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.

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