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  • The Opposite of the Double Standard:Gender, Marriage, and Adultery Prosecution in Late Medieval France
  • Sara McDougall (bio)

When considering the consequences of adultery in medieval Europe, popular imagination often paints a picture of considerable gender disparity. One imagines adulterous wives such as Arthur’s Queen Guinevere burned at the stake while their husbands freely indulged in extramarital liaisons. Scholars too generally assume that wives in medieval Europe could be subject to severe judicial and extrajudicial punishment for any adulterous affair but that their husbands’ dalliances were usually tolerated. Premodern societies are widely known to have had such a double standard, and medieval Europe is often put forward as an example of such a time and place. According to Jacques Rossiaud, in medieval Europe female adultery, and only female adultery, “was always very rigorously punished.”1 This double standard happened regardless of Christian teachings that prohibited male adultery. As Ruth Karras wrote in 2005: “Adultery by women was far more serious than that by men. The church did preach equality in this area, that it was just as bad for a married man to violate his marriage vow as for a woman to do so. In practice, however, adultery was treated more seriously in cases where the woman was married.”2 As Karras explained, female, not male, adultery cast doubt on paternity and was also “part of a more generalized fear and distrust of feminine independence.”3 I made a similar argument in 2010: [End Page 206] “Extramarital activity involving a wife seems to have provoked a sort of cultural horror that extramarital activity involving a married man did not.”4

Yet recent scholarship on the late medieval handling of sexual crime in northern Europe, including that by Karras herself, has not yielded much evidence that there was such an emphasis on punishing adulteresses, at least in the courtroom. On the contrary, detailed analysis of court records, especially from the fifteenth century, when they are most plentiful, shows that some local courts prosecuted men more often than women for adultery and related sexual offenses. Most scholarly explanations for this difference reinforce the assumption that these prosecutions operated as part of a broader campaign to repress wives’ extramarital sex and not that of husbands. Meanwhile, the findings of other scholars suggest that these courts operated against men when they did because they found male adultery particularly egregious. For Shannon McSheffrey, the prosecution of male adulterers and fornicators in late medieval London was part of a civic culture that emphasized the duty of a respectable man both to exercise sexual restraint and to ensure that those in his power exercised similar restraint.5 Studying adultery prosecutions in late medieval Toulouse, Leah Otis-Cour identifies increased prosecution for men and diminished prosecution for women as the expression of a new morality that prioritized reconciliation for adulterous wives and had come to consider husbands’ adultery a punishable offense.6

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.7 These courts prosecuted men [End Page 207] 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...


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pp. 206-225
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