Getting Away with Adultery in the Middle Ages

Getting Away with Adultery in the Middle Ages

By Danièle Cybulskie

For as long as there have been lovers’ trysts, there have been stories about gentleman callers hiding under the bed or making a mad dash for the nearest window. Although adultery wasn’t sanctioned by the church, it made for some of medieval Europe’s most beloved stories, from romance to fabliaux. Most of the time, the lovers were eventually caught out and the stories had a morally sound ending. But not always.

In the medieval world, privacy was something in short supply, so sometimes lovers had to rely on their wits to get away with their sinning. Here are two stories from the Gesta Romanorum – a popular collection of stories dating to the end of the 13th century – which are not technically supposed to glorify adultery, but which nevertheless work with a favourite theme of medieval humour: ordinary people whose cleverness allows them to fool the gullible into letting them have what they want.

In the first story, a knight goes out to cut grapes in his vineyard, so his wife sends for her lover and they immediately head for the bedroom. But instead of staying out all day, the knight injures his eye and comes home early. When she hears him coming home, the lady hides her lover in the bedroom, but her husband asks that she make the bed for him so he can lie down to ease the pain. Thinking quickly, the lady tells him she has to first make sure she takes care of his eyes – especially the good one. She says, “permit me to strengthen the uninjured eye by medicinal applications, or the diseased part may communicate with the sound, and thereby both be irredeemably injured.” Thinking this is sensible, her foolish husband allows his wife to conveniently cover both eyes: “his wife, spreading a large plaster so as completely to obstruct his sight, beckoned to her gallant, who escaped.”

The author of the Gesta Romanorum pulls out a moral from this story, comparing the husband to gullible and foolish Church prelates. He says, “The prelate’s eye is struck out as often as it is blinded by gifts.” It’s unlikely that people remembered that moral lesson as well as they remembered the cleverness of the adulterous wife, however.

The accomplice

The second story involves the medieval world’s most notorious and vilified accomplice: the older woman.

In this story, the husband is a soldier, who “going into a far country, entrusted his wife to the care of her mother.” As time passes, his wife falls in love with another man, and instead of dissuading her, the wife’s mother invites the other man to a feast. While the three are feasting, the soldier unexpectedly returns, at which point, the lover is (predictably) stashed in the bed to hide. But the travel-worn soldier is tired and immediately asks his wife to prepare the bed for him to sleep in it. The wife is stunned speechless, and doesn’t know how to handle this situation, so her mother steps in and saves the day:

The mother observing her daughter’s perplexity, said, “Before you go, my child, let us show your husband the fair sheet which we have made.” Then standing up, she gave one corner of the sheet to her daughter and held the other herself, extending it before him so as to favour the departure of the lover, who took the hint and escaped.

Mother and daughter then innocently and sweetly spread the sheet on the bed to make it up for the sleepy husband, who is none the wiser.

The author of the Gesta Romanorum attempts to shoehorn a moral onto the end of this tale, too, but it is even more clumsy than the last (“The wife is the flesh; the mother is the world; and the sheet, worldly vanities.”). It seems clear that the story is really just meant to be enjoyed, as are so many medieval stories, for the sheer enjoyment of a clever person getting away with something by their wits.

For more stories of adultery and clever escapes, check out Gesta Romanorum: Or, Entertaining Moral Stories, edited and translated by Charles Swan and Wynnard Hooper.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

Top Image: Detail of an historiated initial ‘A'(dulterium) of a man and a woman in bed. British Library MS Royal 6 E VI f. 61

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