Upholding the equal human dignity of every person shouldn’t compromise truth. In truth, men suffer more serious violence than women do. The idealistic medieval knight Geoffrey de la Tour Landry taught his daughters concern for violence against men. In truth, men tend to be less skilled in guile than women are. Geoffrey de la Tour Landry, in contrast, taught his daughters mythic gender equality in guile. Parents throughout the ages have largely failed to raise daughters who recognize their own strengths and acknowledge men’s weaknesses.
Geoffrey taught his daughters the story of a ropemaker, his wife, a prior, and a bawd. The ropemaker’s wife paid the bawd to set up a love affair for her with the prior. One night, the ropemaker in his home caught a glimpse of another man leaving. That was the prior after having sex with the ropemaker’s wife. The ropemaker fearfully told his wife that he had seen another man in their room. The wife pretended to afraid and declared “it must have been a devil or else a goblin or a spirit.”
The wife got the bawd to help convince her husband not to believe what his eyes saw. The bawd cleverly switched spinning black and white wool to convince the husband he couldn’t trust the black-and-white truth of his eyes:
She took in her hands a distaff with black wool and began to spin. Before he turned towards her again, she replaced it with white wool. Then the good man, who was plain and true, said to her, “My friend, it seemed to me that you just were spinning black wool.”
“Ha,” she said, “My friend, truly I wasn’t.” Then he went from her and when he turned towards her again, she had taken up the distaff with black wool. He watched her and said, “Fair gossip, you just had a spindle with white wool.”
“Ah, dear friend, what ails you now? In good faith, it isn’t so,” she said. “I can see that you’re dazed and deceived in your sight and your wits. Truly, men sometimes think they see something that they don’t see.”
The bawd / gossip then asked the good man (a medieval euphemism for a cuckold) if something was bothering him:
“By God, gossip, last night I thought I saw a black thing. I don’t know what it was, coming out of our room.”
“My good friend,” the old, false woman said. “It was nothing but the day and the night that strove together, and there was great lightening.” The good man was contented with the old woman’s falseness and thought she spoke truly.
Another time, the ropemaker early in the morning prepared to go to market to bring home some fish. Reaching for a sack that he had put at the foot of the bed, he unknowingly grabbed the prior’s breeches. When at the market he reached for his sack, he discovered that what he thought in the darkness was a sack was actually a man’s breeches. The prior, who had been hiding in the room between the bed and the wall, realized that the ropemaker had taken his breeches.
The prior fearfully told the wife what had happened. To arrange a coverup, the wife sought help from her friend the bawd. The bawd schemed:
“You put on a pair of breeches and I will, too, and we’ll tell him that all women wear them.” And so they did.
When the bawd saw the ropemaker returning home, she greeted him and inquired why he seemed to be angry. The ropemaker explained about the breeches and his suspicions of his wife. The bawd responded:
Oh, my friend, you are very much deceived about your wife. For truly, in the whole town there’s no one better than your wife, no one who keeps herself more faithfully and purely towards her husband than she does to you. In fact, she and I and many other good and honest women in this town have taken to wearing breeches on account of those lechers and seducers who do their will with good women. And just so you can know whether I lie or speak truly, look to see whether I wear them or not.” She pulled up her clothes and showed him the breeches. And he looked and saw that she spoke truly, and believed her.
Geoffrey de la Tour Landry, however, added a mythic coda to the gritty reality of men’s inferiority in guile. Signally an other-worldly continuation, Geoffrey declared, “But in the end, evil will be known.” The ropemaker one day pretended to go on trip, but in reality he hid locally. He covertly observed his wife going into the prior’s house. Men usually aren’t so shrewd. Another time, the wife summoned the prior to come to her while she and her husband were in bed. The husband responded guilefully:
the good man heard the prior come in, so he snored and pretended to be asleep. When they were in the midst of their foul sin of lechery, he got so angry that he almost lost his memory and wits. He drew out a long knife with a sharp point, cast a little straw on the fire so he could see, and killed them both in bed.
In the Middle Ages just as today, men were typically punished more harshly for adultery than women were. The husband upheld ideals of gender equality by killing his wife in addition to the usual killing of the adulterous man.
Mythic gender equality is no substitute for true gender equality. Geoffrey de la Tour Landry and other parents should teach their daughters to recognize their superiority in guile. They should encourage their daughters to mentor their brothers, their lovers, and other men to become more relationally sophisticated. Helping men to become more relationally sophisticated would better enable women to find equal partners in men, and, more importantly, improve the welfare of men themselves.
* * * * *
- women’s social superiority trumps sexual betraying men
- ass for lover: failing to distinguish men’s physical masculinity
- Decameron’s self-government confronts sex differences in guile
The quotes above are from Geoffrey de La Tour Landry, Le livre du chevalier de La Tour Landry (Book of the Knight of Tour Landry / Book of the Knight of the Tower) ch. 62 (Of the roper or maker of cords and cables and the fat Prior), from Old French trans. Barnhouse (2006) p. 191. Subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 191-3. I’ve made a few minor changes in the translation for readability. For the Old French text and early modern English translations, see note  in my post on imprisoning a man.
[images] (1) Cuckold’s Haven. Broadside. Published in London in 1638. EBBA ID: 30036, British Library – Roxburghe 1.46-47. (2) An Answer to the London Cuckold. Published about 1685-8. EBBA ID: 21787, Pepys Library, Magdalene College – Pepys 4.123. Both images thanks to University of California, Santa Barbara, English Broadside Ballad Archive.
Barnhouse, Rebecca, trans. 2006. Geoffrey de La Tour Landry. The book of the knight of the tower: manners for young medieval women. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.