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.

fear of pregnancy in the classical Arabic poetry of Abu Nuwas

I remember a night that I passed, given wine,
Whose intensity drove away care,
By a beautiful girl in traditional blouse
Who has tresses of long, flowing hair.

She would wiggle her bottom to give me a thrill,
(Quite voluptuous, covered in lace);
Every part of her body had power to seduce
And beauty stood still on her face.

As she served me a red that I reckoned was pressed
On her cheeks, as it was so refined,
She would whore with her eyes, make me sick with desire
For her eyes were by magic designed.

Now, a toast to those days which have long passed away;
I can no more enjoy the sweet fare
Of that bold, country lass with the well-rounded ass
But the memory soothes my despair. [1]

Abu Nuwas (Abū Nuwās al-Ḥasan ibn Hānī al-Ḥakamī) is commonly regarded as a great, and by some the greatest, classical Arabic poet. Living in Baghdad late in the eighth century, Abu Nuwas relished wine and carnal relations, both of which he closely associated in his poetry.

For carnal relations, Abu Nuwas considered the merits of women relative to “beardless youth.” In a poem that appears under the heading “Of the libertine / dissolute poem {majūn} of Abu Nuwas in praise of women, and the ugliness of beardless boys,” Abu Nuwas wrote:

Many a poet does not awaken from the glow of his idle talk; by his ignorance he is led astray.
In his poems he gives precedence to beardless youths; I am astounded by his poetry and by anyone like him.
He asserts that any young man is filled to the brim with coquettishness, but safeguarded from menstruation and pregnancy.
Hey you; you abandon beautiful women and find satisfaction in a beardless youth who looks like someone else as he gets going. [2]

In comments on another poem, Abu Nuwas quoted Abū l-ʻAnbas on the advantages of young men relative to women as sexual partners:

The youth is easier to sustain and of more assistance to you, while you are safeguarded from his uncleanness and from his pregnancy, and you need not fear any punishment by cutting and stoning if you are arrested when you are with him. When you feel isolated he is family; and when you are with drinkers he is a fellow drinker; and on the road he is a companion. [3]

Relative to men in the medieval Islamic world, men in western countries today face greater risks of punishment not just for having sex with women, but also for interacting with women in way that could be interpreted as involving unwelcomed sexual interest. Punishment for adultery has always been biased toward punishing men. Punishment of men for pregnancy that results in a child has increased greatly as a result of state-mandated sex payments (“child support”) enforced with incarceration for non-payment. Apart from felony criminal punishment for pederasty, men today have greater incentives to pursue relationships with beardless youths rather than with women.

Judging by his poetry, Abu Nuwas strongly preferred having sex with men, particularly beardless youth. In one poem, Abu Nuwas again referred to the problem of pregnancy:

How often has a brother come to me most generously
and yet avoided pregnancy or giving birth! [4]

In another poem, Abu Nuwas proclaimed:

My wish, my demand and my pursuit is only a lad
A ripe woman was longing for me, but many a hoping person is frustrated!
I said when I saw her: “Go away sister, and depart.
Find me a servant and go away, make yourself a prostitute.”
As long as I live I will not put my finger in the hole of a scorpion. [5]

Abu Nuwas recognized women’s beauty. Yet he also seems to have feared a woman becoming pregnant, as commonly happens through uncontracepted sex of reproductive type. Abu Nuwas described in poems his outrageous and brutal sexual desire.[6] His apparent fear of pregnancy, in contrast, is a reasonable facet of his sexual desire.

wine and love in Persia

Men’s sexual desire is malleable to some extent. If having sex with women becomes more costly, dangerous, or unsatisfying for men, more men will turn to other sexual outlets.[7]

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[1] Abu Nuwas, Dīwān 3.12, from Arabic trans. Colville (2005) p. 9. I cite Abu Nuwas’s poems by volume and number in Wagner (1958-2006). Abu Nuwas lived from 756 to 814 GC.

[2] Abu Nuwas, Dīwān 5.121, trans. Smoor (2014) p. 28. The question of the relative merits of boys and women as lovers is addressed in Achilles Tatius’s Leucippe and Clitophon 2.37-8. Leucippe and Clitophon is a Greek novel probably written in the late second or third century GC.

[3] Abu Nuwas, Dīwān, commentary preceding 5.153, trans. Smoor (2014) p. 31.

[4] Abu Nuwas, Dīwān 5.197, trans. Kennedy (1997) p. 75.

[5] Abu Nuwas, Dīwān 5.8, trans. Schippers (2014) p. 86. Sexual allure gave women high status and social power. Abu Nuwas satirized women’s high sexual value in a poem in which four female prostitutes each sang the praises of her vagina. For example, one sang, “My vagina is like a split pomegranate and smells of ground amber. How lucky the one who gets me when I’ve shaved!” Trans. Kennedy (2005) p. 37.

Arabic men poets were concerned about gender equality in sexuality. Al-Aʻsā imagined a woman’s sexual initiative and her sexual effort on behalf of the poet:

When we met at her door and
she beckoned to me to join her
I expressed what I felt for her and she responded kindly
so as to indulge me,
Sometimes she was as bedding for me and other times I was
the same for her, with her on top.

Trans. Kennedy (1997) p. 62.

[6] Abu Nuwas wrote a poem in which he raped a group of young men:

I served them without respite wine mixed with water
— It was as warming and bright as kindled fire —
Until I noticed their heads incline,
Bent and crooked with drunkenness
And their tongues tied and heavy,
They now either slept or reclined;
I got up trembling to have sex with them
(All those who creep stealthily tremble at the thought!);
Their trouser-bands stymied my pleasure at first
But then, with subtle art, I untied them
To reveal each man’s quivering backside
Oscillating supply like a green bough.
O for this night which I spent enraptured
In continual enjoyment and excess,
Making from this to that man,
Screwing whomever I could find in the house
Until the first one awoke and got up
Feeling bruised at the thighs;
Then I rose with fear to wake up the others,
Saying: “Do you feel the same thing as me?
Is this sweat we’ve all been stained with?”
They said: “It looks more like butter.”
And when I saw them now alert
I went off to relieve myself

Trans. Kennedy (2005) pp. 41-2. In another poem, Abu Nuwas told that he raped a young adolescent male with whom he got drunk:

And he left, dragging his delightful robes which
I had touched with my iniquitous behavior,
Saying, “O woe!” as tears overcame him, “You have torn away
from me the dignity I had preserved.”
I replied, “A lion saw a gazelle and lunged at it; such is the variety
of Fate’s vicissitudes!”

Dīwān 3.323-5, trans. Kennedy (1997) p. 67, adapted slightly for readability. See similarly Dīwān 3.106, 108, trans. Colville (2005) pp. 58, 60-1. Rape of men remains about as prevalent as rape of women, yet rape of men is commonly denied, trivialized, or treated as a joke.

Imposing reasonable bounds on men’s sexuality isn’t the same as eliminating masculine sexuality. In a poignant, mournful poem, Abu Nuwas declared:

I am struggling against my eyes,
my heart and my penis;
Would that for these eyes I had others
and another heart in place of my own,
and instead of my penis that of an old man
who can remember the days of ʻAd.

Arabic text in Wagner (1958-2006) vol. 5, p. 20; trans. Kennedy (2005) pp. 49-50. ʻAd was a pre-Islamic Arabian tribe. Abu Nuwas is thus wishing that he were a very old man who surely would be impotent. Making men impotent isn’t good social regulation of men’s sexuality.

[7] Classical Arabic poetry includes accounts of men having sex with melons:

I saw once a sheikh from among the monks who was alone without a companion and it was necessary for him to pierce a melon and to cause his penis to penetrate into the hole. He raised his voice and cried: “I’ll screw and screw; until I ejaculate in this melon!”

Abu Nuwas quoting Abū l-ʻAnbas, Dīwān, commentary preceding 5.153, trans. Smoor (2014) p. 30.

Abu Nuwas reportedly attempted to seduce the singing slave-girl ʻInan. She told him, ” Be off with you! Go and masturbate!” He responded, “If I do this I fear / You’ll be jealous of my hand!” Trans. Kennedy (2005) p. 37.

[image] Persian miniature from the seventeenth century. The image is available on the web, but not well-sourced. If you have a precise source, please say so in the comments.


Colville, Jim, trans. 2005. Poems of wine & revelry: the khamriyyat of Abu Nuwas. London: Kegan Paul.

Kennedy, Philip F. 1997. The wine song in classical Arabic poetry: Abū Nuwās and the literary tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kennedy, Philip F. 2005. Abu Nuwas: a genius of poetry. Oxford: Oneworld.

Schippers, Arie. 2014. “The Mujūn Genre by Abū Nuwās and by Ibn Quzmān: A Comparison.” Ch. 5 (pp. 80-100) in Talib, Hammond & Schippers (2014).

Smoor, Pieter. 2014. “A Suspicion of Excessive Frankness.” Ch. 3 (pp. 24-65) in Talib, Hammond & Schippers (2014).

Talib, Adam, Hammond, Marlé and Schippers, Arie, eds. 2014. The Rude, the Bad and the Bawdy: Essays in honour of Professor Geert Jan van Gelder. Warminster: Gibb Memorial Trust.

Wagner, Ewald, with Gregor Schoeler, eds. 1958-2006. Dīwān Abī Nuwās. Wiesbaden: In Kommission bei Franz Steiner Verlag.

Ecbasis captivi: no escape for man from gynocentric yearnings

Tell these things to one who has deaf ears,
For the loins of an ass will be joined to the tail of the calf;
Thus Mother Nature has bidden us to pass our days.

{ Hec illi narres, qui surdas possidet aures,
Nam caude vituli iungetur lumbus aselli;
Sic natura parens iussit discurrere soles. } [1]

feast of Ecbasis captivi

The eleventh-century Latin beast epic Ecbasis captivi subtly critiques men’s gynocentric yearnings. The narrator-monk figured himself as a calf. That calf chafed under his father’s discipline and yearned to suck at his mother’s breasts. His insufficient respect for father and excessive attachment to mother propelled the calf into grave risk of being raped, killed, and eaten. Ecbasis captivi superficially dramatizes paschal redemption while depicting men’s failure to transcend gynocentrism.

Ecbasis captivi begins with the narrator-monk looking back and lamenting his childish error. He doesn’t describe specifically what that error was:

Planning nothing sensible, scorning the company of my brothers,
I was involved in puerile follies because I was wholly given to such trifles

{ Nil cogitans sanum, tempnens consortia fratrum
Nectebar neniis, nugis quia totus in illis }

His error caused him to be set apart from men’s fruitful work:

Now on a certain day I was sitting in my accustomed manner.
I saw some taking general care
To gather the fruit of the wheat in large barns,
Others, after the grain, to tend to the choice grapes,
Others, to show skill in transporting what had been collected,
Not for the monks alone who serve the mysteries of law,
No, also for the pilgrims, beggars and orphans.
The others were all pursuing the tasks assigned to them,
While I alone was idle, shut up in my cloistered prison.

Like a sterile trunk, I resembled charred wood.
And like a wretched calf bound to a stake functioning as a fence,
I was restrained by the reins of the fathers.
I shall weave the story into a woof that is not without complexity.

{ Namque die quadam consueto rriore sedebam,
Inspexi quosdam generalem sumere curam,
Grandia triticeum cumulare per horrea fructum;
Illos post segetes dilectas visere vites,
Illos collectis sollertes esse vehendis
Non solis monachis, qui servant mistica legis,
Immo peregrinis, mendicis atque pupillis;
Per sibi commissas reliquos discurrere curas,
Me vero vacuo, claustrali carcere septo.

Ceu truncus sterilis lignis ęquabar adustis
Ac misero vitulo sudibus quam sepe ligato:
Illi consimilis patrum frenatus habenis,
Cuius et historiam non simplo stamine texam. }

The calf above all yearned to be with his mother:

The calf is shut in at home, grieving that his neck is tied.
There is no joy outdoors, within there is pressure of grief.
And what is even worse, the companionship of his mother is missing.
Sadly he lamented awhile and drew heart-felt sighs.
He lifts his face toward heaven and invokes Jesus,
Calls with tears twofold and even twentyfold
For the stableman to take his chains from his neck,
So that he may enjoy the pleasures of milk from his mother’s breast. [2]

{ Clauditur ille domi lugens sibi colla ligari;
Gaudia nulla foris, intus pressura doloris,
Et quod plus istis, absunt consorcia matris.
Triste sat ingemuit, cordis suspiria traxit,
Erigit ad celum facies atque invocat Iesum.
Conclamat lacrimis binis pariterque vicenis,
Vt custos stabuli solvat sibi vincula colli,
Vbere de matris quo gustet gaudia lactis. }

Men’s excessive yearning to be with mother and to please mother leads them to disaster. So it was for the calf. The calf bit free from the restraints of the fathers and bolted into the woods. There a wolf captured him.

The calf in the wolf’s captivity represents ordinary men’s lives. The wolf was a male leader of an animal society. Men leaders exploit ordinary men. The wolf naturalized raping ordinary men in a figure of an ass joining his loins to the tail of a calf. Even worse, the wolf planned to kill and eat the calf. As a result of political intrigue, another force of animals, led by a crafty female fox, liberated the calf from the wolf’s captivity and killed the wolf. As always, most males are pawns in female-controlled social action, and males, not females, are killed.

Freed from the wolf, the calf again preferred his mother. The calf recognized both his father and mother, but the maternal breasts privileged the mother:

And thus the calf runs out, seeks his father and mother,
And when he suckled his mother’s breasts, he clung happily to her.

{ Sic foras exiliit, matrem cum patre reposcit,
Vbera cum suxit, matri letatus inhesit. }

The calf figures a monk, a grown man. Even grown men yearn to suckle at mother’s breasts. His mother asked what the wolf had done to him. The calf refused to say, perhaps from shame. But the calf spoke warmly of the brotherly care he had received from an otter and a badger. Ordinary men care for each other as best they can. Nonetheless, the calf in conclusion offered a prayer of thanksgivings for being re-united with his mother:

Praise be the Lord who saved me from the teeth of the wolf!
I am brought hale and safe to the arms of my mother.
May the holy name of Christ the Lord be blessed!

{ Laus domino, qui me salvarat dente lupino!
Sanus et incolumis maternis deferor ulnis.
Sit nomen sanctum Christi domini benedictum! }

Medieval Christians lived within a gynocentric society in which the Church was figured as mother to all. Yet excessive yearning to be with mother had propelled the calf into the wolf’s captivity. Despite structuring Christian themes of the Easter season and the Harrowing of Hell, the calf in the end isn’t redeemed from the childish error of gynocentrism.[3]

The subtle men’s protest of Ecbasis captivi became more vigorous and more overt in subsequent medieval Latin beast literature. The massive, twelfth-century Latin beast epic Ysengrimus extravagantly portrayed castration culture. The subsequent twelfth-century Latin beast poem Speculum stultorum addressed men’s lack of masculine self-esteem and the effects of mothers’ emotional abuse on their sons. The twelfth-century poem De pulice in turn offered a profound critique of the beastializing men’s sexuality. Those who study great medieval Latin literature with reason and imagination can escape from gynocentrism.

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[1] Escape of a certain captive told in a figurative manner {Ecbasis cuiusdam captivi per tropologiam} 315-7, Latin text and English translation from Zeydel (1964). Ziolkowski states that these lines “might be an obscene allusion,” but are an “exceptionally enigmatic passage.” Ziolkowski (1993) p. 174. Recognizing gynocentrism and rape of men helps to clarify these lines.

Ecbasis captivi has 1229 verses that are “mostly leonine hexameters.” Its author is unknown, but the text associates the narrator with Vosges, the monastery of Saint-Evre in Toul, and Trier. The poem has survived in two manuscripts: Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale Ms 10615-729 and MS. 9799-809. The first, the earlier one, was probably written about the middle of the twelfth century at the monastery St. Eucharius-Matthias in Trier. Ziolkowski (1993) p. 153.

Ecbasis captivi is structured as a beast fable within a beast fable. The inner fable is a “sick lion” tale. On the history of that tale, id. pp. 61-6.

Ecbasis captivi is also densely constructed from quotations that indirectly provide a gloss on the narrative:

over 250 lines and phrases quoted or adapted from Horace; about a hundred from Prudentius and fifty from Vergil; over twenty lines apiece from Juvencus, Sedulius, and Venantius Fortunatus; and eight lines each from Ovid and Arator.

Id. p. 154.

Subsequent quotes above of Ecbasis captivi are similarly from Zeydel (1964). They are (cited by Latin line number) : 3-4 (Planning nothing…); 50-8, 65-8 (Now on a certain day…); 78-85 (The calf is shut in…); 1159-60 (And thus the calf runs…); 1221-3 (Praise be the Lord…). I have made a few minor changes to Zeydel’s translation for clarity. Bibliotheca Augustana provides a Latin text of Ecbasis captivi online.

[2] In medieval Europe, monks were forbidden milk products during Lent. Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 164, 194. Id. sees the calf-monk’s desire for milk during Lent as sinful. The desire for mother’s milk seems to me to function more significantly at a higher level of abstraction.

[3] On the themes of Easter and the Harrowing of Hell in Ecbasis captiva, Ziolkowski (1993) Ch. 6.

[image] Anthropomorphic animals feasting, plausibly a scene from Ecbasis captivi. Manuscript illumination from the 13th-century manuscript Milano, Bibl. Ambrosiana, B. 32. inf., fol. 136. Thanks to Bibliotheca Augustana.


Zeydel, Edwin H., ed. and trans. 1964. Ecbasis cuiusdam captivi per tropologian: Escape of a certain captive told in a figurative manner: an eleventh-century Latin beast epic; introduction, text, translation, commentary and an appendix. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1993. Talking animals: medieval Latin beast poetry, 750-1150. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.