jealousy, fear of cuckolding & gender in Partonope’s exemplum

Jealousy and concern for fidelity in love are common to both women and men. Yet persons with penises don’t know for certain, absent modern DNA paternity testing, who their biological children are. Because they give birth, persons with wombs know for certain who their biological children are. That’s a fundamental gender inequality in parental knowledge. Within a discussion of jealousy and cuckolding, an exemplum in the fifteenth-century Middle English romance Partonope of Blois figured heterosexual sex of reproductive type as putting a sword into a scabbard. Partonope of Blois nonetheless ignored fundamental gender inequality in parental knowledge.

In Partonope of Blois, the Byzantine Empress Melior led by magic the young French noble Partonope into her bed. After they had sex, Melior made the common anti-meninist claim that men as a gender are disloyal to women. Partonope responded:

Because of that I pray that you always
will think that I shall always be
true to you without change
and evermore glad to do your pleasure
above that of all other persons.
This I am ready to ensure to you
by oath or bond or in whatever way
your noble heart can best devise.
I think well I am your dear
since you have chosen me to be your beloved.

{ Where-fore I pray yow euer þat ye
Wolle þynke þat I shalle euer be
Trewe to yowe wyth-owten varyans,
And euer-more gladde to do yowe plesauns
A-bofe alle other creature;
Thys I am redy yowe to ensewre
By othe or bonde, or in whatte wyse
Yowre gentylle herte can beste deuyse.
Welle I wotte I am yowe dere,
Sethe ye haue chose me to be yowre ffere. }[1]

Partonope himself had previously felt jealousy and understood its terrible effects. While he didn’t condemn all women as disloyal, he was concerned about Melior’s loyalty to him in warning her about the dangers of jealousy:

I truly cannot think that you
will ever in any way be
won easily from me in any manner.
Such thought in me shall never arise.
In your heart let no folly
bring to your mind that jealousy
should ever such a master be
that I should think, my lady, that you
in your heart could be untrue
or easily change me for a one new.
For well I thought about this before
that I would fear jealousy, but nevermore.
After this day beware to have in mind
that false traitor that often rests unkind,
that makes lovers unsteadfast
until noble loves at last
have their great love brought to hate,
and after that forever strife.

{ Ne trewly I cannot þynke þat ye
Wolle euer in any wyse be
Wonne lyghtely frome me in any wyse,
Suche thoȝte in me shalle neuer ryse.
Ne In yowre herte lette no ffoly
Brynge to yowre mynde þat Ielosy
Shulde euer suche a master be
þat I shulde þynke, my lady, þat ye
In yowre herte cowde be vntrewe,
Or lyghtely chaunge [me] for a newe.
For welle I wotte here be-fore
I haue drad Ielosy, butte [n]euer-more
Efter thys day haue hym in mynde
þat ffals traytore þat ofte reste vnkynde,
That loueres made vnstydfaste
Tylle here loues, tyll at þe laste
Here grette loue was broghte to hate,
And after þat for euer debate. }

Partonope’s vacillations from her feeling jealousy about him to him feeling jealousy about her underscores gender symmetry in that treacherous feeling.

reading medieval romances

Fundamental gender inequality in parental knowledge makes cuckolding a much more damaging concern for men. Partonope superficially specified men in introducing an exemplum about cuckolding. But his thought could readily be interpreted to apply equally to women:

And all jealousy’s craft is but false imagination
of that which was never put into action.
So often times a man shall dream a thing
that is impossible, and yet in sleeping
he shall think it be rightly well
and that it were as true as the Gospel.

{ And alle hys crafte ys but fals ymagynacion
Off þat was neuer put in exsecucione;
As ofte tyme a man shalle dreme a þynge
þat ys in-possibell, and yet in slepynge
He shalle wene hyt myghte be ryghte well
And þat hyt were as soþe as þe gospelle. }

Partonope’s exemplum of jealous imagination, in contrast, is vividly gendered:

Such a case happened once in this same land
of a man who urged his wife to swear
that he was a cuckold and she to him was untrue —
this on every day that he would love her anew.
Yet he could never this thing prove —
that he was a cuckold. It was his complete belief.
And always his wife wept and said no.
The innocent wife was in great distress,
and he so fervently imagined this thing
that one night as he lay sleeping,
jealousy thought it would make him frightened.
He thought he saw his neighbor draw out his sword
and fully into his scabbard he thought he ejaculated.
When he had finished, where he went he didn’t know.
Out of his sleep he frantically awoke,
for fear of jealousy all his body shook.
“Shame, alas!” said he, “that I was born!
Now it is worse than ever it was before.
For well I am certain of what be my imagination.
The deed is done and put in execution.
My dream has showed me by experience.
He that ejaculated here in my presence
in my scabbard — he has done the deed!”
And thus jealousy has given the fool his reward.

{ Thys case felle onus in thys same londe
Off a man þat bare hys wyffe on honde
pat he was Cokoolde, and sho was to hym vntrewe,
For euery day þat he wolde loue a newe.
Yette cowde he neuer put þys þynge in preve.
þat he was cokoolde, hyt was hys fulle be-leve,
And euer hys wyffe wepte and sayde naye.
The sely woman was In grette affraye,
And he so sore ymagened of þys thynge
That on a nyghte, as he lay slepynge,
Ielosy þoȝte he wolde make hym a-fferde.
He þoȝte he sawe hys neyȝiore drawe owte hys swerde,
And fulle hys scawbarte he þoȝte þat he pyssed.
When he had don, where he be-come he nyste.
Owte of hys slepe woddely he a-woke,
For-ferde of Ielosy all hys body quoke.
“Owte, allas!” sayde he, “þat I was boore!
Nowe hyt ys worse þen euer hyt was be-fore.
For welle I wotte be myne ymaginacion
The dede ys done and put in exsecucion.
My dreme haþe showed me by expereauns
He þat pyssed here in my presauns
In my scawbarde, he haþe don þe dede.”
And þus Ielosy haþe quytte þe fole hys mede. }[2]

In the jealous man’s dream, the scabbard is his wife’s vagina, and the sword is his neighbor’s penis. Throughout literary history, figures for genitals have differed starkly by gender. The implications of being cuckolded also differ starkly by gender.

Partonope, however, put forward a gender-symmetric moral lesson for his exemplum of jealousy and cuckolding. The principle is for her to imagine the other to be as she would have the other imagine her to be:

And therefore put jealousy out of mind,
for in that case you shall never find
that ever untrustworthy to you shall I be.
And you do the same, while you live, for me.
And then shall our hearts stand in rest,
and each of us shall well the other trust.

{ And þerfore putte Ielosy owte of mynde;
For In þat case ye shalle me neuer ffynde,
þat euer mystrustye shalle I to yowe be.
And do þe same, whylle þat ye lyffe, to me;
And þen shalle owre hertes stonde in reste,
And eche of vs shalle welle oþer truste. }[3]

That’s worthy moral thinking. But it doesn’t recognize humans created with differences: some humans with penises, some with vaginas; some with semen and some with eggs that can become nascent humans nourished in the egg-bearing humans’ wombs. In reality, humans have a fleshly foundation for gender differences in concern about jealousy and cuckolding.

Unlike almost all literature today, medieval literature addresses men’s gender-distinctive concerns. Medieval literature of men’s sexed protest depicts raucously and memorably women duping men and cuckolding them. It addresses fraudulent paternity assignment, women’s domestic violence against men, women’s dominant social power, and other social injustices that men suffer. The twelfth-century Old French romance Partonopeu of Blois treats Partonopeu’s sexual offense with remarkable concern for gender equity in punishment. The fifteenth-century Middle English Partonope of Blois, a close translation of Partonopeu of Blois, shows the historical trend away from appreciating the distinctive, lived gender reality of men’s lives.[4]

* * * * *

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[1] Partonope of Blois vv. 1727-36, Middle English text from Bødtker (1912)’s edition of MS. London, British Library, Additional, 35288, f. 2r-154r, my English modernization.

Partonope of Blois survives in four other incomplete manuscript copies, two of which are printed in Buckley (1862). A distinctive version was copied about 1450 into MS. New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Library, Takamiya, 32, f. 164r-166v. Nichols (1873) and Bødtker (1912) provide the Yale University Takamiya text.

Partnope of Blois closely translates the late-twelfth-century Old French romance Partonopeu of Blois. However, MS. British Library, Additional, 35288, the only Partonope of Blois manuscript that preserves Melior and Partonope’s initial encounter in bed, is missing a leaf just after they have sex (after v. 1598 at the end of leaf 19). The parallel with Partonopeu of Blois and Partonope’s response to Melior indicates that the Middle English text is missing Melior’s anti-meninist outburst about men’s disloyalty. See Partonopeu of Blois vv. 1317-23, presented in my post about Partonopeu of Blois. The missing leaf occurs with a shift from vellum to paper as the manuscript material. Rikhardsdottir, who overlooked Melior’s anti-meninist outburst, stated:

The collation of vellum and paper in one manuscript, while not unheard of in English medieval manuscripts, is unusual, and its incongruity is amplified by the fact of the lacuna. The hand of both parts appears to be the same, excluding the possibility of a later scribe having added text to an existing copy. The curious collation does invite the possibility, nevertheless, that the two parts of the manuscript may originally have been separate texts (one written on vellum, the other on paper), perhaps in a commercial scriptorium, which were put together for a patron. They obviously contained the same story and the absence of the missing leaf may thus be due to the fact that it contained text that either overlapped with, or was of a different nature from, the resuming text of the paper copy. The other part could also simply have been damaged, or missing, which would explain why the separate manuscript copies were placed together to begin with. The catchword on folio 19 verso (last vellum folio) does not match the lines on folio 20 recto (first paper folio), confirming that a leaf is indeed missing from the vellum quire.

The lacuna and the interesting compilation of vellum and paper are significant here, as there is an observable narrative shift that occurs at this point. This shift is furthermore fundamentally connected to the different character representation evident in the various versions of the Partonope story. The Melior that appears after the lacuna is a self-assured, sexually demanding woman, quite different from the seemingly affronted and much-subdued Melior of the previous scene.

Rikhardsdottir (2012) pp. 140-1. While Melior acted subdued and modest when in bed for the first time with Partonope, she acted self-assured traveling to France to lure Partonope from there into her bed in Byzantium. Partonope’s initial modesty in bed is best understand as her being behaviorally complicit in the socially constructed burden of sexual performance that men endure.

Subsequent quotes from Partonope of Blois are similarly sourced. They are vv. 1737-54 (I truly cannot think that you…), 1755-60 (And all jealousy’s craft is but false imagination…), 1761-84 (Such a case happened once in this same land…), 1785-90 (And therefore put jealousy out of mind…).

[2] For putting a sword into a scabbard as a figure for heterosexual intercourse in medieval Nordic literature, Nøttveit (2006a). Id. notes almost all the anthropologists who have studied scabbards in recent decades have been women. A paucity of attention to men and men’s distinctive perspectives and voices has become a serious problem in the humanities in general.

A sword known as the ballock dagger has a hilt shaped like two balls. It’s worn hanging at the waist. On the ballock dagger, Nøttveit (2006b). Here’s more on ballock daggers. Men have traditionally worn similar daggers in southern Arabia. Althagafi (2022). Given historically entrenched, life-destroying figures of penises, developing and distributing attractive, heart-warming, and life-affirming figures of penises should be a public policy priority.

medieval ballock daggers

[3] Cf. Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31. This exemplum doesn’t occur in surviving texts of Partonopeu of Blois. Windeatt called it “an indecorous exemplum of a distinctly fabliau kind.” Windeatt (1990) p. 76. With its moralization and context, this exemplum seems to me to have more literary sophistication than most fabliaux. It has irony and allusions of the sort associated with Chaucer. Moreover, jealousy is an important theme in Cupid and Psyche, a source story for Partonopeu of Blois.

[4] Spensley observed:

the courtly ladies of late twelfth century French romance are notably diverse, and … the social framework within which they evolve is much less rigid than that of the fifteenth century literary stereotype of ‘the courtly lady.’

Spensley (1973). Ideological rigidity has gotten worse since the fifteenth century. That’s apparent even just in medieval literary criticism.

Vines began her analysis of Partonope of Blois by invoking a modern authority: ‘“Chivalry is an all-male club,” Elizabeth Archibald asserts in her article, “Women and Romance.”’ While such an introductory citation to an academic authority might help in scoring an academic publication, in truth an all-male club is a ridiculous and obfuscatory metaphor for men’s abject position in relation to women under the sexual feudalism of chivalry.

Mieszkowski perceived in Partonope of Blois “inverted gender roles.” From a position of moral superiority, she contemptuously opined, “the conventional ending to the romance is enhanced by the satisfaction of seeing the inverted gender roles of hero and heroine put to rights.” Mieszkowski (2004), abstract. The medieval audience probably better understood women’s social status and listened to Partonope of Blois less dogmatically.

[images] (1) Man reading old romances like Partonope of Blois. Image from front matter of Buckley (1862). Partonope of Blois begins:

Whosoever wishes to read old stories,
he shall find without fear
marvels and wonders many and numerous
of mirth, joy, disease, and good fortune.

{ Hoo so luste olde stories to rede,
He shalle ffynde, wyth-owten Drede,
Meruellys and wonders mony and ffele
Off myrthe, ioye, dyssese, and wele. }

This beginning has similarities with Chaucer’s Prologue to his Legend of Good Women. Windeatt (1990) p. 64. (2) Ballock daggers found on board the British warship Mary Rose, which sank in 1545. This ship was salvaged in 1982. Source photo thanks to Peter Crossman of the Mary Rose Trust and Wikimedia Commons.


Althagafi, Khadeeja. 2022. “The Art of Southern Arabian Daggers: An Emblem of Pride Masculinity and Identity.” Arts. 11 (3): 53.

Bødtker, A. Trampe, ed. 1912. The Middle-English versions of Partonope of Blois. Early English Text Society. Berlin: A. Asher & Co.; New York: C. Scribner & Co., Leypoldt & Holt; Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.

Buckley, William Edward. 1862. The Old English version of Partonope of Blois. Roxburghe Club, 82. London: J.B. Nichols.

Mieszkowski, Gretchen. 2004. “Urake and the Gender Roles of Partonope of Blois.” Mediaevalia. 25 (2): 181-195.

Nichols, Robert Cradock, ed. 1873. A Fragment of Partonope of Blois, from a manuscript at Vale Royal in the possession of Lord Delamere. Printed for the Roxburghe Club. London: Nichols.

Nøttveit, Ole-Magne. 2006a. “Slirene fra middelalderen – Et kjønnsløst forskningstema?” Pp. 411-22 in Barndon, Randi, and Gro Mandt, eds. Samfunn, symboler og identitet: festskrift til Gro Mandt på 70-årsdagen. Universitetet i Bergen, Arkeologiske Skrifter (UBAS) Nordisk 3.Bergen: Univ., Arkeologisk Institutt.

Nøttveit, Ole‐Magne. 2006b. “The Kidney Dagger as a Symbol of Masculine Identity – The Ballock Dagger in the Scandinavian Context.” Norwegian Archaeological Review. 39 (2): 138-150.

Rikhardsdottir, Sif. 2012. Medieval Translations and Cultural Discourse: the movement of texts in England, France and Scandinavia. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Spensley, Ronald M. 1973. “The Courtly Lady in Partonope of Blois.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen. 74 (2): 288-291.

Vines, Amy N. 2007. ‘A Woman’s “Crafte”: Melior as Lover, Teacher, and Patron in the Middle English Partonope of Blois.’ Modern Philology. 105 (2): 245-270.

Windeatt, Barry A. 1990. “Chaucer and fifteenth-century romance: Partonope of Blois.” Ch. 5 (pp. 62-80) in Ruth Morse and Barry Windeatt, eds. Chaucer Traditions: Studies in Honour of Derek Brewer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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