Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies/Volume I/First Discourse (13.)

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KING JOHN of France,[1] when a prisoner in England, did in like-wise receive many marks of favour from the Countess of Salisbury, and such pleasant ones that, not being able to forget the same and the titbits she bestowed on him, he did return once more to see her again, as she had made him swear and promise he would do.

Other ladies there be which are complaisant herein up to a certain point of conscience and charity. Of this sort was one which would never suffer her lover, sleep with her as oft as he might, to kiss her the least in the world on the lips, giving as her reason that 'twas her mouth had made the oath of faith and fealty to her husband, and she would fain not foul the same by way of the very mouth that hade made and taken it. But as for that of the body, the which had said never a word and promised naught, this she did let him do with at his good pleasure, and made no scruple to yield to her lover, seeing it is not in the competence of the upper part to pledge itself for the lower, any more than for the lower for the upper. For that the custom of Law doth say that none can bind himself for another without the consent and word of either party, nor one only for the whole.

Another most conscientious and scrupulous dame, when granting her friend enjoyment of her, would always take the upper station and bring her man under her, never abating one jot of this rule. For, by observing the same straitly and regularly, she would say, if her husband or any other did ask whether such an one had done to her, that she could deny even on oath, and assuredly protest, without sinning against God, that never had he done so with her. This oath she did so emphatically make as to quite satisfy her husband and others by dint of her confident swearing in answer to their questions. So did they credit her in what she alleged, "yet had never the wit," she would say, "to demand if ever she had taken the upper part herself; by the which question they would have brought much scorn on me," she said, "and sore trouble of mind."

Methinks I have before now spoke of this point; yet cannot a man always remember everything. Moreover it doth better accord with the matter here in hand than with other, as it seemeth me.

Commonly ladies of this sort are great liars, and speak never a word of truth. For so trained are they and broken in to lying,—and truly if they do otherwise, they are fools, and come but to ill,—to their husbands and lovers anent these matters and these changes of love, and so used to swearing they never give themselves to any but them only, that when they come to deal with other matters of consequence, of business or argument, they never do aught but lie, and no man can believe a thing they say.

Other women again I have both known and heard speak of, which would never grant their favours to their lovers but when they were with child, to the end they might not conceive. Wherein they did make great scruple so as not to falsely give their husbands a fruit that was not really theirs, and nourish, feed and bring up the same as their own. I have already spoke on this subject. However, being once pregnant, they would deem they were doing the husband no wrong nor making him cuckold by prostituting themselves.

Very like, some were used to do thus for the same reasons as moved Julia, the Emperor Augustus' daughter and wife of Agrippa, who in her time was a notorious harlot, whereat was her father more sore angered than her husband. Once being asked if that she were not afeared of being made pregnant by her lovers, and her husband noting it and being very wroth with her, she made answer: "Nay! I take good heed in this, for I do receive no man and take never a passenger in my ship, but when it is laden and carrying full cargo." Now here we have yet another sort of cuckolds; and these same are true martyrs, they which have wives as ugly as devils in hell, who nevertheless are fain to take their share in tasting the sweets of love just as much as their fairer sisters, though these last properly do deserve this privilege alone according to the proverb: "Handsome men to the gallows, fair dames to the brothel."[2] Yet do these ugly coal-wenches play the gay woman like the rest. And they must needs be forgiven; for are they not women too, and with a like nature and complexion, only not so fair seeming. I have seen very plain women, at any rate in their youth, which did rate themselves just as highly as fairer dames, deeming that a woman is valued at just the worth she doth put upon herself and will sell herself for. Even as at a good market all sorts of wares are sold and pledged, some at a high, some at a lower rate, according to the amount of business a-doing, and the time at which one cometh to market after others, and according to the good or bad price one doth find ruling there. For, as folk say, a man goeth always to the best market, and albeit the stuff be not of the best, the price will depend on the skill of the market-man and market-woman.

So is it with plain women, of whom I have seen some that, by my troth, were as hot and lustful and as well inclined for love as the fairest, and would put themselves on the market and be as fain as any to get a good price and full value.

But the worst thing I find in them is this, that whereas the dealers make offers to the fairest, these others do make offers to the dealers and beg them to take and accept of their goods, the which they are ready to give them for nothing or at a very low price. Nay! they go further still; for most often they do give them money to taste of their lecherousness and be debauched of them. Now look at the pity of it! for in payment of such debauching no little sum of money is needed,—so much so that it doth cost more than the person is worth. And yet is the poor husband no less degraded and made cuckold by a plain wife, whose fare is much harder to digest than a beautiful woman's. To say nothing of a man's having to lie by his side a devil of hell, in place of a beauteous angel.

Wherefore I have heard many gallant men say they had rather have a beautiful woman, and one something whorish, than a plain woman, though the most chaste in all the world. For in a foul dame is to be found naught but wretchedness and displeasure; in a fair one is abundance of all pleasure and good happiness,—as some folk maintain. For myself I refer me to such as have trod this roadway and path.

I have heard some men say sometimes, that for husbands it is no such grand thing for them to have their wives chaste. For then are these so boastful of the fact, I mean those women that do possess this most uncommon gift, that you might almost declare them fain to dominate not alone their husbands, but the very world itself and the stars of heaven! Nay! they seem to think, judging from their pride of chastity, that God doth owe them some special return therefor. Yet are they greatly deceived; for I have heard learned Doctors say, how that God doth more love a poor sinful woman, repentant and contrite, as in the case of the Magdalene, than a prideful and haughty dame, which doth suppose she hath surely won Paradise, without any need for the pity and merciful judgment of God.

I have heard tell of a lady so boastful by reason of her chastity that she did come so to look down upon her husband, that when asked if she had lain with him, "No!" she would reply, "but he hath lain with me." So proud a dame was she! I leave you to imagine how these same silly, boastful, virtuous wives do chide their poor husbands, even though they may have naught really to reproach them with. So in especial do such wives as are chaste and rich likewise. A wife that is at once virtuous and wealthy in her own right, will ever be playing the disdainful, haughty, proud and bold lady towards her husband, so that by reason of the over high value she doth set on her chastity and her well guarded front, she cannot refrain her from putting on the airs of an empress and chiding her husband on his committing the smallest fault, as I have seen sundry do, and above all on his ill way of life. If he gamble, or be wasteful or extravagant, mightily doth she protest and storm, making her home to seem rather a hell upon earth than an honourable household. Then if he need to sell aught of his property to meet the cost of a journey to Court or to the wars, or of his lawsuits, necessities or minor follies and frivolous expenses, never a word must he speak thereof. For such an empire hath the wife assumed over him, resting it on the strong foundation of her virtue, that her husband must needs refer all to her judgment, as Juvenal well says in one of his Satires:

"... Animus uxoris si deditus uni,

Nil unquam in vita donabis conjuge; vendes,

Hac obstante, nihil haec, si nolit, emetur."[3]

These lines of the poet show plainly that the ancient Roman dames were in this matter of an humour much akin to that of many ladies of our own day. On the contrary, when a wife is something whorish, she will show herself far more acommodating, more yielding, docile and timid, of a much gentler and more agreeable disposition, more humble and ready to do aught her husband may desire, and more complaisant to him in all things. So have I seen some such which durst never scold or cry out, nor show themselves cross-gained, for fear the husband should confront them with their fault and throw their adultery in their face, and make them to feel the consequences thereof at the cost of their life itself. Then if the gallant fellow is fain to sell some property of theirs, lo! their names are writ to the contract before ever the husband have time to say the word. Many of this sort have I seen. In one word they do what their husbands please.

Well! are these then so sorely hurt to be made cuckold of such fair dames, and to win of them such fine goods and advantages as these,—to say naught of the fine, delightsome pleasure they do enjoy in wantoning with suchlike beauteous women, and swimming, so to speak, with them in a beautiful, clear stream instead of a foul and repulsive slough? And since a man must die, as a certain great Captain I know used to say, is it not far better for it to be by a fine fresh sword, bright, clear, shining and keen-edged, than by an old blade, all rusted and ill burnished, one calling for more emery than all the sword-cutlers of Paris together could furnish?

And what I say of young women that are plain, I say the like of some old women, the which are fain to be debauched and be kept clean and bright by use, just as much as the fairest in all the world. Elsewhere do I give a special Discourse to this subject (the Fifth Discourse, following). And this is the worst of it: when their husbands cannot fulfil the duty, then the rogues will be calling in substitutes, being every bit as passionate as younger women, or even more so. So have I seen some that neither at the beginning nor the middle of life are ready to be excited, but only at the end. And rightly do men say that in these matters the end is more fierce than the two other ages, the beginning and the middle,—so far as wishing goes. For very often strength and competence are then lacking, a thing that doth vex them sore,—as saith the old proverb: 'Tis great grief and pain, when a backside hath right good will, but power is a-wanting.

So are there always some of these poor old wretches, which do admit their lovers gratis, like a muleteer on his beast, and do distribute their largess at the expense of their two purses; but 'tis the money purse only makes these find the other, the body's purse, good and narrow. Thus we say that liberality is more to be esteemed in all matters than avarice and niggardliness, except only with women, who, the more liberal they are, the less are they esteemed, but the avaricious and niggard all the more for being so.

This was what a great Lord did say one time of two great ladies, sisters, whom I know of, whereof the one was niggard of her honour, but liberal of her purse and expenditure, the other exceeding chary of her purse and money, but very liberal of her person.

Next there is yet another sort of cuckolds, one that of a surety is utterly abominable and hateful before God and man alike, they who, enamoured of some handsome Adonis, do abandon their wives to men of this kind in order to enjoy their favour in return.

The first time ever I was in Italy, I did hear of an example of this at Ferrara, the tale being told me of one who, captivated by a certain handsome youth, did persuade his wife to accord her favours to the said young man, who was in love with her, and to appoint a day and consent to do all he should bid her. The lady was willing enough, for truly she did desire no better venison to regale herself withal than this. At length was the day fixed, and the hour being come when the young lover and the lady were at their pleasant game and entertainment, lo! the husband, who was hid near at hand, according to the compact betwixt him and his wife, did rush in. So catching them in the very act, he did put his dagger to the lover's throat, deeming him worthy of death for such offence, in accordance with the laws of Italy, which herein be something more rigorous than in France. So was he constrained to grant the husband what he did desire, and they made exchange one with the other. The young man did prostitute himself and the husband did abandon his wife to the young man. Thus was the husband cuckold after an exceeding foul fashion.

I have heard tell of a lady, which being desperately in love with an honourable gentleman whom she had taken for lover and chief favourite, and this latter fearing the husband would do him or her some ill turn, did comfort him, saying, "Nay! have no fear, for he would in no wise dare do aught, for dread I should accuse him of having wished to practice the backdoor Venus, which might well bring about his death, if I were to breathe the least word thereof and denounce him to justice. But in this way I do hold him in check and in terror, so that for fear of my accusation, he dares not say one word to me."

Without a doubt such accusation would have involved the poor husband in naught less than peril of his life; for the legists declare that this act is punishable for the mere wish to commit the same. But mayhap the lady did never mean to let out the word altogether, and would not have gone so far as this without reconsidering her intent.

I have been told how in one of these latter years a young French gentleman, a handsome gallant that had been seen many a day at Court, being gone to Rome for instruction in manly exercises, like others his contemporaries, was in that city regarded with so favourable an eye, and did meet with such great admiration of his beauty, as well of men as of women, that folk were ready almost to force him to their will. And so whenever they were aware of his going to Mass or other place of public assemblage, they would never fail, either men or women, to be there likewise for to see him. Nay, more, several husbands did suffer their wives to give him love assignations in their houses, to the end that being come thither and then surprised, they might effect an exchange, the one of his wife, the other of him. For which cause he was advised never to yield to the love and wishes of these ladies, seeing the whole matter had been contrived and arranged merely to entrap him. And herein he did show himself wise and did set his honour and good conscience above all such detestable pleasures, winning thereby a high and worthy repute. Yet at the last his squire did kill him. Divers reasons are given therefor. At any rate 'twas a sore pity, for that he was a very honourable young man, of good station, and one that did promise well of his nature as well by reason of his noble actions as of the fine and noble character he did manifest herein. For indeed, as I have heard a very gallant man of my time say, and as is most true, never yet was bougre or catamite a brave, valiant and generous man but only the great Julius Cæsar, seeing that by divine permission and ordinance all such abominable folk are brought low and reduced to shame. And this doth make me wonder how sundry, whom I have seen stained by this horrid vice, have yet prospered under heaven in high good fortune; yet doth God wait for them, and at the last we shall surely see them meet their proper fate.

How many women there be in the world, which if they were examined by midwives and doctors and expert surgeons, would be found no more virgin one way than another, and which could at any moment bring action against their husbands. Yet do they dissimulate it and dare not discover the matter, for fear of bringing scandal on themselves and their husbands, or perhaps because they do find therein some greater pleasure than we can suppose. Or it may be for the purpose I have above named,—to keep their husbands in such subjection, if they do make love in other quarters, which indeed some husbands do on these terms allow them to do. Yet are none of these reasons really sufficient to account for the thing.

The Summa Benedicti saith: If the husband chooseth thus to take his part contrary to the order of nature, he commits a mortal sin; and if he maintain that he may dispose of his own wife as he please, he doth fall into a detestable and foul heresy of sundry Jews and evil Rabbis, which are cited as saying thus, duabus mulieribus apud synagogam conquestis se fuisse a viris suis cognitu sodomitico cognitas, responsum est ab illis Rabinis: virum esse uxoris dominum, proinde posse uti ejus utcumque libuerit, non aliter quam qui piscem emit: ille enim, tam anterioribus quam posterioribus partibus, ad arbitrium vesci posse.

This have I quoted only in Latin, forasmuch as it soundeth ill to honourable and modest ears. Abominable wretches that they be,—thus to desert a fair, pure and lawful habit, to adopt instead one that is foul, dirty, filthy and forbid, and disgraceful to boot.

But if the man will take the woman so, it is lawful for her to separate from him, if there is no other means to cure him. And yet, it is stated again, such women as fear God ought never to consent thereto, but rather cry out for help, regardless of the scandal which might so arise, and of dishonour and the fear of death; for 'tis better, saith the law, to die than to consent to evil. The same book doth say another thing which I deem very strange: that whatsoever way a husband know his wife, provided she may conceive thereby, herein is no mortal sin, but only a venial one. Nor do these same smack at all of marital purity, albeit, as I have before said, it may be permissible in case of pregnant women, as well as such as have a strong and unpleasant breath, whether from the mouth or nose. Thus have I known and heard speak of several women to kiss whom and scent their breath was as bad as smelling at a sewer; or to put it another way, I have heard it said of a certain great lady, a very great one indeed I mean, that once one of her ladies declared her breath stank more than a backhouse. These are the very words she used.

I would say more of this, but in truth I have a horror of speaking thereof at all. It hath vexed me to have said so much as I have; but 'tis needful sometimes to lay open public vices in order to reform the same.