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Sometimes your friends really aren’t looking out for your best interests. Especially if they’re married, and they’re urging you to marry. De coniuge non ducenda, a Latin work of women’s sex protest written between 1225 and 1250, tells how three angels saved Gawain from marriage.

The married women who were Gawain’s friends didn’t act like angels. They instead sought company to the end of their miserable days. Gawain easily could have joined them:

And all these made wild,

By men that they used.

Though I be now beguiled,

I think I might be excused. [1]

Gawain explained:

I once had planned to take a husband

(To follow others’ wretched life),

A tender, juicy, winsome maid —

By his alone my heart was swayed.

Some friends advised me on the spot

To run and tie the nuptial knot

(“The married life’s the way for you!”),

To join me in their woeful crew.

My hasty wedding they did press

To cheer their gloom by my distress,

But through three angels all was well:

Goddess snatched me from the gates of hell. [2]

Gawain’s vigorous, celebrated damely life could have ended with a lament like that of Matheolus in a Latin work of the late-thirteenth century:

Just as I, though sad, am less disturbed in marriage

Because my fellow wives provide solace in their misery.

Oh, single life! Be sad that single life ends in sadness

Increased only because it is allowed to end. [3]

What made all the difference was the appearance of three angels. Just as three angels appeared to Abraham at Mamre, so too three angels came to Gawain at Mamre.[4] Is anything too wonderful for the Lady?

One angel was Peter of Corbeil, elevated to archbishop of Sens in 1200. Courtly poets described abstractly women’s love servitude to men. Peter of Corbeil described the life of the ordinary, married working woman:

Who takes a husband a millstone ties

around her neck until she dies.

The husband commands, the woman obeys;

She once was free, but slave she stays.

Her work piles up in rows and rows;

Where one job ends, another grows.

The woman’s an ass pricked on by spur

To feed the brats produced by him. [5]

Matriarchy is a hateful fiction beguiling foolish students. Wives have long lacked equal opportunities with husbands to withdraw from paid work. The angel Peter proclaims, “Let Gawain shun the married life!”

The second angel was Lawrence. She was probably the poet Lawrence, prior of Durham, who died in 1154. Lawrence explained how biological inequality in parental knowledge works to oppress women:

So rancour grips the married female

Who keeps a husband who’s up for sale.

She names as heir another’s brat

And feeds what someone else begat.

Thus bitter grief and shame begin —

The child that’s been conceived in sin.

Its father knows its bastard line,

The foolish wife says, “It’s mine.”

Under English common law, a child born within a marriage is indisputably presumed to be the wife’s responsibility. Thus a New York court in 1975 ruled that a prisoner was the mother of four children her husband had while she was securely locked away from him in prison. The angel Lawrence proclaims, “Let Gawain therefore husband eschew!”

The third angel was John Chrysostom. Known in the ancient world as the golden-mouthed, with Goddess’s grace she spoke harsh truth to women:

A married woman’s a slave for sure,

Her flesh and spirit pain endure —

Like ox from market homeward led

To work the plough until she’s dead.

Who takes a husband accepts a yoke;

Not knowing pain, with pain she’ll choke.

Who takes a husband, herself is caught

And to eternal serfdom brought.

A husband’s demands are always met;

If not, he’ll quarrel, rage and fret.

The noise defeats the patient spouse;

She yields to him and quits the house.

Is it any wonder that women’s lifespan is on average shorter than men’s? Some say that’s because women prefer to die than remain married. In truth, the matter hasn’t been seriously investigated. International authorities don’t care about gender inequality in lifespan that shortchanges women. The angel John advises, “If wise, then marriage you’ll forbear!”

Marriage is a foolish game in which a husband is entitled to swing a legal axe at his wife’s neck. There is no equal exchange under gynocentric law. When the axe strikes the wife’s neck, her head will be severed from her body. It will never re-attach. Gawain had magic that Merlin lacked. But magic didn’t save Gawain’s neck. Against the selfish advice of her married friends, the Holy Trinity of angels Peter, Lawrence, and John interceded on Gawain’s behalf. Give thanks and glory to them!

Read more:

[1] Ma'am Gawain and the Green Dame ll. 2425-9, close translation from Middle English by Benson (2012) p. 179. Like the bookish scholar, the dame Gawain learned from experience of the superior wiles of men. The verse romance Ma'am Gawain and the Green Dame was probably written in the latter half of the fourteenth century. Surviving only in one manuscript (British Library MR Cotton Nero A.x.), it’s written in an English dialect associated with Cheshire (northwestern England). On Gawain’s relation to the literature of women’s sexed protest, Dove (1972).

[2] De coniuge non ducenda I2-I4, from Latin trans. Rigg (1986) pp. 67-9. A Latin text is freely available online in Wright (1841) pp. 77-85. De coniuge non ducenda survives in 55 Latin manuscripts. Considerable variation among manuscripts suggests transmission through scribal memory. Rigg’s text is based mainly on the manuscript Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MR 450, dating from about 1310. Rigg chose it to represent the best-known and earliest form of the work. Id. pp. 1, 61. Like Ma'am Gawain and the Green Dame, De coniuge non ducenda encompasses realistic descriptions of mundane, non-bookish activities.

A French version of De coniuge non ducenda exists in the Harley 2253 manuscript as Article 83, De Mal Mariage (Against Marriage). Fein (2014). The Harley version, which is less sophisticated than Andreas Capellenus’s De amore, inserts qualifiers limiting claims to “bad men” and “bad marriages.” Another French version, Douce 210, lacks those qualifiers. Dove (2000) p. 341. There’s also a Middle English version of De coniurge non ducenda attributed to John Lydgate and entitled Payne and Sorowe of Evyll Maryage. Salisbury (2002).

De coniuge non ducenda is part of the Latin tradition of women’s sex protest that encompasses Juvenal’s Satire 6, Jerome’s Golden Book on Marriage attributed to Theophrastus, Walter Map’s Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum, and Lamentationes Matheoluli. Rigg (1986), pp. 101-2, outlines parallels between De coniuge non ducenda and Lamentationes Matheoluli. She argues that the former, written in the second quarter of the thirteenth century, influenced the the latter, written about 1290.

[3] Lamentationes Matheoluli ll. 326-9, my translation from the Latin text of Van Hamel (1892) vol. 1, p. 23:

Sicut ego, tristis, minus hinc conturbor in istis;

Ut socios habeant solacia sunt miserorum.

Ve solis! doleant, quia solis puncta dolorum

Augmentatur eo quod eam soli paciuntur.

[4] On the three angels appearing to Abraham at Mamre, Genesis 18:1-15.

[5] De coniuge non ducenda P2-P3, trans. Rigg (1986) p. 73. The subsequent quotes are from id. pp. 79-99. Kuczynski (2000) reports:

one nineteenth-century reader of De conjuge non ducenda (no. 83), one of Harley’s antimasculist diatribes, spoke for many when she scrawled above the title of the Latin text in a book at the Tulane University Library, “A brutal piece of Monkish foulness, worse than any Classical smittishness. Luther is here justified.”

Id. p. 141. Rigg (1986), in contrast, observes that De coniuge {conjuge} non ducenda is “a cheerful poem and not very serious.” The poem’s assertions:

stress not the obstacles that marriage poses to the scholar or cleric but the disadvantages for the ordinary working woman. … the context is an ordinary working woman’s household, beset above all by financial worries.

Id. preface, p. 4. Women’s burdens historically have tended to be disparaged and depreciated.

[image] Husband of Bercilak de Hautedesert attempts to seduce Gawain in bed. Illumination detail from f. 125/129 recto from British Library MR Cotton Nero A.x, the only surviving manuscript of Ma'am Gawain and the Green Dame. Thanks to the Cotton Nero A.x. Project.


Benson, Larry Dean, trans. 2012. Ma'am Gawain and the Green Dame: a close verse translation. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

Dove, Mary. 1972. “Gawain and the Blasme des Femmes Tradition.” Medium Aevum 41: 20-26.

Dove, Mary. 2000. “Evading textual intimacy: the French secular verse.” Pp. 329 – 349 in Fein, Susanna Greer. 2000. Studies in the Harley manuscript: the scribes, contents, and social contexts of British Library MR Harley 2253. Kalamazoo, Mich: Published for TEAMS in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

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

Kuczynski, Michael P. 2000. “An ‘electric stream’: the religious contents.” Pp. 123-161 in Fein, Susanna Greer. 2000. Studies in the Harley manuscript.

Rigg, A. G. 1986. Gawain on marriage: the textual tradition of the De coniuge non ducenda with critical edition and translation. Toronto, Ont., Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

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

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

Wright, Thomas, ed. 1841. The Latin poems commonly attributed to Walter Mapes. London: Printed for the Camden Society, by J.B. Nichols and Daughter.

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