now-unspeakable wrong: resisting cuckolding in medieval Europe

Husband disposing of child in monastery

With cuckolding of men institutionalized in paternity law, many men today passively accept being cuckolded. What is a man to do? Medieval literature describes pathetically stupid cuckolds. Yet even vigorous and shrewd men during the relatively enlightened medieval period had difficulty resisting cuckolding.

In France in the 1130s, the great philosopher Peter Abelard counseled his son Astralabe about the complexities of cuckolding. A husband guarding his wife cannot overturn the ontology of chastity and sinfulness:

Avoid guarding an unchaste woman, and similarly for a chaste one;
surely for the latter that isn’t needed, and it isn’t possible for the former.
What does the guardianship of an unchaste woman achieve? You cannot be made to believe that she who remains no less sinful is pure.
Virtue surely must be thought a matter of the mind, not of the body;
no one is made good by force, but rather thus more sinful.

{ Incestam ut castam pariter seruare caueto,
quipe hec non debet sicut et illa nequit.
Quid facit inceste custodia? Nonne pudicam
sic fieri credes que mala non minus est?
Virtus quipe animi non corporis esse putanda est;
nemo ui bonus est sed malus inde magis. }[1]

A false accusation can make a truthful woman realize truth:

With whom you accuse her, you compel a woman to love,
and often you manufacture a true charge from a false one.

{ De quo culpasti mulierem cogis amare
et uerum falso crimine sepe struis. }

For a woman who cares nothing for truth or her sexual reputation, a false accusation merely provides her with an idea for action:

She who in no way truly fears injuries to her reputation
is impelled from a false accusation to a true crime.

{que uero fame nequaquam damna ueretur
de falso uerum crimine crimen agit. }

Just as men refuse to recognize the reality of gynocentrism, they don’t want to hear that they’re being cuckolded:

I don’t want you to teach a husband about the sin of his beloved wife;
what is known, rather than what was done, weighs him down:
no one willingly gives ear to his own disgrace;
he will want neither you nor anyone else to know such things.

{ Nolo uirum doceas uxoris crimen amate;
quod sciri pocius quam fieri grauat hunc:
oprobriis aurem propriis dat nemo libenter;
nec te nec quemquam talia scire uolet. }[2]

Even in the relatively enlightened medieval period, men were allowed to enjoy blissful ignorance for as long as time and paternity law allowed.

Ordinary men in the ancient world sometimes harshly punished men who cuckolded them. For example, in the first-century Roman Empire, Glyco’s steward was caught in the act of having sex with Glyco’s wife. Glyco in response condemned his steward to the beasts in the gladiators’ arena. Glyco apparently didn’t punish his wife. The clothes dealer Echion recounted:

A wooden-nickel man like that Glyco goes throwing his steward to the beasts. He might as well expose himself to them. What sin did that steward commit, when he was forced to push his dick in? That piss-pot of a wife deserves to be tossed by a bull. But if you can’t beat the donkey, beat the saddle.

{ Glyco autem, sestertiarius homo, dispensatorem ad bestias dedit. Hoc est se ipsum traducere. Quid servus peccavit, qui coactus est facere? Magis illa matella digna fuit quam taurus iactaret. Sed qui asinum non potest, stratum caedit. }[3]

Expressing gynocentric ideology internalized even among freed Roman slaves, Echion blamed the father of Glyco’s wife for her infidelity:

How could Glyco ever have thought that the stinkweed that Hermogenes sowed would turn out decent? That guy Hermogenes is so greedy he could cut the claws off a hawk in flight. An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, yea, vipers like him don’t hatch lengths of rope.

{ Quid autem Glyco putabat Hermogenis filicem unquam bonum exitum facturam? Ille milvo volanti poterat ungues resecare; colubra restem non parit. }

Glyco putting his steward to death for cuckolding him did little to repair the injury to him:

It’s Glyco, poor Glyco, who has paid the price. As long as he lives, he’ll be branded. Only death will wipe away his shame.

{ Glyco, Glyco dedit suas; itaque quamdiu vixerit, habebit stigmam, nec illam nisi Orcus delebit. }[4]

Men are highly vulnerable to women hurting them. That goes as deep as the biological reality of gender inequality in parental knowledge. Women know for certain who their biological children are. Men, without modern DNA testing, are always at risk of being cuckolded.

Even the great twelfth-century philosopher Peter Abelard couldn’t offer his son Astralabe definitive wisdom to resolve the problem of men being cuckolded. A well-known medieval proverb advised men: “if you can’t be chaste, at least be careful {si non caste, tamen caute}.” Today with tyrannical criminalization of men expressing sexual interest in women, grotesquely unjust laws such as the “four seas” paternity doctrine and acute anti-men discrimination in child-custody and child-support rulings, men must be more careful in relating to women than they were in relatively humane ancient and medieval times.

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[1] Peter Abelard, Poem for Astralabe {Carmen ad Astralabium} ll. 193-8, Latin text and English translation (adapted) from Ruys (2014). Here’s an online Latin text (inferior to Ruys’s), with some discussion of the manuscripts. All subsequent quotes from Carmen ad Astralabium are similarly sourced.

Abelard underscores his ontological point by repeating it:

You strive in vain to guard an unchaste woman or a chaste woman:
the first you cannot guard, and for the other, you know there is no need.

{ Incestam ut castam frustra seruare laboras:
non potes hanc, illam non opus esse scias. }

Carmen ad Astralabium ll. 673-4. Similar insight goes back to Ovid:

Guarding a pretty girl, you brute, gets nowhere;
A girl’s good morals are the guard you need.
A girl who doesn’t since she mustn’t, does it;
A girl who’s chaste unforced is chaste indeed.
The body you may guard — the mind is guilty;
No means of guarding a girl’s thoughts from sin.
Nor can you guard the body, all doors bolted;
Bolt as you will, a lover lurks within.

{ Dure vir, inposito tenerae custode puellae
nil agis; ingenio est quaeque tuenda suo.
siqua metu dempto casta est, ea denique casta est;
quae, quia non liceat, non facit, illa facit!
ut iam servaris bene corpus, adultera mens est;
nec custodiri, ne velit, ulla potest.
nec corpus servare potes, licet omnia claudas;
omnibus exclusis intus adulter erit. }

Ovid, Amores 3.4.1-8, Latin text from the Latin Library, English trans. from Melville (2008). Ruys (2014) notes this literary antecedent to the advice in Carmen ad Astralabium.

The subsequent three quotes above are from Carmen ad Astralabium (cited by line numbers): 671-2 (With whom you accuse her…), 205-6 (She who in no way truly fears…), 181-4 (I don’t want you to teach a husband…).

[2] Ovid, the great medieval authority on love, also taught about husbands’ unwillingness to hear about being cuckolded:

No husband ever welcomes accusations,
Believe me; no one’s pleased to hear the bad.
If he’s lukewarm, your scandal won’t disturb him,
Or, should he love, your service makes him sad.
A lapse is hard to prove, though clear as daylight;
The girl’s safe in her biased judge’s eye.
He’ll not trust what he’s seen, if she denies it;
He’ll blame his sight and give himself the lie.

{ crede mihi, nulli sunt crimina grata marito,
nec quemquam, quamvis audiat, illa iuvant.
seu tepet, indicium securas prodis ad aures;
sive amat, officio fit miser ille tuo.
Culpa nec ex facili quamvis manifesta probatur;
iudicis illa sui tuta favore venit.
viderit ipse licet, credet tamen ille neganti
damnabitque oculos et sibi verba dabit. }

Ovid, Amores 2.2.50-8, Latin text from the Latin Library, English translation from Melville (2008). Ruys (2014) notes this literary antecedent to the advice in Carmen ad Astralabium.

[3] Petronius, Satyricon 45, Latin text from Heseltine & Rouse (1913), English translation from Walsh (1996), adapted with the benefit Heseltine & Rouse (2013) and the notes of Schmeling (2011). All subsequent quotes from the Satyricon are similarly sourced and are from this section of the text. As a slave, Trimalchio himself cuckolded his master and was sent off to the countryside for that offense. Satyricon 69.3 and 75.11.

[4] Abelard wrote, “a woman is swiftly sullied through innuendo {uilescit mulier suspicione cito}.” Carmen ad Astralabium l. 680. Ruys notes, “Abelard speaks bluntly of social realities here.” Ruys (2014) p. 182, notes to ll. 203-6.

Speaking bluntly about the social realities of men’s lives is less common. Throughout history, men have been punished more harshly for adultery than women have been. Just as men have been socially punished for having domestic violence committed against them, men have been socially punished for being cuckolded. The latter was the fate of Glyco.

[image] Man making a large payment to an abbot to place a young boy in his monastery. A husband might take such action with respect to a child that resulted from him being cuckolded. The text concerns simony, and begins, “A certain man having a son offers him {Quidam habens filium obtulit eum}….” Decorated initial Q on folio 63 in a manuscript of Gratian’s Decretals made in the 1170s, probably in northern France. Held in J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig XIV 2.


Heseltine, Michael and W. H. D. Rouse, trans., revised by E. H. Warmington. 1913. Petronius Arbiter, Seneca. Satyricon. Apocolocyntosis. Loeb Classical Library 15. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Melville, A. D., trans. 2008. Ovid. The Love Poems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ruys, Juanita Feros. 2014. The Repentant Abelard: family, gender and ethics in Peter Abelard’s Carmen ad Astralabium and Planctus. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmsillan.

Schmeling, Gareth L. 2011. A Commentary on the Satyrica of Petronius. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walsh, Patrick G, trans. 1996. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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