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. Continue reading