coverture, domestic violence & criminalization of men

In a poem that a judge living in Georgia wrote in 1837, a judge heard a criminal domestic violence case. Henry Day, “a mild-looking man with a youthful face,” was accused of having beaten his large strong wife, Julia Sweet. Day pleaded to the court:

I don’t deny I beat my wife;
And for that part where you aver
That Satan did my spirit stir —
‘Tis true; for I was moved by her.
The dying sinnner’s wildest groans
Are music to her gentlest tones;
And for her blows! alas, my bones!
Well, let it pass; perhaps ‘t was wrong;
But I had borne her curses long,
And I am weak, and she is strong;
Let that, too, pass. I’ve done my best;
My counsel there must say the rest. [1]

Day’s counsel might have invoked for him a claim to self-defense or a claim to be a battered spouse. Such legal strategies in actual domestic violence cases work almost exclusively for women defendants. With sound legal judgment of likely outcomes, Day’s counsel turned instead to a ludicrous defense based on the common-law concept of coverture.

Coverture was the idea that husband and wife are one under law. More specifically, coverture assigned to the husband responsibility and punishment under law for his wife’s criminal acts. Coverture also protected women from mass imprisonment for debt in early modern England. In this case, Day’s counsel claimed that, according to coverture, a husband had an equal right to beat his wife as he did to beat himself. The prosecutor countered that if a husband killed his wife, he would be charged with murder, not suicide. The presiding judge summarized the law of coverture to the sitting jury:

If any ill the wife hath done,
The man is fined; for they are one:
If any crime the man doth do,
Still he is fined; for they are two.
The rule is hard, it is confessed:
It can’t be helped, lex ita est. [2]

Coverture was among a range of institutions and ideas that generated highly disproportionate imprisonment of men. Legal history conventionally interprets coverture as a legal concept oppressing women.[3] Coverture oppressed women in the same way that men-only Selective Service registration oppresses women today.

Coverture has been badly misunderstood in legal history. Coverture assigned to husbands responsibility for their wives’ criminal acts and their wives’ debts. Coverture increased the criminalization of men. Coverture didn’t give husbands the legal right to beat their wives. Men have long been punished for committing domestic violence, as well as punished for having domestic violence committed against them. Legal historians have stressed wife-beating and largely ignored husbands getting attacked by their wives.[4] Law and policy similarly treats domestic violence with anti-men bias today. Anti-men bias in invoking coverture is a general rhetorical pattern built upon deep structures of gynocentrism.

princess imagination

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[1] Robert M. Charlton, “The State vs. Henry Day,” in Charlton & Charlton (1839) pp. 92-104. The quotes above are from id. pp. 96, 97. In 1834, Charlton became Judge of the Supreme Court of the Eastern District of Georgia. From 1853-53, he served as a U.S. Senator for Georgia. See Robert Milledge Charlton biography. The poem is dated 1837. Charlton & Charlton (1839) p. 99. A long, final footnote added:

Note to the Note.

As the prose note to this poetical report has gone the rounds of the papers, headed “The way they do things in Georgia,” perhaps it would be as well for the author to acknowledge that it is a highly exaggerated statement of the existing state of affairs in Georgia, and ought not to be received as evidence against the firmness and wisdom of the bench and bar of this State. The author was a member of the judiciary of Georgia at the time “the State vs. Henry Day” was composed, and therefore very little inclined to attack that branch of the government.

Id. pp. 103-4. “The State vs. Henry Day” appeared with the author’s initials “R.M.C.” in The American Jurist, vol. 20 (Oct. 1838) pp. 237-43. The poem there is dated May, 1837. Id. p. 237.

[2] Lex ita est is Latin for “thus is the law.” After citing the verses in which the judge declared men’s double criminal responsibility, Hartog (2000) p. 104 observed:

The poem was a plausible fiction, coherent with the contemporary law.

As if unequal justice under law for men doesn’t matter, Hartog moved from the poetic declaration of men’s double criminal responsibility to the conventional one-sided, false understanding of the incidence of domestic violence. Coverture was a legal fiction rarely determinative of legal results. Id. p. 106. The legal fiction of coverture, however, supported general gynocentric bias toward disproportionate punishment of men.

[3] Wikipedia, which has struggled with the problem of feminist bias, features considerable anti-men bias in its entry on coverture.

[4] E.g. Hartog (2000) pp. 104-110, with includes poorly informed discussion of the “rule of thumb.” The myth that a husband could legally beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb (the mythic “rule of thumb”) is prevalent in scholarly family history. For a thorough review of formal law, Kelly (1994). Commenting on a court’s declaration that it wouldn’t interfer in minor incidents of violence at home or in the schoolyard, Kelly mythologizes law in action and endorses conventional gender stereotyping of domestic violence:

the court would have made the same judgment {not all minor violence belongs in criminal court} if the wife had done the beating. One cannot conclude, therefore, that husbands were allowed a special latitude in chastising their wives, except, of course, in the sense that husbands were much more prone to such misconduct than wives and would more readily benefit from the court’s conclusion.

Id. p. 346, n. 25. Especially if domestic violence is defined to encompass minor violence, e.g. slapping, women almost surely would be found to be more prone to domestic violence than are men. Almost all minor violence isn’t in fact taken into criminal court and could not feasibly be policed in a non-totalitarian state. Charlton & Charlton (1839), p. 104, writing from judicial experience, frankly points to the legal difficulty of fairly judging domestic violence. Judges today would hardly dare to make that common-sense observation. More generally, Kelly (1994) falls to recognize the gynocentric structures supporting the “rule of thumb” myth and their implications for the criminalization of men.

[image] Princess.  Thanks to Clipartcottage for making the image available under a Creative Commons Attribution license.


Charlton, Robert M., and Thomas Jackson Charlton. 1839. Poems. Boston: C.C. Little and J. Brown. (2nd ed., 1842)

Hartog, Hendrik. 2000. Man and wife in America: a history. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Kelly, Henry Ansgar. 1994. “‘Rule of Thumb’ and the Folklaw of the Husband’s Stick.” Journal of Legal Education. 44 (3): 341-65.

Marina: patron saint for men falsely accused of rape

While false accusations of rape have been trivialized in recent years, throughout most of recorded history both rape and false accusations of rape have been matters of serious concern. Accusations against men have tended to conflate impregnating a woman, seducing a woman, and raping a woman. In its various versions from the sixth century to the fifteenth century, the Life of Saint Marina the Monk presents false sexual accusation, along with cuckoldry, as essential problems of men’s sexuality. God ultimately vindicated Saint Marina beyond humans’ bodily sense. Saint Marina thus stands as a poignant, patron saint for men falsely accused of rape.

The Life of Marina was probably first written in Syriac sometime from the fifth to the seventh centuries. It subsequently became known in a wide range of languages spanning western Eurasia and northern Africa.[1] The Life of Marina was included in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend (Legenda aurea), compiled in Latin about 1260. By the late-thirteenth century, a version of Marina’s life existed in French verse. By the early-fourteenth century, at least two versions existed in English verse.[2] While all the versions of the Life of Marina represent the victimization of innocent men, men’s virtues and men’s victimization are particularly well-represented in the early-fourteenth-century English verse version in the Harley manuscript.

Saint Marina and father entering monastery

The Harley Life of Marina highlights a father’s love for his children. Marina’s father was a man “who lived in purity, piety, and in the fear of God.” Marina’s mother, who was married to her father, was “honorable and devout.”[3] When Marina’s mother died, her father, rather than remarrying, sought to live a life of holiness by joining a monastery.  In the early Syriac and Greek texts, Marina begged her father to be allowed to join him in entering a monastery. Marina proposed to cut off her hair, put on men’s clothes, and enter the monastery with her father. In the Harley version, Marina comes into the story only after her father spiritually married himself to the Virgin Mary and became a monk. The father living as a monk longed to see his absent, flesh-and-blood daughter. Expressing his longing to his abbot, he falsely stated that his child was a boy. The virtuous father lied in love for his daughter.

Lies about men’s sexual behavior, in contrast, are vicious and evil. Marina joined her father’s monastery disguised as a boy named Marin. With her father’s loving guidance, Marina / Marin became an exemplary monk. One day, Marin was sent on a household business trip outside the monastery. Marin stopped at a house where the householder’s daughter had secretly become pregnant as a result of an illicit sexual affair with a soldier. The daughter falsely accused Marin of causing her pregnancy. That false accusation devastated Marin’s life.

The specific circumstances in which an alleged man allegedly caused a pregnancy matters little in practice. Formal legal trial of the crime of rape must examine in detail the facts of how sexual intercourse occurred. In the case of Marin, whether the daughter accused him of getting her pregnant or raping her depends on the specific version of the Life of Marin and difficult questions of philology.[4] Literary scholars have generally ignored those literary subtleties and declared that the woman accused Marin of rape.[5] Across the versions of the Life of Marina, the punishment of Marin seems to have followed only from the fact of the woman’s pregnancy and her blaming Marin. Marin was expelled from the monastery and lived for years outside its gates as a hungry, homeless person.

Like men today facing state-institutionalized cuckoldry, Marina / Marin was obliged to support a child who was not her own. The women who falsely accused Marin of rape (or of just getting her pregnant) gave birth to a son. She abandoned her son with Marin. Marin, as a starving, homeless person, did his best to support the child who was not biologically his. Marina in the person of Marin thus took on an additional injustice that men distinctively suffer in gynocentric society.

Saint Marina with child she was falsely accused of begetting

Exoneration from the false accusation came only with the realization that Marin was not biologically a man. After enduring years of harsh treatment resulting from the false accusation, Marin died. When the monks prepared to wash Marin’s body, they discovered that he didn’t have male genitals. Marin’s culpability had essentially rested only on the accusation and belief that he had a penis. With the recognition that Marin lacked a penis, the monks realized that they had gravely wronged Marin / Marina.[6] They resolved to “honor her in every way.” Marina was honored as a saint who could mediate God’s blessings. God posthumously gave her miraculous power. Her tomb became the site of a miraculous healing of the woman who had falsely accused Marin.

Saint Marina took upon herself suffering wrongfully imposed upon men. In the Greek version, after the abbot informed Marina / Marin of the woman’s accusation against her, Marina confessed, “Forgive me, father, for I have sinned as a man.”[7] Christians confess to having sinned. Being a man is no sin. To confess to having “sinned as a man” seems to refer ironically to Marina not being capable of sinning through action biologically distinctive to men.

Saint Marina is venerated for her patience and humility in the face of outrageous injustice. Under gynocentrism that permeates even monasteries, men are criminally suspect because of their penises.[8] Saint Marina’s life points beyond that criminal essentialism. Through the Life of Saint Marina, men falsely accused of rape can understand that the suffering wrongfully imposed on them can ultimately end in honor and power.

How could you endure
The pain that was imposed on you
Wrongly and without good cause?
Yours will be the final reward, and the failure, mine. [9]

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[1] The Life of Saint Marina the Monk has survived in Syriac, Coptic, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, French, High German, and English texts from the fifteenth century or earlier.  Hourani (2013) p. 19. Marina’s life may have originated, along with roughly ten other lives of women transvestite saints, among monks of the Scetis desert near Alexandria in the middle of the fifth to the start of the sixth centuries. Anson (1974) p. 12. Authorities variously date Marina’s life from the fifth to the seventh century. Among surviving early manuscripts are a Syriac manuscript dated to 778 GC and three Greek manuscripts from the Mount Athelon monastery. Hourani (2013) p. 21. The earliest of the Greek manuscripts dates to the tenth century. For an English translation of the Syriac life, Lewis (1900) pp. 36-45 (pdf pages 468-77). For an English translation of the Greek life, Constas (1996).

Marina is a Latin name that corresponds to the Greek name Pelagia. Saint Pelagia, however, has a different life from Saint Marina. In western Europe, Saint Marina’s life has in some texts become confused with Saint Margaret’s life.

[2] The Latin Life of Marina is available in Patrologia Latina 73: 692-6. The version from the Golden Legend is available in English translation in Ryan & Duffy (2012) Ch. 84. Large excepts of the late-thirteenth century French version are available in English translation in Cazelles (1991) pp. 238-57. English versions are in the Harley 2253 Manuscript, Article 32, in Fein (2014); and the Northern Homily Cycle, Homily 15, ll. 137-356, in Thompson (2008).

[3] From Greek version, trans. Constas (1996) p. 7. The Harley version describes Marina’s father as a man:

Who greatly loved God’s command,
And exerted himself by all his strength
To serve God both day and night.
He was a man of good works,
And deeply he loved his soul’s comfort.

Trans. Fein (2014).

[4] In the Greek version of the Life of Marina, an innkeeper’s daughter falsely accused Marin of “causing a pregnancy”:

The young monk from the monastery, the attractive one called Marinos, he made me pregnant.

Trans. Constas (1996) p. 9. The Syriac version is similar in making causing the pregnancy the wrong:

The monk whom ye praise for being holy did this {pregnancy} to me, and by him I am with child.

Trans. Lewis (1900) p. 40. In the French version, Marin is accused of deceptive seduction:

It is he who made me pregnant
No other man has ever touched me.
He has deceived me
And is the cause of my distress.
I thought he was a religious man
And was eager to converse with him.
But he is so malicious
That he induced me to sin,
Causing me to fall into shame.
I mistook his intentions.

French Life of Saint Marina, ll. 424-433, trans. Cazelles (1991) p. 247. In the Harley version, a dairyman’s daughter falsely accused Marin of acting “unlawfully”:

In the barn, there we were
And he took me forth, unlawfully —
All in truth, so it was!

Trans. Fein (2014) ll. 98-100. Accusation of unlawful sex in medieval Europe encompassed consensual sex outside of marriage (a consensual roll in the hay, perhaps in a barn), as well as rape. The English for “unlawfully” in the Harley version is more literally translated as “against the peace.” That more directly suggests an accusation of violence. The Northern Homily Cycle makes the false accusation of rape explicit:

And she told them that the monk Marin
Had forced her, and they were angry

Homily 15, ll. 204-5, my English modernization. The Latin Life of Marina uses the accusation ipse me oppressit, which could mean he pressed down on me (in the physical act of sex), he surprised me (deceptive seduction), or he raped me. See Patrologia Latina 73: 692.

[5] With respect to the Greek version, Constas (1996) intro., p. 3 (“rape”). With respect to the Harley version, Fein (2014) intro. (“rape”). Misleading use of the word rape is now exploited in major newspapers to criminalize a large share of men worldwide.

[6] Directing attention to the vagina, an eminent medievalist imagined the monks relishing the sight of a dead woman’s vagina:

These ignorant holy men are also, however, at the climax of the text they could not read, richly rewarded with an ample viewing. Male desire is deflected, refocused, and then abundantly fulfilled. One can hardly avoid {sic!} the supposition that the compiler chose this tale precisely for titillation of that continuing interest in what women have “under gore,” this time the curiosity being the spur of the story rather than the conventional ending of the love poem. And even though Marina escaped the male gaze in life, the suddenly crowded viewing of her in death — by the monks and the “other men mo” (where did they come from?) — seems rather to compensate the men for their lost opportunity. Miraculous moment is indelibly marked with prurient response.

Fein (2000) p. 364. That interpretation goes beyond constructing men as dogs to assuming them to be necrophiliacs. The implications for women, as always, are dire even after their deaths:

Women may not be free of men. Instead they must choose from an array of ways in which they will meet their defining fate: to be constructed accord to male desire and actualized in acceding to it.

Id. 361. Such scholarship subtly gestures toward the emancipatory potential of masturbation.

[7] From Greek trans. Constas (1996) p. 9.

[8] Study of the Life of Marina has highlighted scholarly fantasies. For example, a scholar fantasized that women are the cause of lust, but women don’t experience lust. Anson (1974) p. 17. Moreover, this scholar perceived the Life of Marina to represent the “wish-fulfillment dream of the domestication of the demonic seductress.” Id. False accusations of rape and wrongfully imposing paternity on men are serious public issues. Those issues are more directly relevant to thinking seriously about the Life of Marina than are abstract psychological speculations.

[9] Words of the abbot in the French version of the Life of Marina, ll. 1058-61, trans. Cazelles (1991) p. 256. Cazelles’s explication of the Life of Marina points to Christine de Pizan and current academic boilerplate:

Christine de Pizan sought to destabilize the hagiographic canon by unmasking its ideological implications.

Id. p. 84. Scholarship can be more interesting than that. The Life of Marina unmasks trivializing false accusations of rape and devaluing men’s paternity interests.

The Life of Marina may have been written by a woman and probably had many women readers / listeners. Scholars have tended to dismiss the possibility of women as readers and writers of early transvestite saints’ lives:

they are with the exception of Thecla products of a monastic culture written by monks for monks

Anson (1974) p. 5. Scholars now generally believe that a woman or community of women wrote the Acts of Paul and Thecla. A woman probably also authored Joseph and Aseneth. Women probably comprised a significant share of readers / listeners to these saints’ lives as well as lives of other saints. Marina’s life addresses issues that men are generally afraid to discuss. Most medieval women loved men and would have cared about issues of vital concern to men. A woman may have wrote the Life of Marina for women who cared deeply about men.

Other lives of transvestite women saints also present false accusations of rape and false attributions of paternity. In the Life of Eugenia, Eugenia dressed as Brother Eugene is falsely accused of raping Melancia. The lives of Saint Margaret (Pelagius) and Saint Theodora present transvestite women saints falsely attributed paternity. These lives can be found in the Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend. The Life of Eugenia also survives in an early Syriac text. Lewis (1900) pp. 1-35.

The significance of these saints’ lives have been obscured in ideological posing. Consider how Cazelles interprets these stories of women falsely accusing of rape or paternity women dressed as men:

the profound significance of their stories is that, whether dressed, undressed, or cross-dressed, they {the women} are similarly and inexorably defenseless in the face of masculine desire.

Cazelles (1991) pp. 66-7. Such claims reflect the social process of criminalizing men in gynocentric society.

[images] (1) Marina and her father entering monastery. Illumination in f. 139v, Jacques de Voragine.  Légende dorée. Manuscript dated 1348, written in French. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Français 241. (2) Saint Marina in Benedictine dress. She, with her face dirty in poverty, lovingly holds the child she was falsely accused of begetting. Illumination in f. 74r, Guillelmus a Mederio, Calendarium sive Commemorationes sanctorum monachorum, Missa et officium sanctarum reliquiarum, Officia sancti Georgii et sanctae Marinae. Manuscript dated 1400-1425, written in Latin. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 5264. Images thanks to Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France.


Anson, John. 1974. “The female transvestite in early monasticism: the origin and development of a motif.” Viator. Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. 5: 1-32.

Cazelles, Brigitte. 1991. The Lady as saint: a collection of French hagiographic romances of the thirteenth century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Constas, Nicholas, trans. 1996. “Life of St. Mary / Marinos.” Ch. 1 (pp. 1-12) in Talbot, Alice-Mary. 1996. Holy women of Byzantium: ten saints’ lives in English translation. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Fein, Susanna. 2000. “A saint ‘Geynest under Gore’: Marina and the love lyrics of the seventh quire.” Pp. 351-76 in Fein, Susanna, ed. 2000. Studies in the Harley manuscript: the scribes, contents, and social contexts of British Library MS Harley 2253. Kalamazoo, Mich: TEAMS (The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) in association with the University of Rochester. Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Fein, Susanna, ed. with David B. Raybin, and Jan M. Ziolkowski, trans. 2014. The complete Harley 2253 Manuscript (vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3). Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University. Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Hourani, Guita. 2013. “The Vita of Saint Marina in the Maronite Tradition.” Notre Dame University, Lebanon. 17-39.

Lewis, Agnes Smith. 1900. Select Narratives of Holy Women from the Syro-Antiochene or Sinai Palimpsest as written above the old Syriac gospels by John the Stylite, of Beth-Mari-Qanun in a.d. 778. Syriac text and English translation. Studia Sinaitica No. IX. London: C.J. Clay and Sons.

Ryan, William Granger and Eamon Duffy trans. and ed. 2012. Jacobus de Voragine. The golden legend: readings on the saints. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Thompson, Anne B. 2008. The Northern homily cycle. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications.

domestic violence & child custody bias: Crabtree case

Justice blind to anti-men bias in child custody

In 1922, the Supreme Court of Arkansas heard the appeal of Marvin Crabtree. He was married to Josephine Crabtree. She committed horrendous domestic violence against him. Fearing his life, Marvin left her and sought divorce from her. He also sought custody of their two children, ages six and nine. With some reluctance, the Supreme Court granted Marvin a divorce, overturning the lower court’s grant of merely a separation. The Supreme Court, however, let stand the award of custody of their children to Josephine. Crabtree v. Crabtree is an astonishing document of anti-men child custody bias in high case law.

Marvin and Josephine Crabtree and their two children had lived in Josephine’s mother’s house. Marvin wanted his immediate family to move to their own house. He explained that Josephine’s mother “meddled with their marital affairs and made their home life with her unpleasant.” Josephine, however, refused to move from her mother’s house.

One day, Josephine nearly murdered Marvin. The trouble started when Josephine’s mother allegedly falsely accused Marvin of bad behavior. Marvin, his wife, and children walked outside to leave the house, but returned. Marvin then went to leave on his own:

He walked in front of the car {outside the house} and set the crank to start the motor. At this time his wife stepped up behind him and laid her left hand on his left shoulder. She asked him if he would come back, and he replied that he was not making any promises. At this instant his wife cut his throat with a razor. Then, seeing a light in the rear of McCann’s residence, about 100 feet away, he hastened there for help, and his wife followed him. He saw her coming, and she showed that she had not accomplished her purpose. He had to act quickly. He grabbed a swinging door and tried to keep her from getting to him by holding the swinging door with his hand. His fingers stuck out on the side of the door next to his wife, and when she could not push the door open she slashed his hands, cutting four fingers on one and one finger on his other hand, practically severing the leaders in all of them. The cut in his throat was five inches long. He then turned loose the door and ran through the house into the kitchen, where McCann was sitting, and called his attention to what had just happened to him. His wife entered the room, and McCann caught her from behind and held her by the arms. His wife made two desperate attempts to assault him again, but was prevented by McCann. He {Marvin Crabtree} grew very weak from loss of blood. Finally he sat down on the porch in a swing. His wife begged McCann to let her get to him. She got a little closer to him and struck at him again, hitting him across the face, but by some means the razor turned and only peeled the skin. He then started to run. His.wife jerked loose from McCann and slashed him in the back, cutting three holes in his coat. She caught him, and all three of them fell on the floor. Mr. Shaffer came up at this time, and the plaintiff was released. Finally he started off of the porch and his wife ran at him, striking at him with the razor. Shaffer caught her. The plaintiff then got into his car and requested a man to drive him to the hospital. He was in the hospital ten days.

Witnesses corroborated this account. Josephine Crabtree vaguely admitted to her domestic violence:

She admitted cutting him on the occasion in question. … When she got to the car she put her hands in her pocket to get the key, and felt the razor. She had been using it that day in ripping some of her children’s clothes. She does not recall anything from the time she felt the razor in her pocket until some time after the assault on her husband was made. She supposed she attempted to cut her husband’s throat with the razor, but had no recollection of it.

Facing a criminal charge of assault with intent to kill her husband, Josephine Crabtree apparently pleaded temporary insanity. Witnesses supported the claim of her being temporarily insane:

J. A. McCann was one of the witnesses. He told about the wife following her husband to his house with a razor in her hand. He held her about twenty minutes while she struggled to get away. She appeared very nervous and struggled to get free from him. She had a wild look in her eyes and stared into vacancy. In his opinion she was temporarily insane.

Several witnesses who saw her later in the evening and on the next day testified that she did not appear normal and was very nervous and had a peculiar look. They said that she had always been a peaceable woman before that time, and they regarded her as temporarily insane when she attacked her husband with the razor and cut his throat.

Josephine Crabtree apparently avoided conviction for assault with intent to murder her husband. In addition, she implored her husband  to return to living with her. He refused. He declared that “he would not risk his life by living with her again.” Marvin’s fear for his life, after Josephine had attempted to kill him, set up the divorce and custody battle of Crabtree v. Crabtree.

The Arkansas Supreme Court rationalized depriving Marvin of custody of his children with lack of reason for doing otherwise and the best interests of the child. The Supreme Court explained:

While the plaintiff {Marvin Crabtree} asked for the custody of the children, he does not assign any reason why he should have them, and the court can perceive none. It does not follow that, because the wife tried to kill him in a fit of anger, she did not have any parental affection for the children. On the contrary, the record discloses that she loved them and was properly caring for them. The court looks mainly to the comfort and happiness of the children and gives them to the keeping of that parent who can best look after them.

The Court provide no evidence indicating that Marvin didn’t love his children and couldn’t properly care for them. Discriminating against men in child custody proceedings is standard practice, even when the wife has committed horrendous domestic violence against the husband.

The arc of the moral universe is long, and across centuries one cannot see it bending toward justice for men in child custody decisions. Today, “experts” in domestic violence draw upon deeply entrenched anti-men gender stereotyping of domestic violence to further anti-men bias in custody decisions. Parents’ relationships with their children and good public reason are central to humane civilization. Facing the ugly reality of domestic violence and child custody disputes is necessary for hope and change.

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The quotes above are from Crabtree v. Crabtree, 154 Ark. 401, 242 S.W. 804, 24 A.L.R. 912 (1922). The text of the Arkansas Supreme Court opinion in Crabtree v. Crabtree is available online from the Arkansas Judiciary and in the Southwestern Reporter.

The Court’s opinion refers to “absolute divorce” and “limited divorce.” These legal terms refer to English common law concepts:

  1. absolute divorce: divorce a vinculo matrimonii (from the bond of marriage), meaning divorce through a legal act that severs the legal bonds of matrimony.
  2. limited divorce: divorce a mensa et thoro (from board and bed), meaning divorce granting each spouse legal right to live apart from each other while still being legally married to each other. Limited divorce is now called legal separation of spouses.

On legal types of divorce and the legal history of divorce law in relation to child custody, James (2014) Ch. 10.

The Supreme Court’s opinion noted:

By agreement of counsel, certain evidence which had been used in the trial in the circuit court on the charge against his wife for assault with the intent to kill her husband was made a part of the record in this case.

The record of the criminal case against Josephine Crabtree apparently isn’t available online. The awarding of child custody to Josephine Crabtree makes reasonably clear that she wasn’t convicted of assault with intent to kill her husband. Not convicting women for killing their husbands has probably been much more prevalent than not convicting men for killing their wives. Consistent with that gender bias, legal scholars now publish books advocating extreme anti-men gender bias in adjudicating cases of wives killing their husbands.

Justice Thomas H. Humphreys dissented from his colleagues ruling in Crabtree v. Crabtree. Justice Humphreys declared:

After a careful reading of the facts in this case, my conclusion is that the attack made upon appellant {Marvin Crabtree} by appellee {Josephine Crabtree} was due to temporary insanity. They had lived together for a number of years in peace and harmony. No serious friction existed between them at the time the attack was made. The infliction of the injuries was an isolated act of cruelty, out of keeping with the current of their lives, and without excuse upon any other theory than momentary insanity. The undisputed evidence tended to show that appellee was beside herself, when she so unexpectedly and viciously attacked her husband. She herself testified that she knew nothing of the occurrence until it was all over. The evidence is wanting to show intentional cruelty, so a decree of divorce should have been refused.

In short, Marvin Crabtree should have “manned up” and taken like a man his wife slashing his throat with a razor and sending him to the hospital for ten days. Law and policy more generally to this day has shown relatively little concern for violence against men.

[image] Lady Justice (Justitia) blind. Thanks to Hans and pixabay for this excellent contribution to the public domain.


James, Tom. 2014. The History of Custody Law. 2nd ed. ISBN-13: 978-1499182033, available from Amazon.

prison of marriage: lovers’ foolishness, jailors’ diligence

caged dog: prison of marriage

When men marry, they often think little of possible unhappy consequences. Divorce has dire financial consequences for men under U.S. family law today. But most men refuse to consider such consequences. They believe that they are different from men reamed in divorce proceedings. Every man is different from men transformed from fathers into wallets. Every man is different from men working under the threat of imprisonment to provide money to their ex-wives and their ex-wives’ boyfriends. Every man who enters the prison of marriage is a fool, except for you. That’s what every one of you and me believes.[1]

Men’s irrationality in entering the prison of marriage has long been recognized in literature of men’s sexed protest. In 1509, Wynkyn de Worde printed an English verse adaptation of the French prose work Les Quinze Joyes de mariage (The Fifteen Joys of Marriage).[2] This French source was written early in the fifteenth century. It’s a comic work of men’s sexed protest. The English translation, entitled The Fyftene Joyes of Maryage, is more solemn. Its introduction describes a man foolishly entering the prison of marriage:

As thus when men in youth courageous
With free will endowed and lustiness
Of their desire and mind outrageous
Without need, but of their foolishness,
Convey themselves from all their liberty
Nothing content with their felicity.

For whereas they may freely ride or go
And at their choice disport themselves over all,
I you ensure these young men will not so
When they least expect, then suddenly they fall
And unconstrained make their bodies thrall,
Like to a person that into prison deep
Without cause all hastily does creep.

So do they often for lack of kindly wit
And when they be within this prison strait
The jailor comes and fast the door shuts
Which is of iron strong, and in waiting
he lies often for dread that through defeat
By night or day some should escape out,
Right busily he pries all about.

He bars the door and makes sure all the locks,
The strong bolts, the fetters, and the chain,
He searches well the holes and the stocks
That woe be they that lie there in pain,
And out from there they shall not go again
But ever endure in weeping care and sorrow,
For good no prayer shall they ever borrow.

And especially men may call him besotted,
Far from reason, of wisdom desolate,
That thus his time misused has and doubted,
When he had heard such prisoners but late
Weeping, wailing, and with themselves debate,
Lying in prison as he has passed by,
And put himself therein so foolishly. [3]

The verses “suddenly they fall / and unconstrained make their bodies thrall / Like to a person that into prison deep” connects through simile imprisonment in lust to actual imprisonment and figuratively to the prison of marriage. Paul of Tarsus counseled Christians that it is better to marry than to burn with lust. The Fyftene Joyes of Maryage emphatically rejects Paul’s counsel. It figures imprisonment in marriage to be worse than imprisonment in lust.[4]

The Fyftene Joyes of Maryage contrasts the lover’s foolishness with the jailor’s diligence. Within their personal lives, men enter into marriage without careful examination of the circumstances. Men are not, however, essentially fools. Men at work thoroughly consider risks, seek to mitigate them, and diligently work to advance their employers’ objectives. Men make good jailors. Men predominate today among guards working in prisons that highly disproportionately imprison men. Men should guard more diligently their personal lives.

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[1] For women and persons entering homosexual marriages, the acute anti-men bias of family law doesn’t directly cause harm. But unjust justice is generally dangerous. Family law applied to person who have entered homosexual marriages isn’t likely to be fair and rational. Women dedicated to demanding careers and high earnings, and who allow their husbands the economic freedom that similarly motivated men have often allowed their wives, face to a lesser degree the risks and injustices that such men face.

Men and women have significantly different positions with respect to legal regulation of reproduction. Women have reproductive rights. Men have no reproductive rights whatsoever. Married men thus face paternity risk that married women don’t.

[2] Scholars have attributed the anonymous Les Quinze Joyes de mariage to Antoine de La Sale, born perhaps in 1388. The anonymous English translation The Fyftene Joyes of Maryage has been attributed to Robert Copland, who flourished from 1508 to 1547.

[3] The fyftene joyes of maryage, “prohemye of the auctour,” ll. 101-35, available from the Early English Books, Text Creation Partnership. The “Prologue” and “Prohemye” of The fyftene joyes of maryage are also printed in Coldiron (2009), Appendix 2.

Wynkyn de Worde printed the first edition of The fyftene joyes of maryage in 1509. He also printed The Payne and Sorrowe of Euyll maryage (ca. 1530), an English translation of De Coniuge non ducenda (Don’t Be Drawn into Marriage). That English translation is commonly attributed to John Lydgate, but without good reason. Boffey (1999) p. 237. Wynkyn de Worde seems to have appreciated literature of men’s sexed protest. He also printed Complaynte of them that been to late maryed and Complaynt of them that be to soone maryed. Id. p. 244. For discussion of these marriage complaints from a gynocentric perspective, Coldiron (2009) Ch. 5. Id., Appendix 3, provides the texts. For related medieval English poems, see Against Hasty Marriage (I) and Against Hasty Marriage (II) in Salisbury (2002).

[4] For Paul’s counsel on marriage, 1 Corinthians 7:8-9. The allusion to the Pauline counsel on marriage was added to the English translation of Les Quinze Joyes de mariage. Coldiron (2009), p. 129, suggests that these verses support the Pauline counsel. That seems to me to be a misreading. Today, a further challenge to the Pauline counsel is sexless marriages.

[image] Caged dog. Public Domain image by amayaeguizabal on pixabay.


Boffey, Julia. 1999. “Wynkyn de Worde and Misogyny in Print.” Pp. 236-51 in Blake, N. F., and Geoffrey Lester. 1999. Chaucer in perspective Middle English essays in honour of Norman Blake. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Coldiron, Anne E. B. 2009. English printing, verse translation, and the battle of the sexes, 1476-1557. Farnham, England: Ashgate.

Salisbury, Eve. 2002. The trials and joys of marriage. Kalamazoo, Mich: Published for TEAMS in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Wife of Bath, criminal justice & men’s subordination to women

Wife of Bath illustration from Ellesmere Chaucer

In the Wife of Bath’s Prologue within Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales, Alisoun accused her husband Jankyn of murdering her. Actual murder victims never make such accusations. Alisoun concocted her accusation of murder to strike back at Jankyn and make him subordinate to her. In the subsequent Wife of Bath’s Tale, women court leaders suspended punishing a man for rape in order to promote men’s subordination to women. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale present criminal justice as a pretext for promoting men’s subordination to women.

Alisoun initiated domestic violence against her husband Jankyn. Living within gynocentric society, Jankyn found a measure of humor and enjoyment in reading literature of men’s sexed protest, including the venerable classics Theophrastus’s Golden Book on Marriage and Valerius’s letter to his friend Rufinus. Alisoun responded violently to Jankyn’s peaceful reading:

And when I saw he would never cease
Reading on this cursed book all night,
All suddenly have I plucked three leaves
Out of his book, right as he read, and also
I with my fist so hit him on the cheek
That in our fire he fell down backwards. [1]

Jankyn got back up and hit her back. She fell down and then claimed that he, a battered spouse, murdered her. When Jankyn came to kiss her and apologize, she struck him again. In medieval Europe, men were punished as perpetrators of domestic violence and as victims of domestic violence. Peace came to their household not through criminal justice, but by the husband making himself subordinate to his wife. Alisoun explained:

We made an agreement between our two selves.
He gave me all the control in my hand,
To have the governance of house and land,
And of his tongue, and of his hand also;
And made him burn his book immediately right then.
And when I had gotten unto me,
By mastery, all the sovereignty,
And that he said, ‘My own true wife,
Do as you please the rest of all thy life;
Guard thy honor, and guard also my reputation’ —
After that day we never had an argument. [2]

Alisoun’s sovereignty over Jankyn encompassed what he said, what he did, and even what he read. Political structures of oppression seldom reach that extent of personal domination.

In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, public and personal support for women’s domination of men allowed a knight to escape punishment under law for rape. While out hunting, the knight saw a maiden walking. While most men, like most male primates, don’t rape, this knight raped that maiden. Rape of women has been considered a serious crime throughout recorded history. The Wife of Bath reported that the knight was condemned to death for raping the maiden. However, the queen and other courtly ladies intervened. They were delegated authority to decide whether the knight would be executed.

The queen declared that the knight’s punishment would be remitted if he declared satisfactorily what women most desire. The queen gave the knight up to twelve months to declare publicly what women most desire. The knight desperately searched for the saving answer. What women want has always been a vigorous topic of public discussion in gynocentric society. The knight heard many different answers. He despaired of finding the saving one. Finally, an ugly woman offered to solve the riddle for the knight if he would do whatever she requested of him. The knight agreed. The ugly woman whispered the answer to him.

The knight successfully declared publicly what women want. The queen’s ad hoc court of justice publicly assembled:

Very many a noble wife, and many a maid,
And many a widow, because they are wise,
The queen herself sitting as a justice,
Are assembled, to hear his answer;
And afterward this knight was commanded to appear.
Silence was commanded to every person,
And that the knight should tell in open court
What thing that worldly women love best.

Before that court, the knight courageously declared to the queen:

“My liege lady, without exception,” he said,
“Women desire to have sovereignty
As well over her husband as her love,
And to be in mastery above him.
This is your greatest desire, though you kill me.
Do as you please; I am here subject to your will.”

The women sitting in judgment of him universally acclaimed the knight’s answer. In response to his public recognition of women’s interest in dominating men, the women exercised their dominance by freeing him from the death penalty for raping a woman.

The knight, however, was still beholden to the women who had provided the answer that saved him. She, the “loathly lady,” was low-born, ugly, old, and poor. She ordered the knight to marry her. The knight was horrified at that request. But he had given his word. Empathy and generosity can save women from oppressive terms of ill-considered agreements. Men are much less likely to benefit from such favor. The knight was forced to wed and sleep with the loathly lady. In short, under today’s understanding, he was raped.

Men’s lack of good life choices is sustained through men’s subordination to women and romantic fantasies. In despair at not having fulfilling alternatives for living his life, the knight repressed his desires, nullified his independent thinking, and surrendered his rational agency to his wife, the loathly lady:

“My lady and my love, and wife so dear,
I put me in your wise governance;
Choose yourself which may be most pleasure
And most honor to you and me also.

The loathly lady carefully confirmed her husband’s total subordination to her:

“Then have I gotten mastery of you,” she said,
“Since I may choose and govern as I please?”
“Yes, certainly, wife,” he said, “I consider it best.”

Then, in the fairytale of all fairytales, the wife turned into a beautiful young woman. Men today internalize this fairytale with the common saying, “happy wife, happy life.”[3]

The injustices of criminal justice are in part a problem of imagination. Few today can even imagine asking the question, “what do men most desire?” A satisfactory answer is not that men are dogs. Most men don’t desire sovereignty or mastery over others, be those others women or men. Most men surely desire not to be treated as criminally suspect persons, and to receive due process and equal justice under law. A good beginning to answering the question “what do men most desire?” is to face the highly disproportionate number of men prisoners and ask why they are imprisoned.

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[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, ll. 788-93, modernized English from Benson (2008). Subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from id., ll. 812-22, 1026-30, 1037-42, 1230-33, 1236-38.

[2] Mann (2002), p. ix, expresses concern that since 1992, “this reluctance to credit Chaucer with a ‘real sympathy’ with women has persisted and intensified.” Mann earnestly pondered whether Chaucer wrote “without incurring the charge of antifeminism.” Id. p. 25. For scholars today, the charge of antifeminism is as serious as the charge of murder, at least if the victim is a woman. Chaucer probably wrote for noble ladies. See note [14] and related text in my post on the Griseldas of Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Chaucer.

[3] McTaggert (2012) p. 61, n. 3, observes:

Suffice it to say that Chaucer scholarship remains undecided about whether the Wife’s text makes a case for feminism or not.

Such Chaucer scholarship should simply declare its worthlessness and shift to the more important task of appreciating Boccaccio’s Corbaccio.

[image] Wife of Bath illumination from the Ellesmere Chaucer, f. 72r (probably first or second decade of the fifteenth century). MS EL 26 C 9 in Huntington Library, San Marino, California.


Benson, Larry, trans. 2008. Geoffrey Chaucer. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. The Geoffrey Chaucer Page, Harvard University.

Mann, Jill. 2002. Feminizing Chaucer. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer.

McTaggart, Anne. 2012. “What Women Want?: Mimesis and Gender in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture. 19 (1): 41-67.

fathers as wallets: legal history of child support & custody

boy with bike

In U.S. law, fatherhood outside of marriage implies the obligation to make substantial, recurring payments to the mother (“child support”). These payments are based on the father’s income, not the child’s need. Unmarried fathers’ obligation to pay money to mothers hasn’t been associated with the father receiving any custody rights. In 1877, the Supreme Court of Minnesota in Olson v. Johnson made clear that unmarried fathers essentially have the legal status of wallets.

The story of Olson v. Johnson is shocking. In Minnesota in 1871, Olson was legally declared to be the father of a child for which Johnson had the natural status of mother. Under that legal determination, Olson was ordered to pay Johnson “for the support and maintenance of the child”:

certain sums, varying from $1 to $1.50 per week, to be paid semi-annually, and he was also adjudged to give a bond to the county commissioners of said county, in the sum of $800, conditioned for the faithful performance of the judgment. [1]

Olson fulfilled these legal obligations of fathers as wallets.

In 1875, Johnson married another man in Iowa. She immediately abandoned the child she had with Olson. Olson then petitioned the court for custody of the child, return of his bond, and termination of his weekly payments to Johnson. Olson offered to make a new bond securing his support of his child. The court refused all three of these requests. It declared that Olson had no interest in ensuring that his payments went to support his child. It declared that Olson, legally established as the child’s father, had no more legal right to custody of the child than had anyone else. These weren’t subtle aspects of the court’s judgment. In its brief opinion, the Supreme Court of Minnesota forthrightly declared:

The judgment in the bastardy proceedings, not having been appealed from, is conclusive. One effect of the judgment is to compel the plaintiff to pay to the mother a specified allowance for the support and maintenance of the child, to the custody of which she, as mother, is in law entitled.  If she neglects to support and maintain the child, this is no reason why the plaintiff should be relieved from the payment of the allowance, nor from the obligation of his bond; and as for any proposition to substitute something else in the place of the allowance and his bond, there is no authority whatever for entertaining it. … As respects such remedies, the plaintiff would not be the real party in interest. As father of the child he has, in law, no better title to its custody, and no more right to act for it, than any other person. [2]

This court’s judgment wasn’t aberrational. Child custody decisions in Britain and the U.S. have for centuries been justified on the basis of “the best interests of the child.” That abstract justification has enabled family law in action to be based on deeply entrenched gender stereotypes. A fundamental gender stereotype is that, compared to women, men are less important to children’s lives.

Family law is profoundly biased against men. A thinker who has extensively studied Massachusetts family courts has suggested, with detailed analysis, that men are better off not presenting their side to family court. That’s a travesty of justice. Marriage equality should extend to gender equality under family law. If that can’t be recognized as a matter of justice, it should at least be recognized as vital to men’s incentives and the long-run economic future of the U.S.

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[1] Tron Olson v. Mathea Johnson, Feb. 2, 1877, 23 Minn. 301, decided by the Supreme Court of Minnesota. The previous quote “for the support and maintenance of the child” is given in id. and apparently is from the district court’s judgment.

[2] Id. I’ve omitted the within-text citation “Tyler on Infancy, § 189.”

[image] Boy with bike in southern New Jersey in 1937. Photo courtesy of Elmer Galbi.

medieval Latin freedom of speech: cuius contrarium

A Nobel-Prize-winning British scientist was recently fired for making jesting comments that some misconstrued to be words disparaging women scientists. Even in more tolerant medieval Europe, merely printing in English words of Socrates disparaging women was a dangerous business. Medieval Latin offered relatively favorable freedom of speech. Men writing in Latin could protest against gynocentrism, cry out about injustices against men, and criticize women’s behaviors. Medieval Latin freedom of speech is poignantly represented in medieval macaronic texts that switch to Latin to express men’s sexed protests. Medieval Latin subverted dominant vernacular discourse about women with the declaration cuius contrarium verum est (of whom the opposite is true).

Of all creatures women be best:
Cuius contrarium verum est.

Men be more cumbersome a thousandfold,
And I marvel how they dare be so bold,
Against women for to hold,
Seeing them {women} so patient, soft, and cold {slow to anger}.
Cuius contrarium verum est.

For by women men be reconciled,
For by women was man never beguiled,
For they {women} be of the condition of courteous Griselda
For they be so meek and mild.
Cuius contrarium verum est.

Now say well by women or else be still,
For they never displeased man by their will;
To be angry or wrathful they have no skill,
For I dare say they think no ill.
Cuius contrarium verum est. [1]

Medieval macaronic texts used Latin to express men’s sexed protest in the context of the politically foundational story of the Trojan War. The first book printed in English was William Caxton’s Recuyell of the Hystoryes of Troye, printed in Bruges in 1473. Caxton’s patron was Lady Margaret, who had far more power and privilege than almost all men. Caxton described obsequiously how she learned of the first part of his translation, and how she commissioned him to continue:

the right high, excellent, and right virtuous princess, my right redoubted Lady, my Lady Margaret, by the grace of God sister unto the King of England and of France, my sovereign lord, Duchess of Burgundy, of Lotryk, of Brabant, of Limburg, and of Luxembourg, Countess of Flanders, of Artois, and of Burgundy, Palatine of Hainault, of Holland, of Zealand and of Namur,  Marquesse of the Holy Empire, Lady of Frisia, of Salins and of Mechlin, sent for me to speak with her good Grace of various matters, among which I let her Highness have knowledge of the foresaid beginning of this work, which anon {she} commanded me to show the said five or six quires to her said Grace; and when she had seen them anon she found fault in my English, which she commanded me to amend, and moreover commanded me directly to continue and make an end of the remainder then not translated; whose dreadful commandment I dared in no way disobey, because I am a servant to her said Grace and receive of her a yearly fee and other many good and great benefits (and also hope many more to receive of her Highness) [2]

Greeks fought against the Trojans in the Trojan War. More personally, men killed other men for the sake of sexual access to women. Paris wanted Helen, who was married to Menelaus. Agamemnon gave up Chryseis, who was sleeping with him, and then sought Briseis, who was Achilles’s lover. And so on and so on, dead men and more dead men. Lady Margaret’s support for Caxton’s work on the Trojan War suggests that she, like eminent women writers of the Middle Ages, had loving concern for men.[3]

Helen and Paris: story of Trojan War

Caxton’s version of the Trojan War is relatively sympathetic to Helen. Helen in Caxton’s version is not merely the most beautiful woman in Greece, but the most beautiful woman in the world. Moreover, she is depicted as curious. That indicates intellectual agency. Caxton’s version doesn’t presume that Priam raped Helen. It depicts Helen as having strong, independent sexuality. In Caxton’s version, Priam returns Helen to the Greeks. The Greeks planned to burn Helen at the stake. However, Ulysses intervened with eloquent words and saved her.[4] Homer was a preeminent teacher of ethics in Greco-Roman culture. Odysseus / Ulysses was one of Homer’s great heroes. Caxton’s version of the Trojan War, at least in its main text, instructed men to act like Ulysses in defending Helen against punishment for her part in the destructive Trojan War.[5]

Caxton’s version, however, condemned the destruction of war with explicit references to men’s deaths. Caxton recognized that different accounts existed of the Trojan War. Caxton pointed to concern for men’s deaths in summarizing the common theme of the different accounts:

all accord in conclusion with the general destruction of that noble city of Troy, and the death of so many noble princes, and likewise kings, dukes, earls, barons, knights, and common people, and the ruin irreparable of that city that never since was re-built; which may be an example to all men during the world how dreadful and dangerous it is to begin a war and what harms, losses, and death follow. [6]

Expressing concern for men’s deaths, or even just concern for violence against men, is unusual. But the expected response is apathy.

Criticizing women is much more dangerous than attempting to draw attention to men’s deaths. Caxton concluded his work on the Trojan War with an epilogue castigating Helen for inciting men to kill other men. Caxton apparently realized that openly criticizing women could get him killed, if not literally, then at least symbolically and economically. Like a willful child facing a threatening mother, Caxton made a rebellious gesture behind his back. Caxton printed in Latin the epilogue castigating Helen for inciting men to kill other men. Many readers of his book, written nearly exclusively in English, surely didn’t understand Latin. Caxton was thus less subject to attack for the contents of his epilogue.

In the hope of contributing to a renaissance of medieval Latin freedom of speech, here is Caxton’s Latin epilogue in English translation:

I want to weep for Troy, which fell to the Greeks only by the will of fate
that was captured only by deceit and to the ground razed.
A destructive harlot was the cause of such an evil —
a female lethal {Helen}, a woman full of evil.
Even if you {Helen} are washed, if your whole life is good
you still will not be unknown nor without mark of disgrace.
Only just bent to Paris’s will, only just, and Theseus’s long ago,
would you agree to avoid a relapse into the same vice anew?
The tale of old shall cause the future to be feared:
the same inequities of yesterday can befall the world tomorrow.
Why do you escape from the stage, you who hand over all others to death?
Why don’t you, gathering of destruction, fall in ruin?
This woman who deserves death, is loved anew with the love of before
and returned to the victor and the delights of the couch. [7]

Medieval Latin literature encompasses much more than just scholastics pondering the nature of angels and clerics issuing church-bureaucratic documents. Medieval Latin literature includes a wide range of subjects, diverse viewpoints, and many different styles of writing. Marcolf’s earthy, subversive confrontation with King Solomon was written in medieval Latin, as were accounts of the outrageous life of Aesop. Northern France produced medieval Latin poetry (Moriuht, Jezebel, and Semiramis) that had all the obscene sophistication of classical Arabic verse. Medieval Latin freedom of speech can help to expand freedom of speech today.

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[1] From fifteenth-century English lyric printed in Salisbury (2002), Select Secular Lyrics of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. I’ve modernized the English for greater accessibility. Id. mistitles the poem Abuse of Women. The poem would be more appropriately titled Repression of Men’s Sexed Protest. For a tendentious interpretation of the poem in support of current dominant ideology, Kazik (2011).

A less learned strategy is dodging and weaving. For example, the twelfth-century French poem Evangile aux femmes consists of four-line stanzas. The first three lines of the stanzas praise women, while the fourth line subverts the previous three. For brief discussion, Fiero, Pfeffer & Allain (1989) p. 23.

[2] William Caxton’s preface to Recuyell of the Hystoryes of Troye (Recuyell {collection} of the Histories of Troy), from Eliot (1910) pp. 6-7. I’ve modernized the English. Recuyell of the Hystoryes of Troye is Caxton’s translation into English of Raoul Lefèvre’s French text Recoeil des histoires de Troyes, written in 1464. In addition to printing his English translation, Caxton also printed Lefèvre’s French text.

[3] Virgil’s Aeneid describes how the Trojan warrior Aeneas fled from Troy when the Greeks overran it. In Virgil’s epic myth, Aeneas traveled westward and eventually founded what become the Roman Empire. Medieval rulers in England, Burgundy, and France claimed direct descent from Trojan heroes. In 1477, Margaret’s husband Charles I died in battle against France and the Burgundian kingdom collapsed. Coldiron (2014) pp. 40-2, 46. Margaret was probably well aware of the violence that her husband faced. She may also have courageously opposed devalution of men’s lives.

[4] Characteristics of Helen in Caxton’s Recuyell of the Hystoryes of Troye:

  1. Helen is the most beautiful woman in world, while Polyxena is the most beautiful woman in Troy. This claim also occurs in the John Lydgate’s early fifteenth century Troy Book (medieval poem The Siege of Troy) and the Laud Troy Book from the early fifteenth century. Maguire (2009) p. 40; p. 218, n. 54.
  2. Helen “after the custom of women … had great desire to know by experience.” Id. p. 223, n. 12 (quotation is from Caxton’s version).
  3. Helen makes “a token or sign to Paris that he approached to her.” Paris within the text isn’t described as raping Helen. Id. p. 128 (quotation from Caxton’s version). Raoul Lefèvre’s prologue, however, declares that his third book treats the “general destruction of Troy by the Greeks because of the ravishing of Dame Helen, wife of Menelaus” (closely modernized English translation). Sommer (1894) p. 7. Ravishing could mean rape. Caxton makes no mention of Helen in his incipit / prologue. Cf. Coldiron (2014) p. 57, n. 29.
  4. Priam returns Helen, Greeks plan to burn her at the stake, but Ulysses successfully intervenes. Maguire (2009) pp. 128-9.

[5] Late in the fifteenth century, Margery Wellysborn signed her name to the flyleaf of the copy of Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye now in the Royal College of Physicians, London. In addition, she wrote “most special in my mind without any” (modernized English). See Wang (2004) pp. 187-8.

[6] Caxton’s epilogue to Book 3, Recuyell of the Hystoryes of Troye, modernized English. Coldiron (2015) p. 58, detects in Caxton’s paratexts and his Recuyell of the Hystoryes of Troye “the problematic connection between women and warfare.”

[7] The Latin text is:

Pergama flere volo, fata danais data solo
Solo capta dolo, capta redacta solo
Causa mali talis, meretrix fuit exicialis
Femina letalis, femina plena malis
Si fueris lota, si vita sequens bona tota
Si eris ignota, non eris abs[que] nota
Passa prius paridem, [per]idis modo thesia pridem
Es facture fidem, ne redeas in idem
Rumor de veteri, faciet ventura timeri
Cras poterunt fieri, turpia sicut heri
Scena quid euadis, morti qui cetera tradis
Cur tu non cladis, concia clade cadis
Femina digna mori, reamatur amore priori
Reddita victori, deliciis[que] thori

From Coldiron (2015) p. 56, n. 27. The Latin text is also available in Sommer (1894) p. 703. The text is a cento made from Carmina Burana 101 (CI), “Hecuba’s Tears,” from Latin trans. Marshall (2014) pp. 143-5. Here’s the Latin text of Carmina Burana 101. I’ve modified Marshall’s translation to account for textual differences and my sense of a better translation.

The penultimate couplet of Caxton’s epilogue differs significantly from Carmina Burana 101. Caxton’s penultimate couplet is:

Scena quid evadis, morti qui cetera tradis
Cur tu non cladis, concia clade cadis

The corresponding couplet from Carmina Burana 101 is:

Seva, quid evadis? non tradita cetera tradis!
Cur rea tu cladis non quoque clade cadis?
{O hellcat, why go you free? Unbetrayed, you betray all the rest!
Why do you, the culprit of the fall, fall not also dead?
Trans. Marshall (2014) p. 143}

In Caxton’s couplet, the word concia is difficult. It doesn’t occur in major medieval Latin dictionaries. The word concio is attested with the meaning of a gathering of monks. Concio evidently draws upon the verb form conciō. My translation of concia as “gathering” (in reference to the female Helen) is conjectural-contextual. I’m grateful to David Konstan for advice on translation. All errors in translation, and errors and outrages in this post generally, are my own responsibility.

A version of Carmina Burana 101 exists as a scribal addition following Historia Troianorum and preceding Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae in Bibliotheque Municipale (Douai, France) MS. 880. The scribe declares his name as Bernardus. See Hammer (1931). Id., p. 121-2 describes the poem as “mis-inspired” and adds:

The poor taste of these lines does not call for any comment, and, if a modern parallel is in place, the term ‘doggerel’ will best characterize Bernardus’ poetical accomplishment.

That’s merely narrow-mindedness. Showing further development of intellectual parochialism and anti-men bias, Coldiron (2014), pp. 53-4, misandristically declares the poem misogynistic. Another scholar observes of the poem:

It looks as if it was a floating school-poem, anonymous but of great popularity, on which more than one poet exercised his ingenuity by way of expansion or imitation.

Sedgwich (1933) p. 82. That’s reasonably interpreted as considerable poetic success. Academics today should celebrate this poem for its trangressiveness and as an example of medieval Latin freedom of speech.

[image] Helen and Paris traveling from Macedonia to Troy.  Hand-painted woodcut from Heinrich Steinhöwel’s German translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris. Woodcut in book printed by Johannes Zainer at Ulm ca. 1474. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


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Fiero, Gloria, Wendy Pfeffer, and Mathé Allain. 1989. Three medieval views of women: La contenance des fames, Le bien des fames, Le blasme des fames. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.

Hammer, Jacob. 1931. “Some Leonine Summaries of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and Other Poems.” Speculum 6 (1): 114-123.

Joanna Kazik. 2011. “‘Of all creatures women be best, / Cuius contrarium verum est’: Gendered Power in Selected Late Medieval and Early Modern Texts.” Text Matters – A Journal of Literature, Theory and Culture. 1 (1): 76-91.

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Wang, Yu-Chiao. 2004. “Caxton’s Romances and Their Early Tudor Readers.” Huntington Library Quarterly. 67 (2): 173-188.