Historical Aspects of the Word “Cuckold”

I recently received a question on a sensitive subject.

Question: I have a question about cuckolding during the late Georgian era. I know for the most part that a woman who was brazen about her affairs could/would suffer public censure (and perhaps be subjected to divorce proceedings or a suit by her husband), and that the husband might also suffer public embarrassment over the whole ordeal, but is anyone aware of a situation historically where being cuckolded or publicly disgraced might have impacted the husband’s reputation at “work” or with his peers, particularly if he were an MP or part of the government (working in Whitehall, for example, or as a governmental minister)?

This was a bit unusual, for most of the stories and accounts I have found in the historical context are centered around the women offenders and the effect on them. A few have mentioned the men, but those men have been as reckless as their adulterous wives. The general sense I am getting is the practice was not “okay” for women, but definitely “okay” for men. The word specifically indicates a “a man whose wife is unfaithful and he meets with derision as a result of her actions.” [Middle English (as cukeweld ), from Old French cucuault, from cucu ‘cuckoo’ (from the cuckoo’s habit of laying its egg in another bird’s nest). The equivalent words in French and other languages applied to both the bird and the adulterer; however, cuckold has never been applied to the bird in English.]

Fan-tailed Cuckoo (Cacomantis flabelliformis), Bruny Island, Tasmania, Australia ~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuckoo#/media/File:Cacomantis_flabelliformis.jpg

As far as I can tell, being cuckold by one’s wife did not seem to have resulted in more than personal embarrassment for the man. It does not seem to have kept either the husband or the lover from  performing in a governmental or political positions. Husbands might be scorned personally for not restraining their wives or for not initiating divorce, as well as being dropped from some visiting lists, but those public shunnings were more on account of the erring wife than his inaction.

On the whole, he would still be allowed into Almacks, and the patronesses there were known for refusing many on a variety of reasons.

As far as the Regency goes . . . Look to Lady Caroline Lamb and William Lamb when she was having her very public affair with Lord Byron. No doubt others than his family wondered why he did not rein Lady Caroline in, but they were still invited places, etc.


From the 16th century forward, the idea of cuckoldry was often spoken of, for most so-called “learned men” believed a woman’s womb, sometimes referred to as a “wandering womb” controlled the female’s lustful spirit. Women were considered more “lustful” than men. Crazy as we know it now, it was believed a woman’s womb could move around in her body and cause her to forget herself, i.e., lose control of her senses. Essentially, this meant ALL women cheated on their husbands because they could not help themselves.

Males during the Renaissance were chiefly concerned with their honor and their reputation in society. These men feared being cuckolded. Shakespeare speaks fluently of cuckolding in both Othello and Desdemona’s relationships in Othello and that of Claudio and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. Cuckoldry was represented in literature through “horns,” a phallic symbol of a man’s virility. According to Elizabeth Falconer in “My Life Upon Her Faith”: Love Relationships and Cuckoldry in Othello and Much Ado, “Men had three defenses against cuckoldry. The Renaissance man would either deny the existence of cuckoldry by objectifying women, expect female infidelity due to misogyny, or change the commonly outcast cuckold into a phallic symbol through horn imagery. These defenses allowed men to experience cuckoldry as a male bond and to view marriage as a community of potential cuckolds.”

French engraving of a cuckolded husband wearing horns entitled "The Unhappy Fruits of the Horns".
A French engraving depicting a cuckolded, horn-wearing husband.(Supplied: University of Victoria) ~ The History of Insult ‘Cuckold’

“This infidelity would cause the poor husband to grow invisible horns, the ultimate symbol of cuckoldry, and the comic figure of the horned cuckold made its way into fictional songs, engravings, and theatre. It eventually became so ubiquitous as to give the impression of a ‘brotherhood of cuckoldry’ wherein all wives were adulterous, and all husbands their hapless fools.” [From the 16th Century to Men’s Rights Activists: The History of the Insult Cuckold.]

Another Source:

Regency Lexicon: Cuckoid


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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