I have before me a scholarly Faber paperback that I acquired in 1997, titled Medieval English Lyrics (ISBN 0 571 06571 6). These are poems from centuries back, some of them no doubt sung. Many celebrate women in idealistic terms, most often as the Virgin Mary; or relate how the poet, a man, has suffered the pangs of unreturned (or unreturnable) love while still venerating his lady, and placing her on a high pedestal. In the background is the popular notion of courtly love, and all the artificial conventions of chivalry.
But some poems discard those conventions, and openly criticise women as deceitful harpies, more on the model perhaps of Eve dragging down Adam. And you can't help feeling that such verses probably reflected a general feeling of resentment among medieval men that women, for all their daintiness, prettiness and allure, had spoiled the game from the very beginning, had made life hard and difficult, and were still bad news. So there are misogynistic and even vicious poems that condemn women and their ways. And if Western attitudes have this kind of centuries-old foundation, then perhaps it is little wonder that, even today, women can't get an absolutely fair deal, and are mistrusted.
Let's have a look at two bad examples, both from the fifteenth century, which means 1400 to 1500.
The first is by Thomas Hoccleve, described in the book as a 'clerk in the office of the Privy Seal [the Lord Privy Seal was an important figure at court] about 1378-1425, and a gay bachelor who eventually married'.
A DESCRIPTION OF HIS UGLY LADY
Of my lady well me rejoise I may!
Hir golden forheed is full narw and smal;
Hir browes been lik to dim, reed coral;
And as the jeet hir yen glistren ay.
This is the same language as Geoffrey Chaucer, of Canterbury Tales fame. It isn't that difficult. My own idiomatic 'translation' of the first verse, assisted by the glossary in the book, goes as follows:
There's a lot to please me about my girl! [clearly meant ironically]
She's got a sallow - and shallow - forehead,
Heavy brows as red as coral,
And her eyes are jet-black and sharp.
Hir bowgy cheekes been as softe as clay,
With large jowes and substantial.
Her baggy cheeks are soft as mud,
And her jaws are massive.
Hir nose a pentice is that it ne shal
Reine in hir mouth thogh she uprightes lay.
Her nose is like an overhanging roof
So that she'll never get rain in her mouth when looking up.
Hir mouth is nothing scant with lippes gray;
Hir chin unnethe may be seen at al.
Her grey-lipped mouth is so big
That you can hardly see her chin.
Hir comly body shape as a footbal,
And she singeth full like a papejay.
She's as fat as a football,
And her voice is just like a parrot's.
Well, how charming is that? Hoccleve doesn't say so, but one imagines his girlfriend is short and squat, otherwise she wouldn't have to look up to him before squawking at him like a parrot. So the poor girl is rather a hefty lump, and no looker at all. But that's no reason to be so nasty. If anybody said any of this of me, I'd be highly annoyed. The man has no manners at all.
Here's the other poem, a bit more subtle in its venom, but still hurtful.
WHAT WOMEN ARE NOT
Of all creatures women be best,
Cuius contrarium verum est.
Women are the best of all creatures!
(The opposite is actually the truth)
It was obviously assumed that most women of the time were uneducated, and would not understand what the Latin phrase 'cuius contrarium verum est' meant. Sneaky and condescending.
In every place ye may well see
That women be trewe as tirtill on tree,
Not liberal in langage but ever in secree,
And gret joye amonge them is for to be.
You are likely to see wherever you go
Women cooing lovingly like turtle doves in a tree,
Whispering so that their words can't be heard,
What a pleasure they take in being like this.
This is of course all ironic: apparently commending women for their quiet and demure talk, but in fact having a dig at their sly gossiping habits.
The stedfastnes of women will never be don,
So gentil, so curtes, they be everichon,
Meke as a lambe, still as a stone,
Croked nor crabbed find ye none.
Woman are eternally reliable,
They are all so well-bred and courteous,
Gentle as a lamb and silent as a stone,
You won't find a woman who is vicious or perverse.
More irony, of course! It only gets worse:
Men be more cumbers a thousandfold,
And I mervail how they dare be so bold
Against women for to hold,
Seeing them so pascient, soft and cold.
Men are a thousand times more troublesome,
And I'm amazed how men have the gall
To set themselves against women,
Considering how even-tempered, compliant and slow to anger women are.
For tell a woman all your counsaile
And she can kepe it wonderly well:
She had lever go quik to hell
Than to her neighbour she wold it tell.
Tell a woman your secret
And she'll know how to keep it wonderfully well:
She'd rather go to Hell in a fast train
Than share it with her next door neighbour.
Now say well by women or elles be still,
For they never displesed man by ther will:
To be angry or wroth they can no skill,
For I dare say they think non ill.
Now say something good about women or keep quiet,
Because they have never wanted to do anything that might displease a man:
They have no idea how to be angry,
Probably because they think only beautiful thoughts.
Trow ye that women list to smater,
Or against ther husbondes for to clater?
Nay! They had lever fast, bred and water,
Than to dele in suche a matter.
Do you believe that women like to complain
About their husbands and make trouble for them?
No! They'd rather fast on bread and water
Than do a thing like that.
To the tavern they will not go,
Nor to the alehous never the mo,
For, god wot, ther hartes wold be wo
To spende ther husbondes money so.
You won't catch them going to the tavern,
Nor ever to the pub,
Because, as God knows well, it would break their hearts
To spend their husband's cash like that.
Surely that last bit of sniping is unrealistic. No doubt women would have liked to have a quick one now and then - considering what they had to put up with - but the chances are that their husbands would never give them the wherewithal.
These verses are nearly six hundred years old, but there's something of a modern ring to them, isn't there? The same old assumption that women are wayward, empty-headed, ignorant chatterboxes, and can't be trusted. Sigh.