The world around us has become so persistently unhinged that it’s sometimes hard to focus on just one terrible/weird thing at a time at this point. There’s a sexual assaulting game show host as president of the United States, escalating unapologetic white supremacy world-wide, and your friends openly liking hentai on the Twitter TL. We’re all inured at this point.
One of the millions of weird things that has come to be in the hellscape of social media (other than the hentai) is the joyful use among the white supremacists of the word “cuck” as an insult. Those of us who live online, and even those of us who are just forced to exist in this squalid farce of a society, are sadly aware that “cuck” is a foreshortening of the word “cuckold”, and what these sad little men (it’s always men) mean is that the person in question is being cheated on by their female partner. (Don’t get mad at me, I didn’t start it.)
Because I am a medieval historian this is, to me, what we in the business like to refer to as “fucking hilarious”. Why is that? Well, because the same people bandying about the word cuck are the same ones who are frequently harping on (and on, and on) about how the trouble with our society is that we need to refer to “traditional values”, as we have lost our way.
Trouble with that is traditional values in the medieval period be looking a lot like this:
Yes, that is a manuscript picture of a woman enjoying some manual sex with her lover next to her bed while her husband is asleep. No that is not especially weird. This stuff is so incredibly normal in the medieval period that cuckolding is a regular literary trope.
TO WHIT: the dramatic crux of both “The Miller’s Tale” and “The Merchant’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales, for example, is that older men have married wild, gorgeous, and obviously sexual younger women – Alisoun and May, respectively. Neither wife loves nor even likes her husband, which isn’t necessarily a problem. Marriage in the medieval period was emphatically not about romance. As we’ve talked about before, medieval marriage was a business contract and a religious sacrament, but it had nothing to do with love one way or another.
Having said that, marriage was about sex, in that sex was necessary for the getting of heirs. In essence, marriages existed in the medieval period so that people could hand their property down to heirs. In (broad, sweeping) general terms, when a woman entered into a marriage with a man in the medieval period, her primary role was to get pregnant, hopefully not die in childbirth, hope that child didn’t die young, raise it, and repeat in case said child did die, or happened to be a woman and therefore incapable of passing property through.*
Because of the concern about heirs, property, and such and such, cuckoldry was a concern because it was super important that the kid who got all your shit when you died shared your genes or whatever. (IDK why, ok? This is just how people feel about their DNA or something.) Hence the fear that your wife would be banging people on the side.
Specifically for the husbands in both the Miller and the Merchant’s tale – John and January – the other part of the problem here is that the wives in question are a lot younger. Once again, and as I am constantly banging on at you about, that is not such a strange state of affairs for people with property. Men who have something worth inheriting have, in general, had to spend some time getting it together. Maybe they were waiting for their own father to die in order to get it. Maybe they just had to work until the amassed enough money to be a nice-looking marriage prospect. Either way, marrying-type dudes were often of an age. Enough so that ya boi Chaucer used this as a trope.
Ideal wives, in that they were essentially meant to be heir incubators, were younger. You might need a few cracks at having kids, after all. Enter the age disparity.
It was obvious to both John and January (and probs you too) that their wives were destined to want to cheat on them. They both do their best to try to prevent that, but the women get around it and hijinks ensue. Hijinks I say! (You’ve read The Canterbury Tales, right? Why haven’t you read the Canterbury tales? I know it’s classical literature but it has 100% more fucking in trees than you have bargained for. Go! Read it!)
Cuckolding as a literary trope is by no means limited to The Canterbury Tales in medieval literature, however. It’s the cause of the downfall of Camelot. It’s gets husbands sent to purgatory while their wives have it off with monks in the Decameron (and features as a plot device in three other stories therein as well). It is the entire fucking POINT of courtly love, a genre built around cheating on husbands and men competing for sex with attached women.
According to the medieval mindset, then, if you were a married dude, you had about a 90% chance that your wife was gonna try to have sex with someone else. Even if husbands aren’t older and ugly like poor John and January, women were just gonna want to bang a lot of dudes because that was how women do.
In the Roman de la Rose La Vieille expounds on this fact when discussing Venus cheating on Vulcan with Mars. Yeah, Mars was hot and Vulcan was not, but women, according to La Vielle, had their natural desire to Get. It. curtailed by the monogamy that marriage forced on them. Marriage existed to help raise children and put a stop to crimes of passion by the men who were left in their wake, but by their very nature women would always seek to be sexually free. Sorry about it. (I’m not sorry about it.)
So the medieval world and medieval culture were constantly bombarding people with the idea that women were as a matter of course on the lookout for sex outside of their marriage. Was that a desirable thing? Not really. It was just a thing that people had accepted was going to happen, like bad weather.
However, as the eminent sexologists Meg John Barker and Justin Hancock have pointed out “people’s fantasies are influenced along the way by books they’ve read, movies they’ve seen, TV shows they’ve liked, computer games they’ve played, etc…”. While in the medieval period movies and video games were a bit light on the ground, stories, songs, and obviously literature were telling them that ladies was gonna cheat, and some dudes managed to find this hot.
Now, I am extremely NOT HERE to retrospectively diagnose everyone in the medieval period as having an actual cuckold fetish, ok? Firstly because retrospective diagnosis is a difficult and often flawed tool for explaining people and history, and secondly because until I see the word “kink” or “fetish” used in a medieval sense I can’t tell you that is what medieval people thought they were doing.
What I can tell you is that medieval people wrote about it all the time and some people – particularly those who had specific tensions – took it to what we would now look at as a sort of kinky place.
The thirteenth century Provençal Jewish wrier Isaac ben Ydaiah, for example, appears to have been concerned not only that women might want to cheat, but that when they did they would find more pleasurable options outside of their communities.
According to him, you see, Jewish women were at risk of being interested in having sex with gentiles because gentiles were uncircumcised. Isaac believed that removing the foreskin made penises more sensitive, and as a result, circumcised men reached orgasm more quickly than their uncircumcised counterparts, reducing the pleasure that women could experience. Dude lays it out like this:
This is the way the circumcised man acts time after time with the woman he loves. He has an orgasm first; he does not hold back his strength.
As soon as he begins intercourse with her, he immediately comes to a climax. She has no pleasure from him when she lies down or when she arises, and it would be better for her if he had not known here and not drawn near to her, for he arouses her passion to no avail and she remains in a state of desire for her husband, ashamed and confounded.
If a woman gets with an uncircumcised man however, she will…
…lie against his breast with great passion, for he thrusts inside her a long time because of the foreskin, which is a barrier against ejaculation in intercourse. Thus she feels pleasure and reaches an orgasm first. When an uncircumcised man sleeps with her and then resolves to return to his home, she brazenly grasps him, holding on to his genitals, and says to him, “Come back, make love to me.” This is because of the pleasure that she finds in intercourse with him, from the sinews of his testicles – sinews of iron – and from his ejaculation – that of a horse – which he shoots like an arrow into her womb. They are united without separating, and he makes love twice and three times in one night, yet the appetite is not filled.
I mean … what are we supposed to make of that?
While this is sort of familiar, this medieval, um, interest in cuckolding is in opposition to the current way that we relate to the idea. As Zoé Samudzi has pointed out, a great majority of the cuckolding porn that exists now has an explicit racist element to it, and involves white men watching their white “wives” have sex with (sometimes multiple) black men. This trope plays on the assumption that black men possess some sort of sexual prowess that white men lack, and that white women, who again within this trope are often portrayed as insatiable, are innately attracted to and desirous of. This is, of course racist AF, and dehumanising.
It also speaks to an interesting kink on the behalf of those white people consuming this porn: they will never have the sexual capacity of these men oppressed men. The women they are with will never be satisfied. This tension is the kink. Implicit in this idea is that we are right to dehumanise and oppress black people because they have physical and even animalistic qualities that white men cannot hope to attain and we must protect our precious white princesses or something. (You can miss me with this whole-ass dynamic, and stop treating people of colour like animals to be trotted out for your weird-ass sexual kicks. K?)
The concern that a group of men has a specific sexual advantage that another cannot hope to attain is explicit in Isaac ben Ydaiah’s concerns about uncircumcised men above. Women were ALWAYS going to want more sex, and as far as he was concerned gentiles were more capable of giving it to them because of their in-tact foreskins. He seems concerned enough about this to, um, reflect on it at length, even if we can’t say he was fetishising it. (It looks like he is tho, huh? I mean if he was alive now I would ask if that is what this is about. Because damn.) Unlike the way cuckolding fantasy plays out in porn today, however, this gives us an idea of how a member of a marginalised group was relating to sexual anxiety, He is already a member of a persecuted out-group, and this sexual anxiety is sort of another layer of worry on top of what he is already experiencing. This is diametrically opposed to the lily-white concerns of a powerful group sexualising an oppressed minority which we see in cuckold porn now.
All of this is instructive to those of us trying to navigate society now because it shows how different medieval ideas about sex, relationships, and cuckolding were, but how we are still holding on to other aspects.
Outside of the realm of cuckolding porn, women now are generally portrayed as sexually aloof, disinterested in sex outside of committed relationships, and indeed often within them. People will spout some dumb ass evo-psych bullshit at you about how this has always been the case and talk about lobsters or whatever. That. Is. Not. True. The medieval period is here to tell you that as far as it was concerned women were on the lookout for sex, preferably outside of their established marriage, and you had best be on your guard.
The weirdo right-wing modern use of the term cuck as an insult, meanwhile, plays on both medieval and modern tropes in order to be an insult. At its heart it is a lot like courtly love literature, in that although it involves women, it’s actually something said to men about other men and doesn’t really involve women at all. In this case the right-wing dude finds his insufficiently fascist man un-manly, and therefore supposes that said not-fascist’s wife must be cheating on him. Probably with a person of colour. Which is somehow worse? For white supremacist reasons. Manly men, on the other hand, are controlling their wives in a manly and virile way, of course. As is traditional. Probably their “traditional” wives are also not interested in sex because they are so good and “traditional”. This is as opposed to liberal women who are chasing around D elsewhere or something.
The medieval – and dare I say traditional – concept of cuckolding, and even women’s sexuality, differs radically from this. To the medieval way of thinking, there is no man alive who could hope to satisfy a woman. As our boy Jerome puts it:
…women’s love in general is accused of ever being insatiable; put it out, it bursts into flame; give it plenty, it is again in need; it enervates a man’s mind, and engrosses all thought except for the passion which it feeds..
Medieval people be like “your wife was gonna cheat on you, OK?” That didn’t make you less of a man. That made you a man, and probably one who had sufficient financial holdings that this was a concern because you needed to worry about paternity. Nothing short of actually locking women up was gonna do much about it, so you best just keep an eye out.
The reason that all of this is important isn’t just because, you know, it’s interesting and also funny to see people writing about “ejaculation – that of a horse” which it absolutely is. It’s important because when you see weirdo fascists bandying about terms like cuck at the same time that they are advocating for a return to “traditional values” they are advocating for something that doesn’t exist and never existed. Their world of easily cowed wives, who stay at home and don’t fantasise about other men? Not a thing. Moreover, there is no historic anxiety that you needed to oppress whole groups of people because they are better in bed than you. That is something that we have invented now as a response to the terrible things we in the modern period have done.
History is often bandied about as something to be revered and adhered to, especially by white right-wing people who want “traditional values” and to call anyone who doesn’t want whatever that means a cuckold. Now you know that this is some bullshit. So, the next time they come at you with some nonsense about wanting to return to traditional values, push back. Tell them you agree that women are certainly sexually freer than men and likely interested in multiple sex partners, but that you think the cuckolding takes it a bit far.
*This is a hugely simplified version of the incredibly complex world of medieval marriage, of course. For quite a while, women could inherit titles and lands, especially if they came from the noble or royal elite, for example. The underlying reason for the Hundred Years War was that the French changed the norms on inheritance through the female line in 1316 because it was becoming increasingly clear that Charles IV of France was going to die without an heir, and the French expressly did not want the house of Plantagenet in England coming in and claiming the throne. The Plantagenet claim was that Edward III of England’s mum Isabella of France was Charles IV’s sister. That’s a pretty direct link. Anyway the point here is there had to be an explicit change to stop it from happening, and then a war that lasted … a while. It’s complex, is my point. If you want to know more about the nuance check out David d’Avray, Medieval Marriage: Symbolism and Society (Oxford, 2004).
 See John V. Fleming, Roman de la Rose: A Study in Allegory and Iconography (Princeton: 2015), pp. 179-180.
[2&3] Quotes in Ruth Mazzo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others (New York, 2005), p. 78.
[4 Joyce E., Salisbury, “Gendered Sexuality”, in, Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage, eds. (New York, 1996), p. 86.
For more on sex in the medieval period, see:
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’
These hoes ain’t loyal: on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hiphop culture
On Courtly Love, sexual coercion, and killing your idols
On Incels and courtly love
The history of penis in vagina as default sex at BISH
Sex and the (medieval city): social hygene and sex in the medieval urban landscape
On women and desire
On power and the entitlement to lower-status women’s bodies, or, the thing that IS medieval about Trump