men are dogs: important truth in disparaging men

dog seeking compassion and consolation

Declaring that men are dogs is a common sort of disparagement of men today. Such disparagement has a long history. It’s typically associated with condemning men’s strong, independent sexuality. For example, the late-twelfth-century Latin text De amore (On love) declares:

Even after they have reflected long on a woman or have enjoyed her rewards, as soon as they see another they long for her embraces, becoming forgetful of and ungrateful for the services obtained from their former lover. Such men as these wish to indulge their lust with every woman they see. Their love is like that of a shameless dog, or rather they are, I think, to be compared with donkeys, for they are affected solely by that natural urge which puts men on a level with the rest of the animal kingdom. [1]

Thinkers throughout history have declared that “reason” distinguishes humans from all other animals.[2] Many animals have a large, complex repertoire of behaviors. They pursue easily understandable interests (food, security, reproduction) in ways that rapidly adapt to specific circumstances. Do animals reason? Describing the distinctiveness of (human) reason has been a highly successful job-creation scheme for philosophers. In today’s common-sense reality of human-created artifacts (intricately cooked meals, movies, airplanes, spaceships, etc.), humans are obviously very special animals.

Although very special animals, humans are animals. Lack of appreciation for that reality has been pervasive in elite thought throughout history. For example, De amore declares:

Who could doubt that he who chose the consolation of the upper part is to be preferred to him who chose the lower? So far as the consolations of the lower part is concerned, we are in no sense separated from the brute animals, nature herself having joined us to them in this respect. But the consolations of the upper part have been granted particularly to human nature and denied to all other animals by nature herself. So he who chose the lower part should be rejected from love as unworthy, like a dog, and the one who chose the upper part should be accepted, as embracing his nature. [3]

Humans can forgo sexual activity. Humans can also fast for a time, eat limited portions of healthful food, or gorge themselves on junk food and become grotesquely obese. None of these facts change the reality of human nature. Separating a man’s head from his genitals destroys his life. Much more terrible than men being dogs are men’s dismembered, bleeding body parts.

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[1] Andreas Capellanus, De amore 1.5.7-8, from Latin trans. Walsh (1982) p. 41. Reference to a dog as a man’s best friend occurs in twelfth-century Latin literature. Understanding of a dog as man’s best friend seems unrelated to the claim that men are dogs. At least in medieval European understanding, referring to men as dogs would be less disparaging than referring to men as cats. Any symbolic relation between dog and Doug is purely coincidental.

[2] Aristotle was particularly influential in developing understanding of humans as the rational animal. See, e.g. De anima III, Nicomachean Ethics I.13.

[3] De amore 1.6.536-7, trans. Walsh (1982) p. 201.

[image] Dog. Thanks to Soggydan Benenovitch for sharing his photo.


Walsh, P.G., trans. 1982. Andreas Capellanus on love {De amore}. London: Duckworth.

gender discrimination in child custody prevalent historically

gender discrimination in child custody

Among separated parents with financial child support agreements, fourteen times more mothers than fathers have physical custody of their children. Such anti-men gender discrimination in child custody decisions is deeply rooted historically. In contrast to mythic child custody history, children weren’t legally fathers’ property a century ago, or two centuries, or three centuries ago.[1] Living within the gynocentric social structure that humans share with most other primates, men have been historically disadvantaged in legal decisions about custody of their children.

De Manneville v. De Manneville, an English case decided in 1804, commonly headlines mythic child custody history. Lord Eldon did not declare that “the law is clear that the custody of a child, of whatever age, belongs to the father, if he chooses.” That was actually a statement of the advocates for the father. Lord Eldon actually declared:

It has been truly observed, that, the petition being presented upon the part of an infant, the Court will do what is for the benefit of the infant, without regard to the prayer {petitioner}. … This is an application by a married woman, living in a state of actual, unauthorized separation, to continue, as far as the removal of the child will have an influence to continue, that separation, which I must say is not permitted by law. [2]

Lord Eldon ruled that a mother couldn’t just move with the couple’s child out of the marital home and then, when she lost custody in an extra-legal wrangle, expect the court to order the child to be returned to her. Lord Eldon made conventional perfunctory reference to the best interests of the child. That abstract touchstone has long justified courts’ child custody decisions. Nonetheless, Lord Eldon’s ruling generated outrage. In response to De Manneville and other cases publicly depicted as showing insufficient solicitude for women, the British Parliament explicitly supported women’s custody rights with The Custody of Infants Act of 1839 (Talfourd Act).[3] Public outrage and responding legislation suggest that cases like De Manneville were aberrational in the socio-legal history of child custody.

Men have long lacked equal rights with respect to child custody under English common law. Under English common law, women had a natural right to custody of children they bore outside of marriage. An unmarried father, in contrast, had no right to custody of his child. The unmarried father had only a legal obligation to provide periodic payments to the mother (“child support”).[4] Relative to unmarried women, unmarried men have long lacked equal rights to custody of their children. Unmarried men have long suffered the injustice of forced financial fatherhood.

De Manneville didn’t address child custody upon legal divorce or legal separation. English chancery courts before and after De Manneville justified child custody decisions with the abstract “best interests of the child” standard.[5] De Manneville applied only to actions in response to child abductions among spouses. In De Manneville, the wife moved out of the marital home and took the child. She refused to relinquish custody to her husband. On a visit to his wife, the husband took the child and refused to relinquish custody to the wife. The wife by guile took the child back. The husband then forcefully took the child again.[6] The court had to decide whether husband or wife would have custody of their child. A Solomonic decision wasn’t possible. Under the coverture doctrine shielding wives from mass imprisonment for debt, the court decided that father-husbands (at least those not imprisoned) had the first right to custody.[7]

Historical distance makes anti-men gender stereotypes in child custody decisions easier to perceive. Consider Nickols v. Giles, a Connecticut case decided in 1796. Nickols brought a writ to regain custody of his three-year-old daughter. The mother, Nickols’ wife, had left him and taken their daughter. The wife went to live with her father. The report of the Court’s decision was brief and direct:

Upon inquiry it appeared that the child was with its mother, who lived with her father the said Thomas Giles; that the child was well provided for; and said Nickols having no house and very little property, and very irregular in his temper and life, his wife had left him and went and lived with her father, where both she and her child were well provided for. Upon which the court refused to grant said writ. [8]

Poor mothers could retain custody of their children and receive financial child support from the father or others. Fathers who were poor were much less likely to receive financial support and much more likely to be deprived of custody of their children.

Discrimination in child custody was not just in favor of women relative to men, but also against poor men in general. In 1816, the Supreme Court of New York in In re Waldron refused to vindicate Waldron’s claim to custody of his child against his deceased wife’s father, M’Gowan. M’Gowan had taken Waldron’s pregnant wife into his home without her or her husband’s consent. There she gave birth. Shortly thereafter she died. The maternal grandfather M’Gowan retained physical custody of the child. Waldron applied to the Court for physical custody of his daughter. The Court refused to grant. It reasoned:

M’Gowan is a man in very affluent circumstances, and abundantly able to educate and maintain his granddaughter; and it appeared, that Waldron was insolvent, and unable to pay certain trifling debts which he had contracted, although it was alleged that his mother, with whom he lived, was competent and willing to support him and his daughter. … It is to the benefit and welfare of the infant to which the attention of the Court ought principally to be directed … We think, therefore, that it will be a due exercise of the discretion with which the law has invested us, to deny the present application … We think proper, however, to suggest, that the father ought, on all suitable occasions, to be permitted to see the child [9]

Men historically have been treated as socially disposable persons. If the maternal grandfather is more affluent than the father, then the father could legally be reduced to a visitor in his child’s life.

Deeply entrenched gender stereotypes have long justified anti-men gender discrimination in child custody decisions. A Philadelphia court in 1840 declared:

The reputation of a father may be stainless as crystal; he may not be afflicted with the slightest mental, moral, or physical disqualification from superintending the general welfare of the infant; the mother may have separated from him without the shadow of a pretence of justification; and yet the interests of the child may imperatively demand the denial of the father’s right, and its continuance with the mother. … The tender age and precarious state of its {the child’s} health, make the vigilance of the mother indispensable to its proper care; for, not doubting that paternal anxiety would seek for and obtain the best substitute which could be procured, every instinct of humanity unerringly proclaims that no substitute can supply the place of HER, whose watchfulness over the sleeping cradle or waking moments of her offspring, is prompted by deeper and holier feelings that the most liberal allowance of a nurse’s wages could possibly stimulate. [10]

Views about commercial daycare and hired childcare have changed greatly. But anti-men gender discrimination in child custody decisions has change little. In discriminating against fathers in child custody, the Illinois Supreme Court in 1849 less floridly invoked gender stereotypes:

it can not be expected that he would bestow that personal care and attention upon a girl seven or eight years old, which may be expected from a mother, who appears to be well qualified for the care of the child, and against whom no just objection is shown to exist. If left with the father, the child must, to a great extent, be entrusted to the superintendence of others; her nature will lead her to associate with her own sex, by whom her manners will be formed, her thoughts and tastes directed, and, in truth, her character mainly moulded. His occupations will doubtless prevent that constant watchfulness over her, so essential to her proper cultivation, and which could be better contributed by a vigilant and tender mother. We shall, therefore, leave her for the present, at least, where she has been placed by the circuit court. [11]

Men today are commonly recognized to have equal capability to women in child care, including care for female children. Moreover, having an occupation outside the home is not now regarded as an essential barrier to having custody of children. Nonetheless, anti-men gender discrimination in child custody decisions remains large. Across the U.S. in the nineteenth century, courts decided child custody “on the basis of the best interests of the child, with a strong presumption that maternal custody was in a child’s best interests.”[12] The main change in anti-men gender discrimination in child custody has been in the details of the justifications put forward for it.

Mythic history of paternal preference / patriarchy dominates peer-reviewed legal history of child custody. That’s not independent thought. Such work documents the anti-men gender bias long at work in child custody decisions.

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[1] Mason (1994) is a fine example of such tendentious and misleading scholarship.

[2] De Manneville v. De Manneville, 10 Ves. Jun. 53, 58, 61; 32 English Reports 763, 765, 766 decided in Court of Chancery, July 26-28, 1804, by the Lord Chancellor {Eldon}. Legal scholarship published in peer-reviewed journals has misrepresented Lord Eldon’s opinion. For example, Wright (1999), pp. 247-8, states:

Lord Eldon agreed that “the law is clear that the custody of a child, of whatever age, belongs to the father.” (footnote. 3) |  footnote 3: De Manneville v. De Manneville, 10 Ves. 52, 53 (1804), “In whatever principle that right is founded, it is unquestionably established, and is not disputed.”

The footnoted text, which id. used to support the main-text quote that’s not actually from Lord Eldon, concerns Lord Eldon’s judgment about jurisdiction, not who gets custody. Wright (2002), which suggests that family law has evolved historically to maintaining “patriarchal relationships within families under the guise of legal formalism” (id p. 182), is simply risible in light of current injustices in paternity establishment and large anti-men bias in child custody decisions.

Kohm (2008), p. 356, similarly misrepresents Lord Eldon’s opinion in De Manneville. This peer-reviewed legal scholarship states:

Despite the fact that it might be best for a nursing infant child of eleven months to remain with his mother, the court had no problem removing the child from the mother’s care and giving custody to the father, as a matter of law. “The law is clear, that the custody of a child, of whatever age, belongs to the father, if he chooses.” (fn. 123) De Manneville clarified and emphasized that a British court cannot interfere with a father’s right to his child.(fn. 124) | fn. 123:  (1804) 32 Eng. Rep. 762, 764 (Ch.). fn. 124: Id. An extremely thorough examination of the De Manneville case is contained in Danaya C. Wright, De Manneville v. De Manneville: Rethinking the Birth of Custody Law under Patriarchy …

The free-floating quote dodges the need to acknowledge explicitly who made that statement. The context misleadingly suggests that the Court’s opinion in De Manneville contained the quoted statement. The footnote referring to an “extremely thorough examination of the De Manneville case” refers to Wright (1999). See above.

James (2014) is a self-published book that a practicing lawyer apparently wrote as an independent researcher. This book makes clear that anti-men gender bias is deeply entrenched in legal scholarship on child custody. While providing much insight that existing legal scholarship has missed, this important book follows existing legal scholarship in misunderstanding De Manneville v. De Manneville:

Explaining his refusal, Lord Eldon stated that unless a child was in danger of being harmed, “the law is clear that the custody of a child, of whatever age, belongs to the father.” (ft. 189) | ft. 189: De Manneville v. De Manneville, 10 Ves. 52, 63, 32 Eng. Rep. 762 (Ch. 1804).

Id. p. 72.

[3] The Custody of Infants Act of 1839 explicitly authorized the Lord Chancellor to order a wife to receive custody of a child that was being held in her husband’s custody. As De Manneville indicates, courts had already long been issuing such orders. The Custody of Infants Act of 1839, like legislation addressing violence against women, reflects social power, not aggregate statistical reality. That’s evident in parliamentary debate about the Custody of Infants Act (more) and historical accounts of that debate.

[4] James (2014) pp. 83-5.

[5] Id. pp. 64-7. In apparent play to intellectual patriotism, Kohm (2008), p. 338, declares: “the best interest of the child doctrine is uniquely established in American law and has set the trend for the treatment of children throughout the rest of the world today.” That’s false, as actually reading De Manneville v. De Manneville makes clear. See above. Apparently attempting to foreclose working for social justice, Kohm opens with the claim “The best interests of the child doctrine is … relied upon because there is nothing better.” Id. p. 1. A “best interests of the child” standard with affirmative action to address deeply entrenched historical gender discrimination against men in child custody decisions might be fairly regarded as better. Such affirmative action continues to be far outside the bounds of acceptable scholarly discussion.

affirmative action fatherhood

[6] Wright (1999) begins her ostensibly scholarly article with the sensational claim that de Manneville “wrenched his eight-month-old daughter from her mother’s breast, and absconded with the naked child in an open carriage in inclement weather.” Id. p. 247. That account comes from Caroline Norton, an obviously and intensely biased source. Norton is no more credible in reporting the facts of the case than are the father’s advocates for reporting the law governing the case. See note [2] above and associated text. Wright (1999) used an ironically suitable introduction to her deeply biased and tendentious scholarly article.

[7] Anti-men bias in child custody decisions and anti-men bias in responding to domestic violence has spread across legal history and popular history. For example, the official website of the U.K. Parliament declares on a page entitled Custody Rights and Domestic Violence:

The custody of children had already been the subject of parliamentary action in 1839 {The Custody of Infants Act of 1939}. Previously mothers had no rights at all over their children if the marriage broke down.

Women could and did ask courts for custody of children of a marriage. Within competing custody claims of husband and wife, courts invoked “bests interests of the child” and commonly issued child custody to the wife. James (2014) pp. 64-7. For example, in 1774 Lord Mansfield ruled:

If the parties are disagreed, the Court will do what shall appear best for the child … The natural right is with the {married} father; but if the father is bankrupt, if he contributed nothing for the child or family, and if he be improper, for such conduct as was suggested at the Judge’s chambers, the Court will not think it right that the child should be with him.

In this case, the Court ordered that the father not be allowed to take custody of his six-year-old child. That child was in the custody of the wife, who had moved out of the marital home. Blissets Case, Lofft 748, a habeas corpus case at the King’s Bench, 1774.

[8] Nickols v. Giles, 2 Root 461, September Term, 1796, Superior Court of Connecticut. Divorce cases recorded in surviving records from Connecticut in 1676 and 1692 also show mothers awarded custody of children following divorce. Dayton (1995) pp. 122-5. Id., providing tendentious, misandristic history in support of dominant myths, explains these cases as “Puritan foreshadowings” of the exceptional American “tender years” doctrine. More realistically, these cases were probably business as usual in maternally biased child custody decisions. In New Haven County Superior Count, 1711-1789, 2.5 times as many women filed for divorce as did men. Id. p. 135, Table 6. That filing skew is consistent with courts favoring women.

[9] In re Waldron, 13 Johns. 418, August 1, 1816, Supreme Court of New York.

[10] DH-Sears (1840) pp. 292-3, reporting Commonwealth ex. rel. d’Hauteville v. Sears, July Term, 1840, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Court of General Sessions.

[11] Miner v. Miner, 11 Ill. 43, December Term, 1849, Supreme Court of Illinois. The Court noted the father had an “ignorant housekeeper.” The Court’s concern for the daughter’s female associations plausibly reflects racial and class bigotry toward a black woman who served as Miner’s housekeeper.

[12] James (2014) p. 146. Here’s a less detailed review of historical maternal preference in child custody.

The Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals of Tennessee in 1825 declared:

Perhaps the strongest law in animated nature, is the disposition of the female to protect and support her offspring; … The mother is the natural guardian of the child. The father, if it is born in wedlock, is the municipal guardian of both the mother and the child; and why? Because he is bound to support them. The mother has no rights that are not merged in the rights of her husband, and in whose name she is compelled to act. The married woman becomes the bounden servant of the husband to all political purposes, by the common law; and he is entitled to the custody of the mother, and of course the child also. But it never was intended, even by the marital relation of husband and wife, that the great law of nature should be violated by a separation of the mother from her infant.

Lawson v. Scott, 9 Tenn. 92, August, 1825, Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals of Tennessee. The “great law of nature” is now widely recognized to be a gender stereotype. The role of that gender stereotype in continuing anti-men gender discrimination in child custody decisions hasn’t been widely appreciated, or at least not openly acknowledged.

[images] Gender egalitarian marriage. Photos courtesy of Elmer Galbi.


Dayton, Cornelia Hughes. 1995. Women before the bar: gender, law, and society in Connecticut, 1639-1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

DH-Sears. 1840. Report of the D’Hauteville case, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, at the suggestion of Paul Daniel Gonsalve Grand D’Hauteville versus David Sears, Miriam C. Sears and Ellen Sears Grand D’Hauteville: habeas corpus for the custody of an infant child. Philadelphia: Printed by William S. Martien.

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

Kohm, Lynne Marie. 2008. “Tracing the Foundations of the Best Interests of the Child Standard in American Jurisprudence.” Journal of Law & Family Studies 10: 337-76.

Mason, Mary Ann. 1994. From father’s property to children’s rights: the history of child custody in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wright, Danaya C. 1999. “De Manneville v. De Manneville: Rethinking the Birth of Custody Law under Patriarchy.” Law and History Review. 17 (2): 247-307.

Wright, Danaya C. 2002. “The Crisis of Child Custody: A History of the Birth of Family Law in England.” Columbia Journal of Gender & Law 11(2): 175-270.

Boccaccio’s Griselda in new contexts of Petrarch & Chaucer

Griselda being exiled

In the last story of the last day of Boccaccio’s Decameron, Gualtieri imposed brutal tests of fidelity on his wife Griselda. That Griselda story has the moral starkness of Abraham’s binding of Isaac. However, marriage, unlike formal child sacrifice, was a matter of ordinary life in medieval Europe. The Griselda story works within the Decameron’s program of confronting moral absolutes with ordinary life.[1] In translating Boccacco’s Griselda story, Petrarch shifted it to clerical moralization, while Chaucer moved it toward noble ladies’ amusement.

In the Decameron, Dioneo’s first words in framing the Griselda story contrasted ideals of hospitality with guileful behavior. The theme for the stories of Day 10 is “those who acted with liberality or magnificence.” The story preceding Dioneo’s told of Messer Torello’s great hospitality and courtesy to a disguised Saladin. Subsequently, after Muslims had captured Torello during a Crusade, Saladin in appreciation for Torello’s earlier hospitality magically enabled Torello to return home. Dioneo laughed at that story and said:

The good man who was looking forward to raising and lowering the bogeyman’s tail the next night would have given less than two cents for all the praise you are bestowing on Messer Torello. [2]

Dioneo’s statement apparently refers to the lover having sex with another man’s wife after he and she had outrageously duped the husband about their extra-marital affair. Dioneo contrasted the mundane intrigue of ordinary life with an extraordinary romance of intercultural hospitality. Such polarization is central to Boccaccio’s Griselda story.[3]

Gualtieri’s marriage proposal to Griselda is more ordinary in Boccaccio’s Griselda than in Petrarch’s and Chaucer’s versions. Caliphs in the ancient Islamic world became subservient to their slave-girl wives. The lord Gualtieri before wedding the peasant Griselda asked her some questions:

he asked her whether, if he were to wed her, she would do her best to please him and never get upset at anything he ever said or did, and whether she would be obedient, and many other things of this sort, to all of which she replied that she would.

These questions aren’t marked with cruelty.[4] Petrarch’s version is significantly different. In Petrarch’s version, Gualtieri hinted at objectifying Griselda, who in turn explicitly invoked thought control and a commandment to death:

“I {Gualtieri} must ask you {Griselda} whether .. you are ready and willing never to disagree with my will in anything, just as I agree with you in everything, and whatever I wish to do with you, you will let me with all your heart, without any gesture or word of repugnance.”

To this she replied, trembling with astonishment, “I know, my lord, that I am unworthy of so great an honor. But if it is your wish and if it is my lot, I will not only never knowingly do, but not even think anything that is against your wishes, nor will you ever do anything, even if you order me to die, that I would bear grudgingly. [5]

Chaucer’s version backed away from Griselda’s self-depersonalization and added sadistic specificity to Gualtieri’s request:

“I say this: are you ready {to submit} with good heart
To all my desires, and that I freely may,
As seems best to me, make you laugh or feel pain,
And you never to grouch about it, at any time?
And also when I say `yes,’ say not `nay,’
Neither by word nor frowning countenance?
Swear this, and here I swear our alliance.”

Wondering upon these words, trembling for fear,
She said, “Lord, unsuitable and unworthy
Am I of that same honor that you offer me,
But as you desire yourself, right so desire I.
And here I swear that never willingly,
In deed nor thought, will I disobey you,
Even to be dead, though I would hate to die. [6]

Boccaccio’s version could pass as medieval marital pieties for both Gualtieri and Griselda. Griselda’s response is inhumanely extreme in Petrarch’s version, while Gualtieri’s proposal is sadistically extreme in Chaucer’s version.

In reclothing Griselda before the wedding, Boccaccio’s version moved to the inhumane extreme. Imagine:

Gualtieri, taking her {Griselda} by the hand, led her outside and in the presence of his entire company as well as all the other people living there, he had her stripped naked. Then he called for the clothing and shoes he had ordered for her and quickly had them dress her

Gualtieri directed this action in specific steps. There he was, looking at his naked wife-to-be, in the presence of all the people. She should have been outraged. Her father should have been outraged. All the people there should have vigorously condemned Gualtieri’s shameless behavior. The story should have ended right there.

Petrarch’s and Chaucer’s versions mitigated Boccoccio’s shocking disrobing and reclothing of Griselda. Petrarch separated Gualtieri’s overall order from its discrete and loving implementation:

lest she {Griselda} bring into her new home any trace of her former condition, he {Gualtieri} ordered her to be undressed and to be clothed from head to foot in new garments. This was carried out discreetly and speedily by the ladies in waiting, who vied in cuddling her in their bosom and on their lap.

Chaucer left the people in the background and ironically shifted attention from Griselda’s body to her old clothes:

And so that nothing of her old belongings
She should bring into his house, he ordered
That women should undress her right there;
Of which these ladies were not very happy
To handle her clothes, in which she was clad.
But nevertheless, this maid bright of hue
From foot to head they have clothed all new.

The maid bright of hue might have been embarrassed to be so undressed. In Petrarch’s and Chaucer’s versions, both Gualtieri’s marriage proposal to Griselda and his publicly reclothing of her have notes of extraordinary inhumanity. Boccaccio’s version is polarized: the marriage proposal is ordinary, and the reclothing is extraordinary.

Dioneo framed the Griselda story with contrasts between moral absolutes and ordinary life. Before telling the story of Griselda, he declared:

I want to tell you about a Marquis whose behavior was not an example of magnanimity, but of senseless brutality. And even though things turned out well for him in the end, I would not recommend that you follow his lead

Dioneo concluded the story with commentary similarly invoking moral extremes and connecting them to ordinary life:

What more is there left to say except that divine spirits may rain down from the heavens even into the houses of the poor, just as there are others in royal palaces who might be better suited to tending pigs than ruling men. Who, aside from Griselda, would have suffered, not merely dried eyed, but with a cheerful countenance, the cruel, unheard-of trials to which Gualtieri subjected her? Perhaps it would have served him right if, instead, he had run into the kind of woman who, upon being thrown out of her house in her shift, would have found some nice guy to give her fur a good shaking and got a nice new dress in the bargain. [7]

Dioneo challenges the reader of Boccaccio’s Griselda to connect moral absolutes to ordinary life. When Gualtieri proposed to divorce Griselda, after he had already pretended to kill their two children, an Italian reader late in the fourteenth century wrote in his copy of the Decameron in the voice of Griselda:

Go piss on your hand, Gualtieri! Who’ll give me back twelve years? The gallows? [8]

No earthly punishment could suffice for what Gualtieri appeared to do, or even for what he did do. Another fourteenth-century reader, however, explained that Gualtieri’s father had been cuckolded and war had resulted among his two sons, each claiming legitimacy. According to this account, Gualtieri’s extreme testing of Griselda resulted from his personal trauma and intense concern for paternity certainty.[9] Abraham’s binding of Isaac was an other-worldly horror of fidelity to God. Obedience and betrayal in marriage were concerns of ordinary life.

Petrarch’s version turned Boccaccio’s Griselda story from flesh to spirit, from muddling through to moral inspiration. Petrarch translated Boccaccio’s vernacular Griselda to the clerical language of Latin. In addition to expanding references to virtues, Petrarch also appended a moralization:

I decided to retell this story in another language {Latin} not so much to encourage the married women of our day to imitate this wife’s patience, which seems to me hardly imitable, as to encourage the readers to imitate at least this woman’s constancy, so that what she maintained toward her husband they may maintain toward our God.

According to Petrarch, a Paduan friend broke down weeping and could not continue reading the Griselda story that Petrarch had translated into Latin. A Veronese read that translation and didn’t weep because “the whole thing was made up” and that no woman could act like Griselda. Petrarch suggested that these readers didn’t understand his translation.[10] With greater sophistication, Petrarch suggested that these readers responded not to the moral teaching of his Latin translation, but as readers of Boccaccio’s Griselda. Petrarch’s self-criticism with regard to his Griselda version seems actually directed at Boccaccio:

If ever I need to write either to you or to others, I shall write so as to be understood but not to amuse myself.

Petrarch seems not to have appreciated Dioneo amusingly connecting moral absolutes to ordinary life in telling Boccaccio’s Griselda. Dioneo’s telling of Griselda provided no moralization. Within the Decameron, Boccaccio’s Griselda prompted lengthy discussion: “the ladies inclined to one side or the other in their responses, some criticizing one detail in it, some praising another.”[11]

While Boccaccio pretended to write the Decameron for noble ladies, Chaucer actually shifted Boccaccio’s Griselda toward noble ladies’ amusement. Taking down a big man is a favored pattern for a man entertaining women. In his version of Griselda, Chaucer took down Petrarch. Petrarch was a cleric. Chaucer told the Griselda story as The Clerk’s Tale. Its prologue teased the clerk:

For God’s sake, cheer up!
It is no time to study here.
Tell us some merry tale, by your faith!
For whatever man is entered in a game,
He of necessity must assent unto the rules.
But preach not, as friars do in Lent,
To make us weep for our old sins,
And let not thy tale put us to sleep.
Tell us some merry thing of adventures.
Your technical terms, your figures of speech, and your rhetorical devices,
Keep them in reserve until it so be that you compose
High style, as when men write to kings.
Speak so plainly at this time, we pray of you,
That we can understand what you say.

The prologue proceeded to refer to a “worthy clerk … now dead and nailed in his chest.” Chest most directly means coffin, but being nailed in the chest also ironically suggests restraining a demonic figure.[12] The clerk is then explicitly identified as “Francis Petrarch, the laureate poet.” According to Chaucer, being a laureate poet didn’t make Petrarch immortal. Death “as if it were a twinkling of an eye” had slain Petrarch, as it will everyone else in the mass of humanity from which Petrarch self-consciously distinguished himself. Moreover, “a twinkling of an eye” alludes to a Biblical verse that highlights change in resurrecting the dead.[13] Chaucer’s  prologue explicitly referred to the long proem that begins Petrarch’s Griselda in high style. Chaucer’s prologue noted of Petrarch proem, “It seems to me a thing irrelevant.” Chaucer made fun of Petrarch while translating the Griselda story.

In translating Petrarch’s and Boccacio’s Griselda versions, Chaucer added narrative interruptions in support of wives. Noble ladies in Chaucer’s audience would have nodded in agreement with the narrator’s interjection:

He had tested her enough before,
And found her always good; why was it needed
To test her, and always more and more,
Though some men praise its ingenuity?
But as for me, I say that it ill befits one
To test a wife when there is no need,
And put her in anguish and in dread.

The narrator also interrupted with an explicit address to women:

But now I would like to ask of women
If these tests might not suffice?
What could a cruel husband more devise
To test her wifehood and her steadfastness,
And he continuing ever in cruelty?

These interruptions emphasize questioning Gualtieri’s testing and devalue moral absolutes of fidelity or obedience. They undercut Petrarch’s attempt to inspire persons with extreme virtue. They also lessen Boccaccio’s challenge to readers to reconcile ordinary life with moral absolutes.

Chaucer included at the end of his Griselda another explicit reference to Petrarch and high style. Chaucer translated Petrarch’s moralization:

And listen to what this author says there before.
This story is said not so that wives should
Follow Griselda in humility,
For it would be intolerable, though they would {want to},
But so that every person, in his station in life,
Should be constant in adversity
As was Griselda; therefore Petrarch writes
This story, which with high style he composes.

The imperative “listen to what this author says” easily carries a shade of incredulity. Chaucer translated Petrarch’s Latin moralization into the vernacular piety “be constant in adversity.” The closing reference to “high style” in this context seems gently mocking.

Following his translation of Petrarch’s moralization, Chaucer apparently alluded to Boccaccio’s Griselda, but developed that allusion in a different direction. At the end of Boccaccio’s Griselda, Dioneo suggested that no one other than Griselda could have endured Gualtieri’s tests. Chaucer’s clerk storyteller similarly concluded:

It would be very difficult to find now-a-days
In all the town Griseldas three or two;

Dioneo described a possibility after marital breakdown: the ex-wife seeking sex and getting paid for it. Chaucer’s alternative was narrower and more gender-symmetric. With a prayer for the Wife of Bath and her sect to be masters of their husbands, Chaucer reversed the direction of cruelty. He urged wives:

Fear them not; do them no reverence,
For though thy husband be armed in mail,
The arrows of thy spiteful eloquence
Shall pierce his breast and also his neck-guard.
In jealousy I advise also that thou bind him,
And thou shalt make him cower as does a quail.
If thou be fair, where folk are present,
Show thou thy visage and thy apparel;
If thou be ugly, be lavish in thy expenditures;
To get thee friends always work hard;
Be ever in behavior as light as a leaf on a linden tree,
And let him grieve, and weep, and wring his hands, and wail!

Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale explicitly called for an end to serious matter. It continued with song and intricate literary play. Chaucer translated Petrarch’s Griselda into entertainment, most probably for noble ladies.[14] That isn’t a true restoration of Boccaccio’s Griselda.[15]

In medieval and early modern Europe, Petrarch’s Griselda story was much more influential than Boccacio’s Griselda.[16] In English-language scholarship and teaching today, Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale gets much more attention than either Petrarch’s or Boccaccio’s Griselda. That’s a parochial failure like the medieval reception of the Decameron. Recognizing moral ideals and struggling to reconcile them with ordinary life enriches human life.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 1, Introduction, describes the plague that ravished Florence. Those extreme conditions generated a wide range of behaviors. Some Florentians abandoned fundamental moral commitments: “even worse, and almost unbelievable, is that fathers and mothers refused to tend to their children and take care of them, treating them as if they belonged to someone else.” From Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 9.

[2] Decameron, Day 10, Story 10, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 839. Dioneo’s symbolically obscure statement refers to Day 7, Story 1, a story about a cuckolded man. In context, “raising and lowering the bogeyman’s tail” suggests motion characteristic of sexual intercourse. The term “good man” is a common, ironic medieval term for a cuckolded man. But here it seems to have a different irony.

All subsequent quotes from Boccaccio’s Griselda, unless otherwise noted, are from id. pp. 839-50.  The theme for Day 10 is declared in the conclusion of Day 9. Id. p. 749.

[3] A man named Gualtieri also figures in Decameron 2.8. That story contrasts virtue in ordinary life with rationalizations of romance.

[4] The Decameron addresses Ephesians 5:22-33 in the context of the brigata ladies’ demand for service from men.

[5] Francis Petrarch, Rerum senilium libri (Letters of Old Age} XVII.3 (to Boccaccio), from Latin trans.  Bernardo, Levin & Bernardo (1992) v. 2, p. 660. Subsequent quotes from Petrarch, unless otherwise noted, are from id. pp. 665-8. Letter XVII.3 has prefatory text, the Griselda story, and subsequent text. An online version in translation extracted the Griselda story and appended to the remainder of Letter XVII.3 part of Letter XVII.4. See mislabeled letter to Boccaccio.

Griselda’s willingness to die at her husband’s command echoes the understanding of love (kenosis) in Philippians 2:6-8. Goodwin (2004) p. 56 observes:

he {Petrarch} overloads the narrative’s didactic content as he deepens the reader’s emotional response. Petrarch boldly purples the prose, and we should recognize as Petrarch’s artistic, experimental choices the surfeit of moral didacticism and the increased emotional involvement of the reader.

The increased emotional involvement is imaginatively third-personal. Boccaccio’s Griselda makes emotional involvement more specific and relevant to the particular reader.

[6] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Clerk’s Tale ll. 351-64, in modernized English by Benson (2006). Subsequent quotes from The Clerk’s Tale are from Benson’s modernization, ll. 372-8, 7-20, 31-41, 53-4, 456-62,  696-700, 1142-8, 1164-5, 1201-12.

[7] The contrast between “senseless brutality” and “divine spirits” suggests poles of Aristotle’s moral spectum from vice to virtue (Nichomachean Ethics, Bk. 7). Goodwin (2004) p. 47.

[8] Marginal comment of Francesco d’Amaretto Mannelli in his copy of the Decameron in 1384, from Italian trans. Green (2012) p. 49, citing K.P. Clarke’s study of Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Plut. 42,1. The Good Wife’s Guide (Le Ménagier de Paris), written in 1393, observed that the Griselda story “contains excessive accounts of cruelty, in my opinion more than was fitting.” See 1.6:10, cited from Green (2012) p. 49.

[9] As recounted in Thomas III, Marquis of Saluzzo (ca. 1355-1416), Le chevalier errant, s. 512-528, from Old French trans. Green (2012) pp. 51-62.

[10] Petrarch, Rerum senilium libri (Letters of Old Age} XVII.4 (to Boccaccio), from Latin trans.  Bernardo, Levin & Bernardo (1992) v. 2, p. 669-70. The subsequent quote is from id. p. 671.

[11] Staking a vampire through the heart existed in written literature probably only from the 18th century. But in Aeschylus’s 5th-century Greek play Prometheus Bound, the rebel Prometheus was staked through his chest to a desolate crag.

[12] Decameron, Day 10, Conclusion, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 851.

[13] 1 Corinthians 15:52.

[14] Chaucer, on the margin of the English court as a member of the gentry, plausibly wrote at least partly for women meeting separately from the royal court. The Garter sorority might have provided such a context. McDonald (2000) pp. 26-9. Something like Madeleine de Scudéry’s seventeenth-century French salon might have existed in fourteenth-century England.

Green (1983) argues that women weren’t in the English royal court “in significant numbers until the final years of the fourteenth century.” Id. p. 153. Yet less often noticed are Green’s comments buried in the concluding endnote:

This paper … is intentionally speculative; if it merits publication at all, it is as a stimulus to further investigation, and no one would be less surprised than myself if such investigation were to prove its conclusions nugatory.

Id. p. 154, n. 28. Perhaps Chaucer also wrote for women within the English royal court.

[15] Schwebel (2013) p. 275 states:

it is not in vague, verbal echoes that we see the ghost of Boccaccio’s original work in the Clerk’s Tale but in Chaucer’s methodical undoing of the editorial adjustments that Petrarch first made to Decameron X.10. The Clerk’s Tale is thus less of a translation than a restoration, as it brings us closer to the Boccaccian original than Petrarch ever desired to reach.

That Chaucer knew the Decameron seems probable. Id. See also Harkins (2013). The Clerk’s Tale is closer in its moral openness to Boccaccio’s Griselda than to its more direct source, Petrarch’s Griselda. But the Clerk’s Tale adds considerable literary posing and surface artifice that Boccaccio’s Griselda doesn’t have.

Academics working and writing in English overwhelmingly favor Chaucer over Boccaccio. Harkins (2013), p. 273, concludes that Chaucer’s translation made Boccaccio’s Griselda “something richer and stronger.” Academics writing in English have commonly evaluated similarly Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde relative to Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato. Such evaluations deserve more broad-minded and less orthodox reconsideration.

[16] Goodwin (2003) p. 130.

[image] Griselda being exiled. Painting from the Spalliera Panels’ story of Griselda. Oil, with some tempera on wood. Ca. 1494. In National Gallery, London. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Benson, Larry, trans. 2006. Geoffrey Chaucer. The Clerk’s Tale (including its Prologue). The Geoffrey Chaucer Page, Harvard University.

Bernardo, Aldo S. , Saul Levin, and Reta A. Bernardo, trans. 1992. Francesco Petrarca {Petrarch}. Letters of old age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Goodwin, Amy W. 2003. “The Griselda Story in France.” Pp. 130-67 in vol. 1, Correale, Robert M., and Mary Hamel. 2003. Sources and analogues of the Canterbury Tales. Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer.

Goodwin, Amy W. 2004. “The Griselda Game.” Chaucer Review. 39 (1): 41-69.

Green, Richard Firth. 1983. “Women in Chaucer’s Audience.” The Chaucer Review. 18 (2): 146-154.

Green, Richard Firth. 2012. “Why Marquis Walter Treats His Wife So Badly.” The Chaucer Review. 47 (1): 48-62.

Harkins, Jessica. 2013. “Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale and Boccaccio’s Decameron X.10.” The Chaucer Review. 47 (3): 247-273.

McDonald, Nicole F. 2000. “Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, Ladies at Court and the Female Reader.” Chaucer Review. 35 (1): 22-42.

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Schwebel Leah. 2013. “Redressing Griselda: Restoration through translation in the Clerk’s Tale.” Chaucer Review. 47 (3): 274-299.

Troilus’s death-seeking: Chaucer vs. Boccaccio & Shakespeare

Widely celebrated as a courtly lover, Troilus in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde is also a figure of men’s death-seeking. Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida provide alternate perspectives on Troilus’s death-seeking. Both Boccaccio’s playful framing and Shakespeare’s brilliant vitriol are more humane than modern critical complacency about men’s deaths.

dead men on Tarawa beach

Chaucer’s Troilus repeatedly insists that if Criseyde doesn’t accept him as her lover, then he wants to die. Despite many pressing matters confronting him, such as the Greeks besieging his city of Troy, Troilus thought only of Criseyde:

Not an hour of the day passed that he did not say to himself a thousand times, “Lovely one whom I labor to serve as best I can, now I wish to God, Criseyde, you would pity me before I die. Alas, dear heart, my health and cheer and life are lost unless you pity me.” All other fears had fled from him, both of the siege and for his own safety, and no other desires bred in him but tender yearnings to that one goal, that she should have compassion on him and he might be her man for life; lo, in this stood his life and his cure from death! … very often he would lament thus with himself: … “Save me from death, for more than my life I will love you to the end. Cheer me with some friendly look, though you may never promise anything else.” [1]

Troilus’s friend Pandarus tried to help him with time-tested wisdom such as “a man often makes the rod with which he is beaten.” But Troilus didn’t want to be cured of his obsessive love for Criseyde:

your proverbs cannot help me, and you do not know any other cure for me; and I wish not to be cured, I wish to die.

Pandarus begged Criseyde to love Troilus. He depicted for her the alternate prospect of a double death:

Now, my niece, the king’s dear son, the good, the prudent, the valiant, the lusty, the generous, that mirror of well-doing, the noble Troilus, so loves you that unless you help him it will be his death. Lo, this is all! What more can I say? Do what you will, let him live or die; but if you let him die, I will die too. Here is my pledge that I am not lying; if I am, I should have to cut my throat with this knife! … that noble gentle knight, who asks for nothing but a friendly look from you, I see him slowly dying as he walks about, and making all haste to be slain, if fortune will only grant it.

Criseyde appreciated her power to kill the mighty warrior Troilus amid Troy’s battle with Greece:

She cast over in her mind his excellent prowess, his station, his renown, his wisdom, his form, and his nobility; but what most won her was that his distress was all for her, and she thought it would be a pity to slay such a one, if his intent were faithful.

Without complete control over Troilus’s sexuality (him being “faithful” to her), Criseyde apparently would willing to slay him.

Criseyde determined not only life and death for Troilus, but also his conditions of living. Troilus affirmed that his love for Criseyde gave her the right to have him killed for falling short of abasement in love servitude:

for the love of God, dear lady, as He has created me to serve you — by this I mean that he wills that you should be my guide, to let me live, if you will, or die — teach me how to deserve your thanks, so that through my ignorance I may do nothing to displease you. For surely I dare swear, joyous perfect woman, that all my life you shall find in me fidelity and devotion, and that I shall never break your command; and if I do, present or absent, for the love of God let me instantly be slain, if it should so please your womanhood!

The ideology of amour courtois condemned men to love servitude to women.  In love, men were women’s slaves and could suffer death at women’s whims.

Troilus’s death-accepting love for Criseyde led to Troilus’s death and the deaths of many other men. In response to Criseyde being delivered to the Greeks in exchange for a captive Greek warrior, Troilus prayed to die:

Ah death, the ender of every grief, come now, since I have called you so often! For kindly is death when, often called, he comes and ends pain. Well I know that, while I lived in peace, I would have paid ransom before death should slay me; but now his coming is so sweet that there is nothing on earth I long after more. O death, please either quench with your cold stroke this heat of sorrow, or else drown me now in tears. You at all times slay so many in so many ways, unsummoned, against their will: do me this service at my prayer. Deliver the world now of the most woeful creature that ever was, for it is time that I die who am useless in the world!

Troilus regarded himself as useless because he wasn’t able to serve Criseyde. When he thought Criseyde had died, he prepared to commit suicide. But she wasn’t actually dead. When she was held in the Greek camp, Criseyde became the lover of her Greek guard Diomedes. When Triolus learned of Criseyde’s betrayal of him, he sought his own death:

henceforth as I can I will seek my own death upon the field, and I care not how soon be the day. But truly, Criseyde, sweet maiden, whom I have always loved with all my might, I have not deserved that you should do thus!

Triolus killed thousands of Greek men in battle before Achilles killed him. Chaucer’s courtly love tale Troilus and Criseyde is drenched in the bloody deaths of Triolus and many other men.

Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato frames men’s death-seeking as the error of valuing fictional constructs over real, living presence. In its preface, Filostrato tells of frequent courtly debate about what gives a young man greater pleasure:

  1. seeing his beloved lady,
  2. talking with others about his beloved lady, or
  3. thinking sweetly of his beloved lady.

Filostrato argued for the third option:

I affirmed that it was not the least part of the lover’s bliss to be able to make the beloved one kindly disposed according to the desire of him who was thinking about her and to render her kind and responsive in accordance with that desire — even though that might last only as long as the thought — which certainly could not happen when seeing her or talking to her. [2]

But then Filostrato’s beloved lady Filomena moved to another city. He lacked opportunity to see her. He realized his childish error. He realized that the “false flattery of my thoughts” was far less delightful than actually seeing Filomena.

In response to Filomena’s absence, Filostrato wished for death. To make clear his sorrow, he wrote in rhyme the story of how Troilo came to sorrow greatly at the absence of his beloved Criseida. That’s the same story as Chaucer’s Triolus and Criseyde. After telling that story, Filostrato warned young lovers to pray to Love:

that he kindly grant you the grace to love so wisely that in the end you will not die for an evil woman.

That advice at least shows some concern for men’s deaths. But with respect to his beloved Filomena, Filostrato instructed his book:

pray to her as much as you can that it may please her to return here now or to command my soul to take itself away from me because, wherever it must go from here, death is much better for me than such a life.

Even if Filomena wasn’t an evil woman, the frame suggests questioning whether Filostrato’s grief over Filomena’s absence justified him seeking death. His preference for death could easily arise from fiction of thought in her absence. An obvious alternative is to delight in what he can see in his real, present circumstances.

In his play Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare echoes Boccaccio’s concern for fictional error. Troilus, Ulysses, and Thersites secretly followed Diomedes and Cressida back to the Greek camp. There they spied Cressida amorously engaging with Diomedes. She gave him her sleeve to wear. Troilus then questioned reality:

But if I tell how these two did co-act,
Shall I not lie in publishing a truth?
Sith yet there is a credence in my heart,
An esperance so obstinately strong,
That doth invert the attest of eyes and ears,
As if those organs had deceptious functions,
Created only to calumniate.
Was Cressid here?

Ulysses affirmed that the Cressida they saw was no illusion. Troilus insisted that Cressida wasn’t there. He rationalized:

Let it not be believed for womanhood!
Think, we had mothers; do not give advantage
To stubborn critics, apt, without a theme,
For depravation, to square the general sex
By Cressid’s rule: rather think this not Cressid.

That sort of argument has commonly prevailed throughout history to support gynocentrism and suppress men’s literature of sexed protest. Troilus declared that his sword would swirl like a hurricane striking about Diomedes’s body. Despite his attempted self-deception, his fiction about Cressida quickly dissipated:

O Cressid! O false Cressid! false, false, false!
Let all untruths stand by thy stained name,
And they’ll seem glorious.

Cressida’s falseness didn’t change Troilus’s direction of action. His actions continued in the direction of men’s deaths.

Shakespeare’s Thersites bitingly criticized the folly of men’s death-seeking and men’s violence against men. As Troilus and Diomedes fought on the field between the Greek and Trojan camps, Thersites looked on, cheering:

Hold thy whore, Grecian!—now for thy whore,
Trojan!—now the sleeve, now the sleeve! [4]

When Paris and Menelaus, the principles in the struggle for Helen, engaged in fighting, Thersites provided color commentary:

the cuckold and the cuckold-maker are at it. Now,
bull! now, dog! ‘Loo, Paris, ‘loo! now my double-
henned sparrow! ‘loo, Paris, ‘loo! The bull has the
game: ware horns, ho!

Thersites recognized that disputes about women had become bloody, violent play for fools:

Here is such patchery, such juggling and such
knavery! all the argument is a cuckold and a
whore; a good quarrel to draw emulous factions
and bleed to death upon. Now, the dry serpigo on
the subject! and war and lechery confound all!

Thersites prophetically condemned elite literary narrow-mindedness:

Lechery, lechery; still, wars and lechery; nothing
else holds fashion: a burning devil take them! [5]

The ideology of courtly love obscures lechery and promotes men’s deaths. Thersites saw the truth in the love story of Troilus and Criseyde.

Courtly love aligns with human social nature in supporting gynocentrism and devaluing men’s deaths.  In 1932, an influential scholarly expositor of courtly love declared:

courtly love itself, in spite of all its shabby origins and pedantic rules, is at bottom more agreeable to those elements in human, or at least in European, nature, which last longest, than the cynical Latin gallantries of Boccaccio [6]

Men’s lives and men’s deaths follow Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde in sadly indicating the truth of that observation. Boccaccio, who was no cynic, in Il Filostrato indirectly urged men to love flesh-and-blood women. If Boccaccio is too sophisticated for modern English readers, they need only turn to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Just as Marcolf highlighted the folly of King Solomon, Shakespeare’s Thersites denounced Chaucer’s story of gynocentrism and misandry.[7]

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[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, Bk 1, ll. 456-69, 506, 535-9, verse in the modernized English prose from eChaucer & Gerard NeCastro, University of Maine at Machias. Here’s Benson’s draft interlinear translation of Bk. 1. The source Chaucer text is readily available. Subsequent quotes from Troilus and Criseyde are from (book.lines) 1.740-3; 1.756-8; 2.316-25, 331-5; 2.659-65; 3.1289-1302; 4.501-18; 5.1717-22. I have made a few minor changes in the translations for clarity. Chaucer wrote Troilus and Criseyde in the 1380s.

Chaucer at the time of his composing Troilus and Criseyde was arguably “the greatest living interpreter in English of l‘amour courtois.” Lewis (1932) p. 28. John Gower in his first version of Confessio Amantis referred to Chaucer as “Venus’ ‘disciple’ and ‘poete’, with whose ‘ditees and songes glade … the lond fulfild is overal’.” Id.

[2] Giovanni Boccaccio, Il Filostrato, Proem, from Italian trans. apRoberts & Seldis (1986) p. 5. Griffin & Myrick (1929) provides an alternative translation. For “la cosa amata” apRoberts & Seldis (1986) has “the beloved object.” In context, “the beloved one” seems to me a better translation. I’ve used that above. Subsequent quotes from Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato are from id. Proem, p. 11, (part.strophe, page) 8.32, p. 413, and 9.7, p. 419. Boccaccio wrote Il Filostrato probably about 1335.

[3] William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act V, Scene 2, ll. 3190-7, from Eric M. Johnson’s Open Source Shakespeare. Subsequently quotes from Troilus and Cressida (unless otherwise noted) are from id. (act.scene, lines) V.2, ll. 3203-7; V.2, ll. 3222-4; V.4, ll. 3435-6; V.7, ll. 3568-71; II.3, ll. 1284-8; V.2, ll. 3271-2. On textual complexities, Godshalk (1995). None of the quotes here depend significantly on textual differences. Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida probably in 1602.

[4] In Homer’s Iliad, II.211-77, Thersites bitterly blames King Agamemnon for the irrationality of the Greeks war against Troy. Thersites “says what everyone else is thinking.” Benardete (1991) pp. 100-1.

Marks (2005) argues that Thersites was a military commander, rather than a common soldier. Thersites’s conflict with Odysseus and Achilles thus represents elite competition of praise / blame rather than class conflict. The distinction between elite competition and class conflict can be misleading. Persons not part of particular elite groups by profession can nonetheless intervene in elite competition in ways that are not commonly possible. Marcolf in the conflict between Marcolf and King Solomon was no ordinary peasant. See Ziolkowski (2008).

Some evidence indicates that Thersites was regarded as a kinsman of Diomedes in the Aitolian royal house of ancient Greece. Marks (2005) p. 2, n. 3. In Shakespeare’s Triolus and Cressida, Diomedes before loving Cressida bitterly lamented the men’s deaths that resulted from the Greeks and Trojans fighting over Helen:

She’s bitter to her country: hear me, Paris:
For every false drop in her bawdy veins
A Grecian’s life hath sunk; for every scruple
Of her contaminated carrion weight,
A Trojan hath been slain: since she could speak,
She hath not given so many good words breath
As for her Greeks and Trojans suffer’d death.

IV.1, ll. 2271-8.

[5] “A burning devil take them” generally means “go to hell.” In the context of lechery, that particular phrase also suggests a male symptom of venereal disease manifest in the act of urinating.

[6] Lewis (1932) p. 43-4. The quotation above, from a highly rhetorical passage, literally ends with a question mark. The context makes clear that this is Lewis’s favored “natural conclusion.”

[7] Mann (2002) convincingly presents Chaucer’s work as gynocentric and misandristic:

he {Chaucer} crams in even more meaning, to the point where woman is at the centre instead of the periphery, where she becomes the norm against which all human behaviour is to be measured. … the Canterbury Tales, for all its rich variety of mode and genre, contains not a single example of the story-type that embodies its ideals in the central figure of a male hero. Instead, the tales that mediate serious ideals are focused on a series of women: Constance, Griselda, Prudence, Cecilia. The male hero enters only in the burlesque form of Sir Thopas, to be unceremoniously bundled out of the way in favour of the tale that celebrates the idealized wisdom of a woman, Chaucer’s tale of Melibee.

Id. pp. 2-3. Comparing Boccoccio’s Il Filostrato and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, apRoberts & Seldis (1986) declares:

Clearly Chaucer’s poem has a profundity of both thought and feeling which Boccaccio’s poem of course, never aimed at. … J.W. Mackail long ago made a very a very just assessment of the two works: “The Filostrato is lucidly told, gracefully constructed, charmingly written; but the poem that Chaucer made out of it is a consummate masterpiece. The Book of Troilus and Creseide is one of the few large perfect things in our literature.”

Id. Introduction, p. liii. That evaluation reflects a culture of relatively little concern about men’s lives. In considering Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Hume (2012) Ch. 7 focuses on the dangers of courtly love for women. Dangers to men and men’s deaths are taken for granted.

[image] Dead men; soldiers bodies on Tarawa Atoll after the U.S. invasion in November, 1943. The U.S. Marine Corps sustained 990 Marines men killed and a further 2,296 men wounded. The Japanese lost 4,713 men. U.S. Defense Visual Information Center photo HD-SN-99-03001, cropped. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


apRoberts, Robert P. and Anna Bruni Seldis, intro. and trans. with Italian text of Vincenzo Pernicone. 1986. Giovanni Boccaccio. Il filostrato. New York: Garland Pub.

Benardete, Seth. 1991. The rhetoric of morality and philosophy: Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Godshalk, William L. “The Texts of Troilus and Cressida.” Early Modern Literary Studies 1.2 (1995): 2.1-54.

Griffin, Nathaniel Edward, and Arthur Beckwith Myrick, trans. 1929. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Filostrato. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hume, Cathy. 2012. Chaucer and the cultures of love and marriage. Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Lewis, C.S. 1932. “What Chaucer really did to Il Filostrato.” Essays and Studies 17: 56-75, reprinted in Lewis, C. S., and Walter Hooper, ed. 1969. Selected literary essays. London: Cambridge University Press.{page citation above is to reprint}

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

Marks, J. 2005. “The Ongoing Neikos: Thersites, Odysseus, and Achilleus.” American Journal of Philology. 126 (1): 1-31.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

Caxton printed dangerous Socratic sayings in Dictes or Sayings

man knealing before two women

When William Caxton printed The Dictes or Sayings of the Philosophers in 1477, he used Anthony Woodville’s English translation of a French work. Woodville’s translation omitted Socratic sayings disparaging women. Caxton added those sayings to an epilogue and justified at length including them.[1] Caxton’s epilogue indicates that broad fear in discussing women constrained public discourse in fifteenth-century England.

Caxton speculated about why Woodville chose to omit the Socratic sayings disparaging women. Caxton’s three speculations concern broad fear in contrast to narrow reason:

  1. Some “fair lady” asked Woodville to omit the sayings disparaging women. The reference to the lady’s beauty, the absence of any specific justification for her request, and Woodville’s acquiescence without argument are inconsistent with narrow reason. Eagerness to please and fear of offending replaced narrow reasoning.
  2. Woodville loved “some noble lady, for whose love he would not set it {the Socratic sayings disparaging women} in his book.” Loving a woman has no necessary relation to translating Socratic sayings disparaging women. Woodville feared that such a relation would be assumed, that such an assumption would be irrefutable, and that he would suffer from it in his personal love relation. Woodville feared that including the sayings would damage his personal life.
  3. Woodville internalized deliberative constraints in discussing women: “for the very affection, love, and good will that he had for all ladies and gentlewomen, he thought that Socrates spared the sooth {blandishment} and wrote of women more than truth.” Socrates was a well-recognized philosopher in medieval England. Endorsing or even evaluating Socratic wisdom isn’t necessary to justify translating it. Woodville feared that including the sayings would hurt his reputation.

Anthony Woodville was Lord Anthony, Earl of Rivers, Lord of Scales and of the Isle of Wright, and governor of the Lord Prince of Wales. Woodville was also the brother-in-law of King Edward IV. If Woodville was broadly fearful of including the Socratic sayings disparaging women, almost anyone important would likewise have been fearful.

Caxton broadly justified including the Socratic sayings disparaging women. He offered argument by contradiction, a limitation, an affective appeal, a procedural justification, excuses, a comforting hypothesis, disavowal of responsibility, an unappealing alternative, and decentralized opportunities for remediation. Consider, in a closely modernized English version, Caxton’s broad justification for printing the Socratic sayings disparaging women:

I cannot think that so true a man and so noble a philosopher as Socrates was should write otherwise than truth. For if he had made fault in writing of women, he ought not, nor should not, be believed in his other dictes and sayings. But I perceive that my said Lord {Woodville} knows truly that such faults be not had, nor be found, in the women born and dwelling in these parts and regions of the world. Socrates was a Greek, born in a far country from here, which country is all of other conditions than this is, and men and women of other nature than they, be here in this country. For I know well, of whatsoever condition women be in Greece, the women of this country be right good, wise, pleasant, humble, discreet, sober, chaste, obedient to their husbands, true, secret, steadfast, every busy, and never idle, temperate in speaking, and virtuous in all their works — or at least should be so. For which causes so evident my said Lord, as I suppose, thought it was not of necessity to set in his book the sayings of his author Socrates touching women. But for as much as I had commandment of my said Lord to correct and amend where I should find fault, and other {fault} find I none save that he has left out these dictes and sayings of the women of Greece, therefore in accomplishing his commandment — for as much as I am not certain whether it was in my Lord’s copy or not, or else, perhaps, that the wind had blown over the leaf at the time of translation of his book — I intend to write those same sayings of the Greek Socrates, which wrote of the women of Greece and nothing of them of this kingdom, whom, I suppose, he never knew; for if he had {known the women of England}, I dare plainly say that he would have excused them specially in his said dictes. Always not presuming to put and set them in my said Lord’s book but at the end separately in the epilogue of the work, humbly requiring all them that should read this little epilogue, that if they find any fault to attribute it to Socrates, and not to me … {about a page of Socratic sayings disparaging women} So these be the dictes and sayings of the philosopher Socrates, which he wrote in his book; and certainly he wrote no worse than the above recited. And for as much as it appropriate that his dictes and saying should be had as well as others’, there I have set it in the end of this book. And also some persons, perhaps, that have read this book in French would have attributed a great fault in me that I had not done my duty in viewing and overseeing of my Lord’s book according to his desire. And some other also, perhaps, might have supposed that Socrates had written much more ill of women than here above is specified, wherefore in satisfying of all parties, and also to defend the said Socrates, I have set these said dictes and sayings apart in the end of this book, to the intent that if my said Lord or any other person, whatsoever he or she shall be that shall read or hear it, that if they be not well pleased with this, that they with a pen erase it out, or else rend the leaf out of the book.

Caxton’s Dictes or Sayings omitted other passages from the Socrates section and well as other text from Woodville’s source.[2] Caxton obscured those other omissions. They almost surely had little public significance. Sayings disparaging women, in contrast, probably were controversial. Woodville was a regular patron to Caxton. Woodville and Caxton may have conspired to attract attention by skirting controversy.[3] In any case, their actions and words indicate that both plausibly feared being associated with text disparaging women.

Because human societies, like most primate societies, are gynocentric, public discourse concerning women is particularly treacherous. Woodville and Caxton, like most men throughout history, were closely associated with women and vitally dependent on women. Woodville was a bachelor seeking a new wife. Caxton was fervently grateful to his patron Lady Margaret, Duchess of Burgandy.[4] In 1478, about a year after printing The Dictes or Sayings of the Philosophers, Caxton printed Woodville’s English translation of Christine de Pizan’s Proverbes moraulx. Like Jehan Le Fèvre writing Le livre de Leesce (The Book of Gladness), producing a version of Christine de Pizan’s Proverbes moraulx may have been a necessary, atoning act for Woodville and Caxton.[5]

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[1] Caxton’s book was named in its ending text the dictes or sayengis of the philosphres. Subsequent versions were entitled The Dycts and the sayenges of the philosphers. In modern English it’s commonly known as The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers. I refer to it as Dictes or Sayings. Woodsville’s translation was of the French work Les Dits moraulx des philosophes. That in turn went back through a Spanish translation to Mubashshir ibn Fatik’s eleventh-century Arabic work Mukhtar al-hikam. All quotations above, unless otherwise noted, are closely modernized English from Caxton’s epilogue, available in Eliot (1910) pp. 10-13, along with other Caxton paratexts. The Dictes or Sayings epilogue is also readily available here.

[2] Jayne (1995) p. 44.

[3] On Woodville as patron to Caxton, Coldiron (2014) p. 70. Coldiron states, “The epilogue’s account of suppressed and restored ‘Socratic’ misogyny thus seems a pretext, disproportionately emphasizing a popular topic….” and describes Caxton’s speculations about Woodville omitting the sayings as “(cheekily? teasingly?).” Id. pp. 68-9, 72. Woodville and Caxton probably had real grounds for fear. Id., p. 75, describes the relevant sayings as “certainly offensive now” and prints a selection.

[4] In 1477, Woodville was “one of England’s most eligible bachelors.” Id. p. 72. On Caxton’s gratitude to Lady Margaret, see Caxton’s preface to The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, in Eliot (1910) pp. 5-7.

[5] Coldiron (2009) notes that in his edition of Christine de Pizan’s Proverbes moraulx, Caxton overtly supports Christine’s authority. Id. p. 45.

[image] Man kneeling before women. From “The Book of the Queen,” which contains various works of Christian de Pizan. Cropped from f.48, British Library Harley 4431.


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

Coldiron, Anne E. B. 2015. Printers without borders: translation and textuality in the Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eliot, Charles W., ed. 1910. Prefaces and prologues to famous books, with introductions, notes and illustrations. The Five-Foot Shelf of Books, “The Harvard Classics.” Vol. 39. New York: P.F. Collier & Son.

Jayne, Sears Reynolds. 1995. Plato in Renaissance England. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Boccaccio’s Gilberto & Chaucer’s Arveragus on wives’ affairs

Arveragus and Gilberto

In Boccaccio’s Decameron, Day 10 Story 5, Gilberto confronted a quandary concerning his wife Dianora. She had promised to sleep with Ansaldo if he performed an impossible feat, which he did. In Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale, Arveragus faced the same quandary with respect to his wife Dorigen and the man Aurelius. Should the husband tolerate his wife fulfilling her sexual promise to another man? If the wife sought to renege on her sexual promise, should the husband defend her reneging?

Both Gilberto and Arveragus chose to tolerate their wives sleeping with other men to fulfill their promises. Gilberto responded with appropriate anger and fearlessly criticized his wife for her mistaken promise. He told her to sleep with the other man only if she couldn’t get him to release her from her promise. Arveragus, in contrast, acquiesced to being cuckolded with superficial cheerfulness and hidden despair like men today accept state-institutionalized cuckolding.

While the responses of both Gilberto and Arveragus generated similar stories, Gilberto’s response better realized the best features of human nature. Gilberto first criticized, directly but not cruelly, his wife Dianora:

Dianora, it’s not the part of a discrete and honorable lady to listen to messages of that sort, or to make a bargain about her chastity with any man, under any condition. The power of words that the heart receives by way of the ears is greater than many people believe, and for those who are in love there’s almost nothing they can’t accomplish. Thus, you did wrong, first of all by listening to him, and then by making that bargain. [1]

Gilberto then told her what he wanted:

I want you to go to him {Ansaldo}, and using any means at your disposal, I want you to do what you can to preserve your chastity and get him to release you from your promise. However, if that’s not possible, than just this once you may yield your body, but not your heart, to him.

Dianora rose to met the high expectations that Gilberto had of her. Early the next morning, she went to Ansaldo’s house “not having bothered to get especially dressed up.” Drawing further on women’s superior guile, Dianora said to Ansaldo:

Sir, I have not been led here because of any love I feel for you or because of the promise I gave you, but rather, because I was ordered to do so by my husband, who has more regard for the labors you’ve undertaken to satisfy your unbridled passion than he does for his own honor or for mine. And it is at his command that I am furthermore disposed, just this once, to satisfy your every desire.

That’s a magnificently guileful speech. Ansaldo fell for it. He responded:

things being the way you say they are, God forbid that I should mar the honor of a man who takes pity on my love. And so, for as long as you choose to stay here, you will be treated as if you were my sister, and whenever you please, you shall be free to depart, provided that you convey to your husband such thanks as you deem appropriate for the immense courtesy he has displayed and that from now on you always look upon me as your brother and servant.

Ansaldo thus freed Dianora from her sexual promise. Dianora further pretended that no quandary had ever existed. She told Ansaldo:

nothing could ever make me believe that my coming here would have produced any result other than the response I see you’ve made to it, and for that, I will be eternally in your debt.

Dianora then immediately left Ansaldo and returned to her husband. Ansaldo had hired a magician at great expense to fulfill the impossible feat that Dianora had specified for extra-marital sex with her. The magician was so impressed with the generosity that Dianora conjured that he forgave the fee he charged Ansaldo. Acting in individually distinctive ways, Gilberto and Dianora as a couple generated from their marital quandary wonderful acts of generosity.

In Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale, Arveragus’s response to Dorigen reflected the abasement of men central to courtly love. In response to Dorigen telling him of her foolish, “playful” promise, Arveragus acted as if she had done nothing to him:

This husband, with cheerful demeanor, in a friendly manner
Answered and said as I shall tell you:
“Is there anything else, Dorigen, but this?” [2]

Arveragus then privileged Dorigen’s word and devalued his own life:

You shall keep your pledged word, by my faith!
For as surely as God may have mercy upon me,
I had well rather be stabbed
For sheer love which I have for you,
Than you should {do anything but} keep and save your pledged word.
The pledged word is the highest thing that man may keep [3]

The transition to the third-personal reference “the pledged word” suggests shallowness in Arveragus’s personal connection to Dorigen. Dropping his facade of cheerfulness and duty, Arveragus then wept and requested secrecy:

But with that word he immediately burst into tears,
And said, “I forbid you, upon pain of death,
That never, while your life or breath lasts,
You tell any person about this adventure —
As best I can, I will my woe endure —
Nor make any outward appearance of sadness,
That folk may believe or guess anything harmful concerning you.”

Most men would be ashamed to act like Arveragus did. But most men lack the strength to say to their wives what Gilberto did.

Aurelius released Dorigen from her promise with generosity celebrating gynocentrism. Dorigen explained to Aurelius that she went to the garden:

Unto the garden, as my husband commanded,
My pledged word to keep — alas, alas!

Dorigen — “my pledged word” — is the center of concern. Aurelius’s response echoed the centrality of Dorigen:

Madam, say to your lord Arveragus
That since I see his great graciousness
To you, and also I see well your distress,
That he would rather have shame (and that would be a pity)
Than you should thus break your pledged word to me

Great graciousness to Dorigen, Dorigen’s distress, Dorigen breaking Dorigen’s word — it’s all about Dorigen. Aurelius, internalizing the valorization of men’s love servitude in amour courtois, sought to likewise privilege Dorigen. He freed her from her promise. He even went on to praise her as:

the truest and the best wife
That ever yet I knew in all my life.

The philosopher-illusionist whom Aurelius hired to fulfill the impossible feat sought to equal Arveragus and Aurelius in their gynocentric eminence. He thus freed Aurelius from payment for his illusion service.[4]

The Franklin’s Tale ends with Arveragus as the courtly love servant under his sovereign lady. Most men suffered love servitude only in courtship. In return for not facing further cuckolding, Arveragus continued in love servitude throughout his marriage to Dorigen:

He cherishes her as though she were a queen,
And she was to him true for evermore.

Straining dutifully to affirm dominant ideology, a scholar recently declared, “Chaucer creates an equality of imperfection between Dorigen and Arveragus.”[5] That’s nonsense. Men like Arveragus and Aurelius have made men today subject to forced financial fatherhood even in circumstances of fraud and incarceration for doing nothing more than having consensual sex and being poor. That’s no more equality than acute anti-men sex discrimination in child custody and child support awards.

Men competing with each other in abasement in love servitude to women foster for no one freedom and generosity in love. To enjoy women’s love, men do not need to pursue impossible feats of illusion. Most men are naturally capable of love magic. Like the “exceptionally pleasant and amiable” Gilberto, men secure their wives’ love when they respect themselves and effortlessly command respect from their wives.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 10 Story 5 (X.5), from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) pp. 781-2.  All the subsequent quotes from Boccaccio’s story are from id. pp. 782-84.

[2] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Franklin’s Tale, ll. 1467-9, modernized English from Benson (2002). Rather than the Decameron’s X.5, a tale recounted by Menedon in Book 4 of Boccaccio’s Filocolo was probably a source for Chaucer.

[3] The Franklin’s Tale, ll.1474-9, in modernized English from Benson (2002). The Middle English for l. 1479 is ” Trouthe is the hyeste thyng that man may kepe.” Benson modernized that line as “One’s pledged word is the highest thing that one may keep.” I modernized “man” non-generically above and used the definite article “the pledged word.” Subsequent quotes from The Franklin’s Tale are from ll. 1480-86, 1512-3, 1526-30, 1539-40, 1554-5.

[4] Mann (2002) convincingly presents Chaucer’s work as gynocentric and misandristic:

he {Chaucer} crams in even more meaning, to the point where woman is at the centre instead of the periphery, where she becomes the norm against which all human behaviour is to be measured. … the Canterbury Tales, for all its rich variety of mode and genre, contains not a single example of the story-type that embodies its ideals in the central figure of a male hero. Instead, the tales that mediate serious ideals are focused on a series of women: Constance, Griselda, Prudence, Cecilia. The male hero enters only in the burlesque form of Sir Thopas, to be unceremoniously bundled out of the way in favour of the tale that celebrates the idealized wisdom of a woman, Chaucer’s tale of Melibee.

Id. pp. 2-3.

[5] Hume (2012) p. 48.

[image] Arveragus and Gilberto, imagined in funerary portrait of Sabdibel (nephew; died first) and Yarkhibonna (uncle). Limestone sculpture. Palmyra, Syria, 150-200 GC. Object 54.2, gift of Mr. Aziz Atiyeh. Portland Museum of Art. Photograph by Douglas Galbi.


Benson, Larry. D.  2002. The Franklin’s Prologue and Tale: An Interlinear Translation. The Geoffrey Chaucer Page, Harvard University. The Middle English text is from Larry D. Benson, ed. The Riverside Chaucer.

Hume, Cathy. 2012. Chaucer and the cultures of love and marriage. Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer.

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

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York : W.W. Norton & Company.

amour courtois & glorification of men’s love abjection

woman blessing knight serving in amour courtois

Since late in the nineteenth century, learned scholars have intensely and earnestly deliberated various historical and technical issues associated with medieval European poésie lyrique and amour courtois. This deliberation, though courteous, has been heated and pointed. Scholarly reputations have risen and fallen in the verbal battles. Just as in war generally, almost all the persons fighting in this field of medieval scholarship have been men. Consistent with the gynocentrism typical of primates, all the leading men have glorified men’s love abjection and men’s love servitude to women.

Narrow historical and technical disputes about amour courtois have obscured broad scholarly endorsement of men’s love abjection and men’s love servitude to women. Claims about medieval European poésie lyrique have been qualified to amour courtois. The latter, however, has been identified as an anachronistic term. Fin d’amor has thus among scholars become a more reputable term for amour courtois. Being French, amour courtois is more stylish than “courtly love.” Both terms are etymologically related to being classy. Embracing the spirit of democratic equality, an elite medieval scholar coined the term “courtly experience.” That term emphasizes that amour courtois is a universal impulse:

I hold that here is a gentilezza {courtesy} which is not confined to any court or privileged class, but springs from an inherent virtù {manly excellence}; that the feelings of courtoisie are elemental, not the product of a particular chivalric nurture. In the poets’ terms, they allow even the most vilain {common} to be gentil {noble}. [1]

“Courtly experience” expressed in poetry can be a way of looking at life even for peasants rolling in the hay:

The courtly experience is the sensibility that gives birth to poetry that is courtois, to poetry of amour courtois. Such poetry may be either popular or courtly, according to the circumstances of its composition. The unity of popular and courtly love-poetry is manifest in the courtly experience, which finds expression in both. [2]

Gynocentrism is typical of primates. It hence encompasses both popular and courtly love poetry. Amour courtois has been described as “un secteur du coeur, un des aspects éternels de l’homme” {a part of the heart, one of the eternal aspects of man}.[3] Stated more literally, gynocentrism is a prevalent aspect of human societies.

The stark, oppressive anti-men gender inequality at the core of amour courtois has often been obscured. In 1896, an eminent European medievalist defined la poésie courtoise {courtly love poetry}:

What distinguishes it is conceiving of love as a cult directed toward an instance of excellence and based, like Christian love, on the infinite disproportion between merit and desire; like a necessary school of honor that makes the lover worthy and transforms commoners into nobles; like a voluntary servitude that has an ennobling power and that consists in the dignity and beauty of passionate suffering. [4]

That definition completely ignores the starkly different positions of men and women in amour courtois. The monumental work Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric, published in 1965, expanded upon that definition:

‘le culte d’un objet excellent’ {cult directed toward an instance of excellence}: such an attitude of the poet towards his beloved is the foundation of the courtly experience. From this arises the ‘infinite disproportion’ between lover and loved one. Yet the entire love-worship of the beloved is based on the feeling that by loving such disproportion may be lessened, the infinite gulf bridged, and a way toward union, however difficult and arduous, begun. … It is what leads to such expressions as: she whom I love is peerless throughout the world; one moment with her is worth Paradise to me; I would gladly go to Hell if she were there; her beauty is radiant as the sun; she mirrors the divine light in the world; she moves among other women like a goddess; she is worshipped by saints and angels; she herself is an angel, a goddess; she is the lover’s remedy; she is his salvation. … winning such a love is infinitely arduous, and would be impossible were it not for the lady’s grace. The value of the way is intimately related to its difficulty; therefore the lady should not take pity too easily. In any case, the lover must orient himself to an absolute love, if necessary a love unto death. [5]

In 1936, an influential medievalist declared the anti-men gender inequality of amour courtois more openly and more realistically:

Every one has heard of courtly love, and every one knows that it appears quite suddenly at the end of the eleventh century in Languedoc. … The lover is always abject. Obedience to his lady’s lightest wish, however whimsical, and silent acquiescence in her rebukes, however unjust, are the only virtues he dares to claim. There is a service of love closely modelled on the service which a feudal vassal owes to his lord. The lover is the lady’s ‘man’. He addresses her as midons, which etymologically represents not ‘my lady’ but ‘my lord’. The whole attitude has been rightly described as ‘a feudalisation of love’. [6]

The scholar rightly identified an “unmistakable continuity” in this idea of love from the Middle Ages right through to the present. Men’s love servitude to women also existed in the Roman Empire in love elegy, in the relation to between caliphs and slave girls in the early Islamic world, and probably in most human societies throughout history.[7]

Scholars have only described and interpreted amour courtois while glorifying it. The scholarly imperative should be to abolish it. Writing in 1936, an influential medievalist observed:

Even our code of etiquette, with its rule that women always have precedence, is a legacy from courtly love [8]

He, however, lamented that courtly love isn’t more prevalent:

The popular erotic literature of our own day tends rather to sheikhs and ‘Salvage Men’ and marriage by capture, while that which is in favour with our intellectuals recommends either frank animalism or the free companionship of the sexes. [9]

In Theft of History, published in 2006, the chapter “Stolen Love: European Claims to the Emotions” takes amour courtois to farce:

the associated claim that love is uniquely European has also had a number of political implications being bound up not only with the development of capitalism but also being used in the service of imperialism. There is a palace in Mérida in Yucatan, the decoration of which portrays helmeted and armoured conquistadores towering over vanquished savages, with an inscription that proclaims the conquering power of love. That emotion, fraternal rather than sexual, had been claimed by the imperialist conquerors from Europe. Love literally conquers all in the hands of the invading military. [10]

Claiming amour courtois for a time or place is no substitute for meaningful ethical judgment. Amour courtois, which has at its core the subordination of men to women, isn’t humane. Amour courtois remains far too prevalent in societies around the world. Medieval European literature, wrongly understood as the source of amour courtois, provides important resources for overcoming it. Everyone needs to be educated through careful study of Lamentationes Matheoluli, Vita Aesopi, Solomon and Marcolf, Old French fabliaux, medieval women’s love poetry, and especially Boccaccio.

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[1] Dronke (1965) p. 3. Id., p. 7, refers to “the way of acquiring the virtù that she embodies.” That feminine usage of virtù reflects Dronke’s blurring of stark sex differences in amour courtois.

[2] Id. p. 3. Id, n. 1, explains:

I speak of the courtly experience rather than, say, the courtly manner or fashion because, beyond manners and fashions, it can entail a whole way of looking at life.

Dronke doesn’t speak about how looking at life through amour courtois differs in domination and subordination between women and men.

[3] Marrou (1947) p. 89, cited in Dronke (1965) pp. ix, 46.

[4] Bédier (1896) p. 172, cited in Dronke (1965) p. 4, my translation from French. The original French text:

Ce qui lui est propre, c’est d’avoir conçu l’amour comme un culte qui s’adresse à un objet excellent et se fonde, comme l’amour chrétien, sur l’infinie disproportion du mérite au désir ; — comme une école nécessaire d’honneur, qui fait valoir l’amant et transforme les vilains en courtois ; — comme un servage volontaire qui recèle un pouvoir ennoblissant, et fait consister dans la souffrance la dignité et la beauté de la passion.

Bédier was disputing the views of his contemporary scholars Alfred Jeanroy and Gaston Paris. All are influential figures in scholarship on amour courtois. C.S. Lewis characterized amour courtois as Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love. Lewis (1936) p. 2. The three characteristics other than adultery exist together in some medieval love poetry. That has spurred marginal disputes about amour courtois.

[5] Dronke (1965) pp. 4-5, 7. In his elaboration on Bédier’s definition, Dronke treats gender difference as merely a grammatical formalism. Gender difference emerges only when Dronke moves to “such expressions as.”  The subordinate, abject lover is the man (he) and the dominant, paragon of excellence is the woman (she).

[6] Lewis (1936) p. 2. The reference to “unmistakeable continuity” is id. p. 3. Id. pp. 11, 12 calls amour courtois a “new sentiment” and a “new feeling” that originated in the love poetry of the late-eleventh-century Provençal troubadours. Donke, in contrast, declares nothing new and no geographic origin for amour courtois. Dronke also regards amour courtois as not particularly associated with feudal, chivalric society. Dronke (1965) p. ix. His depiction of amour courtois is nonetheless consistent with servant / lord feudal relations.

[7] Dronke (1965), Ch. I, documents the courtly experience of amour courtois in ancient Egyptian literary love songs; medieval Byzantium popular love songs; Rusthaveli’s The Man in the Panther’s Skin, written in Georgian about 1200; in the pre-Islamic Arabic poetry of Jamil and Buthaynah, the early Islamic poetry of ibn al-Ahnaf, and the eleventh-century Persian romance Wis and Ramin; love poetry of Mozarabic Spain; refrains of medieval France and Germany; tenth-century Icelandic skaldic poetry; and medieval love poetry in the Greek-Italian dialect of Calabria.

[8] Id. pp. 3-4. Scholars have provided rationalizations for denying and reversing men’s manifest subordination in courtly love. The collapse of reason is now pervasive in medieval scholarship:

As is now generally recognized, the rhetoric of courtly love is a social discourse of coercive power, asserting the courtier’s dominance over both the female love-object and men of lesser status.

Garrison (2015) p. 323. Anti-men gender bigotry is now similarly interpreted as promoting gender equality. Moreover, as the Costa Condordia disaster made clear, men continue to be denied equal opportunity to get off sinking ships.

[9] Id. p. 1. The term “salvage” apparently is an archaic form of “savage.”

[10] Goody (2006) p. 285. These are the concluding sentences of the chapter. The non-gendered reference to military action underscores lack of concern for men’s lives.

[image] Knight serving woman in amour courtois. Oil on canvas. Edmund Leighton, English, 1901. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Bédier, Joseph. 1896. “Les fêtes de mai et les commencemens de la poésie lyrique au moyen âge.” Revue des Deux Mondes 135: 146-72.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the rise of European love-lyric. Vol I. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Garrison, Jennifer. 2015. “Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and the Danger of Masculine Interiority.” The Chaucer Review. 49 (3): 320-343.

Goody, Jack. 2006. The theft of history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, C. S. 1936. The allegory of love; a study in medieval tradition. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Marrou, Henri-Irénée. 1947. “Au dossier de l’amour courtois.” Revue du Moyen Age Latin 3: 81-89.

criminalizing seduction: the crime of men seducing women

criminalizing and incarcerating men

The vastly disproportionate incarceration of men relative to women results in part from anti-men sex discrimination in the administration of criminal justice. Anti-men sex bias is also built into criminal law itself. A stark example is criminalizing men seducing women. Criminalizing seduction hasn’t criminalized women seducing men. Moreover, men historically have been highly disproportionately burdened with the role of soliciting amorous relationships. Even if seduction law were facially gender-neutral, criminalizing seduction would have a greatly disparate impact on men. Initiatives to criminalize “rape by deception” function similarly to laws criminalizing seduction.[1] In a society that truly values equal justice under law, men seducing women shouldn’t be a crime.

Since late in the nineteenth century, men seducing women has been a crime in jurisdictions covering almost all the U.S. population. While statutory and case law varies, the crime of seduction has been generally understood as:

the act of a male person in having intercourse with a woman of chaste character under the promise of marriage, or by the use of enticement or persuasion. [2]

Seduction typically has been a felony offense. Some criminal codes criminalized seduction more broadly. The Michigan criminal code currently states:

Any man who shall seduce and debauch any unmarried woman shall be guilty of a felony, punishable by imprisonment in the state prison not more than 5 years or by fine of not more than 2,500 dollars; but no prosecution shall be commenced under this section after 1 year from the time of committing the offense. [3]

Between 2002 and 2008, more than 30 men were convicted in Michigan for this felony crime of seduction.

Only men can be guilty of the crime of seduction. Women’s sexual allure and seductive power is pervasively presented in popular media. Nonetheless, the crime of seduction is explicitly limited to men seducing women.  Legal scholars, even within our current culture of intense concern about gender, tend to take for granted sex discrimination in considering seduction and rape. Anti-men gender bias in defining crimes of seduction and rape probably reflects in part gender stereotyping from the vast over-representation of men among incarcerated persons. That anti-men gender bias is also consistent with the devaluation of damages to men from forced financial fatherhood that can arise from seduction and rape.

Criminalizing men seducing women has centered on men seducing women with promises of marriage. In the crime of seduction, the element “promise to marry” is merely seductive speech. Issues of due consideration, meeting of minds, legally relevant intent, and formal contracting don’t figure in courts considering men’s seductive promises to marry. A man might verbally promise to marry in the heat of passionate embrace. That’s much different from a promise to marry in a formal engagement ceremony. A man might promise to marry and then change his mind. Yet under laws criminalizing men seducing women, only the man’s expressed promise to marry is significant. The criminalization of seduction under “promise to marry” is criminalization of men’s seductive speech, not criminalization of men breaking a legally cognizable commitment to marry.

The criminalization of men seducing women has in some jurisdictions encompassed a broad range of men’s sexual expression. In a 1904 case before the Supreme Court of Washington, a man was accused of seducing a woman of age twenty-one. The man had been visiting the woman twice a week at her father’s house. After about eight months of such courtship, the man proposed marriage, and the woman accepted. They agreed to a marriage date two years in the future. Immediately after the marriage had been set, the man solicited sex from the woman. She refused for a week or two. The man told her that if she got pregnant, he would marry her right away. They then frequently had consensual sex. About four months later, the woman recognized that she was pregnant. She told the man to marry her immediately. He refused. He then was charged with seduction. The Washington statute stated:

If any person seduce and debauch any unmarried woman of previously chaste character, he shall be punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary not more than five years, or by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars and imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year. If before judgment upon an indictment the defendant marry the woman thus seduced, it is a bar to any further prosecution for the offense. [4]

The question before the Supreme Court was whether the man had seduced the woman to whom he was engaged. The Court reasoned:

The word ‘seduce,’ in this statute, is used in its ordinary legal meaning, and implies the use of arts, persuasion, or wiles to overcome the resistance of the female who is not disposed of her own volition to step aside from the path of virtue. No doubt, the most common method of enticing an unmarried, virtuous woman from rectitude is by promises of marriage; but there are other arts, wiles, and promises which may be made, and which may be acted upon by a virtuous woman. If our statute had intended to limit seduction only to those cases where there was a promise of marriage, it would have said so, as has been done in other states. Not having said so, we must conclude that any seductive arts or promises, where the female involuntarily and reluctantly yields thereto, are sufficient {for finding a man having committed the crime of seduction}. [5]

The Court thus upheld convicting the man for seduction. Under the Court’s definition of the crime of seduction, a large share of men have, at some point in their lives, been guilty of the felony crime of seduction.

Seduction law in action underscores the anti-men gender bias in criminal law. Seduction statutes specify men as offenders and women as victims. Requirements in statutes that women be “of chaste character” have little significance to actual judicial rulings. Requirements for corroborating testimony are eviscerated in practice.[6] The claim “he promised to marry me” essentially serves as a potent legal weapon for women. A woman could easily summon criminal punishment upon a man with whom she had sex and who wouldn’t marry her. “Shotgun marriage” isn’t a hillbilly institution; men have commonly been forced into marriage by criminal law. More recent laws force financial fatherhood on men, with the threat of imprisonment even in the absence of counsel. Those laws reflect the same structure of gynocentrism.

In response to criminally charging a man with seducing a woman, marriage between them served as an alternative to incarceration in shackling the man’s bodily self-possession. In the U.S. about 1965, thirty-seven states encompassing 83% of the U.S. population had explicit statutory law criminalizing a man seducing a woman (the crime of seduction). Marriage was a recognized legal defense in thirty-one of those states.[7] The Court of Appeals of Kentucky in 1894 explained Kentucky’s seduction statute:

It seeks to provide for the woman and her issue, if any. It cares not for the man, except to punish him; and the punishment prescribed is to force him to keep his promise, rather than go to the penitentiary. [8]

Some seduction statutes explicitly stated that the charge of seduction was merely suspended pending the man serving a given number of years of marriage. In Georgia, a man charged with seducing a woman had to serve five years of marriage before his seduction charge would be dismissed. In addition, he was required to post a bond for the financial support of his wife and any children.[9] Reviewing a seduction case, the Harvard Law Review in 1903 declared:

Even as a matter of policy, however, it seems questionable whether the subsequent marriage should be treated as an absolute defense {to the crime of a man seducing a woman}; for the end desired would seem to be more effectively reached by merely refraining from the prosecution in cases where the defendant was willing in good faith to fulfill his marital obligations, still reserving the power to prosecute where, as in the principal case, the defendant has gone through the form of marriage merely to escape responsibility. [10]

In the shadow of the law, many men undoubtedly married women to avoid a charge of seduction and a potential felony sentence to incarceration.

Crimes of seduction and “rape by deception” support dominant public practices of bodily dispossessing men. The most prevalent, state-institutionalized practices of bodily dispossession are compulsory military service and incarceration. Conscription and related practices, e.g. U.S. Selective Service registration, explicitly target men for bodily dispossession. Criminal justice around the world highly disproportionately incarcerates men. Under the currently dominant understanding of rape, highly authoritative, scientific surveys indicate that more women rape men than men rape women. Men being seduced by women and men being raped by women are nonetheless largely matters of laughter, scorn, and denial. The definitions of crimes reflect deeply entrenched anti-men bias in public concern about bodily self-possession.[11]

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[1] Anglo-American common law historically hasn’t criminalized rape by deception, with two exceptions. A man impersonating a woman’s husband in order to have consensual sex with her has been legally defined as rape. A doctor having sex with a woman by claiming that sex to be a medical treatment has also been legally defined as rape. Rubenfeld (2013) pp. 1395-7.

Legal scholars and criminalization activists have for decades been pushing to expand criminalization of rape by deception. In recent years, U.S. colleges and universities have been enacting new sex regulations that greatly expand the definition of sex crimes. Id. Consider the symbolic violence against men in this statement in a scholarly article published in 2005:

The belief that male aggression and female passivity in the sex act comprise moments of seduction instead of coercion is one of several rape myths that effectively equates consent with its opposite.

That sentence ends with a footnote citing a statement in a 1995 scholarly article:

It may not be that rape is forced seduction but that seduction is a subtler form of rape.

Donovan (2005) p. 63, with footnote quoting a scholarly article published in 1995.

[2] Humble (1921) pp. 144-5. In 1962, the Proposed Official Draft of the Model Penal Code declared:

A male who has intercourse with a female not his wife … is guilty of an offense if … the other person is a female who is induced to participate by a promise of marriage which the actor does not mean to perform.

Quoted in Wadlington (1967) p. 192. Anti-men sex discrimination has long characterized both the definition of rape and adjudication of rape claims.

[3] Michigan Penal Code § 750.532. College sex crime tribunals don’t typically impose a time limit on allegations. In response to a two-year-old complaint of non-consensual sexual contact, Brandeis University placed the accused student on “emergency suspension,” tarred him with a guilty finding in a travesty of fair process, and on that finding issued him a “Disciplinary Warning” that became part of his academic record.

[4] Washington Criminal Code, Section 7066, 2 Ballinger’s Ann. Codes & St., cited in State v. O’Hare (1904), 68 L.R.A. 107, 36 Wash. 516, 79 P. 39.

[5] State v. O’Hare (1904), 68 L.R.A. 107. The Supreme Court of Iowa declared that to seduce (in the context of criminalizing men seducing women) means “to draw away from the path of rectitude and duty in any manner, by flattery, promises, bribes, or otherwise.” The Supreme Court declared that allegation of specific seductive acts isn’t necessary to support a charge of seduction against a man. Brown v. Kingsley, 38 Iowa 220 (1874). The Supreme Court of Iowa subsequently found that a man obtaining sex by means of “caresses and flatteries” had thereby committed the crime of seduction. Hawn v. Banghart, 39 N.W. 251, 14 Am.St.Rep. 261 (1888). The judicial intent seems to have been to punish a man for sex likely to be subject to popular disapproval.

Blackstone noted that Roman law criminalized a man consensually eloping with a woman. The man faced the penalty of death for that crime. The woman who consensually eloped with the man wasn’t subject to criminal charges. With a wryness that eludes modern misandristic legal scholarship, Blackstone observed:

our English law does not entertain quite such sublime ideas of the honour of either sex as to lay the blame of a mutual fault upon one of the transgressors only; and therefore makes it a necessary ingredient in the crime of rape that it must be against the woman’s will.

Blackstone (1769 / 1908) Bk. 4, Ch. 15, Sec. III. Blackstone under-estimated modern ideology for criminalizing men. Under the U.S. Mann Act of 1910 (“White-Slave Traffic Act”), men were criminalized for consensually eloping with women across state lines. For modern misandristic legal scholarship promoting greater criminalization and incarceration of men, see e.g. Coughlin (1998) and VanderVelde (1996).

[6] CLM (1882) pp. 336-43, Humble (1921) p. 152.

[7] See the table of U.S. state seduction laws ca. 1965 (Excel version), based on Wadlington (1967) p. 189, n. 38; p. 193, n. 66. Marriage as defense provisions covered 89% of the population in states with laws criminalizing seduction.

In most jurisdictions, the man offering to marry the woman wasn’t sufficient to suspend criminal prosecution of him. The woman’s decision of whether to accept the man’s offer of marriage determined whether the state would suspend criminal prosecution of the man. See ruling and discussion of authoritative views in the Supreme Court of Mississippi’s decision Williams v. State, 92 Miss. 70, 45 So. 146, 15 Am.Ann.Cas. 1026 (1908).

[8] Commonwealth v. Wright, 16 Ky.L.Rptr. 251 (1894).

[9] Humble (1921) p. 149. Under the seduction law in Arkansas, marriage suspends prosecution for seduction, but the seduction charge may be revived if the marriage breaks up after any period of years. Id. p. 150. Cf. Deuteronomy 22:28. The Oklahoma seduction law specifies a penitentiary sentence not to exceed five years for a man convicted of seducing a woman. The law also specifies:

the penalty for abandonment or intolerable cruelty which causes the wife to leave within two years after a marriage which took place between the parties pending a seduction charge may vary from two to twenty years of penitentiary confinement.

Wadlington (1967) p. 195, n. 82, citing Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 21, § 1120 (1958).

[10] HLR (1903) p. 63. On marriage as punishment, Murray (2012). As is typical of current legal scholarship, Murray ignores the acute anti-men bias in criminal punishment.

[11] Rubenfeld (2013) puts forward self-possession as the formal legal logic of rape law. Rubenfeld seems oblivious to the anti-men bias in violating self-possession. But Rubenfeld does seem to recognize the potential danger of encroaching upon normative beliefs that now strictly discipline elite discourse.

[image] Shata Prison. Thanks to Ori and Wikipedia.


Blackstone, William, ed. by George Sharswood. 1769 / 1908. Commentaries on the laws of England. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.

CLM. 1882. “Seduction as a Crime.” Criminal Law Magazine 3(3): 331-47.

Coughlin, Anne M. 1998. “Sex and Guilt.” Virginia Law Review. 84 (1): 1-46.

Donovan, Brian. 2005. “Gender Inequality and Criminal Seduction: Prosecuting Sexual Coercion in the Early-20th Century.” Law & Social Inquiry. 30 (1): 61-88.

HLR. 1903. “Recent Cases.” Harvard Law Review. 17(1): 55-64.

Humble, H. W. 1921. “Seduction as a Crime.” Columbia Law Review. 21 (2): 144-154.

Murray, Melissa. 2012. “Marriage as Punishment.” Columbia Law Review. 112 (1): 1-65.

Rubenfeld Jed. 2013. “The riddle of rape-by-deception and the myth of sexual autonomy.” Yale Law Journal. 122 (6): 1372-1443.

VanderVelde, Lea. 1996. “The Legal Ways of Seduction.” Stanford Law Review. 48 (4): 817-901.

Wadlington, Walter. 1967. “Shotgun Marriage by Operation of Law.” Georgia Law Review 1: 183-204.