Sir Gawain’s courtly manners & sexual dynamism transcend gyno-idolatry

Men tend to idolize women. So it was for Sir Gawain and Sir Kay when they, along with Bishop Baldwin, found themselves spending a cold, rainy night in the Carle of Carlisle’s castle in Inglewood Forest. Both Kay and Gawain ardently desired the Carle’s beautiful wife. The Carle didn’t regard either man as a true friend. But Gawain’s sexual dynamism served redemption through enabling an intimate relationship with the Carle’s lovely daughter.

Dinner in the Carle’s castle began awkwardly. The Carle was a gigantic man with a fearsome reputation and a wild appearance. He kept a bull, a boar, a lion, and a bear as house pets. Before the meal began, he drank wine from a nine-gallon golden goblet. At the Carle’s table, Bishop Baldwin ate ravenously. Sir Kay’s focus went elsewhere:

Sir Kay sat on the other side
opposite the Carle’s wife, so full of grandeur.
She was so fair and white,
her arms small, her waist elegant,
her eyes green, her brows bent,
in courtesy she was perfect.
Her complexion was red, her cheeks rosy —
a fairer woman might not exist on earth,
nor one lovelier in appearance.
She was so glorious and so festive
I cannot describe her clothing,
because she was so festively attired.

{ Syr Key was sett on the tother syde
Agenst the Carllus wyfe so full of pryde,
That was so feyr and whytte:
Her armus small, her mydyll gent,
Her yghen grey, her browus bente;
Of curttessy sche was perfette.
Her roode was reede, her chekus rounde,
A feyrror myght not goo on grounde,
Ne lovelyur of syghte.
Sche was so gloryis and soo gay:
I can not rekon her araye,
Sche was so gayly dyghte. }[1]

Kay found himself idolizing her:

“Alas,” thought Kay, “for you noble lady,
that you should be so lost
with such a foul man!”

{ “Alas,” thought Key, “thou Lady fre,
That thou schuldyst this ipereschde be
Wytt seche a foulle weghtht!” }

Though lacking in courtly manners, the Carle was personally perceptive. He turned to Kay:

“Sit still,” said the Carle, “and eat your meat.
You think more than you dare speak,
surely I affirm to you.

{ “Sytt styll,” quod the Carl, “and eete thy mette;
Thow thinkost mor then thou darst speke,
Sertten, I the hyght.” }

After that implicit threat, Kay prudently stopped gazing at the Carle’s wife and started eating.

Known for his courtly manners, Gawain hadn’t even sat at the table. He was standing in the hall waiting for the host to invite him to table. Rather than invite Gawain to table, the Carle commanded him to throw a spear at his face. The Carle assured him that he wouldn’t be hurt. As a courteous guest, Gawain did as his host bade. He hurled a large spear with all his might at the Carle’s face. The spear shattered against the wall behind the Carle and didn’t harm him.

Then the Carle took Gawain by the hand and sat him at the dinner table next to the Carle’s wife. She captivated Gawain:

So much was his love fixed on her,
that during the dinner he wasn’t able
either to drink or to eat.

{ So moche his love was on her lyght,
Of all the soper he ne myght
Nodyr drynke nor ette. }

The Carle perceived Gawain infatuation:

The Carle said, “Gawain, comfort yourself,
for sin is sweet, and that I see.
Surely I affirm to you:
she is mine though you wish she were yours.
Leave such thoughts and drink your wine,
for you shall not have her.”

{ The Carle sayde, “Gawen, comfort the,
For synn ys swete, and that I se.
Serten, I the hete,
Sche ys myn thou woldyst wer thynn.
Leve seche thoghttus and drenke the wynne,
For her thou schalt nott geytt.” }[2]

Gawain felt ashamed of himself. Courtly manners compel men to feel ashamed for appreciating a woman’s beauty as Bishop Nonnus did.

medieval bath attendant / young woman

The Carle’s beautiful, golden-haired daughter came and played on a harp for the guests. She sang songs about the interrelation of love and King Arthur’s armed deeds. The food and her songs made them happy. Men have long foolishly associated love and war. Love should be a freely given gift, not a battle.

After dinner, the Carle led Gawain to his bed. It was a bed covered with a golden bed-spread. It was the bed of the Carle and his wife:

When the bed was made with joy,
the Carle bade his own lady to get in,
that lady of lovely appearance.
A squire came for a private deed,
and he unarmed Gawain there.
Duly he was undressed.
The Carle said, “Sir Gawain,
go take my wife in your two arms
and kiss her in my sight.”

{ When the bede was made wytt wynn,
The Carle bade his oun Lady go in,
That lovfesom was of syghte.
A squyer came wytt a prevey far
And he unarmyde Gawen ther;
Schaply he was undyght.
The Carle seyde, “Syr Gawene,
Go take my wyfe in thi armus tweyne
And kys her in my syghte.” }

To this extraordinary request of him as a guest, Gawain responded with courtly manners:

Sir Gawain answered him at once,
“Sir, your bidding shall be done,
certainly indeed,
or kill or slay or knock me down.”
To the bed he very soon went,
fast and with good vigor,
for the softness of that lady’s side
made Gawain do his will at that time.
When Gawain would have done the private deed,
then Gawain took the Carle’s good heed,
for then the Carle said, “Whoa there!
That love-play for you I forbid.”

{ Syr Gawen ansswerde hyme anon,
“Syr, thi byddynge schall be doune,
Sertaynly in dede,
Kyll or sley, or laye adoune.”
To the bede he went full sone,
Fast and that good spede,
For softnis of that Ladys syde
Made Gawen do his wyll that tyde;
Therof Gawen toke the Carle goode hede.
When Gawen wolde have doun the prevey far,
Then seyd the Carle, “Whoo ther!
That game I the forbede.” }

Courtly love typically isn’t a winning amorous strategy. But Gawain’s courtly manners won favor from the uncourteous Carle:

“But Gawain, seeing that you have done my bidding,
some kindness I must show you in some thing,
insofar as I may.
You shall have one just as bright
who shall play with you all this night
til tomorrow’s day.”
To his daughter’s chamber he went just then,
and bade her arise and go to the knight,
and not hinder him from love-play.
She dared not against his bidding do,
but to Gawain she came very soon
and softly beside him lay.

{ “But, Gawen, sethe thou hast do my byddynge,
Som kyndnis I most schewe the in anny thinge,
As ferforthe as I maye.
Thow schalt have wonn to so bryght
Schall play wytt the all this nyghte
Tyll tomorrowe daye.”
To his doughtter chambur he went full ryght,
And bade her aryse and go to the knyght,
And wern hyme nott to playe.
Sche dorst not agenst his byddynge doun,
But to Gawen sche cam full sone
And style doun be hyme laye. }

Since no later than the reception of Virgil’s account of Dido and Aeneas, women have been credited with being dynamic and always adapting to circumstances. Gawain here showed that men can be just as adaptable as women are. He enjoyed a long night of love-play with the Carle’s daughter.

Was the Carle putting his daughter in bed with Gawain an instance of oppressive patriarchal pandering? No, no it wasn’t. Just as the Carle perceived the unspoken desires of Kay and Gawain, so too he perceived the unspoken desire of his daughter and her need for encouragement after disappointing experiences with so many men:

“Mary, mercy,” thought that lady bright,
“Here has never come such a knight
of all that have been here.”

{ “Mary, mercy,” thought that Lady bryghte,
“Her come never suche a knyght
Of all that her hathe benne.” }[3]

Late the next day Gawain left the Carle’s daughter in bed and went to Mass. She lamented:

“Mary, mercy,” said that lady bright,
“Where shall I see any more this knight
who has laid my body so tightly?”

{ “Maré, marcé,” seyde that Lady bryght,
“Wher I schall se enny mor this knyght
That hathe ley my body so ner?” }

Men have long been disparaged sexually for being like dogs. But Gawain’s sexual dynamism brought joy to the Carle’s daughter, saved Gawain and his companions from being killed, and led to a redemptive end.

The Carle had been killing all the men who visited his castle. The Carle’s violence against men represents the horrible medieval reconception of chivalry as men enduring lethal danger. Gawain’s courtly manners and sexual dynamism prompted the Carle to renounce his domestic killing of men.[4] The Carle had a great abbey constructed in Carlisle where grey monks continually chanted and prayed for all the men the Carle had killed. Gawain and the Carle’s daughter wed.

Completing the story of Sir Gawain and The Carle of Carlisle is left to the world. Gawain had the Carle dubbed a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table. What sort of horseman was he? The story doesn’t say.

Why do I scatter lascivious poems in all my little books,
you ask? I ward off the insipid grammarians!
Were I to sing of the courageous arms of the noble emperor,
or of the religious deeds of godly men,
how many of your wretched censurings would I receive, suffering corrections!
To how many young boys would I become a torment?
But now, since moist kisses dictate my poems
and much penis tingles in my verse,
let read me a young man about to please an unwed girlfriend,
and a sweet young woman about to please a new man,
and whoever from the band of pleasant poets
likes to play away leisure time with lively delights.
From these joyful games go far away, savage
grammarians, and stay your unjust hands,
lest a young man, beaten and crying because of their soft charms,
strongly desire rough earth be heaped upon my bones.

{ Carmina cur spargam cunctis lasciva libellis,
Quaeritis? insulsos arceo Grammaticos.
Fortia magnanimi canerem si Caesaris arma,
Factave divorum religiosa virum,
Quot miser exciperemque notas, patererque lituras!
Quot fierem teneris supplicium pueris!
At nunc uda mihi cum dictent quum basia carmen,
Pruriat et versu mentula multa meo,
Me legat innuptae iuvenis placiturus amicae,
Et placitura novo blanda puella viro,
Et quemcumque iuvat lepidorum de grege vatum
Otia festivis ludere deliciis.
Lusibus at laetis procul hinc absistite, saevi
Grammatici, iniustas et cohibete manus;
Ne puer ob molles caesus lacrymansque lepores,
Duram forte meis ossibus optet humum. }[5]

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[1] Sir Gawain and The Carle of Carlisle vv. 361-72, Middle English text from Hahn (1995), my English modernization. For an alternate text, Sands (1966). For a modernization of the whole romance, Scott-Robinson (2008). Sir Gawain and The Carle of Carlisle has survived only in Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS Brogyntyn MS ii.1 (formerly Porkington 10) (folio: 12r-26v), written c. 1460. The story itself appears to date from c. 1400. The Carle of Carlisle is a related text surviving in the mid-seventeenth-century manuscript British Library Additional MS 27879 (The Percy Folio), pp. 448-55.

The romance begins with a laudatory characterization of Sir Gawain. Among his plaudits:

He was as meek as a maid in a bower
and also stiff in every battle.

{ He was as meke as mayde in bour
And therto styfe in every stour }

Sir Gawain and The Carle of Carlisle vv. 4-5. These verses plausibly characterize Gawain as being like the knight who endured sexual coercion through the justice system in The Wife of Bath’s Tale. These verses also suggest that Gawain handled well men’s sexual burden of performance. Cf. Pollack (2009) pp. 21-2.

The Middle English word carl / carle is cognate with churl and indicates a crude, physically violent man. The Carle of Carlisle is rich and lives in a castle. That associates him with nobility. But he explicitly declares himself to be without courtesy. Others also note his lack of courtesy. The meaning of courtesy and courtly manners are a central issue in this romance.

Subsequent quotes from Sir Gawain and The Carle of Carlisle are similarly sourced. They are vv. 373-5 (“Alas,” thought Kay…), 376-8, (“Sit still,” said the Carle…), 406-8 (So much was his love…), 409-14 (The Carle said, “Gawain, comfort yourself….”), 448-56 (When the bed was made…), 457-68 (Sir Gawain answered him…), 469-80 (But Gawain, seeing that…), 493-5 (“Mary, mercy,” thought that lady bright…), 507-10 (Mary, mercy,” said that lady bright…).

[2] The Carle’s responses to Kay and Gawain gazing at his wife invoke medieval proverbs: “you think more than you dare speak”; “sin is sweet”.

[3] The Carle’s daughter refers to Mary, the mother of Jesus. The romance ends with a Christian prayer:

Jesus Christ, bring us to your bliss
above in heaven, on your throne.

{ Jesu Cryste, brynge us to Thy blis
Above in hevyn, yn Thy see.
Amen. }

Sir Gawain and The Carle of Carlisle, vv. 659-61. Compared to the U.S. today, medieval Europe was relatively liberal and tolerant of different moral perspectives.

Speculating significantly, Pollack declared:

The central question of The Wife of Bath’s Tale and The Wedding of Gawain, ‘what do women most desire,’ never occurs to the Carl of Carlisle.

Pollack (2009) p. 19. The Carle correctly perceived Kay’s and Gawain’s unspoken desire for his wife and his daughter’s unspoken desire for Gawain. Under gynocentrism, men and women are acutely concerned about “what women most desire.” In that sense, that question probably occurred to the Carle, just as it did to Pollack.

Discounting medieval women’s desire and agency to support modern gynocentric mythology, Brandsen declared that the Carle’s wife and daughter are “apparently without a will of their own” and that “the two women are essentially the same person.” Brandsen (1997) p. 303. These are ludicrous claims. Moreover, at a rhetorical level, one might recognize that the Carle’s highly privileged wife and daughter live in a castle. They surely enjoy many more rooms of their own than did all laboring English men.

[4] Lindsay (2012), Ch. 3, discusses how Sir Gawain and The Carle of Carlisle questions chivalry’s support for violence (violence against men).

[5] Janus Secundus, Epigrams 1.58, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Price (1996) p. 89. This poem has echoes of Catullus, Martial, and Horace. Secundus was born in The Hague, Netherlands. He florished as a writer from 1528 to 1536, when he died. He became a well-known author in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. For a freely available Latin text of all of Secundus’s works, Burmannus & Bosscha (1821).

[image] Young woman bathhouse attendant. From the Bible of Wenceslas IV {Wenzelsbibel / Bible Václava IV}, created about 1400, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Codex Vindobonensis 2759-2764. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Brandsen, Taco. 1997. “Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle.” Neophilologus. 81 (2): 299-307.

Burmannus, Petrus, and Petrus Bosscha, eds. 1821. Ioannis Nicolaii Secundi Hagani Opera omnia. Vol. 1. Vol. 2. Lugduni Batavorum: Apud S. et J. Luchtmans.

Hahn, Thomas, ed. 1995. Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Kalamazoo, Mich: Published for TEAMS in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Lindsay, Sarah Rae. 2012. Questioning Chivalry in the Middle English Gawain Romances. Ph.D. Thesis. College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Pollack, Sean. 2009. “Border States: Parody, Sovereignty, and Hybrid Identity in The Carl of Carlisle.” Arthuriana. 19 (2): 10-26.

Price, David. 1996. Janus Secundus. Tempe, Arizona: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.

Sands, Donald B., ed. 1966. Middle English Verse Romances. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Scott-Robinson, Richard. 2008. “Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle: translated and retold in Modern English prose.” From The Blue Book of Wellow. Eleusinianm. Online.

Marie de France depicted medieval women’s generous love for men

In her twelfth-century lai Guildeluëc and Guilliadun, or Eliduc {Guildeluëc et Guilliadun, ou Eliduc}, the great medieval writer Marie de France has the woman Guilliadun angrily declare to the woman Guildeluëc:

She is very foolish who believes a man!

{ Mut est fole que humme creit! }[1]

Medieval women undoubtedly expressed such categorical condemnations of men at times. Today such condemnations, if noticed, could be called misandristic or anti-meninist. Such condemnations in their reverse-gender form evoke censure and censorship.[2] Marie de France, however, appreciated the psychological complexity of human behavior. Overall, her lais show medieval women’s deep and generous love for men.

The happily married Guildeluëc and Eliduc loyally loved each other. Then false accusations caused Eliduc to lose his king’s patronage. Eliduc had to voyage from his home in Brittany across the sea to England to work as a soldier. There he served in brutal violence against men for an English king. Men deserve more humane work than soldiering in brutal violence against men.

The English king’s lovely daughter Guilliadun heard about Eliduc’s victorious violence against men in service to her father. She asked for him to come to her. He of course obeyed her summons. They sat together on her bed and talked for a long time. After he departed, she couldn’t rest or sleep. She was madly in love with him. She told her chamberlain:

If he wishes to love me as a lover
and pledge his body to me,
I will do all his pleasure.
If so, from such great good can come to him:
he will be king of this land.
So very wise and courtly is he
that, if he doesn’t love me as a lover,
I will necessarily die in great sorrow.

{ Si par amur me veut amer
E de sun cors asseurer,
Jeo ferai trestut sun pleisir,
si l’en peot grant bien avenir:
De ceste tere serat reis.
Tant par est sages e curteis,
Que, s’il ne m’aime par amur,
Murir m’estuet a grant dolur. }

Admirably disregarding men’s conventional gender burden of soliciting amorous relationships, her chamberlain advised her to send love-tokens to Eliduc. She took that initiative without inquiring whether Eliduc was married.

Alexandre Cabanel's portrait of a Mesopotamian courtesan Albaydé

While taking the initiative in love involves risks that men have traditionally borne, in this case Eliduc didn’t reject Guilliadun’s love initiative. He himself felt amorously attracted to Guilliadun. However, he had pledged fidelity to his wife before traveling overseas to work as a soldier. Like many men, even sexually deprived soldiers in armies exploiting only men, Eliduc sought to uphold his pledge to his wife. He resolved to visit and talk with Guilliadun, and kiss and embrace her, but not have sex with her. He felt great love anguish as he mounted his horse to visit her.

Guilliadun was delighted that Eliduc had come to see her. When her father the king praised Eliduc as the best among five hundred men, she felt her passion validated. She summoned Eliduc to a private conversation with her. They both hesitated to speak. Then Eliduc thanked her for her gift of love-tokens to him. Appreciating his receptivity, she pressed forward:

She replies to the knight
that with this she is delighted,
and for this she sent the ring
and the belt as well,
because she has given him her body.
She loves him with such love
that she wishes to make him her lord.
And if she cannot have him,
never will she have any living man.
Now let him in return tell his desire!

{ Ele respunt al chevalier
Que de ceo li esteit mut bel,
E pur ceo l’enveat l’anel
E la ceinture autresi,
Que de sun cors l’aveit seisi;
Ele l’amat de tel amur,
De lui volt faire sun seignur.
E si ele ne peot lui aveir,
Une chose sace de veir:
Jamés n’avera humme vivant.
Ore li redie sum talant! }

Guilliadun was fighting strongly and aggressively for love. Eliduc meekly thanked her. He explained that he was contracted to fight for a year as a soldier for her father in brutal violence against men. After that term, he would leave their country and return home. She appreciated his forthrightness about his intentions. She didn’t ask if he was married.

Guilliadun and Eliduc subsequently enjoyed flirtatious love-play, but nothing more. After some time Eliduc received a message that his king in Brittany urgently needed his service as a soldier. Distraught, Eliduc nonetheless recognized his feudal obligation. He requested leave from both the English king and Guilliadun to return to serve his own king. They both reluctantly let him return.

Guilliadun threatened to kill herself if Eliduc didn’t take her with him. But if he took her with him, that would violate his feudal obligation of loyalty to her father. Moreover, he was married and had pledged faithfulness to his wife. Like Aeneas with respect to Dido, Eliduc has no obligation to Guilliadun. But he loved her and didn’t want her to commit suicide. Under her love coercion, Eliduc promised to return to her after his term of obligation to her father had expired. Then he would take her away. To what he would take her wasn’t clear to anyone, including apparently Eliduc himself. Facing a love dilemma impossible to resolve rightly, a man can only seek time and hope for a loving way forward.

When Eliduc returned home, his wife Guildeluëc rejoiced. He, however, was morose and withdrawn. Described as a good, beautiful, wise, and worthy wife, she didn’t become resentful. She asked if anyone had told him that she had betrayed him. She offered to make amends for any such claims. That wasn’t it, he explained. His concern was that he had to return to the English kingdom and would suffer greatly before he could return to her. What exactly he meant isn’t clear, but certainly he was in a difficult love situation.

At the time Guilliadun had appointed, Eliduc returned to her in England. He arranged for her to leave her castle secretly and join him on a boat sailing back to Brittany. As if by divine vengeance like that against Jonah, a fierce storm enveloped the ship near the Brittany shore. A sailor blamed Eliduc for bringing a woman who wasn’t his wife on ship with him. That’s when Guilliadun learned that Eliduc was married. She fainted from that news and apparently died. Eliduc then killed the sailor who had blamed him for agreeing to Guilliadun’s request. Men’s lives count for little relative to women’s lives.

The anguished Eliduc managed to steer the boat to shore. He sought to bury Guilliadun with honor in a sacred place. He took her to a chapel in the woods near to his home and laid her on a bed before the altar. He left to make plans to bury her. He also planned to become a monk who would constantly cry out to God in grief for Guilliadun’s death and pray for her soul.

On the next two days the grief-stricken Eliduc came to the chapel to grieve and pray over Guilliadun’s body. His wife Guildeluëc noticed his grief and his absences. She had one of her servants follow him. The servant discovered Eliduc visiting the chapel. When Eliduc was at an audience with the king, Guildeluëc with her servant came to the chapel. She saw the body of the beautiful young woman lying before the altar. She then understood her husband’s grief:

“Do you see,” she says, “this woman,
who resembles a gem in her beauty?
This is my lord’s lover,
on whose account he shows such sorrow.
In faith, I do not wonder at that,
when such a beautiful woman has died.
So much by pity, so much by love,
never will I have joy on any further day.”

{ “Veiz tu,” fet ele, “ceste femme,
Que de beuté resemble gemme?
Ceo est l’amie mun seignur,
Pur quei il meine tel dolur.
Par fei, jeo ne me merveil mie,
Quant si bele femme est perie.
Tant par pité, tant par amur,
Jamés n’averai joie nul jur.” }

In implicit sympathy with her husband’s grief, Guildeluëc wept and lamented the young woman’s death.

A weasel ran out from under the altar and scampered across Guilliadun’s body. The servant struck the weasel with his staff and apparently killed it. Another weasel saw its dead friend and seemed to be filled with sorrow. It went into the woods and returned with a red flower that it put into the mouth of its companion. The apparently dead weasel immediately returned to life.

Guildeluëc noticed the weasel’s action and its effect. With a characteristic act of women’s aggression, she ordered her man-servant to strike the weasel so as to get the flower from it. The servant did as his lady instructed.[3] The wounded weasel dropped the red flower. Guildeluëc then placed it in Guilliadun’s mouth. Like the apparently dead weasel, Guilliadun immediately returned to life.

Guildeluëc resurrected an apparently dead, beautiful young woman that her husband loved. Her love and generosity toward her husband went even further. She told Guilliadun:

What great joy I have that you are alive.
I will take you along with me
and return you to your lover.
I wish to make him entirely free of our marriage,
and I will take a nun’s veil.

{ Que vive estes, grant joie en ai;
Ensemble od mei vus enmerrai
E a vostre ami vus rendrai.
Del tut le voil quite clamer,
E si ferai mun chef veler. }

When she thought that Guilliadun was dead, Guildeluëc said that she would never again have joy. Guildeluëc felt joy again when she succeeded in bringing back to life a beautiful young woman whom her husband loved. Moreover, she then gave her husband to Guilliadun. While Jesus was a fully masculine man, Guildeluëc as a woman was fully able to embody the perfect, salvific love of Jesus in Christian understanding. No man could have a more wonderfully loving wife than Guildeluëc.[4]

medieval lady by Alexandre Cabanel

Guildeluëc wasn’t an exception among medieval women. In Marie de France’s lai Le Fresne, an orphan given to a convent grew up to be a beautiful woman called Le Fresne. She and Gurun, a knight owning much land, became lovers. Worried that she might become pregnant, he urged her to run away with him. So she did. They then married and lived happily. But she never got pregnant.

Other knights who held land from Gurun were upset that he didn’t have an heir. They wanted to be sure that their land holdings would continue when he died. They thus coerced him into divorcing Le Fresne and taking another woman named Le Codre as his new wife. All of people of his household were extremely upset at losing Le Fresne as their lady. But Le Fresne didn’t get upset or resentful. She apparently understood the bad circumstances and didn’t blame her husband.

Le Fresne displayed her generous love for her then ex-husband on the day of his new wedding. She instructed servants to prepare the marital bed for Gurun and his new bride Le Codre as she knew he liked it:

When the bed was made ready,
they threw a coverlet over it.
The material was an old woven silk.
The young lady saw it —
it didn’t seem right to her.
It pressed down on her heart.
She opened a chest, took out her cloth,
and put it on the bed of her lord.
She did it to honor him.

{ Quant le lit fu apresté,
Un covertur unt sus jeté;
Li dras esteit d’un viel bofu.
La dameisele l’ad veü;
N’ert mie bons, ceo li sembla;
En sun courage li pesa.
Un cofre overi, sun pali prist,
Sur le lit sun seignur li mist.
Pur lui honuere le feseit }[5]

Her cloth was the lovely silk that had wrapped her as a baby when she had been abandoned at the convent. She didn’t mean to signify her husband’s abandonment of her. Her life as an orphan had gone well, except for her husband being forced to divorce her. She simply wanted to make the marital bed more beautiful for her ex-husband and his new wife. That’s a wonderfully generous act of love.

Le Codre’s mother led her to that marital bed. The mother recognized the beautiful silk coverlet as the cloth in which she had wrapped her twin daughter that she had abandoned. She called for Le Fresne and embraced her daughter. She explained to everyone that Le Codre was Le Fresne’s twin sister. The mother profusely apologized to her husband for secretly abandoning one of their twin daughters. He forgave her and rejoiced in recovering his lost daughter. For Gurun, divorcing one twin and marrying another made no sense. The archbishop agreed to annul the wedding and cancel the divorce. Le Fresne and Gurun joyfully became spouses again.

Le Fresne’s generous act of love for her ex-husband Gurun eliminated all worldly concerns. Gurun’s scheming knight-tenants aren’t mentioned again. Whether Le Fresne and Gurun subsequently had children isn’t mentioned either. Le Fresne’s generous love for Gurun clearly was fruitful. That’s all that ultimately mattered.

Men today urgently need the generous love from women that Marie de France depicted. Woman today can be just as generously loving to men as medieval women were. The great medieval woman writer Marie de France provides woman and men today inspiring examples of wonderful women.

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[1] Marie de France, Guildeluëc and Guilliadun, or Eliduc {Guildeluëc et Guilliadun, ou Eliduc} v. 1084, Old French text and English translation (modified) from Waters (2018). For a freely available, online Old French text, Warnke & Köhler (1900) pp. 186-224. For another modern English translation, Fowles (1974) pp. 109-126, available here. Freely available translations into slightly dated English are those of Mason (1911) and Rickert (1901).

The subsequent quotes above from Guildeluëc et Guilliadun, ou Eliduc are similarly sourced. They are vv. 343-50 (If he wishes to love me…), 508-18 (She replies to the knight…), 1021-8 (“Do you see,” she says…), 1098-1102 (What great joy I have…).

[2] While strictly policing what’s labeled misogyny or anti-feminism, modern literary scholarship has long been inclusive and tolerant of misandry and anti-meninism. In 1977, a well-regarded academic literary scholar referred to Guilliadun’s categorical condemnation of men as “her own all too correct pronouncement that women should not trust men.” Hieatt (1977) p. 355. Hieatt further claims that “idiotic and heedless men abound” in Marie de France’s work:

The most typical characters in her lays are women victimized by men, either oppressive and cruel men or weaklings like Eliduc, and women whose native intelligence and/or humane compassion saves the day — or would, if the men would only listen to them.

Id. p. 356. Apparently projecting her own animosity toward men upon Marie de France, Hieatt grossly mischaracterized Marie de France as “a writer of distinctly feminist tone.” Id. p. 357.

[3] Lauding men-abasing courtly love, Fowles described it as an important context for Guildeluëc et Guilliadun, ou Eliduc:

It is hardly a fashionable idea in the twentieth century; but amour courtois was a desperately needed attempt to bring more civilization (more female intelligence) into a brutal society, and all civilization is based on agreed codes and symbols of mutual trust.

Fowles (1974) p. 107. In fact, courtly love {amour courtois} was been a quite fashionable idea since late in the nineteenth century. Showing the narrow contours that have long governed elite gender debate, Hieatt countered:

These and others of Marie’s lays show a good deal more concern with the poor behaviour of the male and the superior wisdom and humanity of the female than they do with the romantic aspects of “courtly love.”

Hieatt (1977) p. 356. The ideology of female supremacism has grown terribly in influence and viciousness since 1977.

[4] Regarding Guildeluëc’s generous love for her husband Eliduc, Hieatt commented:

A self-respecting modern wife faced with the prospect of being discarded for a younger woman generally expresses her indignation quite firmly and demands reprisals in the form of alimony and other perquisites before she will offer any cooperation at all to an errant spouse.

Hieatt (1977) p. 352. Not all women are like that.

[5] Marie de France, The Ash Tree {Le Fresne} vv. 397-405, Old French text and English translation (modified) from Waters (2018). The name of the lai is also the name of its woman-hero. The name of her twin sister Le Condre in English means “the hazel tree.” Following Waters, I’ve retained the French forms of the twins’ names. For a freely available, online Old French text of Le Fresne, Warnke & Köhler (1900). For freely available translations, Mason (1911) and Shoaf (1996).

[images] (1) Portrait of Mesopotamian courtesan Albaydé, as described in Victor Hugo’s poem “Fragments of a Serpent” in Les Orientales. Oil on canvas painting that Alexandre Cabanel made in 1848. Preserved in Musée Fabre (Monpellier, France). Via Wikimedia Commons. On this work, Moussa (2011). Ralph Hancock has observed that Albaydé is holding bindweed / morning glory {convolvulus}. Bindweed / morning glory is an invasive, climbing perennial that wraps itself around other plants and can kill them. Getting rid of it is very difficult.  (2) Medieval lady. Watercolor and gouache on paper. Painted by Alexandre Cabanel. Preserved in Mariano Procópio Museum (Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais, Brazil). Via Wikimedia Commons. Here’s detailed information on the artistic career of the nineteenth-century French academic painter Alexandre Cabanel.


Fowles, John. 1974. The Ebony Tower. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Hieatt, Constance B. 1977. “Eliduc Revisited: John Fowles and Marie De France.” ESC: English Studies in Canada. 3 (3): 351-358.

Mason, Eugene, trans. 1911. French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of Marie de France. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.

Moussa, Sarga. 2011. “Imaginary Hybridities: Geographic, Religioius and Poetic Crossovers in Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales.” Ch. 25 (pp. 280-290) in Guignery, Vanessa, Catherine Pesso-Miquel, and François Specq. Hybridity: forms and figures in literature and the visual arts. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Pub.

Rickert, Edith, trans. 1901. Marie de France. Seven of her lays done into English. With designs by Caroline Watts. David Nutt: London.

Shoaf, Judith P. 1996. “Le Fresne: Marie de France, translated.” Online.

Warnke, Karl, and Reinhold Köhler, eds. 1900. Die Lais der Marie de France. Halle: M. Niemeyer.

Waters, Claire M. 2018. The Lais of Marie de France: Text and Translation. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

medieval literature describes men’s passionate desire for many women

Agents of ignorance and bigotry have created a myth of medieval European sexual repression, and even worse, misogyny. In fact, medieval literature describes men’s passionate desire for women and the joy of heterosexual intercourse. Medieval men’s ardent desire for women led some of them into servitude to women and effectively sexual feudalism. Medieval men could buy sex from a variety of women. Some clerics advocated for clergy having multiple concubines. Nonetheless, popular medieval wisdom, without referring directly to Christian teaching, taught men to settle for having sexual relations with just one woman.

Some medieval clergy advocated strongly for women. One clerical text declared:

In human affairs no other matter is such as this:
if there is a young woman beautiful in all ways,
she makes herself pleasing so that many men compete to obtain her.
If she perishes, what will there be that any man wishes to love?
Neither gold nor gemstones will please, royal purple cloth will fade,
a man will even be despised and will regard himself as shameful.
She gives value to the things we hold in esteem:
she herself pleases, and nothing else pleases from its own merit.

{ Rebus in humanis non est res altera talis:
si fuerit totis pulchra puella modis,
haec facit ut placeat quam plures quaerere certant.
Si perit haec, quid erit quod quis amare velit?
Non aurum, non gemma placet, rubra purpura pallet,
vir quoque sordebit et sibi turpis erit.
Haec pretium rebus dat quas in honore tenemus,
haec placet — e relinquis nulla suis meritis. }[1]

Men typically buy expensive jewelry, seek high-status positions, and engage in violence against men in large part to impress women or to please women. The aggressive, laborious, and dangerous masculine drive to be a “big man” has evolutionary roots in men’s desire to obtain women’s favor. Such reality can scarcely be described in our repressive and doctrinaire age.

The clerical text praising women introduced a special clerical claim to women. According to this text, the goddess Venus gave all the beautiful women to the clergy, regarded as men worthy in appreciating divine gifts. She gave merchants and soldiers no woman — nothing but the worldly evils associated with their professions. She told monks to keep chanting “Lord have mercy {kyrie eleison}” and to enjoy nothing but salty beans. Like men deprived of mercy from women, the monks wept inside their cloisters. If you believe in the goddess Venus, the clergy having all the beautiful women was the divinely ordained medieval distribution of women.

man putting slipper on woman's foot

Lacking a divine gift of women, ordinary men relied on their own efforts. Their efforts tended to position them as abject women-servers:

Bright shining star, with beautifully radiant face,
here I am. Suffer your servant to speak.
If your nobility, probity, and beautiful figure
are rightly praised, nothing remains like you.
You exceed in your outstanding figure all young women,
and you would conquer Venus, if she weren’t a goddess.

When I don’t see you, I pine and long to be seen by you.
Contemplating you, I die, for my love burns so fiercely.
I’m already your servant. If you please, I will give myself
to you and do what you alone command me to do.
If you should look at me or stoop to love me,
I would rejoice more than if kingdoms were given to me.
I pray only for this: that you acknowledge your servant worthy of your love,
so that through you he may live, you who are my life and my salvation!

{ Stella serena nitens, facie rutilante decora,
ecce tuum famulum nunc patiare loqui.
Si tua nobilitas, probitas et forma decora
laudetur velut est, par tibi nulla manet.
Tu superas cunctas forma praestante puellas
et vincis Venerem, ni foret ipsa dea.

Cum te non video, pereo cupioque videre;
inspiciens morior, nam nimis urit amor.
Iam tibi sum famulus; tibi, si placet, exhibeo me
et semper faciam, quae mihi sola iubes.
Si me conspicies vel me digneris amare,
gaudeo plus quam si quis mihi regna daret.
Deprecor hoc tantum: famulum fatearis amandum,
ut per te vivat, vita salusque mea! }[2]

Women typically don’t amorously desire men-servants. Moreover, men striving to be women’s servants perpetuates gender inequality and gynocentrism. Men with their seminal blessing can fruitfully love many women. Crushing financial penalties authoritatively imposed on men’s reproductive choice is unnatural — a socially constructed sexual constraint within gynocentric society. Men need to gain enough critical insight to recognize that they are not naturally sexually inferior to women.

bathhouse woman from Wenceslas Biblebathhouse women serving man in Wenceslas Bible

bathhouse woman from Wenceslas Bible

Medieval literature recognized men’s interest in having more than one woman. In the Old French Romance of the Count of Poitiers {Roman du comte de Poitiers}, composed about the year 1240, a king had a beauty show in which thirty young beautiful women stripped naked for his judgment. The king concluded that he would like to have all thirty as wives and lovers.[3] The Old French lay Ignaure, from perhaps a few decades earlier, describes Ignaure carrying on simultaneous love affairs with twelve noble women living in one castle. The thirteenth-century fabliau About the young man of the twelve wives {Du vallet aus douze fames} describes a man wanting to have twelve wives. Libro de buen amor from the fourteenth century recounts how a lusty young miller aspired to three wives. The miller came to realize that he was barely strong enough to satisfy one wife. He evidently was no sexual superhero like Charlemagne’s peer Oliver.

Popular medieval wisdom with good reason instructed men to limit themselves to just one woman for intimate relations. A medieval biographical fictionalization of the classical poet Ovid began, “Oh, how dear to me and how desirable was the female sex {O quam carus erat mihi quamque optabilis ille femineus sexus}!” Nonetheless Ovid, regarded in medieval Europe as a great teacher of love, declared:

In truth, as the popular saying holds,
having a hundred young woman is like having none,
and likewise having one counts as having a hundred,
since you will be no one’s while none claims possession of you,
and one will be as sufficient as if you alone had a hundred.
Everyone chooses for himself what he prefers, and what
doesn’t please him, he refuses. As for myself, I know that
I would want one young woman more than none, and an agreeable one
more than many young women, one of whom might slander me.

{ Nam sicut vulgare solet paradigma tenere,
sicut habens centum nullam reputatur habere
sic et habens unam pro centum computat illum,
nam nullius eris, dum te non vendicet una,
unaque sufficiet quasi centum solus haberes.
Unusquisque sibi quod mavult eligit, et quod
non placet, hoc renuit. De me scio, quod magis unam
vellem quam nullam, quod concordem magis unam
quam multas, quarum mihi contradiceret una. }[4]

Ovid’s morality is based on individual choice (what one prefers) in relation to consequences (risk of slander). The popular saying makes no explicit reference to Christian morality. It’s historically appropriate for Ovid living at a time before Jesus.

The popular saying implicitly supports Christian morality of love. In Christian understanding, love is a complete, freely given gift of self to the beloved. A complete gift of self can be to only one person. Moreover, Christian spouses owed each other unlimited acts of sexual intercourse within the context of loving care for each other. In the narrow sense of sexual opportunities, one Christian spouse is as sufficient as a hundred.

Medieval men passionately desired many women. In actual love practice, medieval men often made themselves subservient to just one woman. Men’s burden of subservience to women deterred men from having multiple concurrent amorous relationships. Men’s risks in love with women and Christian moral teaching also steered men away from having multiple ongoing sexual relationships with women. Popular medieval wisdom that having one woman was better than having a hundred shows ordinary reason enlightening medieval men’s desire.

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[1] On the Distribution of Women {De distributione mulierum} vv. 1-8, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020) pp. 330-1. This poem survives only in the manuscript Vatican City, Biblioteca apostilica, Vat. Lat. 1602, fol. 49r-v. That manuscript was written late in the fourteenth century. Id. p. 434.

[2] On love {De amore} vv. 79-84, 105-12, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020) pp. 352-5. This poem is an extract from the twelfth-century poem known as Facetus: Moribus et vita or the Facetus of Aurigena. At the University of Krakow in medieval Poland, this text was used to teach Latin grammar and the art of composing letters {ars dictandi}. Jegorow (2018).

[3] The Romance of the Count of Poitiers {Le Roman du comte de Poitiers} vv. 1469-76, Old French text in Michel (1831) p. 61. This romance has survived only in one fourteenth-century manuscript, Bibliothèque nationale de France. Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal. Ms-3527. For study of Le Roman du comte de Poitiers, Fahlin (1940), Durling (2000), and Grodet (2006).

[4] About the Old Woman {De vetula}, 1.10-18, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020) pp. 138-9. The previous short quote is from De vetula 1.1-2.

Ovid earlier held a rather different view on the merits of having many women:

Fair ones capture me: I’m captured by young blonde women,
but Venus is still pleasing with dusk-colored ones.
If dark tresses hang on a snowy neck,
then Leda was famed for her black hair.
If they’re blonde, Aurora’s saffron hair pleases.
My desire adapts itself to all the stories.
Young girls entice me, older ones move me —
she pleases with her body’s looks, she with its form.
In brief, whichever young women one might commend in the city,
my desire has ambitions on them all.

{ Candida me capiet, capiet me flava puella,
Est etiam in fusco grata colore Venus.
Seu pendent nivea pulli cervice capilli,
Leda fuit nigra conspicienda coma;
Seu flavent, placuit croceis Aurora capillis.
Omnibus historiis se meus aptat amor.
Me nova sollicitat, me tangit serior aetas;
Haec melior, specie corporis illa placet.
Denique quas tota quisquam probet urbe puellas,
Noster in has omnis ambitiosus amor. }

Ovid, Amores 2.4.39-48, Latin text from Ehwald’s Teubner edition (1907) via Perseus, English translation (modified slightly) from A. S. Kline. De vetula helps to explain why Ovid was castrated.

[image] (1) Man putting a slipper on a woman’s foot. Illumination from instance of Recueil d’anciennes poésies françaises. Folio 18r of manuscript Bibliothèque nationale de France. Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal. Ms-3527. (2-4) Images of bathhouse women from Bible of Wenceslas IV {Wenzelsbibel / Bible Václava IV}, created about 1400. From Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Codex Vindobonensis 2759-2764. Wenceslas / Wenceslaus IV, of the House of Luxembourg, was King of Bohemia from 1378 until his death in 1419. The Bible of Wenceslas IV contains the Biblical text in German and is one of the earliest German-language bibles. Here’s some information about Wenceslas and his beloved bath attendant Susanne.


Durling, Nancy Vine. 2000. “Women’s visible honor in medieval romance: the example of the Old French Roman du Comte de Poitiers.” Pp. 117-132 in Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate, ed. 2000. Translatio studii: essays by his students in honor of Karl D. Uitti for his sixty-fifth birthday. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Fahlin, Carin. 1940. “Les sources et la date du Roman du comte de poitiers.” Studia Neophilologica. 13 (2): 181-225.

Grodet, Mathilde. 2006. “Croire, mescroire, recroire. Le procès de la comtesse de Poitiers injustement accusée d’adultère.” Questes. 10: 21-30.

Hexter, Ralph J., Laura Pfuntner, and Justin Haynes, ed. and trans. 2020. Appendix Ovidiana: Latin poems ascribed to Ovid in the Middle Ages. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 62. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jegorow, Adam. 2018. “Ars amandi, ars dictandi – średniowieczna Pseudo-Ars amatoria i jej funkcje dydaktyczne w Akademii Krakowskiej.” Terminus. 20 (3): 283-311.

Michel, Francisque, ed. 1831. Roman du comte de Poitiers. Paris: Silvestre.

lai of Argentille & Haveloc protested gender in medieval marriage

Political scheming caused Princess Argentille to be married to the kitchen scullion Haveloc in the Anglo-Norman lai Haveloc written about the year 1200. Like the seventh-century English nobles Æthelthryth and Tondberht and many American couples today, Argentille and Haveloc seemed to be destined for sexless marriage:

When they were both brought to bed,
she was greatly ashamed of him,
and he even more so for her sake.

{ Quant coché furent amdui,
Cele ot grant hunte de lui
E il assez greinur de lui. }[1]

Fear and wariness in the marital bed fosters neither joy nor sleep. However, personal conversation overcame the apparent gulf of social class between them. It also prompted physical intimacy:

But later they became so trusting of each other,
both in their words and their expressions,
that he loved her and lay with her
as was his duty to do with his wife.
On the night he first had sexual congress with her,
he had such joy from it and loved her so much
that afterwards he fell asleep and became oblivious.

{ Mais pus se assurerent itant,
E de parole e de semblant,
Ke il l’ama e od lui just
Cum il od sun espuse dust.
La nuit qu’il primes i parla
Tel joie en out e tant l’ama
Ke il s’endormi e oblia. }

In these verses, the Anglo-Norman word for sexual congress is a form of the verb parler. That Anglo-Norman verb most commonly means “to have conversation.” But as the greatest scholars of lais recognized, the fitting meaning here is “to have sexual congress.”[2] That meaning re-enforces the communicative development in Argentille and Haveloc’s relationship depicted in the prior four verses. Their relationship in words became a relationship in flesh. That’s fundamentally a Christian understanding of love.

Although primarily interpreted as political history, the lai Haveloc offers keen psychological insight into medieval marriage. Wives and husbands in Haveloc consciously treat each other with sensitivity for their relationship.[3] For example, a hermit told Argentille that Haveloc was born of a royal lineage. That’s an extraordinary claim about a man working as a kitchen scullion. Argentille addressed the situation with psychological sophistication:

She returned to her husband.
In private and lovingly,
she asked him where he was born
and where his family were.

{ Ele s’en vait a sun seignur.
Privement e par amur
Li demande dunt il ert nez
[E ou] esteit sis parentez. }

Argentille took care to show that her love for her husband didn’t depend on whether the hermit’s claim was true. She also took care not to expose her husband to public ridicule.

Haveloc believed that he was the son of Grim the fisherman and his wife Sebur. That elderly couple lived in the small Lincolnshire town called Grimsby. Unhappy under her current circumstances, Argentille wanted she and Haveloc to go to live with his parents. Haveloc readily agreed.[4] When they arrived in Grimsby, only Grim and Sebur’s daughter Kelloc, married to a merchant, remained alive. Kelloc asked Haveloc about the beautiful woman with him. He explained that she was his wife and a princess who had been robbed of her heritage. Recognizing the astonishing circumstances, Kelloc, who had grown up with him, pondered what to do:

She summoned her husband.
Following his advice, she asked Haveloc
whose son he was, if he knew,
and if he recognized his parents.

{ Sun seignur avant apella,
Par sun conseil li demanda
Ki fiz il fu, s’il le saveit,
Si sun parenté conusseit. }

Medieval women respected their husbands. In a complicated situation, a medieval woman might summon her husband for advice and occasionally even follow his advice.[5] Haveloc declared that Grim was his father and she his sister. Kelloc then revealed Haveloc’s true parentage: he was actually the son of Gunter, King of the Danes. Grim and Sebur had served as Haveloc’s guardians after King Gunter had been treacherously killed. Argentille and Haveloc were thus actually a royal couple.

medieval woman warrior sits on seashore

Through victory in brutal violence against men, Haveloc became the new Danish king. Argentille became the queen of the Danes. After King Haveloc had ruled Denmark very successfully for three years, Argentille advised him to engage in further violence against men:

Argentille advised him
to cross to England
in order to conquer her heritage
from which her uncles had ejected her
and with great wrong disinherited her.
The King said that he would do
whatever she advised him.

{ Argentile li conseilla
Q’il passast en Engletere,
Pur sun heritage conquere
Dunt ses uncles [l]’aveit jeté
E a grant tort desherité.
Li reis li dit qu’il fera
Quanqu’ele li conseilera. }

The medieval ideal of marriage was conjugal partnership. But medieval marriage often devalued husbands relative to their wives. Women, for example, typically didn’t serve as men’s equal partners in brutal warfare. More significantly, norms of gynocentrism instruct husbands to do whatever their wives advise them to do.

Deborah directs Barak's men to kill Sisera's men

In Haveloc, the dominant woman Argentille shows little concern for men’s suffering. The first day of battle for the lands of Argentille’s heritage caused massive harm to men:

The combat between the sides was fierce,
lasting until five in the evening.
Many of the Danes were killed
and among the survivors many were badly wounded.
The Danes were nearly unable to suffer more
when the darkness made them part.
Haveloc was very angry
because of the men he had lost.
With the Danes he would have retreated
and returned to his ship
if the Queen would have suffered that.

{ Entre eus fu dure la meslee
De ci que vint a la vespree.
Mut i out Daneis oscis
E des altres assez malmis;
Il nel poient mes suffrir
Quant la nuit les fait partir.
Aveloc fu mult irascuz
Pur les homes qu’il ot perduz.
Od ses Daneis s’en fu[s]t alez
E a sa navie returnez,
Si la reïne li suffrit. }

Queen Argentille suffered none of the war’s violence. Her suffering was the thought of not regaining her inheritance through men’s brutal suffering in battle. Greatly devaluing men’s suffering relative to her interest, Argentille refused to allow her husband and his surviving men to retreat. The author of Haveloc understood and attempted to communicate gynocentric devaluation of men’s lives. Literary scholars have still largely failed to recognize that historical reality.

Charlemagne mourns Roland and other dead men warriors

From her position of female privilege, Argentille advised her husband King Haveloc even with respect to tactics of warfare. She advised manipulating the bodies of the dead Danish men:

Because of a ruse that she promised would work,
by which he could conquer his enemy,
the King remained, so trusting her.
All night long he had limbs cut
and at both ends sharpened.
They staked up the dead men;
among the living they positioned them.
They were arranged into two echelons,
with axes raised above their shoulders.

{ Par un engin que li pramist,
Dunt il veincerei sun enemi,
Remist li reis, si la creï.
Tute la nuit fit peus trencher
E de dous parz aguiser.
Les morz homes i ficherent;
Entre les vifs les drecerent,
Dous escheles en unt rengez,
Les haches sur les cous drecez. }

Medieval literature recognized that women’s guile readily defeats men. Haveloc ironically trusted in his wife’s guile. Via stakes driven into the ground and at the other end into their bodies, dead men were grotesquely resurrected according to Argentille’s instructions. Dead men thus rose to be mixed among living men, all prepared to do further violence against men. With this highly imaginative scene, Haveloc poignantly depicts the horror of men’s subordination to women and men’s suffering as a gender.[6]

Men’s inhumane status as a gender is readily ignored or forgotten under gynocentrism. Staked-up dead men positioned among living men served Argentille’s interest. Because so many men have been killed on both sides, the opposing king perceived his side to be out-manned seven to one. He thus made peace. He pledged loyalty to Haveloc and surrendered all of Argentille’s lands. That’s what historical accounts concerning Argentille and Haveloc have memorialized.[7] The subtle men’s sexed protest of the lai Haveloc apparently hasn’t been noticed until now.

To serve social justice, study of medieval literature must be welcoming and inclusive of meninist literary criticism. Dominant anti-meninist ideology has marginalized transgressive, wildly imaginative medieval works and supported continuing devaluation of men’s lives.[8] Women and men today must strive to realize the medieval ideal of equal conjugal partnership. A way forward starts with much greater appreciation for the Anglo-Norman lai Haveloc.

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[1] Haveloc, vv. 377-9, Anglo-Norman text (manuscript P) from Burgess & Brook (2015), English translation (modified) from Burgess & Brook (2016). Haveloc was written by an unknown author in Lincolnshire, England, probably between 1190 and 1220. This lai survives in two manuscripts denoted P and H. They are P: Cologny-Genève, Bibliotheca Bodmeriana, Codex Bodmer 82; and H: London, College of Arms, Arundel XIV. Burgess & Brook (2015) provides a critical edition of both P and H and a verse-by-verse English translation of H. Burgess & Brook (2016) offers a prose translation of P. For an earlier edition of P that’s freely available online, Bell (1925). For an earlier, freely available text of H with English translation, Hardy (1888).

The political scheme that engulfed Argentille and Haveloc involved familial betrayal. King Edelsi promised his neighboring brother-in-law King Achebit to protect his daughter Argentille after his death and to have her married to the strongest man in the land. King Achebit subsequently died. King Edelsi then arranged for Princess Argentille to marry the kitchen scullion Haveloc, the physically strongest man in the land. By that deliberate misinterpretation of his promise, King Edelsi appropriated the kingdom that Argentille inherited from her father. The marriage of Argentille and Haveloc, who went by the name Cuarant as a kitchen scullion, was arranged without the consent of either.

An earlier Anglo-Norman verse account of Argentille and Haveloc exists within Geoffrey Gaimar’s History of the English {Estoire des Engleis}. Gaimar wrote Estoire des Engleis in the 1130s in Lincolnshire for Constance, wife of Ralf Fitzgilbert. She was much more privileged than almost all medieval men. For a critical edition and English translation of Estoire des Engleis, Short (2009). For an earlier, freely available edition, Hardy (1888). Burgess & Brook (2015), Appendix II, provides an English translation of Gaimar’s Haveloc.

The story of Haveloc was written in Middle English as a romance between 1295 and 1310. Called Havelok the Dane, it depicts Haveloc as an ideal king from the perspective of laborers and peasants. Staines (1976), which compares Havelok the Dane to Gaimar’s Haveloc and the lai Haveloc. In Havelok the Dane, the character of Argentille is named Goldeboru. For a glossed Middle English text, Herzman, Drake & Salisbury (1999). Here’s a modern English translation of Havelok the Dane.

Burgess & Brook (2015) provides the most comprehensive coverage of medieval accounts concerning Haveloc. It provides text and English translations for many short versions:

The foregoing short versions of the Havelok story, five in French, eight in English and five in Latin, are mainly found in chronicles of the history of England. They testify to the widespread awareness and popularity of the legend in the later Middle Ages and into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly in the East-Anglian region. But these chroniclers did not just record a good story. They were interested in the political and social history of England, and for the most part they clearly regarded Havelok as an important figure in the chain of royal successions in both England and Denmark.

Burgess & Brook (2015) p. 207. Fahnestock (1915) provides some detailed textual comparisons among long versions. Weiss called Havelok the Dane “the most literary treatment.” Weiss (1969) p. 247. Havelok the Dane is the most conventional literary treatment. On Haveloc’s development into a conventional man-hero in the literary history of the story, Staines (1976). For a more nuanced perspective, Couch (2008). With respect to Argentille and Haveloc’s marital relationship, the Anglo-Norman lai Haveloc is far more critically perceptive and sophisticated than the Middle English Havelok the Dane.

Subsequent quotes above are similarly sourced from Haveloc (manuscript P) verses 383-9 (But later they became so trusting…), 531-4 (She returned to her husband…), 579-82 (She summoned her husband…), 970-6 (Argentille advised him…), 1035-45 (The combat between the sides was fierce…), 1046-54 (Because of a ruse that she promised would work…).

[2] Burgess & Brook (2016) translated parla in v. 387 as “had relations with.” The corresponding verse in manuscript H is “La nuit qe primes enparla” (v. 391). Burgess & Brook (2015) similarly translated enparla as “had relations with.” Sayers objected, asserting “Anglo-French enparler seems to have been read as emparer.” Sayers (2017) p. 1164, which translated enparla as “conversed with.” Parla in fact is attested in Anglo-Norman to mean sexual intercourse. See Espervier vv. 93, 99, and 144, and note to v. 93 in Burgess (2012); Wace’s Conception Nostre Dame, vv. 827-8: “How can a woman bear a child / if she has not had sex with a man {Feme, coment enfantera / Qui a home parlé nen a}?”; and Wace’s Roman de Brut, v. 117: “He had sex with her and she conceived {Od li parla, cele conçut}.” For texts, Blacker, Burgess & Ogden (2013) and Arnold (1938-1940). In addition, as argued above, the meaning “had sex” makes much better sense in the broader context of the relevant verse in Haveloc.

[3] Modern literary scholars have largely interpreted medieval marriage to buttress anti-meninist myths:

Medieval romance heroines, just as women in the real medieval world, are prohibited from participating in military combat, but they take an active role in personal relationships in these narratives. This may be in part because the relatively new concept of romantic love in companionate marriage was making its way into popular culture. Marriage was slowly moving away from being mostly an exchange of property (the woman and her dowry being the items of exchange) and towards a loving if not always socially equal partnership.

Herzman, Drake & Salisbury (1999), Introduction. The thirteenth-century men’s sexed protest of Matheolus provides much better insight into medieval marriage.

[4] Haveloc responded to Argentille’s request with prompt subservience:

My lady, we will be there very soon.
I will gladly take you with me.
Let’s go and take leave of the King.

{ Dame, tost i serum venu;
Volunters vus merrai od mei.
Alums prendre cungé al rei. }

Haveloc (manuscript P) vv. 546-8. In this interaction, Gaimar’s Haveloc displays full-blown gyno-idolatry toward Argentille:

My love,
be it wisdom or be it folly,
I will do what you wish.
I will take you there if you think fit.

{ La maie amie,
U seit saver, u seit folie,
Jo ferai co ke vus volez.
La vus merrai si vus me loez. }

Haveloc (Gaimar’s version) vv. 315-8, Anglo-Norman text from Hardy (1888) v. 1, p. 15, English translation from id. v. 2, p. 10.

[5] The scribe of manuscript H apparently couldn’t imagine Kelloc seeking advice from her husband. The H manuscript thus reads:

She summoned Haveloc
and in private asked him
whose son he was, if he knew,
and if he recognized his parents.

{ Haveloc avant appella,
Et a consail li demanda
Qui fiz il ert, s’il le savoit,
Si son parenté conoissoit. }

Haveloc (manuscript H) vv. 583-6, Anglo-Norman text from Burgess & Brook (2015), English translation (modified) from id. A strong, independent women like many medieval women, Kelloc took the initiative to arrange Argentille and Haveloc’s return to Denmark.

[6] Unlike Argentille, Haveloc showed extensive, meaningful concern for men’s lives. In overthrowing the evil Danish King Odulf, Haveloc put his own life at risk to avoid the deaths of many other men. In particular, Haveloc challenged King Odulf to a man-to-man fight in place of battle between their respective forces. In that brutal fight, Haveloc killed King Odulf. Haveloc then pardoned all of King Odulf’s men. Peace was thus established without further loss of men’s lives.

Haveloc engaged in violence against men only when he had no alternative. For example, when a gang of young Danish men grabbed Argentille, apparently intending to rape her, Haveloc killed five of them. Townsfolk then attacked him and Argentille. Haveloc in response killed many more persons. These actions were defensive violence when Haveloc had no reasonable alternative.

Weiss uncritically described Haveloc as passive and subordinate to his wife Argentille:

Naive, sexually ignorant (Estoire 175-178), strong but curiously passive, Haveloc often takes second place to his wife Argentille, who initiates action, makes decisions, and gives proof of much more resource.

Weiss (1969) p. 252. Haveloc, like many men today, passively accepted his wife’s authority over him and didn’t challenge men-oppressing gender norms.

[7] Burgess & Brook stated:

Haveloc is far more concerned with social and political issues than it is with chivalric activities and amorous relationships. Indeed, even the more literary incarnations of the Haveloc story read more like a work of history than a work of entertainment.

Burgess & Brook (2015) p. 19. On the political context of Haveloc, Kleinman (2003), Battles (2012), and Murtaugh (2016). Gender concerns amorous relationships, men-abasing constructions of chivalry, as well as social and political issues.

[8] With respect to medieval Anglo-Norman lais / romances, Weiss asserted:

That the romances retain interest for us today is in large part due to their creation of these female characters, who challenge the stereotypes of their period and, in so doing, come alive.

Weiss (1993) p. 19. The “stereotypes of their period” are stereotypes that our period has projected onto them. That modern work of stereotyping medieval women and men serves to buttress the gynocentric ideology that continues to oppress men today. Medieval literary studies must do more to be welcoming to men as a gender.

[images] (1) Britomart: medieval woman warrior gazes longingly across the sea. Britomart is the heroine of Book III of Edmund Spenser’s allegorical epic The Faerie Queene (1590). Watercolor painting by Walter Crane, made in 1900. Preserved in Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs (Paris, France). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) The prophetess Deborah directs Barak and his men warriors to attack Sisera and his men warriors. Cf. Judges 4:8-16. From folio 12r of the Morgan Picture Bible (The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, Ms M. 638), created in Paris c. 1245. (3) King Charlemagne mourning Roland and other men warriors who died in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778. Fourteenth-century illustration via Wikimedia Commons.


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