dealing with cuckoldry in thirteenth century england

if you discovered your friend’s wife in bed with another man in thirteenth century england, you’d tell your friend, right? [edit: and/or conclude that one or more of you must be a time lord(s)!] how to tell him though? hmmmm. email? text? nooooo. send him a letter! yeah, send him a letter.

it would’ve been an awkward sorta letter to write, though, but you know what? there was a form letter for the occasion! i know! who knew that they even had form letters in the 1200s?! but they did! and they were kept in collections called formularies, some of which are still hanging around in archives like at the british museum.

here from Lost Letters of Medieval Life: English Society, 1200-1250 [pg. 222 – link added by me]:

“A Man Warns His Friend that He Has Seen the Latter’s Wife Naked in Bed with Another Man, and Sends Her Girdle [no, not one of these, one of these – h.chick] as Evidence

“F. tells G. that he has seen another man in bed with G.’s wife

“To his beloved friend A., B. sends greetings. Except that I believed it would offend you, I would reveal something that I lately saw. But because it is wicked to conceal wickedness, I prefer to disclose [it] rather than to have the odium of the heavenly realm. For I saw your wife in R.’s bed, the two of them alone and naked together. And so that she cannot deny it, I took her girdle [i.e., belt] as a token, which I send to you, and the sight of it should serve you as evidence of this misdeed. You should see to it that she is punished, together with him. Farewell.”

so there you go.

the editors of Lost Letters reckon that this form letter was composed a bit tongue-in-cheek, but still with a serious lesson in mind [links added by me]:

“At first sight, this would seem to be an odd candidate for inclusion in a collection of model letters, since the compiler is unlikely to have assumed that there was a need for a form letter in which one friend notified another of the adultery of the latter’s wife. It seems likely that this letter was included in the collection for somewhat different reasons. First, it may have been intended, at least in part, for the amusement of the business students and other male readers for whom the formulary was primarily designed. In a similar fashion John of Garlande included some smutty material in his ‘Dictionarius’, a contemporary treatise designed to teach Latin vocabulary but written primarily in the form of a walking tour of Paris. Second, and more seriously, this letter may have been included to remind readers that, if they ever made a serious accusation against another person in writing, they had better have solid evidence — such as the wife’s girdle, in this case — to support their allegation.”

in anglo-saxon england/the early medieval period, you could just kill a guy if you caught him sleeping with your wife, and everyone would be very understanding. by the 1200s, however, this course of action was no longer permitted [pg. 226 – link added by me]:

“Around 1215, Thomas of Chobham, a canon laywer and subdean of Salisbury, summarized the legal recourse available to an outraged husband, as he understood it: ‘It is worth noting that secular law once allowed a man to kill an adulterer found with his wife. This is no longer permitted, but only for him to cut off the man’s genitals so that he will never spawn another who will follow him in his vileness.‘”

so there was that possibility!

you had to keep your wife under control, though. if you didn’t, you couldn’t accuse her of adultery in the ecclesiastical courts or castrate anybody:

“[S]ince women were considered to be sexually voracious, and certain occupations, such as that of barmaid, exposed them to dangerous temptations, a husband who allowed his wife to work in a drinking-house was not permitted to press charges of adultery against her if she succumbed.



“Canon lawyers also ruled that a wife who had been raped could not be charged with adultery….”

fair enough.

(note: comments do not require an email. master john of garlande!)


  1. There is ample reason for this sexual dichotomy. For most of human history, women’s price for sex was that men provide for her and the children that resulted from said sex. Women absolutely know the child issued from her womb is hers, men not so much. Human females have been observed behaving like many birds, selecting the best available nesting partner to provide for the offspring and then seeking out the best genes to sire them. Men have an interest in making sure they are providing for their own children.


    Matty Groves

    “And you will strike the very first blow, and strike it like a man.
    I will strike the very next blow, and I’ll kill you if I can.”

    So Matty struck the very first blow, and he hurt Lord Darnell sore.
    Lord Darnell struck the very next blow, and Matty struck no more.

    And then Lord Darnell he took his wife and he sat her on his knee,
    Saying, “Who do you like the best of us, Matty Groves or me?”

    And then up spoke his own dear wife, never heard to speak so free.
    “I’d rather a kiss from dead Matty’s lips than you and your finery.”

    Lord Darnell he jumped up and loudly he did bawl,
    He struck his wife right through the heart and pinned her against the wall.

    “A grave, a grave!” Lord Darnell cried, “to put these lovers in.
    But bury my lady at the top for she was of noble kin.”


  3. The idea that rape incurs no blame on the victim has been a hallmark of Latin Christian thought since St. Augustine, who argues forcefully for it in his discussion of the rape of Lucretia in the City of God. Secular law, custom and actual practice have been another matter sometimes, but rape victims’ theoretical blamelessness has been a constant of Western Christian intellectual life. Which is, I think, pretty cool. And seems to be fairly unique.


  4. @anonymous – “The idea that rape incurs no blame on the victim has been a hallmark of Latin Christian thought since St. Augustine, who argues forcefully for it in his discussion of the rape of Lucretia in the City of God.”

    oh, interesting! i didn’t know. thanks!

    @anonymous – “And seems to be fairly unique.”

    yes, it does seem to be pretty unique.


  5. See folks, didn’t I say BDSM and all the weird fetishes originate from Anglos? ;)

    (by the way, that was me who made that comment but the computer was logged in under “palak paneer”. I’ve since logged that out and am commenting with my own moniker. no sock puppeting.)

    “The idea that rape incurs no blame on the victim has been a hallmark of Latin Christian thought since St. Augustine, who argues forcefully for it in his discussion of the rape of Lucretia in the City of God. Secular law, custom and actual practice have been another matter sometimes, but rape victims’ theoretical blamelessness has been a constant of Western Christian intellectual life. Which is, I think, pretty cool. And seems to be fairly unique.”

    …. Not so fast. This author makes the case that ancient Hindu “divine feminine” memes can reform traditional Christian “blame the victim” memes. If nothing else, it’s worth a try.

    The Christian Meme of Blaming the Victim of Rape

    The Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion and the American medical professor and evolutionary anthropologist John Hartung in Love Thy Neighbor: The Evolution of In-Group Morality explain the biblical evolution and history of “in-group morality and out-group hostility.” Here, “in-group” refers to those who are the favored adherents of biblical religious systems whereas “out-group” refers to those who are outsiders fit to be enslaved or exterminated. As a result, The Bible glorifies murder, cruelty, and rape of “out-groups.” Dawkins points out that “Jesus was a devotee of the same in-group morality coupled with out-group hostility.” The Bible considered women as members of “out-group.” The Book of Revelation is emphatic that women would not go to heaven and that only those Christian men who have not defiled themselves by the touch of a woman would be saved and put on the heaven-bound cargo post-mortem. Paul admonishes women to be subservient to their husbands, extols abstinence from sex as the virtue and only allows marriage as a concession for those who are not strong enough to be celibates. Jesus extolled those who physically mutilate themselves and become eunuchs to attain heaven.

    There are teachings in The Bible that actually advocate gang-raping a woman. One such is narrated in Judges 19 where a gang of townsmen demand that a biblical priest be handed over to them for a homosexual gang-rape. The host of the priest is evidently not perturbed by the idea of rape but only with the homosexual aspect of it. He pleads with them not to indulge in homosexuality and instead offers his own daughter and the biblical priest’s concubine for a gang-rape. The townsmen gang-rape the concubine all night long and she dies. Her husband, the biblical priest, simply takes a knife, cuts up her dead body, and callously moves on. Here, the woman was essentially treated as a commodity fit for rape. Anyone reading The Bible would have to confront the fact that its teachings are unethical and against the feminine. However, if one believed that The Bible is a divinely-inspired scripture, one would then rationalize such teachings and conclude that the victim must have asked for the rape and blame her for her misfortune.

    The foundational teachings of The Bible portrayed women as defiling and as obstacles to salvation thus effectively portrayed them as an “out-group.” The feminine sexuality evoked suspicion and hostility. The researches of the Israeli psychologist George Tamarin which Dawkins summarizes demonstrate that once someone (in this context, women) is portrayed as an “out-group” deserving of hostility, believers of biblical religions are quick to conclude that the victim (in this context, of rape) is blameworthy. Tamarin presented a group of teenagers the biblical account of the battle of Jericho in which Joshua called on his followers to exterminate every man, woman, child, and cattle of the “out-group” and to take possession of their material belongings to fulfill the will of God. According to The Bible, God’s will was fulfilled. Tamarin asked the teenagers whether they approved of the extermination of “out group” and 74% of the children approved of it and insisted that the victims were blameworthy. Tamarin then de-contextualized the story and presented it to another group of teenagers. In this version, The Bible and Joshua were replaced with the Chinese General Lin who too exterminates a rival kingdom. Now, only 7% approved of General Lin’s conduct thereby proving that once The Bible designates someone as the “out group,” the followers of Christianity (and other biblical religions) are quick to conclude that the victims are blameworthy.

    As a consequence of possessing “in-group morality coupled with out-group hostility,” Christian societies have historically blamed the victims of rape because those women were perceived as the “out-group” who somehow induced their rapists into a “defiling” act. This attitude is prevalent in contemporary American society as well. The University of Michigan psychologists Jane Sheldon and Sandra Parent, in their study Clergy’s Attitudes and Attributions of Blame toward Female Rape Victims, p. 13, point out that in 20% of cases America’s Christian clergy blame the victim. They also show that more conservative a clergyman is the more likely he is to blame the victim of rape.

    The Christian meme of blaming the victim of rape entered India by two different routes. Firstly, Islam had inherited a negative view of the feminine sexuality from The Bible. The Islamic custom of veiling its women was borrowed from Byzantine Christianity and was intended to suppress the feminine sexuality. Such attitudes entered India along with Islamic invasions. Secondly, under the British, French, Portuguese, and Dutch Christian colonial rule, these attitudes were repeatedly reinforced and imposed on Indians. As a result, some Indians acquired this harmful meme. Jad Adams, in Gandhi: Naked Ambitions, shows that Gandhi initially had a normal view towards sexuality until, in his mid-30s, he served in the British Ambulance Corps and came under Christian missionary influence. After that, he started practicing celibacy and internalized the Christian notion that sex (and as a corollary, the feminine) is defiling. It is reasonable to conclude that during the same period he also inherited the Christian meme of blaming the victim of rape. The influence of Gandhi on modern India has been unhealthily enormous. Sadly, as a result of his influence, some contemporary Indians too blame the victim of rape.

    Modifying the Christian Meme

    Some Christians have attempted to repudiate the notion of “in-group morality coupled with out-group hostility” insofar as treating women as out-group is concerned. In a biblical story recounted in John 8:3-11, the crowd is clamoring to stone a woman accused of adultery. Jesus cleverly declares that the one who has never sinned might cast the first stone. The crowd goes silent and the woman is spared. As Bart Ehrman shows in Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed The Bible and Why, pp. 63-65, this story is a late interpolation into The Bible and did not originally belong in the text. In other words, someone interpolated this story and attributed it to Jesus. Leviticus 20:10 mandates an adulteress to be stoned to death and Jesus himself confirms in Matthew 5:17 that he has come to fulfill such mandates. So, even a diehard Christian would admit that John 8:3-11 contradicts what Jesus mandates elsewhere.

    Scholars such as Zacharias Thundy (Buddha and Christ – Nativity Stories and Indian Traditions), Roy Amore (Two Masters, One Message – The Lives and Teaching of Gautama and Jesus), Burnett Hillman Streeter (The Four Gospels – A Study of Origins, Treating of the Manuscript Tradition, Sources, Authorship, & Dates), etc., have shown that many religious motifs and templates were borrowed from Buddhism through direct and indirect means and incorporated into Christianity. Ken Humphreys, in his article The Buddhist Influence in Christian Origins summarizes the numerous parallels between Buddhist traditions and Christianity to present a picture of how the latter borrowed from the former. It is well known that many pagans were forcibly converted to Christianity in the early centuries of the Common Era. So, it is possible that one such convert was troubled by the “in-group morality coupled with out-group hostility” that characterized the teachings of The Bible and Jesus and interpolated and attributed the story recounted in John 8:3-11 to Jesus in a sincere attempt to vindicate Christian teachings. However, such stories stand in stark contrast to everything Jesus said and did and hence had little effect on the contours of Christian thinking. Nevertheless, today’s Christians should attempt to emulate the example of the interpolator of John 8:3-11 and repudiate the teachings of The Bible and Jesus which advocate “in-group morality coupled with out-group hostility” so that the victim of rape is not blamed in the future.

    The Hindu Meme as the Antidote

    Unlike Christianity, Hindu doctrines neither formulate “in-group morality coupled with out-group hostility” nor consider feminine sexuality as defiling. On the contrary, sexuality is considered sacred and an essential goal of life. Hindu traditions propound puruṣārtas (the four goals of life): dharma (harmony or righteousness), artha (wealth and knowledge), kāma (sacred sexuality), and optionally mökṣa (self-realization). As a result, Hindus are not ashamed of portraying their divinities using sexual narratives. Erotic sculptures adorn Hindu temples. It is considered perfectly normal, or even desirable, for a Hindu woman to learn Bharatanāṭyam and express her passion for her divine lover using śṛṅgāra rasa (dance expressions of erotic love).

    This healthy attitude towards feminine sexuality traditionally enabled Hindus to perceive rape as a mahāpātaka (grave sin) and to view the victim of rape with compassion. In my previous article, Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine in the Aftermath of Delhi Gang-Rape, I showed how The Devala Smṛti, instead of blaming the victim of rape, enabled her to once again announce her sanctity. One more example would help understand how Hinduism dealt with rape. In The Rāmāyaṇa, the powerful villain Rāvaṇa once rapes the apsara (a heavenly woman) Rambhā, who then narrates her traumatic suffering to her husband. Her husband is not powerful enough to confront Rāvaṇa so he instead curses him that should Rāvaṇa ever again touch a woman against her will his head would split and that he would die. He does not blame Rambhā at all and she continues to enjoy the status of an apsara in Hinduism. Even more pertinently, Hindu texts cautioned against the tendency to commoditize women. The Tamiḷ sacred text, The Tirukkuraḻ, mandates a man not to look at any woman other than his own wife with lustful eyes. A society conditioned by such ethos does not blame a woman in the unfortunate event when she is raped. It is such noble teachings that serve as an antidote to the harmful Christian meme of blaming the victim of rape and enable us to guard against the tendency to blame the victim of rape.


    The tendency to blame the victim of rape follows the universal tendency to blame the victim of any traumatic incident. The victim of rape herself often indulges in self-blame because of her belief rooted in the notion of “just world” that induces her to think that she failed to exercise sufficient control over self-behavior as a result of which she was raped. She then infers, albeit incorrectly, that if she modified her behavior she could avert rape in the future. The tendency to blame the victim is not per se cultural but is rooted in evolutionary neurobiology. Human beings are genetically predisposed to irrational thoughts and, as the neuroscientist Allman shows, often rely upon social stereotypes to intuitively blame the victim of rape. It is only years later, if at all, they use facts to arrive at a reasonable judgment about rape. At the same time, social stereotypes that the neurological processes depend on are the products of culture. It is in that sense that culture becomes relevant.

    Historically, The Bible ushered in the worldview of “in-group morality coupled with out-group hostility.” In this worldview, women were treated as the “out-group” whose presence defiled Christian men and prevented their salvation. As a result, Christian societies are predisposed to blame the victim of rape because she is not seen as the victim but as someone who has been instrumental in “defiling” Christian men. Islam subsequently borrowed this biblical notion of “in-group morality coupled with out-group hostility.” Indian society (and many other societies colonized by Christianity or Islam) inherited this terrible meme as a consequence of centuries of Islamic and Christian colonial rule. In the modern context, individuals such as Gandhi inherited this Christian meme of blaming the victim of rape and passed it on to their followers.

    It is not only the negative Christian stereotypes that influence the neurological processes rooted in Von Economo neurons resulting in the victim of rape getting blamed. Positive stereotypes such as the ones embodied in India’s sacred teachings that extol the feminine can influence the same neurological processes too. It is our duty to promote those memetic traits that extol the feminine so that society does not blame the victim of rape in the future. Christians, on their part, have an obligation to repudiate the teachings of The Bible and Jesus which treat women as an “out-group” and revise them.


    (that was me, by the way. the computer was logged in with someone else’s name so it posted under their moniker. changed now)


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