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Considering the Cuckold, Rabelais Continued

Considering the Cuckold, Rabelais Continued

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


June 2, 2023

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Last week’s blog (https://hmu.edu/2023-5-26-reading-rabelais-part-ii/) concluded with a suggested connection between Book Two of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel and Monty Python skits. We cannot stop at the end of Book Two, however. Moving into Book Three, we find a lengthy discussion between Pantagruel and Panurge about the pros and cons of marriage. Panurge wants to know whether or not he should marry. Pantagruel consults all sorts of prophecies and ancient traditions, each time concluding that Panurge should decidedly NOT get married. Panurge, however, appears eager to enter into wedlock. He, therefore, interprets all of the same signs in an opposite manner, arguing against Pantagruel at every point. Panurge clearly wants a wife, just not the kind that might be unfaithful. The argument runs long and wearies the reader. We must ask why the persistent and intense fear of being a cuckold?

The word cuckold itself is interesting, as is the obsession played out throughout Book Three of Pantagruel. According to Merriam-Webster: “One of the more glaring inequities of the English language is that it has a significantly larger number of words for ‘a man whose wife is unfaithful’ than it does for ‘a woman whose man is unfaithful.’ Cuckold is perhaps the best known of these words, and it has many synonyms, including (but by no means restricted to) cornute, cornuto, hoddy-doddy, hoddypoll, horn, ram, and wittol (a man who is aware of his wife’s infidelity and acquiesces to it). What of a woman whose husband is unfaithful? For that our language appears to have but a single word, and an obscure one at that: cuckquean.” This dictionary entry makes it clear that humans have a pervasive fear, or at least a pervasive narrative, about the infidelity of women.

One wonders what exactly Rabelais wants to satirize in Book Three? Perhaps he wants to prove that the fear is unwarranted, ridiculous, or overly dramatic. On the other hand, the lengthy argument may intend to confirm the fear. Regardless of the answer, he clearly lampoons superstition and religion on his path towards also making fun of cuckolds and even, possibly, the notion of marriage itself. Ironic that these social critiques of marriage come from the hand of a priest. No matter what Rabelais’s main goal might have been, he clearly notes that fear of infidelity runs rampant in the human imagination.

This same theme permeates many other classics as well. For example, Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” centers around the wife of a carpenter who cheats on him with his clerk. Chaucer spends a lot of time describing the beauty of this new, young wife. We quickly foresee the upcoming conflict, then, when she’s introduced to the “hende Nicholas.” Double entendre increases the humor and also emasculates the carpenter (who, ironically, proves to be less “handy” than the crafty Nicholas).

Chaucer’s “Franklin’s Tale” (which I have written about on a previous blog: https://hmu.edu/2018-3-30-chaucer-translations/) offers a less bawdy, more romanticized version of the same story. Arveragus, a knight, must leave his new bride to maintain his honor and duty in battle. Forced to leave, he worries about her fidelity. Ever faithful, however, she rejects various opportunistic suitors. Though she rejects them, the story questions whether words and thoughts alone indicate a crime. Either way, it’s important to note that Chaucer ends this tale by asking which person acted most nobly. Perhaps it increases the humor to include Dorigen, a female, among the possible candidates for hero. Or perhaps Chaucer thought Dorigen might actually be the most heroic. Whatever your interpretation, the tale pokes fun at forms of medieval chivalry and also at man’s insecurities.

There are countless other examples too. Homer’s Odysseus returns to find his wife hounded by potential suitors (not to mention that a stolen wife was also the reason he had to leave Penelope for so long). Shakespeare presents cuckolds in many plays, some serious like Othello, and some silly, like Much Ado About Nothing.

The question, though, is why the notion remains so prevalent. Celebrity infidelities and trysts often garner outrageous numbers of readers. We’re obsessed with cheaters as told by our nasty addiction to what has been dubbed “reality tv,” but is in fact a strange mix of satire and staged drama. This article addresses both the nuanced history of cuckolds and also our current infatuation with celebrity drama. A quick scan of contemporary film (start with this article) confirms the findings.   

So now we combine Rabelais’s long-winded debate about infidelity, contemporary portrayals of women cheating on their husbands, and Merriam-Webster’s overabundance of synonyms for cuckold and we have an interesting question: is the narrative driving society’s fears, or is society driving the narrative? Why the persistence of this particular narrative? Obviously, there are many layers to unpack and so maybe Rabelais was on to something with his seriously long digression into Panurge’s paranoia about how to select the best wife.

During this painful debate, Rabelais even provides a few definitions of women. For example, as the men banter back and forth about the best type of woman, Rabelais inserts a bit about Eve. The theologian Hippothadeus claims, “Verily, some of our doctors aver for a truth, that the first woman of the world, whom the Hebrews call Eve, had hardly been induced or allured into the temptation of eating of the fruit of the tree of life, if it had not been forbidden for her so to do. And that you may give the more credit to the validity of this opinion, consider how cautelous and wily tempter did commemorate unto her, for an antecedent to his enthymeme, the prohibition which was made to taste it; as being desirous to infer from thence. It is forbidden thee; therefore thou shouldest eat of it, else thou canst not be a woman.” In other words, to be woman is to be fickle. A few pages later, Panurge tries to comprehend the advice of the theologian and the philosopher and he concludes: “To have a wife, is to have the use of her in such a way as nature hath ordained, which is for the aid, society, and solace of man, and propagating of his race.” Is man defined by his choice in marriage? Is marriage a one-way street highlighted by how masterful the master is? Or does that latter definition simply matter less? Is Rabelais asking why we worry so much about infidelity, or is he confirming the stereotype? Satire often muddies the message.

On an episode of Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell looks into the use of satire, one of the oldest types of comedy. He too wonders whether satire is effective or instructive. In the episode, Gladwell cites an essay titled “Sinking Giggling into the Sea” by Johnathan Coe, in which Coe claims that satire sinks (perhaps stinks is a better word) unless it levels a powerful punch at society’s depravities. Therefore, I wonder, is Rabelais’s satire effective (now or then)? Was it meant to be? If it is, what is the objective: to open our eyes to the deficiencies of church, state, human nature, and more? Does he sympathize with any side? Does he proffer advice? Or does Rabelais simply draw lines in the sand for our mutual enjoyment, embarrassment, and entertainment?

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