight knew the desire that the lady actually felt. That desire fantastically allowed him to appear. Quickly putting aside her modesty, the lady offered a spiritual rationalization. She would become his lover if he believed in God. The knight affirmed that he could easily pass that test. He did. Then they enjoyed each other’s company in bed.[3]

Marie de France forthrightly recognized the lady’s sexual ardor and possible dangers from it. After the lady and the knight spent the night together:

She begged him gently to come back and see her often. “Lady,” he said, “whenever it pleases you, I shall be with you within the hour, but observe moderation so that we are not harassed. This old woman will keep watch over us night and day and betray us. When she notices our love, she will tell her lord {the lady’s husband} about it. If this should happen as I say and we are betrayed in this way, I shall have no way of preventing my death.” [4]

Punitive social control of men’s sexuality has always been harsher than control of women’s. Reflecting medieval ideals of men’s subordination to women, the knight placed his fate in his lady-lover’s ability to moderate her carnal desire.

The lady’s sexual relationship with the knight dramatically changed her life. She had been morose and her beauty had faded. After just one night with him, she was completely transformed:

The next day she arose quite recovered and was very happy that week. She looked after herself well and her beauty was quite restored. Now she was more content just to remain where she was than to amuse herself in any other way, for she wanted to see her beloved often and to take her pleasure with him as soon as her lord {her husband} left. Night and day, early or late, he was hers whenever she wanted.

Unfortunately, her husband soon noticed her changed appearance. The husband and his old-woman helper contrived to observe the affair. The husband then carefully set up iron spikes to wound mortally the hawk when it flew through the window into the room. When that occurred, his wife was already pregnant with her and the knight’s child.[5]

Marie de France’s Life of Saint Audrey also shows appreciation for women’s carnal desire for men. In the Life of Saint Audrey, Marie de France observed:

It would be difficult to find
a young married woman
who has not been compelled and overwhelmed
by carnal desire. [6]

Saint Audrey vowed to remain a virgin throughout her whole life. To achieve that goal, “she vanquished all her carnal desires.” Saint Audrey’s conquest of desire is painful to consider:

Who can bring back to her heart
the love-games she played in marriage,
And the temptations of the flesh
when she was with her husband,
not being like this honorable virgin
whom God had kept for His own purpose? [7]

In her literary works, Marie de France, like other leading medieval women writers, showed loving concern for men. Her empathy for men and her humanity toward men is completely inconceivable to many medieval scholars today. That failure of modern understanding may in part reflect the sexual frigidity of our times.

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[1] Marie de France, Yonec ll. 95-102, from Old French trans. Burgess & Busby (2012) p. 87. Cited by line number in the Old French and page number in Burgess & Busby’s transation, the subsequent quotes from Yonec are ll. 120-2, p. 87 (The lady was astonished…); ll. 131-8, p. 87 (I have loved you…); ll. 201-14, p. 88 (She begged him…); ll. 217-27, pp. 88-9 (The next day…).

English translations are available online in Shoaf (1993) and Mason (1911). Here’s an online Old French text of Yonec of questionable quality. Warnke (1885) Ch. 7, pp. 123-45, provides a scholarly, critical edition of the Old French text.

The lady’s husband was a rich, powerful old man. The lady didn’t like his bodily attributes:

Cursed be my parents and all those who gave me to this jealous man and married me to his person. I pull and tug on a strong rope! He will never die. When he should have been baptized, he was plunged into the river of Hell, for his sinews are hard, and so are his veins which are full of living blood.

Yonec ll. 85-94, p. 87. After seven years of marital sexual relations, the lady bore no children with her husband. Her husband seems to have lacked seminal potency.

Shoaf (1993) translates phrases such as gentes e beles (l. 100) as “handsome, gentle.” The word “gentle” applied to a man in modern English suggests lack of physical potency and vigor. A translation like “noble and beautiful” more accurately reflects the lady’s sexual desire for a man with social status and physical beauty.

Marie de France probably wrote Yonec about 1170. Arlima provides a bibliography of manuscripts, translations and studies.

[2] As Shoaf (1993), p. 5, notes, the language of this scene and the resulting pregnancy has parallels with the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary. Medieval writers were willing to play freely with sacred texts. Consider, for example, Boccaccio’s story of Frate Alberto and Madonna Lisetta and the medieval Latin poem Si linguis angelicis. For a different literary play associating a hawk (falcon) and a person, see the fabliau Guilluame au Faucon (William of the Falcon).

[3] While Yonec narrates a woman’s fantasy of overcoming an oppressive marriage, men also sought to overcome oppressive marriages. A medieval scholar insightfully stated:

But ultimately it is for men as well as for women, for all individuals, that Marie renders personal feelings such as loneliness, alienation, frustration, and injustice significant and so legitimizes discontent and action taken to allay these feelings. In a highly authoritarian and depersonalized society, Marie proposes that personal happiness and well-being matter. She unlocks the doors to the ebony towers and lets the malmariées, both the literal and the figurative, escape and run down to the sea.

Willging (1995-96) p. 134. That statement surely applies to men from the lowly man in Jerusalem to Matheolus to Michael D. Turner.

[4] Burgess & Busby (2012), p. 89, has translated encumbrez (in l. 206) above as “discomfited.” I’ve used the closer translation “harassed.”

[5] While earlier the knight had urged on the lady sexual moderation, on his deathbed he suggested his own lack of sexual moderation in response to her physical beauty:

My sweet beloved, for love of you I am losing my life. I told you what would come of it: your appearance would slay us.

Yonec ll. 323-26, p. 90.

[6] Vie seinte Audree ll. 381-4, from Old French trans. McCash & Barban (2006) p. 45. The subsequent quote is from l. 773, p. 63 (She vanquished all her carnal desires.)

Medieval women unabashedly celebrated their strong heterosexual interests. The medieval Distaff Gospels, which recorded discussion among women, included the following chapter:

When a bride goes from her house to the church to marry her betrothed, the best wish that is made for will come true, on condition that she immediately thanks the well-wisher, otherwise that will avail her nothing.
Gloss {discussion}. A very gallant lady named Perrine Bleue Levre said: “I have found an exception to this chapter because, when I was on my way to marry Janot Bleue Levre, my husband, my aunt greeted me with the wish that I would have a good stiff encounter with him, and I thanked her. But it has been completely the opposite: I found him very soft because he had been knotted {subject to an impotency spell}: nothing but cold comfort!”

Distaff Gospels, Paris Manuscript, Ch. 14, from Old French trans. Jeay & Garay (2006) pp. 165, 167.

[7] Vie seinte Audree ll. 1129-34, my translation. The Old French (Anglo-Norman):

Ky poet remembrer en corage
Le jeu k’ele out en mariage
Et de charnel temptation
Kant ele fu ou son baron,
Fors de ceste virge honoree
Ke Deus a {a} son oes gardee?

From McCash & Barban (2006) p. 78 (punctuation is editorial). McCash & Barban translate those lines as:

Who else could fathom
the yoke she bore in marriage
or the temptation of the flesh
when she was with her husband
other than this honorable virgin
whom God had kept for His own purpose?

Id. p. 79. Giving a coherent meaning to the full sentence is difficult. Blanton quoted in translation only the first four lines:

One is able to remember in her heart
The fun she had in marriage,
And of the carnal temptation
When she was with her husband.

Blanton (2010) p. 110. That translation renders the subsequent two lines obscure.

[image] Harris’s Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus) in the Community of Madrid, Spain, 18 October 2014. Thanks to Carlos Delgado and Wikimedia Commons.


Blanton, Virginia. 2010. “Chaste Marriage, Sexual Desire, and Christian Martyrdom in La vie seinte Andrée.” Journal of the History of Sexuality. 19 (1): 94-114.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Keith Busby, trans. 2012. The lais of Marie de France. 2nd. ed. London: Penguin.

Jeay, Madeleine and Kathleen E. Garay, ed. and trans. 2006. The distaff gospels: a first modern English edition of Les évangiles des quenouilles. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Editions.

Mason, Eugene, trans. 1911. Yonec. Ch. 13 in Lays of Marie de France, and other French legends. London: Dent.

McCash, June Hall and Judith Clark Barban, ed. and trans. 2006. The life of Saint Audrey: A Text by Marie de France. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.

Shoaf, Judith P., trans. 1993. Marie de France. Yonec.  In The Lais of Marie de France: A Verse Translation, available online from the University of Florida.

Warnke, Karl, and Reinhold Köhler, eds. 1885. Die Lais der Marie de France. Halle: M. Niemeyer.

Willging, Jennifer. 1995-96. “The Power of Feminine Anger in Marie de France’s Yonec and Guigemar.” Florilegium. 14: 123-35.

loathly lady Dame Ragnell: fantasy of fulfilling women’s desires

loathly lady

The deeply embittered Sir Gromer Somer Joure ambushed and threatened to kill King Arthur. He relented only after Arthur promised to answer the question: “What do women everywhere love best?” Obsessing about that question serves only to make men bitter.[1]

King Arthur had twelve months to figure out what women everywhere love best. Arthur’s trusty companion Sir Gawain offered to help. One rode in one direction, the other rode in the other direction, and they inquired of every man and woman about what women most desire:

Some said they loved to be well adorned, some said they loved to be sweetly wooed, some said they loved a lusty man who can hug and kiss them.  Some said one thing and some another [2]

Arthur and Gawain each compiled a huge book of what women desire. Of course, what women desire, especially in our age of ignorance and superstition, is a man who knows what he wants from women.

Desperate men imagine salvation in bizarre places. Arthur imagined a loathly lady, Dame Ragnell:

Her face was red and covered with snot, her mouth huge, and all her teeth yellow, hanging over her lips. Her bleary eyes were greater than a ball, and her cheeks were as broad as women’s hips. She had a hump on her back, her neck was long and thick, and her hair clotted into a heap. She was made like a barrel, with shoulders a yard wide and hanging breasts that were large enough to be a horse’s load. No tongue can tell of the foulness and ugliness of that lady. [3]

The loathly lady promised Arthur the true answer to his question if Gawain would marry her.  Would your best friend marry a grotesquely ugly woman in order to save your life? Would your best friend legally marry today even his beloved if doing so were necessary to save your life?

Gawain laid down his life for his friend. He agreed to marry the loathly lady Dame Ragnell. She in turn explained to Arthur:

Some men say we desire to be beautiful and that we want to consort with diverse strange men; also we love lust in bed and often wish to wed.  Thus men misunderstand women. Another idea they have is that we want to be seen as young and fresh, not old, and that women can be won through flattery and clever ploys. In truth, you act foolishly. The one thing that we desire of men above all else is to have complete sovereignty, so that all is ours. We use our skill to gain mastery over the most fierce, victorious and manly of knights.

That explanation makes sense. That explains why men have no reproductive rights, why men are systematically exploited through paternity determinations and child-support orders, why sexist Selective Service registration continues to exist, and why men aren’t paid for their erection labor. But why is it necessarily to sacrifice your friend in marriage to a loathly lady in order to learn the fundamental reality of gynocentrism?

Sir Gromer Somer Joure, bitter through even the most glorious mid-summer day, found no joy in Arthur’s enlightenment. When Arthur delivered to Gromer the answer, Gromer responded:

“I hope that she who told you burns in a fire, the old nag, for she was my sister, Dame Ragnell. God give her shame! If not for her, I’d have had you; now I’ve lost much effort. Alas that I ever saw this day!

Just as some men seek to convince other men to marry and join them in misery, some men prefer other men to remain ignorant about gynocentrism.

The cost of Arthur’s knowledge appeared to be enormous. Dame Ragnell demanded a huge public wedding with Sir Gawain. Imagine the embarrassment of getting married to a loathly lady. Imagine the cost of a huge wedding, or even just an ordinary-sized wedding these days. The bride was “the foulest sow ever seen”:

She had two teeth on each side like boar tusks the span of a hand: one went up, the other down. Her wide, foul mouth was covered with grey hairs and her lips lay lumped on her chin; no neck could be seen. She was indeed a loathly one!

She even ate like a pig:

Dame Ragnell headed the high table, and everyone remarked on her bad manners. When served, she ate as much as six people would, which amazed all. She used her nails, which were three inches long, to crudely break her food, so she ate alone. She ate three capons, three curlews and many baked meats; nothing came before her that she didn’t eat, which made everyone marvel, and both knight and squire bade the devil to gnaw her bones.

She surely was a very fat woman, or in modern terms, a very Rubenesque woman. Weighty thoughts of his wedding night smothered Sir Gawain as it soon approached.

A basic principle of medieval chivalry is that men must do their duty for women, who are essentially celestial beings. In the wedding bed-chamber, Gawain turned his back to his porcine angel-bride and summoned his strength to perform his knightly duty. She implored:

Ah, Sir Gawain, since we are married, show me your courtesy in bed; it cannot be rightfully denied. If I were beautiful, you would act differently. Now you take no heed of wedlock. But for Arthur’s sake, kiss me at least.  I pray you honor my request. Let me see what you can do.

It takes a strong man to be able to perform on demand, especially in these sorts of circumstances. Gawain, known as a heroic knight, would not sacrifice his honor and flee. He prepared his lance as best as he could and turned to his loathly bride. Behold! By the miracle of manly fantasy, she had become “the fairest creature he had ever seen”!

With great joy Gawain embraced and kissed his beautiful wife. Gawain, being a product of our ignorant age, immediately assumed the position of a beta-doormat husband. He declared to his wife:

Whatever you wish, I put it in your hand. My body and goods, heart and every part of me is all your own to buy and sell, I vow before God.

If this weren’t a romance and were actual reality, as soon as Gawain said that to his wife, she would loath him. She would eventually divorce-rape him for all he had. But in men’s fantasy, the husband’s self-abnegation prompts the wife to promise never to anger him while she rules over him. She also declares that she will stay beautiful forever, despite the inevitable reality of aging. She also declares she will never be fat, because she says so, and he would never dare say otherwise.

In this romance-fantasy, Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell on their wedding night made joy with each other all night long. And likewise the next night, and the next night, and the next night, too. Dame Ragnell subsequently bore a son. While Gawain was a good man, that son was indeed Gawain’s son. Gawain loved his wife Dame Ragnell more than all the other women he had bedded. He loved her so much that he preferred to spend nights at home in bed with her rather than being away at jousting tournaments.

The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell expresses deep structures of men’s fantasies. Men tend to obsess about what women desire. Men tend to imagine that making themselves abjectly subordinate to women will gain for them beautiful women who treat them kindly. Men must learn to recount The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell and laugh at themselves.

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[1] “What do women everywhere love best?” is a theme of the medieval romance The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell. This romance states that question four times with minor variations. In the introduction to the online edition of The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, Hahn observes that this question:

uncannily anticipates the notorious formulation of Freud: “Was will das Weib?” – “What does Woman want?” It has sometimes been said that the fascination of this question and the wish to solve the enigma of Woman that it conveys express interests that are typically male (or, in more abstract, cultural terms, masculine).

Hahn (1995). Concern for women isn’t just a masculine pre-occupation. In gynocentric society, everyone is primarily concerned about women.

Hahn, not surprisingly, understands Dame Ragnell (Ragnelle) to be at the center of the story:

Through her relations with the various male characters – her kinship with Gromer, her compact with Arthur, her union with Gawain – Ragnelle literally holds the poem together, for she is their link with each other. She undoes the threat her brother poses for the court, and then reconciles him to the Round Table; she knows the answer to Arthur’s problem and so saves his life and his kingship; she presents Gawain with opportunities to place his spectacular courtesy on display, first towards Arthur, and then towards women. Although Gawain performs his usual service as mediator, taming the strange (Ragnelle) and bringing it safely within the sphere of the court, even his success depends upon the more pervasive mediation of Ragnelle. By passing among these male characters, she becomes the nexus that ties them together and makes possible the fraternal and hierarchic bonds of chivalric solidarity.

Passmore & Carter (2007) provides more extensive gynocentric scholarship on the romance.

The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell survives in only one manuscript: the sixteenth-century manuscript Oxford Bodleian 11951, formerly called Rawlinson C.86. It was probably authored in the mid-fifteenth century.

[2] All the quotes above are from The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, from Middle English trans. Tuma & Hazell (2009), with a few minor adaptations. The Middle English text is available online in Hahn (1995). The text ends with a poignant plea of the prisoner-author:

He is beset by many jailers who keep him secured with unjust and powerful wiles. God, very royal King, have pity and help him, for he has long been in danger and suffers strong pain; he yields his body and soul into your hand.

The author may have been imprisoned for debt. In early-modern England, imprisonment of men for debt was far more prevalent than criminal imprisonment.

[3] The loathly lady is a recognized folktale motif. It occurs in a variety of literature from ancient times to the present. The loathly lady motif is classified as Motif D732 in the Stith Thompson folk-motif index. A gender-reversed version of the loathly lady motif is the frog-prince motif. The donkey-prince motif is more sexually complex.

Medieval scholars have debated strongly the extent of comedy in The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell. For discussion and a contribution, Niebrzydowski (2010). The comedy in relation to men hasn’t been adequately appreciated.

[image] Loathly lady / old crone from Snow White. Thanks to Laceyalyssa for making the source for this image available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.


Hahn, Thomas. 1995. Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Kalamzoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications.

Niebrzydowski, Sue. 2010. “Monstrous Appetite and Belly Laughs: A Reconsideration of the Humour in the Weddying of Syr Gawen and Dame Regnell.” Pp. 87-101 in Archibald, Elizabeth, and David F. Johnson, eds. Arthurian Literature 27. Cambridge : D.S. Brewer.

Passmore, S. Elizabeth, and Susan Carter, eds. 2007. The English “Loathly Lady” tales: boundaries, traditions, motifs. Kalamazoo, Mich: Medieval Institute Publications.(review)

Tuma, George W. and Dinah Hazell, trans. 2009. “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell for Helping of King Arthur.” Harken to Me: Late Middle English Romances in Translation. Medieval Forum.