Erec testing Enide: the ultimate reverse shit-test

rhinoceras drawing

“Do I look fat?”

“No, no, you don’t look fat. You’re just b..b…beautiful!”

“You always say that. Tell me the truth.”

Now what do you say? Most men have faced these sort of tests. Experts in the applied literary art of seduction call these tests “shit-tests.” A woman throws crap at a man to test his manliness. Many men today handle the crap clumsily and earn women’s contempt.

Men typically don’t shit-test women. If a woman continually, annoyingly nags a rough, crude, unlearned man — a man who hasn’t studied medieval literature — he might turn to her, look her straight in the eyes, and say, “Shut the fuck up.” He would then slowly and deliberately turn back to cleaning and lubricating his power tools. Most men, especially today, aren’t like that.

To learn how to handle shit-tests with sophistication and success, men should read closely and ponder deeply Chrétien de Troyes’s medieval masterpiece Erec et Enide. Colossal misunderstanding of Chrétien de Troyes’s romances across centuries has promoted the love-destroying, men-abasing ideology of courtly love. Erec et Enide, truly understood, is an astonishing twelfth-century challenge to social currents then sweeping away the traditional, humane understanding of chivalry. Chided for his dedication to traditional chivalry after marrying Enide, Erec constructed a brilliantly sophisticated shit-test for Enide. Passing through the ordeal of this shit-test gained for them enduring, true love.

After their large, lavish wedding, Erec and Enide settled into a life of conjugal love. Erec as a husband stopped serving in wars and participating in sports. He even stopped watching sports. Erec focused on loving his wife:

All he wanted was his wife,
Who’d become both lover and friend.
Every waking moment
Went into hugging and kissing,
He needed nothing else. [1]

Erec’s men friends lamented that he no longer served in the army with them, nor spent much time with them in other activities. Some said that Erec had gotten lazy. Bitters spinsters spread rumors that Erec was fighting with Enide rather than engaging in violence against foreign men-enemies. In short, society disparaged Erec for his dedication to traditional chivalry.

Enide was upset about her husband’s loss of social status. She wanted him to be honored and respected as he was before they married. Erec’s husbandly dedication to having sex with her caused her to lose sleep:

In bed, where they’d taken great pleasure,
Wrapped in each other’s arms,
Their lips together, lovers
Sharing and delighting in love,
Erec slept; she did not,
Remembering words she’d heard
Spoken, up and down
The land, about her lord.
And the memory made her weep
in spite of herself. She could
Not stop. Indeed, those words
So weighed on her mind that, as luck
Would have it, her lips murmured
A few, intending no harm
And certainly not what happened.

Enide’s tears and words awakened Erec. He said to her:

My love, my dear, my sweet,
Tell me what’s caused these tears.
What’s made you so angry? So sad?
I need to know, my beloved.
So tell me, my sweet, tell me,
Don’t keep such sorrow secret.

Enide denied everything. She claimed that Erec had dreamed that she was crying and speaking of him lacking interest in engaging in violence against men. Erec refused to accept his wife’s lying:

Now you’re feeding me lies.
I know you’re lying. I can hear it,
And you’ll be terribly sorry,
Later, unless you admit it.

Enide confessed that she had lied. Then she told him the truth:

Everyone — blonde, brunet,
And redhead — declares you’ve damaged
Your name by laying down
Your arms. Your reputation,
Your name, have tumbled to the ground.
Last year, all year, they all
Were saying no one knew
A better knight, or a braver;
No one alive was your equal.
Now you’re a joke: young
And old, short and tall,
Call you a coward, a traitor.
Was it possible not to be pained,
Hearing my lord despised?

Erec not exposing himself to serious risk of bodily harm hurt Enide greatly:

Their words pressed on my heart —
And all the more because
They laid the blame on me:
That was deeply painful,
Everyone saying I
Was the only cause, I
Had taken you captive, I
Had stolen your strength away
And left you thinking of nothing
But me.

What does it matter if others disparage him for giving up violence against men and turning to vigorously loving his wife? They’re vicious, jealous idiots. Let them fight their own battles and wallow in their lovelessness. They should be ignored.[2]

Enide, however, viewed the matter according to ideology that has oppressed men throughout the ages. Men must seek and retain social status in gynocentric, men-killing society. Enide instructed Erec:

Consider, now,
How best to efface this slander
And restore your good name, for I’ve heard
Terrible things said
And never dared to tell you.
Often, remembering those words,
I could barely keep from crying.

When a woman cries, weak men will do whatever she wants them to do. Erec was a smart, savvy man, righteously pissed off at his wife’s ridiculous status-seeking. He prepared for her a complex, arduous shit-test — a shit-test far greater than all the shit-tests that all the women throughout the ages have flung at their men.

Erec resolved to set off on a long journey. He gave Enide the choice to come with him, or not, as she wished. She chose to go with him. Erec dressed in full armor and gathered his weapons, but refused his fellow knights’ pleas to accompany him to lessen the danger. He told Enide to put on her best dress and mount her finest horse. Enide, pale and weeping and worried about what was to come, dallied in getting dressed. Through a servant, Erec sent her a stern message:

Tell her I’ve waited too long;
She’s had enough time to get dressed.
Tell her to come and mount
Her horse. I’m waiting.

When Enide was finally ready, they departed on a dangerous journey.

Erec gave Enide puzzling instructions. He told her to ride out in front of him in the middle of the road. Doing that, she was sure to attract the attention of brigands and enemy knights. Yet Erec told her:

Be careful,
Whatever you see, say
not a word. Speak
To me only if
And when I speak to you.

What if she saw some danger approaching? How could she say nothing? That could mean death for her and him!

Three armed knights who lived by robbing saw them. The robbers sought their horses and their expensive furnishings. One, particularly eager for plunder, charged forward:

Seeing the thieves, Enide
Was seized with terrible fear:
“My God!” she thought. “Should I speak?
They’ll kill or capture my lord,
They being three and he
Alone. It isn’t fair
For a single knight to fight three
At once. And that one’s attacking,
Although my lord can’t see him.
Lord! Can I sit and say nothing?
Am I such an utter coward?
No, I can’t do it,
I have to warn him, that can’t
Be wrong.”

Enide thus warned her husband of their immediate, mortal peril. Erec harshly criticized his wife for her words:

“What?” said Erec. “What?
Do you think so little of me?
How bold you’ve become, breaking
My prohibition, defying
The command I solemnly gave you.
Well, I’ll pardon you once —
But let it happen again
And there’ll be no pardon. I warn you.”

Erec then turned and drove his spear into the attacking knight and killed him. Erec killed the second man and wounded the third after chasing after him. He then returned to his wife:

And {he} warned her, fiercely, not
To disobey him, but hold
Her tongue, speaking no word
Whatever without his permission.

That is a terrifying shit-test. How could Enide pass it?

A little while later, five knights attacked Enide and Erec. Erec pretended not to see them coming. Enide was perplexed and scared:

Misery! What can I do?
What can I say? My lord
Has warned me not to make him
Angry by speaking a single
Word, no matter what.
And yet, if they kill my lord
There’ll be no one and nothing to help me,
I’ll be as good as dead.

For Enide, the issue ultimately was all about her. She continued in her thoughts:

Oh God! My lord sees nothing.
Why are you waiting, idiot?
Why worry about that promise?
It’s been so long since I said
A thing! And surely these men
Mean to do him harm.
Lord, how can I tell him?
He’ll kill me. Then let him kill me!
How can I keep from telling him?

Medieval literature of men’s sexed protest tells of men’s concerns about women failing to keep secrets. Five knights attacking Enide and Erec was no secret. Enide, in mortal danger, couldn’t resist speaking of it:

So she said, softly, “My lord!”
“What? What do you want?”
“Have mercy, my lord! It’s just
That five bold men have ridden
Out of the forest, and they frighten me.
I’ve watched them coming and I’m sure
They propose to pick a fight
With you. Four have hung back,
And the fifth one’s coming toward you
As fast as his horse can carry him.
He’ll be here any minute.
And those four who stayed behind
Are still so very close;
They could all help if they had to.”

In response, Erec criticized his wife Enide. He even told her that he hated her:

You’ve done wrong,
Breaking once again
The silence I laid upon you.
I’ve always known you thought me
Worth remarkably little.
You’ll win no thanks from me,
Giving such warnings. Listen,
and understand: I hate you.

He continued:

I’ve told you before, and I tell you
Once more. I’ll pardon you
Again, but next time watch out.
Stop looking at me: it makes you
Act like a fool, because
I loathe the words you speak.

Erec calmly killed four of the attacking men and left the fifth face down in the dirt. He then angrily told his wife to “hold her tongue or live to regret it.”

This sort of shit-testing played out two more times, but the final battle was different. A dwarf knight gravely injured Erec in a brutal, drawn-out man-to-man battle. Before she went with Erec on their journey, Enide lamented:

What a fool
I am! Life was too good,
I had whatever I wanted.
Ah me! What made me so bold
That I spoke such insane words?
My God! Could my husband be too much
In love? Yes. He is.
So now he’ll send me away!
But not seeing my lord,
Who loved me better than anyone
Else in the world, will be
The worst pain of all.
The best man ever
Born was so caught up
With me that he cared for no one
Else. Nothing was missing —
A happiness more than complete —
Until pride welled up, and pushed me,
And I said such intemperate things.
My pride’s become my punishment,
One I deserve. Suffering
Allows you to understand pleasure.

Now Erec, his body lacerated and bleeding, was suffering terribly. He was nearly dead. Enide then understood:

I’ve killed my lord. My own
Folly has killed him. He’d still
Be alive — but stupid, arrogant
Fool that I am, I spoke
The fatal words that spurred him
To make this journey. No one’s
Ever been hurt by a wise
Silence, but words do enormous
Damage: and oh, I’ve proved this
Over and over again.

Enide’s words dominate Chrétien de Troyes’s romance Erec et Enide. She has eight interior monologues. Erec has none.[3]

Words mean nothing compared to the marital love of traditional chivalry. Erec shit-tested his wife with words that starkly forbid imperatives of love. Enide repeatedly ignored those words. She could do likewise to words of those who belittled Erec for devotedly loving his wife rather than spending time with war and sports. Erec, in turn, could ignore any of his wife’s words of concern about social status. Both Enide and Erec were awakened to the enlightened wisdom of traditional chivalry. Just as for Menelaus and Helen, all that ultimately mattered was being in bed together.

Chrétien, believing
Men should think, and learn,
And use their tongues well,
And teach others, has found
This lovely tale of adventure,
Beautifully put together,
Proving beyond a doubt
That no one granted wisdom
And grace by the mercy of God
Should ever refuse to share it.

“Go ahead, eat a big bowel of ice cream, you need it!”

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Erec et Enide ll. 2437-41, from Old French trans. Raffel (1997) p. 77. The line numbers are for Raffel’s translation. Those line numbers are close to the line numbers of the Old French text.

Subsequent quotes from Erec et Enide are: ll. 2474-88, p. 79 (In bed…); ll. 2513-18, p. 80 (My love, my dear…); ll. 2534-7, p. 80 (Now you’re feeding me lies…); ll. 2542-55, p. 81 (Everyone…); ll. 2556-65, p. 81 (Their words…); ll. 2565-71, pp. 81-2 (Consider, now…); ll. 2665-8, p. 85 (Tell her I’ve waited…);  ll. 2765-69, p. 88 (Be careful…); ll. 2826-39, p. 90 (Seeing the thieves…); ll. 2844-51, p. 90 (“What?” said Erec…); ll. 2912-15, p. 92 (And {he} warned her…);  ll. 2959-66, p. 94 (Misery! What can I do?…); ll. 2967-75, p. 94 (Oh god!…); ll. 2976-89, pp. 94-5 (So she said…);  ll. 2990-97, p. 95 (You’ve done me wrong…); ll. 2998-3003, p. 95 (I’ve told you before…); ll. 3072-3 (to hold / Her tongue…); ll. 2588-2608, pp. 82-3 (What a fool…); ll. 4598-4607, p. 145 (I’ve killed my lord…); ll. 9-18 (Chrétien, believing…). On Erec giving Enide the choice as to whether to accompany him on the journey, l. 2691, p. 85.

The last three lines of the final quote in the Old French are:

que cil ne fet mie savoir
qui s’escïence n’abandone
tant con Dex la grasce l’an done.

l. 16-8, from Roques (1955). In Raffel’s translation of these lines, I’ve replaced “use it” with “share it” for better fidelity to the Old French.

W. W. Comfort’s English translation (1914) of Erec et Enide is freely available online.

[2] On the eve of the massive, brutal slaughter of men in World War I, Professor Sheldon at Harvard pondered, “Why Does Chrétien’s Erec Treat Enide so Harshly?” Sheldon (1914). As the men-killing horrors of World War I drew near to an end, Professor Ogle at the University of Vermont discerned that the motive for Erec and Enide’s ordeal was Erec’s “sloth.” But Erec overcame his sloth and achieved a “moral awakening”:

Erec and Enide love each as deeply as before, but this love is now no selfish passion making him recreant to his knightly honor, but rather an incentive to brave, unselfish deeds, deeds that may lead to death. … the value of the episode dealing with the life of Erec and Enide in the castle of Penevric, which, as I have noted is a replica of their life in Erec’s own home, and of the Joie de la Cour; taken together these furnish concrete evidence that the moral awakening of the hero is a real awakening, that his love, although as great as before, no longer brings sloth, but acts as an incentive to high endeavor and makes him willing to face deadly peril for the sake of knightly glory.

Ogle (1918) pp. 6, 20. So much for the men-killing battlefields of the Great War. Now let us all praise the Spartan mothers! Professor Nitze at the University of Chicago responded quickly and harshly to Ogle’s claims. Nitze strongly denied that he interpreted Erec et Enide to imply that Erec challenged women’s rule. He emphasize that Enide was innocent of any wrong. She was only “the innocent {emphasis added} cause of her husband’s fall from grace.” Nitze (1919) p. 27. Women prostitutes were similarly innocent of any wrong-doing in pioneering, nineteenth-century social science. None of these early twentieth-century interpretations of Erec et Enide shows any awareness of the traditional, humane understanding of chivalry.

[3] Adhering to the orientation of their early-twentieth-century forefathers, more recent interpretations of Erec et Enide have remained resolutely gynocentric while adding more overt hostility toward men. Ramey declared:

Rather than continuing to insist upon recovering Chrétien as courtly romance writer, it would be instructive to admit the possibility that Chrétien’s work is misogynistic and to focus instead on the economic and social implications of his writing.

Ramey (1993) p. 378. Misogyny is a concept constructed to buttress the myth of patriarchy. In fact, Chrétien de Troyes shows keen appreciation for economic and social reality and the injustices of gender-based domination:

The episode of the Joie de la Cour illustrates in no uncertain terms the disaster which comes from women in power over men. … Chrétien’s response to female power is incontrovertible and entirely negative.

Id. pp. 385-6. Nonetheless, Chrétien’s romances have been widely interpreted to support men’s self-abasement to women under courtly love ideology.

Much recent literary scholarship merely recycles utterly conventional and wholly tedious anti-meninist assertions. E.g. Burrell (1997) on the male gaze and women’s silence. Such scholarship apparently led professors at the University of Michigan to approve a 111-page (body text, double spaced) Ph.D. thesis filled with mind-numbing proposals and claims:

I want to investigate whether it is possible to locate Enide’s agency (and pleasure) in her gaze even though, as Stanbury argues, her gaze is one that is inhibited by her status as a female character within a gendered narrative structure. … This dissertation builds upon the work of feminist medievalists as well as other literary and cultural scholars to argue that sight, and objects that are seen, articulate love relationships between characters in medieval romance, and that seeing is also frequently a locus of resistance to gender norms the texts both establish and refuse to accept.

Human (2010) pp. 15, 19.

[image] Rhinoceros that Sultan Muzafar of Kamboja in India gave to King Emanuel I of Portugal. Drawing by Albrecht Dürer, 1515. British Museum, #SL,5218.161, via Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Burrell, Margaret. 1997. “The Specular Heroine: Self-Creation Versus Silence in Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne and Erec et Enide.” Parergon. 15 (1): 83-99.

Human, Julie L. 2010. Looking Back: Medieval French Romance and the Dynamics of Seeing. Ph.D. Thesis. Romance Languages and Literatures, University of Michigan.

Nitze, William Albert. 1919. “Erec’s Treatment of Enide.” Romanic Review. 10(1): 26-37.

Ogle, M. B. (Marbury Bladen). 1918. “The Sloth of Erec.” Romanic Review. 9(1): 1-20.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Erec and Enide. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ramey, Lynn Tarte. 1993. “Representations of women in Chrétien’s Erec et Enide: courtly literature or misogyny?” Romanic Review. 377-386.

Roques, Mario. 1955. Chrétien de Troyes. Les Romans … éd. d’après la copie de Guiot (Bibl. nat. r. 794). 1, 1. Paris: H. Champion.

Sheldon, E. S. (Edward Stevens). 1914. “Why Does Chrétien’s Erec Treat Enide so Harshly?” Romanic Review 5(2): 115-126.

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