What was it about?
The Fifteen Joys of Marriage (Les Quinze joies de mariage) is a 15th century satirical work on the joys of married life. The 15 “joys” are, in truth, miseries that men willingly accept out of love for their wives. Women are constantly demanding the impossible from their husbands and can’t keep their hands off other men, but the husbands ultimately convince themselves that marriage is a joyous establishment. The misogyny is blatant like most satirical works of the Middle Ages, but the anonymous author acknowledges at the end of the book that his work is very one-sided and that some men can commit even greater evils than women.
What did I think of it?
I usually read most French works written after 1350 either in the original dialect or in modern French, but I was lazy this time and decided to read Les Quinze joies de mariage in English (translated by Elisabeth Abbott). I found the book at my university’s research library and basically read it in one sitting. This edition contained cartoonish illustrations that complemented the subject matter. However, I would not want to own that edition because some of the illustrations were quite crude and explicit. I find Medieval literature fascinating because the humor and assumptions of 14th/15th century Europeans was so different from what we are used to. The Fifteen Joys of Marriage is written in the tradition of the fabliaux, so the humor is sexual, scatological (not so much in this book), and sexist. I call them the three Ss.
In the book, when a man wants sex, it’s the wife’s fault if she doesn’t cooperate. But when the woman wants sex, she is depicted as an animal with an insatiable lust. Women are blamed for their pregnancies, and the man is always the one with the heaviest burden. Husbands beating their wives is commonplace and evidently acceptable. But the conclusion of the book suggests that the author realizes how misogynistic his work is, and that this may be a part of the satire. The author writes from the perspective of a priest who only knows marriage secondhand. He may be ridiculing the one-sided criticisms he often gets from men. The husband in the 15 chapters is referred to as the “goodman”, while the woman is a “wench” and her friends “gossips”. Elsewhere, the author writes: “And know that men do the contrary to what is said here: for whatsoever women they have, they generally think them better than all other women. Now and then the rule fails, but that is in the case of desperate and beastly knaves who lack understanding. Thus one gladly sees many husbands praise their wives, recounting their good virtues; and in their opinion there are none to equal them nor any where they could find such virtues, such delights or such good appetite.” I sense a good bit of sarcasm in this passage because all the criticisms in the book come from a man’s perspective. We never get the woman’s perspective on the affair. There aren’t many reasonably-priced editions available online, but if you have access to a research library you may want to check it out.
“Nonetheless, the lady has not such travail as the goodman, who has labored to keep her at ease and in the estate which she has ever had fair and with great possessions.”