medieval men regarded themselves as inferior to women

optical illusion: man & frog

The women-are-wonderful effect has been scientifically established only in recent decades. Yet men have long regarded themselves as inferior to women. Medieval men rightly recognized that women as masters of persuasion who thoroughly dominate men.

In Chardri’s thirteenth-century work The Little Debate {Le Petit Plet}, a young worldly man bluntly explained to a naive old man the reality of men’s inferiority to women:

There’s no man living under the sky
who she can’t deceive by pretenses of beauty.
She’d make you perceive weak is strong,
she’d make you perceive what’s right is wrong,
she’d make you perceive what’s cold is hot,
she’d make you perceive what’s low is high,
she’d make you perceive what’s white is black,
what’s foolish a woman would make you perceive as wise.

There’s no woman under the clouds,
whether she’s young or old,
who if she wants to hurt you somehow,
won’t bring you to ruin.

{ N’ad suz cel home ki seit vivant
Ke ele ne deceive par beau semblant.
Ele vus fet de feble fort,
Ele vus fet de dreit le tort,
Ele vus fet de freit le chaut,
Ele vus fet de bas le haut,
Ele vus fet de blanc le neir,
De la folie vus fra le saveir.

N’ad femme ke seit desuz la nue,
Ke jofne seit u seit chanue,
Si ele vus vout gures grever,
Ke ele ne vus face mal achever. }

Even in medieval Europe, men were astonishingly willing to listen and believe women. A medieval woman convinced a medieval man that he didn’t actually see his wife having sex with another man. Another medieval man believed what his wife told him when she told him he that he had died. A man’s estate hardly mattered: a medieval priest, knight, and townsman all believed they were responsible for a woman’s pregnancy. All three surely weren’t the sperm donor.

Some men have tried to overcome their inferiority to women. Pitas Payas in medieval Brittany painted a lamb on his wife’s groin to protect her chastity while he was on a business trip. His painting skills didn’t help. Another scholarly medieval man attempted to compile a encyclopedic book of women’s wiles. He soon gave up on his scholarly project. At least both rape of women (but not of men) and falsely accusing a man of raping a woman have been regarded as serious matters throughout history until recent decades. Nonetheless, only gods saved a medieval man from his adulterous wife.

Unlike the Middle Ages, our more ignorant, bigoted, and repressive age doesn’t understand that sex differences in guile have great public significance. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus told the young bride Olympiada that then-prevalent talk about the equality of the sexes was silliness, for women are morally superior to men. That lesson has been forgotten. Gender equality will not be achieved until men penetrate the gender gap in guile.

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The quote above is from Chardri, The Little Debate {Le Petit Plet} ll. 1217-32, Old French (Anglo-Norman) text from Merrilees (1970) pp. 40-1, my English translation, benefiting from that of Cartlidge (2015) p. 140. Marie de France and Matheolus also deployed the rhetorical technique of enantiosis in describing women’s ability to persuade men to deny their own personal experience. See note [1] in my post on men’s inferiority in guile. Ovid, Ars amatoria, 1.249-253, advises men to be wary of judging women’s appearance at night. Medieval scholars recognized that warning to be insufficient.

[image] Optical illusion disc. From McLean’s Optical Illusions or Magic Panorama Box, published in 1833. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Cartlidge, Neil, trans. 2015. The works of Chardri: three poems in the French of thirteenth-century England; The Life of the Seven Sleepers, The Life of St. Josaphaz and The Little Debate. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Merrilees, Brian S., ed. 1970. Chardri. Le petit plet. Oxford: Blackwell.

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