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Desperate Housewives in Medieval Literature

Now that all the schmaltz and cheesiness of Valentine’s Day is behind us, let us look at a related but common and popular topos in literature, masquerades: people pretending to be somebody else. Wendy Doniger points out that:

[i]n fiction, often stranger than truth, all successful masquerades are, technically, failures. On the one hand, generally speaking (there are exceptions), every masquerade in a story works – at least, in the beginning; otherwise there would be no story to tell, for we would not know there had been a masquerade. And, on the other hand, generally speaking, every masquerade in a story fails – at least at the end; for we, the readers, always learn the truth at the end, and even a successful masquerade usually reveals his trick after he has gained his purpose, though we would hardly call this a failure. One of the great moments in the plot, after all, is the unmasking, and some masqueraders are unmasked before they achieve anything at all.1

In many cases, the masquerade involves drunkenness. Intoxication with alcohol, or some kind of love potion, often plays a part:

Many myths suggest other forms of drunkenness, offering supernatural or unnatural reasons for the clouding of reason, resorting to religion, ‘ex machina’, to extricate the plot from a human tangle: a curse, a ring of forgetfulness, the intervention of a god, a magic potion for Tristan and Isolde.2

Moreover, the imposter’s behaviour often gives him or her away and leads to the exposé. As Doniger explains,

[l]iars are exposed when they do not behave in the same way that the original behaves. Indeed, we might in general distinguish between the masquerade who is not who he or she appears to be and one who is not how he or she appears to be (unmarried, a king, and so forth). Behavior in bed, including but not limited to “sexual tricks”, [...] is paramount, but behavior out of bed is also a relevant factor. Often the liar is exposed because he behaves better than the original, particularly in political sexual masquerades.3

An important factor in masquerading is time, as “[i]n many myths [...] the masquerade takes place on the first night, and the victim has no comparison”.4

Another recurring theme in Medieval (and Early Modern) literature is that of the bedtrick. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms describes a bedtrick as “[t]he deceptive substitution of one woman in a man’s bed for another, a common motif of romance literature, used by Shakespeare in both All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure”.5 Wendy Doniger points out that

[t]he bedtrick is an exercise in epistemology: How could you know? How could you not know? The answer to the question, “Is it the same person?” will be expressed differently according to the different points of view of several different characters within the story. The very premise of the bedtrick is that there are two different points of the trickster who plays the bedtrick and knows the true identity of both partners, and that of the victim who is the object of the bedtrick and does not know the identity of the bedtrickster. In the case of inadvertent bedtricks, where neither the trickster nor the victim knows that a bedtrick is taking place, only we, the audience, and the author, know the truth.
The bedtrick, like all masquerades, is situated on the cusp between knowing and not knowing, more precisely on the narrow divide between not knowing, knowing while pretending to yourself that you don’t know (selfdelusion), and knowing while pretending to others that you don’t know (lying). The question is not simply whether one “knows” one’s partner in the sexual act but which of the many aspects of the partner one recognizes in this most revealing, and concealing, of human interactions. The theme of “knowing” is particularly crucial to the many incest myths in this corpus, which ask, each in its own way, “How do you know it is your mother (or father)? Are you let off the hook if you do not know?” But the more pertinent question, coded in the story and relevant not just to incestuous bedtricks but to all bedtricks, is perhaps “How is it that you do not know who is in bed with you?” Or “How is it that you do not know that you do not know who is in bed with you?” Or, better, “Who are you who do not know that you do not know who is in bed with you?” Or, finally, “How is it that you do not know who you are?”6

There are two famous examples of bedtricks in Medieval literature: Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales and the ninth story on the third day in Boccaccio’s Decamerone.

The Merchant’s Tale in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales
As this tale is not discussed in Philology 1 (as far as I know), here is a summary of the tale’s plot:

After the Merchant bewails the horrible marriage he’s made only two months ago, the Host urges him to tell a tale sharing his wisdom about this side of marriage. He begins with January, who thinks he wants a wife, but then the Merchant launches into a sermon against marriage, quoting standard classical and biblical examples common to the anti-feminist genre we first encountered in Jankyn’s book (IV.1266-1392). After discussing the dangers and advantages of marrying young women, January asks friends for advice. Placebo [Latin, “I will please”] flatters him, telling him he’s right to marry a young woman. Justinus [L. “just one”] warns him of the dangers he risks and counsels him not to marry, based on his own experience as a married man. January does what he wants, in the end, and suffers for it. The wedding night is described with such horrible attention to the disparities in their physiques that the Merchant appears to be “assimilating” with his tale.

Meanwhile, the squire, Damyan, becomes infatuated with May and falls into a “love sickness” which causes January to send May to his aid. Damyan gives her a letter pleading his case, and May reads it with interest before destroying it. She decides to yield herself to him.

January’s jealousy causes him to build a walled garden in which to hide May, and the sudden onset of blindness makes him especially glad that he has done so. In that garden, the gods, Pluto and Proserpine walk, and as they quarrel about who is to blame for marital grief, they observe blind January unknowingly helping May to climb a pear tree to have sexual intercourse with Damyan. Pluto, to avenge her infidelity, gives January back his sight, but, thanks to Proserpina, May has a ready answer to her husband’s charge.

In the epilogue, Harry Bailey admits that his wife is “a labbyng shrewe” with “an heep of vices mo” which he hesitates to tell the pilgrims lest “It sholde reported be / And toold to hire of somme of this meynee-- / Of whom, it nedeth nat for to declare” (IV.2428, 2429, 2435-7). Therefore, says Harry, “my tale is do” (IV.2440), although he will tell us more later in the “Prologue of the Monk’s Tale” (RC 240)

Germaine Dempster describes an often noted connection between a French fabliau, Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale, and Boccacccio’s hero in the Decamerone VII,9:

Whereas Chaucer’s tale blind man who miraculously recovers his sight to witness misconduct, Boccaccio’s hero, who sees, and was expected to wife uniting with her lover, but agrees that it is only an optical is of course endowed with normal eyesight all through the because the deception scheme, both in the Mch.t. and in this last Dec. VII, 9, involves the climbing of a pear tree, the two repeatedly been brought together under the ambiguous heading pear tree story.
One more analogy between the Merchant and Boccaccio’s for the sake of completeness: The Italian nobleman is old, and much emphasis is laid on the contrast between his age and the youth of his wife. But January’s sixty years are, I believe, much more likely to have been decided upon in connection with the opening episodes of the Merchant.8

Stressing the age of the husband in these stories also has moralizing overtones: it makes the reader think about how smart it is for an old(er) man to marry a young woman (or vice versa, of course). Basically, the implication is that the husband had it coming. However, if the husband had been of the same age as his cheating wife, would audiences still be forgiving?

Boccaccio’s Decameron
The bedtrick featured in Decameron III:9 was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. The plot of the story is as follows:

Juliet of Narbona, cured the King of France of a daungerous Fistula, in recompence whereof, she requested to enjoy as her husband in marriage, Bertrand Count of Roussilion. Hee having married her against his will, as utterly despising her, went to Florence, where hee made love to a young Gentlewoman. Juliet, by a queint and cunning policy, compassed the meanes (insted of his chosen new friend) to lye with her owne husband, by whom shee conceived, and had two Sonnes; which being afterward made knowne unto Count Bertrand, he accepted her into his favour againe, and loved her as his loyall and honourable wife.9

Anthony K. Cassell informs us that

[i]n the critical history of the Decameron, III:9 has been one of the least popular of its stories and this lack of enthusiasm not only harks back to its unpopular source in Terence but also extends to its unfavored ‘fortuna’ in the works in Italian and English that it has inspired. [...] The setting deals with feudal courts and kings, but there is no courtly love. The heroine’s obsession and determination is stolid but no caressing passion is expressed. Neifile recounts a tale of enamorment, courtship and marriage, but she tells us no love story. In short, in Neifile’s tale of ‘Decameron’ III:9, Boccaccio tells seduction but does not seduce us.10

The story is reminiscent of biblical stories about “various Jewish prophets before foreign tyrants, and the sex-trick closely follows Judah’s fornication with his daughter-in-law Tamar, a story that takes up the whole of Genesis’ Chapter 38”11. According to Cassell,

the inclusion of these strong and somber biblical echoes surely familiar to his fourteenth-century audience, Boccaccio gives his tale a certain seriousness that successfully points up the frivolity of its flanking tales in Day III.17 who dare contrive their own trysts actually win sexual satisfaction. […] In the Old Testament Lot’s daughters, one after the other, beget children with their intoxicated father (Gen 19:30–38).32 Jacob, the trickster who has stolen his father’s blessing, is astonished to find Leah in his bridal bed instead of the promised Rachel (Gen 29:1–30).12

There are also many examples of these type of stories to be found in Classical mythology. Cassell gives us some examples:

Zeus visits Danaë as a shower of golden rain, rapes Europa as a bull and substitutes for Amphytrion in Alcmena’s bed to beget Hercules; and Dante also recalls how Ovid’s Myrrha lay hell-bent with her drunken father Cinyras.13

Cassell provides us with further examples of masquerades in the Decameron that show parallels with classical mythology. In Decameron III:2 , for instance,

Pampinea tells how Agilulfo’s groom contrives to impersonate the king and bed the queen while cleverly escaping discovery. In III:6, Fiammetta takes pains to recount how Ricciardo Minutolo substitutes himself for Catella’s husband. And in III:6 Elissa must reassure us that the Ricciardo Minutolo-Catella Sighinolfo tale is an historical story—and our editor, Vittore Branca, convinces us that it is, at least, about real people (228).34 The bed-trick in Neifile’s later tale of 7:8 is most convincing since there is no need for its sexual consummation and the olfactory, the tactile, the aural and the visual play no part. There the cuckolded husband, temporarily too enraged to notice the difference in the maidservant’s voice from his wife’s and foiled by his wife’s substitution, beats his maid-servant black and blue; he brands the unfortunate girl in the same way as King Agilulfo tries to identify his randy groom in III:2, by cutting off her hair.14

Cassell notes that a common trait of masquerades and bedtricks in literature is that these

usually require extraordinary strategies on the part of both the protagonists and their authors. Boccaccio assures us that King Agilulfo’s smelly groom (Decameron III:2), takes advantage of the dark of night and takes a good hot bath to rid his body of the stench of dung so that the Queen will remain blissfully unaware of the ruse [...]. Imitating the King, he knocks loftily on the bedchamber door with a staff, and he also refrains from speaking. In the Ricciardo Minutolo tale (III:6) the author dwells upon overcoming several similar obstacles: the room at the bathhouse is windowless, and, as we are told twice, “exceedingly dark,” [...]; the jealous and willing Catella, believing Minutolo to be her philandering husband, is heavily veiled like Tamar in the Bible; both partners at first refrain from speaking (384). Most remarkably, however, in our tale of Decameron III:9, Boccaccio feels no need to give us hot baths, darkness, silence, or even disguises. And he cheekily tells us that Giletta’s ruse does not have to work just once, as in previous tales, but many times to the complete gulling of Beltramo.15

Bedtricks: a real thing?
Even though the stories discussed in this article appear to be either far-fetched or simply too strange to be true, both bedtricks and masquerades do happen in real life, sometimes making sensational headlines in the newspapers.16 In the legal cases that follow, however, it turns out to be extremely difficult for a duped woman to prove her case. Doniger notes that “[a]pparently it is humiliating but not a crime to trick a woman into bed using ‘the common misrepresentations of dating and courtship’ and ‘false pretenses,’ though it is a crime to trick her out of money using the same sorts of lies. […] The mind, at least the non-legal mind, boggles”.17

So next time your lover tries to sneak into your bed at night, it is perhaps a good idea to turn on the lights and see if it is really him.

By Birgitte Breemerkamp


1. Doniger, Wendy. Sex, Lies and Tall Tales” Social Research, 64-3 (1996): 663-699

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Baldick, Christ. Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms Fourth Edition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

6. Doniger, Wendy. “Carnal Knowledge.” Occasional Paper 21 (1999): 1-36


8. Dempster, Germaine. “On the Source of the Deception Story in the Merchant’s Tale.” Modern Philology 34-2 (1936): 133-154


10. Cassell, Anthony K. “Pilgrim Wombs, Physicke and Bed-Tricks: Intellectual Brilliance, Attenuation and Elison in Decameron III:9” MLN 121-1 (2006): 53-101

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Doniger, Wendy. Sex, Lies and Tall Tales” Social Research, Vol. 64, No. 3, 1996: 663-699

17. Ibid.