Genderswap logo Genderswap

Permalink to original version of “Adultery punishments were gender-biased against women” Adultery punishments were gender-biased against women

Everyone knows that a gender double standard in punishment for adultery has existed throughout history. For the same reason as for that gender double standard, almost everyone believes the double standard went against men. It didn’t. With astonishing boldness in our era of Soviet-quality intellectual life, a recent scholarly study of early modern France declared:

Whether a wife committed adultery or her husband did, the blame lay with the wife. … We usually think of premodern European adultery laws and the courts that applied these laws as intended to punish men’s illicit sex while condoning women’s illicit sex. This is not how late medieval courts operated. Instead, courts punished women for adultery, particularly wives, while punishing only a fraction of male offenders. [1]

Research on punishment practices centuries ago is much more difficult than studying what’s going on right now. The evidence for gender bias against women in criminal justice today is as overwhelming as the vastly disproportionate imprisonment of women. Compiling examples of grotesquely unequal justice under law by gender requires a wry sense of humor. Earnest scholars might ponder how modern scholars have misrepresented Blackstone’s figure of coverture and ignored mass imprisonment of women for debt in early modern England.[2] Ordinary folk might just consider a story from medieval Latin literature.

A wise and powerful queen had a beautiful son. She was very fond of him. Exploiting the socially devalued lives of ordinary women, the queen ordered five women (soldiers) to protect him:

she charged them, under the heaviest penalties, to preserve him from every possible injury. The soldiers were on guard night and day. Before the door of his bed-chamber they suspended a burning lamp so that the approach of an intruder might be more easily detected. They similarly kept a dog, whose bark was loud and piercing, to rouse them from sleep. [3]

Putting aside his mother’s loving concern for his safety, the young gentleman sought the pleasures of the world. His chance came when a Duchess passing by noticed his beauty. She amorously proposed to him. He readily agreed. He killed the guard dog, put out the watch lamp, and at night escaped with the Duchess. He was a strong, independent man who undoubtedly played well the game of seduction.

woman unjustly killed

Punishment of the runaway man and woman differed characteristically by gender. A white dame like Lancelot and today’s benighted manlets hunted down the fugitives:

A battle speedily ensued, in which the champion triumphed, and decapitated the seducer on the spot. The gentleman she conveyed back to the palace

In an adulterous affair, the woman gets castrated or killed. The man gets forgiven. So it was in this story. The man married a powerful noblewoman. He received many gifts and pious advice from his mother and others. He lived out the rest of his days in peace as a married man. Occasionally he surely recalled his few pleasurable nights fondly with his duchess-lover who had been decapitated for her sexual offense with him.[4]

The most important challenge isn’t to understand the historical truth. It’s to change present injustice.


[1] McDougall (2014) pp. 208, 225.

[2] Imprisonment of women for debt (inability to pay “child support” arrears) still exists in the U.S. today. However, most persons now in prisons and jails are being held for criminal offenses.

[3] Gesta Romanorum, Tale1 (“Of Love”), from Latin trans. Swan & Hooper (1876) pp. 1-3. I’ve made non-substantial changes in the translation for more fluent reading. The subsequent quote is from id. p. 2.

[4] The man who committed adultery was significantly punished in some instances. For example, in the Latin Arthurian romance Arthur and Gorlagon, the adulterous man was required to kiss the bloody, decapitated head of his lover. In Gesta Romanorum, Tale 56, the head of a man’s decapitated lover similarly served as an instrument of his punishment. Trans. id. pp. 93-5. The gender bias in punishment (who is killed) is clear in both stories.

[image] Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. Caravaggio, 1607. Held in National Gallery, London. Thanks to Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons.


McDougall, Sara. 2014. “The Opposite of the Double Standard: Gender, Marriage, and Adultery Prosecution in Late Medieval France.” Journal of the History of Sexuality. 23 (2): 206-225.

Swan, Charles, and Wynnard Hooper, trans. 1876. Gesta romanorum: entertaining moral stories. New York: Dover Publications Inc. (reprint edition of 1969).

Article licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License