Constant du Hamel: Women, Money, and Power in an Old French Fabliau

Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In the Old French fabliau Constant du Hamel, three would-be suitors unsuccessfully try to turn money into the sexual favors of Ysabel, a rich peasant’s beautiful wife, while she successfully turns their unfulfilled desire into money. She succeeds because she is the only one in the story who understands money and can keep accounts of it in her head. The role of money in the story is symptomatic of a new order controlled by negotiation and wit that replaces an old order based on coercion. The story turns on the delusion of its male characters who think that they participate in the new order, that they can make their way with money, but who instinctively fall back on coercive assumptions from the old order and on their confident misjudgment of their relative strength against Ysabel.1 They cannot understand the solvent effect of money on their cherished sense of hierarchical status, much less its effect on the more fundamental power relations of gender.


Future Contract Thirteenth Century Rural Economy Critical Edition Money Economy 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    References to Constant du Hamel, Estormi, and Le Prestre c’on porte are to texts with translation by Nathaniel Dubin, to be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press and reproduced here by his kind permission. I have compared Professor Dubin’s OF text with that of the Nouveau receuil complet des fabliaux (NRCF), ed. Willem Noomen and Nico van den Boogaard (Assen, Netherlands: VanGorcum, 1983), and noted differences from their critical texts (presented along with diplomatic texts of each manuscript of each fabliau).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950–1350 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976 [1971]), esp. pp. vii, 27–48, 56–60, 70–79.Google Scholar
  3. On the development of money see John F. Chown, A History of Money: From AD 800 (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 1–40;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. an unfinished early treatment is Marc Bloch, Esquisse d’un histoire monétaire de l’Europe (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 1954).Google Scholar
  5. On the role of money as “a necessary pre-condition for” the commercial revolution of “the long thirteenth century,” see Peter Spufford, Money and Its Use in Medieval Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 240–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. More recently, Joel Kaye, Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century: Money, Market Exchange, and the Emergence of Scientific Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) has argued that the more pervasive monetization of Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries encouraged a quantitative analysis that anticipated modern scientific thought as the discernment of unchanging essences yielded to the measurement of dynamic processes.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 3.
    On technology, see Georges Duby, Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, trans. Cynthia Postan (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1968), pp. 108–11;Google Scholar
  8. Werner Rösener, The Peasantry of Europe, trans. Thomas M. Barker (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), pp. 42–43, 53–56;Google Scholar
  9. Robert Fossier, Peasant Life in the Medieval West, trans. Juliet Vale (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), pp. 98–101.Google Scholar
  10. 4.
    On climatic change, see H. H. Lamb, Climate, History and the Modern World, second edition (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 177–82, and Weather, Climate & Human Affairs (London: Routledge, 1988), pp. 40–74; and the editors’ introduction toGoogle Scholar
  11. T. M. Wrigley, M.J. Ingram, G. Farmer, eds., Climate and History: Studies in Past Climates and Their Impact on Man (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 3–50, which refers to the “Medieval Warm Epoch (MWE).”Google Scholar
  12. 8.
    Landlords eventually shifted to fixed term leases more frequently in the course of the thirteenth century. See Duby, Rural Economy, pp. 74–81 (on clearing), 237–39 (on fixed rents); M. M. Postan, ed., The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, second edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), pp. 323–27 (in a chapter by F. L. Ganshof and A. Verhulst); Fossier, Peasant Life, pp. 142–45; Spufford, Money and Its Uses, pp. 243–45.Google Scholar
  13. A subtly argued account of the conditions and motivations that led to the high rate of manumission of serfs in thirteenth-century France is found in William Chester Jordan, From Servitude to Freedom: Manumission in the Sénonais in the Thirteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  14. 9.
    A comprehensive treatment of this traditional contempt, with extensive bibliography, is in Paul Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), esp. the introduction and Chapter 6.Google Scholar
  15. 11.
    See, for example, William Chester Jordan, Women and Credit in Pre-Industrial and Developing Societies (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), pp. 11–82;Google Scholar
  16. Kathryn L. Reyerson, “Women in Business in Medieval Montpellier,” in Barbara A. Hanawalt, ed., Women and Work in Preindustrial Europe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp. 117–44. In the present volume the most relevant chapters (which deal with members of the upper aristocracy) are those of Ana Maria S. A. Rodrigues and Manuela Santos Silva, Theresa Earenfight, and Helen A. Gaudette.Google Scholar
  17. 12.
    Malcolm Barber, The Two Cities: Medieval Europe 1050–1320 (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 74.Google Scholar
  18. 13.
    There are some complications in this calculation that should be laid out candidly. The work-year of only 200 days reflects the large number of religious holidays and “rest days,” (in addition to Sundays) that were observed in the Middle Ages. See Edith Rodgers, Discussion of Holidays in the Later Middle Ages (New York: Columbia University Press, 1940), pp. 10–11. A straight comparison of the five-pound annual income to an equivalent income in 2004 would yield an average annual rate of increase of nearly 1.0 percent, but this would obscure the important compensation received in holidays by the medieval worker, in comparison to his modern counterpart. Another way of understanding that nonmonetary compensation would be as time released from wage-earning labor for the direct production of food that was the peasant’s main source of nourishment, food that his modern counterpart would purchase rather than grow. So I have “grossed up” the medieval income to its 260-day equivalent, or six and a half pounds, before comparing it to the modern income. The result is an annual rate of change of 0.916 percent over 756 years. In subsequent calculations, I have used 750 as the compounding period (for a multiple of 933.3 times 1250 prices) and rounded numbers to the nearest hundred or thousand. I have assumed that the British pound (the best-credentialed descendent of the Carolingian pound) will buy 1.85–1.88 U.S. dollars today. This, of course, is the most perishable of my assumptions. In fact, as this goes to press, the pound has gotten costlier, but there are plausible reasons to consider this anomalous.Google Scholar
  19. 14.
    E. R. Phelps-Brown and Sheila Hopkins, “Seven Centuries of Building Wage,” Economica 22 (1955): 195–206, reprinted in A Perspective on Wages and Prices (London: Methuen, 1981), pp. 1–12. Phelps-Brown and Hopkins survey wage rates, in pennies, of a craftsman in Southern England from 1264 to 1954 (pp. 11–12). I used their figures through 1949 so that I could join them with two other series: (1) a composite of the Implicit GDP Deflators for the United Kingdom, France, and the United States from 1950 to 1980, as found in World Tables: The Third Edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983) and (2) changes in the U.S. Consumer Price index from 1981 to 2003 available online at Inflation Data.Com (accessed on 27 March 2009).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 15.
    Philippe Ménard argues, in Les Fabliaux: Contes à rire du Moyen Age (Paris: Presse Universitaires de France, 1983), pp. 73–74, that the chronic venery of country priests in the fabliaux was probably not factual but that their generally assumed wealth probably was.Google Scholar
  21. 19.
    An interesting deconstructionist reading of Estormi focuses on the embarrassment of these corpses. See Gregory B. Stone, “The Insistence of the Body in the Old French Fabliau Estormi,” Exemplaria (1990): 449–73. See also Marie-Thérèse Lorcin, “Les Revenants dans les Fabliaux,” Reinardus 2 (1989): 91–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 21.
    Du Denier et de la Brebis from MS 7218 Bibliothèque Royale is found in Noveau receuil de contes, dits, fabliaux et autre pieces, ed. Achille Jubinal, vol. 2 (Paris: Chez Callamel, 1842), pp. 265–72. This edition does not number lines; the passage quoted here is on p. 272 and is the Deniers triumphant last word in the debat. The translation is mine. The French tradition of satires featuring the personified Denier (or Dan Denier) is described and documented inGoogle Scholar
  23. John A. Yunck, The Lineage of Lady Meed (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963), pp. 211–6. A strikingly similar instance, De dom Argent, is quoted on p. 215.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 86. Stock aligns the effects of what we now call “numeracy” with those of literacy in isolating values and concepts in an impersonal code (p. 85). On the same effect of advancing literacy in England,Google Scholar
  25. see M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066–1307, second edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).Google Scholar
  26. 25.
    A sentiment attributed to Pope Leo the Great (440–61) that it is difficult to avoid sin in the course of buying and selling (difficile est inter ementis vendentisque commercium not intervenire peccatum) was repeated through the centuries, down to the twelfth and thirteenth, when canon lawyers struggled to rationalize these activities in a monetized age. They were never able to conclude a final peace between theology and an activity that necessarily involved one party trying to get the better of another. Their efforts contended with assertions such as that of Peter Damian (1007–72) that avarice (not pride) was “radix malorum.” See the discussions in John W. Baldwin, “The Medieval Theories of the Just Price,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 49:4 (1959), pp. 12–15, 67–68; andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978), pp. 29–41.Google Scholar
  28. 26.
    William Langland, Piers Plowman: The C Version, ed. George Russell and George Kane (London: Athlone Press, 1997), III. 293–94.Google Scholar
  29. I have substituted “th” and “y” for their Middle English graphs and have changed the Middle English alternation of “u” and “v” to modern orthographic practice. For the background of Langland’s passage, see Andrew Galloway, The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), pp. 334–36; andGoogle Scholar
  30. John A. Alford, Piers Plowman: A Glossary of the Legal Diction (Cambridge: Brewer, 1988), p. 120 (defining “Pre Manibus” payments, or payments in advance).Google Scholar
  31. 29.
    An intelligent rationalization of this concluding episode is offered by Gabriel Bianciotto, “De Constant du Hamel,” Renardus 6 (1993): 15–30. His most interesting argument is that the audience of Constant would recognize an allusion to Le Roman de Renart in the violence of the episode, a recognition that would qualify and somewhat anesthetize its response.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 30.
    R. W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1953), pp. 99–100.Google Scholar
  33. 31.
    See Stock, Implications of Literacy, pp. 12–87; Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record; and Richard Firth Green, A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), which links the regime of written law to the semantic shift of English “truth” and “true” from integrity (“I’ll be true to you”) to the adequation of concept and thing (“What you say is true”).Google Scholar
  34. 32.
    The Communist Manifesto, with an introduction by A. J. P. Taylor (Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1967), p. 83.Google Scholar
  35. 33.
    Marx and Engels, Manifesto, p. 105; Dante, La commedia secondo l’antica volgata, ed. Giorgio Petrocchi. 4 vols. (Milan: A. Mondadori, 1966–1967).Google Scholar
  36. 34.
    The famous definition of fabliau by Joseph Bédier, in Les fabliaux: Etudes de littérature populaire et d’histoire littéraire du moyen age, 6th edition (1893; repr. Paris: Champion, 1964), p. 39.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Theresa Earenfight 2010

Authors and Affiliations

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations