Cuckolds and masculinity

I’ve been working again on an article I’m writing on ninth century marriage disputes. One of these concerns the effect of new rules on indissoluble marriage on the case of Count Boso and his wife Ingiltrude. Ingiltrude ran off with one of her husband’s subordinates, fled to another kingdom and refused to return. By secular law, Boso had the right to kill her. By eighth century Frankish law he could have divorced her and remarried. Changes in law and the church’s influence, however, meant that in the ninth century, Boso could not remarry if he separated from Ingiltrude and that if he killed her, he would be severely penalised by the church. As a result, what he did was appeal to the Pope, to try and use his influence with other Frankish kings and clerics to get her returned to him.

A couple of historians with whom I’ve discussed this case have remarked on how humiliating the events must have been to Boso and how damaging to his masculine image. Yet the sources don’t imply this. The motif of cuckoldry (adultery by a man’s wife) is a common one in a lot of medieval and early modern texts. I know of at least two other cases where the adulterous wife is specifically spared by the husband (Vita Gangulfi (early C10) and Thomas Heywood’s play A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603). There are also other examples where cuckolds are presented positively: the most obvious is King Arthur (at least in Malory’s version). But there’s also a long comic tradition of showing cuckolds as ridiculous, as well as a tragic tradition of showing killing an adulterous wife as a necessity for a wronged husband. Under what circumstances can cuckoldry not damage a man’s image?

One basic distinction is that a wife’s adultery can be framed in two ways. On one view it is a betrayal of the husband, and betrayal specifically by one who is subordinate to him (since married to him). The wife who should be loyal to ‘her lord’ is not. The alternative is to put the emphasis on the woman’s trickery. In this view the main wrong is that the wife has deceived her husband. In the first mode of thought there is far less humiliation for the husband. Being betrayed is not in itself humiliating, but arouses feelings of sympathy (think of Jesus). Stories that use this kind of framing tend to stress also that the adulterous man is someone whom the husband was entitled to trust: he’s often a subordinate in some way. Thus Boso is betrayed by his vassal, Gangulf by a cleric, Arthur by Lancelot, Master Frankford (in A Woman Killed with Kindness) by Wendoll, who is his friend, but also being supported by him. Similarly, these texts all take place against a background (explicit or implicit) in which female virtue and chastity is possible and even likely. The wives who betray their husbands are all from a good social background, and it’s sometimes specifically stated that they are of good morals or good reputation. In other words, sympathetic husbands are those who have not been foolishly trusting, but have relied on their wives and other subordinates to behave with appropriate loyalty, which they have failed to do. The fault is not theirs, but that of the guilty pair.

The alternative view is the domain of cuckoldry (which is derived from the word ‘cuckoo’ and thus inevitably foregrounds deceit). If the husband is seen as deceived by his wife, this must be humiliating, because he should be superior to her (in the patriarchal order of things) and his superior brain should be able to detect trickery. The emphasis in stories of this kind is in the outwitting of the husband, or his being foolishly complacent. King Mark, for example, is deceived numerous times by Tristan and Isolde and this starts right from the beginning. On his wedding night, he sleeps not with Isolde, but her maid, in order to hide the fact that Isolde is no longer a virgin. Implicitly, a husband who can’t recognise his own wife (even in the dark) is a fool who doesn’t deserve her. In William Wycherley’s play The Country Wife (1675), the ‘hero’ Horner has a false report put about by his doctor that he’s impotent and thus has access to a number of unsuspecting husband’s wives.

In a number of these stories of the second type, there is a considerable streak of misogyny. It’s often stated that all women are naturally deceitful and lustful, and cuckoldry sometimes becomes seen as almost inevitable. (This form of misogyny has now completely reversed its message: now its claim is that it is men who ‘inevitably’ commit adultery and foolish women who hope to confine them in the unnatural state of monogamy.) Some of the husbands make desperate but unavailing attempts to prevent this: the ‘country wife’ has been chosen precisely as young and ignorant of the ways of the world, but she soon learns them.

There are thus two different ways of describing husbands in this situation, one far more negative than the other. A separate issue is how a husband is expected to act when he does discover the adultery. One option is immediately ruled out. Even worse than being a cuckold is a ‘wittol’: a husband who acquiesces in his wife’s adultery. Some action must be taken. Does the husband have to kill his wife? Here there seems to be a link with the prevailing legal system. It may be illegal to kill an adulterous wife. Not taking violent revenge in this situation looks like cowardice rather than high principles. Similarly, if a man fails to take revenge in a situation where his wife’s family or the adulterer are more powerful than him, this also looks unmanly. The few cases where the husband explicitly spares his wife or the adulterer take place against a background in which he legally (or practically) has the right to kill them and is physically able to do so. He then shows exceptional Christian charity in forbearing to punish his wife (in all the cases there are explicitly Christian references here) and also exceptional magnanimity in not finishing off a defeated traitor/enemy (the adulterer). The extraordinary nature of this pardoning is stressed both by Thomas Heywood and in the Vita Gangulfi. Heywood has other men in the play saying they would not spare the lovers as Frankford has done and in the Vita Gangulfi, the guilty wife and cleric are so mistrustful that Gangulf can actually mean to spare them that they end up killing him for self-protection (he thus dies as a martyr).

Nevertheless, in both cases the wives don’t go unpunished. The alternative for Mistress Frankford and Gangulf’s wife is a variant of exile: they will still be maintained by their husbands, but have no access to them (and in Frankford’s case her children). The aim (explicitly in Frankford’s case, who plans to ‘kill with kindness’) is that they will thus be able to acknowledge and be tortured by their own guilt. The shame is hers, not her husband’s. (Mistress Frankford does indeed soon die, repentant). In Boso’s case it’s not entirely clear what the final outcome would have been, since he never managed to get Ingiltrude back. If he planned simply to have her back as his wife, this may have been potentially humiliating (although he could presumably have held the threat over her of death for any further transgression). However keeping her as wife but no wife could potentially have been entirely consistent with a masculine power so great that it could afford to be merciful. Cuckoldry and its relationship with masculinity is, thus in my view, not universal: how it is imagined is socially and historically specific.


4 thoughts on “Cuckolds and masculinity

  1. From what you say it seems that the way in which adultery is framed or imagined depends on the social or historical context.

    But it’s also possible that the interpretaton of the motives – betrayal or trickery – may vary from case to case. In some relationships which have been sincere or intense both partners may regard it as betrayal whereas in relationships udertaken more lightly the trickery element would seem uppermost.


  2. You point to King Arthur the Cuckolded but isn’t there a perpetual source at the very heart of Christianity. Assuming that Mary is married to Joseph and whilst Jesus’ birth is said to be ‘miraculous’, we are told that The Good Lord God is the Father. So whether by the power of Gods ‘magic’ or otherwise, this makes Joseph cuckolded.


    • That’s a very interesting parallel. I suppose whether it’s technically cuckoldry depends on whether or not Mary was thought of as married or just betrothed to Joseph at the time that the incarnation happened (theologians’ views have varied), but there’s certainly some of the same air to the story. There’s been interesting research done on the cult of St Joseph and the Holy Family. If I remember correctly it starts relatively late; only in the later Middle Ages does Joseph become a model father.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s