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The Antifeminist Tradition: Introduction


1 Spurgeon, Five Hundred Years, 1.72.

2 See Ives and Parkison, "Scottish Chaucer."

3 Utley, Crooked Rib, pp. 4-5.

4 Utley, Crooked Rib, p. 73.

5 Bloch, Medieval Misogyny, pp. 65-91.

6 Bloch, Medieval Misogyny, pp. 143-64.

7 Stevens, Music and Poetry, p. 223.

8 Woodbridge, Women in the English Renaissance, p. 44; Clarke, "Anne Southwell," pp. 41-42.

9 Heale, Wyatt, Surrey, p. 48.

10 Utley, Crooked Rib, p. 213.

11 Utley, Crooked Rib, p. 213; Ziolkowski, "Avatars of Ugliness," p.19.

12 Javitch, Poetry and Courtliness, p. 79.

13 Utley, Crooked Rib, p. 180.
The four antifeminist poems printed here, first introduced to the Chaucer canon in John Stow's 1561 edition of his works, may strike some readers as distinctly un-Chaucerian given the poet's reputation, dating back to the sixteenth century, as "wemenis frend."1 Yet Chaucer's genuine works do have their fair share of antifeminist sentiments, usually with comic effect: the ironic encomiums to wedded bliss in The Merchant's Tale, the heavily ironic defense of archwives at the end of The Clerk's Tale, Chaunticleer's cynical observations on the efficacy of women's counsel in The Nun's Priest's Tale, and the ambiguous portrayal of the Wife of Bath who, for all her defiant vitality, is nonetheless the textual embodiment of Jerome's wicked wife. However, only one poem today printed as Chaucer's -- Against Women Unconstant -- dips as deeply into the trenchant antifeminist strain as that which is found in these poems that Stow introduced to the canon.

While Carolyn Ives and David Parkinson demonstrate that in the fifteenth century Chaucer does appear to have had some reputation in Scotland as a misogynist authority,2 Stow's additions (including Against Women Unconstant) may have been dictated less by a desire to compile an authorial oeuvre than by his desire to complement Chaucer's image with poetry that was currently fashionable. Indeed, in The Crooked Rib, Francis Lee Utley demonstrates the popularity of the "querelle des femmes" in the mid-sixteenth century, calling the Renaissance the "most prolific age of English satire on women" and "a century when satires on women were pouring off the presses in a quantity unimagined in the times of Chaucer or Charlemagne."3 Although demonstrating that the subject of female perfidy is an "age-old controversy," Utley suggests that contemporary political events, including "the long succession of Henry's queens, the dissolution of the monastic life, the quarrels over the legitimacy of Mary and Elizabeth, and the Statute of the Six Articles (1539), which hampered the reforming tendency by reaffirming the celibacy of the priesthood," sharpened the "perennial taste for satire."4

Although to modern readers these antifeminist lyrics may seem to violate a more refined and restrained courtly sensibility, in Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love R. Howard Bloch suggests that misogyny, by logical necessity, accompanies the idealization of the feminine found in courtly discourse. Bloch demonstrates that the paradoxical Western view of women as "Devil's Gateway" and "Bride of Christ" dates back to the asceticism of the early Christian era.5 Due to a variety of social and cultural factors, including the increasing economic and matrimonial power of women, this dichotomy is revived in the early Middle Ages, and Bloch suggests that the treacherous, duplicitous female is a necessary corollary to the inaccessible, idealized courtly lady.6 The posturing of the impotent and exasperated lover or spouse could then, as now, be grounded in conviction or experience, but by the late Middle Ages such poems, circulating in secular miscellanies, appear to have become a rhetorical game or exercise. The wimpy, inept, mentally self-castrated male, so prominent in courtly poems, is matched by the virago who beats him, tricks him, and cuckolds him. These poems perhaps provided a corrective to the idealizing rhetoric of courtly discourse, and were intended to be humorous rather than simply vituperative and cantankerous. That is, these poems perhaps represent an aspect of the gamesmanship that John Stevens detects in courtly love lyrics: "One of the delights of the 'fiction' consisted . . . in reacting against it with every possible coarseness and vulgarity."7 Linda Woodbridge suggests that antifeminist verse in part served as an intellectual game for the practice of rhetoric, and for Elizabeth Clarke this game "is obviously played at an elite level": "Men and, it seems, sometimes women, wishing to establish a reputation for wit at various levels, find plenty of stock in the apothegms about women circulating in the period."8 Taking a somewhat different approach in her study of early Tudor poetry, Elizabeth Heale reads the "discourse of misogyny" as primarily a male domain, meant to foster "male solidarity": "By strenuously asserting his own masculine trustiness in the face of feminized treachery and betrayal, the courtier could display his own reliability and virtue. In such ways a poetic discourse of misogyny could displace into safer forms the frustrations and resentments of courtly life."9 But we should also remember the squeamish Absalom in Chaucer's Miller's Tale, who is much more the object of ridicule than Alisoun, as is old Januarie, rather than May, in The Merchant's Tale. The knife of satire has two edges, and so, too, the querelle des femmes.

I Have a Lady and O Mosy Quince, both satirical descriptions of a mistress, represent parodies of the courtly panegyric which catalogue a lady's deficiencies rather than her charms. Although Utley describes some of the poems in this genre as "comic valentines," he nonetheless suggests that "the malice of most of these poems comes from the anger of a rebuffed lover."10 I would suggest, however, that part of the point is the art of the insult; these poems appropriate and invert conventional courtly rhetoric and appreciation depends upon a knowledge of both secular and religious panegyrics, and perhaps "flyttings," insult poems affiliated with the legal profession . Indeed, Utley and Ziolkowski suggest that I Have a Lady may be considered a prototype for both Shakespeare's deft treatment of this genre in Sonnet 130, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," and John Donne's Elegie II: The Anagram.11 The author of O Mosy Quince, inspired perhaps by the proverbial adage that wine, women, honor, and age make men fools -- which he incorporates into his poem -- depends upon mundane metaphors to describe his "lovely lewde masterasse" (line 22), comparing her not only to old fruit but also, in the last stanza, to an animal that has been slaughtered, smoked, tanned, and turned to leather. This is no flower of courtesy or feminine deportment but the flower of the tanning vat, the "fowlyst of all the nacion" (line 24). Both O Mosy Quince and I Have a Lady parody conventional antiseptic descriptions of a woman's beauty (bright eyes, radiant skin, snowy breasts, long fingers, slender waist) by describing their mistresses in quite colorful terms: the "Fayre Lady" of I Have a Lady, for instance, has skin as smooth as an "oxys tong" (line 21) and the "Mosy Quince" has breasts that are both orange and "satournad" ("sagging" - line 18). Both poems, however, possess a surprising tenderness; despite each lady's ostensible defects, the authors nonetheless betray their affection: the author of O Mosy Quince intends to love his lady but "a lytyll" (line 25), but of all women, he loves her best (line 29).

Beware (now attributed to Lydgate) and Of Theyre Nature (also called Balade against Hypocritical Women), both marked by proverbial lore and pastiche, warn readers of the atavistic deceptiveness, fickleness, and treachery of women. On another level, these poems may reflect what Daniel Javitch calls the courtly "cult of dissimulation";12 while women are denounced for their duplicitous artifice, such dissembling behavior was nonetheless recognized -- and admired -- as a necessary strategy for self-promotion and social advancement. Beware, which Utley accurately describes as "a skillful use of proverbial libels,"13 is an especially interesting poem because it appears to have been repeatedly ransacked: its refrain, "Beware therfore; the blynde eteth many a flye," also appears in Of Theyre Nature and remained extant throughout the sixteenth century (see Whiting B348 and Tilley B451); and the final stanza (beginning "thogh al the erthe so wan / Were parchemyn smothe" -- lines 36-37) is incorporated into The Remedy of Love (IMEV 3084) and is found as an independent poem (IMEV 1409.3) in both Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland MS Advocates' 1.1.6 (the Bannatyne manuscript, where it is marked "Chaucer") and London, British Library MS Additional 17492 (the Devonshire manuscript). Of Theyre Nature, inspired, no doubt, by the pessimistic musings in Lydgate's Pain and Sorrow of Evil Marriage from which the poet lifts seven lines, in toto, for his initial stanza, is somewhat pedestrian; indeed, even the poet himself appears to weary of his misogynist posturing. The poem is saved, however, by the felicitous expansion on the "blind eat many a fly" refrain: "But whether that the blynde ete flessh or fyssh, / I pray God kepe the fly out of my dyssh!" (lines 20-21).

The Texts

O Mosy Quince (IMEV 2524) and Of Theyre Nature (IMEV 2661) are extant only in T (Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.3.19, fols. 205v-206r and 156v); I Have a Lady (IMEV 1300) appears in both T (fols. 205r-205v), and L (Leiden University, MS Vossius 9, fol. 110v). For a description of the Leiden manuscript (c. 1470-1500) and a transcript of the poem, see van Dorsten, "The Leyden 'Lydgate Manuscript,'" pp. 315-25. The L variants are found in the Notes.

Beware (IMEV 1944), also known as Beware of Deceitful Women, Against Women, or The Blynde Eteth Many a Flye, is now attributed to Lydgate. The poem, with various alterations, is extant in four manuscript miscellanies: T (fols. 207r-207v), H (British Library, MS Harley 2251, fols. 149v-150r), O (Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.9.38, fols. 28r-28v), and R (Rome College MS English 1405 olim 1306, fol. 75v). For a description of R, see Klinefelter, "Newly Discovered," pp. 3-6; and Robbins, "Middle English Diatribe," pp. 131-46. Since the version in R has not yet been published, I have provided a transcription here with the variants contained in the Textual Notes.

Go To I Have a Lady (The Descryvyng of a Fair Lady)