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Marie de France’s Equitan on self-abasing men & women who kill men

Marie de France’s twelfth-century lai Equitan tells of equity and the man Equitan, judge and king of Nantes in Brittany. Equitan “delighted in pleasure and love-service {deduit amout e druerie}.” While this unmarried king devoted himself to women, hunting, and hawking, Nantes’s royal responsibilities were managed by Equitan’s seneschal:

A good knight, brave and loyal,
he cared for all the king’s land
and governed it and administered justice.

{ Bon chevalier, pruz e leal;
Tute sa tere li gardout
E meinteneit e justisout. }[1]

The seneschal had a beautiful, highly praised wife. King Equitan coveted her:

Many times he made greetings to her
and sent her gifts.
without seeing her, he coveted her,
and as soon as he could he spoke to her.
On his own to amuse himself,
he went hunting in the region
where the seneschal lived.
In the castle where the lady was
the king stayed the night
when he returned from his delight.
He was able to talk to her enough
to show her his feelings and his worth.
He found her very courteous and wise,
lovely in form and face,
attractive and amusing.

{ Soventefez la salua,
De ses aveirs li enveia,
Sanz veüe la coveita,
E cum ainz pot a li parla.
Priveement esbanïer,
En la cuntree ala chacier
La u li seneschals maneit.
El chastel u la dame esteit
Se herberjat li reis la nuit;
Quant repeirout de sun deduit,
Asez poeit a li parler,
Sun curage e sun buen mustrer.
Mut la trova curteise e sage,
Bele de cors e de visage,
De bel semblant e enveisiee. }

Equitan became love-sick for her. He knew that his love for her was wrong:

I think that I must love her,
and if I love her, I’ll do wrong —
she is the seneschal’s wife.
I should maintain love and faith toward him,
just as I want him to do toward me.
If by any means he found out,
I know well that it would upset him greatly.

{ Jeo quit que mei l’estuet amer.
E si jo l’aim, jeo ferai mal:
Ceo est la femme al seneschal;
Garder li dei amur e fei
Si cum jeo voil k’il face a mei.
Si par nul engin le saveit,
Bien sai que mut l’en pesereit. }[2]

The king, however, simply reasoned to his desire: she needs a lover, she would make me better, the seneschal wouldn’t be too upset to share her with me. While that’s the way reason works in our benighted age, it wasn’t generally so in the more enlightened Middle Ages.

David sends messenger to bathing Bathsheba

When the king told the seneschal’s wife of his love for her, she engaged in sophisticated reasoning. She said that she was concerned that he would love her and then leave her. She thus sought to get his love commitment in advance of their adulterous love affair. She was also concerned about gender equality in love:

If it were the case that I loved you
and granted your request,
the love affair would not be
equally shared between us two.
Since you are a powerful king
and my husband holds his land from you,
you would expect, I imagine,
to have dominion in love.
Love is not worthy if it is not equal.

{ Se issi fust que vus amasse
E vostre requeste otreiasse,
Ne sereit pas uël partie
Entre nus deus la druërie.
Pur ceo que estes reis puissaunz
E mis sire est de vus tenaunz,
Quidereiez a mun espeir
Le dangier de l’amur aveir.
Amur n’est pruz se n’est egals. }

Only one person can be the king of a city. Only one person can be the mega-billionaire founder and subsequent leading CEO of Microsoft. No one can be equal to persons in such statuses. Nonetheless, persons can be equal in love in the medieval Christian sense of a conjugal partnership. In considering an extra-marital affair with the king, the seneschal’s wife expressed no concern for her husband and their marriage.

Often among sophisticates, claims for equality obfuscate advantage-seeking. So it was with the seneschal’s wife. The king promised to abase himself in relation to her:

Do not consider me as a king,
but as your vassal and your lover.
I firmly swear and say to you
that I will do your pleasure.
Do not let me die for you.
You will be the lady and I the servant,
you the proud one and I the supplicant.

{ Ne me tenez mie pur rei,
Mes pur vostre humme e vostre ami.
Seürement vus jur e di
Que jeo ferai vostre pleisir.
Ne me laissiez pur vus murir!
Vus seiez dame e jeo servanz,
Vus orguilluse e jeo preianz. }

That was the type of gender equality that appealed to the seneschal’s wife. She and the king became lovers. They had many trysts during those times that the seneschal was away judging pleas and claims in court for the king.

The people were upset that their king Equitan was remaining unmarried. Their concern for him to marry upset the seneschal’s wife. She feared that he would marry a king’s daughter for political advantage. While medieval kings often had mistresses, she thought that he then would stop having trysts with her. Equitan comforted her:

Beautiful beloved, don’t be afraid!
I shall certainly never take a wife
nor leave you for another.
Know this for the truth and believe it.
If your lord were dead,
I would make you queen and lady.
No one could prevent me.

{ Bele amie, n’eiez poür!
Certes, ja femme ne prendrai
Ne pur autre ne vus larrai.
Saciez de veir e si creez,
Si vostre sire fust finez,
Reïne e dame vus fereie.
Ja pur nul humme nel lerreie. }

She thanked Equitan for this pledge of loyalty. She then declared that she would kill her husband if Equitan would help her. Showing that his subservience to her had no bounds, he affirmed his abasement to her:

Never will she tell him anything
that he will not do to the best of his ability,
whether it be foolishness or wisdom.

{ Ja cele rien ne li dirrat
Que il ne face a sun poeir,
Turt a folie u a saveir. }

Men’s subservience to women is a recipe for disaster. Virgil in the Aeneid attempted to correct men’s subservience to women in the founding of Rome. That lesson has tended to be marginalized or ignored.[3] So it was for King Equitan.

Bathsheba and David in bed

The seneschal’s wife devised a vicious scheme to kill her husband. The king and the seneschal were to bathe. The seneschal’s wife explained:

And I will have the baths heated
and the two tubs brought,
his bath so hot and so boiling
that there’s no living man under heaven
who wouldn’t be scalded and destroyed
as soon as he sat in it.
When he is dead and scalded,
send for your men and his.
Show them just how
he died suddenly in the bath.

{ E jeo ferai les bains temprer
E les deus cuves aporter;
Sun bain ferai chaut e buillant:
Suz ciel nen ad humme vivant
Ne fust escaudez e malmis
Einz que dedenz se feust asis.
Quant morz serat e escaudez,
Vos hummes e les soens mandez,
Si lur mustrez cumfaitement
Est morz al bain sudeinement. }[3]

That’s as ridiculous as the Old French farce The Washtub {Le Cuvier}. The seneschal’s death by scalding would be obvious from his dead body. Then people would ask who set up the scalding bath. Perhaps the king would have tried to prevent any consideration of who murdered the seneschal.

Further scheming turned out to be unnecessary. The seneschal’s wife set up the two bathtubs. Just before the king and the seneschal were to bathe, the seneschal went out briefly. The seneschal’s wife and the king took that opportunity to have some quick sex on the bed next to the tubs. Then the seneschal unexpectedly returned:

He found the king and his wife
where they lay embracing one another.
The king looked and saw him coming.
In order to disguise his wickedness,
he jumped feet first into the tub,
and he was naked and unclothed.
He never paused to take care,
and there he was scalded and died.
The evil turned back on him,
and the other was safe and sound.
The seneschal saw well
what happened to the king.
He took his wife at once
and put her head first into the bath.
Thus they both died,
the king first, and she with him.

{ Le rei e sa femme ad trovez
U il gisent, entr’acolez.
Li reis garda, sil vit venir;
Pur sa vileinie covrir
Dedenz la cuve saut joinz piez;
E il fu nuz e despuillez,
Unques garde ne s’en dona:
Ileoc murut e escauda.
Sur lui est li mals revertiz
E cil en est saufs e gariz.
Li senescals ad bien veü
Coment del rei est avenu.
Sa femme prent demeintenant,
El bain la met le chief avant.
Issi mururent ambedui,
Li reis avant e ele od lui. }

Men have long been punished much more harshly than women for adultery. Marie de France, a great medieval woman writer, had a keen sense for gender and justice. While the king was subservient to the wife in their adulterous affair, both were punished with death. The king, an accomplice to the murder, went into the scalding water feet-first. The wife, the mastermind of the scheme, went into the scalding water head-first. That’s rough justice administered by the seneschal, the person actually responsible for administering justice in the realm.[4] He surely provided more equitable justice than the U.S. criminal justice system currently does.

Marie de France positioned the seneschal’s wife as a cross-gender reference to King David of the Hebrew Bible. David saw Bathsheba bathing and lusted for her. He sent messages to her. She then came to him and had sex with him. After they made her pregnant, he had her husband killed. Her husband had loyally served King David as a soldier, just as the seneschal had loyally served King Equitan.[5]

Marie de France offered her readers an additional example with more critical understanding of gender than that in the story David and Bathsheba. She wanted her readers to learn to be reasonable:

Whoever might listen to reason
could learn by the example here:
one who pursues another’s harm
might find the wrong rebounds on her.

{ Ki bien vodreit reisun entendre
Ici purreit ensample prendre :
Tels purcace le mal d’autrui
Dunt tuz li mals revert sur lui. }[6]

The prophet Nathan courageously condemned King David for having Bathsheba’s husband killed. David then repented. Marie de France similarly summoned from among her readers prophetic voices to condemn wrongs that women, including women literary scholars, have done in seeking self-gratification in self-conception. Marie de France also summoned voices to condemn wrongs that self-abasing men have done in seeking self-gratification with women. Now is still time for repentance.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Marie de France, Equitan, vv. 22-4, Old French text from Rychner (1966), English translation (modified slightly) from Waters (2018). Both Rychner (1966) and Waters (2018) are based on London, British Library, Harley MS 978 (denoted MS H), which can be viewed online. Rychner (1966) has somewhat more standardized Old French spellings, while Waters (2018) better facilitates referring to the manuscript. In making some minor changes to Waters’s translation, I’ve reviewed that of Burgess & Busby (1999). Both Waters and Burgess & Busby provide admirably faithful translations. Other English translations of Equitan are freely available online. See Kline (2019), Shoaf (1992), and Mason (1911).

Equitan has survived in only one other manuscript, denoted MS S: Bibliothèque nationale de France, nouv. acq. fr. 1104 (view online). There this lai is entitled Aquitan. For a comparison of the MS H and MS S, and an edition of the latter, Brook (2018).

The title and king’s name Equitan invokes “equaling in justice.” That comes from the Old French infinitive equiter. The sense of the Old French word equitan is close to the modern English word equity. Gilmore (1993) pp. 92-3. Aquitan, which functions as the title and the king’s name in MS S, suggests “discharging of a debt.” Brook (2018) p. 86.

For Equitan, v. 15, “delighted in pleasure and love-service {deduit amout e druerie},” alternate translations are “loved pleasure and love-play,” “adored pleasure and amorous dalliance,” “love and hunting wed was he”, “loved sports and amorous sport” in Waters (2018), Burgess & Busby (1999), Kline (2019), and Shoaf (1992), respectively. The Old French word druerie is used fourteen times in Marie de France’s lais. Burgess (1987) p. 217, n. 18. Equitan is clearly deluded with the men-abasing ideology of courtly love, so I’ve translated druerie as “love-service.”

Subsequent quotes from Equitan are sourced as above. The subsequent quotes are vv. 39-54 (Many times he made greetings to her…), 70-6 (I think that I must love her…), 129-37 (If it were the case that I loved you…), 170-6 (Do not consider me as a king…), 222-8 (Beautiful beloved, don’t be afraid…), 238-40 (Never will she tell him anything…), 251-60 (And I will have the baths heated…), 291-306 (He found the king and his wife…), 307-10 (Whoever might listen to reason…).

[2] Cf. Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31, Galations 5:14.

[3] Bussell called Equitan “feminized” because he was subservient to his wife, as well as because he sought to enjoy his life. Bussell (2003) pp. 36-8. That rhetoric by definition obscures men’s subordination to women and accepts gender ideology reducing men to instrumental beings. Moreover, while lamenting “gender opposition,” Bussell placed women outside of “rhetorical gamesmanship”:

The unflinching punishment of the woman as both a traitor and an adulteress, however, simply reinforces the rhetorical gamesmanship between men without examining either its causes or its progression toward a bad end for everyone.

Id. p. 37. Women arguably are more skilled and more effective in rhetorical gaming than are men.

[4] The Bible forbids humans from engaging in vengeance. Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19. The Bible does not, however, clearly forbid human authorities from administering a death penalty. The death penalty was a regular aspect of criminal justice in medieval Europe. As the person administering justice in Equitan’s realm, the seneschal had authority to administer the death penalty to his wife.

The seneschal killing his wife for her adultery with the king probably would have shocked Marie de France’s contemporary audience. Such extreme punishment, or the lesser punishment of genital mutilation, was much less acceptable to apply to women than to men. Cf. Bussell (2003). Men continue to be much more likely be subject to the death penalty than women are.

The seneschal killing his wife for her adultery has also tended to shock and dismay modern audiences. “No other lai of Marie de France has suffered more at the hands of critics than Equitan.” Pickens (1973) p. 361. Subsequent criticism, with some exceptions such as Murray & Yancey (2008), has been little better. Shoaf called Equitan “deeply misogynistic.” Shoaf (1992) p. 9, n. 6. One could in turn call Shoaf’s view deeply anti-meninist, but it’s better not to engage in childish name-calling. Marie de France was a medieval women writer with compassionate concern for men.

[5] Murray & Yancey (2008) perceptively pointed to the relation of Equitan to the story of David and Bathsheba. But Murray & Yancey’s evaluation of the seneschal’s culpability and future isn’t warranted:

unless he finds a way to conceal his sinfulness (as David did), he will be condemned for treason and put to death for murdering the king. Marie leaves the seneschal facing a very similar dilemma to that faced by David in the Old Testament: own up to his treachery, or find a way to conceal it.

Murray & Yancey (2008) p. 39. The seneschal didn’t murder King Equitan. Nor is he likely to be put to death for Equitan’s death. The seneschal more likely would remain chief executive of the realm and play a key role in selecting the new king.

The Bible doesn’t say whether Bathsheba privately urged David to have her husband killed. In accordance with women-are-wonderful ideology, scholars typically haven’t considered that possibility.

[6] Leading English translations of Equitan, vv. 309-10, have directed that couplet at men in its gender:

one who pursues another’s harm
might find the wrong rebounds on him.

{ Tels purcace le mal d’autrui
Dunt le mals revert sur lui.  }

Old French text (following MS H exactly) and translation of Waters (2018). Burgess & Busby (1999) also translates “rebounds on him {revert sur lui}.” Kline (1999) uses two masculine pronouns in translating the couplet. Shoaf (1992) deploys three masculine pronouns in translating it. But the Old French lui comes from the Latin ille. Neither implies a particular gender. Within the overall text of Equitan and Marie de France’s appreciation for gender, sur lui seems to me best translated here as “on her.”

[images] (1) David sending a messenger to the bathing Bathsheba. From folio 41v (excerpt) of the Morgan Picture Bible, MS M.638. (2) Bathsheba and David in bed. Also from folio 41v (excerpt) of the Morgan Picture Bible, MS M.638. Here’s an alternate presentation of folio 41v in MS M.638. Cf. 2 Samuel 11:1-5.


Brook, Leslie C. 2018. “Marie de France’s Lay of Aquitan (Equitan) in MS S (Paris, BnF, nouv. acq. fr. 1104).” Le Cygne. 5: 85-102.

Burgess, Glyn S. 1987. The Lais of Marie de France: text and context. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Keith Busby, trans. 1999. The Lais of Marie de France. 2nd edition (1st edition, 1986). London: Penguin.

Bussell, Donna Alfano. 2003. “The Fantasy of Reciprocity and the Enigma of the Seneschal in Marie de France’s Equitan.” Le Cygne. 2: 7-48.

Gilmore, Gloria. 1993. “Conflicting Codes of Conduct: Equity in Marie de France’s Equitan.” Utah Foreign Language Review. 1993: 92-117.

Kline, A. S. 2019. Equitain. In Marie de France: The Twelve Lais. Online at Poetry in Translation.

Mason, Eugene, trans. 1911. French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of Marie de France. London: J.M. Dent & Sons. Alternate textual presentation.

Murray, Sarah Jane, and Preston Yancey. 2008. “Of Burning Books and Scalding Bathtubs: Equitan and Guigemar in Counterpoint.” Le Cygne. 6: 23-46.

Pickens, Rupert T. 1973. “Equitan: Anti-Guigemar.” Romance Notes. 15 (2): 361-367.

Rychner, Jean, ed. 1966. Marie de France. Lais. Paris: Champion. Published online by ENS of Lyon in the Base de français médiéval. Last revision: 31-7-2018. Compare to the version of Warnke (1900).

Shoaf, Judith P., trans. 1992. Marie de France. Equitan. In The Lais of Marie de France, online at Shoaf’s University of Florida site.

Waters, Claire M. 2018. The Lais of Marie de France: Text and Translation. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

marriage encomium in dialog with Lidia in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale

The Merchant’s Tale in Chaucer’s late-fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales includes a lengthy encomium to marriage. Neither the marriage-seeking knight January, nor the woefully married merchant, nor the distanced author Chaucer plausibly speaks this encomium. The Merchant’s Tale extensively uses intertextuality and dialog. Consistent with that formal structure, the voice of its marriage encomium is best understood to be the dominant ideology ridiculed in the twelfth-century Latin comedy Lidia.

Chaucer, The Merchant's Tale

In the Merchant’s Tale, the merchant begins his tale by speaking about a knight rooted in Pavia. The knight’s specific person, as indicated by his name, isn’t provided until much later in the tale. What matters most are his general geographic and personal characteristics:

Once there was dwelling in Lombardy
a worthy knight, who was born in Pavia,
in which he lived in great prosperity,
and for sixty years a wifeless man was he,
and he followed always his bodily delight
with women, just as was his appetite.

{ Whilom ther was dwellynge in Lumbardye
A worthy knyght, that born was of Pavye,
In which he lyved in greet prosperitee;
And sixty yeer a wyflees man was hee,
And folwed ay his bodily delyt
On wommen, ther as was his appetyt }[1]

Pavia was renowned as a city where men could readily have bodily delight with women.[2] But at age sixty, this knight ardently sought to marry:

And when he was passed sixty years,
were it for holiness or for dotage
I cannot say, but such a great desire
this knight has to be a wedded man
that day and night he does all he can
to discover where he might be wedded.

{ And whan that he was passed sixty yeer,
Were it for hoolynesse or for dotage
I kan nat seye, but swich a greet corage
Hadde this knyght to been a wedded man
That day and nyght he dooth al that he kan
T’espien where he myghte wedded be }

With transparent sarcasm, the merchant’s recounted the knight’s view of marriage:

“No other life,” said he, “is worth a bean,
for wedlock is so easy and so pure,
that in this world it is a paradise.”
Thus said this old knight, who was so wise.

{ “Noon oother lyf,” seyde he, “is worth a bene,
For wedlok is so esy and so clene,
That in this world it is a paradys.”
Thus seyde this olde knyght, that was so wys. }[3]

This old knight’s name is January. That name associates him with the coldness of a winter month. January’s new marital perspective, formed at age sixty, is only one view within the complex rhetoric of the Merchant’s Tale. The Merchant’s Tale is more a tapestry of debate about marriage than a tale about a particular knight.

Immediately following the knight’s description of wedlock as paradise comes the marriage encomium. Spanning 132 verses, it’s a first-personal text not quoted as speech. The marriage encomium is too rhetorically intricate to be interpreted well as ironic commentary. Upon careful study, it appears to be “ignorant folly” or “sheer idiocy.” The same might be said for the laws that mainly men have enacted to support gynocentrism. Not surprisingly, scholars have failed to attribute the marriage encomium convincingly.[4]

January surely doesn’t speak the marriage encomium. He’s a prosperous knight. He lacks the clerical learning that the encomium displays. Moreover, January’s words occur elsewhere as reported speech, while the marriage encomium isn’t reported speech. In addition, the verses concluding the encomium contain a first-personal reference to him. While January would believe and endorse the words of the marriage encomium, the formal structure of the text excludes him as a possible speaker.[5]

The narrating merchant wouldn’t plausibly speak the marriage encomium. The merchant’s lived experience of marriage was horrific:

“Weeping and wailing, grief and other sorrow
I know enough, in evening and morn,”
said the Merchant, “and so do many more
that have been wedded. I believe that it be so,
for well I know it fares so with me.
I have a wife, the worst that can be.
Even if the fiend were married to her,
she would outmatch him, I dare well swear.
Why should I rehearse to you in detail
her high malice? She is a shrew in all.”

{ “Wepyng and waylyng, care and oother sorwe
I knowe ynogh, on even and a-morwe,”
Quod the Marchant, “and so doon other mo
That wedded been. I trowe that it be so,
For wel I woot it fareth so with me.
I have a wyf, the worste that may be;
For thogh the feend to hire ycoupled were,
She wolde hym overmacche, I dar wel swere.
What sholde I yow reherce in special
Hir hye malice? She is a shrewe at al.” }

In Chaucer’s time, the fable of the extraordinarily meek and generous Griselda was circulating in versions that the eminent authors Petrarch and Boccaccio composed. The merchant recognized that Christ-like Griselda didn’t correspond to his wife:

There is a long and large difference
between Griselda’s great patience
and my wife’s surpassing cruelty.
Were I divorced, so I might prosper,
I would never again come into the snare.
We wedded men live in sorrow and care.

{ Ther is a long and large difference
Bitwix Grisildis grete pacience
And of my wyf the passyng crueltee.
Were I unbounden, also moot I thee,
I wolde nevere eft comen in the snare.
We wedded men lyven in sorwe and care. }

The early-thirteenth-century cleric Matheolus suffered similarly in his marriage to Petra. The merchant and Matheolus, as well as men capable of learning from similar lived experience, would know better than to utter an ideological encomium of marriage.[6]

Chaucer almost surely didn’t mean the marriage encomium to be understood as his own words. Chaucer intervening first-personally in the Canterbury Tales would undermine its formal narrative structure. Chaucer, moreover, has an elusive, ambiguous voice in his literary works. The marriage encomium, at least superficially, is mainly ideological praise of marriage from a clerical perspective.

In a voice quite unlike that of the marriage encomium, Chaucer wrote a letter of advice to a man named Bukton. Chaucer opined about marriage:

I will not say that it is the chain
of Satan, on which he gnaws forever,
but I dare to say, were he free of his pain,
he would by his will never be bound again.
But that doting fool who again would rather
be enchained than crawl out of prison,
God let him never from his woe be parted,
nor no man grieve for him, though he weep.

But yet, lest you do worse, take a wife.
Better it is to wed than to burn in a worse way.
But you shall have sorrow on your flesh, all your life,
and be your wife’s servant, as say those wise.
And if Holy Scripture may not suffice,
experience shall teach you, perhaps,
that you would be better be taken prisoner in Germany
than again fall into the trap of wedding.

{ I wol nat seyn how that yt is the cheyne
Of Sathanas, on which he gnaweth evere,
But I dar seyn, were he out of his peyne,
As by his wille he wolde be bounde nevere.
But thilke doted fool that eft hath levere
Ycheyned be than out of prison crepe,
God lete him never fro his wo dissevere,
Ne no man him bewayle, though he wepe.

But yet, lest thow do worse, take a wyf;
Bet ys to wedde than brenne in worse wise.
But thow shal have sorwe on thy flessh, thy lyf,
And ben thy wives thral, as seyn these wise;
And yf that hooly writ may nat suffyse,
Experience shal the teche, so may happe,
That the were lever to be take in Frise
Than efte to falle of weddynge in the trappe. }[7]

In this personal letter, Chaucer explicitly recognized husbands’ subservience to their wives. Interpreting the Wife of Bath’s Tale as he meant it, Chaucer declared:

If you are safe, put yourself not in dread.
The Wife of Bath I beg you that you read
on the matter that we have at hand.
God grant you your life freely to lead
in freedom, for it’s very hard to be a servant man.

{ If thow be siker, put the nat in drede.
The Wyf of Bathe I pray yow that ye rede
Of this matere that we have on honde.
God graunte yow your lyf frely to lede
In fredam, for ful hard is to be bonde. }

As a marginal courtier struggling to earn a living as a royal bureaucrat, Chaucer’s primary audience was ladies. He would write anything to please women. But the marriage encomium begins:

And certainly, as truly as God is king,
to take a wife — that is a glorious thing
and especially when a man is old and white-haired.
Then a wife is the best part of his treasure.
Then he should take a young and pretty wife,
with which he might engender himself an heir.

{ And certeinly, as sooth as God is kyng,
To take a wyf it is a glorious thyng,
And namely whan a man is oold and hoor;
Thanne is a wyf the fruyt of his tresor.
Thanne sholde he take a yong wyf and a feir,
On which he myghte engendren hym an heir }

That’s not a marriage encomium that would appeal to most women. Many women, especially today, prefer to marry in their thirties. Some of them say, “I’ve had my fun, and now I’m ready to marry.” Men need to be indoctrinated with marriage encomiums to be willing to marry women who perceive marriage not to be fun. The marriage encomium in the Merchant’s Tale is written for men, not women. It doesn’t represent Chaucer’s voice as he himself would speak to his mainly women readers.

The marriage encomium exhorts more than reasons. Its speaker recounts and summarily rejects words of Jerome’s wildly creative character Theophrastus:

“Take no wife,” said he, “for managing the household,
so as to be spare in your household expenditure.
A true servant has more diligence
to guard your goods than does your own wife,
for she will claim a half part all her life.
And if you be sick, may God have mercy,
your real friends, or a true servant,
will take care of you better than she that waits, yes,
to inherit your goods and has done so many a day.
And if you take a wife into your household,
you very easily can become a cuckold.”
This wisdom, and a hundred things worse,
writes this man. God his bones there curse!
But take no heed of all such foolishness.
Defy Theophrastus, and listen to me.

{ “Ne take no wyf,” quod he, “for housbondrye,
As for to spare in houshold thy dispence.
A trewe servant dooth moore diligence
Thy good to kepe than thyn owene wyf,
For she wol clayme half part al hir lyf.
And if thou be syk, so God me save,
Thy verray freendes, or a trewe knave,
Wol kepe thee bet than she that waiteth ay
After thy good and hath doon many a day.
And if thou take a wyf unto thyn hoold
Ful lightly maystow been a cokewold.”
This sentence, and an hundred thynges worse,
Writeth this man, ther God his bones corse!
But take no kep of al swich vanytee;
Deffie Theofraste, and herke me. }

For whatever work wives choose to do, they effectively earn half of what their husbands earn. If a wife casually cooks and cleans at home while a husband exerts himself elsewhere to earn a high income, she’s effectively a very highly paid casual home worker. In response to such obvious economics, the speaker of the marriage encomium calls Theophrastus ugly names and urges men, “Defy Theophrastus, and listen to me.” That’s not reasoned argument. It’s a claim for ideological allegiance.

The marriage encomium explicitly promotes men’s subservience to women in marriage. It declares:

If you would proceed as the wise,
do always as women would to you advise.

{… if thou wolt werken as the wyse,
Do alwey so as wommen wol thee rede. }[8]

Within gynocentric society, husbands are urged to submit to their wives:

Submit to your wife’s tongue, as Cato says.
She shall command, and you shall submit to it.

{ Suffre thy wyves tonge, as Catoun bit;
She shal comande, and thou shalt suffren it }

Like the generally acclaimed social convention of husbands attributing all their personal success to their wives, the marriage encomium reflects the ideological voice of gynocentric society.

The Merchant’s Tale contrasts the views of the brothers Placebo and Justinian. Placebo, whose name comes from the Latin word meaning “I please,” is a sycophantic courtier like today’s male anti-meninists. When January, eager to marry, asks Placebo and Justinian for counsel, Placebo declares:

My own dear brother and my lord,
as surely as God may bring my soul to rest,
I hold your own counsel is the best.
For, my brother, take from me this advice:
I have now been a courtier all my life,
and as God knows, though I am unworthy,
I have stood in very high degree
among lords of very high rank,
yet I never had with any of them disagreement.
Truly, I never contradicted them.
I know well that my lord knows more than I.
What he says, I consider that unshakably true.
I say the same, or else something similar.

{ Myn owene deere brother and my lord,
So wysly God my soule brynge at reste,
I holde youre owene conseil is the beste.
For, brother myn, of me taak this motyf:
I have now been a court-man al my lyf,
And God it woot, though I unworthy be,
I have stonden in ful greet degree
Abouten lordes of ful heigh estaat;
Yet hadde I nevere with noon of hem debaat.
I nevere hem contraried, trewely;
I woot wel that my lord kan moore than I.
What that he seith, I holde it ferme and stable;
I seye the same, or elles thyng semblable. }

Justinus, whose name comes from the Latin word meaning “merited,” offers specific, substantive advice:

I warn you well, it is no child’s play
to take a wife without deliberation.
One must inquire — this is my opinion —
whether she be wise, or sober, or given to drink,
or proud, or else otherwise a shrew,
a scold, or a waster of your goods,
or rich, or poor, or else man-mad.

{ I warne yow wel, it is no childes pley
To take a wyf withouten avysement.
Men moste enquere — this is myn assent —
Wher she be wys, or sobre, or dronkelewe,
Or proud, or elles ootherweys a shrewe,
A chidestere, or wastour of thy good,
Or riche, or poore, or elles mannyssh wood. }

Medieval men recognized medieval women’s strong sexuality. Moreover, spouses in medieval Europe were morally obligated to have sex with each other even if one didn’t feel like it. Justinus thus warns January:

Consider for yourself, you being a man of advanced age,
how it is that you enter into marriage,
and especially with a young and pretty wife.
By Him that made water, earth, and air,
the youngest man that is in all this company
is busy enough to bring it about
to satisfy his wife alone. Trust me,
you shall not please her fully three years,
that is to say, to do her full pleasure.
A wife requires very many honorings.

{ Avyseth yow — ye been a man of age —
How that ye entren into mariage,
And namely with a yong wyf and a fair.
By hym that made water, erthe, and air,
The yongeste man that is in al this route
Is bisy ynough to bryngen it aboute
To han his wyf allone. Trusteth me,
Ye shul nat plesen hire fully yeres thre —
This is to seyn, to doon hire ful plesaunce.
A wyf axeth ful many an observaunce. }

Just as January superficially dismissed Theophrastus’s wisdom about marriage, Placebo trivializes Justinus’s advice and attacks him personally:

“I say it is a cursed man,” said he,
“that hinders matrimony, certainly.”

{ “I seye it is a cursed man,” quod he,
“That hinders matrimony, certainly.” }

Placebo doesn’t encourage January to think carefully about his desire to marry. Gynocentric society similarly marginalizes real, substantive legal absurdities associated with marriage.

Setting up an implicit contrast with Matheolus’s thirteenth-century representation of marriage, January imagines marriage to be bliss rivaling that of Heaven. January thus wonders:

How then should I, who live in such pleasure
as all wedded men do with her wives,
come to the bliss where Christ lives eternally?

{ How sholde I thanne, that lyve in swich plesaunce
As alle wedded men doon with hire wyvys,
Come to the blisse ther Crist eterne on lyve ys? }

Learned enough to recognize January’s folly, Justinus plays out Matheolus’s story:

Perhaps she may be your Purgatory!
She may be God’s means and God’s whip.
Then shall your soul up to Heaven skip
swifter than does an arrow out of a bow.

{ Paraunter she may be youre purgatorie!
She may be Goddes meene and Goddes whippe;
Thanne shal youre soule up to hevene skippe
Swifter than dooth an arwe out of a bowe. }

Chaucer didn’t want to give Matheolus all the credit for depicting many men’s lived experience of marriage. Just as he did in his letter of advice to Bukton on marriage, Chaucer has Justinus refer to the Wife of Bath’s Tale:

But let us wade out of this matter.
The Wife of Bath, if you have understood her
regarding marriage, which we have on hand,
has declared full well in few words.

{ But lat us waden out of this mateere.
The Wyf of Bathe, if ye han understonde,
Of mariage, which we have on honde,
Declared hath ful wel in litel space. }

Voices from other texts are vitally important to the Merchant’s Tale. With Placebo and Justinus, just as with Pluto and Proserpina, the Merchant’s Tale engages extensively in intertextual references and dialog.[9]

The dialogic counterpart to the marriage encomium in the Merchant’s Tale is the twelfth-century Latin comedy Lidia. In that comedy, the duchess Lidia is married to the duke Decius. But she burns in love for the knight Pearus, who owes loyalty to his lord Decius. Lidia is like her husband’s royal hall:

The duke’s hall is large. Since she is shameless, she receives all.
The doorkeeper invites, a broad path is made, the door is open.
One after another arrives, and as usual, is received.
The hammer sounds on the anvil three or four times.
She sustains the banging and opens the furnace wider.
She invites Pearus to press upon her thighs in this way.
She asks, he denies. She ardently desires what he refuses,
and she solicits the man, she a woman false to her husband.

{ Aula ducis larga est; quia non pudet, accipit omnes.
Janitor invitat, fit via, porta patet.
Unum post alium, quod adest, de more, receptat.
Malleus incudi terque quaterque sonat.
Sustinet hos et adhuc aperit fabrilia quassans.
Invitat Pirrum ut premat ille femur.
Haec rogat, ille negat; tamen haec quod hic invidet optat.
Sollicitatque virum femina falsa viro. }[10]

Lidia’s servant Lusca, acting as a go-between, attempts to coerce Pearus by analogizing him to Hippolytus:

Pearus is like Hippolytus; Lidia is Phaedra.
The old minds’ ruses and a stepmother’s torments
you too, Pearus, can know and properly seek to avoid.
But the virtuous Diana doesn’t avenge every illicit deed:
only once was a man scarcely restored to life.
A woman can do much and so can cause much evil.
The similar example that you have should cause you fear.

{ Pirrus ut Ypolitus, Lidia Phaedra manet;
Tuque dolos animi veteres stimulosque novercae
Nosse potes, Pirre, quaere cavere decet.
Non saepe Triviae virtus ulciscitur actum
Illicitum; semel est vix redivivus homo:
Femina multa potest, et sic mala multa movere:
Exemplo simili quod verearis habes. }

Lidia is Pearus’s mother in the sense that she is the lady of the house and has authority over him. Phaedra’s false accusation of seduction against Hippolytus led to his death. Not having sex with Lidia thus implies a death threat to Pearus. But having sex with her is tantamount to treason against his lord Decius.

Pearus ponders this deadly trap of sexual coercion. He creates a justification for himself with his observation: “A sexually strong woman has an impotent husband {debilitate viri femina fortis adest}.” He asks Lusca whether Lidia could deceive Decius. She answers with a general characterization of Lidia’s marriage:

What a wonder you arouse! She determines her husband’s mind.
She knows how the duke’s foolishness allows him to be led.

{ Quam miranda moves! Mentem gerit illa mariti,
Quaque valet duci scit levitate ducis. }

Men’s subservience to women is a social injustice and a general catastrophe. Pearus as a man considers the extent to which he could abase his fellow man:

Pearus said, “If the duke himself is no man in bed,
since she demands love, she should ask for Pearus’s additional service.
With three tests I will seek proof.” And he explains to her the three.
“The duke loves his falcon. Nothing is dearer to him than it.
The eminent duke’s care concentrates in play with this bird.
I want her to destroy it. If she cannot conquer it,
I don’t believe that she’ll be able to deceive her husband easily.
And if she would pluck five hairs from the wool of his beard,
she will attract more quickly the one she wishes to attract with her prayers.
In addition, let her pull out from his teeth one that she wants.
If she does these deeds, her inclination will be made worthy of my favor.”

{ Pirrus ait, “Si dux sit sibi nullus homo,
Augmentum poscat Pirri quod poscit amorem.
His tribus experiar.” Et docet illa tria:
“Dux amat accipitrem, nec quid sibi carius illo;
Alludit celebris hac ave cura ducis.
Hanc volo quod perimat; hanc si non vindicet illa,
Ne credat leviter fallere posse virum.
Et si quinque pilos barbae de vellere vellat,
Quem trahit his precibus citius illa trahet.
Insuper excutiat quem vult de dentibus unum.
Si facit haec, faciet digna favore favor.” }

All three tests symbolize destroying Decius’s sexuality. The duke’s bird is a figure for his genitals. While the duke apparently isn’t able to perform in bed for his wife, the duke seems to enjoy playing with himself. A man’s beard, like his genital hair, represents his sexual maturity. A tooth is a protruding, hard body-part used in the pleasurable activity of eating. Medieval culture closely associated eating with sex. In short, the three tests represent Lidia brutally imposing castration culture on her husband Decius.

Lidia regards Pearus’s tests as assuring her that she will have his sexual service. News of his proposition revives her from wasting away in love-sickness:

She is totally ravished as she desires to be ravished.
As soon as her vigor has returned, she opens her eyes.
Immediately a rosy glow adorns her face.
She’s made worthy, her face smiles, and light plays in her eyes.
Responding to his wishes, happy, she ravishes herself:
“What Pearus requests, what he wishes,” she says, “Let it be
proven! Although this matter is weighty, what can it be to me?
Approach, hurry, watch! It’s pleasing that he experience
what a woman can do when love-frenzy torments her.”

{ Tota sibi rapitur qua cupit ilia rapi.
Mox vigor ut rediit, aperit sua lumina vultus;
Inde sequens roseus purpurat ora nitor;
Fitque decens, ridet facies, lux ludit ocellis;
Respondens votis, se sibi, laeta, rapit:
“Quod poscit Pirrus, quod vult,” ait illa, “probari,
Sit! Licet hoc gravius quid posset esse mihi?
Accedat, properet, videat! Placet experiatur
Femina quod possit cum furor angit eam.” }

Men need to understand that women are just as evil and toxic as men are. Gynocentric society nourishes men with delusions of wonderfully pure women and marriage encomiums. Lidia offers men a contrasting perspective.

Would January in the Merchant’s Tale have ardently sought to marry if he had known how Lidia treated her husband Decius? Here’s what she did:

While Decius plays, while he cheerfully handles serious matters,
and the duke’s halls hum with various motions,
and lutes and the people sound odes of song,
and the melodious strings of the lyre soothe with tunes,
proud Lidia, festively dressed, emerges from the marital bedroom.
She jealously seizes the bird where it sits:
“I’m worse off than this bird,” she says, “I’m tormented and oppressed
night and day. It’s shameful to be able to suffer many wrongs.
Forests please him more than our bedroom. Fields please him more than our bed.
The care of the duke is more glade and ravine than me.
Not with impunity will he so carry forth. It will be tested with merited reason
whether to himself Lidia is more preferable than is the bird.
She speaks and twists the neck of the falcon. Unable to breath,
it falls. Pearus, noting her daring, is dumbfounded.
The crowd also becomes silent. He glances at her;
one to the other, eye negotiates with eye.
Laughing, she conceals her guile, employing such words:
“Duke, I wish, if you wish, we go to the marital bedroom. Henceforth forsake the groves.”
With this reminding, her tender arms from below wrap around Decius.
Playing her usual ways, Lidia nuzzles him.

{ Dum Decius ludit, dum tractat seria laetus,
Dumque strepit variis motibus aula ducis,
Dumque sonant citharae, populus dum carminis odas,
Dumque melos mulcent consona fila lyrae,
Egreditur thalamo, sollempni veste superba,
Lidia; qua sedit, emula captat avem:
“Hac ave sum pejor,” inquit, “cruciorque premorque
Nocte, die; pudor est tot mala posse pati.
Plus thalamo silva placet, plus placet herba cubili.
Plus nemoris saltus quam mea cura duci.
Non impune feret; meriti ratione probabit
An potior sibi sit Lidia quam sit avis.”
Dixit et accipitris collum detorquet: anhelans
Ille cadit. Pirrus obstupet, ausa notans.
Cetera turba silet; tamen hic succernitur illi;
Alter in alterius lumine lumen agit.
Palliat illa dolum subridens, talibus usa:
“Dux, volo sis thalamis; ammodo linque nemus.”
Haec memorans, teneris Decio subnectitur ulnis;
More suo ludens, Lidia lambit eum. }

Women easily manipulate men starved for affection from women. Lidia continues to manipulate and abuse Decius:

While she plays and nuzzles with her husband, while Lidia fastens on him
kisses, she feels the duke’s barbarous beard.
She rushes to his face, conscious of Lusca’s words.
Made mindful, she plucks out five hairs from his beard.
The duke, as if shaken from sleep, tugs at the hairs’ hurt spot
and tugs and rubs forward with his moving hand.
With an astute exertion of fraud, Lidia begins to speak
and she acts with her usual guile:
“Untimely gray hairs falsify your years.
Old age touches these to you, duke, before your days.
Your beard which was before discolored is now youthful.
With these three hairs pulled out, behold, it’s all one color!”
She speaks and, soothing his mind, throws her arms around his neck,
and she hugs him as he desires to be hugged.
The duke, trusting in these blandishments and deceitful love,
indulges the deeds of his wife and is silent.

{ Dum ludit lambitque virum, dum Lydia figit
oscula, sentitur barbara barba ducis.
Corruit in vultum, verborum conscia Luscae;
Fit memor, et quinos succutit inde pilos.
Dux, velut excussus sompno, loca laesa pilorum
Tractat et admota tractat agitque manu.
Fraudis ut astuta molimine Lydia fari
Incipit et solitis occupat acta dolis:
“Intempestivi fallunt tua tempora cani;
haec tibi, dux, aetas contigit ante diem;
Barba tibi juveni fuerat quae discolor ante,
His tribus ereptis, concolor ecce manet.”
Dixit, et emulcens animum sua brachia collo
Jactat, et illa premit quae cupit ille premi.
His dux blanditiis et ficto fretus amore,
indulget factis conjugis atque silet. }

Men throughout history have been similarly silenced. Today, while eminent women authorities at the commanding heights of the classical propaganda apparatus trumpet the silencing of women, even writing about men being historically silenced is silenced.

Lidia goes on to extract a tooth from Decius. She falsely tells Decius’s cup-bearers that they have bad breath. Jealous of each other, these young men falsely confirm to each other their bad breath. When pouring wine for Decius, they now turn their faces far from his cup. Decius notes this abrupt change in behavior, yet he’s too embarrassed to ask why they’re shunning him. He questions his wife in private about this matter:

She stirs up a pallor for a sickly face on the outside
while guarding inward joy, and she sadly says:
“Thus far what Lidia alone knew in the marital bedroom
now moves the people’s mouth, now the royal hall agitates the evil.
I’m hindered, I waver about what to do, whether to be silent or to speak
I don’t know.” The duke says, “Lidia, expand upon it to me!”
“With what face would I expand upon it, with what voice would I myself speak
about your shame, which I confess is more truly my very own?
Do you insist that I do so?” “I want you to,” the duke says. Groaning, she
begins to speak with her mouth, having found the place for deception:
“Your mouth, duke, brings forth a foul smell. It’s noticed and thus
testifies to the young men’s behavior. With them being silent, I’ll speak.”
Decius is amazed. He’s silent and groans. His sickly voice
wanders without voice. His voice loses its own way.
He repeatedly strokes his throat, his mouth expands, and he exhales.
The duke with difficulty is credulous about his own mouth.

{ Illa foris vultu pallorem suscitat aegro,
Interius servans gaudia, tristis ait:
“Hactenus in thalamo quod novit Lidia sola,
“Nunc, agit os populi, nunc quatit aula malum.
Impedior, quid agam dubito, sileamve loquarve
Nescio.” Dux inquit, “Lidia, pande mihi!”
“Pandam quo vultu, dicam qua voce pudorem
Ipsa tuum (fateor verius ipsa meum)?
Vis tamen ut dandam?” “Volo,” dux ait. Illa, gementi
Incipit ore loqui, fallere nacta locum:
“Os tibi, dux, olidum fetet: sensitur et illud
Testatur pubes; pube tacente, loquor.”
Miratur Decius; silet et gemit; aegra vagatur
Vox sine voce, viam perdidit illa suam.
Saepe manu mulcet fauces, os pandit et halat;
Vix est dux de se credulus ore sibi.}

By pathologizing men’s being, evil women silence men.

Decius receives even further abuse from his wife Lidia. She, offensively unforgiving, declares, “If your tooth offends you, it should be plucked out {Si tibi dens noceat, vellatur}.”[11] She then summons Pearus to help with this operation. Lidia is active while Decius is passive and Pearus watches:

See, as much pain as oppresses him, that much work oppresses her!
The duke groans and suffers, perhaps as a witness with a bloody injury.
She attacks him much more sharply, shaking with her exertion.
At last the tooth is yanked out and jumps from his mouth.
For those things that she has ravished, she gives compensation with words
— that he shouldn’t suffer further, yet he suffers more.

{ En, quantus dolor hunc urget, quantus labor illam!
Dux gemit et, forsan teste cruore, dolet.
Acrius insurgit multo conamine quassus;
Excutitur demum dens et ab ore salit.
Quae rapuit rebus, sibi dat solatia verbis,
Ultra ne doleat, plus tamen ille dolet. }

Pearus is filled with awe at what Lidia has done. To the “great father of the gods {summe pater divum},” Pearus praises Lidia as greater than classics.[12]

Lidia even abuses her husband further. She explains:

That is nothing at all. What you, Pearus, have observed is nothing.
What Lidia can do to her husband, Pearus, you further will see.
Since I know that the duke is capable of being led into greater folly,
although he himself will see, he will regard having seen to be nothing.
If he catches me with you in the act of sexual intercourse,
he won’t believe his eyes. Thus I wish, and thus I forbid it to be otherwise.

{ Haec sunt nulla quidem; nihil est quod, Pirre, notasti;
Lidia quae poterit, Pirre, videbis adhuc.
Nam scio posse ducem potius per inania duci,
Ipse licet videat visa putare nihil.
Quod si me Veneris tecum deprendet in actu,
Non oculis credet; sic volo, sicque veto. }

Pearus urges her on to this greater triumph.[13]

Lidia feigns sickness. She has Decius and Pearus lead her into a lush garden bearing fruit in the spring. The maid Lusca follows, laughing and making hand-signs mocking Decius as a cuckold. Decius commands Pearus to climb a pear tree and gather its fruit. Lusca adds:

Now shake pears from a better pear tree, Pearus.

{ Jam meliore piro succute, Pirre, pira. }

Pearus then plays his part for Decius:

“Spare me, I beg you,” Pearus cries. “Spare my modesty.
Thrusting isn’t honorable to do in this place.
This love is too hasty. This isn’t sane desire.
Duke, Lidia, elsewhere one can breathe heavily and be banging.
There are martial bedrooms for you, duke. Those places are suitable for such acts.
Do it, but let me not see a deed of rusticity.”

{ “Parce, precor,” Pirrus clamat, “dux, parce pudorem;
Non honor est istis sollicitare locis.
Hic amor est praeceps; hoc est non sana libido;
Lidia, dux, alibi posset anhela quati.
Sunt tibi, dux, thalami; sunt et loca talibus apta;
Fac, sed ne videam rusticitatis opus.” }

The duke wonders about this silliness. Lidia opines that the pear tree is defective and that height distorts vision. Pearus climbs down from the tree. On the ground he continues to beg for mercy. The duke mistakenly seeks to get to the bottom of the matter:

The duke says: “I’ll test this. So often illusions are false!
I’ll establish whether Pirrus or the pear tree arouses this silliness.”
Both the duke and Pirrus mount simultaneously, both breathing heavily.
This one climbs branches. That one goes under legs.
Labor engages both, but the latter labors happily.
While this one bangs the pear tree, that one shakes the thigh.
Decius wonders and hesitates, scarcely believing himself.
The more certain he is about what he’s seeing, the more he’s stunned with uncertainty.

{ Dux ait: “Experiar (totiens fantasmata fallunt!)
An moveat Pirrus ludicra sive pirus.”
Scandit uterque simul at dux et Pirrus anhelans;
Hic repit ramis, cruribus ille subit.
Est in utroque labor, laetus tamen ille laborat:
Dum quatit iste pirum, concutit ille femur.
Miratur Decius et vix sibi credulus haeret.
Plus stupet incertis certior illa videns. }[14]

Decius doesn’t know whether his eyes are playing tricks on him or if he’s dreaming. He’s confused and frustrated:

Attributing what he sees to the branches, Decius tears and bangs them.
Often indeed, pears from the pear tree fall by Pearus.
Both the duke and Pearus therefore dismount quickly,
each eager to deceive about what the other has eagerly done.

{ Imputat hec ramis Decius frangitque quatitque:
Saepe quidem, Pirro sunt pira missa piro.
Labitur ergo citus, et dux et Pirrus uterque
Alterius studio fallere facta studens. }

Deceiving himself about what he has actually seen after climbing the pear tree, the duke declares that he’s either maddened or deceived. Lidia in turn explains:

It’s not Pearus that moves me, but certainly the pear tree.

{ Nec Pirrus me movet, immo pirus. }

With great appreciation for gardening and fruit in medieval Europe, a pear tree apparently also meant an erect penis, and pears, semen.[15] The duke believes that he saw an illusion. Lidia blames that illusion on the pear tree. She declares that it should be cut down. Obeying his wife, Decius duly issues that order, and so it’s done. Lidia thus ironically associates the horror of castration culture with the natural masculine process of detumescence.

The Merchant’s Tale enacts a less sensational version of the pear tree incident in Lidia. In Chaucer’s tale, the young wife May takes the place of Lidia, May’s husband January updates Decius, and the squire Damian acts like the knight Pearus. Just as in Lidia, the wife, feigning sickness, goes into a garden that has a fruiting pear tree. But in the Merchant’s Tale, the wife seeks pears, and the husband sends his subordinate man up the tree to provide pears. Chaucer explicitly represents May’s verbal dominance, January’s subservience to her, and men’s self-abasement leading to cuckolding:

He stoops down, and on his back she stood,
and she grabbed a branch, and up she goes.
(Ladies, I pray you that you not be angry.
I cannot word-plaster. I am an unlearned man.)
And suddenly at once this Damian
pulled up her smock and in he thrust.

{ He stoupeth doun, and on his bak she stood,
And caughte hire by a twiste, and up she gooth —
Ladyes, I prey yow that ye be nat wrooth;
I kan nat glose, I am a rude man —
And sodeynly anon this Damyan
Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng. }[16]

The recently blind January looks up and sees his wife May and his squire Damian having sex in the pear tree. May claims that she has struggled with a man in the tree so as to win the blessing of removing January’s blindness. January responds that she didn’t “struggle {strugle}” with a man: “He screwed you {he swyved thee}.” That’s a false, disparaging, anti-meninist representation of heterosexual intercourse.

The wife May laments that even though her husband January’s sight is still imperfect, he should be grateful for her curing kindness. He immediately apologizes for his ignorance and his lack of appreciation for her care for him. When she climbs down from the tree, he kisses her, hugs her, and softly strokes her womb. The husband under his wife’s prompting thus recognizes that he was wrong. Dominant gynocentric ideology so deludes men into believing.

Thibaut, Romance of the Pear, illumination of couple beneath pear tree

Dominant gynocentric ideology speaks the marriage encomium in the Merchant’s Tale. The earlier Latin comedy Lidia transgressively engages with that dominant ideology. Lidia includes a classical lament for marriage:

What is marriage now, what are spousal vows now,
what good to cohabiting is conferred by marital law?
Nowhere is Penelope, nowhere is Lucretia, as was before.
Both could be neither anywhere today.
With such, all evil mounts, as is seen repeatedly
by the law that a wanton Thais follows another Thais.
Loyalty is little today, and thus less in women.
If you present all women, no Sabine woman remains.
Only outwardly is she loyal to her husband. If you search further,
you will find poisons in her pleasant wind.

{ Quid nunc conjugium, quid nunc sponsalia jura,
Quid confert socii gratia lege thori?
Nusquam Penelope, nusquam Lucretia dudum;
Utraque neutra quaelibet esse potest.
A simili subit omne malum, repetique videtur
Illicita Thaydis altera lege Thays.
Parva fides hodie, minor est inde in muliere:
Omnes si muneres, nulla Sabina manet.
Sola viro fida frons est; si cetera quaeris,
Invenies zephyro blanda venena suo. }[17]

Under gynocentrism, men have always impotently lamented their difficulties in marriage. Even in classical Rome, Roman men were reluctant to marry. Nonetheless, encomiums to marriage have long been socially dominant. A golden age of marriage will factually arise only in a progressive future in which gynocentrism is overthrown, criticism of women becomes as socially acceptable as criticism of men, and at last true gender equality is realized.

Scholars have recognized the contradictions and absurdities of the marriage encomium in the Merchant’s Tale, but they haven’t similarly recognized the contradictions and absurdities of gynocentrism. Today’s elites have declared violence against women to be “the most pressing human rights problem remaining in the world.” But violence against men, normalized as merely “violence,” is far more prevalent than violence against women. While eagerly labeling as rapists fictional characters in classical and medieval literature, scholars complacently embrace willful ignorance of sexual violence against real men. Men today endure acute anti-men gender bias in criminal justice and imprisonment, are deprived of any reproductive rights whatsoever, and suffer massive anti-men sex discrimination in child-custody and child-support rulings. A man’s voice speaks the marriage encomium in the Merchant’s Tale, which the man author Geoffrey Chaucer wrote. So what? Those gender facts indicate men’s complicity.[18] Gynocentrism would not endure without men’s support.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, Canturybury Tales, vv. 1245-50, from the Merchant’s Tale, Middle English text from Benson (1987) via Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website (pioneered by Larry Benson), my English modernization, benefiting from that of id.

Subsequent quotes above from the Merchant’s Tale are similarly sourced. They are vv. 1252-7 (And when he was passed sixty years…), 1263-6 (No other life…), 1213-22 (Weeping and wailing…), 1223-8 (Ther is a long and large difference…), 1267-72 (And certainly, as truly as God is king…), 1296-1310 (Take no wife…), 1360-1 (If you would proceed as the wise…), 1377-8 (Submit to your wife’s tongue…), 1488-1500 (My own dear brother…), 1530-6 (I warn you well…), 1555-64 (Consider for yourself…), 1572-3 (I say it is a cursed man…), 1650-2 (How should I then…), 1670-3 (Perhaps she may be your Purgatory…), 1684-7 (But let us wade out of this matter…), 2348-53 (He stoops down…), 2378 (He screwed you).

[2] Medieval Lombardy was reputed to value highly commerce. Lombards competed with the English in the medieval wool and finance industries. Olson (1961a). In addition to representing the general commercial values of medieval Lombardy, Pavia also embodied them in sexual intercourse with beautiful women. Brown observed:

As commercial Lombardy perfectly mirrors Januarie’s essentially commercial values, so, I hope to show, Pavia serves as a measure of his sensuality.

Brown (1970) p. 655. These Pavian values apparently date from no later than the ninth century. On Pavia and beautiful women, see my post on the late-eleventh-century Versus Eporedienses.

[3] For many decades, January enjoyed the opportunity in Pavia to possess sexually attractive women. Delusions about marriage prompt January to marry May. Olson argued:

January’s love of May is like the love of possession; it is the love of possession not as one among many goods but as the highest good.

Olson (1961b) p. 208. The highest good to January isn’t May’s love (which he doesn’t have), nor May’s sexuality (which she provides perfunctorily), but marriage. January’s choice of a wife is an abstract formality. Like many women today who decide that they want to acquire a husband, January decided to acquire a wife. In either case, the specific person acquired matters less than the desire to be married.

Fyler tendentiously misinterpreted January’s sexual status. He declared:

Pluto unsurprisingly feels sympathy for his kindred senex amans, ‘this olde, blynde, worthy knyght’ (2259), another rapist constrained to the role of aggrieved husband.

Fyler (2018) p. 42. Living in Pavia, January certainly wasn’t “constrained to the role of aggrieved husband” in order to exercise his heterosexuality. By labeling the senex amans January and Pluto (Dis) as rapists, Fyler gained the benefit of signaling his support for dominant ideology. Fyler thus promoted gender bigotry and the men-incarcerating carceral state.

[4] The marriage encomium is found in the Merchant’s Tale, vv. 1267-1398. One might plausibly exclude vv. 1393-8. While conventionally called an encomium, it has diverse rhetorical characteristics:

The rhetoric of the passage is not that of simple encomium but of argument and exhortation, with strong indications of a sermon model.

Benson (1979) p. 57.

The short quotes characterizing the absurdity of the marriage encomium are from Pugh (2017) pp. 484, 496. Fyler (2018) argues that the marriage encomium “presents an example of irony as alieniloquium that is unparalleled elsewhere in Chaucer’s poetry.” Id. p. 23. The babble of strangers, however, doesn’t well represent the highly controlled rhetoric of irony.

Benson (1979), pp. 49-51, reviews unsatisfactory scholarly attempts to attribute the marriage encomium. It’s “one of the most problematical passages in the Canterbury Tales”; “a major Chaucerian crux, a tantalizing anomaly in a rich and powerful work of art.” Id. pp. 48, 59. Benson didn’t resolve this crux. Neither has subsequent scholarship. See, e.g. Edwards (1991) p. 357; Pugh (2017) p. 480.

[5] Subsequent to the marriage encomium, January declares:

I ‘m not senile. I know the cause why
men should wed.

{ I dote nat; I woot the cause why
Men sholde wedde … }

Merchant’s Tale, vv. 1441-2. If January spoke the marriage encomium, or even if it were just meant to reflect his known thoughts, he would have no need to make this subsequent statement.

[6] Turner provided an inaccurate, anti-meninist interpretation of the merchant:

The man we meet in the prologue to the Merchant’s Tale is the very embodiment of what we today might call toxic masculinity: reactive, bitter, and staunchly anti-feminist, the Merchant’s hyperbolic critique of womanhood in general and his own wife in particular is very nearly a parody of itself as he asserts that his spouse would give even the devil himself a run for his money.

Turner (2018). In his prologue, the merchant doesn’t provide a “hyperbolic critique of womanhood in general.” He doesn’t even address womanhood in general. He describes his lived experience of marriage. Men should be permitted and encouraged to express their feelings. The merchant’s prologue provides “an impulsive and direct expression of bitter personal disillusionment.” Jordan (1968) pp. 133-4. Without good reason, Turner authoritatively smears the merchant as an “anti-feminist wife-hater.” See id., in section “Transformation,” which provides questions for students.

Stevens, in contrast, appropriately questioned:

Why in a Tale that seems to spring from the ‘[w]epyng and waylyng’ (IV, 1213) brought on by a shrewish wife, is the injured husband treated with every bit as much disdain as his erring wife?

Stevens (2018). The text of the Merchant’s Tale itself suggests an answer: Chaucer feared angering women. See, e.g. Merchant’s Tale, v. 2350.

[7] Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Letter of Chaucer to Bukton {Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton},” stanzas 2-3 (vv. 9-24), Middle English text from Benson (1987), my modern English version. Cf. 1 Corinthians 7:9. The subsequent quote above is similarly from this letter, vv. 28-32 (in stanza 3). Richard Scott-Robinson at eleusinianm provides modernized English prose for the whole letter, with helpful notes and comments. According to the Bukton entry in the Chaucer Name Directory, Chaucer directed this verse letter sometime after 1396 to either the courtier Sir Peter Bukton or the courtier Sir Robert Bukton.

[8] Underscoring the ideological imperative that men obey their wives, the marriage encomium blames a husband’s disobedience for his wife deceiving him:

He may not be deceived, as I guess,
providing that he work according to his wife’s advice.

{ He may nat be deceyved, as I gesse,
So that he werke after his wyves reed. }

Merchant’s Tale, vv. 1356-7. An implied context is husbands’ sexually serving wives and wives cuckolding husbands. In the Bible, Paul instructs both spouses to be subservient to each other. He specifically instructs wives to be subservient to their husbands and husbands to love their wives to the extent of allowing themselves to be crucified. Ephesians 5:21-29.

[9] Among intertextual citations not yet mentioned, January urges May to love in a garden with a paraphrase (vv. 2138-48) from the Song of Songs of the Hebrew Bible. The narrating merchant refers explicitly (v. 2032) to the Romance of the Rose, as well as to (v. 1810-11) Constantinus Africanus’s Book of Sexual Intercourse {Liber de coitu}. The merchant also refers to (vv. 1732-5) Martianus Capella’s On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury {De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii}.

[10] Arnulf of Orleans, Lidia / Comedy of Lidia {Comoedia Lydiae}, vv. 121-38, Latin text (with some additional normalization) from Lackenbacher (1931), my English translation, benefiting from those of Elliott (1984), Crawford (1977), and Benson & Andersson (1971). The current best Latin text (not available to me) is Gualandri & Orlandi (1998). For a freely accessible Latin text, du Méril (1854).

For “aula ducis {the duke’s hall}” in v. 121, the Vienna manuscript has the gloss “his wife’s vagina {membrum uxoris suae}.” In v. 122, “doorkeeper {janitor)” is similarly glossed, “wife {uxor}.” See relevant notes in du Méril (1854) p. 357. The hammer and anvil in v. 124-5 refer to male and female genitalia. Alan of Lille’s About the Complaint of Nature {De planctu naturae}, composed between 1160 and 1180, repeatedly uses the hammer and anvil as figures for male and female genitalia. For a Latin text and translation, Wetherbee (2013). Jean de Meun used a hammer and anvil to represent Nature creating new human beings in his late-thirteenth-century continuation of The Romance of the Rose {Le Roman de la Rose}.

Lidia is thought to have been composed about 1175. Once attributed to Matthew of Vendôme {Matthaeus Vindocinensis}, it’s now generally regarded as a work of Arnulf of Orleans {Arnulfus Aurelianensis}. Arnulf was a grammarian who taught classics, particular Ovid. He apparently was associated with the monastery of Saint-Euverte in Orleans, France. The twelfth-century Latin comedy The Braggart Soldier {Miles gloriosus} is also attributed to Arnulf. The introductory verses of Lidia claim that it will outdo the Latin comedy Geta.

Lidia survives in only two fourteenth-century manuscripts: Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, 312, f. 31-40; and Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plutei, XXXIII. 31, f. 71v-73v. Boccaccio may have written the Florence manuscript. In any case, he adapted Lidia into the similar story of Nicostrato and Lidia in Decameron 7.9.

Within the twelfth-century Old French Romance of the Seven Sages of Rome {Roman des Sept Sages de Rome}, the story known as Tentamina is closely associated with Lidia. In Tentamina, an elderly vavasor, after his first wife died, married a young woman. The young woman is unsatisfied with her elderly husband’s sexual service to her. She thus tells her mother that she wants to take a young lover. The mother warns her daughter to test her husband’s indulgence of her before she engages in adultery. The mother suggests that the daughter cut down her husband’s favorite pear tree and burn it. So her daughter did. Her husband forgives her. Then she kills his favorite possession, a female greyhound. While he’s furious at his wife’s action, he does nothing in response. Then she overturns a full table at a feast for Pentecost. The husband finally takes action. He has a doctor bleed the evil out of his wife’s body.

The Roman des Sept Sages de Rome apparently was composed between 1155 and 1190. Speer (1989) p. 18. Id. provides a critical edition. Faral (1924) pp. 359-60, as well as Paris (1876), provides a French translation of Tentamina. This story is also known as Gentullus or Lentullus, the name of the sage associated with it. Sept Sages was translated into Middle English by 1330. Campbell (1899) p. 66. A Middle English Sept Sages in a fifteenth-century manuscript (Cambridge University, MS. Ff, II, 38) adds to the story the killing of the husband’s hawk. Id. pp. 40, 66. That could be a later addition from Lidia.

The earliest Sept Sages, or its source, probably influenced Lidia. Both Tentamina and Lidia include cutting down a pear tree. In Lidia, cutting down the pear tree becomes a much more elaborate representation. The pear tree isn’t cut down in the less provocative story of the Merchant’s Tale. Tentamina of Sept Sages and Lidia probably influenced the Merchant’s Tale. Here are some subsequent, related tales.

While Lidia apparently wasn’t widely distributed, the Seven Sages {Sept Sages} stories were an enormously influential work of men’s sexed protest:

Translations and remainements of the Sept Sages number in the hundreds, and they appear over a period of 800 years in nearly every European language — rendered from French or French derivatives into Latin, Middle English, Middle Scots, Celtic, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, German, Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, Polish, Russian, Armenian, and so on.

Speer (1989) p. 18. The popularity of medieval works of men’s sexed protest suggests men’s frustration with the gender trouble that they endured under medieval gynocentrism.

Subsequent quotes from Lidia are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 244-50 (Pearus is like Hippolytus…), 254 (A sexually strong woman…), 257-8 (What a wonder you arouse…), 260-70 (Pearus said…), 282-90 (She is totally ravished…), 293-312 (While Decius plays…), 313-28 (While she plays and nuzzles…), 386-402 (She stirs up a pallor…), v. 405 (If your tooth offends you…), 417-22 (See, as much pain as oppresses him…), 425 (great father of the gods), 465-70 (That is nothing at all…), 510 (Now shake pears…), 513-8 (Spare me, I beg you…), 527-534 (The duke says…), 543-6 (Attributing what he sees to the branches…), 548 (It’s not Pearus that moves me…), 129-38 (What is marriage now…).

[11] Cf. Matthew 18:8-9.

[12] Pearus tells the great father of the gods (Jupiter, who is married to Juno) that Lidia is a woman who is perhaps beyond the knowledge of the gods. Invoking classical women, Pearus declares that the excessive of pride of Niobe, the charming songs of Circe, and the wickedness of Medea all fall short of Lidia. Lidia vv. 425-32.

[13] Making a husband disbelieve his own eyes was a well-recognized medieval feat that numerous wives reportedly achieved. See note [1] and associated text in my post on men’s inferiority in guile.

[14] Pearus was Lidia’s subordinate within feudal society. He attempted to flee from her unwelcomed and coercive sexual solicitation. But in awe of Lidia’s abuse of Decius, Pearus was transformed:

Behold, the hare is the hound and the wolf itself is the goat.

{ Ecce lepus canis est et lupus ipse caper }

Lidia, v. 340. Here the hare figures Pearus and the wolf, Decius. The hound and the goat figure Pearus’s and Decius’s respective transformations. Men have long been disparaged as being sexually like dogs (the hound). The horned goat symbolizes a cuckolded man.

[15] In Latin, “pear {pirum}” can mean testicle or penis. Elliot (1984) p. 146, n. 34, citing Du Cange, and Olson (1961b) p. 207, n. 5, respectively. But in Lidia, pears are best interpreted as including a coded reference to semen:

The pears from the tree seem to represent semen: note 544 ‘sepe quidem Pirro sunt pira missa piro’ (certainly a double entendre; given that piro is the penis, the pears sent from it must be semen), 510 ‘iam meliore piro succute, Pirre, pira’.

Adams (1982) p. 29. The twelfth-century Latin comedy Alda includes a sexually vigorous man named Pyrrhus. But Pyrrhus’s penis is figured as a hard-working “tail,” not a pear or a pear tree. Thibaut’s thirteenth-century Old French Romance of the Pear {Romanz de la poire} associates pears and a pear tree with love.

[16] The scribe of Oxford, New College MS 314 (written c. 1450–70) added fourteeen verses after v. 2353, “in he thrust {in he throng}”:

a great dick, one worthy and long.
She said it was the most pleasing fit
that ever in her life she had yet.
“My lord’s dick,” she said, “serves me not thus.
It flops in half, by sweet Jesus.
He’s not able to fuck worth a leek,
and yet he is fully noble and fully meek.
This is more beloved to me than an evening song.

{ A greet tente . a thrifty and a long
She saide it was þe meriest fit
That ever in her lif she was at yet
Mi lordis tente she saide servith me not thus
He foldith twifolde be swete Jhesus
He may not swyve worth a leek
And yet he is ful gentil and ful meek
This is levir to me þan an evynsong. }

Middle English transcription from Flannery (2019), p. 2, my English modernization. The earliest manuscript witnesses to these interpolations, Princeton University MS 100 (formerly Helmingham, copied c. 1420–30), interpolates ten of these fourteen verses. British Library, MS Harley 1758 (copied c.1450–60) has these verses written in the margin of folio 88r. Id. p. 4. These verses were regarded as part of the Merchant’s Tale for more than two hundred years:

These lines were, in fact, in the standard edition of Chaucer until Thomas Tyrwhitt removed them in 1775, and thus were part of the Merchant’s Tale as received by readers from 1532 to 1775, including Shakespeare, Milton and Pope.

Kaufman (2014) p. 32, n. 24. Similarly in Turner (2018), “Coda: Readerly Pleasure.”

[17] The beginning section (the argument) of Lidia provides a general warning to men:

I have taught what a woman can do so that, more wary, you might flee.
A Lidia might be capable of being in your life, too.

{ Cautius ut fugeres docui quid femina posset;
Esse potest una Lidia quoque tibi. }

Lidia, vv. 5-6. Within the story, the narrator adds additional advice for men:

Unless he serves himself, unless he attends to his own advantage,
a man surrenders himself to women’s guile.

{ Ne se conservet, ne sit sibi commodus ipse,
A se feminea fraude recidit homo. }

Lidia, vv. 89-90. Alternate medieval advice for men: if you can’t be chaste, be careful.

[18] Apparently supporting female supremacism, Pugh declared:

In sum, the Merchant’s Tale takes readers through a series of debates that increasingly foreground women’s necessary, and superior, role in argumentation. The speaker of the marriage encomium proves the folly of a man’s voice.

Pugh (2017) p. 496. Academia today scarcely includes the possibility of debating such anti-meninism. In these circumstances, men are imprisoned without the benefit of counsel for having consensual sexual intercourse and then not being able afford state-mandated sex payments (“child support”). Men’s lack of reproductive rights arises in part from the social privileging of women’s desire. Consistent with that privileging, scholars today tend to celebrate May cuckolding January. In the Merchant’s Tale, May thus reveals that “a woman knows a woman’s desire — and that there is no debate about that.” Id. You go girl!

[images] (1) The merchant rides into the beginning of Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale. Illumination on folio 102v of the early fifteenth-century Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales. Preserved as MS. EL 26 C 9 in Huntington Library (San Marino, California). (2) Man gives woman pears beneath a pear tree. Illumination from folio 15r of Thibaut’s The Romance of the Pear {Li Romanz de la poire} in BnF MS. Français 2186, written in the thirteen century.


Adams, James Noel. 1982. The Latin Sexual Vocabulary. London: Duckworth.

Benson, Donald R. 1979. ‘The Marriage “Encomium” in the Merchant’s Tale: A Chaucerian Crux.’ The Chaucer Review. 14 (1): 48-60.

Benson, Larry D. and Andersson, Theodore Murdock. 1971. The Literary Context of Chaucer’s Fabliaux: texts and translations. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Benson, Larry D., ed. 1987. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brown, Emerson. 1970. “The Merchant’s Tale: Why Was Januarie Born ‘Of Pavye’?” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen. 71 (4): 654-658.

Campbell, Killis. 1899. “A Study of the Romance of the Seven Sages with Special Reference to the Middle English Versions.” PMLA / Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. 14 (1): 1-107.

Crawford, James Martin. 1977. The Secular Latin Comedies of Twelfth Century France. Ph. D. Thesis. Indiana University, USA.

du Méril, Édélestand, ed. 1854. Poésies Inédites du Moyen Âge: précédées d’une histoire de la fable ésopique. Paris: Franck. (alternate version)

Edwards, Robert R. 1991. “Narration and Doctrine in the Merchant’s Tale.” Speculum. 66 (2): 342-367.

Elliott, Alison Goddard, trans. 1984. Seven Medieval Latin Comedies. New York: Garland.

Faral, Edmond. 1924. “Le Fabliau Latin au Moyen Âge.” Romania. 50 (199): 321-385.

Flannery, Mary C. 2019. “Looking for Scribal Play in Oxford, New College MS 314.” New College Notes. 12 (3): 1-4.

Fyler, John M. 2018. “Hateful Contraries in ‘The Merchant’s Tale’.” Critical Survey. 30 (2): 20-50.

Gualandri, Isabella and Giovanni Orlandi, ed. and trans. (into Italian). 1998. “Lidia.” Pp. 111-318 in vol. 6 of Ferrucio Bertini, ed. Commedie Latine del XII e XIII secolo. Genova: Università di Genova, Dipartimento di Archeologia, Filologia Classica, e Loro Tradizioni.

Jordan, Robert M. 1968. Chaucer and the Shape of Creation: the aesthetic possibilities of inorganic structure. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Kaufman, Amy S. 2014. “Erotic (Subject) Positions in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale.” Ch. 2 (pp. 27-37) in Hopkins, Amanda, Robert Allen Rouse, and Cory Rushton. 2016. Sexual Culture in the Literature of Medieval Britain. Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Lackenbacher, Edmond, ed. and trans. (into French). 1931. “Lidia.” Pp. 213-246 in vol. 1 of Gustave Cohen, ed. La “Comédie” Latine en France au XIIe Siècle. Paris: Société d’édition Les Belles-lettres.

Olson, Paul A. 1961a. “The Merchant’s Lombard Knight.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 3 (2): 259-263.

Olson, Paul A. 1961b. ‘Chaucer’s Merchant and January’s “Hevene in Erthe Heere”.’ ELH. 28 (3): 203-214.

Paris, Gaston. 1876. Deux rédactions du roman des Sept sages de Rome. Paris: Firmin Didot.

Pugh, Tison. 2017. “Gender, Vulgarity, and the Phantom Debates of Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale.” Studies in Philology. 114 (3): 473-496.

Speer, Mary B. 1989. Le roman des sept sages de Rome: a critical edition of the two verse redactions of a twelfth-century romance. Lexington, KY: French Forum.

Stevens, Jenny. 2018. “A close reading of Chaucer’s ‘The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale’.” Discovering Literature: Medieval. British Library. Online.

Turner, Marie. 2018. “Sexuality, Obscenity, and Genre in the Merchant’s Tale: The Case of Fabliau.” In Candace Barrington, Brantley L. Bryant, Richard H. Godden, Daniel T. Kline, and Myra Seaman, eds. The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales. Online.

Wetherbee, Winthrop, ed. and trans. 2013. Alan of Lille {Alanus de Insulis}. Literary works. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, vol. 22. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. (online review)

no medieval romance: queens sexually harass Graelent & Guingamor

Social-scientific surveys indicate that women rape men about as often as men rape women. Nonetheless, public concern about women raping men lags far behind public concern about persons uttering forbidden words such as “retard” and committing micro-aggressions. Women sexually harassing men similarly tends to be treated today like a joke. In more reasonable and more enlightened medieval Europe, women sexually harassing men was rightly regarded as a serious matter.

Prince Joachim Murat, Marshall of France in 1804

The Old French lai Graelent, composed late in the twelfth century, recounts the queen of Brittany sexually harassing the knight Graelent. He was noble, handsome, courtly, wise, and well-regarded far and wide. He responded to the king of Brittany summoning knights for war. Graelent served the king admirably. His fine reputation and outstanding service regrettably led to his victimization:

The queen heard praise of him
and accounts of his excellent deeds,
his great valor and his prowess,
and his beauty and his generosity.
She then loved him in her heart.

{ La roïne l’oï loer,
Et de lui granz biens raconter,
Sa grant valor et sa proesce,
Et sa biauté et sa largesce.
En son corage l’aama }[1]

The queen summoned one of her sycophantic chamberlains and told him:

I want to make him my beloved.
Because of him I am in great turmoil,
so go and tell him that he should come to me.
My love I shall grant him completely.

{ De lui veil fere mon ami,
Je suis por lui en grant esfroi;
Va, si li di qu’il viengne a moi,
M’amor li metrai a bandon. }

The chamberlain obsequiously supported the queen’s initiative to betray sexually her husband with the knight:

“You would be giving him a very fine gift,” he said,
“It will be astonishing if he’s not filled with joy.
There’s not a single good monk from here to Troy,
who, if he looked upon your face,
would not very soon undergo a change of heart.”

{ “Molt li donroiz,” fet cil, “grant don,
Merveille est s’il n’en a grant joie,
N’a si bon moine jusqu’a [T]roie,
S’il esgardoit vostre visage,
Qui tout ne chanjast son corage.” }

Following the queen’s command, the chamberlain went to Graelent and told him to go to the queen without delay.

Just as for too many women today, the queen felt sexually entitled because of her superior status relative to almost all men. When Graelent entered the queen’s chamber, she immediately put him into a pressing, dangerous position:

She took Graelent into her arms,
and held him in a tight embrace.
She made him sit down beside her
on a cushion next to her bed.
She looked at him very tenderly,
at the beauty of his body and his face.

{ Entre ses braz prent Graalent,
Et l’acola estroitement.
De jost li seoir le fist
Seur .I. tapit joste son lit.
Molt doucement l’a regardé,
Son cors, son vis et sa biauté. }

Graelent had never before met the queen. She didn’t ask him for his affirmative consent before she embraced him tightly and gazed at him tenderly. Having sex with the queen would be treason against the king and imply the death penalty for Graelent. Given the dire threat to his safety, he had to remain calm:

She spoke to him in friendly fashion,
and he made a courtly reply.
But nothing he said was pleasing to her.
The queen remained thoughtful for a long time.
She was astonished that he hadn’t begged her
to love him with true passion.
Because he had not sought her love,
she asked him if he had a beloved,
or if he were captivated with love,
for he fully deserved to be someone’s lover.

{ A lui parla molt simplement
Cil li respont courtoisement,
Mes ne dit rien qui a lui siece.
La roïne pensa grant piece;
Merveille soi qu’il ne la prie
Qu’ele l’amast par druerie.
Por ce que proiee ne l’a,
Demande li s'[il] amie a,
Ne se d’amors est arestez,
Car molt devroit bien estre amez. }

Attempting to diffuse this treacherous situation, Graelent wisely replied with a long, abstract speech on the nature of love:

“My lady,” he said, “this is not what I want.
Loving is no laughing matter.
A man must be of very great worth
to undertake to become a lover.
Five hundred men speak of love
who do not know the slightest about it
or know what loyal passion is,
so mad and so foolish are they.”

{ “Dame,” fet il, “ce ne veil pas;
Amor tenir n’est mie gas.
Cil doit estre de molt haut pris
Qui s’entremet qu’il soit amis.
Tex .VC. parolent d’amor
N’e[n] sevent pas le menor tor,
Ne que est leal druerie;
Ainz est lor rage et lor folie.” }

What queen wouldn’t agree that men are to blame for wrongful love? Since study of classics was encouraged in medieval Europe, Graelent was well-educated enough to cite Cicero on friendship in discussing heterosexual love.

The queen was impressed with Graelent’s courtly speech about love. She then spoke her mind as only the privileged can:

She spoke to him more openly,
revealing her heart to him completely.
“Beloved,” she said, “Graelent,
I love you fervently.
I have never loved anyone but my lord,
but I love you with such passion
that I bestow on you all my love.
Be my beloved, and I shall be your beloved.

{ A lui parle plus en apert,
Son cuer li a tot descovert;
“Amis,” fet ele, “Graalant,
Je vos aing angoisseusement.
Onc mes n’amai fors mon seignor,
Mes je vos aim de tel amor
Que vos otroi ma druerie;
Soiez amis, car g’iere amie.” }

Graelent could no longer hide behind learned abstractions. He had to respond directly to the queen’s amorous solicitation:

“My lady,” he said, “My thanks to you,
but it cannot be thus,
for I am in the king’s pay.
I promised him loyalty and faith
when I took my oath to him the other day,
to his life and to his honor.
Never will he know shame because of me.”
Then he took his leave and departed.

{ “Dame,” fet il, “vostre merci,
Mes il ne puet mie estre ainsi,
Car je sui soudoier le roi.
Loiauté li promis et foi,
Quant a lui remés l’autre jor,
Et de sa vie, et de s’anor;
Ja par moi honte n’en avra.”
Lors prent congié, si s’en ala. }

In short, Graelent politely and rightfully told the queen “no” to having an affair with her.

The queen wouldn’t accept that no means no for a woman of her privilege. She couldn’t imagine that words said to men could also have meaning for her:

She didn’t want to be so rejected.
Many times she requested his love
and dispatched her messengers to him.
She sent him costly gifts
but he refused all of them.

{ Ne s’en velt pas a tant retrere.
Soventes foiz le requeroit,
Ses messages li enveoit;
Riches presenz li trametoit,
Mes il du tout les refusoit. }

Finally acknowledging Graelent’s determination to refuse his superior’s sexual advance, the queen viciously retaliated against him:

When she saw that her efforts had failed
completely to move him, she hated him intensely.
She caused trouble for him with his lord
and deliberately slandered him.

{ Quant ele voit qu’ele a failli
A li du tout, molt le haï;
Vers son seignor mal li tenoit,
Et volentiers en mesdisoit. }

Because his wife claimed that Graelent wasn’t performing his job adequately, the king began to withhold Graelent’s pay. Graelent then sunk into poverty. The queen’s sexual harassment and retaliation thus victimized him extremely.

The Old French lai Guingamor, also composed late in the twelfth century, provides another medieval case of a queen sexually harassing a knight. Guingamor was a brave and handsome knight. He was also the nephew of the king of Brittany. One day, the king went hunting. Guingamor remained at the royal castle because he was feeling slightly ill. He felt well enough, however, to play chess in a room with the seneschal. That play put him in grave danger:

The queen left her quarters
and came to the door of the room.
She was intending to go to the chapel.
She was very tall, stately, and fair.
In order to look at the knight,
whom she saw playing at the table,
she paused for a long time.
She didn’t go any further, nor did she move.
He appeared to her remarkably handsome
in body, face, and feature.
He was sitting by a window.
A ray of sunlight fell
upon his face, lighting it
and giving him a fine coloring.
The queen gazed at him so long
that she completely changed her mind.
Because of his beauty and his noble bearing,
she was overcome with love for him.
The queen retraced her steps
and summoned a handmaiden.
“Go,” she said, “to the knight
who is sitting in there at the chess-board.
He’s Guingamor, the king’s nephew.
Tell him to come to me.”

{ La roïne estoit fors issue,
A l’uis de la chambre est venue;
Aler voloit a la chapele.
Molt estoit longue et gente et bele.
Por le chevalier esgarder,
Qu’ele vit as tables jouer,
Une grant piece s’arestut;
N’ala avant, ne ne se mut.
Bel li sembla de grant mesure
De cors, de vis et de feture;
Contre une fenestre seoit;
.I. rai de soleil li venoit
El vis, que tout l’enluminoit
Et bone color li donnoit.
Tant l’a la roïne esgardé
Que tout en change som pensé;
Por sa biauté, por sa franchise,
De l’amor de luit ert esprise.
Ariere s’en vait la roïne,
Si apela une meschine.
“Alez,” fet ele, “au chevalier
Qui laienz siet a l’eschequier,
Guingamor, le neveu le roi,
Si li dites qu’il viengne a moi.” }[2]

When a privileged woman summons a man, he must immediately go to her:

Guingamor left the game
and went with the handmaiden.
The queen called to him
and had him sit down beside her.
Guingamor didn’t understand
why she was being so welcoming.
The queen spoke first:
“Guingamor, you are very brave,
worthy, courtly, and charming.
Good fortune awaits you.
You can find love in a very high place.
You have a lover who is courtly and fair.
I know of no lady or maiden
in the kingdom who is her equal,
and she loves you with a great love,
so take her for your mistress.”

{ Guingamor let le jeu ester,
O la meschine s’en ala,
Et la roïne l’apela,
Dejoste li le fist seoir.
Cil ne se pot apercevoir
Por coi li fet si bel semblant.
La roïne parla avant:
“Guingamor, molt estes vaillans,
Preuz et cortois et avenans,
Riche aventure vos atent,
Amer pouez molt hautement.
Amie avez, cortoise et bele;
Je ne sai dame ne danzele
El roiaume de sa valor,
Si vous aimme de grant amor,
Bien la tenez por vostre dru[e].” }

Guingamor knew nothing about such a highly placed lover:

“My lady,” he said, “I do not know how
I might love a lady passionately,
unless I had already seen her,
made her acquaintance and got to know her.
I have never even heard speak of her,
nor do I seek to labor for love at present.

{ “Dame,” fet il, “ne sai conment
J’amasse dame durement,
S’ançois ne l’eüsse veüe
Et acointie et (a)conneüe;
Onques mes n’en oï parler,
Ne quier ouan d’amor ovrer.” }

Men shouldn’t have to labor for women’s love. Loving persons should freely give each other love. Perhaps Guingamor forswore love affairs at present because he suspected a trap. The queen then made the matter clear:

The queen said to him: “Beloved,
don’t be so timid.
It is I whom you should truly love.
I’m not to be refused,
for I love you with all my heart
and shall do so for my whole life.”

{ La roïne li dist: “Amis,
Ne soiez mie si eschis,
Moi devez vos tres bien amer;
Je ne faz mie a refuser,
Car je vos aim de bon corage
Et amerai tout mon aage.” }

The queen thus made the knight a love offer that he could refuse only at his great peril.

Guingamor wisely sought to sidestep the queen’s forceful sexual proposition. He acknowledged his responsibility to her as his superior:

I know well, my lady, that I must love you,
for you are the wife of my lord the king,
and so I must bear you honor
as to the wife of my lord.

{ Bien sai, dame, qu’amer vos doi,
Fame estes mon seignor le roi,
Et si vos doi porter honnor
Comme a la fame mon seignor. }

The queen immediately quashed that rhetorical dodge:

“I don’t mean love of that kind.
I want to love you passionately,
and be your mistress.
You are handsome and I am attractive.
If you set your mind on loving me,
we can both be very happy.”
She drew him towards her and kissed him.

{ “Je ne di mie amer ainsi;
Amer vos voil de druerie,
Et que je soie vostre amie.
Vos estes biax et je sui gente;
S’a moi amer metez entente,
Molt poons estre andui hetié.”
Vers lui le tret, si l’a besié. }

She didn’t ask him for affirmative consent before she kissed him. If he were she, literary scholars today would assert that he attempted to rape her. Guingamor was rightly angry at the queen sexually harassing him with unwelcomed attention, to say nothing of kissing him without his affirmative consent. He barely escaped from the queen’s grasp:

Guingamor heard what she said,
and the kind of love that she wanted.
He felt great shame and blushed all over.
He pulled away angrily
and attempted to leave the room,
but the lady tried to hold him back.
She seized hold of his cloak
and broke its fastenings.
He went off without his cloak
and returned to the gaming-table.
He sat down again very upset.

{ Guingamor entent qu’ele di[s]t
Et quele amor ele requist;
Grant honte en a, tout en rogi.
Par mautalent se departi,
De la chambre s’en vost issir;
La dame le vet retenir,
Par le mantel l’avoit saisi
Que les ataches en rompi;
Fors s’en issi toz desfublez.
Au tablier dont estoit tornez
Se rest assis molt triboulez. }

Women shouldn’t tear off men’s clothes, especially the clothes of men in subordinate service to them, especially after such men have clearly refused their unwelcomed sexual advances. Teach women not to tear men’s clothes off! The queen went on to scheme successfully to have Guingamor leave the palace on a quest at great risk to his life. Just as it did to Graelent and Guingamor, retaliation against men makes women’s sexual harassment of men even worse.

Joseph being sexually harassed by Potiphar's wife

Men’s lives should matter in public discussion of rape and sexual harassment. What Graelent and Guingamor suffered wasn’t unusual. The knight Lanval, the knight Galo, the knight who loved the chastelaine de Vergi, Joseph the son of Jacob, and many other men have similarly suffered women sexually harassing and sexually assaulting them. Moreover, the enormous gender protrusion in persons suffering authoritative incarceration is a grotesque gender inequality. Justice systems that administer penal punishment with acute bias against persons with penises deserve to be defunded and abolished.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Graelent, vv. 27-31, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Brook (2007). The lai (lay) Graelent survives in three manuscripts. Burgess & Brook’s text and translation are based on MS S: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, nouvelles acquisitions françaises, 1104, f. 72rb-77ra. The MS S part that contains Graelent was copied late in the thirteenth century or early in the fourteenth century. On the dating of Graelent itself, which is only approximate, id. p. 352.

For a freely available Old French text of Graelent, Tobin (1976a). Burgess & Brook (2016) provides a readily available, faithful translation following closely the verse-by-verse English translation of Burgess & Brook (2007). For a freely available English translation, Mason (1911). For an early nineteenth-century adaptation into English iambic pentameter with end-rhyming couplets, Way (1815), vol. 2, pp. 73-97.

Subsequent quotes from Graelent are sourced similarly. Those quotes are vv. 40-3 (I want to make him my beloved…), 44-8 (You would be giving him a very fine gift…), 67-72 (She took Graelent in her arms…), 73-82 (She spoke to him in friendly fashion…), 83-90 (“My lady,” he said, “this is not what I want.”…), 123-30 (She spoke to him more openly…), 131-8 (“My lady,” he said, “My thanks to you,”…), 142-6 (She didn’t want to be so rejected…), 147-50 (When she saw that her efforts had failed…).

[2] Guingamor, vv. 37-60, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Brook (2007). The lai (lay) Guingamor survives in only one manuscript, MS S: BnF nouv. acq. rançaises, 1104, f. f. 23rb-27va. The dating of Guingamor is based on the scholar view that the lais Lanval, Graelent, and Guingamor were composed in that order. Id. p. 144.

For a freely available Old French text of Guingamor, Tobin (1976b). Burgess & Brook (2016) provides a readily available, faithful translation translation following closely the verse-by-verse English translation of Burgess & Brook (2007). For a freely available English translation,Weston (1900). Another English translation is Skeels (1966) pp. 63-70.

Drawing upon the Biblical example of Joseph being sexually harassed by Potiphar’s wife, the Carmina Burana advised men enduring sexual harassment to flee:

Quick, leave your cloak behind
and run away!
Don’t be rash and struggle,
for in warfare of this kind,
he who resists is the loser.
When a man knows how to yield
by running away, women flee from him.

{ mox pallia
fugitivus desere,
nec lucteris temere,
nam resistens vincitur
in hoc belli genere,
et qui novit cedere
fugiendo, fugitur. }

Carmina Burana 29, Philip the Chancellor (attributed), “In a pool of wretchedness {In lacu miseriae},” 3.8-14, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) of Traill (2018). Another poem makes the point succinctly:

If you don’t flee when touched, you’ll hardly escape sexual intercourse.

{ Ni fugias tactus, vix evitabitur actus. }

Carmina Burana 63a, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) of Traill (2018).

Subsequent quotes from Guingamor are sourced similarly. Those quotes are vv. 64-79 (Guigamor left the game…), 81-6 (“My lady,” he said, “I do not know how”…), 87-92 (The queen said to him…), 95-8 (I know well, my lady…), 100-6 (I don’t mean love of that kind…), 107-17 (Guingamor heard what she said…).

[images] Prince Joachim Murat, King of Naples. Painted by François Gérard about 1808. Via Wikimedia Commons. (1) Joseph, son of Jacob, being sexually harassed by Potiphar’s wife. Painted by Guido Reni in 1631. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Burgess, Glyn S., Leslie C. Brook, ed. and trans. 2007. French Arthurian Literature. Volume IV: Eleven Old French Narrative Lays. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Leslie C. Brook, trans. 2016. Twenty-Four Lays from the French Middle Ages. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Mason, Eugene, trans. 1911. French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of Marie de France. London: J.M. Dent & Sons. Alternate textual presentation.

Skeels, Dell R. 1966. “Guingamor and Guerrehés: Psychological Symbolism in a Medieval Romance.” The Journal of American Folklore. 79 (311): 52-83.

Tobin, Prudence Mary O’Hara, ed. 1976a. Graelent. Genève: Droz. Publié en ligne par l’ENS de Lyon dans la Base de français médiéval, dernière révision le 20-06-2016.

Tobin, Prudence Mary O’Hara, ed. 1976b. Guingamor. Genève: Droz. Publié en ligne par l’ENS de Lyon dans la Base de français médiéval, dernière révision le 20-06-2016.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Way, Gregory Lewis, trans. 1815. Fabliaux or Tales, Abridged from French Manuscripts of The XIIth and XIIIth Centuries. Based on Le Grand d’Aussy’s French adaption. London: Hamilton. Volume 1. Volume 2. Volume 3.

Weston, Jessie L., trans. 1900. Guingamor, Lanval, Tyolet, Bisclaveret: Four Lais Rendered Into English Prose From the French of Marie De France and Others. With Designs by Caroline Watts. London: David Nutt. Alternate textual presentation.

Béroul’s Tristan narrates evil persons’ lies vs. good ones’ truth

In Béroul’s twelfth-century romance, evil dwarfs and malicious barons repeatedly told King Mark of his vassal-nephew Tristan having sex with Mark’s wife Iseut. The evil dwarfs and malicious barons were wicked liars! One day, Queen Iseut and Tristan planned a tryst in her garden. An evil dwarf learned of their planned tryst. He informed King Mark. The king was astonished that his loyal nephew Tristan would cuckold him. The dwarf urged the king to hide in a tree in the garden to see for himself. That’s what Mark did. But before Tristan and Iseut embraced, she caught sight of the king’s reflection in the water of a fountain.

Tristan courting Iseut:

Iseut and Tristan fabricated a drama in the garden for the spying King Mark. Iseut admonished Tristan and declared her innocence before God:

By God, who made the air and sea,
do not send for me ever again.
I tell you, Tristan, once and for all,
certainly I shouldn’t have come.
The king thinks it’s with a sinful love,
Sir Tristan, that I have loved you.
But before God I swear my faithfulness.
May He send a scourge upon me
if anyone but he who had me as a virgin
ever had my love thereafter even a single day!

{ Par Deu, qui l’air fist et la mer,
Ne me mandez nule foiz mais.
Je vos di bien, Tristran, a fais,
Certes, je n’i vendroie mie.
Li rois pense que par folie,
Sire Tristran, vos aie amé;
Mais Dex plevis ma loiauté,
Qui sor mon cors mete flaele,
S’onques fors cil qui m’ot pucele
Out m’amistié encor nul jor! }[1]

In fact, before Iseut married King Mark, she and Tristan accidentally drank a love potion that made them sexually desire each other. Iseut ended her virginity with Tristan. To obscure her subsequent, extensive sexual activity with Tristan, Iseut’s virgin maid Brengain secretly took Iseut’s place in bed on her wedding night with the king.

Tristan and Iseut embracing

Iseut told of her lived experience in relation to Tristan. She, the niece of the giant Morholt, had been an Irish princess. Tristan killed Morholt in battle after Morholt threatened King Mark’s realm. When Tristan was in Ireland seeking a wife for his uncle Mark and dying of a dragon’s poison, Iseut saved his life. Iseut subsequently returned with Tristan to be King Mark’s wife. For the spying Mark, Iseut told Tristan:

You had to suffer much pain
from the wound you received
in the battle you fought
with my uncle. I healed you.
If because of that you were my friend,
it was no wonder, by my faith!
But they have given the king to understand
that you love me with a dishonorable love.
Let them see God and His kingdom!
Never would they look Him in the face.
Tristan, take care not to send for me
in any place, for any reason.
I should not be so bold
as to dare to come.
I’m staying here too long, truth to tell.
If the king knew one word about this,
I would be torn limb from limb.
I know well that he would have me killed,
and yet it would be quite wrongfully.
Tristan, surely the king doesn’t know
that it’s for his sake that I have loved you.
I have held you dear
because you are of his kin.
Long ago I believed that my mother
dearly loved my father’s relatives.
She used to say that never a wife
would cherish her lord
if she would not love his kin.
Indeed, I know well that she was speaking the truth.

{ Mot vos estut mal endurer
De la plaie que vos preïstes
En la batalle que feïstes
O mon oncle. Je vos gari.
Se vos m’en erïez ami,
N’ert pas mervelle, par ma foi!
Et il ont fait entendre au roi
Que vos m’amez d’amor vilaine.
Si voient il Deu et son reigne!
Ja nul verroient en la face.
Tristran, gardez en nule place
Ne me mandez por nule chose:
Je ne seroie pas tant ose
Que je i osase venir.
Trop demor ci, n’en quier mentir.
S’or en savoit li rois un mot,
Mon cors seret desmenbré tot,
Et si seroit a mot grant tort;
Bien sai qu’il me dorroit la mort.
Tristran, certes, li rois ne set
Que por lui par vos aie ameit:
Por ce qu’eres du parenté
Vos avoie je en cherté.
Je quidai jadis que ma mere
Amast mot les parenz mon pere;
Et disoit ce, que ja mollier
N’en avroit ja son seignor chier
Qui les parenz n’en amereit.
Certes, bien sai que voir diset. }

Tristan in turn explained Mark misunderstanding the truth:

His men have made him believe
something about us that is untrue.

{ Si home li ont fait acroire
De nos tel chose qui n’est voire. }

In Béroul’s romance, the truth is defined in terms of worldly persons’ characteristics.[2] Iseut and Tristan are good persons, so what they say is true. Evil men are wicked liars. Whatever they say is false!

Tristan and Iseut gazing into each other's eyes

Iseut and Tristan eventually had to flee into the Morrois forest to avoid being executed for treasonous adultery. After three years of living in the forest together, the love spell that bound them ended. They both sought to return to more comfortable, civilized life. They turned to the wilderness-dwelling holy hermit Brother Ogrin for advice:

Iseut fell down at the hermit’s feet,
and was not half-hearted in imploring him
to reconcile them with the king:
“I shall have no inclination toward illicit love
on any day of my life.
For your understanding, I don’t say
that I feel remorse for a single day with Tristan,
or say that I don’t love him with good love
and as a friend, without dishonor.
As for the carnal union of my body
and his, we’re entirely free of it.”
The hermit heard her speak and wept.
He praised God for what he had heard.

{ As piez l’ermite chiet encline,
De lui proier point ne se faint
Qu’il les acort au roi, si plaint:
“Qar ja corage de folie
Nen avrai je jor de ma vie.
Ge ne di pas, a vostre entente,
Que de Tristran jor me repente,
Que je ne l’aim de bone amor
Et com amis, sanz desanor:
De la comune de mon cors
Et je du suen somes tuit fors.”
L’ermites l’ot parler, si plore,
De ce qu’il ot Deu en aoure }[3]

Brother Ogrin then provided theological and pastoral counseling to the lovers:

When a man and a woman commit sin,
if they have first taken each other, and then have separated
and have come to acknowledge their fault
and have true repentance,
God pardons them for their transgression,
however horrible and ugly it might be.
Tristan and Queen, now listen
a little and pay attention to me.
In order to take away shame and cover up evil,
it’s necessary to lie a bit, fittingly.

{ Qant home et feme font pechié,
S’aus se sont pris et sont quitié
Et s’aus vienent a penitance
Et aient bone repentance,
Dex lor pardone lor mesfait,
Tant ne seroit orible et lait.
Tristran, roïne, or escoutez
Un petitet, si m’entendez.
Por honte oster et mal covrir
Doit on un poi par bel mentir. }

Christians regard this theological lesson on repentance and forgiveness of sin as eternally true. Pastoral counseling, in contrast, always depends on specific circumstances. With Iseut and Tristan’s agreement, the hermit Brother Ogrin drafted a letter to King Mark in which Tristan offered to return Iseut to him and leave Mark’s realm if Mark so decided. The letter asserted that Tristan and Iseut never had sexual relations. Tristan offered to undergo an ordeal to prove their innocence.

King Mark lovingly accepted Iseut to be his queen once again. He ordered Tristan to depart from his realm for a year. Iseut’s return was celebrated with a great feast and much popular rejoicing. But three malicious barons advised the king:

King, listen to our words.
If the queen has been wanton —
she has never formally denied it —
this is said to your shame.
And the barons of your land
have many a time entreated you concerning this,
because they want her to deny formally
that Tristan ever had her love.
She must clear herself if people are lying about it.
And so have her put to the test,
and straightaway require this of her,
privately, when you retire.
If she does not want to make a formal denial,
let her leave your realm.

{ Rois, or entent nostre parole.
Se la roïne a esté fole,
El n’en fist onques escondit.
S’a vilanie vos est dit;
Et li baron de ton païs
T’en ont par mainte foiz requis,
Qu’il vuelent bien s’en escondie
Qu’o Tristran n’ot sa drüerie.
Escondire se doit c’on ment.
Si l’en fait faire jugement
Et enevoies l’en requier,
Priveement, a ton couchier.
S’ele ne s’en veut escondire,
Lai l’en aler de ton enpire. }

King Mark was furious with these barons for continuing to accuse his queen. They offered to drop the matter forever. But Mark threatened to arrest them. Then he told them to get out of his realm. Mark’s actions created a serious threat to peace.

When Mark returned home to Iseut, he was upset and anxious. She asked him about what was troubling him. To resolve the crisis, she offered to make a formal denial concerning her relationship with Tristan. She insisted that King Arthur and his knights be present, as well as all the people of the realm. They would defend her honor if any dared to accuse her after she had formally established her innocence. She set the place for this proceeding to be the Blanche Lande next to the marsh at Mal Pas. King Mark agreed with her plan. He ordered that this proceeding be arranged.

Meanwhile, Iseut sent instructions to Tristan. He hadn’t departed the realm, but was hiding nearby. She told him of the appointed time and place for the proceeding of her formal denial. She told him to come then to the ford at Mal Pas. She instructed him to disguise himself as a leper and beg from all those coming to the proceeding. She didn’t give him any other instructions on how to act.

One the day of the formal denial, Iseut came to the ford at Mal Pas. Others had become covered in filth from crossing there. With King Arthur, King Mark, and all the rest of the people watching, Iseut sought a ride across a muddy bridge on the back of Tristan disguised as a leper:

“My goodness, sick man, you are very large!
Turn your face that way and your back this way.
I shall mount you like a boy.”
And then the leper smiled at that request.
He turned his back, and she mounted.
They were all watching, kings and counts.
He held her thighs over his crutch,
raised one foot and limped with the other,
and often seemed about to fall.
He made a great show of suffering.
The fair Iseut rode him,
one leg on each side of him.

{ “Diva! malades, mot es gros!
Tor la ton vis et ça ton dos:
Ge monterai conme vaslet.”
Et lors s’en sorrist li deget,
Torne le dos, et ele monte.
Tuit les gardent, et roi et conte.
Ses cuises tient sor son puiot:
L’un pié sorlieve et l’autre clot,
Sovent fait senblant de choier,
Grant chiere fai de soi doloir.
Yseut la bele chevaucha,
Janbe deça, janbe dela. }

Phyllis rode Aristotle, but Iseut’s riding is described more like Emperor Domitian atop Earinus. Iseut treated Tristan disguised as the leper with contempt after benefiting from a ride on his back. In contrast to King Arthur and King Mark, she refused to offer anything in response to the leper’s begging from her some food for the night.[4]

A reason for Iseut riding on the leper’s back became clear when it was time for her to make her formal denial. A collection of holy relics were set out to create reverence and fear. King Arthur then instructed Iseut:

Listen to me, fair Iseut.
Hear what you are called to affirm:
that Tristan towards you had no love
marked by debauchery or infidelity,
nothing but the love that he was duty-bound to have
towards his uncle and his uncle’s wife.

{ Entendez moi, Yseut la bele,
Oiez de qoi on vos apele:
Que Tristran n’ot vers vos amor
De puteé ne de folor,
Fors cele que devoit porter
Envers son oncle et vers sa per. }

Iseut in response thanked God and made a more specific, more earthy oath:

Here I see holy relics.
Listen now to what I here swear,
by which I affirm to the king here present —
so help me God and Saint Hilaire,
and these relics, this reliquary,
and all those relics that are not here
and all those reliquaries throughout the world —
that between my thighs no man has entered
except for the leper for whom I made a heavy load,
who carried me beyond the fords,
and King Mark my spouse.
These two I except from my oath.
I except no one else, of all people.
Concerning two men I cannot exonerate myself:
the leper, and King Mark my lord.

{ Saintes reliques voi ici.
Or escoutez que je ci jure,
De quoi le roi ci aseüre:
Si m’aït Dex et saint Ylaire,
Ces reliques, cest saintuaire,
Totes celes qui ci ne sont
Et tuit icil de par le mont,
Qu’entre mes cuises n’entra home,
Fors le ladre qui fist soi some,
Qui me porta outre les guez,
Et li rois Marc mes esposez.
Ces deus ost de mon soirement,
Ge n’en ost plus de tote gent.
De deus ne me pus escondire:
Du ladre, du roi Marc, mon sire. }[5]

All the people there acclaimed Iseut’s innocence and declared that she need not say more. The three felonious barons who had accused Iseut of having sex with Tristan were universally condemned. Everyone detested those evil liars.

Iseut and Tristan lying dead

In highly contentious matters such as relations between women and men, lazy, cowardly persons tend to favor a false understanding of truth. They believe to be true whatever persons they regard as good want them to believe to be true. They call false whatever persons they don’t like — persons given disparaging labels — say. In twelfth-century Europe, Béroul’s romance of Tristan and Iseut ironically showed that even evil dwarfs and malicious barons might convey the truth.[6] That truth is still true today.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Béroul, Tristan, vv. 16-25, Old French text from Muret & Defourques (1947), English translation (modified insubstantially) from Sargent-Baur (2015b). For alternate Old French editions, Sargent-Baur (2015a) and Ewert (1967). For an alternate English translation, Lacy (1994).

Béroul’s Tristan apparently dates from between 1165 and 1200. It survives in only one, poorly copied manuscript, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS français 2171. That manuscript was written in the second half of the thirteenth century. Nothing more is known about Béroul than what can be surmised from this manuscript. Some scholars, including Sargent-Baur, believe that one author composed a first part, and another author a second part.

The story of Tristan and Iseut was widely known in medieval Europe. It probably originated in an oral Celtic tale. It became “one the two best-known themes of European secular literature (the other being the quest for the Grail).” Sargent-Baur (2015) p. 10. Among the numerous retellings of it are Thomas of Britain’s Tristan, composed in Old French about 1160, and Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, composed in Middle High German about 1210. Here’s more on sources and retellings of the story of Iseut and Tristan. For visual representations, Kertz (2014).

The names in this tale vary. Béroul’s Old French text uses the names Tristran, Yseut, Iseut, and Marc. I’ve standardized those in modern English text to Tristan, Iseut, and Mark. Other names commonly found in modern English for the two main characters are Tristram, Tristain, Iseult, Yseult, and Isolde. Other names above follow Sargent-Baur’s transcriptions of the Old French names.

Subsequent quotes from Béroul’s Tristan are similarly sourced. They are vv. 50-78 (You had to suffer much pain…), 83-4 (His men have made him believe…), 2320-31 (Iseut fell down at the hermit’s feet…), 2345-54 (When a man and a woman commit sin…), 3041-54 (King, listen to our words…), 3929-40 (My goodness, sick man…), 4191-96 (Listen to me, fair Iseut…), 4198-4212 (Here I see holy relics…).

[2] Cf. John 14:6. Lacy perceptively observed:

There does appear to be one reliable guide to truth in Béroul: it can be understood to be the opposite of whatever the lovers’ enemies, the felons, say. Their accusations and protestations, though factually correct, must be dismissed simply because they are the enemy.

Lacy (1999) p. 6. For a discussion of the “thick tangle of truth and falsehood, appearance and reality, of which Béroul’s romance is very largely composed,” Sargent-Baur (1984b), with quote from p. 399.

[3] Once Mark accepted Iseut back as his wife, she and Tristan resumed their trysts. Marie de France’s lai Honeysuckle {Chevrefoil} tells of one of their secret meetings:

In the wood she found him
who loved her more than any living thing.
They share their great joy.
She spoke to him quite at leisure,
and told him her pleasure.

{ Dedenz le bois celui trova
que plus l’amot que rien vivant.
Entre els meinent joie mult grant.
A li parlat tut a leisir,
e ele li dist sun plaisir }

Marie de France, Chevrefoil, vv. 92-6, Old French text and English translation from Waters (2018). For freely accessible English translations of Chevrefoil, Shoaf (1993) and Terry (1995), Ch. 4.

Tristan eventually departed and in Brittany married Iseut of the White Hands. But he never consummated his marriage to her. According to Wilhelm, Tristan told Iseut of the White Hands that he was castrated. Wilhelm (1994) p. 284. Castration culture had significant influence in medieval Europe. But Iseut of the White Hands probably had opportunities to see or feel whether Tristan was actually castrated. Thomas of Britain’s Tristan merely states that Tristan spent their wedding night in prayer and silence. In Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, Tristan claims a thigh wound and fatigue.

[4] King Arthur told Iseut that the leper had earned food and that she should give him some. Underscoring the sexual innuendo, Iseut in response essentially described herself groping the leper:

Under his cloak I felt his belt.
King, his pouch doesn’t grow smaller:
half-loaves and whole ones
and pieces and quarter-loaves —
I felt them well through the bag.

{ Soz sa chape senti sa guige.
Rois, s’aloiere n’apetiche:
Les pains demiés et les entiers
et les pieces et les quartiers
Ai bien parmié le sac sentu. }

Béroul’s Tristan, vv. 3965-9. In one scholar’s understatement, Iseut responded to King Arthur with “unnecessarily realistic detail.” Sargent-Baur (1984a) p. 307. Iseut then went on to chide King Arthur and King Mark, as well as express further contempt for the leper:

He’s a good-for-nothing, that I know.
Today he has obtained good pickings.
He has found people to his measure.
From me he’ll not take away anything worth
a single farthing or a penny.

{ Il est herlot, si que jel sai.
Hui a suï bone pasture,
Trové a gent a sa mesure.
De moi n’en portera qui valle
Un sol ferlinc n’une maalle. }

Béroul’s Tristan, vv. 3976-80. Iseut’s words might be interpreted ironically and humorously with sexual innuendo.

While Béroul obviously intends for Iseut to be regarded as a “good person,” he includes dishonorable aspects of her behavior. One clearly dishonorable aspect of Iseut’s behavior is her apparent cruelty. With a brutal lance thrust, Tristan’s companion Governal killed an evil forester who had sought to expose Iseut and Tristan:

That man fell dead so quickly that never did a priest
come in time, nor could one have been there.
Iseut, who was noble and frank,
laughed at this softly beneath her wimple.

{ Cil chaï mort, si c’onques prestre
N’i vint a tens ne n’i pot estre.
Yseut, qui ert et franche et sinple,
S’en rist doucement soz sa ginple. }

Béroul’s Tristan, vv. 4053-6. That’s a vicious response to brutal violence against men. Iseut also guided Tristan in shooting an arrow through the head of the baron Godoïne. Godoïne was spying on her trysting with Tristan in her royal bedroom. The baron Godoïne, while unquestionably characterized as evil, was arguably serving the king’s interests.

[5] A Hebrew story in the Sindibad / Seven Sages corpus tells a similar story of an adulterous woman and her lover. She contrived to slip in the mud and have her lover help her up. She then swore that no man had touched her since her husband left for a business trip except the man who had helped her up from the mud. See note [4] in my post on men’s inferiority in guile in manipulation of paternity. On the similarity of Béroul’s Tristan to fabliaux, Sargent-Baur (1984a).

[6] Reviewing Béroul’s Tristan in relation to “medieval Christianity,” Chappelle-Thomas calls it “a blatant parody and condemnation of the romance genre.” Chappelle-Thomas (2005) p. 2. Within the context of relatively tolerant medieval Christianity, Beroul’s Tristan seems to me to have wider-ranging intent than literary parody.

[images] (1) Tristan courting Iseut (Tristan et Iseult). Mid-nineteenth-century painting by French artist Hugues Merle. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Tristan and Iseut embracing (Tristán e Iseo; La vida). Painting by Spanish artist Rogelio de Egusquiza in 1912. Preserved as accession # 1035 in Museo de Arte Moderno y Contemporáneo de Santander y Cantabria (Santander, Spain). Via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Iseut and Tristan gazing into each other’s eyes (Tristan et Isolde). Painting in 1911 by French artist Gaston Bussière. Preserved as accession # 999.11.88.12 in Musée des Ursulines (Macon, France). Via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Iseut and Tristan lying dead on the ground (Tristán e Isolda; La muerte). Painting by Spanish artist Rogelio de Egusquiza in 1910. Preserved as accession # inv. 00/9 in the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (Bilbao, Spain). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Chappelle-Thomas, Julia. 2005. “Medieval Christianity and the Tristan and Iseult Romances.” Course paper posted online.

Ewert, Alfred, ed. 1967. Béroul. The Romance of Tristran: A Poem of the Twelfth Century. Oxford: Blackwell.

Kertz, Lydia Yaitsky. 2014. “Shadows and reflections: Tristan and Isolde in manuscripts and ivory.” Word & Image. 30 (2): 131-154.

Lacy, Norris J. 1994. “Béroul: The Romance of Tristan.” Ch. 10 (pp. 225-276) in Wilhelm, James J., ed. The Romance of Arthur: an anthology of medieval texts in translation. New, Expanded Edition. New York: Garland.

Lacy, Norris J. 1999. “Where the Truth Lies: Fact and Belief in Béroul’s Tristran.” Romance Philology. 52 (2): 1-10.

Muret, Ernest, and L. M. Defourques. 1947. Béroul. Le Roman de Tristan: poème du XIIe siècle. Classiques Français du Moyen Âge, 12. 4th edition. Paris: Honoré Champion. Alternate presentation via Base de Français Médiéval. 2nd edition (1922): online book, online text.

Sargent-Baur, Barbara Nelson. 1984a. “Between fabliau and romance: love and rivalry in Béroul’s Tristran.” Romania. 105 (418): 292-311.

Sargent-Baur, Barbara Nelson. 1984b. “Truth, Half-Truth, Untruth: Béroul’s Telling of the Tristran Story.” Ch. 11 (pp. 393-421) in Arrathoon, Leigh A. The Craft of Fiction: Essays in Medieval Poetics. Rochester, MI: Solaris Press.

Sargent-Baur, Barbara Nelson. 2015a. The Romance of Tristran by Beroul and Beroul II: a diplomatic edition and a critical edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Sargent-Baur, Barbara Nelson. 2015b. The Romance of Tristran by Beroul and Beroul II: student edition and English translation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Shoaf, Judith P., trans. 1993. “Chevrefoil, by Marie de France.”
Lais of Marie de France: verse translations by Judy Shoaf. Online.

Terry, Patricia, trans. 1995. The Honeysuckle and the Hazel Tree: medieval stories of men and women. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Waters, Claire M. 2018. The Lais of Marie de France: Text and Translation. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

Wilhelm, James J., trans. 1994. “Thomas of Britain: Tristan (‘The Death Scene’).” Ch. 12 (pp. 283-293) in Wilhelm, James J., ed. The Romance of Arthur: an anthology of medieval texts in translation. New, Expanded Edition. New York: Garland.