lais Cor & Mantel: men’s solidarity in being cuckolded

Parental knowledge is a fundamental gender inequality. Women know for certain when they have biological children. Without the benefit of modern DNA testing, men don’t know. Rather than seeking to eliminate this fundamental gender inequality through encouraging or mandating DNA paternity testing, modern societies instead seek to suppress paternity truth-seeking. They even demonize persons who dare to discuss paternity attribution. Medieval Europe had a less totalitarian approach to gender inequality in parental knowledge. Rather than merely suppressing and silencing, medieval culture also recognized magical revelations of men’s victimization and encouraged men to find solidarity in being cuckolded.

The eminent medieval king Arthur was compelled to accept publicly his status as a cuckolded husband. His queen Guinevere notoriously had an adulterous affair with the pathetic, self-abasing manlet Lancelot. King Arthur could pretend that he knew nothing about that. However, on the feast of Pentecost, a handsome young messenger from the King of Moray rode into Arthur’s court at Caerleon and gave him a magnificent ivory horn.

medieval chastity-testing horn (oliphant)

King Arthur was delighted with his magnificent horn. He marveled at its four bands of gold, glittering precious stones, and a hundred sweetly ringing bells. Noticing an inscription on the horn, Arthur instructed his chaplain to read it aloud. The chaplain, pious and discreet, suggested that he whisper into Arthur’s ear what is written on the horn. But Arthur insisted that the inscription be made known to all. The chaplain thus recounted:

This the blond-haired Mangoun
of Moray tells you:
“This horn was made by a fairy
taunting and spiteful,
and the horn is enchanted.
No man can drink from it
however wise or foolish he is,
if he is a cuckold or jealous,
or if he has a wife
who has had lewd thoughts
towards someone other than himself.
Such a man the horn
will never permit to drink,
but its contents will spill on him,
whatever it may contain.
He could never be of such high status,
or have such grandness,
that it would not spill on him,
on him and on all his clothes,
even if his clothes valued a thousand marks.
For whomever drinks from this horn,
it is necessary that his wife
has never had a thought,
out of disloyalty
or for financial gain,
or for a more handsome man on earth,
that she wished to have a better man
than the one who is her husband.
If his wife is sufficiently virtuous,
then he will be able to drink.”
But I don’t think that any knight
from here to Montpelier
who has a wife
will be able drink a drop from it,
if it’s true what the one
who wrote this inscription said.

{ Ceo vous maunde Mangounz
De Moraine, li blounz
Cest corn fist une fée
Raumponeuse e errée
E le corn destina
Que ja houme n’i bevera
Taunt soit sages ne fous
Si il est cous ne gelous
Ne ki nule femme heit
Que heit fol pensé feit
Wers autre kë a lui;
Ja li corns a celui
Beivre ne soffira
Mes sour lui espaundra
Ceo ke oun i avera mis,
Ja n’ert de si haut pris
Quë il sour lui ne espaunde,
Ja n’en iert si en graunde,
Sour lui & sour ses dras
Si il vaillent mil mars.
Qui a cel corn bevera
Femme lui estovera
Que hounkes n’eit pensé
Que pur delëauté
Ne pur aveir cunquere
Ne pur plus bel en tere
Que ele de soun seingnour
Wousist aver meillour;
Si la soue est si veirre
Dounke en pura il beivre,
Mes ne cuit chevaler
De ci ke au mounpeeller
Que femme heit espousée
ja en beivre derrée.
Si seyt veir ke cil dist
Que ces lettres escrit }

Only a truly taunting and spiteful fairy would have such a dismaying message delivered to men. Nonetheless, knowing the truth, even when it hurts, is the way to freedom in reality. Human choice otherwise is merely caprice moving among shadows and illusions.

Pretending to be undisturbed, King Arthur attempted to drink spiced wine from the horn. He made his attempt with all his court watching:

King Arthur took the horn
and raised it to his mouth.
He expected to be able to drink.
But he spilled wine on himself
right down to his feet.
From this the king was furious.
Arthur said, “Now is the worst time ever!”

{ Li rois Arzurs le prist,
A sa bouche le mist
Kar beivre le quida,
Mes sour lui le versa
Countreval dekes as pez;
En fu li rois irrez!
Dist Arzurs, “Ore est pis!” }

Insane with anger and shame, Arthur sought to knife his queen in her heart. But three eminent knights stopped him and disarmed him. They reprimanded their king:

“Sir,” said Yvain,
“do not be so wicked,
for there’s no woman born
even if she be married,
who hasn’t had lewd thoughts.
So I’m not surprised
that the horn spilled its wine.
Everyone here will try it,
those who have wives,
to know if they can drink from it.
Then you can reprimand
the queen with a clear conscience.
You are very honorable
and my lady is loyal.
Never have I heard a man
at any time fault her.”

{ “Sire,” ceo dist Iuwains,
“ne soiez si vilains,
kar n’i est femme née
que que soit espousée
qui ne eyt pensé folie,
si ne esmerveille mie
si li corn espaundi.
Touz l’essaiërount si
cil ki les femmes ount
saver si il en beverount,
dounk pöez vous blamer
la reïne al vis cler.
Wous estes mout vassaus
e ma dame est loiaus —
hounkes ne oÿ parler houm
jour de sa mesprisioun.” }

Of course no man had ever faulted the queen. Criticizing her, or any woman, would be an extremely dangerous feat for a man. Coming to the aid of the three knights against their king, the queen acted like an innocent damsel in distress:

I never loved any man
and never will I love one
except for only the king’s body.

The one who sent this horn
has brought much shame upon me.
He has never loved a lady.
Never again will I be happy
until I am avenged.

{ quë ounke houme ne amai
ne jammés ne amerai
fors soulement soun cors.

Mout me ad cil fest graunt hounte
qui cest corn enveia —
ounkes dame ne ama —
jammés ne serrai lée
si ne seye vengée. }

King Mangoun had sent the horn. Men commonly commit violence against men at women’s behest. King Arthur, however, declared that he had made a peace compact with King Mangoun. Arthur insisted that he would be faithful to that compact.

Queen Guinevere then with flattery tried to suppress knowledge of other men’s statuses. She said:

“Sir,” said the queen,
“since I was a young woman
and I was given to you in marriage,
I have been blessed.
A lady of high birth
would commit a very big outrage
if she to her good husband
added another beloved.
She who seeks a better wine
than that made from grapes,
or to know a bread
better than that made from wheat —
that person should be hanged
and her ashes spread in the wind.
I have the best of three men
who ever were king, except for God.
Why then would I go searching
for one more beautiful or more valiant?
This I tell you sincerely, sir,
that you being angry with me is wrong.
Never to a noble knight
should be delivered
this horn for him to hold
in order to shame his wife.”

{ “Sire,” dist la reïne,
“pus ke jeo fu meschine
e jeo vous fu donée
fui jeo benoürée.
Mout par fet graunt outrage
dame de haut parage
quant ele ad bon mari
qui fest de autre ami;
cil ki quert meillour vin
nuli ke de reisin,
ou pain a escïent
meillour ke de furment.
celui deverelt houm pendre
e pus venter la cendre;
le meillour ay des trois
qui hounkes, saunz Deu, fust rois —
que irroie dounke queraunt
plus bel ne plus vaillaunt?
Ceo vous di jeo ben, sire,
que a tort me portez ire.
Ja a fraunc chevaler
ne deüst oum bailler
icest corn a tenir
pur sa mulier honir. }[2]

Arthur dared to defy his wife:

The king said, “Yes they will do it.
All will test it —
kings, dukes, and counts.
I will not be the only one shamed!”

{ Dist li rois, “Si ferrount;
trestout l’essaiërount,
e roi & duc & counte —
ja soul n’i averai hounte!” }

Men often live in myth. The horn would show the reality of husbands’ statuses in relation to their wives.

The King of Snowdon attempted to drink from the horn. It spilled its wine on him. So too for King Nut. Aguisant of Scotland held the horn forcefully, but it spilled on him. Similarly splattered were the King of Cornwall, King Gohar, King Glovien, Kadoain, King Lot, Caraton, the two kings of Ireland, and thirty counts. King Arthur was delighted that almost all the men around him shared his vulnerability in relation to women. He kissed his queen three times and set aside his anger at her infidelity. King Arthur was no more betrayed by his wife than were all other men but one at Arthur’s court.[3]

A wondrous, fairy-made mantle revealed a similar truth about men’s solidarity in being cuckolded. The mantle, like the horn, was a gift sent to the court of King Arthur. A handsome messenger bearing the mantle requested that King Arthur grant a boon to a beautiful young woman. Men are typically eager to please beautiful young women. King Arthur granted her a boon. The messenger then pulled from his pouch the mantle. That fairy-made mantle had a marvelous capability:

The fairy incorporated into the cloth a device
that discovers unfaithful ladies.
If the lady who has put it on
has done wrong in any way
toward her good husband, if she has one,
the mantle will not fit her properly.
And the same for the young women:
any one who towards her good beloved
has erred in any way
will find that it will never fit her truly,
without being too long or too short.

{ La fee fist el drap une oevre
Qui les fausses dames descuevre.
La dame qui l’ait afublé
Se ele a de rien meserré
Vers son bon seignor, s’ele l’a,
Li manteaus bien ne li serra.
Et des puceles autresi:
Cele qui vers son bon ami
Avra mespris en nul endroit,
Ja puis ne li serra a droit,
Qu’il ne soit trop lonc ou trop cort. }

The boon that the far-away woman requested was that Arthur ask all the women at his court to try on the mantle, without delay and without being told about its capability. Fulfilling the boon that he had granted, Arthur summoned all the women to come and try on the mantle. Arthur promised to give it to the woman for whom it fitted best.

chastity-testing mantle from Persia

Queen Guinevere tried on the mantle first. It was too short for her. The mantle was even shorter on the beloved of Tor, son of Arés. The seneschal Kay explained to the queen what this meant:

“My lady,” said Kay the seneschal,
“You are a little more faithful
than she is, but it’s by a very small amount.
And I have expressed myself badly,
for you are not more faithful.
There is just less villainy in you.”

{ “Dame,” dit Keuz li seneschaus,
“.I. petit estes plus loiaus
Qu’el n’est, mes c’est de molt petit.
Et si ai ge malement dit,
Car plus leaus n’estes vos mie,
Mes mains a en vos vilenie.” }

One by one the ladies of the court tried on the mantle. It fit none of them. For one, her left thigh remained bare. Kay interpreted that to mean that when her lover sexually services her, he raises her left thigh. The mantle on another lady allowed her buttocks to be seen. According to Kay, that meant that she likes men to service her sexually from behind.[5] A man being behind a woman in sexual intercourse contradicts gender-equality dogma. Nonetheless, such a sexual position should be regarded as less of a social-justice sin than putting men categorically behind women in evacuating sinking ships.

A significant strand of medieval European culture encouraged men not to regard being cuckolded as dishonoring them. Kay declared:

A curse on anyone who believes this,
or who ever approves it:
that a good knight is shamed
if his beloved has made another man her lover.
Rather he must find a good reason for it.
Why should he be any worse for it,
if her wickedness has been proven?

{ Mal dahez ait qui ce crera,
Ne qui ja le creantera
Que bon chevalier soit honni
Se s’amie a fet autre ami;
Ainz s’en doit il bien escondire.
Que doit il de ce estre pire
S’ele est de mauvestié prove? }

Cuckolding often shows men being pathetically stupid. More generally, men’s obsequiousness towards women supports cuckolding. So too does men’s fear of making women upset or angry. Men are partly to blame for promoting cuckolding and their own gender victimization.[6]

Lamenting that the mantle had fit no woman, the messenger declared that he would return with it and shame Arthur’s court. Gauvain ordered a seach for any woman who had not yet attempted to have the mantle fit her. Caradoc Briebraz’s beloved woman was found. She hadn’t come to the dinner because of illness. Now she was summoned. Caradoc pleaded to her:

In everyone’s hearing he said, “My sweet beloved,
by God, don’t put it on
if you have any doubts at all.
I love you so sincerely
that I wouldn’t wish to know
your wrongdoing and have nothing.
I would prefer to remain in doubt.
Not for all the treasure of France
would I want to know for certain,
because he who loses his beloved
has lost much, it seems to me.
I would rather be dead than alive
and seeing you sitting on the row of shame
where Gauvain’s beloved has been placed.”

{ dist oiant toz, “Ma douce amie,
por Deu, ne l’afublez vos mie
se vos vos doutez de noient,
car je vos aim tant bonement
que je ne vorroie savoir
vostre mesfet por nul avoir,
miex en voil jë estre en doutance
ne por trestot l’avoir de France
n’en vodroie jë estre cert,
car qui sa bonne amie pert
molt a perdu, ce m’est avis —
miex vodroie estre morz que vis
que vos veïsse el renc assise
ou l’amie Gauvain est mise.” }

Kay declared that Caradoc deserved to be shamed by his beloved woman just as all the other knights were. Caradoc reluctantly agreed that he shouldn’t be exempt from the mantle test. His beloved, a beautiful young woman who had much respect for her man, tried on the mantle. It fit her. A thousand women in many different places had been misfit, but she was fit. She thus received the mantle as a gift. All were envious and filled with resentment and anger that she had won it.

The story of the mantle ends with the narrator hinting that he now has the mantle. He warns ladies, and then he quickly backtracks and apologies:

My lords, tell the ladies this news:
that I will bring the mantle everywhere.
It will be fitting for them to put it on,
and in truth I know well
that they will not make use of this!
It would be a waste of my effort
to make this present to them.
They would hate me forever.
It could be much worse for me
if I reproached them in any way.
Thus I must take good care —
for my sake, not for theirs.
They now have nothing but honor,
whatever has happened in the past.
But for the evil that has been done,
people are still reproaching them.
May God never protect anyone
who says about them anything but good,
unless there is known a very suitable reason!

{ Seignors, dites lor ces noveles:
Que partout le ferai porter
Si lor covenra afubler.
Et si sai bien de verité
Que ja par eles n’iert usé!
Por noient m’en travailleroie
Se ge cest present lor faisoie;
Eus me harroient mes totdis,
Si m’en porroie estre despis
Se jes reprenoie de rien.
Por ce me covient garder bien,
Por mon besoing, non por le lor.
E si n’i a il fors honnor
Que que jadis i ait eü,
Mes por le mal qui donques fu
Lor va on encor reprochant.
Et ja Diex ne li soit garant
Qui dira d’eles se bien non,
S’il n’i set molt juste achoison. }

Gynocentrism will not end until men are as free to criticize women as women are to criticize men.[7] Much work remains to be done to achieve gender equality today.

These Old French lais Horn {Cor} and Mantle {Mantel} document medieval men’s solidarity in being exposed to cuckolding. Affirming men’s solidarity in their vulnerability has yet unrealized critical potential. Men united by cuckolding can also be united in establishing reproductive rights for men, ending anti-men discrimination in child-custody and child-support decisions, abolishing gender inequality in criminal justice and incarceration, erasing the gender protrusion of violence against men, and eliminating men’s expected lifespan shortfall relative to women.

* * * * *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Robert Biket, Horn {Cor} / The Lai of the Horn {Le lai du corn}, vv. 227-62, Old French text from Dubin (1974), English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Brook (2016). For a freely available English translation of Cor, Butler (1910).

Robert Bikert probably composed Cor in the last quarter of the twelfth century or the first quarter of the thirteenth. Dubin (1974) p. 38. Nothing more is known about Robert Bikert, who names himself as the author in a concluding verse (v. 585) of Cor.

Cor survives in only one manuscript: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Digby 86, f. 105ra-109va (view online). Cor in MS Digby 86 is written in a “hand difficult to read” and is a “thoroughly Anglo-Norman text.” Dubin (1974) p. 50. On the orthographic and philological pecularities of the manuscript, id. pp. 50-4. Dubin declared:

One cannot regularized the grammar and orthography without doing great violence to it. … I have choosen to follow the manuscript as closely as possible, even when scribal practice differs from that of the author.

Id. p. 50. For an even less regularized transcription, Wulff (1888). For a more regularized transcription, Dörner (1907). As examination of these different transcriptions of just one medieval manuscript makes clear, the path from medieval manuscripts to the fluently readable, faithful translations printed in Burgess & Brook (2016) represents an enormous amount of scholarly expertise and labor.

Subsequent quotes from Cor are similarly sourced. They are vv. 287-93 (King Arthur took the horn…), 303-18 (“Sir,” said Yvain…), 327-9, 364-8 (I never loved any man…), 383-406 (“Sir,” said the queen…), 407-10 (The king said…).

[2] In twelfth-century Europe, the three eminent kings, except for God, were Jesse’s son David of the Hebrew Bible, Alexander the Great from the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon {Μακεδών}, and King Arthur of Britain. Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor after the fall the western part of the Roman Empire, later replaced David among the three leading kings in medieval historical understanding. Burgess & Brook (2016) p. 127, n. 4.

[3] The renowned knight Caradoc was the only man able to drink from the horn without it spilling its contents on him. Caradoc was married to a sister of King Galahal. Born in Cirencester where Caradoc ruled, she was very beautiful and very respectful to her husband. She was like a unicorn in relation to the other woman of King Arthur’s court. Arthur gave the horn to Caradoc for his distinctive feat and unusual marital position.

[4] Mantle {Mantel} / The Short Mantle {Le cort mantel} / The Ill-Fitting Mantle {Le Mantel Mautaillié} (verse version), vv. 201-11, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Brook (2013). Burgess & Brook (2016) includes that English translation not arranged by corresponding verse in the Old French original.

Mantel was composed late in the twelfth century or early in the thirteenth century. Its author isn’t known. Mantel has survived in five manuscripts. Those manuscripts provide considerably different texts. Burgess & Brook’s base text is MS S: Bibliothèque nationale de France, nouv. acq. fr. 1104 (view online). MS S provides the longest text. Burgess & Brook (2013) includes a detailed comparison between MS S and MS B: Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS 354, f. 93r-100v. Dubin (1974) provides an earlier edition of Mantel from MS S. For an earlier critical edition (with MS S called MS D), Wulff (1885). Wright (1863), pp. 15-28 provides an Old French text and English translation based on MS T: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, français 837 (Regius 7218), f. 27ra-31rb (view online).

Stories like Mantel were widely distributed in medieval Europe. See Burgess & Brook (2013) p. 18. The Möttuls Saga is an Old Norse translation of Mantel made early in the thirteenth century. For an English translation, Kalinke (1994). A late-fifteenth-century English balled, The Boy and the Mantle, includes the mantle test and the horn test, as well as a test with a wild boar’s head. Besamusca (2010) pp. 289-90.

Subsequent quotes from Mantel are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 317-22 (“My lady,” said Kay the seneschal…), 709-15 (A curse on anyone who believes this…), 797-810 (In everyone’s hearing he said…), 896-914 (My lords, tell the ladies this news…).

[5] The sexually explicit interpretations of the ill-fitting mantel are suppressed in MS S, but survive in other Old French manuscripts of Mantel. On those interpretations, Burgess & Brook (2013) pp. 15-18. The sexually explicit interpretations are also preserved in the Möttuls Saga.

[6] Kay directed solidarity among men in being cuckolded to cherishing women:

My lords, do not get angry.
Our jokes are very evenly distributed,
since each bears his own burden.
Our women must henceforth by us
be cherished and loved,
because today they have been well-tested.
We must take comfort in that
we cannot taunt each other.

{ Seignors, ne vos corouciez pas,
Molt oel sont parti nos gas
Quant chascuns en porte son fais.
Bien doivent par nos desormais
Estre chieries e amees,
Car bien se sont hui esprovees,
Si nos doit ce reconforter,
Que l’un ne puet l’autre gaber. }

Mantel, vv. 689-96. Such an attitude further entrenches gynocentrism.

[7] The original Icelandic Arthurian romance Mantle Rhymes {Skikkjurímur}, probably composed in the fifteenth century, shows a faulty initiative. After the mantle has shown all but one woman at his court to be disloyal, King Arthur sends them away. He then declares to his knights:

Let my plan be known to you:
you will go into battle,
for we shall find ourselves better women.

{ Kunnig sé yður ætlan mín;
þér munuð vekja vigra skúr,
því vér skulum sækja oss betri frúr. }

Skikkjurímur III:77, Icelandic text and English translation from Kalinke (2021) p. 15. Violence against men isn’t the answer to women’s disloyalty. If men continue to support gynocentrism, they will never find better women. Men must insist on gender equality for men. They can then find women who truly support gender equality and loving conjugal partnerships.

[images] (1) Ivory horn made in south Italy in the eleventh or twelfth century. Preserved as accession # 04.3.177a in the Metropolitian Museum of Art (New York, USA). Credit: Rogers Fund, 1904. The Met has generously contributed this image to the public domain. (2) Robe from Persia, made early in the seventh century under the reign of Shah Abbas the Great. Preserved as accession # LRK 6195 in the Royal Armoury of Sweden. Via Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Besamusca, Bart. 2010. “Characters and Narrators as Interpreters of Fidelity Tests in Medieval Arthurian Fiction.” Neophilologus. 94 (2): 289-299.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Leslie C. Brook, ed. and trans. 2013. The Lay of Mantel. French Arthurian Literature V. Arthurian Archives 18. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

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

Butler, Isabel. 1910. Tales from the Old French. London: Constable & Co.

Dörner, Heinrich. 1907. Robert Biquet’s Lai du cor, mit einer Einleitung über Sprache und Abfassungszeit. Strassburg: DuMont Schauberg.

Dubin, Nathaniel Edward. 1974. The Parodic Lays: a critical edition. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Washington.

Kalinke, Marianne E. 1994. “The Saga of the Mantle.” Ch. 9 (pp. 209-223) in Wilhelm, James J., ed. The Romance of Arthur: an anthology of medieval texts in translation. New, Expanded Edition. New York: Garland.

Kalinke, Marianne. 2021. ‘Skikkjurímur: “We shall find ourselves better women.”’ Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 120 (1): 1-17.

Wright, Thomas. 1863. On the influence of mediaeval upon Welsh literature, exemplified in the story of the Cort mantel. London: Printed by T. Richards.

Wulff, Fredrik. 1885. “Le conte du Mantel, texte français des dernières années du XIIe siècle, édité d’après tous les mss.” Romania. 14 (55-56): 343-380.

Wulff, Fredrik, ed. 1888. Robert Biket. Le Lai du Cor: Restitution Critique. Lund, Sweden: C. W. K. Gleerup.

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