De uxore cerdonis depicts beautiful & violent medieval woman

Medieval women tend to be romantically imagined as damsels in distress or ladies cheering on knights as they engage in brutal violence against men. Most medieval women, however, engaged in the rough and tumble of household subsistence tasks and in functional interactions with persons from other households. The thirteenth-century Latin comedy About the wife of the workman {De uxore cerdonis} replots a typical story of priestly lechery to give the workman’s wife a complex character. Playing across literary convention and ordinary reality, De uxore cerdonis combines a typical rhetorical portrait of a beautiful young woman with her realistic threat of personal violence against another non-elite woman.

De uxore cerdonis begins like a moralized romance. While men must earn virtue through their deeds, women’s worth tends to be signaled through their appearance. So it was with the wife of an impoverished workman:

Once upon a time the wife of an impoverished workman was
exceedingly beautiful. No other was more beautiful.
Her face was lustrous like the sun, and
her eyes glistened just as bright stars.
The soft central parts of her cheeks were red like strawberries.
Her eyebrows were black, and her brow itself was high.
Her nose and lips were slipping into red; her teeth,
closely ordered, lacked others’ filth.
Her hair became red and yellow like reddish-yellow gold.
Her neck was long and whiter than snow,
and the straight position of its slim grace
in no way exceeded either limit.
Her hands were white, and all her other limbs beautified her.
They enriched her very appearance, and her speech was gentle.

{ Uxor erat quedam cerdonis pauperis olim
Pulchra nimis, qua non pulchrior ulla fuit.
Huius erat facies solis splendoris ad instar,
Fulgebant oculi sidera clara velut.
Parte gene media molles ut fraga rubebant.
Nigra supercilia, frons erat alta sibi.
Labilis est nasus et labra rubentia, dentes,
Compositi dense, sorde carent aliqua
Flavescitque coma fulvo rutilantior auro,
Ardua sunt colla, candidiora nive
Et status illius rectus gracilisque decoris
Non excedebat prorsus utrumque modum.
Atque manus nivee, que cetera membra venustant,
Augent et formam; sermoque mitis erat. }[1]

An old and ugly priest burned in love for the workman’s wife. He turned to an old-woman go-between to plead his debilitating love-wound to the wife. For a high fee, the go-between went and urged the wife to accept the priest as a lover. The wife responded with a vibrant physical threat:

It’s not proper to propose this death-bringing practice.
It’s suitable always to pray to God to live to an old age.
If another woman had said this to me, her teeth
would have all been knocked out of her mouth. Let it not be discussed!

{ Non decet hanc artem morituram sollicitare;
Convenit annosis sepe rogare Deum.
Altera si mulier dixisset, dentibus eius
Ora forent vacua: non loqueretur ita! }[2]

This threat comically implies that the old-woman go-between has already lost all her teeth. But the threat is also realistic. The ancient Roman historian Orosius documented that women could be ferocious and brutal fighters. Women sometimes literally castrated men. The wife of a medieval workman might indeed knock all the teeth out of another woman’s mouth.

weeping medieval women observe battle

The go-between subsequently returned to implore the wife again on behalf of the priest. This time the go-between gave her lavish gifts. The go-between warned the wife that she would be responsible for the priest’s death is she didn’t have sex with him. The wife finally agreed to the affair.

The wife told her husband all about the proposition. The greedy husband envisioned the possibility for large financial gain from pimping his wife to the priest. She reluctantly agreed to a plan to trap and extort further payment from the priest under the threat of exposing him. But that plan failed when the priest simply refused to open the door to let the husband back into his house, and the wife didn’t act to let him in, either. She enjoyed having sex with the priest:

Although she desired to escape from him, she nevertheless wasn’t able.
She struggled, drawing long breaths,
panting and being pleased with being inflamed like an old woman.
One is made to do what one doesn’t understand; one does what one is endowed to do.
She moans and is unwilling to push away this man.

{ Qui cupit effugere, non tamen ipse potest.
Illa reluctatur ducens suspiria longa,
Anxiat et vellet usta quod esset anus.
Quid faciat nescit, facit illud quod valet ipsa;
Ingemit et nollet hec retulisse viro. }

Apparently the wife experienced the priest to be a better lover than her greedy and ugly husband. This beautiful young woman of gentle speech was a complex, passionate, and potentially violent human being.

Medieval literature recognized that women are complete human beings and thus are capable of all patterns of human behavior. Medieval Christian society celebrated motherhood as the means by which Mary the mother of Jesus brought God into the world as a fully male baby. Yet mothers could be violent toward their children. In the twelfth-century seduction epic About the Shrewd Envoy {De nuntio sagaci}, a young woman contemplating a sexual affair worried that her mother would react violently:

It’s a serious matter that you seek. You seem to want to ruin me.
If my mother knew, she would tear me apart with her hands,
and moreover I fear disgracing my beloved blood-relations.

{ Est grave quod quaeris; me perdere velle videris.
Si mater sciret, manibus lacerata perirem
nec non cognatos timeo mihi perdere gratos. }[3]

In Eumathios Makrembolites’s twelfth-century Byzantine novel Hysmine and Hysminias, Hysmine’s mother reacted violently to Hysminias’s love for her daughter. Mother’s violence toward their daughters, like mothers encouraging their daughters to be sex-workers, doesn’t mean that mothers don’t love their daughters. Human beings aren’t born into a moral binary of good and bad persons.

After enjoying a night of having sex with the workman’s wife, the priest ironically thanked the workman. The workman spent the night locked out of his own home. Heading out of the workman’s home, the priest said to that cuckolded husband:

Good days be with you! For me you had a distressing
night among many. With your grace it was.
Your honor’s kindness has done much for me.
I return thanks to you, sweet friend. Be well!

{ Sit tibi grata dies! Pro me mala sustinuisti
Nocte quidem multa: gratia vestra fuit.
Multum vestra michi bonitas modo fecit honoris:
Grates reddo tibi, dulcis amice; vale! }

The thirteenth-century Italian judge {iudex} Iacopo da Benevento {Iacobus Beneventanus} authored De uxore cerdonis. He concluded this comedy not by condemning the priest’s lechery, but by condemning the workman’s greed:

Iacopo has presented this work in verse so that all
who read it may learn to spurn despicable greed.

{ Iacobus istud opus metrice conscripsit ut omnis
qui leget hic, discat spernere vile lucrum. }

Medieval Europe embraced moral complexity, transgressive play, and dissenting voices. The Christian comic sense involves the sacred entering into the mud from which human beings are made. Medieval parodies encompassed sacred Christian liturgy and even women, the most privileged subject under gynocentrism.

Comedy is a buttress against moral absolutism and totalitarianism. Perhaps wokism, the elite religion of our age, follows a Christian pattern. But wokism lacks the comic sense of medieval Christianity. You might in despair feel that you can do nothing as the world careens towards horrors. But you can do something. You can learn the importance of laughter in Christianity. You can laugh and humanize the dominant ideology of our day.

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Notes:

[1] Iacopo da Benevento {Iacobus Beneventanus}, About the wife of the workman {De uxore cerdonis}, vv. 1-13, Latin text from Bertini (1998), my English translation. Bertini’s Latin edition is freely available online at ALIM (Archivio della Latinità Italiana del Medioevo): vv. 1-122, 123-226, 227-366, and 367-436. For an earlier critical edition, Niewöhner (1928). Haskins refers to De uxore cerdonis as De cerdone and wrongly states that it consists of 416 verses. Haskins (1928) p. 147. De uxore cerdonis in fact consists of 436 elegiac verses. The workman {cerdo} is usually thought to be a shoemaker, although he might be a tanner.

De uxore cerdonis has survived in three complete manuscripts and an additional fragment. The oldest manuscript, from the end of the thirteenth century, is MS P: University Library of Pavia, MS. Fondo Aldini 42, folios 1r-5v. On the manuscript witnesses, Bertini (2004).

Iacobus Beneventanus, an Italian jurist who also authored Carmina moralia, is thought to have written De uxore cerdonis in the second half of the thirteenth century. On the author and date, Bertini (1984).

The plot of De uxore cerdonis reserves those of fabliaux in which the lecherous priest is beaten and humiliated. Wailes (1974) pp. 645-8. De uxore cerdonis includes references to Ovid and to a twelfth-century work of Henry of Settimello {Henricus Septimellensis} in elegiac couplets, On varying fortunes and the consolation of philosophy {De diversitate fortunae et philosophiae consolatione}. Bisanti (1999-2000). De uxore cerdonis apparently connects twelfth-century Latin comedy to later vernacular comedy, including to Gian Giorgio Alione’s fifteenth-century Farsa de Zohan Zavatino. Id., Bertini (2004), and Bertini (2011).

Subsequent quotes above from De uxore cerdonis are similarly sourced. They are vv. 125-8 (It’s not proper to propose…), 378-82 (Although she desired to escape…), 407-10 (Good days be with you…), 435-6 (Iacopo has presented…).

[2] When the go-between reported back to the priest, she explained that her mission went badly: “She wanted to break all my teeth {mihi dentes voluit confringere cuncto}.” De uxore cerdonis, v. 177.

[3] About the Shrewd Envoy {De nuntio sagaci}, vv. 165-7, Latin text from Rossetti (1980) via Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020), my English translation, benefiting from that of id.

[image] Weeping and distraught medieval women observe men engaged in violence against men. Illustration from Codex Manesse, Zurich, made between 1305 and 1315. Manuscript preserved as UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 42r. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Bertini, Ferruccio. 1984. “Il De uxore cerdonis, commedia latina del XIII secolo.” Schede medievali. 6/7: 9-18.

Bertini, Ferrucio, ed. and trans. (into Italian). 1998. “Iacobus Beneventanus, De uxore cerdonis.” Pp. 429-503 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.

Bertini, Ferruccio. 2004. Entry for “Jacopo da Benevento” in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, Vol. LXII. Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Italiana Treccani. Similarly Bertini’s entry for Jacopo da Benevento in Federiciana (2005).

Bertini, Ferruccio. 2011. “Il realismo nel De uxore cerdonis.” MAIA-Rivista Di Letterature Classiche. 63 (3): 455-459.

Bisanti, Armando. 1999-2000. “A proposito del De uxore cerdonis di Iacopo da Benevento.” Filologia Mediolatina. 6-7: 295-309.

Haskins, Charles Homer. 1928. “Latin Literature under Frederick II.” Speculum. 3 (2): 129-151.

Hexter, Ralph J., Laura Pfuntner, and Justin Haynes, ed. and trans. 2020. Appendix Ovidiana: Latin poems ascribed to Ovid in the Middle Ages. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 62. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Niewöhner, Heinrich. 1928. “De uxore cerdonis.” Zeitschrift Für Deutsches Altertum Und Deutsche Literatur. 65 (1-2): 65-92.

Rossetti, Gabriella, ed. and trans. (Italian). 1980. “De nuntio sagaci.” Pp. 11-128 in Ferrucio Bertini, ed. Commedie Latine del XII e XIII Secolo. Vol. 2. Pubblicazioni dell’Istituto di Filologia Classica e Medioevale, 61. Genova, Italy: Istituto di Filologia Classica e Medioevale.

Wailes, Stephen L. 1974. “Role-Playing in Medieval Comediae and Fabliaux.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen. 75 (4): 640-649.

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