Adultery: Men Prosecuted More in Some Medieval Courts

Thanks to Jenny Torres Sanchez, an excellent blogger/YA author, for tipping me off to some interesting research on adultery:

If you were a man living in Late-Medieval Northern France, you might have had an extra incentive to keep your undertunic on. Historian Sara McDougall has found that contrary to common beliefs, men were prosecuted far more often than women for their infidelities.

McDougall, an assistant professor of history at The City University of New York, is also the author of Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012). In an email she described to me her most recent findings:

“Scholars generally assume—and until very recently I was one of them—that medieval courts and societies handled adultery quite unfairly depending on the gender of the alleged offender,” McDougall writes. After all, Medieval Europe is “rather infamous” for its sexual double standard. The common idea has been that women typically bore the brunt of adultery prosecutions, while men were freer to frolic.

“According to this line of reasoning, if they actually ever punished men for adultery, it would almost always have been only as the lover of a married woman,” McDougall adds. “That is to say, the prosecution of these men had nothing to do with their own marital status, and everything to do with the fact that they were sleeping with other men’s wives.”

But in her search of court records, McDougall found the opposite to be true: In addition to being prosecuted more, men were most often punished for their trysts with unmarried women.

And what was the punishment? Usually, a fine.

“We might suspect that courts targeted men as more likely to have more money to pay,” McDougall states. “But these courts operated strangely. They accused people of adultery, but usually only punished one of the two people, and the fines were often tiny, something that women could have paid.”

Why this happened will be one focus of McDougall’s continuing research.

Admittedly, I’m not an expert on the Middle Ages, but I had expected punishments to be harsher then. Sometimes they were, explains McDougall.

“Medieval Southern France is rather infamous for punishing adultery by stripping the offenders naked, tying them together by their genitals, and forcing them to run through the town they live in, with trumpeters and criers,” she writes. “I have no idea if anyone actually ever did this, but they did sometimes sentence people to being whipped through the town.

“Northern French courts are thought to have done much the same, but by the 15th century, almost all of these courts seem most keen on collecting fines.”

In some cases, offended spouses took matters into their own hands. “While we have some evidence of spousal homicide for adultery in Northern France, cuckolded husbands on the whole seem to have chosen to kill their wives’ lovers rather than their wives,” McDougall writes.

“Plays and popular stories offer lots of examples of how people responded to adultery,” McDougall adds. One priest had the misfortune to become involved with a blacksmith’s wife. The cuckolded husband responded by “nailing the priest’s scrotum to his workbench and setting the forge on fire, leaving the priest with a knife and the choice to either castrate himself or burn to death.” (Somehow I think he would have preferred a fine.)

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