Sexual jealousy and the fragile male ego in 1532

Suppose that you pick up a book published in 1532. You're probably not expecting its values to align very much with our own. Indeed, having seen that it's a fantasy epic full of riveting tales of knights and adventures, you might expect that you can have some fun with it, but on one condition: that you're willing to overlook its undoubtedly old-fashioned morals, morals that will surely include a healthy dose of sexism. Right? And very soon, just a few pages in, the book seems to make your worst fears come true. For here we have a lady hidden in the bushes, and one of the several knights who is in love with her walks into the glade -- without seeing her -- and starts to lament the fact that some other knight will by now surely have taken her virginity. And virginity, my friends, is the most precious of all a woman's treasures:

"The virgin has her image in the rose
Sheltered in garden on its native stock,
Which there in solitude and safe repose,
Blooms unapproached by sheperd or by flock.
For this earth teems, and freshening water flows,
And breeze and dewy dawn their sweets unlock:
With such the wistful youth his bosom dresses.
With such the enamored damsel braids her tresses.

"But wanton hands no sooner this displace
From the maternal stem, where it was grown,
Than all is withered; whatsoever grace
It found with man or heaven; bloom, beauty, gone.
The damsel who should hold in higher place
Than light or life the flower which is her own,
Suffering the spoiler's hand to crop the prize,
Forfeits her worth in every other's eyes.
You would be justified in thinking that, ouch, if this writer is going to go on about virginity much longer, the 38736 lines of poetry that comprise this book will be tough to get through! But if you're thinking that, it's because you're unprepared for the awesomeness that is Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. That's 38736 lines of awesomeness for you. To celebrate the fact that I've started to reread it, let me tell you how the situation just described unfolds.

The lady in the bushes, Angelica, hears the lament of the knight, Sacripante. Does she take it as an occasion for soul-searching or guilt? On the contrary, she immediately understands that (1) she needs a knight to get her out of this forest (where dubious men seem to be hiding behind every tree), and (2) someone who is as love-struck as Sacripante is easy to manipulate into helping her and can be discarded thereafter. So she walks up to him, says hi, and explains that although she has indeed travelled far and wide with Orlando, nevertheless, not to worry, she is a virgin still. On which the narrator remarks:
Haply the tale was true; yet will not seem
Likely to one of sober sense possessed:
But Sacripant, who waked from worser dream,
In all without a cavil acquiesced:
Since love, who sees without one guiding gleam,
Spies in broad day but that which likes him best:
For one sign of the afflicted man's disease
Is to give ready faith to things which please.
(I love the recent Dutch translation of the original Italian, which tells us in the first two lines that, while the tale is perhaps true, "some healthy scepticism always pays off." There are more recent English translations too, but not for free on the internet.)

Love, Ariosto is pointing out to us, makes this man a fool, willing to believe anything and easily manipulated. But there is of course also a dark and dangerous side to Sacripante's sexual jealousy. Someone who is so possessed with the idea that no other man can 'have' his lady, might also be someone who is willing to 'take' her against her will. But isn't he a noble knight, who would never do such a thing? Ariosto is far too honest a writer to skirt the issue, and this is what Sacripante decides:
"No! I will pluck the fresh and morning rose,
Which, should I tarry, may be overblown.
To woman, (this my own experience shows),
No deed more sweet or welcome can be done.
Then, whatsoever scorn the damsel shows,
Though she awhile may weep and make her moan,
I will, unchecked by anger, false or true,
Or sharp repulse, my bold design pursue."
It would be hard to give a clearer example of the kind of thinking that we are still dealing with nowadays under headers like #MeToo. But this book was written in 1532. Perhaps Ariosto agrees with the knight? Well... no. And the rest of this Canto 1 of the poem is there purely to make fun of him, his theories about women, and his fragile male ego.

Here's what happens. Before Sacripante can put into action his plan for rape, a visored knight in shining white armour appears on the scene. Sacripante is so angry at the fact that someone interrupts him just when he was about to violate Angelica that he immediately challenges the knight to a duel. He doesn't even ask for his name. Silently, the knight agrees; and they fight until Sacripante's horse collapses under him and he falls to the ground, trapped beneath the dead animal. The knight in white rides off, never having spoken a word.

Of course Sacripante doesn't like losing, but what makes the situation unbearable for him is that he has lost where a woman saw it:

And if he rued his fall, it grieved him more
His dame should lift him from his courser dead.
He speechless had remained, I ween, if she
Had not his prisoned tongue and voice set free.

"Grieve not," she said, "sir monarch, for thy fall;
But let the blame upon thy courser be!
To whom more welcome had been forage, stall,
And rest, than further joust and jeopardy;
And well thy foe the loser may I call,
(Who shall no glory gain) for such is he
Who is the first to quit his ground, if aught
Angelica of fighting fields be taught."
This is clearly nonsense; Sacripante has simply been bested in combat and the other knight spared his life. But a wounded ego is not a pleasant thing, and he once again chooses to believe Angelica no matter how unlikely her story. Psychologically, he turns out to be a weak man who impulsively makes bad decisions and is easily manipulated by the woman he believes he can dominate.

But the real blow must still come. For now a messenger arrives on the scene and asks them whether they have seen a knight in shining white armour. Sacripante asks for the knight's name, because he wants to know what man has beaten him. "His name?" the messenger replies. "Why, that knight was the lady Bradamante."

And that's just Canto 1 out of 46. The 1530's were way ahead of us, friends. Way ahead of us.


  1. I like the way you quote the Dutch translation in English, in parentheses, while casually retaining the iambic pentameter.

    Also, this would be an early example of: (which indeed has an entry for Orlando Furioso)

  2. I like the way you quote the Dutch translation in English, in parentheses, while casually retaining the iambic pentameter.

    Also, this would be an early example of: (which indeed has an entry for Orlando Furioso)


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