Galbert of Bruges described cuckolding of eminent Walter of Vladslo

In early twelfth-century Flanders, Walter of Vladslo was an eminent peer, second in eminence only to the Count of Flanders. Yet according to Galbert of Bruges’s twelfth-century journal, Walter of Vladslo was also a cuckold. Men, unlike women, face the problem of biological parental uncertainty. As Galbert’s history makes clear, this parental knowledge gender inequality can have dire consequences for eminent men as well as ordinary men.

child - who is its father?

Walter of Vladslo’s wife deceived him by switching infants. Galbert of Bruges reported:

The father truly believed to be his son the boy, to whom the supposed mother, the wife of the aforesaid Walter, had earlier pretended dishonestly to have given birth. But the infant to whom she had given birth had died in childbirth. She thus replaced him with the shoemaker’s son, who had been born about the same time, and sent the dead child, to whom she had given birth, secretly to the shoemaker’s wife, giving her money so that she would say she had given birth to the dead child and would hide what happened from her husband.

{ Crediderat enim verum fuisse sibi filium pater, quem fraudulenter olim mater quasi uxor Walteri praefati peperisse dissimulabat. At infans, quem pepererat, statim in ipso partu obierat. Supposuit ergo filium sutoris, qui circa idem tempus genitus fuerat, et emortuum quem pepererat uxori sutoris clanculo submisit, dans ei pecuniam ut fateretur se peperisse illum emortuum et viro suo quod factum erat celaret. } [1]

The death of a child at childbirth would be for most parents a time of intense grief. Walter’s wife at such a time covertly engaged in a commercial transaction of baby-buying. She induced a shoemaker’s wife to be similarly mercenary in giving up her child for money. Both their husbands surely would have been horrified if they had known that they were married to such heartless women. Yet the forces of gynocentrism tend to suppress accounts of women’s bad behavior via name-calling and attempted shaming of those who describe and condemn such behavior. Women effectively are socially constructed as wonderful beings.[2] Men must turn to marginalized literature to encounter appreciation for women’s full humanity.

The cuckolding of Walter became the basis for a political alliance. Provost Bertulf was a leading member of the wealthy and powerful Erembald family of Flanders. Walter and Provost Bertulf allied themselves through marriage with Walter’s mis-attributed son and Bertulf’s niece. Galbert recounted:

When this stolen and adopted son had grown up and everyone believed him to be truly Walter’s son, the provost came along and married his niece, the daughter of his brother’s son, to the stolen son so that thanks to this marriage they would stand together more firmly in all circumstances, would be more daring, stronger, more powerful.

{ Cum crevisset ille furatus et adoptivus filius et omnes crediderant vere filium fuisse illius Walter, venit praepositus et dedit neptem suam, filiam filii fratris sui, illi furtivo filio uxorem ut firmiter ad omnem fortunam simul per illud conjugium consisterent, audaciores, fortiores ac potentiores forent. }

Galbert’s reference to the son as “stolen” apparently refers to the shoemaker having his son stolen from him from through his wife’s baby-selling. Galbert obviously and rightly condemned the behavior of the shoemaker’s wife. When Galbert referred to the political alliance constructed on deception as making the parties “more daring, stronger, more powerful,” he was negatively foreshadowing their subsequent evil acts.

Bertulf, with Walter’s support, participated in the betrayal and murder of the Flemish ruler Count Charles the Good. As his name suggests, Charles the Good was generally a well-regarded ruler of Flanders. Charles prompted his murder by seeking to reduce the power of the Erembalds. The Erembalds along with others arranged for knights to attack Charles while he knelt at prayer in church. They hacked him to death with broadswords. Walter initially aided the conspiracy’s leaders to escape. Yet Walter also helped to besiege a castle into which some conspirators fled. Bertulf ultimately was executed for this role in Charles’s murder.[3] No one dared punish Walter. Yet according to Galbert, God subsequently punished Walter by having him fall from his horse and die a slow death.

Walter’s wife further punished him with a postmortem humiliation and betrayal. Galbert explained:

After Walter’s death, his wife confessed publicly that the boy, to whom Walter had given to some burgher as surety for three hundred pounds, was not his true son but was adopted.

{ Igitur post mortem ipsius Walteri profitebatur publice uxor ejus, puerum illum non esse verum filium suum sed adoptivum, quem idem Walterus apud burgensem quendam posuerat in vadimonium pro trecentis libris. }

By revealing that her husband was a cuckold, Walter’s wife disgraced her husband’s reputation for her own selfish interests. Distancing herself from the treasonous Erembalds by revealing that the marriage alliance was deceptive would make her less politically vulnerable. Moreover, if the boy was not actually her son, she could refuse to repay the burgher’s three hundred pounds without incurring the social opprobrium of betraying her own flesh-and-blood son. A woman heartless enough to buy a baby as a husband-deceiving substitute for a son born dead probably would also be heartless enough to sell out her foster son.[4]

Cuckolding of men has evolved from evil actions of women to state-institutionalized processes for cuckolding men in paternity establishment. Modern DNA paternity testing offers the possibility of eliminating gender inequality in parental knowledge. Yet DNA paternity testing hasn’t become routine procedure. That failure reflects deep gynocentric hostility to men’s paternity interests. Promoting anti-men gender bigotry is being deceptively passed off as advancing gender equality.

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[1] Galbert of Bruges, De multro, traditione et occisione gloriosi Karoli comitis Flandriarum {The murder, betrayal, and slaughter of the glorious Charles, Count of Flanders} 89, Latin from Rider (1994) p. 139, ll. 11-16, English trans. from Rider (2013) p. 144 (with two small, non-substantial changes for readability). The subsequent two quotes from De multro are sourced similarly, with the translation spanning id. pp. 144-5. Earlier editions of the Latin text are freely available online.

Galbert of Bruges wrote De multro during 1127 and 1128 in response to the murder of Charles the Good on March 2, 1127. De multro is organized as a chronicle, with most entries dated with a month, day, and year. Entry 89, however, is an undated entry coming between entry 88 (dated September 17, 1127) and entry 90 (dated October 8, 1127).

Walter of Vladso’s wife cuckolded him in an unusual way. But the purchase or rental of an infant to replace a dead one is attested in at least two other eleventh- and twelfth-century documentary sources. Rider (2001) p. 291, n. 57. The more typical approach to cuckolding a man is for a woman to have sex covertly with another man and then attribute the pregnancy to her primary partner. The woman herself may not know who is the actual biological father, but she certainly knows that the father might not be her primary partner.

[2] Walter’s cuckolding wife is thus honored as a woman “with plenty of enterprise, self-interest, and sheer nerve … this astonishing woman.” She undoubtedly deserves to be memorialized in the history of “ambitious, tough-minded, daring women.” Partner (2009) pp. 120-1.

Galbert of Bruges and most of today’s academics have rather different approaches to recording history. Partner observed:

There is no pure recording, for us (secular, feminist, postmodern as we mostly are) anymore than for a twelfth-century notary (religious, patriarchal, premodern as he {Galbert} mostly was).

Id. p. 111. Despite the constraints of humans’ specific bodily capabilities (humans can’t smell all that dogs smell) and dominant ideology (academics who don’t successfully curry favor in the academic status market don’t gain prestige), reasonably objective judgments have always been feasible. For example, here’s a question that’s objectively tendentious and benighted:

Is it fair to speak of misogyny, or is Galbert no more misogynistic than other medieval writers?

Häcker (2009) p. 144. Unthinking ignorance of injustices against men is pervasive in current intellectual life, quite clearly, but academics functioning as apparatchiki for the dominant ideology cling to their bureaucratic ideals while public reason collapses and civilized life is gravely threatened. Cf. Partner (2009) p. 114.

[3] Bertulf subsequently became the violently condemned subject of the fabliau Du provost a l’aumuche. Cooper & Edsall (2009). Fabliaux such as De Berengier au lonc cul and La Saineresse served as vehicles for men’s sexed protest. Galbert’s account of Walter being cuckolded shows awareness of men’s vulnerability and highlights an important concern in literature of men’s sexed protest.

[4] Showing lack of appreciation for men’s vulnerability in relation to women, Ross entitled Galbert’s chapter on the cuckolding of Walter of Vladslo “God’s punishment of Walter of Vladslo.” Ross (1060) p. 262.

Echoing common denial of men’s victimization, Häcker doesn’t find cuckolding of Vladslo to be credible:

The story, as it is told by Galbert, does not seem credible. Why should this woman admit to having deceived her late husband without any apparent reason for such a postmortem confession?

Häcker (2009) p. 135. Partner explains credible motivation for the cuckolding:

The original child-swap was organized by the noblewoman and the cobbler’s wife .. the one so that she could secure the male heir so necessary for every landed family, and the other, one supposes, so that she could smuggle her child into high rank and wealth.

Partner (2009) p. 120. With respect to the postmortem revelation of Walter’s wife that she cuckolded him:

Plausible speculation comes easily: (1) Walter of Vladslo died surrounded by dangerous suspicions in a volatile political climate; (2) he had left his wife connected to the criminal and disgraced family of Bertulf through her “son,” and (3) this “son” was his father’s heir, but might well go down in the general disgrace of his wife’s kin. None of this was advantageous for the widow. So it looks like she decided to cut her losses, publicly disavow her blood tie to the “son” married into the Bertulf clan, and disinherit him at the same time.

Id. p. 121. Devaluing the burgher’s surety would be additional motivation.

[image] Giovanni de’ Medici as a Child. Painting (tempera on panel) that Bronzino made in 1545. Held in Uffizi Gallery (Italy). Thanks to the Yorck Project and Wikimedia Commons.


Cooper, Lisa H. and Mary Agnes Edsall. 2009. “History as Fabliau and Fabliau as History: The Murder of Charles the Good and Du provost a l’aumuche.” Ch. 10 (pp. 215-239) in Rider and Murray (2009).

Häcker, Martina. 2009. “The Language of Misogyny in Galbert of Bruges’s Account of the Murder of Charles the Good.” Ch. 6 (pp. 126-144) in Rider and Murray (2009).

Partner, Nancy. 2009, “Galbert’s Hidden Women: Social Presence and Narrative Concealment.” Ch. 5 (pp. 109-125) in Rider and Murray (2009).

Rider, Jeff, ed. 1994. Galbert of Bruges. De multro, traditione, et occisione gloriosi Karoli comitis Flandriarum. Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis (CC CM) 131. Turnhout: Brepols.

Rider, Jeff. 2001. God’s scribe: the historiographical art of Galbert of Bruges. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Rider, Jeff, and Alan V. Murray, eds. 2009. Galbert of Bruges and the Historiography of Medieval Flanders. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Rider, Jeff, trans. 2013. Galbert of Bruges. The murder, betrayal, and slaughter of the glorious Charles, Count of Flanders {De multro, traditione et occisione gloriosi Karoli comitis Flandriarum}. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ross, James Bruce, trans. 1960. Galbert of Bruges. The murder of Charles the Good, count of Flanders, by Galbert of Bruges. Translated with introduction and notes. New York: Columbia University Press.

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