demon won’t bring home bacon for marriage worse than Hell

The raucous and outrageous medieval literature of men’s sexed protest witnesses to women’s dominance of medieval society. In relatively liberal and tolerant medieval Europe, exasperated men were permitted to express their exasperation. Moreover, medieval preachers broadly communicated men’s feelings in their homilies. Medieval women could thus understand men’s concerns and act more lovingly towards their husbands. Voice and exit are alternate forms of protest.[1] More attention to men’s voices would mean fewer men exiting from marriage.

Drawing upon wisdom probably originating in the ancient civilizations of India, the French Christian church official Jacques de Vitry early in the thirteenth century recounted a demon’s difficulties in marriage. The demon disguised as a man served a rich merchant. In gratitude for this servant’s crafty, evil service, the merchant gave him his daughter in marriage with a lavish dowry. Marrying rich women, or women enslaved to lucrative careers, has obvious advantages for men. Nonetheless, after a year of marriage, the husband declared to his father-in-law that he wanted to return to his own country. The father-in-law was mystified:

The father of the wife said: “Have I not given to you much, so that you lack nothing? Why do you wish to leave?” The husband said to him, “In every way I wish to return to my fatherland.” To which the father-in-law said, “Where is your fatherland?”

{ pater uxoris ait: “Nonne multa tibi dedi, ita quod nichil desit tibi? Quare uis recedere?” Dixit ille: “Modis omnibus uolo repatriare.” Cui socer ait: “Vbi est patria tua?” }[2]

Then the rich merchant learned who this servant actually was and why he adamantly sought to leave. The servant said:

I will tell you, and I will not conceal the truth. My fatherland is Hell. There I have never endured as much discord and irritation as I have suffered this year from my quarrelsome wife. I prefer to be in Hell than to remain any longer here with her.

{ Dicam tibi et ueritatem non celabo: patria mea est infernus, ubi nunquam tantam discoriam uel molestiam sustinui quantam hoc anno passus sum a litigiosa uxore mea. Malo esse in inferno quam amplius cum ipsa commorari. }

A quarrelsome, irritating wife can drive a husband to Hell. But not all women are like that. Some heroic, loving wives have saved their husbands from castration, even from castration by the devil.

devil Belfagor prefers Hell to marriage

One exasperated medieval husband commended his wife to the devil. She was “bad, quarrelsome, and adulterous {pessima, litigiosa et adultera}.” He thus decided to take a long pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. As he was leaving, she said:

My lord, behold, you are leaving. To whom do you commend me?

{ Domine, ecce receditis; cui me commendabitis? }[3]

Her husband angrily responded, “I commend you to the devil {dyabolo te commendo}.” Then he left. While the husband was away, the wife enticed man after man to come to her home for sex. But the devil threatened all those men and deterred them from having sex with her. When the husband returned from pilgrimage, the devil said:

Receive your wife, whom you commended to me. I have watched over her with great effort. More willingly would I serve ten wild horses than such a bad woman.

{ Recipe uxorem tuam quam michi commendasti, et eam cum magno labore custodiui. Libencius decem equos siluestres seruarem quam talem et tam pessimam mulierem. }

A husband shouldn’t tell his wife to go to Hell if the Devil wouldn’t let her into Hell. That wouldn’t be reasonable. It’s not nice, nor Christian, either.

holy man blessing young, newly married couple

Wives and husbands must work together to bring home the bacon of a happy marriage. In a thirteenth-century sermon, Jacques de Vitry recounted:

Once I passed through a certain village in France where they suspended a ham haunch or bacon on a plate. They did so with the following condition: whoever wished to swear legally that having lived through one whole year after contracting marriage with a wife, that he wasn’t sorry for anything, he would have the bacon. And while it hung there for ten years, not a single young man acquired the bacon. All were regretting within a year of their marital contract.

{ Aliquando transiui per quandam uillam in Francia, ubi suspenderant pernam seu bachonem in platea hac condicione, ut qui uellet iuramento firmare, quod uno integro anno post contractum matrimonium permansisset cum uxore, ita quod de matrimonio non penituisset, bachonem haberet. Et cum per decem annos ibi pependisset, non est unus solus inuentus qui bachonem lucraretur, omnibus infra annum de matrimonio contracto penitentibus suis. }[4]

These husbands might have been regretting getting married. They might have been regretting wrongs that they had done to their wives during their first year of marriage. In any case, men should not be exclusively gender-burdened with an obligation to bring home the bacon in a behavioral or a financial sense. Women and men must both contribute to bringing home the bacon in a spirit of tolerance and generosity.

Men today have good reasons for avoiding marriage or long-term cohabitation with women. Men lack any reproductive rights and are subject to outrageously unjust paternity determinations. Family courts administer alimony, child custody, and “child support” with grotesque anti-men gender discrimination. A false allegation of domestic violence can put a man into the Hell of a penal system that vastly disproportionately punishes persons with penises. These are social justice issues resolutely ignored by most persons concerned about social justice. Moreover, anyone who dares to mention these injustices risks being demonized and censored.

Given the gender injustices men face, marriage prevalence is declining significantly, particularly among those who can least afford a real-world divorce. In the U.S., the share of unmarried men rose from 30% to 37% from 1990 to 2021.[5] Among the lowest 20% of persons ranked by income, the share of currently married persons in the 33 to 44 age group fell from 60% to 38% from 1979 to 2018.[6] The U.S. is becoming a country in which a large share of men, not just demons, would prefer Hell to marriage.

Medieval literature includes men’s voices that are now marginalized and repressed in service to ideological orthodoxy. Such censorship impedes understanding of human reality. Medieval literature can help women and men imagine what’s necessary to bring home the bacon again in marriage.

You shall swear by custom of confession,
That you ne’er made nuptial transgression;
Nor, since you were married man and wife,
By household brawls, or contentious strife,
Or otherwise at bed or board,
Offended each other in deed or in word,
Or since the parish clerk said, Amen,
Wished yourselves unmarried again,
Or in twelvemonth and a day,
Repented in thought any way,
But continue true in thought and desire,
As when you joined hands in holy quire.
If to these conditions without all fear,
Of your own accord you will freely swear,
A whole gammon of bacon you shall receive,
And bear it hence with love and good leave:
For this is our custom at Dunmow well known,
Tho’ the pleasure be ours, the bacon’s your own. [7]

married couple taking home the bacon flitch from Dunmow

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[1] Hirschman (1970) offers an influential analysis of exit and voice. Here’s an overview of exit and voice.

[2] Jacques de Vitry, Sermons for particular weekdays and ordinary days {Sermones Feriales et Communes}, Sermon 17, Section 7, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Muessig (1999) pp. 154-5, 23. The subsequent quote above is similarly from id. Muessig’s Latin texts are from MS. Liège, Université de Liège, Bibliothèque Générale, Centre d’Information et de Conservation des Bibliothèques, 347, folios 92ra-98va, written in the fifteenth century. This and similar stories shouldn’t be interpreted to imply that husbands are demons. Jacques de Vitry wasn’t an anti-meninist.

A story of a demon afraid of a nasty wife occurs in the ancient Indian story-collection Seventy Tales of the Parrot {Shuka Saptati}. See stories 46 and 47 in Wortham (1911) pp. 92-4. Jacques de Vitry’s story of the devil fleeing from marriage to a woman is the first surviving instance of that story in Europe. Jacques almost surely took the story from another source. The story subsequently appeared in Mathieu of Boulogne’s influential work of men’s sexed protest, The Book of the Lamentations of Little, Little Matheus {Liber lamentationum Matheoluli}, written about 1290. See Book 2, vv. 3853-4034.

A version of this story subsequently appeared as Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Fable of Belfagor the Archdaemon {La Favola di Belfagor Arcidiavolo}, which Machiavelli wrote between 1518 and 1527. For an English translation, DiMatteo (2015). The story also occurs in Giovanni (Zoan) Francesco Straparola, The Pleasant Nights {Le Piacevoli Notti} (1550), Night 2, Story 4, and Barnabe Rich’s Riche His Farwell to the Militarie Profession (1581). Machiavelli’s Belfagor was translated into English and published in London in 1647 under the title The Devil a Married Man: or The Devil Hath Met with His Match. On the literary history of the story of the devil fleeing from marriage to Hell, Beecher (2012) vol. 1, pp. 339-51.

In Straparola’s version, the wife impoverishes her devil-husband with her demand for luxury clothes and accouterments. Beecher noted:

controlling women may take comfort in the Devil’s incapacity to quell their voices, even though they must take care that their imperious feeding does not kill off their hosts.

Beecher (2012) vol. 1, p. 351.

[3] Jacques de Vitry, Sermons for particular weekdays and ordinary days {Sermones Feriales et Communes}, Sermon 17, Section 7, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Muessig (1999) pp. 156, 24. All the quotes above related to this story are similarly sourced from id. Cf. Luke 23:46: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”; in the Vulgate, “Pater in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum.”

[4] Jacques de Vitry, Sermons for particular weekdays and ordinary days {Sermones Feriales et Communes}, Sermon 17, Section 8, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Muessig (1999) pp. 155, 23-4.

Following now-prevalent practice in medieval literary scholarship, Muessig (1999) ponders the extent to which Jacques de Vitry is guilty of “anti-feminism” and “misogyny.” Jacques de Vitry, a Christian cleric, was an ardent supporter of the Beguine Marie d’Oignies. Id. p. 39. That Jacques de Vitry wrote some words that might offend present-day readers makes him even more worthwhile to study seriously, particularly from a newer and more progressive meninist perspective.

The figure “bringing home the bacon” is associated with the Dunmow Flitch Trials, thought to date to 1104 at the Augustinian Priory of Little Dunmow. In that year, the local Lord Reginald Fitzwalter:

gifted some of his land to the Priory on the condition that a flitch of bacon would be given to any couple that could come to the Priory and prove their continued devotion to each other a year and a day after their marriage.

Essex Record Office (2022). This story is probably apocryphal. However, writing about 1395, Chaucer had the Wife of Bath say:

I set my husbands so to work, by my faith,
that many a night they sang “Woe is me!”
The bacon was not fetched for them, I believe,
that some men have in Essex at Dunmow.
I governed them so well, according to my law,
that each of them was very blissful and eager
to bring me gay things from the fair.
They were very glad when I spoke to them pleasantly,
for, God knows it, I cruelly scolded them.

{ I sette hem so a-werke, by my fey,
That many a nyght they songen `Weilawey!’
The bacon was nat fet for hem, I trowe,
That som men han in Essex at Dunmowe.
I governed hem so wel, after my lawe,
That ech of hem ful blisful was and fawe
To brynge me gaye thynges fro the fayre.
They were ful glad whan I spak to hem faire,
For, God it woot, I chidde hem spitously. }

Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, Wife of Bath Prologue, vv. 215-33, Middle English text and English modernization (modified insubstantially) from Larry Benson’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website. The Wife of Bath committed horrible domestic violence against her husband, the jolly clerk Jankin. They certainly didn’t have a happy, peaceful marriage. Jacques de Vitry’s sermon from early in the thirteenth century apparently is the first credibly documented instance referring to the flitch-of-bacon marital test. For a popular history of that custom, Andrews (1877).

[5] Calculated from U.S. Census Bureau, Table MS-1. Marital Status of the Population 15 Years Old and Over, by Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin: 1950 to Present.

[6] Statistics from Reevens & Pulliam (2020).

[7] Oath that the spousal claimants to Dunmow Flitch allegedly recited while sitting on sharp rocks. From Percy& Perch (1826 / 1868) p. 146.

[images] (1) The devil Belfagor, who found Hell preferable to marriage to an earthly woman. Engraving from Collin de Plancy (1863) p. 89, via DiMatteo (2015). (2) Blessing a young, newly married couple. Prefatory drawing by John Gilbert in Ainsworth (1856). (3) Married couple taking home the bacon flitch from Dunmow. Drawing by John Gilbert between pages 288 and 289 in Ainsworth (1856).


Ainsworth, William Harrison. 1856. The Flitch of Bacon, or the Custom of Dunmow: a custom of English home. London: Routledge.

Andrews, William. 1877. History of the Dunmow Flitch of Bacon Custom. London: W. Tegg.

Beecher, Donald. 2012. Giovanni Francesco Straparola. The Pleasant Nights. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Collin de Plancy, Jacques Albin Simon. 1863. Dictionnaire Infernal. Répertoire universel des êtres, des personnages, des livres, des faits et des choses qui tiennent aux esprits. Paris: H. Plon.

DiMatteo, Christopher, trans. 2015. Niccolò Machiavelli. The Fable of Belfagor the Archdevil. Online.

Essex Record Office. 2022. “Curiosity Cabinet: The Dunmow Flitch.” Online, posted March 25, 2022.

Hirschman, Albert O. 1970. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Muessig, Carolyn. 1999. The Faces of Women in the Sermons of Jacques de Vitry. Toronto, Canada: Peregrina Publishing.

Percy, Sholto, and Reuben Percy. 1826 / 1868. The Percy Anecdotes. Collected and edited by Reuben and Sholto Percy. Verbatim reprint of the original ed., with a pref. by John Timbs. London: F. Warne.

Reeves, Richard V. and Christopher Pulliam. 2020. “Middle class marriage is declining, and likely deepening inequality.” Report. Brookings Institution. Online, dated March 11, 202o.

Wortham, Biscoe Hale, trans. 1911. The Enchanted Parrot: being a selection from the “Suka Saptati,” or, The Seventy Tales of a Parrot, translated from the Sanskrit text. London: Luzac & Co.

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