The Medieval Origin of a Vile New Insult: Cuck
“1799 caricature on the alleged consequence of old husbands marrying young wives. Two couples: the young women putting antlers on the heads of the older men, displaying their cuckoldry” via Wikimedia Commons
If you happen to frequent the comments section in political Facebook and Twitter posts, YouTube videos, and many other such places on the Internet, you may have encountered alt-right commenters referring to ‘those stupid liberal snowflakes’ as “cucks”. If you have ever wondered what this relatively new swear word means, this is the place for you. Cuck is a diminutive form of cuckold: an age-old pejorative term for an oblivious man whose wife has sex with someone else.
Since Trump’s election campaign, this term has been becoming more and more popular; it is used as an insult to vegans, feminist men, anyone who criticizes Trump, and liberals in general. The term cuck is connected to the alt-right slurs ‘beta-male’ and ‘soy boy’ and has various forms including ‘cuckservative’ (a conservative who sells out and buys into leftist ideology). This has been said before but it is worth saying again: the insults we use say more about us than they do about those we insult. So, what does this insult say about the alt-right and anyone else who uses it? And what does it have to do with Medieval Literature?
So, what does this insult say about the alt-right and anyone else who uses it? And what does it have to do with Medieval Literature?
The term cuckold is all over Medieval and Early Modern Literature; in fact, it isn’t too much of an exaggeration to say that a huge percentage of Early Modern humour revolves around ridiculing cuckolds. Cuckoldry is everywhere, from the Canterbury Tales to Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays. From the 13th Century poem “The Owl and the Nightingale” to the 18th Century play “The Country Wife”.1
On the simplest level, to call someone a cuck is to call them weak and ‘unmasculine’. It is exclusively directed towards men and means they are ‘unable to control their women’. In Medieval Literature such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale”, cuckolding is something a man does to another man. “The Miller’s Tale” is incredibly relevant to our current political climate. The comic Medieval tale features John the Carpenter, whose young wife Alisoun is persuaded to sleep with the devious scholar Nicholas. In order to ‘seduce’ Alisoun, Nicholas ‘grabs her by the quaynte’ (a medieval term for female genitals), a phrase made terrifyingly familiar to us by the current president of the United States.
The concept of cuckoldry is profoundly misogynistic as it positions women as passive possessions and adultery as a game of power played between men. In the patriarchal Medieval world, a wife is a possession whose value is diminished if she sleeps with someone else. If a man sleeps with another woman, he might be reprimanded, but it is in general no big deal. The concept of cuckoldry is built on the medieval conception that women are more sexual than men are, but it is still something a man does to the woman’s husband, not to her. Cuckoldry is more than merely being humiliated at the hands of a woman: it is being bested by another man who has taken your ‘possession’. Cuckoldry, in Medieval Literature and modern comment sections, is the manifestation of a male insecurity: that a man is not strong or virile enough to satisfy his woman.
Cuckoldry, in Medieval Literature and modern comment sections, is the manifestation of a male insecurity: that a man is not strong or virile enough to satisfy his woman.
In literature, the term cuckold pretty much disappeared in the mid-18th Century. The recent resurgence of the term is of course incredibly problematic, but it is not new territory. In fact, it is confirmation that the alt-right is longing for what they consider to be the ‘good-old days’. It is so important for us to recognize and reject this vile term and the regressive power dynamics inherent in it wherever we encounter it. Some things should be left in the past.
1 Etymologically, the term cuckold comes from the latin word for horns due to the belief that a man who has been cuckolded will grow horns that are invisible to himself. As an absolutely fascinating side-note, the “rock on” hand gesture also comes from the Medieval Period and at least originally insinuates that you are calling someone a cuckold. The gesture still means that in Italy, Portugal, and Spain and is incredibly offensive there.
Kienan has unique struggles: the soles of his right shoe frequently fall off for no apparent reason, he is allergic to sunburns, and can’t eat carrots because they get stuck up his nose. He tries not to let these adversities define him. Kienan also consumes obscene amounts of coffee, sleeps outside as much as possible, and passionately believes every dog is a good dog. He is a fourth year student in the English Honours Language and Literature program at UBC.
“A satire from 1799 shows how young women put horns on their male partners” via Wikimedia Commons. License: CC-BY 4.0.
The Miller from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.