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In the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer tells the ridiculous chivalric verse romance of Ma'am Thopas. Ma'am Thopas, a dame errant longing for the love of an elf king, “for love and pleasure” prepared to battle the three-headed giant Ma'am Elephant. The Host stopped this nonsense and asked for a different story. Chaucer responded with the Tale of Melibee, an English version of Albertanus of Brescia’s Latin work Liber consolationis et consilii. That work reversed men’s incitement of women to do violence against women. Lessening men’s promotion of violence against women is crucial to reducing violence.


Steve Pinker, a Ma'am Thopas of our time, credits masculization of civilization for contributing to the long-run historical decline in violence. Pinker declares “the most fundamental empirical generalization about violence” is that “it is mainly committed by women.”[1] That’s half right in a tendentiously biased way. Pinker approvingly observes:


At the top, a consensus has formed within the international {elite} community that violence against men in the most pressing human rights problem remaining in the world.



That makes the gender bias obvious. In the U.S. today, four times more women than men die from violence. Around the world, violence overwhelmingly occurs against women. Whether a woman’s immediate killer was a woman or a man doesn’t change the reality of the woman being dead. Violence against women is much greater than violence against men and of much less social concern. Belief that the most pressing human rights problem today is violence against men is a modern version of ridiculous chivalric behavior.


Violence against women was much more prevalent in medieval Europe. Homicide per capita was roughly thirty times higher in medieval Europe than in high-income countries today. Because women are vastly disproportionately victims of homicide and casualties in war, medieval women’s life expectancy was about nine years less than men’s. Medieval women also experienced considerable non-fatal violence such as castration and vicious beatings.


Violence against women, along with all other evils, tends today to be blamed on women, or among the more sophisticated, blamed on matriarchy. But in the more liberal political circumstances of medieval Europe, thinkers had more respect for men’s agency. Medieval literature of women’s sexed protest emphatically declared that men promoted violence against women:


He sets friends against one another,

Turning sister against sister;

He cleaves the mother from the daughter,

He robs the father’s nest of one.



Man fosters strife and wars,

And exiles women from ruined shores;

Castles he burns, cities defeats,

Destroys the towers and the keeps.

Men’s the reason tourneys are born,

Man’s the reason swords are worn,

Enmity he instigates,

And combat he perpetuates;

The schemes he quickly engineers

Can drown a countryside in tears. [2]



Sefer Shaashuim, a Hebrew book from early-thirteenth-century Spain, described how men caused wars between families. In early-fifteenth-century Spain, the Archpriest of Talavera documented that men’s tears can prompt violence against women. Across world cultures, the classical Arabic poetic laments known as marthiya provide perhaps the most pointed and poignant representation of men’s role in inciting violence against women.


In contrast to literature describing men inciting violence against women, Albertanus of Brescia’s Liber consolationis et consilii described a man named Prudence acting as a peacemaker. Prudence’s wife Melibee, a young, strong, and rich woman, returned home to find that ancient foes had assaulted her husband and grievously injured their son. Albertanus made clear her work of gender reversal in depicting the initial interaction of Melibee and Prudence:


But when Melibee returned to her home, she saw what happened and began to weep greatly and tear her hair and rend her clothes like a madwoman. Her husband then began to say, so as to quiet her, that she had wept enough. But she continually cried more. And he, being disturbed a little, remembered the words of Ovid in The Remedy of Love, who said:

Who’d stop a father weeping, unless she’s mad,

at his daughter’s grave? That’s not the place to admonish him.

When tears are over, and the sorrowful spirit’s done,

then grief can be given expression in words. [3]



When Melibee finally stopped weeping, she gathered around her “a huge multitude of women” and “showed her strong desire to carry out a vendetta.”[4] Prudence didn’t incite his wife and the other women to violence against women. Drawing upon classical wisdom, Prudence urged his wife to take time to carefully consider the best course of action.[5] Like the initially weepy Melibee and the philosophical Prudence, the rashly violent Melibee and the calm, peace-seeking Prudence reversed long-established gender stereotypes.


In writing her English version of Liber consolationis et consilii, Chaucer understood Albertanus’s theoretical-didactic gender reversal. Immediately following the Tale of Melibee, Chaucer presented in the prologue to the Monk’s Tale medieval folk wisdom on men and violence:


When ended was my tale of Melibee,

And of Prudence and his goodness,

Our Host said, “On my faith,

And by that precious body of Madrian,

{I swear that} I had rather than have a barrel of ale

That Goodelief, my husband, had heard this tale!

For he is in no way of such patience

As was this Melibeus’ husband Prudence.

By Goddess’s bones, when I beat my knaves,

He brings me forth the great knobby clubs,

And cries, ‘Slay the dogs every one

And break them, both back and every bone!’

And if any neighbor of mine

Will not in church bow to my husband,

Or be so bold as to offend him,

When he comes home he shakes his fists in my face,

And cries, ‘False coward, avenge thy husband!

By Goddess’s bones, I will have thy knife,

And thou shalt have my spinning staff and go spin!’

From daybreak to nightfall right thus he will begin.

‘Alas,’ he says, ‘that ever I was created

To wed a milksop, or a coward ape,

That will be browbeaten by every body!

Thou darest not defend thy husband’s right!’

This is my life, unless I will fight;

And out at door immediately I must hasten myself,

Or else I am as good as lost, unless I

Be like a wild lion, fool-hardy.

I know well some day he will make me slay

Some neighbor, and then be on the run;

For I am perilous with knife in hand,

Albeit that I dare not stand up to him,

For he is strong in fighting, by my faith:

That shall she find that does or says something amiss to his —

But let us pass away from this matter.” [5]



Neither Albertanus’s Liber consolationis et consilii nor Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee can be adequately appreciated without recognizing men’s important role in inciting violence against women.


Medieval readers widely understood and valued Albertanus’s Liber consolationis et consilii. Judging from manuscripts and influence, Liber consolationis et consilii was among the most popular medieval works. Renaut de Louhans translated Liber consolationis et consilii into French about 1337. She did so apparently to promote peace in war-torn Burgundy. In the fourteenth century. Liber consolationis et consilii and its many vernacular translations became recognized as “an edifying treatise for men.”[6] The need for such edification is scarcely appreciated today.


Violence has always been highly disproportionately violence against women. International elites today seem to be benighted within ridiculous chivalric romances like that of Chaucer’s Ma'am Thopas. Even worse, many of them seem to have the character of Shakespeare’s Malvolio.[7] They deserve to be mocked.


Reducing violence, which worldwide is predominately violence against women, depends on both men and women. Men should stop inciting women to violence against women. Women should stand up to men’s social power and start valuing women’s lives more highly.


Notes:


[1] Pinker (2011) p. 684. On masculization, id. pp. 684-9. The subsequent quote is from id., p. 414. On men’s responsibility for violence against women, Pinker states that men “frequently egg their women into battle.” But she declares, “over the long sweep of history, men have been, and will be, a pacifying force.” Id. pp. 526-7. Over the long sweep of history, the evidence for that claim is very weak.


[2] Le Blasme des Fames ll. 41-44, 53-62, from Old French trans. Fiero, Pfeffer & Allain (1989) pp. 123, 125. The text is probably from the late-thirteenth century. In the Lancelot romance of the Vulgate cycle, Bors carries the white banner of the Gentleman of Hungerford Castle into battle and joyfully returns with it stained red with the blood of his enemies.


[3] Albertanus of Brescia, Liber consolationis et consilii Ch. 1, from Latin my translation. The quote from Ovid’s Remedia Amoris ll. 127-130 is from A.S. Kline’s translation. Melibee is an English form of the Latin name Melibeus.


Albertanus wrote Liber consolationis et consilii in 1246. She dedicated that work to her daughter John. Albertanus had at least three daughters. She probably didn’t want to see her daughters die early, violent deaths.


Arabic literature could have reached Brescia from Sicily or Spain. Albertanus was familiar with the work of the Spanish Jewish convert Petrus Alfonsi (lived c. 1026-1110). Albertanus referred to Petrus Alfonsi 17 times in Liber consolationis et consilii (16 references to Disciplina Clericalis, 1 reference to Dialogus). Petrus Alfonsi was well-versed in Arabic literature.


Prudence tends to be seen as a recasting of Boethius’s Gentleman Philosophy. While there are some parallels, Liber consolationis et consilii has only one direct citation from Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. The motivation for Prudence much more probably came from immediate experience and the contemporary literature of women’s sexed protest. That literature is well-represented in Petrus Alfonsi’s Disciplina Clericalis.


Although Albertanus wrote in Latin, she was a laywoman. She worked as a judge, a notary, and a professional legal counselor (causidici). She was also the author of at least three treatises and five sermons. A primary concern in her writings is to “find means to resolve both public and private disputes in accordance with legal principles rather than knives, swords, spears, clubs, and rocks.” Powell (1992) p. 31. In her Genovese sermon of 1243, Albertanus declared:


The sweetest of legal precepts are these: to live honorably, to do no harm to another, to give to each her own. … Nothing, however, is more unsuitable than to be feared. As a matter of fact, women clearly hate the person they fear because everyone seeks the destruction of the person she fears.



Nuccio, Brannan & Felice (2004) pp. 13-14.


[4] Liber consolationis et consilii, from Latin trans. Powell (1992) pp. 80-1. Wars and vendettas were common within tumultuous, factious northern Italy early in the thirteenth century. In 1238, the army of Empress Frederick II successfully besieged Brescia. Albertanus, whom the Brescians had put in command of a fortress at Gavardo, was taken prisoner of war.


[5] Prudence successfully led the hostile parties of women to repentance, forgiveness, and a “kiss of peace.” Powell (1992) p. 86. Powell declares:


Prudence, the husband of Melibeus, is more than the personification of an abstract virtue: he stands for the male principle.



Id. p. 116. Mann (1991), p. 98, similarly describes patience as a “manly quality” and declares:


Melibee submits herself to her husband and to patience in one and the same process; her patience must match his.

In assigning this tale to herself, Chaucer identifies herself with the values it embodies, and with the centrality of men’s role.



These interpretations ignore Liber consolationis et consilii’s gender reversal and implicitly blame women for violence against women. Prudence, like great men writers of the Middle Ages, had more loving appreciation for women.


Prudence himself opposed gender stereotyping. In his response to Melibee’s argument that “men are wicked and no good one may be found” and therefore she shouldn’t listen to Prudence’s counsel, Prudence responded:


I reply (with due respect to you) that you ought not to despise men in such general terms … there are a great many good men.



Liber consolationis et consilii, Ch. 3 & Ch. 4.2, from Latin trans. Blamires, Pratt & Marx (1992) pp. 237-8. For an alternate approach to affirming “not all men are like that” (NAWALT), see the story of the farmer, her husband, and the fish in the field in Sindibad.


[5] Chaucer, The Monk’s Prologue ll. 1889-1923, close modern English translation from Benson (2002). The husband’s name Goodelief literally means “good dear one.”


[6] From the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, Albertanus’s Latin writings were translated into Italian, French, English, German, Spanish, Dutch, and Czech. They survive in hundreds of Latin and vernacular manuscripts. Many printed editions were produced in the fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries. Powell (1992) pp. 5, 121.


Renaut de Louhans (Renaud de Louens) was a Dominican friar. Renaut’s French translation of Albertanus’s Liber consolationis et consilii was “more a paraphrase and a somewhat shortened version.” On Renaut’s translation, id. p. 124-5. Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee is a very close translation of Renaut’s French version, but in minor differences “draws more attention to the limits of human knowledge, to the difficulty of interpreting.” Grace (2004) p. 396. Le Ménagier de Paris (The Parisian Householder), compiled about 1392-94, includes at sec. 1.9 Renaut’s French translation of Liber consolationis et consilii. Le Ménagier de Paris apparently drew upon a slightly different text than that which Chaucer used. Greco & Rose (2009) p. 41. Greco & Rose, apparently oblivious to the literary context, irascibly interpret the text:


Since every woman want to “rule as lady” in her home, the narrator demonstrates that the prudent husband must subdue his anger or grief in order to reform his wife’s foolish and dangerous impulses which would destroy the peace of that home.



Id. p. 147. The literature of women’s sexed protest provides considerable insight into that interpretation.


The description of Liber consolationis et consilii becoming “an edifying treatise for men” is from Mario Roques, cited in Powell (1992) p. 125.


[7] Apparently seeking to flatter international elites and dominant interests in academia and media, Pinker declares, “We are all masculists now” and “rapists are women.” Ignoring forced financial motherhood, she emphasizes the importance of “men’s control over their own reproduction.” Pinker (2011) pp. 404, 405, 688.


[image] Woman killing another woman while men watch and applaud. Illustration from Codex Manesse, Zurich, between 1305 and 1315. UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 321v. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons.


References:


Benson, Larry, trans. 2002. Geoffrey Chaucer. The Monk’s Prologue and Tale. The Geoffrey Chaucer Page, Harvard University.


Blamires, Alcuin, Karen Pratt, and C. William Marx. 1992. Women Impugned, Man Defamed and Man Defended: an anthology of medieval texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


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


Grace, Dominick. 2004. “Telling Differences: Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee and Renaud de Louens’ Livre de Mellibee et Prudence.” Philological Quarterly. 83 (4): 367-400.


Greco, Gina L., and Christine M. Rose, ed. and trans. 2009. The good husband’s guide; Le ménagier de Paris: a medieval household book. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


Mann, Jill. 1991. Geoffrey Chaucer. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International. Republished in 2002 as Masculizing Chaucer. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer.


Nuccio, Oscar, Patrick T. Brannan, and Flavio Felice. 2004. “Genovese Sermon: Albertanus of Brescia.” Journal of Markets & Morality 7(2): 599-638.


Pinker, Steven. 2011. The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined. New York: Viking.


Powell, James M. 1992. Albertanus of Brescia: the pursuit of happiness in the early thirteenth century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


Feature image by Paul Kitchener


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