Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies/Volume I/First Discourse (3.)

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OCTAVIUS CAESAR[1] likewise did put away his wife Scribonia for the sake of his own lecherousness, without other cause, though at the same time without doing her any other hurt, albeit she had good excuse to make him cuckold, by reason of an infinity of ladies that he had relations with. Indeed before their husbands' very faces he would openly lead them away from table at those banquets he was used to give them; then presently, after doing his will with them, would send them back again with hair dishevelled and disordered, and red ears,—a sure sign of what they had been at! Not that myself did ever elsewhere hear tell of this last as a distinctive mark whereby to discover such doings; a red face for a certainty have I heard so spoken of, but red ears never. So he did gain the repute of being exceeding lecherous, and even Mark Antony reproached him therewith; but he was used to excuse himself, saying he did not so much go with these ladies for mere wantonness, as thereby to discover more easily the secrets of their husbands, whom he did distrust.

I have known not a few great men and others, which have done after the same sort and have sought after ladies with this same object, wherein they have had good hap. Indeed I could name sundry which have adopted this good device; for good it is, as yielding a twofold pleasure. In this wise was Catiline's conspiracy discovered by the means of a courtesan.

The same Octavius was once seriously minded to put to death his daughter Julia, wife of Agrippa, for that she had been a notorious harlot, and had wrought great shame to him,—for verily sometimes daughters do bring more dishonour on their fathers than wives on their husbands. Still he did nothing more than banish her the country, and deprive of the use of wine and the wearing of fine clothing, compelling her to wear poor folk's dress, by way of signal punishment, as also of the society of men. And this is in sooth a sore deprivation for women of this kidney, to rob them of the two last named gratifications!

Another Emperor, and very cruel tyrant, Caligula,[2] did suspect that his wife, Livia Hostilia, had by stealth cheated him of sundry of her favours, and bestowed the same on her first husband, Caius Piso, from whom he had taken her away by force. This last was still alive, and was deemed to have received of her some pleasure and gratification of her fair body, the while the Emperor was away on a journey. Yet did he not indulge his usual cruelty toward her, but only banished her from him, two years after he had first taken her from her husband Piso and married her.

He did the same to Tullia Paulina, whom he had taken from her husband Caius Memmius. He exiled her and that was all, but in this case with the express prohibition to have naught to do at all with the gentle art of love, neither with any other men nor yet with her husband—truly a cruel and rigorous order so far as the last was concerned!

I have heard speak of a Christian Prince, and a great one, who laid the same prohibition on a lady whom he affected, and on her husband likewise, by no means to touch her, so jealous was he of her favours.

Claudius,[3] son of Drusus Germanicus, merely put away his wife Plautia Urgulanilla, for having shown herself a most notorius harlot, and what is worse, for that he had heard how she had made an attempt upon his life. Yet cruel as he was, though surely these two reasons were enough to lead him to put her to death, he was content with divorce only.

Then again, for how long a time did he endure the wild doings and filthy debaucheries of Valeria Messalina, his second wife, who was not content with doing it with one and another here and there in dissolute and abandoned sort, but made it her regular practice to go to the brothels to get gratification of her passions, like the biggest strumpet in all the city. So far did she go, as Juvenal doth describe, that so soon as ever her husband was to bed with her, she would slip lightly away from beside him, when she saw him fast asleep and disguising herself the best she could, would hie her to some common brothel, where she took all she could get, and still would retire weary rather than replete or satisfied. Nay! she did even worse. For her better contentment, and to win the repute and self-satisfaction of being a good harlot and accomplished light-o'-love, she did even ask for payment, and would tax each round and each several act, like a travelling cess-collector, to the last doit.

I have heard speak of a lady of the great world, and of no mean lineage neither, who for some while did follow the same life, and went thus to the common brothels in disguise, to make trial of this way of existence, and get gratification of her passions,—so much so that one night the town-guard, while making their rounds, did actually arrest her unwittingly. And indeed there be other ladies too which play these pranks, as is well enough known.

Boccaccio[4] in his book of "Great Folks that have been Unhappy," doth speak of this Messalina in gentle terms, and representeth her making excuse for her ill behaviour, forasmuch as she was born by nature altogether for this course of life, the day of her birth being signalized by signs in the heavens which do show in all cases an hot and fiery complexion. Her husband was ware of it, and bore long with her,—until he learned how that she was secretly married to Caius Silius, one of the handsome gallants of Rome. So seeing the matter was as good as a plot upon his life, he had her put to death on this count, though in no wise for her lechery; for this he was well accustomed to see and know, and to condone the same.

Anyone who hath seen the statue of the aforesaid Messalina found in these last days at the town of Bordeaux will readily allow she did indeed bear the true look that comported with such a life. 'Tis an antique medal, found among some ruins; and is very fine and well worthy to be preserved to look at and carefully examine. She is a very fine woman, of a very fine, tall figure, with handsome features, and hair gracefully dressed in the old Roman fashion, and of very great stature,—all manifesting she was what History doth declare her to have been. For, by what I gather from sundry philosophers, physicians and physiognomists, big women be naturally inclined and well disposed to this thing. In truth such women are of a manly build, and so being, have share in the hot passions both of men and women, and conjoining the natures of both in one bodily frame, are thus more passionate and do possess more vigour than one alone,—even as, they say, a great and deep-laden ship doth need deep water to bear her up. Moreover, by what the learned Doctors that be expert in the mysteries of love declare, a big woman is more apt and more delightsome thereto than a small one.

The which doth mind me of a very great Prince, whom I once knew. Wishing to commend a certain woman whose favours he had enjoyed, he said in this wise: "'Tis a most excellent harlot, as big as my lady mother." Whereon being checked at the over-reckless vivacity of his speech, he did explain how that he meant not to say she was as great a harlot as his mother, but that she was of the like stature and as tall as was his mother. For sometimes a man doth say things he intendeth in no wise to say, as sometimes on the other hand he will say, without intending, the very actual truth.

Thus we see there is better cheer with big, tall women than with little ones, were it only for the noble grace and majesty, which they do own. For in this matter are these qualities as much called for and as attractive as in other exploits and exercises,—neither more nor less for example than in horsemanship. Wherein the riding of a tall and noble charger of blood is an hundred fold more agreeable and pleasant than is that of a little pony, and doth give more enjoyment by far to the cavalier. Albeit must the same be a good rider, and carry himself well, and show much more strength and address. In similar wise must a man carry himself toward fine, tall women; for that such as be of this stature are wont to have a higher-stepping gait than others, and will full often make riders slip their stirrup, nay! even lose their saddle altogether, as I have heard some tell which have essayed to mount them. In which case do they straight make boast and great mockery, whenas they have unseated them and thrown them flat. So have I been told of a certain lady of the good town of Paris, the which, the first time her lover did stay with her, said to him frankly: "Embrace me with a will, and clip me tight to you as well as ever you can; and ride boldly, for I am high-paced,—so beware of a fall. So for your part spare me not; I am strong enough and expert enough to bear your assaults, be they as fierce as they may. For indeed, if you spare me, will I not spare you. A good ball deserveth a good return." But insooth the lady did win the match.

Thus must a man take good heed to his behaviour with suchlike bold, merry, stalwart, fleshly and well-built dames; and though truly the superabundant heat that is in them doth give great contentment, yet will they at times be overpressing by reason of their excessive passionateness. However, as the proverb saith: There be good hinds of all sizes, so likewise are there little, dwarfish women which have action, grace and manner in these matters coming very nigh to their taller sisters,—or mayhap they be fain to copy them,—and as keen for the fray as they, or even more so, (I would appeal to the masters in these arts), just as a little horse will curvet every whit as nimbly as a big one. This bringeth to mind the saying of a worthy husband, who declared his wife was like divers animals and above all like an ape, for that when a-bed she would do naught but twist and turn and toss about.

Sundry reminiscences have beguiled me into this digression. 'Tis time now to come back again to our original discussion.

Another case. That cruel tyrant Nero[5] did content himself with the mere putting away of his wife Octavia, daughter of Claudius and Messalina, for her adultery; and his cruelty stopped thereat.

Domitian[6] did even better, who divorced his wife Longina, because she was so fondly enamoured of a certain comedian and buffoon named Paris, and did naught else all day long but play the wanton with him, neglecting the society of her husband altogether. Yet, after no long time, did he take her back again and repented him of the separation from her. Remember this: the said mountebank had taught her meantime sundry tricks of adroitness and cunning address, the which the Emperor did hope he would have good profit of!

Pertinax[7] did show a like clemency toward his wife Favia Sulpitiana. Not indeed that he did divorce her, nor yet take her again, but though well knowing her to be devoted to a singer and player of instruments of music, and to give all her love to the same, yet made he no complaint, but let her do her will. Meanwhile himself pursued an intrigue with one Cornificia, who was his own cousin german. Herein he did but follow the opinion of Heliogabalus, who was used to say there was naught in the world more excellent than the frequenting of one's own relations, male and female. Many there be that I wot of, which have made such exchanges and had suchlike dealings, going upon the opinions of these two Princes!

So likewise did the Emperor Severus[8] take no heed of his wife's honour or dishonour, though she was a public harlot. Yet did he never think of correcting her therefor, saying only she was called Julia by her name, and that all who bare that name had from all time been fated to be mighty whores and to cuckold their husbands. In like wise do I know many ladies bearing certain names under this our Christian dispensation,—I will not say who they be for the respect I owe to our holy Religion,—the which are constantly used to be strumpets and to lift the leg more than other women bearing other names. Of such have been very few which have escaped this evil fate.

Well! of a truth I should never have done, were I to adduce all the infinity of examples of great ladies and Roman Emperors of yore, in whose case their husbands, though sore cajoled and albeit very cruel men, did yet refrain them from exerting their cruelty and undoubted rights and privileges against their wives, no matter how dissolute and ill-conducted these were. I ween few prudes were there in those old days, as indeed is sufficiently declared in the history of their lives, and as may be plainly discerned by careful examination of ancient portraits and medallions representing them; for indeed you may behold in their fair faces this same lubricity manifestly and obviously displayed by chisel and graver. Yet did their husbands, cruel Princes as these were, pardon them, and did put none of them to death, or but a very few. So would it seem true that these Pagans, not knowing God, yet were so gentle and clement toward their wives and the human race, while the most part of our Kings, Princes, great Lords and other Christian men, be so cruel toward the same for a like offence.