medieval counterparts to women’s strong, independent sexuality

Slut walks, vagina monologues, and similar public celebrations of women’s strong, independent sexuality aren’t new cultural phenomena. The story of the sexually eager widow of Ephesus has been known for at least two millennia. The sixth-century Byzantine Empress Theodora was famous for her vibrant, dynamic sexuality. College students in English-speaking countries today, deprived of adequate education in medieval literature, probably know only of Chaucer’s now revered Wife of Bath. But many women in medieval fabliaux also exemplify women’s sexual strength. Moreover, as scholars in recent decades have affirmed, in northern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, women trouvères themselves sang of their own strong, independent sexuality.

Medieval husbands who failed to satisfy their wives felt the force of their wives’ sexual vigor and independence. Ten medieval wives got together in a tavern and ridiculed their husbands’ inadequate penises. About 1500, two married women and a widow in Scotland viciously abused their husbands for sexual failures. One woman trouvère sang to her lover with spiteful glee:

You will have the pleasure,
my lover, from me,
as my husband never has.
You have deserved it well,
with good faith.
You will have the pleasure,
my lover, from me,
Slanderers are on watch,
day and night,
to do us evil.
You will have the pleasure,
my lover, from me,
as my husband never has.

{ Vous arez la druerie,
Amis, de moi,
Ce que mes mariz n’a mie.
Vos l’avez bien deservie
En bone foi.
Vos arez la druerie,
Amis, de moi.
Mesdissant sont en agait
Et main et soir
Por nos faire vilonie.
Vous arez la druerie,
Amis, de moi,
Ce que mes mariz n’a mie. } [1]

Women trouvères didn’t disparage their husbands sexually only to their lovers and women friends. One wife-trouvère treated her husband with open, flagrant contempt:

Endure, husband, and don’t be annoyed,
tomorrow you’ll have me, but my lover’s tonight.
I forbid you to speak of it a single word
— endure, husband, and do not move —
the night is short, soon you’ll have me again,
when my lover has had his sensual pleasure.
Endure, husband, and don’t be annoyed,
tomorrow you’ll have me, but my lover’s tonight.

{ Soufrés, maris, et si ne vous anuit,
Demain m’arés et mes amis anuit.
Je vous deffenc k’un seul mot n’en parlés.
— Soufrés, maris, et si ne vous mouvés —
La nuis est courte, aparmains me rarés,
Quant mes amis ara fait sen deduit.
Soufrés, maris, et si ne vous anuit,
Demain m’arés et mes amis anuit. } [2]

Suppose the husband resigned himself to trying to endure quietly his wife’s affair. That wasn’t possible with some medieval wives. Another wife-trouvère made clear to her husband that she would talk about her affairs:

I won’t on behalf of my husband not be saying
that my lover last night slept with me.
I said it well before he was betrothed to me:
— I won’t on behalf of my husband not be saying —
if he would beat me or treat me badly,
he’d be a cuckold and so he would pay.
I won’t on behalf of my husband not be saying
that my lover last night slept with me.

{ Jai ne lairai por mon mari ne die
Li miens amins jeut aneut aveucke moi.
Je li dis bien ainz qu’il m’eut plevie:
— Jai ne lairai por mon marit ne die —
S’il me batoit ne faixoit vilonie,
Il seroit cous, et si lou comparroit.
Jai ne lairai por mon mari ne die
Li miens amins jeut aneut avecque moi. } [3]

Under modern “child support” laws, husbands are financially liable for children that their wives have extra-maritally. Evidently being cuckolded was similarly costly in medieval Europe. At the same time, men face a burden of performance in love. A medieval wife-trouvère taunted her husband for his loving:

Blech, husband, on your love
because I have a lover!
Handsome is he, and of noble bearing:
blech, husband, on your love!
He serves me night and day:
for that I love him so.
Blech, husband, on your love
because I have a lover!

{ Fi maris de vostre amour,
car j’ai ami!
Biaus est et de noble’ atour:
fi, maris de vostre amour!
il me sert et nuit et jour:
pour che l’aim si.
Fi maris de vostre amour,
car j’ai ami! } [4]

This song is appealing enough to gynocentric sensibility today for Leonard Bernstein to have composed a score for it, and for it to be performed in churches. For anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear, women’s strong, independent sexuality cannot be doubted.

Men leaders tend to respond to women’s strong, independent sexuality with compassion and indulgence. Consider the behavior of Daniél úa Líathaiti, Abbot of Lismore and Cork in ninth-century Ireland. A woman attempted to seduce Daniél while he has hearing her confession. He counseled her:

O woman, a blessing on you — say it not!
Let us meditate on the assembly of eternal judgment.
Decay is the fate of every creature.
I fear going into the cold earth.

Your mind is set on folly that lacks lasting value.
Clearly, you are not pursuing wisdom.
What you are saying will be empty talk.
Our death will be nearer before it comes to be.

I will not sell Heaven for sin.
The payment will be paid back to me if I do.
Put not forward for wrongdoing that
which you shall never recover here, O woman.

Abandon that which will injure you;
sell not your share in Heaven.
Under God’s protection, go to your home,
and take from me a blessing, O woman.

{ A ben, bennacht fort — ná ráid!
Imráidem dáil mbrátha búain.
A-tá irchra for cach n-dúil:
ad-águr dul i n-úir n-úair.

Im-ráidi baís cen bríg mbaí:
is súaichnid ní gaís fris-ngní.
A n-as-bir-siu bid rád fás:
bid nessa ar m-bás ‘síu ‘ma-rrí.

Ríched ní renaim ar chol;
dam ad-fíther cía do-gnem.
Ní nád faigbe síu íar sin
ní thaibre ar bin, a ben.

Léic úait a n-í condat-sil;
do chuit i n-nim náchas-ren;
for fóesam n-Dé eirg dot treib
bendacht úaim-se beir, a ben. } [5]

Daniél úa Líathaiti witnessed to the spirit of forgiveness and loving correction that Jesus taught to his disciples. Yet many women chafe at even the thought of a man telling her what to do. Moreover, authorities today preach unquestioning belief in whatever charges a woman brings against a man. What if, in response to being sexually rebuffed, the woman had falsely accused Daniél of sexually harassing her or raping her? Perhaps Daniél would have called on Saint Marina or Saint Eugenia for help. Without divine aid, a man today could easily have his life ruined by a woman’s false accusation.

Struggling to make a living, ordinary men understandably get angry with women’s disloyalty to their men. Speaking the voice of such men, one man trobairitz sang:

I thought that among a thousand
would be found one loyal woman —
so much have I searched,
but all behave as a betrayer
and act like a thief
who when blindfolded,
demands that her partner
endure her shame with her,
so as not to be alone
to bear all the worries she has.

Such a fine and subtle heart
women have for deceiving
that not a single one can be found
who doesn’t dupe her partner.
Then she doesn’t care and laughs
when she sees him made a fool.
And she who knows how to take care of
the affairs of others,
so well it would seem,
knows how to advance her own interests.

And those women who can’t spin a yarn
to their own benefit
make the loss go to another.
You’ll know worse in the morning
when you have bad women neighbors,
for what you hold most dear
they will make hate you,
and make you love that which
in a thousand years
can bring you no joy.

If you regard vile women
and want to condemn them,
always they will swear to you,
by the teeth of a noble lady,
that what a man has said to have seen
shouldn’t be taken into consideration.
And they know how to pay you back
for such nobleness with their deceit.
From their treacheries
no man can safeguard himself.

One who believes that in women
he can find loyalty
is well made to be chastised.
I tell myself he’ll in the dog kennel
search in vain for lard.
And he who wants to send
to a hawk, with no fooling,
his chickens to feed —
one of the big ones of these
I don’t want promised to me for roasting.

{ Qu’ieu cugiei entre mil
Una lïal trobar,
Tan cujava cercar;
Totas an un trahí
E fan o atressí
Co’l laire al bendar,
Que demanda son par
Per sas antas sofrir,
Per que’l mazans
Totz sobre lui no’s vir.

Tant an prim e subtil
Lur còr per enganar,
Qu’una non pòt estar
Que sa par non galí;
Pueis s’en gab’e s’en ri,
Quan la ve folejar;
Et qui d’autrui afar
Si sap tan gent formir,
Ben es semblans
Que’l sieu sapch’ enantir.

E celha que del fil
A sos òps no pòt far,
Ad autra en fai filar;
E ja pejor matí
No’ us cal de mal vezí;
Que çò qu’avètz plus car
Vos faràn azirar,
E tal ren abelhir
Que de mil ans
No vos poiretz jauzir.

Si las tenètz tan vil
Que las vulhatz blasmar,
Sempre’ us iràn jurar,
Sobre las dens N’ Arpí,
Que çò qu’òm ditz que vi
No’s fai a consirar;
E saubràn vos pagar
Tan gent ab lur mentir,
De lurs enjans
Nulhs òm no’s pòt gandir.

Qui en lòc feminil
Cuja feutat trobar
Ben fai a castiar ;
Qu’ieu dic qu’en loc caní
Vai ben cercar saï ;
E qui vòl comandar
Al milan ni bailar
Sos poletz per noirir,
La us dels grans
No’m don pòis per raustir. } [6]

This is a song of field and market and real folk concerns: thieves, punishment for avarice, spinning yarn, neighborhood affairs, dogs, hawks, chickens, and trades. Among persons living close to economic subsistence, men and women depend on each other as partners. A woman’s sexual disloyalty indicates that she’s an undependable partner to a man.

Among the gynocentric elite, criticizing women has scarcely been tolerated. The man trobairitz not surprisingly began his song about women’s disloyalty with a poetic feint and an acknowledgement of fear:

When the mild weather of April
covers the dry trees with leaves,
and mute birds now begin to sing,
each in his own language,
I would well like to have in me
the ability to compose a poem
with power to chastise
women for their failings,
without harm or damage
being able to come to me.

{ Quan lo dous temps d’abril
Fa’ls arbres secs fulhar,
E’ls auzelhs mutz cantar
Quascun en son latí,
Ben vòlgr’ aver en mi
Poder de tal trobar,
Cum pogués castiar
Las dòmnas de falhir,
Que mals ni dans
No m’en pogués venir. }

One would have to be as clever as Renart the fox to chastise women for their failings without incurring the wrath of the gynocentric elite.[7] The man trobairitz chose the tactic of speaking blunt truth through figures of folk experience. Men’s poetry of sexed protest can be suppressed, but ordinary reality inexorably resists.

Women’s strong, independent sexuality doesn’t necessarily imply that all women will be disloyal to their men. A woman recently abandoned her husband and two children to become a sex worker in Nevada. That’s probably not common. However, particularly with men today being held financially responsible under child-support laws for women’s extra-marital (or extra-relational) children, men should evaluate women’s loyalty carefully.[8] Men, here’s a simple test: if your wife or girlfriend enjoys a performance in church of “Blech, husband, on your love {Fi, maris, de vostre amour},” you probably face serious risk of being cuckolded.

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[1] Rondeau, “You will have your pleasure {Vous arez la druerie},” text (Picard dialect of Langue d’oïl) and translation (with some insubstantial changes) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 187. This rondeau, which was composed in the thirteenth century, survives only in the manuscript Paris, BnF, Ms. fr. 12786. Here’s a performance of this song from Anne Azéma & Aziman Ensemble’s album Le Tournoi de Chauvency (2017). Here’s another performance by Ensemble Sanacore and Ensemble Perceval from Tournoi des dames (1997).

[2] Rondeau, “Endure, husband, and don’t be annoyed {Soufrés maris, et si ne vous anuit},” text (Picard dialect of Langue d’oïl) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) pp. 184, 186, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. This rondeau, composed about 1250, survives only in the manuscript Rome, Bibliothèque Vaticane, Ms. Regina 1490. Medieval music for it has also survived. Id. p. 185. Here’s a performance of this song by Ensemble Perceval from the album La chanson d’ami (1994).

[3] Rondeau, “I won’t on behalf of my husband not be saying {Jai ne lairai por mon mari ne die},” text (Lorraine dialect of Langue d’oïl) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 183, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The text survives in the manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms. Douce 308. Here’s a performance of this song by Ensemble Sanacore and Ensemble Perceval from Tournoi des dames (1997). With respect to the woman trouvère betraying her husband, Dell signals this woman’s strength: “Under no set of circumstances will this juggernaut of a woman be deflected.” Dell (2008) p. 127.

Men have long protested women talking about previously hidden matters to the harm of their men. One man trobairitz sang:

One has difficulty finding healthy reason
in a woman, in truth,
for she would change her disposition
from what you find now
if you make her slightly angry.
And once annoyed, she has changed,
and all, which she knew in secret,
when she’s angry, she reveals.
I regard as a senseless person
one who wants to reveal to a woman
a secret to be kept hidden.
I have seen great things come
to nothing in decay and death
because the well-hidden was revealed.

{ Grèu tròb’ òm natural sen
En una femn’ en vertat;
Que son voler cambïat
Li trobaretz mantenen,
Si la faitz un pauc irada,
E pòis tantòst s’es cambiada
E tot, aitan quan sabria,
Quant es irada, diria,
Ieu tenc cel dessenat
Que secret en celat
Vòlh’a femna descobrir.
Qu’ieu n’ai vist grans res venir
En decazement e a mòrt
Qu’ab ben celar foran estòrt. }

Anonymous cobla, Old Occitan text from Bec (1984) p. 66, my English translation, benefiting from the French translation of id. The great medieval woman writer Marie de France in her romance Bisclavret showed compassionate concern for keeping men’s secrets.

[4] Adam de la Halle, Rondeau, “Blech, husband, on your love {Fi, maris, de vostre amour},” text (Picard dialect of Langue d’oïl) from Ibos-Augé (2019) p. 262, my English translation. A motet version of this rondeau has also survived. Id. Here’s a score for the rondeau.

Adam de la Halle was active in Arras, France, in the second half of the thirteenth century. While Adam de la Halle is nominally the author, a woman, such as Adam’s wife, may have actually composed “Fi, maris, de vostre amour.” As we are now repeatedly instructed, women throughout history often been deprived of credit for their inventions and their work.

Leonard Bernstein wrote music for “Fi, maris, de vostre amour” as a chorus for the 1955 Broadway adaption of Jean Anouilh’s play The Lark (1952). On Bernstein’s version of this song, Dittamo (2019) pp. 38-42. Here’s a performance of Bernstein’s version.

In recent decades, many arrangements and performances of “Fi, maris, de vostre amour” have occurred. The two videos embedded above and cited below document two performances in churches. Here are additional performances available on YouTube: recording by Ensemble Sanacore & Ensemble Perceval in 1997; performance by Insieme Vocale Tourdion in Italy in 2011; performance by Kate Smith and others in Beijing, China on Aug. 10, 2013 (in Songs From the Labyrinth in Yuanfen~Flow 798 Art Zone); a performance by The King’s Counterpoint at Old St. Andrew’s Parish Church, Charleston, SC, in September, 2015; and a recording by a Capella de Ministrers in 2016. Two other available performances (here and here) lack attributions. See also a young man doing an amateur trumpet peformance of this song.

Moving beyond disparing her husband’s love and taunting her husband with her lover, another wife-trouvère sought a divorce:

Take it off —
this ring on my finger!
A boor should not have me,
for I know well he would end up a cuckold
if he were with me
for long;
I want to leave him right now.
This marriage is not right.

{ Osteis lou moi,
L’anelet dou doi!
Avoir pas vilains ne me doit,
Car, bien sai, cous en seroit
S’avocke moi
Longement estoit;
Departir m’an vuel orandroit,
Je ne suix pas marïee a droit. }

Motet, text (Lorraine dialect of Langue d’oïl) and translation (with insubstantial changes) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 249. For a resolutely gynocentric perspective on betrayal in medieval French songs, Harkey (2016).

[5] Daniél úa Líathaiti, “Oh woman, a blessing on you – say it not! {A ben bennacht fort – ná ráid},” also known as “Sell Not Heaven for Sin {Ríched ní renaim ar chol},” st. 1-2, 4-5 (of 7), Gaelic text from Murphy (1956) pp. 6-9, translation adapted from those of id., Meyer (1904), and Swift (2014). The Corpus of Electronic Texts has made freely available a Gaelic text quite close to Murphy’s.

This poem survives in the Book of Leinster. See Best & O’Brien (1967) vol. 5, p. 1221. The Book of Leinster was compiled about 1160. Daniél úa Líathaiti is a historical Irish abbot who died in 863. On Jesus’s loving forgiveness and correction for a woman caught in adultery, John 8:1-11.

[6] Pèire de Bossinhac, “When the mild weather of April {Quan lo dous temps d’abril},” st. 2-6, Old Occitan text from Bec (1984) pp. 62-4, my Englist translation benefiting from the French translation of id. Pèire de Bossinhac florished about 1160 and was a contemporary of the man trobairitz Bertran de Born. The subsequent quote is similarly from st. 1 of this song. Medieval authorities regarded this song well enough for it to have been included in Matfre Ermengaud’s Le Breviari d’amor. Matfre Ermengaud begin that work in 1288 and finished it sometime before 1322.

[7] In the penultimate stanza of “Quan lo dous temps d’abril,” Pèire de Bossinhac daringly sings:

Never did Renart on Ysengrimus
know such pleasant revenge
as when he had him flayed
and for mockery gave to him
a fur hat and fur gloves.
Likewise I do when I’m angry.

{ Anc Rainartz d’Isengri
No’s saup tan gent venjar,
Quan lo fetz escorjar,
E’ il det per escarnir
Capèl e gans,
Com ieu fas quan m’azir. }

Sourced as for previous quotes from this song. Modern scholars have viciously condemned Pèire de Bossinhac’s song of men’s sexed protest. Bec categorizes it as “fundamental, gratuitous and ferocious misogyny {misogynie fondamentale, gratuite et féroce}.” Bec (1984) p. 62. If Pèire de Bossinhac lived today, he probably would be forced to write a poem of repentence for criticizing women.

[8] Amid today’s failing relationships between women and men, Dell ponders cultish abstractions:

If there is no sexual relation and no ‘Woman’, what position could  feminity take up? … what if any relation fails? This seems to be what my research has shown, an ultimate inability to ‘place’ femininity securely in any relation.

Dell (2008) p. 205, tendentiously following Lacan’s manipulation of Arnaut’s “Pòis Raimons e’N Truc Malècs.” On the latter, see note [6] in my post on Arnaut Daniel’s medieval protest. Neither men nor women deserve to be symbolically defined or constrained. Fruitful relations are built on truth. Dell presumes that medieval discourse was “a system which relies for its effects of meaning on binary oppositions favouring masculinity.” Id. p. 204. That’s false. Many medieval scholars are woefully ignorant of the gender reality of their own times, to say nothing of that of the Middle Ages.

[videos] (1) Performance of “Fi, maris, de vostre amour” at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist (Cleveland, Ohio) in March, 2015. Performance by Contrapunctus Early Music (David E. A. Acres, Director). (2) Performance of “Fi, maris, de vostre amour” at the Church of the Epiphany (Crafters, South Australia) in 2004. Performance by Lumina Vocal Ensemble (Anne Pope, Director).


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

Best, R. I., and M. A. O’Brien, eds. 1967. The Book of Leinster. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Dell, Helen. 2008. Desire by Gender and Genre in Trouvère Song. Gallica, vol. 10. Woodbridge: Brewer. (review by Lisa Padden)

Dittamo, Patrick Connor. 2019. The prehistory and reception of Leonard Bernstein’s Missa Brevis (1988). Thesis, Master of Music. College of Arts and Sciences, Kansas State University (Manhattan, Kansas, USA).

Doss-Quinby, Eglal, Joan Tasker Grimbert, Wendy Pfeffer, and Elizabeth Aubery. 2001. Songs of the Women Trouvères. New Haven: Yale University Press. (review by Carol Symes)

Harkey, Hannah. 2016. Quant se depart li jolis tan: betrayal in the songs of medieval French women. Master Thesis, University of Mississippi. Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 696.

Ibos-Augé, Anne. 2019. “Refrain Quotations in Adam’s Rondeaux, Motets, and Plays.” Ch. 9 (pp. 249-281) in Saltzstein, Jennifer, ed. Musical culture in the World of Adam de la Halle. Brill: Leiden.

Meyer, Kuno. 1904. “Daniel Húa Liathaide’s Advice to a Woman.” Ériu. 1: 67-71.

Murphy, Gerard. 1956. Early Irish Lyrics, eighth to twelfth century. Edited with translation, notes, and glossary. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

Swift, Catherine. 2014. “Penitence, confession and the Irish anmchara.” Paper given to CAMP group, NUI Galway, November 2014.

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