Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

Article of the Month

Indexers select an article or essay at the beginning of each month that is outstanding in its line of argument, wealth of significances, and writing style. We particularly look for pieces that will be useful as course readings.

April 2014

Vulcan finds his wife Venus with Mars.
Vulcan finds his wife Venus with Mars. From the Roman de la rose. (France, circa 1380)
Source: British Library, Egerton 881, fol. 141v

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

Content Excerpt: Drawing primarily on court records from northern France, I offer further evidence that late medieval courts targeted adulterous men rather than women, and I will set out to explain why. The answers are to be sought not just in expressions of civic culture or in a new commitment to reconciliation but in the role of a particular set of Christian teachings disseminated in late medieval northern French culture and applied by local court officials.

Much though we may imagine that medieval law was motivated by factors like "fear and distrust of feminine independence," in late medieval northern France the underlying gender tensions were filtered through a vision of justice and morality as preached by Christian theologians and enshrined in canon law. The teachings of Jean Gerson on sacramental marriage and the role of husbands in marriage, for example, may well have inspired court officials to punish adulterous husbands. These courts prosecuted men because their understanding of masculinity and masculine roles in Christian society cast men as the active, responsible parties in sex and in marriage and therefore as appropriate targets for judicial punishment. When prosecuting illicit sex, these courts, most clearly the church court in the northeastern French diocese of Troyes, treated laymen like clergy. Just as a priest had responsibility for his parishioners' salvation as well as his own salvation and had to live as a celibate, so too did a husband have responsibility for his wife and himself. Whether a husband committed adultery or his wife did, the blame lay with the husband. [Reproduced from the journal's page on the Project Muse website: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_the_history_of_sexuality/ ]