Eracle bride-show indicates hypergamy inconsistent with inner beauty

What do men want? Most men find physically beautiful women to be attractive. But men who seek long-term relationships with women usually desires more than just physical beauty. The Old French romance Eracle that Gautier d’Arras wrote between 1159 and 1184 considers what men want through a bride-show to select a wife for the Roman Emperor Laïs.

Emperor Laïs would satisfy any woman seeking to raise her status through marriage, i.e. through the socially significant female practice of hypergamy. Laïs was atop the twelfth-century male status hierarchy:

Just as he was the most powerful mortal man,
so he was of the highest repute.
Just as he was among all men the most beautiful,
so he was among all men the most loyal.
He was very well-built. He was very tall.

{ Tant con il est li plus hals hom
c’on sace et de plus halt renon,
de tant est il tous li plus biax
c’on sace et tous li plus loiaus.
Molt est bien fais, molt a grant cors. }[1]

Many women sought to become empress, a highly privileged position, by becoming Emperor Laïs’s wife:

Women much covet high status,
and when they saw that the emperor
in his beauty, in his appearance,
exceeded all other of the world’s creatures,
their covetousness doubled.
Not one of them wasn’t troubled
in her heart and very anxious,
and one to another was hostile
and bore toward the other great resentment,
thinking that she would have already married him
if not for her. Such was not merely
one of them, but each one of them
had these thoughts to herself.

{ Cestes covoitent molt l’onor,
et voient de l’empereor
qu’il n’a el monde creature
de se biauté, de se figure;
lor covoitise en est doublee.
N’i a celi ne soit troublee
en son corage et molt pensive,
et l’une en est vers l’autre eschive,
et porte li si grant envie
con s’eüst ja esté plevie
se por li non; ce n’est pas une
tant seulement, ains est cascune
qui ceste pensee a en soi. }

While seldom discussed publicly, female sexual competition can be intense and vicious. That can create unpleasant situations for men. Emperor Laïs thus refused to appear at the bride-show to select a wife for him among a thousand eager, beautiful women. Drawing upon the realism and insight of literature of men’s sexed protest, Laïs explained:

“My lords, I will not attend,” he said,
“because a thousand women covet this honor
and only one will be selected,
and each one has hope
such that each one has taken much pain
to be the one who is chosen,
and if she isn’t, I fear,
she’ll strongly believe that she was as worthy,
as the one who was crowned,
as the one to whom this honor has been given.
And I know that greatly aggrieved will be
all those who will see
one woman take in the sight of all
that for which each one has come to gather.
Then many nasty words
will be said in your presence,
because a woman knows much to say
when she has in her heart grief and anger,
and a woman makes herself childish
when another takes what she wants.
A woman has no regard for reason,
for whether what she wants can be or not.
That which pleases her seems right to her.
No other outcome can be found.”

{ “N’i irai pas, fait il, signor,
car mil covoitent ceste honor
et n’i ara eslite qu’une;
et esperance i a cascune,
si s’est cascune tant penee
con cele ki iert assenee,
et si n’i ara nule, espoir,
qui ne cuit bien autant valoir
con cele qui ert courounee,
cui ceste honors sera donee,
et saciés que grant duel merront
trestoutes celes qui verront
l’une prendre tout a veüe
ce por coi cascune est venue.
Mainte parole mal seant
i ara dite vostre oiant,
car feme set assés que dire
pour qu’ele ait au cuer duel et ire,
et feme enfantiument se deut
quant autre prent çou qu’ele velt.
Feme n’esgarde pas raison,
se il puet estre ensi ou non;
çou que li plaist li sanle bien,
n’i puet on trouver autre rien.” }[2]

Men, even a man as powerful as Emperor Laïs, with good reason fear women’s anger. Nonetheless, some men remain willing to marry a woman. So it was for Emperor Laïs.

Judgment of Paris in goddesses beauty competition

Instead of attending himself, Emperor Laïs entrusted his extraordinarily skilled counselor Eracle with the task of selecting a wife for him from among the thousand women participating in the emperor’s bride-show. Eracle could discern among stones that which was a most precious jewel. He could discern among horses that which was the most valuable, most capable mare or stallion. Eracle could also discern the unspoken thoughts of women and their hidden characters. While jewels and horses were highly valued in medieval Europe, nothing is more important to a man’s happiness within gynocentric society than the quality of his wife. Eracle’s extraordinary capability with respect to women was thus of utmost value to Emperor Laïs.

Eracle pondered the many beautiful women who had come for the emperor’s bride-show. Eracle’s judgment was more difficult than Paris judging the most beautiful among Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. That latter competition turned into a rout when Aphrodite stripped off her clothes and invited Paris to gaze intensely at her naked body:

Here I am close by you. Examine me thoroughly, part by part. Don’t skip any part, but linger upon each.

{ Αὕτη σοι ἐγὼ πλησίον, καὶ σκόπει καθ᾿ ἓν ἀκριβῶς μηδὲν παρατρέχων, ἀλλ᾿ ἐνδιατρίβων ἑκάστῳ τῶν μερῶν. }[3]

The women who came for the emperor’s bride-show were lavishly dressed, and they kept their clothes on. That didn’t matter. Eracle with his extrasensory perception was concerned with much more than just appearances.

The first woman that Eracle considered at length had placed herself in the front row of the bridal contestants. Eracle saw that this woman was extremely beautiful. Yet Eracle perceived the deceptiveness of her appearance:

He knew all, both inside and out,
and saw the brass underneath the gold,
and the lead appearing below the silver.
Thus to all the people it seemed
that God had never before made a creature
so worthy, so generous, nor so pure,
and she had a guileless and shining face,
but in this age no one was more avaricious.
In a woman there is no worse vice,
no worse stain, than avarice,
because in this age there isn’t an avaricious wife
who doesn’t regard herself to be poor and needy.

She was an empty creature,
with only a golden exterior.
No man on earth could find more to her,
because all that glitters isn’t gold.
She is a virgin, yet to whom is that impassioning
when avarice is constantly attacking her,
and urging her to accept rings
and purses and jewels,
fine belts and brooches
from all, poor and rich men alike.

{ car il set tout, et ens et hors,
et voit le ceuvre desous l’or,
et le plont paroir sos l’argent.
Ensi est vis a toute gent
que Dix ne fist ainc creature
si preu, si large ne si pure,
et le ciere a aperte et clere;
mais el siecle n’a plus avere;
si n’a en feme pïour visse
ne pïor tece c’avarisse,
qu’il n’a el siecle avere espeuse
qui ne soit povre et soufraiteuse;

Il n’i a nule creature
fors seulement la doreüre;
n’a home el mont qui plus i truist,
car n’est pas ors tout canqu’il luist.
Ele est puciele, mais cui caut
quant Avarisse adiés l’assaut
et reuve qu’ele prenge aniaus
et aumosnieres et joiaus,
bones çaintures et afices,
de tous, de povres et de rices. }

This woman sought to marry the emperor. That’s the ultimate achievement of hypergamy. She had sufficient outer beauty to be regarded as a worthy candidate, but she lacked inner beauty of character. Eracle rejected her as a woman not fit to be the emperor’s wife.

Eracle saw another woman who was extremely beautiful and who seemed to be modest and chaste. All the other women thought that Eracle would choose her. The woman herself felt sure that he would choose her. She said to herself:

Ah, my fair brother,
how badly understanding the emperor was
when he believed you to have such great sense!
So little you know of what I have in me.
So little you know how it grieves me
about my lover whom I love and desire.
I love him and will always love him,
he who has had my loving intercourse.
He will be very pained when he learns
that the emperor will thus have me.
Lover, do not allow because of him
that you will not see your love.
You won’t do that, I think.
I will pretend to be sick at times.
You will come then to watch over me
at those times when my lord goes on campaign.
Then you will give me medicine
in my bedroom, behind the bed-curtains.

{ Ahi! bels frere,
con est mal sages l’emperere,
quant il si grant sens cuide en toi;
Molt ses petit qu’il a en moi;
molt ses petit con je me duel
de mon ami que j’aim et voel.
Je l’aim et amerai tous jors,
qu’il a eües mes amors;
molt iert dolans quant il sara
que l’emperere ensi m’ara.
Amis, ne laisiés por lui mie
que vos ne voiés vostre amie.
Non ferés vos, si con je pens;
malade me ferai par tens,
vos i venrés en liu de mire.
tel fois ostoiera mesire
que vos me donrés medecine
en me cambre, sos ma cortine; }

Having perceived all of the woman’s hidden thoughts, Eracle summoned her and four barons to have a private conversation with him. He told her to either reveal her true nature, or he would reveal it. She balked. Then he told her to tell about her adulterous plan with the fake doctor and the sexual medicine. The women confessed that she had wrongly believed him to be stupid. He then led her to confess that if she had married the emperor, she would have had Eracle killed. Given relatively little public concern about violence against men, Eracle wisely safeguarded his life and rejected this woman as the emperor’s wife.

Eracle moved on to consider other women. All were beautiful, and many possessed admirable characteristics. But the women, when viewed not through gyno-idolatry but with keen perception of reality, also had vices:

At one woman who seemed very worthy
Eracle stopped on account of the crowd,
because she was extraordinarily beautiful.
She was still a virgin, it’s true,
yet one should be grateful to her for this
only as to a woman who hasn’t been conquered
because she’s never been pursued.
I have never seen any tower
fall without pleading and without battle.
Eracle saw well that the rose
wasn’t surrounded by such a palisade
that it would have held out for a month
after a lover had come there.
This woman was still both clean and pure,
yet Eracle had no interest in her,
because he was very certain and sure
that before the wheat was at its best,
so many weeds would be mingled in
that the harvest would be ruined.

{ A une qui pert molt valoir
s’areste Eracles por le gent,
car molt fu bele estrangement;
ele est pucele encor, por voir,
si l’en doit on bon gré savoir,
con cele qui n’est pas conquise
por çou que n’a esté requise.
Je ne vi onques nule tor
rendre sans plait et sans estor.
Eracles voit bien que le rose
n’est pas de tel palis enclose
qu’il se fust ja un mois tenus,
tes i peüst estre venus.
Ceste est encore et nete et pure,
ne mais Eracles n’en a cure,
qu’il est bien certains et seürs
c’ainc que li formens soit meürs,
i venra tant de gargerie
que li messons sera perie. }

For the emperor’s wife, Eracle sought a woman who had it all. He explained:

I will go to see other women,
so that I myself may know whether loyalty
and courtly innocence and beauty
can endure in one body,
so that one can truthfully swear:
“this woman is good and beautiful and chaste.”
But I think to have yet a great burden to find one.

{ et nos irons aillors veoir,
savoir mon se ja loialtés
et fine simplece et bialtés
peüssent en un cors durer,
que on peüst por voir jurer:
“Iceste est boine et bele et caste”;
mais je cuiç ains avoir grant laste. }

Among the thousand beautiful women who had entered the emperor’s bride-show, Eracle found many character defects: avarice, sexual incontinence, unfaithfulness, talkativeness, arrogance, nastiness, or favoring liars, slanderers, and flatterers. Among the women who sought to be the emperor’s wife, Eracle found not one worthy of such hypergamy.

Traveling through the ancient quarter of Rome on his way back to the emperor’s place, Eracle saw a beautiful young woman wearing an old tunic. With his extrasensory perception, he perceived that she was without moral blemish. In fact, she had extraordinary inner beauty as well as extraordinary outer beauty. He rushed toward her. She in response ran into her aunt’s house. The young woman was a poor orphan under the care of her aunt. Eracle went to the aunt’s house and asked to see the young woman, who was named Athanaïs. The aunt thought that he was seeking to buy sex from Athanaïs. She insisted that Athanaïs wasn’t a sex worker and even in her poverty she would never do such work. Eracle wasn’t offended at being mistaken for a sexually impoverished and desperate man. He declared that he sought Athanaïs to be the emperor’s wife. Both Athanaïs and her aunt were thrilled at this huge change in their fortune. Hypergamy for them was an unsought blessing.

A thousand beautiful women from across the empire came to Rome to compete in the emperor’s bride-show. Not one of them was suitable to be the emperor’s wife. The problem couldn’t have been that none of them was perfect, for no mortal woman or man is perfect. The fundamental disqualifying characteristic for all the women at the emperor’s bride-show was hypergamy. Athanaïs didn’t seek to become the emperor’s wife. That made her fit to be the emperor’s wife.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Gautier d’Arras, Eracle vv. 2037-41, Old French text from Pratt (2007), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Raynaud de Lage (1976) represents an earlier, standard critical edition. Pratt improves significantly on that edition. I’ve capitalized the first word of each sentence, not the first word of each verse, as in Pratt’s Old French text. Pratt noted that with respect to capitalization at the start of each verse, the scribes were “inconsistent.” Id. p. lx. Subsequent quotes from Eracle are similarly sourced.

Pratt’s base text is Paris, BNF fr. 1444 (called manuscript A). That manuscript was copied by two thirteenth-century scribes. On dating Gautier d’Arras’s writing of Eracle, Pratt (2007) p. x. In editing Eracle, Pratt treated the medieval manuscript with admirable respect. See id. pp. lix-lxiii. My translation differs from Pratt’s in following more closely the Old French. Even readers with sparse knowledge of medieval languages should study the Old French text. Much can be appreciated from it without expert knowledge. The freely accessible online Anglo-Norman dictionary is helpful.

Although Gautier d’Arras was associated with Arras in northern France, Eracle is largely a Byzantine romance. “The influence of Byzantine history, literature, culture and customs pervades Eracle.” Pratt (2007) p. xxii. Bride-shows were used to select the wife for the emperor in eighth- and nine-century Byzantium. Eracle draws upon an account of the life of the Byzantine Emperor Heroclius, who reigned from 610 to 641. The Persian Emperor Chosroes II (Khosrow II), who ruled from 591 to 628, also appears in Eracle.

A woman named Athenaïs (also known by the Christian name Eudokia) was the wife of the fifth-century Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II. Theodosius came to suspect that Athenaïs was committing adultery with Paulinus, a young government official. Showing prevalent gender bias in punishment for adultery, Theodosius divorced Athenaïs and had Paulinus killed. For some additional details and references, Pratt (2007) p. xxii and note [8] in my post on the Byzantine reception of Octavian’s Actium victory monument.

Eracle combines hagiography, history, folk-tale, courtly romance, and crusader epic. Scholars have debated the genre and literary merit of Eracle. See, e.g. Lacy (1986), Pratt (2007) pp. xxiii-xxxi, and Pratt (2008). Eracle, like The Story of Apollonius King of Tyre, seems to be an example of intricately patterned art, which is an Islamic cultural key.

Gautier d’Arras was highly learned and well-regarded as an author in medieval Europe. Pratt (2008) p. 170. The thirteenth-century German cleric Meister Otte adapted Eracle into Middle High German. Meister Otte reshaped the story to be more historically accurate. Id. pp. 182-6, Pratt (1987).

Subsequents quotes above from Eracle are vv. 2091-2103 (Women much covet high status…), 2139-62 (My lords, I will not attend…), 2213-24, 2241-50 (He knew all, both inside and out…), 2283-2300 (Ah, my fair brother…), 2374-92 (At one woman who seemed very worthy…), 2356-62 (I will go to see other women…).

[2] In literary studies, men expressing their experiences and concerns in relation to women have tended to be marginalized and silenced through anti-meninist slurs. Pratt deploys the slur “antifeminist commonplaces.” Pratt (2007) p. 65, n. 43. That’s an anachronistic modern academic banality. Among other scholarly harms, it has deprived the unruly, uppity, and wildy creative Lamentations of Matheolus of the scholarly attention it truly deserves. King disparaged the bride-show in Eracle with a narrow-minded characterization: “the prudish misogyny of the pageant.” He read the bride-show so superficially that he wrongly claimed of the bridal candidates, “there is not a virgin in the bunch.” King (1999) pp. 153, 152.

Eracle uses a variety of metaphors for sexual intercourse: vv. 2112: “she had been out in the rain {il ait pleü sor li}”; 2114, 2414 “game {ju / gieu}”; 2339, “medicine {medecine}”; 2382, “battle {estor}”; 2410, “testing {asai}”; 4175 “my god {mon diu}”; 4586, “sweet game {douç giu}.” In literary metaphors, men’s sexuality tends to be brutalized. Eracle is admirably humane and progressive in not brutalizing men’s sexuality other than in the reference to “battle.” With respect to the reference to “rain,” that is best associated not with staining, but with basic sexual biology and fecundity.

[3] Lucian, The Judgment of the Goddesses {Θεῶν Κρίσις / Dearum Iudicium} 13, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified slightly) from Harmon (1913). Hayes & Nimis (2016) provides reading notes for the Greek. Here’s the somewhat bowdlerized English translation of Fowler & Fowler (1905).

[4] Gautier d’Arras here alludes to Ovid, Amores 1.8.43 (“The only chaste woman is one who hasn’t been propositioned {Casta est quam nemo rogavit}”) and the Gospel parable of the weeds, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43. A rose has long been a figure of a woman’s vagina. The rose as a castle to be assailed figures in Jean de Meun’s conclusion of the thirteenth-century Romance of the Rose.

[image] Judgment of Paris in beauty competition among goddesses. Oil on panel painting by Frans Floris. Painted in the 1550s. Preserved as accession # ГЭ-6093 in Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Fowler, Francis George, and H. W. Fowler. 1905. The Works of Lucian of Samosata. 4 vols. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

Harmon, A. M. ed. and trans. 1913. Lucian. 8 vols. Loeb Classical Library 14. London: Heinemann.

Hayes, Evan and Stephen Nimis. 2016. Lucian’s Judgment of the Goddesses: an intermediate Greek reader; Greek text with running vocabulary and commentary. Oxford, OH: Faenum Publishing.

King, David S. 1999. “Humor and Holy Crusade: Eracle and the Pèlerinage de Charlemagne.” Zeitschrift Für Französische Sprache Und Literatur. 109 (2): 148-155.

Lacy, Norris J. 1986. “The Form of Gautier d’Arras’s Eracle.” Modern Philology. 83 (3): 227-232.

Pratt, Karen. 1987. Meister Otte’s Eraclius as an adaptation of Eracle by Gautier d’Arras. Göppingen: Kümmerle Verl.

Pratt, Karen, ed. and trans. 2007. Gautier d’Arras. Eracle. King’s College London Medieval Studies 21. London: King’s College London, Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies.

Pratt, Karen. 2008. “The Genre of Gautier d’Arras’s Eracle: A Twelfth-century French ‘History’ of a Byzantine Emperor.” Reading Medieval Studies. 34: 169-190.

Raynaud de Lage, Guy, ed. 1976. Gautier d’Arras. Eracle. Paris: Champion. Published online in by ENS de Lyon in the Base de français médiéval, last revised 28-5-2013.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *