The Political Animal

Human History as Natural History

Take My Wife, Please!

The Sexual Network

“I’ve been in love with the same woman for 49 years. If my wife finds out, she’ll kill me.”

“Just got back from a pleasure trip. I took my mother-in-law to the airport.”

“I take my wife everywhere, but she keeps finding her way back.”

“Why do Jewish divorces cost so much? They’re worth it.”

“Why do Jewish men die before their wives? They want to.”

 

On the order of 4000 years before Henny Youngman slayed New Yorkers with jokes about his wife, one of his ancestors, Abraham, took Sarah, his own wife, on a trip across the desert. Sarah was a good-looking woman, and Abraham knew what would happen in Egypt. “When the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.” But her husband received compensation: “For her sake he dealt well with Abram.” Sheep, oxen and camels, he-asses and she-asses, menservants and maidservants, gold and silver were delivered (Genesis 12:15-16; compare Genesis 20). By the time they got back to Bethel, Abraham and Sarah were rich.

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Pharaohs were not the only powerful men to play that game. Party Chairmen played it in China. Secretaries of the Admiralty played it in Restoration England; emperors played it in Rome. Some people play it now. There are movies about it, and books. Occasionally, women have gotten ahead on their backs. And occasionally, men have gotten ahead on the backs of their wives.

On the order of 2000 years ago, the Roman emperor Gaius—better known as Caligula—used to ask members of the Roman senate to dinner. He’d have their wives paraded around his couch, then he’d leave the room with the ones he liked best. Afterwards, unsolicited comments were made on their sexual performances. “Ye gods! What a tale for the ears of a husband! What a fact for an emperor to know!”—wrote the Stoic philosopher, Seneca, who didn’t like Caligula very much. But some senators received compensation. Gaius Memmius, for instance—a man from a modest family, whose money did not provoke envy—ended up as a consul and provincial governor. Then Caligula asked him to give up his wife. “When the statement was made that the grandmother of Lollia Paulina, who was married to Gaius Memmius, an ex-consul commanding armies, had once been a remarkably beautiful woman, he suddenly called Lollia from the province, separated her from her husband, and married her; then in a short time had her put away, with the command never to have intercourse with anyone.” 

After that fashion, on the order of 500 years ago, a relatively lowly civil servant, Samuel Pepys—who was promoted to Secretary of the Admiralty under the restored British monarch, Charles II—took advantage of his position to take pokes at his subordinates’ wives. On the night of 9 July, 1663, Pepys left a note in his diary. “I by water to Deptford, and there mustered the yard, purposely, God forgive me, to find out Bagwell, a carpenter, whose wife is a pretty woman, that I might have some occasion of knowing him and forcing her to come to the office again.” Pepys was even more explicit on 7 August, when he wrote: “Young Bagwell and his wife waylayd me to desire my favour about getting him a better ship, which I shall pretend to be willing to do for them, but my mind is to know his wife a little better.” By October, he’d kissed her; and by November, he’d seduced her. William Bagwell was rewarded with a job on the warship Providence the next March. 

Not so long ago, the same sorts of behaviors were attributed to the Chinese. As his personal physician, Li Zhisui, put it in his book on the Chairman’s private life: “To be brought into the service of Mao was, for the young women who were chosen, an incomparable honor, beyond their most extravagant dreams.” Many were poor, single girls with peasant pasts; but others were married to party members. Their husbands were honored to offer their wives to the Chairman, and considered it a stepping stone to eventual military promotions. Mao liked to entertain them in groups. “He encouraged his sexual partners to introduce him to others for shared orgies, allegedly in the interest of his longevity and strength.”

So as always, history has repeated itself. Once upon a time brave knights, like Lancelot, bedded the wives of their bosses, and did their best to put cuckoos in well-feathered nests. But probably more often, pusillanimous husbands offered their wives to their bosses, and got compensated for it. In a Darwinian world, that makes sense.

Though as Henny Youngman would have put it, “The secret of a happy marriage remains a secret.”

No joke.

Laura Betzig, Ph.D., is a Darwinian historian at work on her fourth book, The Badge of Lost Innocence: A History of the West.

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