educating medieval men about divorce risk

stormy ahead

Despite the huge financial significance of child support and divorce law, many persons today have sex and get married in ignorance of the wildly inconsistent laws relevant to those actions. The situation was probably better in the Middle Ages. Law regulating sex was then more liberal, and family law was less sex-biased. Moreover, literature like the thirteenth-century Old French work The Little Debate {Le Petit Plet} provided useful education to men about relationships and divorce.

Persons considering sex that could produce children or pondering getting married should think carefully about the possibility of undesired change in their relationship. In addition to women being regarded as superior to men in guile, women until the modern age were also thought to be more dynamic and adaptable than men. About two millennia ago, Virgil stated, “a woman is always varying and changing {varium et mutabile semper femina}.”[1] Le Petit Plet dilated upon that commonplace:

A woman resembles a sweetbriar rose
but she behaves like the wind at sea,
now it’s to the west, now it’s to the east,
However much she chatters, just as quickly she goes silent.
There’s nothing under the sky
that’s alive and that’s mortal
that’s so prone to change, near and far,
as is the heart of a woman, when she has need.
Now it’s up, now it’s down,
now it’s inside, now it’s outside.

{ Femme resemble flur de engleter
E si se tent cum vent en mer,
Ore est al west, ore est en le est,
Quant plus jangleie, tantost se test.
N’ad desuz la chape del cel
Ren ke se moet u seit mortel,
Ke tant se change e pres e loin,
Cum quor de femme, quant ad busoin.
Si femme sent u ben u mal,
Ore est la sus, ore est la val,
Ore est dedenz, ore est dehors } [2]

Not surprisingly, authorities have declared that women are biological superior to men in the skills most important in today’s fast-changing economy. Yet women’s superior dynamism has dangers for men in their relationships with women:

Women change themselves from the past.
I have seen chaste and faithful wives
in little time become whores,
and those who were unequaled in sweetness
turn nasty in the end,
and innocent, sweet, and demure ones turn
to put their lovers in a bad scene.

{ Femmes changer sa en arere.
Jo ai veu chaste espuse e leale
En poi de ure devenir cursale,
E tele ke de dulçur n’aveit per
Mult felunesse au paraler,
E mult simple, duce e coye
Mettre sun dru en male voie. }

Of course all human relationships are fraught with risk. But women’s social superiority allows them to easily smear and destroy men, including their husbands:

Most of the divorces that occur
women make by their nastiness.
If there’s anything that displeases them,
they gather in social groups to discuss their complaints.
One says that her husband
is a great scoundrel, and not because of her.
Another says that hers is a goat.
The husband of another is a malicious villain.
This one says she has cause for a big complaint,
since he doesn’t do with her what he is obliged to do.
Thus each woman strains to cause an angry fight
by bringing shame upon her sweet lover.
Each knows well what advances her interests,
so that she can obtain a separation;
if not, she believes she’s been so dishonored
that her husband won’t have a day of peace in the rest of his life.

{ Les plus devorz ke unt esté
Firent femmes par mauvesté.
Si ren i ad ke lur desplet,
Enz en chapitres moevent lur plet.
L’une dist ke le soen mari
Est lere fort, si n’est par li.
L’autre dist ke le soen est un chevre,
L’espus a l’autre est felun e enrevre.
Icele dist ke ele ad grant dreit
Ke cil ne li fet ke fere deit.
Issi se peine por un curuz
Chescune hunir sun ami duz.
Ben quide chescune ke ben se avance,
Si porchaser poet la deseverance;
Si nun, mult se tendra hunie,
Ne il n’avera pes jur de sa vie. }

The medieval Latin masterpiece Solomon and Marcolf dramatically presented women’s political power. That political power promotes grotesquely anti-men divorce judgments.

Enlightenment is men’s best hope for improving their lives. Yet in our doctrinaire and repressive age, intellectually alive and curious persons have few contemporary learning resources for considering thoughts and perspectives outside of gynocentric orthodoxy. Studying medieval literature is thus vital for enlightenment today.

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Notes:

[1] Virgil, Aeneid 4.569.

[2] Chardri, The Little Debate {Le Petit Plet} ll. 1299-1308, Old French text from Merrilees (1970), my English translation with help from Cartlidge (2015) p. 142. The subsequent two quotes are similarly from Le Petit Plet ll. 1386-92 (Women change themselves…) and ll. 1393-1408 (Most of the divorces…).

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger) similarly appreciated women’s dynamism:

Nothing is as mobile as a woman’s will; nothing is so easily changing.

{ Nihil tam mobile quam foeminarum voluntas, nihil tam vagum. }

De remediis fortuitorum, Latin text from Palmer (1953) p. 62, my English translation. On the textual history of De remediis fortuitorum, see note [3] in my post on medieval lesson in winning women’s love.

[images] Stormy ahead. Derived from photo released under CCO / Public Domain license by Good Free Photos.

References:

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.

Palmer, Ralph Graham, ed. 1953. Seneca’s De Remediis Fortuitorum and the Elizabethans. An essay on the influence of Seneca’s ethical thought in the sixteenth century, together with the newly-edited Latin text and English translation of 1547 by Robert Whyttynton. Institute of Elizabethan Studies: Chicago.

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