what men want most: honest, frank discussion in medieval France

man desiring woman

In our age of demonizing men’s sexuality, men perceiving an attractive woman to be attractive is nearly unthinkable. The male gaze has been disparaged and punished to the point of death. Men inducing women to love (“seducing them”) has also been thoroughly criminalized. Men’s perceptions and feelings, however, have not always been so harshly repressed. In the relatively liberal and tolerant circumstances of medieval Europe, men even discussed what they want most physically from a woman.

The man trobairitz Sifre shared a woman’s love with another man, probably her husband. He asked his professional colleague Mir Bernart which half of the woman he should seek. Mir Bernart compassionately responded:

Sifre, I think you’re fortunate
to have asked me for advice,
and I’ll give you the best of that,
because I’ve thought deeply of desired service.
I’ll tell you the truth without shading:
if in sharing you take my word, to be blunt,
you assuredly should prefer the part with the cunt.

{ Sifre, be·us tenc per arribat
car cosselh m’aves demandat,
et ieu donar lo·us ay onrat
car fort en cossir de prion:
so sapchatz ben en veritat,
que, si·m creziatz d’est mercat,
per ver penriatz daus la con.} [1]

Sifre chided Mir Bernart for speaking so knowingly and plainly. Sifre declared that he prefers the upper part, where a woman cuts her hair, but doesn’t remove all of it. Mir Bernart responded with a commitment to truth and the dignity of humanism:

Sifre, you’re refusing the best, the ultimate
and thus what every man loves most.
According to nature and custom
of good lovers through the world,
the lower part is worth more than the face.
And let no troubadour make excuses for me,
for none answers more nobly than I do.

{ Sifren, lo mielhs laissatz e·l pus
e so que mays ama cascus
segon la natura e·l us
que fan’autre bon drut pel mon
val may so d’aval no fa·l mus.
E ja trobaires no·m n’escus,
c’om genser de mi no’y respon. }

Even in the relatively liberal and tolerant circumstances of medieval Europe, men attacked other men for speaking frankly about women. So Sifre tore into Mir Bernart:

Mir Bernart, I am all but enraged
that you give an uncouth answer
and set a much higher value on that bringing
ruination to lovers and husbands alike:
a gentle advance is worth more,
embracing and caressing and kissing
mouth and eyes and face and forehead.

{ Mir Bernat, per pauc no·m n’irays
car mi respondes motz savays
e sela part prezatz trop mays
que los drutz e·ls maritz cofon,
que may ne val us gens assays
c’om embratz e manei e bays
boca et huelh e car’e froll. } [2]

While an unplanned pregnancy can bring ruination to men, that’s only because men are deprived of any reproductive rights whatsoever. Some men facing a disastrous unplanned pregnancy resort to abortion coercion. But that sad reality doesn’t usually change men’s preferences. Mir Bernart stood his ground and boldly insisted on truth-telling:

Sifre, do not imagine I shall shift my ground,
abandoning the best for the worst,
for every day I embrace and kiss
brother, cousin or second-cousin.
But I maintain that I am right in thinking
that all love-making arises
from the end where love is most hidden.

{ Sifren, no’us cuges qu’ie·m biais
ni·l mielhs per lo sordeior lais,
que tot dia abras e bays
fraire e cozi e segall.
Mas d’ayso die que soy verays,
que tota drudaria nays
d’aquel cap don pus se rescon. }

The discussion between Sifre and Mir Bernart then degenerated into trading insults. Having a serious, truthful discussion about men’s interests and concerns has never been easy.

troubadour sending song

In the thirteenth century, sophisticated trobairitz songs expressing men’s subordinate position in sexual feudalism and vigorously critiquing that structure of gender oppression were coming to an end. Crude wailing and sensational spectacles more easily attract attention. They also tend to support lies. Truth-telling is an art and a craft that must be cultivated. Late in the thirteenth century, a man trobairitz lamented:

For now no art is less admired
than the worthy craft of song.
These days the nobles’ tastes run
to entertainments less inspired.
Wailing mingles with disgrace:
all that once engendered praise
from the memory has died.
Now the world is mostly lies.

{ Qu’er non es grazitz lunhs mestiers
menhs en cort, que de belh saber
de trobar; qu’auzir e vezer
hi vol hom mais captenhs leugiers
e critz mesclatz ab dezonor;
Quar tot quan sol donar lauzor,
es al pus del tot oblidat,
que·l mons es quays totz en barat. } [3]

These words resonate among the prevalent lies of today.

Dare to think about what is true. Young, attractive, warmly receptive women have enormous power over men. That’s not just a matter of a pretty face. Men admire women’s breasts and women’s buttocks. But the ultimate foundation of men’s gyno-idolatry is almost surely women’s vaginas. With good evolutionary reason, that’s the part of a woman that most men want most.

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Notes:

[1] Sifre and Mir Bernart “Mir Bernat, mas vos ay trobat {Mir Bernart, since I have found you} st. 2, Occitan text and English translation (modified) from Harvey, Paterson & Radaelli (2010) pp. 1168-9. Subsequent quotes from the same song are similarly sourced. This song probably was composed in Carcassonne (in Occitania, in southern France) in the later decades of the twelfth century. Id. p. 1170. Here’s an online Occitan text of the whole song.

[2] In a cobla (one-stanza song), the man trobairitz Raimon Rigaut supported Sifre’s position:

Never for love of her cunt
did I request my lady’s love,
but rather for her clear face
and smiling mouth;
I could easily enter the cunts
of many, if only I asked for them,
but I prefer frequent kissing
to the cunt that kills desire.

{ Anc per amor del con
A midons non quis s’amor,
Mas per sa fresca color
E per sa boca rien,
Qu’ieu pron cons trobaria
Ab mantas, s’ieu lo lur queria,
Per qu’ieu am mais baisar soven
Que’l con, qu’amorta lo talen. }

Occitan text and English translation (modified) from Lazar (1989) p. 263. Here’s a nearly identical Occitan text online. While a man generally experiences detumescence after ejaculating in a woman’s vagina, most men are quite eager to have that experience. Raimon Rigaut composed in the middle of the thirteenth century. For other trobairitz / troubadour songs frankly discussing sexuality, Bec (1984).

[3] Guiraut Riquier, “Be·m degra de chantar tener {It would be best if I refrained},” st. 3, Occitan text and English translation (Kehew) from Kehew (2005) pp. 308-9.  Born in Narbonne about 1230, Guiraut Riquier composed his songs from 1254 to 1292 in the courts of the Viscount of Narbonne, Alfonso X of Castile and León, and Henri II of Rodez. He is the last troubadour known, and this, his last song, was composed in 1292. Id. pp. 306-07. Here’s an online Occitan text of the whole song.

[images] (1) Man and woman in illuminated initials. From folio 2v and 2r in a chansonnier (Chansonnier Gil) made in the 14th century. Preserved as MS Barcelona Biblioteca de Catalunya 146. (2) Man trobairitz sending forth a letter. Illumination on folio 4r of the chansonnier of Matfré Ermengau, Breviari d’amor et Lettre à sa soeur {Breviary of love and Letter to his beloved woman}, made in the 14th century. Preserved as MS Bibliothèque nationale de France. Français 857.

References:

Bec, Pierre. 1984. Burlesque et Obscénité chez les Troubadours: pour une approche du contre-texte médiéval. Paris: Stock.

Harvey, Ruth, Linda M. Paterson, and Anna Radaelli. 2010. The Troubadour Tensos and Partimens: a critical edition. Cambridge: Brewer.

Kehew, Robert, ed. 2005. Lark in the Morning: the Verses of the Troubadours: a bilingual edition. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

Lazar, Moshe. 1989. “Carmina Erotica, Carmina Iocosa: The Body and the Bawdy in Medieval Love Songs.” Pp. 249-276 in Lazar, Moshe, and Norris J. Lacy, eds. Poetics of Love in the Middle Ages: texts and contexts. Fairfax, Va: George Mason University Press.

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