By Danièle Cybulskie
What is perhaps the biggest draw of Christianity is the promise of forgiveness for any and every sin with an act of true contrition. The trouble is, this central facet of the faith has often been employed in exerting peer pressure to sin, especially when the sin is already extremely tempting in itself. After all, why behave today when you can repent tomorrow?
In a lighthearted poem called Gilote and Johane, two women argue both for and against virginity. What makes it funny for medieval audiences (and arguably modern ones) is that the virginity team loses – badly. But what makes it interesting is how cleverly theology is twisted by the pro-sex team to create an argument convincing enough to persuade all the women of England and Ireland to enthusiastically get on board. (This is a bit of a cheat in the medieval worldview, though, as women were absolutely known to be extremely lusty.)
Gilote, who chooses to take as many lovers as she pleases (consecutively), argues that the benefits of taking a lover far outweigh the drawbacks, and anyway, you can always repent. She boasts that her lover gets her whatever she wants, such as “kerchiefs and gloves”, but more than that, her life overall is better without a husband. She says,
While you speak about marriage,
I won’t have it, Johane. It would be outrageous
To live in suffering and in harm.
Whoever marries badly doesn’t act prudently.
I would be trapped in my house,
Oppressed and beaten for little cause,
[I’d have] to have way too many children,
And I’d never be separated from such a rogue.
I’ve never known a woman who took a husband,
Who sooner or later didn’t regret it.
In God’s name, Johane, it’s not thus
Between myself and my lover.
I can leave him when I want
Without permission from a priest or anyone else,
And choose another immediately afterwards,
And live in joy and always in peace[.]
No doubt this argument would have been a tempting one for many a medieval woman, faced with the prospect of becoming legally ruled by her husband, for better and for worse. But Johane valiantly argues for the worth of virginity, and getting married to avoid “sin and embarrassment”. She cites the Virgin Mary and other saintly maidens as examples to follow.
To this, Gilote argues that virginity is worthless unless a person’s thoughts are also pure (for which there is some theological precedent), and furthermore, she thinks it’s a little egotistical for Johane to compare herself to the Virgin Mary. While Johane argues that legitimate children are the purpose and fulfilment of marriage, Gilote counters that the holy texts say that God doesn’t actually care who a person’s parents are.
Gilote cleverly cites the examples of Mary Magdalene and converts – who, she argues, God is said to have valued more – hearkening back to the idea of the good shepherd who will leave the flock to save one sheep. Desperately, Johane says sinners’ souls are always in danger until they’re forgiven, while exasperated Gilote says that’s the same for everyone. Everyone is a sinner.
At this, Johane is stumped, theologically. So, she turns to practical matters: what does she say to her parents if she gets caught? Gilote says to ignore her father’s rantings, but to be sure to get her mother on her side, as mothers and daughters stick together. She then instructs Johane to turn the argument around on her father, telling him, “If you’d arranged for me to be married well before, / I wouldn’t now be accused of this.” With this potential snag neatly taken care of, Johane is converted, and sets about blithely taking a lover, to her great enjoyment.
The two women, says the poet, set about “teaching and preaching” to all the women of Winchester so “[t]hat one can scarcely find a woman / Who won’t engage in such a task”. A young wife who’s frustrated by her husband’s inability to please her in bed asks for advice, saying she’d take a lover, but she’s worried about how much adultery is condemned by the clergy. Gilote (with a dig at friars who are just as lusty as everybody else) again turns church teachings to her advantage. She tells the wife that if she is caught, she should beg her husband to take her back on account of his holy vows to her. Gilote instructs her to say,
Handsome lord husband, bear well in mind
What you promised to me by a firm promise.
Look to God and to justice.
You cannot refuse me on account of any chance event.
When we came before the priest,
Remember how you spoke to me….
Sweet lord husband, keep your covenant.
And then, Gilote says, “[p]riests and friars and other good people” will pressure her husband to take her back,
And you’ll be a lady well reconciled,
And you’ll be mistress just as before,
And you’ll be a wealthy lady and more powerful.
The wife does as Gilote says, and she, too, is mightily pleased with her results.
Gilote and Johane continue to spread the word to wives everywhere – even at church – the poet says, to which
The wives responded as one:
“You’ve spoken well and in a clerkly way;
We’ve never heard such preaching.”
They teach and preach all over England and Ireland (and specifically Pontefract, which is likely a dig at that town). Because of their mass conversion and the effectiveness of their preaching, the poet writes, “there isn’t a woman now alive … Who doesn’t know how to play the game of love.”
Although the poet, himself, writes that “[t]his is a jest to please the people”, it’s interesting how cleverly Gilote spins her argument for sin, using theology to support her. No one listening would be expected to take away the idea that sex outside of marriage was actually acceptable, but they would be drawn in by the arguments which so carefully twist the lessons they’d heard so often in church (how would they be refuted?) only to be rewarded with the unexpected and funny result: the sinners live happily ever after.
You can find this translation of Gilote and Johane by Susanna Greer Fein on the TEAMS Middle English Text Series website.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: Codex Manesse, UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 52r