husbands, believe your eyes if you see yourself being cuckolded

eyes seeing adultery

Many husbands deeply believe that their wives are immaculate goddesses. Many husbands also credit all their success to their wives. In such circumstances, husbands can relatively easily be induced to disbelieve that they saw their wives cuckolding them. A thirteenth-century handbook for preachers sets out an example of the problem.

This medieval example shows that men are easily led to listen and believe women in the most outrageous situations. Consistent with the anti-men bias in criminal punishment, punishment for adultery throughout history has been biased toward punishing men. In this case, a man having sex with a married woman was culpably labeled an adulterer. Her husband plotted to harm him, but not her:

Several times I heard about a certain wife. She had with her an adulterer, and her husband saw them in bed. He went out to ambush the adulterer at a spot where he must pass in leaving the house.

{ De quadam iterum muliere audivi quod, cum haberet secum quemdam adulterum, et maritus vidisset eum in lecto, exiens insidiabatur ei in tali loco quod per alium non poterat transire. }

The story presumes that the wife had no responsibility for engaging in adultery. The wife, however, acted shrewdly out of concern about impending harm to her lover (the young man called an adulterer):

The wife sent for a certain truly sinister old woman, who was very crafty and had great understanding, in order to help her at this pressing time. The old woman told her to hide the young man and then went herself to the husband and said: “The Lord be with you, and with your companion.” He replied, “What are you saying, old woman? I am alone.” She replied, “Sir, forgive me, for there is a certain hour of the day when eyes are so changed that they see one person as if there were two.” Then he began to think that possibly this had happened to him when he saw his wife, and he went to check if it were so. When he saw his wife alone, he begged for forgiveness from her for having believed ill of her.

{ Mulier vero misit ad quamdam vetulam levam, valde maliciosam, que multa sciebat, ut in hoc articulo juvaret eam. Que mandavit ei ut absconderet juvenem et transiens vetula coram marito ait: ” Dominus sit tecum et cum sociis tuis.” At ille: ” Quid dicis, vetula? solus sum.” At illa: “Domino, ignoscite mihi quia aliqua est hora diei in qua oculi ita solent transmutari quod de una persona creditor quod sint due.” Tunc cepit ille cogitare quod forte ita accidit ei quando vidit uxorem, at ivit ut probaret si ita esset, et cum videret uxorem solam peciit ab ea veniam quod malum credidisset ab ea. }

Men are earnestly instructed to listen and believe women. That a woman would lie and deceive is nearly impermissible for any man to think within gynocentric society. Thus men become subject to institutionalized cuckolding and live as persons whose thoughts and feelings matter little relative to those of women. In this story, the young man prudently had sex with a married woman and thus avoided the risk of being made to pay “child support”. At least he didn’t have to face that harm.

Don’t listen and believe women any more than you would listen and believe men. Moreover, if you see your wife cuckolding you, don’t disbelieve your eyes. Despite the availability of DNA paternity testing, many men continue to be cuckolded.

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The story above is exemplum 251 in the preaching handbook Sermones Vulgares of the early thirteenth-century European church leader Jacques de Vitry.  The Latin text is from Crane (1890) p. 106. The English translation is mine, drawing upon the English paraphrase of id. p. 240.

Another version from no later than the late-fifteenth century turns on an herb rather than a particular time of day:

When a certain wife with her lover was discovered by her husband, she took counsel with a certain old woman. She discovered that her husband had eaten a herb commonly called Keruele. When she encountered the husband in the street, she said: “God save you both.”  The husband responded, “What are you talking about, since I’m alone?” Then wiping her eyes, she said: “This is a curse of the herb Keruele, which when eaten, always makes one look like two.” Remembering what he had eaten in the evening and believing in the truth of what the old woman had said, he excused his wife.

{ Cum quaedam mulier à marito suo cum amasio inventa fuisset, illa habito consilio cum quadam vetula, invenit quod vir herbam Keruele vulgariter nominatam comedisset, et cum viro in platea occurrisset, ait: “Deus salve vos ambos.” Cui vir, “Quomodo sic dicis, cum sim solus?” Ipsa extergens oculos, ait: “Ista maledicta herba Keruele, quam comedi, semper facit unum videri pro duobus.” Recordatus quod in sero illam comederat, credens verum dictum vetulae, habuit uxorem excusatam. }

Latin text from Mensa Philosophica (1603), p. 234, reprinted in Crane (1890) p. 106; my English translation. Mensa Philosophica was first printed about 1470. A best-seller of the late-fifteenth century, at least fifteen editions of Mensa Philosophica were printed between 1480 and 1525. Bowen (1988) p. 20. Here’s an edition from about 1482.

[image] Image derived from an image of a despairing face available on Max Pixel under a CC0 Public Domain license.


Bowen, Barbara C. 1988. One hundred Renaissance jokes: an anthology. Birmingham: Summa.

Crane, Thomas Frederick. 1890. The exampla or illustrative stories from the Sermones vulgares of Jacques de Vitry. London: David Nutt.

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