unpleasant truth: some persons prefer jerks in love

The authoritative ruling of the medieval council at Remiremont established that clerics are better lovers than knights. Nonetheless, a poor medieval merchant protested knights’ success with women. He complained in a mid-thirteenth-century text:

A woman is better acquainted than any blacksmith
with all those knights who go wandering about the world.
Praise, honor, and renown they go seeking and questing
wherever in the world they know a place of combat.

They talk like them: “This one’s good, this one’s handsome,
that one’s shield is painted, that one’s shield is banded,
this one jousts better than anyone, that one seizes boroughs and castles,
this one is best in fighting, that one is a good jouster.”

Similarly they say about women, straight and to the point,
by castles, cities, towns, and boroughs,
“This one’s name is Jeannette, that one’s name is Eranbourg,
this one has blond hair hanging down, that one has it pulled back.

This one is born in Paris, that one is born in Vernon,
that other one now lives in Chartres, that one in Épernon,
that one was born in Rouen, the other in Gallardon.”
All they do with women, I think, is entice them.

{ Feme a plus d’acointance que mareschal qui ferre
A toz ces chevaliers qui vont errant par terre:
Pris, hennor et renom vont porchaçant et querre
Par toz les leus du mont ou sevent point de guerre.

Ausi conme l’en dit: “Cist est bon, cist est beax,
Cil porte l’escu point, cil le porte à labeax,
Cist joste mielz que nus, cist prent bors et chasteax,
Cist est li plus proisiez, cist fait les bons cenbeax.”

Ausi dit l’on de femes orendroit tout a cors,
Par chasteax, par citez, par viles et par bors:
Ceste a nom Joenneste, ceste a nom Eranbors;
Ceste a blonz crins pendanz, ceste les a rebors ;

Ceste est de Paris nee, ceste est de Vernon,
Cel’autre maint a Chartres et cele a Esparnon,
Cel’est de Roam nee, cel’est de Galardon.”
L’en ne fait mais de femes, ce truis, se gaber non. }[1]

Historically in the literary brutalization of men’s sexuality, the hammering of blacksmiths, sword-fighting, and jousting have been used as metaphors for masculine sexual effort. This merchant imagines women talking with the combat sense of knights. The knights, in contrast, discuss women in terms of appearance and social place (birthplace) from Rouen to Paris on the Seine River and the nearby places of Vernon, Épernon, Gallardon, and Chartres. These common topics of conversation bring knights and women together as narrow-hearted, promiscuous lovers from the merchant’s perspective.

The merchant-narrator bitterly protested women preferring jerks. He declared:

A woman will never love and marry, so help me God,
the man who laments and sighs and weeps for her love.
But the man who batters her and who devours her wealth,
him she loves and values, him she holds dear and honors.

A woman has a bad character and a bad nature
when she has no thought and no care for the man who loves her,
but the man who treats her with crudeness and foulness,
in him she places her heart and effort and care.

{ Feme n’amera ia si m’aist Diex et sequeure,
Celui qui por s’amor plaint et soupire et pleure,
Mais cil qui bien la bat et qui en li deveure,
Celui aime ele et prise et tient chier et honneure.

Feme est de mal atret et de male nature,
Quant a celui qui l’aime ne pensse ne n’a cure,
Mais celui qui li fait vilennie et laidure,
En celui met son cuer et sa peine et sa cure. }[2]

Women singers in northern France in the twelfth and thirteenth century poignantly lamented their love for jerks. Digenis in the twelfth-century Byzantine epic Digenis Akritis regretted being a bigger jerk in response to a beautiful woman loving a jerk. Some medieval men dying in lovesickness loved women who urged them to die more quickly. Those men loved jerks. As bizarre as it seems, some persons prefer to love jerks.

woman flaying the skin off a man's back

The twelfth-century poet Serlo of Wilton recognized with acute self-consciousness the problem of loving jerks. He summarized his own love masochism:

When I’m spurned, I love. Being loved, I spurn. Women that court me
I hate. Nonetheless, I desire to court every one of them.

{ Diligo dum spernor, dilectus sperno; faventes
Odi dum cupiam quamque favere tamen. }[3]

Serlo associated Fortune, personified as a woman, with the well-known prostitute Thais:

If anyone doesn’t know Fortune, let him know Thais.
Like her, she comes when spurned and being sought, flees.
Therefore if you are wise, then when to you it’s bliss to have her,
pretend to be less interested, and she’ll give more.

{ Quisquis Fortunam non novit, Thaida noscat:
Eius more venit spreta, rogata fugit.
Si satis ergo sapis, cum te delectet habere.
Parcius affecta, largius illa dabit. }

The central tenet of the martial art of jujitsu is to use an opponent’s force against her or him. That principle can also be applied to win with Fortune and Love.

Medieval literature of men’s sexed protest provides insight into gender injustices. Laws and norms that magnify gender inequality in parental knowledge and devalue men’s lives represent gender injustices. Yet not all the hurt that men feel in relation to women comes from gender injustice. More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy. Both men and women have such human hearts.[4] Men complaining about wounds that they and their fellow men have suffered deserve a compassionate hearing. But no amount of protesting can change human nature or the vicissitudes of life.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Guide for fools {Chastie musart / Chastiemusart} from BnF Fr. 19152, stanzas 43-46 (vv. 169-184), Old French text and English translation (modified) from Psaki (2016). For a freely accessible edition of the Chastie musart from BnF Fr. 19152, Jubinal (1839) vol. 2, pp. 478-89.

[2] Chastie musart from BnF Fr. 19152, stanzas 16-17 (vv. 61-68), Old French text and English translation (modified) from Psaki (2016). Another thirteenth-century poem of men’s sexed protest makes a similar point:

The attractive and beautiful woman acts similarly,
she who many noble men ask to serve in love.
She could, at her command, have whichever one she wished.
Instead a mangy man comes and mounts her saddle.

{ Lo simele fài la femena q’è avinent e bela,
ke molti nobeli omini de drueria l’apela,
e poria al so comando aver qual voles’ ella:
avanti un fel rognoso se mete sula sela. }

Proverbs that speak about the nature of women {Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum}, stanza 189 (vv. 753-756),  Old Italian text from Meneghetti & Tagliani (2019) pp. 125-6, my English translation, benefiting from the Italian translation of Bonghi & Mangieri (2003). Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum drew upon the Chastie musart. Psaki (2019).

[3] Serlo of Wilton, “Ovid was inclined to love, but I am more inclined {Pronus erat Veneri Naso, sed ego mage pronus}, vv. 17-8, Latin text from Dronke (1965), vol. 2, p. 504, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The subsequent quote is from Serlo of Wilton, “If you would rather be lost by wealth than lose it {Si mavis perdi lucro quam perdere lucrum},” vv. 9-12, sourced similarly from id. p. 497. Men who act like feudal serfs in seeking women’s love or who subserviently lick women’s feet are more accurately regarded as fools than jerks.

[4] The learned in medieval Europe recognized human perversity (e.g. Jeremiah 17:9) as well as human gender similarity. Psaki recognized in Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum the peculiar theme “women are alien to men in their nature”:

God, what a strange nature I find in women!

Women’s wisdom is very different from ours.

Oh God, what bizarre minds women have!

{ Deu, con’ strania natura en le femene truovo!

Lo seno de le femene da lo nostro è deviso

Eh Dieu, como le femene porta strania rasone }

Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum, vv. 577, 701, 713, Old Italian text from Meneghetti & Tagliani (2019), English translation from Psaki (2019) pp. 131-2. Psaki perceptively noted:

The irony that the Narrator misses is that he has portrayed women’s thinking as identical to that of men, even in the lamentable scenarios that he stages: if women despise and abuse the men who love them, then their abusive men also scorn and abuse the women who love them; if women love those men who despise and abuse them, then so do lovesick men love those women who despise and abuse them. In other words, there is nothing specifically female about this perverse behaviour at all. All the alleged irrationality of women (‘fole’) is balanced by the demonstrated irrationality of the men who pursue them, both groups marked insistently by the same term, ‘fol’.

Id. p. 132. Throughout history, neither misogyny nor misandry is truly relevant for understanding almost all literature concerning gender relations.

[image] Woman flaying the skin off a man’s back. Illumination for stanza 10 from folio 98v (stanzas 7-11) of Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum in MS. Berlin, Staatsbibliothek und Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Saibante-Hamilton 390


Bonghi, Giuseppe, and Cono A. Mangieri, trans. (Italian) with notes. 2003. Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum. Biblioteca dei Classici Italiani. Online. Alternate source.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Vol. 1, Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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

Meneghetti, Maria Luisa and Roberto Tagliani. 2019. Il Manoscritto Saibante-Hamilton 390: Edizione CriticaImages. Roma: Salerno Editrice.

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.

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