medieval men’s sexed protest against female sexual privilege

Throughout history, men have provided women with material goods in having sexual relations with them. Throughout history, most persons paying for sex have been men. Most prostitutes have been women. Modern sex taxes on men, socially constructed as “child support,” are bizarrely irrational and harshly punish men lacking reproductive choice. As obvious as it is scarcely speakable today, women’s sexuality has long been more highly valued than men’s sexuality. In medieval Europe, some men bitterly protested this female sexual privilege.

The Guide for fools {Chastie musart}, a thirteenth-century Old French poem of men’s sexed protest, recognized wealth inequality in protesting female sexual privilege. Apparently writing with the mentality of a tradesman, its author protested women’s greed, deceit, and indiscriminate valuing. Regarding women trading sex for material goods, the Chastie musart declared:

One should excuse the wantonness of a poor woman
who has only one dress that’s fit for her to wear.
She doesn’t use trickery to beguile the menfolk.
How can a poor woman refuse a chance for gain?

I’m not amazed if a poor woman comes
to behave wantonly in such circumstances.
If there weren’t necessity, maybe she’d never
come to that point. Well would that suit her.

A woman who has five or six pairs of dresses
lined with fur whether white or gray,
or her fine houses or her rich property,
should be well jeered if she fucks for a price.

There are many of these women who fuck for a fee,
for the gifts they receive, though they haven’t need of them.
But there’s no merchant or knight in the world
who can’t learn better by reading this book.

{ L’en doit bien povre feme de folie escuser
Qui n’a que une cote que li convient user:
El ne sert pas de guile de la gent amuser:
Comment puet povre feme son gaaig refuser?

Ge n’ai mie merveille s’a povre feme avient
Qu’ele face folie, au siecle se devient:
Ses estovoirs li faillent, ne jamais se devient
A cel point n’avenra : bien faire li convient.

Feme qui a de robes ou .v. peres ou .vj.
Forrees d’escurex ou de vair ou de gris,
Ou ses beles maisons ou son riche porpris,
L’en la doit bien huer quant ele fout por pris.

Mult en i a de celes qui foutent por looier,
Por les dons qu’en reçoivent, et si n’en ont mestier:
Mais el siecle n’a nul borjois ne chevalier
Por qu’il lise cel livre, ne s’en puist chastoier. }[1]

The Chastie musart repeatedly associates female sexual privilege with economic privilege:

The more alluring and more elegant the woman is,
the more foolish and more mad he is who frequents her.
She doesn’t care who bangs her, whether in the ass or in the fine front hole,
as long as he gives her money or dresses or a fine blanket.

You’ll never find faith or constancy in a woman,
even if she be appealing, elegant, or lovely.
As long as she can gain something, she’ll never regret it,
because for each lustful man, she’d like to have thirty.

The one who is most haughty or who is most overbearing,
who resembles the castle-mistress of Péronne or of Roye,
doesn’t care whom she conquers or takes in or pleases
in exchange for one necklace of silver or for a belt.

No worthy man will ever by loved or held dear by a woman
if he isn’t dressed in a little green or squirrel-fur.
A woman won’t be strongly attracted to him if he’s poor and naked,
but if he gives richly, he’ll will be well-received.

{ De tant con la feme est plus mignote et plus cointe,
De tant est plus musarz et plus fox qui l’acointe:
Ne li chaut qui la fiere, ou de cul ou de pointe,
Ou qu’il li doint deniers ou robe ou coute pointe.

Ja mar avrez en feme fiance ne atente,
Qui tant soit bobenceuse ne mignote ne gente,
Puis qu’el puist gaaignier que jamais se repente:
Que por .i. lecheour en vorroit avoir .XXX.

Cele qui plus s’orgueille et qui plus se desroie,
Qui sanble chastelaine de Péronne ou de Roie,
Ne li chaut qui el mate ou enprant ou enroie
Por .i. taissu d’argent ou por une corroie.

Ja preudom n’ert de feme amez ne chier tenuz
S’il n’est vestuz de vert ou d’escuriex menuz:
Feme ne fait force s’il est povres et nuz:
Mais qu’il doint largement, il sera bien venuz.}[2]

This work of men’s sexed protest careens from concerns and circumstances of women at the top of medieval society to the language of uncouth tradesmen. It challenges fundamental social inequalities.

man offering woman money for sex

Men paying women for sex isn’t as oppressive as poor men being deprived of women’s love because of their poverty. The Chastie musart fundamentally concerns dehumanization resulting from men having to pay for women’s love:

A woman puts herself up for sale — let the buyer beware.
A woman knows much about trickery, fraud, and cheating.
Better for him to buy, without deception, a straw mat,
for a woman resembles three things: she-wolf, vixen, and female cat.

She-wolf, vixen and female cat are three predators:
the female cat hunts, the vixen lurks, the she-wolf ravages and predates.
He who would, should believe me in this: a woman will never love
any man who doesn’t have to give either clothes or cash.

{ Feme se met en vente, gart soi bien qui l’achate,
Feme set mult d’enging, de barate et de frape:
Mielz li venroit, sanz faille, acheter une nate;
Feme sanble .iii. choses: louve, goupille et chate.

Louve, goupille et chate sont .iii. bestes de proie:
Chate cherche, goupil gaite, louve ravit et proie.
Ja feme n’amera, qui que velt si m’en croie,
Nul home s’el n’en a ou robes ou monnoie. }[3]

Men historically have been dehumanized as dogs, pigs, and wolves. Dehumanizing women as she-wolves, vixen, and female cats is similar. The comparison to buying a straw mat emphasizes the extent to which monetizing love for men makes society primitive.

Who declares the law
of beauty? Let it be whores!

{ Quid lex edixit
de formosa? meretrix sit }[4]

Today, medieval literature of men’s sexed protest is marginalized and disparaged. The Chastie musart explicitly addressed its own transgressiveness:

One thinks the poor man foolish and the rich man wise,
but the poor man has one very big advantage:
he can speak his mind, if his heart wishes to do that.
To the most brightest of all he will never pay the price.

The rich man won’t speak freely. Instead he observes and listens.
What he has, which he’s afraid of losing, makes him follow the line.
And what does the poor man do? He strikes and thrusts,
because for a man who has nothing to lose, he has nothing to fear or dread.

{ L’en tient le povre a fol et le riche a saige,
Mais d’itant a li povres .i. mult grant aventaige:
Qu’il puet dire son boen, si li vient a coraige:
De trestot le plus cointe ja n’en plaiera gaige.

Ce ne fait pas li riches, ainz oreille et escoute;
Son avoir, qu’il crient perdre le fait aler en route.
Et li povres que fait? Cestui fiert, celui boute,
Quar hom qui n’a que perdre ne crient riens ne ne dote. }

These verses might as well be speaking to modern medieval scholars trivializing men’s sexed protest with superficial name-calling (“misogyny”). The extent to which a society is able to accommodate criticism and dissent, even of matters concerning women and divine liturgy, is a measure of its self-confidence and adaptability. With respect to men’s sexed protest, modern societies lag far behind medieval Europe.[5]

man sticking out tongue

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[1] Guide for fools {Chastie musart / Chastiemusart} from BnF Fr. 19152, st. 51-4, Old French text and English translation (modified) from Psaki (2016). Subsequent quotes from the Chastie musart are similarly sourced. For a freely accessible edition of the Chastie musart from BnF Fr. 19152, Jubinal (1839) vol. 2, pp. 478-89 (alternate presentation). Meyer (1886) provides text from a different manuscript.

The Chastie musart probably was written sometime between late in the twelfth century and late in the thirteenth century. More precise specifications are a muddle: “no one now seems to date it earlier than the mid- to late-thirteenth century.” Psaki (2019) p. 106, which footnotes Eusibi (1998) p. 41, which gives the earliest possible date as late in the twelfth century, and the latest possible date as 1233. The Chastie musart consists of Alexandrine quatrains. The length of the poem varies considerably across manuscript instances.

[2] Chastie musart, st. 35-9. According to the Chastie musart, a competitive, commercial market for sex gives women high sexual value and allows them to acquire luxuries:

Whether she wears scarlet, vermilion, or purple,
rich Stanford cloth or fine dark brown and laces herself neatly,
if she wants money, she doesn’t care who gets it for her.
She grateful to anyone who gets money for her.

A woman shows a lovely face — sweet, merciful, and tender —
to the rich man when she thinks he has something she can take.
The poor man drinks last because he has nothing to offer.
A woman is very wicked when she sells herself costly.

{ S’ele vest escarlate vermeille ou paonace,
Estanfort ou brunete, et cointement se lace,
S’ele velt gaaignier, poi li est qui li face:
Ençois l’en set bon gré qui gaaig li porchace.

Feme fait bele chiere, douce, piteuse et tenre
Au riche home ou el cuide ou il ait riens a prandre;
Le povre boute arriere por ce qu’il n’a que tenre:
Feme set trop de mal qui se fait chieres a venre. }

Chastie musart. st. 56-7. Acute concern for inequalities pervades this poem.

[3] Chastie musart, st. 68-9. The subsequent quote above is Chastie musart, st. 3-4.

[4] Serlo of Wilton, proverb 41, Latin text from Friend (1954), p. 200, my English translation. A related proverb recorded in fifteenth-century England:

The smaller the peas, the more to the pot; the fairer the woman, the more giglot.

Cited by id. to Tilley (1950), proverb 137. Cited to the fifteenth-century MS. Sloane 1210 in Northall (1892) p. 508.

[5] A leading scholar of the Chastie musart ignored systemic issues of gender and economic inequality and suggested that its author was an angry misogynist not sophisticated enough to subvert dominant discourse:

I conclude from the narrative voicing of the Chastiemusart that this text is indeed a straight-faced entry in the misogyny stakes — or one with its tongue only incidentally, tentatively, and potentially in its check. It does nonetheless give the close reader a hint or two that the misogynous diatribe might both derive from personal dyspepsia, and ultimately backfire on the attempted and apparent gravitas of its speaker.

Psaki (2019) pp. 115-6. Given the prevalence of such historical microaggressions, medieval literary scholarship urgently needs to be more inclusive and welcoming of diverse voices.

[image] (1) Man offering a woman money for sex. From folio 142v of British Library Add MS 49622 (Gorleston Psalter made in England (Suffolk) between 1310-1324). (2) Man sticking out tongue. From folio 123r of British Library Add MS 49622


Eusebi, Mario. 1998. “Le quartine proverbiali del Chastie-musart.” Pp. 35-67 in Mélanges in memoriam Takeshi Shimmura. Tokyo: Comité de publication des Mélanges in memoriam Takeshi Shimmura.

Friend, A. C. 1954. “The Proverbs of Serlo of Wilton.” Mediaeval Studies. 16: 179-218.

Jubinal, Achille. 1839. Oeuvres complètes de Rutebeuf, trouvère du XIII siècle. Vol. 1. Vol. 2. Paris: Pannier.

Meyer, Paul. 1886. “Le Chastie-Musart d’après le ms. Harléien 4333.” Romania. 15 (60): 603-610.

Northall, C. F. 1892. English folk-rhymes ; a collection of traditional verses relating to places and persons, customs, supertitions. London.

Psaki, F. Regina. 2016. “The Guide for Fools: The Chastiemusart in BnF Fr. 19152.” Pp. 231-263 in Philip E. Bennett, Leslie Zarker Morgan, and F. Regina Psaki, eds. 2016. The Epic Imagination in Medieval Literature: Essays in Honor of Alice M. Colby-Hall. Romance Monographs S-5. University of Mississippi.

Psaki, F. Regina. 2019. “Medieval misogyny and the French of Italy: the Chastiemusart and the Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum.” Pp. 101-140 in Nicola Morato et Dirk Schoenaers, eds. Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France: Studies in the Moving Word. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, 28. Turnhout: Brepols.

Tilley, Morris Palmer. 1950. A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: a collection of the proverbs found in English literature and the dictionaries of the period. Michigan: Michigan University Press.

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