work for social justice: castration no joking matter

In medieval London, a hard-working young clerk served a lawyer, and served the lawyer’s wife as well. The latter work was dangerous, particularly because men have always been punished relatively severely for illicit sex. This clerk, showing superior guile though of the inferior gender, shed tears and revealed his secret to his lawyer-master:

“My very good master, it’s true that, I know that, many people, and you too, might imagine that I’m a natural man like any other, capable of having intercourse with a woman and creating progeny. But to you I affirm and show that I am not such in that, alas, to my great sorrow.” And with these words he very assuredly pulled out his pole-like penis and showed him his scrotum. He had with much time and trouble pushed up his testicles towards his lower belly and hid them so well that it seemed as though he had none.

{ “Mon très bon maistre, il est vray que, jà soit ce que plusieurs gens et vous aussi pourroient penser que je feusse homme naturel comme ung autre, ayant puissance d’avoir compaignie avec femme, et de faire lignée, vous oseray bien dire et monstrer que point je ne suis tel, dont helas! trop je me deul.” Et, à ces parolles, trop asseurement tira son membre à perche et lui fist monstre de la peau où les coulons se logent, lesquelz il avoit par industrie fait monter en bault, vers son petit ventre, et si bien les avoit cachiez, qu’il sembloit qu’il n’en eust nulz. }[1]

The clerk declared that as an impotent man, he wanted to spend the rest of his life in a monastery.

to have affair with master's wife, clerk fakes castration

Because of the clerk’s diligence and effort with his pen, the lawyer-master didn’t want to lose him. The master told his clerk about the privations and hardships of religious life and the impropriety of becoming a monk out of grief for impotence. The clerk, feigning reluctance, agreed to stay in the master’s home. Then the master revealed his own secret to the clerk:

My son, I’m not glad to hear of your misfortune. But in the end God orders all things for the best and knows what is most suitable for us and wants the best. You can in the future serve me very well and merit all that is in my power to do for you. I have a young wife, who is light-hearted and flighty, and I am, as you also see, already old and staid. That might give occasion for, of all such, some dishonor to me and also to her, if she should prove other than chaste, and become for me a matter for jealousy and many other things. I entrust her to you so that you may watch over her, and I beg you to keep her close at hand so that I may have no reason to find in her any matter for jealousy.

{ Mon filz, de vostre infortune ne suis-je point joyeux, mais, au fort, Dieu, qui fait tout pour le mieulx, scait ce qui nous duyt et vault mieulx: vous me pourrez doresenavant très bien servir, et à mon povoir, vous le meriteray: j’ay jeune femme assez legiere et volaige, et suis, ainsi comme vous veez, desja ancien et sur aage: qui aucunement peut estre occasion à plusieurs de la requerre de déshonneur; et à elle aussi, s’elle estoit autre que bonne, me bailler matière de jalousie, et plusieurs aultres choses. Je la vous baille et donne en garde, et si vous en prie que tenez à ce la main, que je n’aye cause d’en elle trouver nulle matière de jalousie. }

The master seems not to have had recent knowledge of his wife’s matter for jealousy. The clerk praised her beauty and goodness and eagerly served the “good husband {bon mary}”:

For as much as the clerk and his good lady dared, they didn’t spare the members that will decay in earthly life, and they never failed to make a great feast of sex.

{ le plus longuement que luy et sa dame bien osèrent, n’espargnerent pas les membres qui en terre pourriront; et ne firent jamais plus grant feste }

As strange and unreal as it seems to indoctrinated women and men today, medieval women and men had joy in sex. Medieval Christianity taught that even eunuchs could realize the complete joy that Christ promised. The guileful clerk who faked that he lacked testicles provided as much joy to his master’s wife as did the classical eunuch Bromium for his lady-lord. As study of classics decreases, cuckolding increases. They have no joy. Jesus help them!

Faking castration can be a risky business. Consider the late medieval case of a priest from Onzain near Amboise in central France. He was having a sexual affair with his landlady. To lessen her husband’s suspicion, she proposed that the priest take dramatic action:

He agreed to have himself castrated, or to speak more modestly, emasculated. And so he placed himself at the mercy of a man named mister Master Peter of the Snakes, a native of Low-Cave in Berry.

{ se fit châtrer (qu’on dit plus honnêtement tailler); et se mit en la miséricorde d’un nommé monsieur maître Pierre des Serpents, natif de Vilantrois en Berri }[2]

While telling all his relatives and friends that he was getting himself castrated, the priest gave Master Peter four crowns to fake the castration. The operation turned out badly:

Master Peter, persuaded by the husband and holding the poor priest in his power, tied him down by hand and foot, and then really performed his business and did it. Then he explained his reason. He wasn’t at all accustomed to mocking his job, and if he would as much as a single time mock it, his trade would mock him.

{ maître Pierre, persuadé par le mari, et tenant le pauvre curé en sa puissance, après l’avoir bien attaché, lié et garrotté, exécuta son office réalement et de fait; et puis le paya de cette raison, qu’il n’avoit point accoutumé se moquer de son métier; et que, s’il s’en étoit une seule fois moqué, son métier se moqueroit de lui. }

The husband had paid Master Peter twice as much to do his job as the priest had paid him not to do it. Women should not encourage their lovers to be castrated or even to pretend to be castrated. It’s just too risky.

Castration is no joking matter. In medieval France, a priest was very fond of “confessing” his women parishioners. His fame spread across all of France. One day when he was having dinner at a parishioner’s inn, a man professionally named Ball-Cutter came to the inn. Ball-Cutter worked as a gelder. The priest asked the gelder many questions about gelding. Then the priest, unobserved, turned to the host and proposed playing a trick on Ball-Cutter:

I’ll pretend to have a major pain in my testicle, and then I’ll bargain with him to cut it away. I’ll be placed on the table all ready as if to have it cut off. And when he comes near and would like to see what it is and begin his work, I’ll turn and show him my ass.

{ je faindray avoir grant mal en ung coillon, et puis je marchanderay à luy de le me oster, et me mettray sus la table et tout en point, comme pour le trenchier. Et quant il viendra près et il voudra veoir que c’est et ouvrer de son mestier, je luy montreray le derrière. }[3]

In medieval literature, women sometimes save beloved men from castration by pretending to be them. The priest intended to play a variation on that trick.

The unknowing Ball-Cutter agreed to remove the priest’s testicle. The host then betrayed the priest and said to the gelder:

Take care, whatever the priest might say to you, when you grab it in your hands in order to work on his testicles, that you cut both of them off, completely and cleanly. Take care that you don’t fail, if you love dearly your own body.

{ Garde bien, quelque chose que ce prestre te dye, quant tu le tiendras en tes mains, pour ouvrer à ses coillons, que tu luy trenches tous deux rasibus, et garde bien que tu n’y failles point, si chier que tu aymes ton corps. }

What the priest meant to be a joke became a horror story:

The host and also his servants together held the condemned priest tightly there. They took care that he wouldn’t escape, not neglecting any way that there was. And in order to be the most sure, they bound him him very well and tightly. They told him that was to make better and more hidden their joke and that when he wished, they would let him go. Like a fool he believed them. Now the valiant Ball-Cutter came, carrying his little razor in his hand. He immediately began to take in his hand the priest’s testicles. “Hey!” said mister priest, “Do it straight and well! Feel them as sweetly as you can, and then afterwards, I’ll tell you which I want to have cut off.” “Very well,” said the gelder. And then he lifted up the gown of the master priest and grabbed the priest’s mistresses’s testicles. They were big and heavy. Without further inquiry, suddenly, like an eclipse of a celestial orb, he cut the two from him with a single stroke. The good priest began to yell and raise more living hell than any man ever did.

{ L’oste aussi et pareillement les serviteurs de leans dévoient tenir damp curé: qui n’avoient garde de le laisser eschapper, ne remuer en quelque maniere que ce feust. Et, affin d’estre plus seur, le lierent trop bien et estroit, et luy disoient que c’estoit pour mieux et plus couvertement faire la farce, et quant il voudroit, ilz le laisseroyent aller; il les creut comme fol. Or vint ce vaillant trenchecoille, garny en sa cornette de son petit rasoir, et incontinent commença à vouloir mettre les mains aux coilles de monseigneur le curé: “A!” dist monseigneur le curé, “faictes à trait et tout beau! Tastez-les le plus doulcement que vous pourrez, et puis après, je vous diray lequel je vueil avoir osté.” “Et bien!” dist le trenchecoille. Et lors tout souef lieve la chemise du maistre curé, et prent ses maistresses coilles, grosses et quarrées, et sans plus enquerir, subitement, comme l’eclipse, les luy trencha tous deux d’ung seul coup. Et bon curé de crier, et de faire la plus male vie que jamais fist homme. }

His work finished, Ball-Cutter promptly left. Bandaging and comforting the priest, the host of the inn pretended not to have been part of the castration conspiracy.

castrating priest in joke transformed

News of the horrible injury to the priest quickly spread. Reactions varied:

It isn’t necessary to say that not a few young women were very despondent to have lost the instruments of mister priest. But on the other hand, the suffering husbands were so joyful that I couldn’t know how to tithe to you in telling or writing one tenth of their happiness.

{ ne fault pas dire que aucunes damoiselles n’en fussent bien marries d’avoir perdu les instrumens de monseigneur le curé; mais, aussi, d’aultre part, les dolen marys en furent tant joyeux qu’on ne vous scauroye dire, ne escripre la dixiesme partie de leur lyesse. }

Women have long opposed castration culture more than have men. Men must show more love and compassion for men.

Erasing castration culture should be a social-justice priority. Literary history is filled with horrific stories of castration going all the way back to Chronos / Saturn castrating Uranus / Caelus in Hesiod’s Theogony. Despite violent injury to a man’s testicles being played as a joke in a Super Bowl commercial, castration is no joking matter.

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Read more:

Notes:

[1] Antoine de la Sale, The Hundred New Novels {Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles}, nouvelle 13, The castrated clerk {Le clerc chastré}, Middle French text from Lacroix (1884), my English translation, benefiting from that of Douglas (1899). The subsequent two quotes above are similarly from this nouvelle (story). The titles of the nouvelles are not in the original manuscript. They are from early eighteenth-century editions and vary. An alternate title for this story is The eunuch clerk. For an alternate English translations, Robbins (1960) and Diner (1990).

Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles exists in a manuscript written in 1462. It was published in print for the first time in 1485. It reportedly consists of stories told in the court of Philip III, Duke of Burgundy, probably from 1456 to 1461. Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles is a framed story collection similar to Boccaccio’s Decameron.

[2] Bonaventure des Périers, Novel Pastimes and Merry Tales {Nouvelles récréations et joyeux devis}, Tale 113, “About the priest from Onzain, near Amboise, who was persuaded by his landlady to have himself castgrated {Du curé d’Onzain, prés d’Amboyse, qui se feit chastrer à la persuasion de son hostesse},” Midde French text from Lacour (1874) vol. 2, pp. 158-9, English translation (modified) from La Charité & La Charité (1972). The subsequent quote above is similarly from this tale.

Bonaventure des Périers was a Frenchman who lived from about 1500 to 1544. His story collection Nouvelles récréations et joyeux devis was printed with his collected works in 1544 and on a stand-alone basis in 1558. Tale 113 probably came from the same medieval strand that includes nouvelle 64 of Antoine de la Sale’s Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles.

[3] Antoine de la Sale, Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles, nouvelle 64, The priest who was too cunning {Le curé trop respectueux}, Middle French text from Lacroix (1884), my English translation, benefiting from that of Douglas (1899). The subsequent three quotes above are similarly from this nouvelle.

The thirteenth-century Old French fabliau “About Connebert / The priest who lost his balls / The priest crucified {De Connebert / Li prestre ki perdi les colles / Le Prêtre crucifié}” is a similar story. For brief discussion, see note 7 and associated text in my post on violence against men in fabliaux and reality.

[images] (1) Illustration for nouvelle 13 (to have an affair with his master’s wife, a clerk fakes castration) in Antoine de la Sale’s Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles. Detail from folio 27v of Glasgow, University Library, GB 247 MS Hunter 252 (U.4.10). Here are the illustrations for each nouvelle. (2) Illustration for nouvelle 64 (a priest’s castration joke gets him castrated) in Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles. Detail from folio 143r of Glasgow, University Library, GB 247 MS Hunter 252 (U.4.10). (3) Illustration for nouvelle 13 (a clerk shows his lack of testicles to his master) in Douglas (1899).

clerk shows his lack of testicles to his master

References:

Diner, Judith Bruskin, trans. 1990. Antoine de la Sale. The One Hundred New Tales = Les cent nouvelles nouvelles. New York: Garland.

Douglas, Robert B., trans. 1899. Antoine de la Sale. One hundred merrie and delightsome stories: right pleasaunte to relate in all goodly companie by joyance and jollity: les cent nouvelles nouvelles. Paris: Charles Carrington.

Lacour, Louis, ed. 1874. Nouvelles récréations et joyeux devis de B. des Periers ; suivi du Cymbalum mundi. Paris: Librairie des bibliophiles. Vol. 1. Vol. 2. Alternate presentation.

Lacroix, Paul, ed. 1884. Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles: dites les Cent nouvelles du roi Louis XI; éd. rev. sur l’édition originale, avec des notes et une introduction. Paris: Charpentier.

La Charité, Raymond C. and Virginia A. La Charité, trans. 1972. Bonaventure des Périers’s Novel Pastimes and Merry Tales. Lexington, KY: The Univ. Press of Kentucky.

Robbins, Rossell Hope, trans. 1960. The Hundred Tales (Les cent nouvelles nouvelles). Illustrated by Alexander Dobkin. New York: Bonanza Books.

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