Chastelaine de Vergi: the tragedy of men’s subservience to women

In the influential thirteenth-century romance Chastelaine de Vergi, the lady (chastelaine) holding the important castle at Vergi in Burgundy granted her love to a brave and bold knight. She stipulated that if he told anyone of their love, she would cease loving him. That arbitrary, other-worldly condition exemplifies her power and control over him within the courtly literary ideal of sexual feudalism.[1] The Duke of Burgundy, the chastelaine’s uncle, was similarly subservient to his wife. The Chastelaine de Vergi shows that men’s subservience to women inexorably transforms love into death.

the Chastelaine de Vergi and the knight embrace

The Chastelaine de Vergi poignantly represents gender trouble within its first forty verses. The chastelaine and her beloved, subservient knight arranged the following terms for their trysts:

The knight would come every day
at the time she set for him.
He wouldn’t move from his hiding place
until he saw a little dog running through the garden.
And then without delay he would come
into her chamber, knowing well
that at that hour no one would be there
apart from the lady alone.

{ li chevaliers toz jors vendroit
au terme qu’ele li metroit.
Ne ne se mouvroit d’un anglet
de si que un petit chienet
verroit par le vergier aler.
Et lors vendroit sanz demorer
en sa chambre, et si seüst bien
qu’a cele eure n’i avroit rien
fors la dame tant seulement. }[2]

Men have long been disparaged as being sexually like dogs. Here the knight is summoned like a dog for sex with the lady by a little dog running through the lady’s garden. The pun Vergi / vergier and the association of a garden with a woman’s vagina underscores the sexual figure that encompasses the man / dog. Meninism is the radical notion that men are human beings. Because meninist literary criticism has been marginalized and excluded, scholars have failed to recognize the gender trouble at the very beginning of the Chastelaine de Vergi.

The Duchess of Burgundy subsequently sought sexual service from this handsome and vigorous knight. She was his social and political superior and effectively part of his managing authority. After failing to attract his attention with her indications of amorous interest, she informed him of the quid pro quo he could expect for having sex with a highly placed women:

My lord, you are handsome and brave —
everyone says so, thanks be to God.
You clearly deserve
to have a lover in such a high place
that you would gain honor and praise from it,
and such a lover would suit you very well.

{ Sire, vous estes biaus et preus,
ce dïent tuit, la Dieu merci:
si avriiez bien deservi
d’avoir amie en si haut leu
qu’en eüssiez honor et preu,
que bien vous serroit tele amie. }

Faced with a situation even more dangerous than the question, “Do I look fat?”, the knight declared that he hadn’t given any thought to it. The duchess in response advised the knight with an implicit threat:

“In faith,” she said, “A long wait
could be harmful to you — that is my view.
So I advise you to take a lover
in a high place, if you see
that you are well loved there.”

{ Par foi, dist ele, longue atente
vous porroit nuire, ce m’est vis.
Si lo que vous soiez amis
en un haut leu, se vous veez
que vous i soiez bien amez. }

The knight attempted to defuse this situation by saying that he didn’t understand what she was saying, that he was just a lowly knight, and that he wouldn’t strive to love so highly and so advantageously. The duchess then bluntly issued to him a self-answering question:

Tell me whether you are now aware
that I have granted you my love,
I who am a high-ranking, honored lady.

{ Dites moi se vous savez ore
se je vous ai m’amor donee,
qui sui haute dame honoree? }

In medieval Europe, a knight couldn’t go on Twitter to denounce a duchess for sexually harassing him. In any case, few would be concerned about him, too. The knight thus had to assert personally a well-recognized medieval standard of ethical behavior:

My lady, I was not aware of this,
but I would like to have your love
in sincerity and in honor.
But may God protect me from such a love
that would be wrong on my part or yours
in a way bringing shame on my lord,
for at no time and in no way
would I undertake any error
such as acting unreasonably,
churlishly, or disloyally
towards my lawful, natural lord.

{ Ma dame, je ne le sai pas;
mes je voudroie vostre amor
avoir par bien et par honor.
Mes de cele amor Dieus me gart
qu’a moi n’a vous tort cele part
ou la honte mon seignor gise,
qu’a nul fuer ne a nule guise
n’enprendroie tel mesprison
comme de fere traïson
si vilaine et si desloial
vers mon droit seignor natural. }

The knight acted ethically and courageously. The duchess, however, became furious at him. She pretended that she hadn’t propositioned him:

Sir Fool, and who is asking you to do that?

{ dans musars, et qui vous en prie? }

As they both certainly knew, she was. He prudently acquiesced to her fiction. He then said nothing more about the matter.[3]

Because the knight sexually rejected her, the duchess retaliated against him. That night, in bed with her husband the duke, she started to cry. Her husband immediately asked her what was the matter. She responded:

“Certainly,” she said, “I am greatly distressed
that no high-born man knows
who is faithful to him and who is not.
Rather, they show more kindness and honor
to those who to them are traitors,
and yet none of them realizes it.”

{ Certes, dist ele, j’ai duel grant
de ce que ne set nus hauz hom
qui foi li porte ne qui non;
mes plus de bien et d’onor font
a ceus qui lor trahitor sont,
et si ne s’en aperçoit nus. }

Realizing that she was alluding to him, he said that he didn’t understand why she was saying this, that he was innocent of such behavior, and that he wouldn’t allow a traitor to be in his service. She responded:

“Hate then,” she said, “the one
(she named him) who today never stopped
all day long begging of me
that I give him my love,
and he told me that for a very long time
he had been of this mind,
but had never before dared to tell me.
And I set my mind, fair lord,
that I would tell you of it at once.
And to be cooking up this destruction
he was from a while ago considering it,
because that he has another beloved
we have seen no signs.
So I beg of you as a favor
that in this matter you look to your honor
as you know to be right.”

{ Haez donc, dist ele, celui
(sel nomma) qui ne fina hui
de moi proier au lonc du jor
que je li donaisse m’amor,
et me dist que mout a lonc tens
qu’il a esté en cest porpens:
onques mes ne le m’osa dire.
Et je me porpenssai, biaus sire,
tantost que je le vous diroie.
Et ce pert estre chose vroie
qu’il ait pieça a ce penssé;
de ce qu’il a aillors amé
novele oïe n’en avon.
Si vous requier en guerredon
que vostre honor si i gardoiz
com vous savez que il est droiz. }[4]

The duchess thus falsely accused the knight of seeking her carnal love. Despite ample possibilities for faking, women’s tears typically evoke men’s acute concern. In present-day high-income societies, a boss seeking sex with her subordinate via offers of quid pro quo and threats clearly violates labor law and incurs a high liability, but a secretary seeking sex with his boss isn’t regarded as a serious offense. In medieval society, the pattern of culpability was the reverse. The duchess exploited both universal norms and the particular norms of her medieval society to retaliate strongly against the knight who rejected her sexual propositioning.

After merely listening and believing his wife, the duke the very next day condemned the knight. The duke didn’t first tell the knight of the accusation against him, ask him to respond to it, and then thoroughly and objectively investigate the matter. Instead, the duke declared that the knight had acted with great treachery. The duke banished the knight forever from his lands and declared that he would be hanged if he should return and be captured.[5]

Angry and bewildered, the knight declared his innocence. He protested the terrible wrong that his false accuser had done. But the duke permitted no normal process of seeking justice:

“It is of no use for you to answer the charge,”
said the duke, “for there’s no point to it.
She herself has recounted to me
in what manner and in what way
you have begged her and beseeched her
like an envious traitor,
and you said some things,
perhaps, about which she has kept quiet.”

{ Ne vous vaut riens li escondit,
fet li dus, ne point n’en i a.
Cele meïsme conté m’a
en quel maniere et en quel guise
vous l’avez proïe et requise
comme trahitres envious.
Et tel chose deïstes vous,
puet estre, dont ele se test. }

Insinuation of additional, vaguely specified crimes typifies corrupt justice. In proceedings of today’s university sex crime tribunals, simply being a man is enough for the persecuted to be guilty of a massive structure of imagined, historical crimes.

In the Chastelaine de Vergi, the justice process was sexually perverted. The knight declared:

Nothing I might say is of any use,
yet there is nothing I would not do,
so that I would be believed,
for nothing of this sort has happened.

{ Riens ne m’i vaut que j’en deïsse,
si n’est riens que je n’en feïsse
par si que j’en fusse creü,
quar de ce n’i a riens eü. }

The repetition of “nothing {riens}” three times in these four lines is ominously nihilistic.[6] The duke at first merely requested a sworn oath like that a witness commonly offers in a judicial proceeding:

If you are willing to swear to me
by your loyal oath,
that you will tell me truly
what I ask of you,
by your words I would certainly know
whether or not you have done
that for which I have suspicion towards you.

{ Se vous me volez fiancier
par vostre leal serement
que vous me direz vraiement
ce que je vous demanderoie,
par vostre dit certains seroie
se vous avriiez fet ou non
ce dont j’ai vers vous soupeçon. }

Witnesses under oath in a judicial proceeding can be asked only questions relevant and proper to the proceeding. The knight readily agreed to the duke’s request for sworn testimony. That choice shouldn’t be regarded as ethically fraught. It’s judicially normal.[7]

The duke set up a question with relevance to the duchess’s charge of attempted seduction. He noted that the knight dressed elegantly and acted like a man in love with a woman. The duke reasoned:

And when no one knows of
any unmarried woman or lady that you love,
I think to myself that it must be my wife,
who has told me that you have been pleading to her.
Hence I cannot be made to disregard this
by anything that anyone could do,
because I think such turns this affair;
that is, if you don’t tell me of another
elsewhere that you love passionately
and you let me know of it without doubt
in its full truth.
And if you don’t want to do so,
then, like a perjurer, get yourself
away from my land without delay!

{ Et quant d’aillors ne s’aperçoit
nus qu’amez damoisele ou dame,
je me pens que ce soit ma fame,
qui me dist que vous la proiez.
Si ne puis estre desvoiez
por riens que nus me saiche fere,
que je cuit qu’ainsi voist l’afere,
se vous ne me dites qu’aillors
amez en tel leu par amors
que m’en lessiez sanz nule doute
savoir en la verité toute.
Et se ce fere ne volez,
comme parjurs vous en alez
hors de ma terre sanz deloi! }

The chastelaine had imposed secrecy upon the knight regarding their love affair. This line of questioning thus greatly troubled him. He began to cry. Rather than showing pity toward the knight, as a judge would toward a crying woman, the duke accused him of believing that he would betray a secret. The duke insisted that he wouldn’t betray a secret even if he were brutally tortured. He swore that he would maintain secrecy. The knight then told him that he loved the duke’s niece, the chastelaine de Vergi.

Neither the knight nor the duke recognized bounds of relevance and propriety in considering the duchess’s charge against the knight. The knight could have declared under oath that he loved another woman. He could have refused to name her on the grounds that her specific identify wasn’t relevant to refuting the duchess’s accusation. One might argue that her specific identity is relevant to corroborating his love for her.

The duke, however, went far beyond the need of corroborating the knight’s love relationship. The duke asked to go with the knight that evening to his tryst with the chastelaine. The knight reprehensibly granted the duke’s request. All night long while the knight was having sex with the chastelaine, the duke was watching and listening from a hidden spot outside. Voyeurism surely wasn’t necessary for adjudicating the duchess’s charge against the knight.[8] Perhaps the duke was sexually frustrated within his marriage and wanted to observe whole-hearted love.

Later that day during dinner, the duke expressed his affection for the knight. The duchess, realizing her scheme to create hate had failed, was distressed. Claiming that she felt ill, she left the dinner early. When the duke went to her, she told him that she felt ill because the duke cherished the knight despite her telling him he had sexually solicited her. To that social drama, the duke responded simply and lovingly:

“Ah!” said the duke, “My sweet friend,
know that I would believe
neither you nor any other person
because never in any way
did what you told me actually happen.
Indeed, I know well that he’s totally innocent of it.
He never had any thought of doing that.
Much have I learned of his situation,
so don’t ask me about it any further.”

{ Ha! fet li dus, ma douce amie,
sachiez je n’en croiroie mie
ne vous ne autre creature
que, onques por nule aventure
avenist ce que vous me dites.
Ainz sai bien qu’il en est toz quites;
n’onques ne penssa de ce fere.
Tant ai apris de son afere,
si ne m’en enquerez ja plus. }

The duke then left without even criticizing his wife for her vicious false accusation.

Rather than regretting her action, the duchess burned to know what the duke had learned about the knight’s situation. The duchess planned to manipulate her husband sexually:

In her heart she thought out a scheme
by which she could know it all well
if she waited until the evening
when she had the duke in her arms.
She knew well that in such delight
she could do, without any doubt,
better what she wished than at any other time.

{ quar en son cuer engin porpensse
qu’ele le porra bien savoir,
s’ele se sueffre jusqu’au soir
qu’ele ait le duc entre ses braz.
Ele set bien de tieus solaz
en fera, ce ne doute point,
mieus son voloir qu’en autre point. }

Not pervasively censored through authoritative name-calling, medieval literature frankly recognized husbands’ difficulties in keeping secrets from their wives and wives’ tendency to talk about their husbands’ secrets. With respect to secrets and many other matters, many husbands are weak in relation to their wives.

When the duke came to bed, the duchess withdrew to one side of the bed. She pretended not to like the duke being next to her. Not permitting him more than a kiss, she called him false, deceitful, and disloyal. She said that he had never loved her. When he asked what was the matter, she claimed that he was concealing from her all his thoughts, such as what the knight had told him. She claimed falsely that she had always told him everything. Then she categorically declared:

So be assured now, without any doubt,
that I will never again have trust
in you nor love you in the way
that I have in the past.

{ Si sachiez ore, sanz doutance,
que ja mes n’avrai tel fiance
en vous, ne cuer de tel maniere,
com j’ai eü ça en arriere. }

After saying this, the duchess began to cry. Deceitful women defeat weak men by projecting their own wrongs onto men, by pretending to be terribly hurt, and by crying.

The duke pitied the poor dear. He explained that if he revealed the knight’s secret, great harm could result. The duchess assured him that she would never reveal any of his secrets. Then she again cried. The duke embraced her and kissed her. He said that he would tell her, but if she ever said a word of what he told her, she would die. She fully agreed to that condition. Then he told her all about the knight’s secret love for the chastelaine de Vergi. Learning how passionately the knight loved a women less noble than she, the duchess felt utterly humiliated. She immediately began to hate the chastelaine and plot to harm her.

With the chastelaine and the duchess dominating the duke and the knight, love led to death. When the duke held court for the feast of Pentecost, the duchess before the dance called the chastelaine a “good mistress {bone mestresse}” who had “learned the art  / of training the little dog {apris le mestier / du petit chienet afetier}.” That taunt revealed knowledge of the chastelaine’s trysts with the knight. Going into the dressing room, the chastelaine grieved intensely that the knight had revealed their love to the duchess. She wrongly surmised that the knight didn’t love her, but instead loved the duchess. She pardoned her beloved knight and then died from a broken heart.

The knight, looking for the chastelaine, went into the dressing room. He saw her lying on a bed. Embracing and kissing her, he rather belatedly, like a blind lover, discovered that she was dead. A young serving-woman had overhead the exchange between the duchess and the chastelaine and the latter’s grief. She told the knight what had happened. Like Pyramus believing that a lion had devoured Thisbe, the knight blamed himself:

“Ah! Alas!” said he, “My sweet love,
the most courtly and the finest
that ever was and the most loyal,
like a disloyal scoundrel
I have killed you!”

{ Ha! las! dist il, Ma douce amor,
la plus cortoise et la meillor
c’onques fust et la plus loial,
comme trichierres desloial
vous ai morte! }

He then grabbed a sword and plunged it into his heart. Bleeding profusely, his dying body fell onto the chastelaine’s dead body.

The young serving-woman rushed out and told the duke what had happened. He went into the room and pulled out the sword piecing the knight’s heart. Then he returned to the dance hall. In the sight of everyone, he thrust the sword into the duchess’s scheming head. She fell dead at his feet. The duke told all what had happened. Grief-stricken, he declared that he would leave to become a Templar knight in the horrific violence against men of the Crusades.[9]

deaths in the Chastelaine de Vergi

Men’s subservience to women, like men’s impotence, creates tragedy in romance between women and men. Within the fallen condition of gynocentrism, signs of truth exist but aren’t understood. Amid other ladies, the duchess praised the chastelaine for having “learned the art  / of training the little dog {apris le mestier / du petit chienet afetier}.” That telling sign hasn’t been understood:

The ladies heard what was said,
but they didn’t understand its meaning.
They returned with the duchess
to take part in the dancing.

{ Les dames ont oï le conte,
mes ne sevent a qoi ce monte;
o la duchoise s’en revont
aus caroles que fetes ont. }

Many literary scholars have been participating in a dance of death.[10] Persons who seek the fullness of life must be open to a new spirit of truth. Let them play their tune. You can refuse to dance. You can read rightly the signs, truly promote gender equality, and seek to help those grievously misled.[11]

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[1] A beautiful, other-worldly woman imposed a similar condition on Lanval in Marie de France’s lai Lanval. That woman, however, heroically saved Lanval from a false accusation of attempted seduction.

The Chastelaine de Vergi signals its close relation to lyric by including (vv. 295-302) a stanza from a song by the chastelain de Couci (Guy de Thourotte), a trouvère. On this lyric insertion, Marnette (2021). Guillaume de Machaut’s True Poem {Voir Dit}, from about 1365, used extensively lyric insertion. The chastelain de Couci became associated with the eaten-heart motif that appears in the lai Ignaure. The Chastelaine de Vergi also refers (v. 269) to a genre of lyric debate in two parts (jeu parti) included in the corpus of trouvère songs.

[2] Chastelaine de Vergi, vv. 31-9, Old French text from Arrathoon (1975) (except without quotation marks and indenting), English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Brook (2016), pp. 214-26. Burgess & Brook’s translation is based on the late thirteenth-century Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS français, 837, folios 6rb-11ra, as edited by Whitehead (1944). In my view, Arrathoon (1975) represents scholarly progress beyond Whitehead (1944). The differences are small, but scholarly progress should be honored. Where necessary, I’ve modified Burgess & Brook’s English translation to be in accord with Arrathoon’s text. Arrathoon (1984b) provides an edition and English translation based on Arrathoon (1975), but with less extensive scholarly documentation.

Arrathoon explained her enormous, masterful work with her declaration: “the Chastelaine de Vergi is a masterpiece which deserves to be transmitted intact to posterity.” Arrathoon (1975) p. iii. Her commitment to truth and the virgin composition didn’t reflect devaluation of agency and interpretive vigor. She also provided an English paraphrase. She explained:

my interpretation of the text must inevitably emerge from such a paraphrase as the key to the art of translation is to interpret rather than search out appropriate words and expressions to create a more or less correct, but probably very stiff mosaic of the original in the second language.

Id. p. 148. Here Arrathoon seems to me mistaken. Making cultural heritage more broadly available has high humanistic and democratic value. Faithful translation can produce a translation that’s fluently readable and readily accessible to a broad readership. Burgess & Brook (2016) exemplifies such translation.

Fairly good Old French texts and modern French and English translations of the Chastelaine de Vergi are readily accessible online. For Old French texts with modern French translations, Raynaud & Foulet (1912) and Bédier (1927). For English translations, Terry (1995), Ch. 8; Mason (1911); and Kemp-Welch (1903).

The Chastelaine de Vergi has survived in twenty-two manuscripts. It was originally composed in the middle of the thirteenth century. Its author isn’t known, but Jean Renart, author of Guillaume de Dole and the Lai de l’Ombre, is plausible.

Scholars have debated the marital status of the chastelaine de Vergi. The text doesn’t clearly specify her marital status. She plausibly could be a widow or a married woman. Arrathoon reviewed the scholarly debate and argued convincingly for the chastelaine being a married woman engaged in adultery with the knight. Arrathoon (1984a) pp. 342-5.

The genre of the Chastelaine de Vergi also has been a matter of scholarly controversy. The narrator provides a brief, moralizing introduction and conclusion. The conclusion declares, “And by this exemplum one should {Et par cest example doit}…” (v. 951). The reliability of the narrator, however, is suspect. On the genre of the Chastelaine de Vergi, Arrathoon (1984a) and Sweet (2017). Categorizing the Chastelaine de Vergi as a lai produced the benefit of it being included in Burgess & Brook (2016).

The Chastelaine de Vergi was widely distributed and influential. Giovanni Boccaccio and Eustache Deschamps included the chastelaine de Vergi in their catalogs of famous lovers. Jean Froissart cited the Chastelaine de Vergi in his book The Prison of Love {La Prison amoureuse}, written about 1372. So too did Evrart de Conty in his The Book of Love Chess Moralized {Le Livre des Eschez amoureux moralisés} from about 1390. In the fifteenth century, the Chastelaine de Vergi was lightly adapted into a prose work called the Chastelaine du Vergier, as well as into novella 70 of Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron (1558), and into François du Souhait’s play Radegonde, Duchesse de Bourgogne (1599). But most important of all, the influential early female supremacist Christine de Pizan mentioned it in her Book of the City of Ladies {Livre de la Cité des Dames} (1405). On the reception of the Chastelaine de Vergi, Sweet (2017), Leushuis (2007), Huot (2001), Virtue (1997), and Gauthier (1985).

Subsequent quotes from the Chastelaine de Vergi are similarly sourced. They are vv. 60-5 (My lord, you are handsome…), 68-72 (“In faith,” she said…), 84-6 (Tell me whether you are now aware…), 89-98 (My lady, I was not aware of this…), 100 (Sir Fool…), 114-9 (“Certainly,” she said…), 125-40 (“Hate then,” she said…), 196-203 (“It is of no use for you to answer the charge,”…), 207-10 (Nothing I might say…), 218-24 (If you are willing to swear to me…), 254-67 (And when no one knows of…), 541-49 (“Ah!” said the duke…), 558-64 (In her heart she thought out a scheme…), 605-8 (So be assured now…), 716-8 (good mistress / learned the art…), 885-9 (“Ah! Alas!” said he…), 717-8 (learned the art…), 719-22 (The ladies heard what was said…).

[3] Women’s sexual harassment and rape of men has been made nearly unspeakable in recent decades through bigotry and harshly enforced ignorance. Such repression didn’t exist in medieval Europe. Medieval European literature even included vigorous voices of men’s sexed protest.

[4] For v. 134, Arrathoon chose the MS. A/E/G0 reading over the MS. C reading Et si puet estre chose vraie. She argued that this reading is more likely to be the best authorial text for a variety of reasons, including that “it underlines the theme of appearance and reality that recurs whenever the duchess enters the scene.” Arrathoon (1975) p. 110. With its documented, highly contextual justification, Arrathoon’s textual choice cannot be fairly characterized as tendentious or aggressive editing. Any translation error for v. 134 is mine.

[5] Prior to recent intensified gynocentrism, perceptive readers recognized the duke’s weakness relative to his wife. About 1903, the eminent archivist-paleographer Louis Brandin noted the freshness of the duchess’s character, including:

her influence over her weak husband, unable to sleep as soon as she has persuaded him that one of his vassals has threatened his honour, and equally unable to keep a secret when his wife turns her back upon him in bed

Kemp-Welsh (1903) pp. xi-xii (introduction by Louis Brandin). About 1944, Frederick Whitehead observed that the Chastelaine de Vergi concerns:

not the dangers of disclosing a secret love, but only the danger of making the disclosure to a weak and indiscreet man dominated by a vindictive wife who bears a grudge against one of the lovers

Whitehead (1944) p. xiv. In his 1951 edition of this book, White deleted this sentence and implicitly apologized for apparently offending women. On this textual history, Sweet (2017) pp. 348-9. Huot deserves credit for acknowledging “dangers for men in being manipulated by their wives.” Huot (2001) p. 269.

Men’s subservience to women isn’t just a medieval literary ideal. In interpreting the Chastelaine de Vergi, Lacy declared:

As Arrathoon puts it (355), the author was “juxtaposing a literary ideal to ‘real life.'” The lover in lyric tradition is subject to the dictates of love and (should she so desire) to the whims of the lady.

Lacy (1990) p. 122, citing Arrathoon (1984a) p. 355. Scholars have tended to complacently accept men being subject to the whims of women in literary ideals and in real life. Meninism provides a critical perspective on men’s subordination to women in both literature and life.

[6] On lexical patterning in the Chastelaine de Vergi, Shirt (1980) and Hunt (1993).

[7] The knight’s oath to the duke has been interpreted as “the well known device of the open-ended promise,” also called “the binding gift {don contraignant}.” E.g. Hunt (1993) pp. 136-7. An influential example of an open-ended promise is Herod’s promise to Herodias’s beautifully dancing daughter. That promise resulted in John the Baptist’s beheading. Matthew 11:2–7, 14:6–12; Mark 1:14, 6:17–29; Luke 3:19–20, 7:18–25, 9:9. More generally, context can implicitly limit an open-ended promise. In court proceedings, witnesses normally swear to tell the whole truth. That doesn’t mean that they must tell the truth about matters judged not relevant and proper within the given judicial proceeding.

[8] Literary critics haven’t recognized the transgression of reasonable judicial procedure culminating in voyeurism in the Chastelaine de Vergi. Similar failure is now grossly apparent in university sex-crime tribunals. Much modern literary criticism has developed to be similar to the reasoning of Geta after he apparently encountered his double:

Here we encounter a contradiction every bit as powerful as the paradox of virginity: that love only exists to the degree that it is secret; that secret love only exists to the degree that it is revealed; and revealed, it is no longer love. … For if love must be kept secret to exist, then, as in the case of the virgin, there can be no way of speaking of it that does not imply its transgression. “La Chastelaine de Vergi” can, in a profound sense, be considered to be “La Chastelaine de Virginité” or “The Lady of Virginity.”

Bloch (1991) p. 123. Persons can have a secret love affair. They could speak about it only between themselves while having a secret love affair. They could also love each other without speaking about it. “La Chastelaine de Vergi” as “The Lady of Virginity” is as ridiculous as Bloch’s totalizing idea of medieval misogyny.

[9] With admirable sympathy for a man, Arrathoon characterized the knight as a “victimized hero.” Arrathoon(1984a) p. 346. Because the duke merely listened and believed his wife’s false accusation of the loyal knight, the duke raged at him extensively. With wonderful textual engagement now all but lost among literary critics, Arrathoon declared:

By this time, we fairly ache for the knight to tell the duke what an evil creature his wife is. How can we not share his righteous indignation? … But what is uppermost in the knight’s mind, as befits the lover of lyric poetry, is not the loss of his own honor, but the possible physical separation from his lady ….

Id. p. 347. In my view, the knight deserves blame for accepting men-abasing ideals of courtly love. But those who support and exploit men-abasing ideals of courtly love deserve more blame.

In response to Arrathoon, Lacy offered a caricature of medieval casuistry. He argued:

The duchess precipitates the crisis, and the narrator presents her as an unequivocally lascivious, jealous, devious, and despicable woman. But if we are led to condemn her, because both her vengeful motive and her brazen method are hateful, it is also true that the duke, the only one of the four protagonists to survive, betrayed a trust and violated a promise, thereby contributing almost as directly as his wife to the developing tragedy. … In fact, if blame has to be assigned, it is hard to escape the conclusion that it belongs to the knight, just as the narrator announces.

Lacy (1990) pp. 119-20. Perhaps justifiably contemptuous of this analysis, Hunt (1993) didn’t even cite Lacy (1990). The introduction-apologue, which directs blame to the knight, is “hopelessly simplistic” and misleading in its surface meaning. Hunt (1993) p. 139. Hunt forthrightly characterized the duchess as “a mulier perniciosa, a maleficent woman who lies at will and systematically prosecutes a vendetta based on lies.” Id. p. 134. Among the characters of the Chastelaine de Vergi, the duchess is by far the most blameworthy. The duchess provides:

the fundamental radix malorum, the remorseless vendetta of an irredeemably evil woman for whom no juster fate can be devised than death. In the presence of lies, deception and malevolence there can be no simple defence.

Id. p. 139. That’s an exaggeration. One simple defense is to avoid such women as much as possible.

Recognition of women acting with evil intent wasn’t suppressed and censored in medieval Europe. For example, a medieval proverb attributed to the classical Greek philosopher Timaeus declares:

He who takes a rogue as his porter,
a traitor as his confidant,
or a wicked woman as his wife
cannot die without suffering great trouble.

{ Qui de felon fet son porter
De traictour son conseiller
De folle fame sa moillier
Ne pueut mourir sanz encombrier }

From the fifteenth-century manuscript Angers, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 548, folio 57v, as transcribed and translated (modified slightly) by Sweet (2017) p. 351.

[10] Men in medieval lyric poignantly describe themselves as lovesick to death for women. These men receive little sympathy today:

Men may talk incessantly of dying for love in their poetry and in their speeches in narrative texts, but usually they do not actually die for love. Women do sometimes talk about dying for love (though they do so a lot less), but when the chips are down, die they do. Men talk the talk; women walk the walk.

Gaunt (2006) p. 144. The totalizing gender dichotomy “men talk the talk; women walk the walk” reflects the anti-men gender bigotry now prevalent in the humanities. The claim that men don’t actually die for love is absurd given the influence of the Iliad on the European literary tradition. But expressing contempt for men is highly valued within dominant literary scholarship:

women have an ethical system imposed upon them in troubadour lyric, one which, in romance, requires them to make the supreme sacrifice for love, while men often merely talk about it. … in dying in inappropriate or troublesome ways, some women and queers may uncover the insidious lure of a symbolic order in which men bleat endlessly about their willingness to die for love while walking all over women.

Id. p. 210. Belief that men construct ethical systems independent from women’s preferences and behaviors is absurd. The claim “women have an ethical system imposed upon them” seems to me merely to exemplify poor-dearist signaling for scholarly credit. Medieval trobairitz described men’s subservience to women under what was essentially sexual feudalism. The scholarly claim that “men bleat endlessly about their willingness to die for love while walking all over women” could be characterized as childish anti-meninism. Gaunt’s book, highly acclaimed among academics, fittingly concludes with misandristic representations of sadism and death.

[11] Cf. Matthew 11:17. The deaths of the chastelaine, knight, and duchess, as well as the self-exile of the duke, occurred on Pentecost. De Looze observed:

La Chastelaine de Vergi, unlike Lanval, reveals a profound lack of confidence in the spoken word and oral discourse in general. … In fact, the only complete version of the events is the written one we read. The spoken versions are all fragments: flawed, incomplete, trapped in the narrow, partial truth of human speech. The miracle of the pure and true verbal act — the miracle of Pentecost — surpasses humans, for whom the closest approximation to a discourse of immanent truth is the written word.

De Looze (1985) p. 43. As literary criticism of the Chastelaine de Vergi indicates, pure and true verbal acts require more than just writing words.

[images] (1) The chastelaine de Vergi and the knight embrace. Illumination from folio 90r in an early fifteenth-century manuscript, Cambridge, Trinity Hall, MS 12. (2) Killings and funerals for three in the Chastelaine de Vergi. From folio 96r of Cambridge, Trinity Hall, MS 12.

Additional visual representations: Ivory caskets made in France early in the fourteenth century are decorated with carved scenes from the Chastelaine de Vergi. See, for example, 17.190.180 in the Metropolitan Museum and 1892,0801.47 in the British Museum.


Arrathoon, Leigh A. 1975. La chastelaine de Vergi: a new critical edition of the text with introduction, notes and an English paraphrase. Ph.D. Thesis, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. Princeton University.

Arrathoon, Leigh A. 1984a. “Jacques de Vitry, the Tale of Calogrenant, La Chastelaine de Vergi, and the genres of medieval narrative fiction.” Ch. 9 (pp. 281-368) in Arrathoon, Leigh A. The Craft of Fiction: Essays in Medieval Poetics. Rochester, MI: Solaris Press.

Arrathoon, Leigh A., ed. and trans. 1984b. The Lady of Vergi. Merrick, N.Y.: Cross-Cultural Communications.

Bédier, Joseph, ed. and trans. (French). 1927. La Châtelaine de Vergy. Conte du XIIIe siècle. Paris: L’édition d’art H. Piazza.

Bloch, R. Howard. 1991. Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

de Looze, Laurence. 1985. “The Untellable Story: Language and Writing in La Chastelaine de Vergi.” The French Review. 59 (1): 42-50.

Gaunt, Simon. 2006. Love and Death in Medieval French and Occitan Courtly Literature: martyrs to love. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gauthier, Barbara Anna, ed. and trans. 1985. La Chastelaine du Vergier: A Critical Edition. Ph.D. Thesis, Vanderbildt University.

Kemp-Welch, Alice, trans. 1903. The Chatelaine of Vergi: a 13th century French romance. Paris: P. Geuthner. Here’s an alternate presentation of this text via York’s In parentheses Publications.

Hunt, Tony. 1993. “The Art of Concealment: La Châtelaine de Vergi.” French Studies. 47 (2): 129-141.

Huot, Sylvia. 2001. “The Chastelaine de Vergi at the Crossroads of Courtly, Moral, and Devotional Literature.” Pp. 269-279 in Joan Tasker Grimbert and Carol J. Chase, eds. Philologies Old and New: Essays in Honor of Peter Florian Dembowski. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lacy, Norris J. 1990. “Narrative Method and the Question of Guilt in La Chastelaine De Vergi.Romance Notes. 31 (2): 119-124.

Leushuis, Reinier. 2007. “Dialogue, Space, and Selfhood in La Chastelaine de Vergi and Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron 70.” Romanic Review. 98 (4): 323-341.

Marnette, Sophie. 2021. “Quoting Lyrics and Subjectivities in the Chastelaine de Vergy.” Pp. 233-249 in Gilbert, Jane and Griffin, Miranda, eds. Futures of Medieval French: Essays in Honour of Sarah Kay. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

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

Raynaud, Gaston, and Lucien Foulet, ed. and trans. (French). 1921. La Chastelaine de Vergi: poème du XIIIe siècle. Third Edition. Paris: H. Champion. This edition is based on Paris, BnF, fr. 837. Here’s an alternate presentation of this text via Base de Français Médiéval.

Shirt, David J. 1980. “La Chastelaine de Vergi – ­ the technique of stylistic cohesion.” Reading Medieval Studies. 6: 81­99.

Sweet, Rachel. 2017. “No Text is an Island: The Chastelaine de Vergi’s Exemplarity in Context.” Pp. 347-366 in in Pratt, Karen, Bart Besamusca, Matthias Meyer, and Ad Putter, eds. The Dynamics of the Medieval Manuscript: Text Collections from a European Perspective. Göttingen: V&R Unipress.

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

Virtue, Nancy. 1997. “Le Sainct Esperit… parlast par sa bouche: Marguerite de Navarre’s Evangelical Revision of the Chastelaine de Vergi.” The Sixteenth Century Journal. 28 (3): 811-824.

Whitehead, Frederick, ed. 1944. La Chastelaine de Vergi. Manchester University Press: Manchester.

6 thoughts on “Chastelaine de Vergi: the tragedy of men’s subservience to women”

  1. Very interesting article, thank you. It is a sickening pity that men are treated so badly by “modern” society, and I say this as a woman.

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