Felipe Fernández-Armesto: How the cock of the walk makes a cuckold look pitiful

The betrayed man, but not the betrayer, inspires derision

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A B-list celebrity cuckolds a not-quite B-list celebrity. The press pricks up its ears. Prurience, masquerading as morality, convulses the public. Usually, I turn away in indifference. The case of John Terry and Wayne Bridge, however, does have one interesting and, so far, unremarked aspect. The British, who, to me, seem inconstant in almost all their loyalties and mercurial in almost all their morals, are strangely consistent in their attitudes to cuckoldry: the cuckold gets contempt, while the cock of the walk gets off.

In this spectacle, morality is beyond the touchline, feebly waving a flag everyone ignores. Footballers are sometimes, depressingly rarely, good at football. It is pointless to expect them to be good in any other respect. Adulation and over-payment are an irresistibly corrupting combination. John Terry – to judge from his way with money and women – has no strong moral sense. His paramour is more material girl than moral madonna. Creatures with no moral sense have no moral feeling. One might as well demand morality from an amoeba or a bacillus.

Nor is this story about love, for love "suffereth long, and is kind; envieth not; vaunteth not itself..." and does not come close to involving the shag-and-tell tabloids. If love is at work in John Terry's currently most famous encounter, it seems to be all eros and no agape. In the distorting mirror of public image, his sex life seems bestial, hers meretricious.

The story is not even about fidelity, which professional soccer players transgress cheerfully when they switch clubs or swap Wags. Apart from the unlucky child whom Wayne Bridge's PR people unconvincingly invoke, there is no real focus of human interest: the characters in the story have Max Clifford and his ilk to fillet all the humanity out of the way they are represented.

There would be a topic of potential public interest in the imbroglio, if it were true that John Terry, now stripped of the captaincy, traduced that role and endangered the success of the England team by fouling a teammate's nest. But locker rooms, if my own admittedly now rather distant memories are reliable, are not sanctuaries of easily disturbed sensitivities. Typically, teams only care about what they share, which can include sex, along with coarse humour, team spirit and pints in the pub.

So the fate of the cuckold is the only real strand of interest left in the yarn. Every culture has its cuckolds and treats them in peculiar ways. In some contexts, cuckoldry is a proper and even honourable estate. The droit de seigneur probably never existed in Europe, but many cultures will not allow a newly wed husband to pollute himself with the blood of his wife's defloration: he has to get in someone else to do it. In ancient Mesopotamia, it was the job of a dedicated professional. Among the Arawaks of the Caribbean, it was the responsibility of priests. In some south-east Asian kingdoms in antiquity, kings had to forego their first opportunity of intercourse with their wives in favour of strangers kind enough to take responsibility for the nasty, messy business of the night. Some sources attribute the same custom to the Samorins of Calicut and other taboo-haunted rulers. The Finnish sociologist Edvard Westermarck, who collected intriguing tales about idiosyncratic sexual customs, recorded many similar cases, stories that have gone into legend, from India, Africa, Australasia and the Americas, including that of parts of Morocco, where "the best man is present when the bridegroom has relations with the bride and claims his share of the pleasure".

In some parts of the world, for much or most of the past, cuckoldry by consent invited no opprobrium and could even confer social advantages. A great many reports of sexual hospitality may have arisen in the febrile minds of European sex tourists or anthropological fantasists, but well attested cases do exist, and are rationally intelligible. The stranger can provide useful supplements to the local gene pool. His charisma might be usefully appropriated by the loan of a wife. Marco Polo reported how the aboriginals of Sichuan felt it as an obligation to offer their wives to visitors. Among the Maori, Westermarck claimed, "when a strange chief of high rank paid a visit, for the host to send his guest a temporary wife or wives. In British Columbia, the temporary gift of a wife is one of the greatest honours that can be bestowed upon a guest. The Eskimos also considered it an act of generous hospitality."

Societies with ethics dominated by Christian tradition can hardly approve of cuckoldry. They might be expected to focus disapproval on the adulterers and spare the cuckold from censure. Yet the cuckold is usually the victim of a double whammy: he is cheated of his wife's favours and lampooned as a buffoon. In the Western comic tradition, there are few commoner victims of jokes. The funniest, cleverest depiction is in Molière's mid-17th century School for Wives, where an oppressive husband, who mocks cuckoldry, becomes a cuckold himself.

In some Christian countries, the cuckold can escape victimisation, or take revenge. Medieval Spanish archives are full of royal pardons to cuckolds who slew their wives and their lovers in flagrante delicto. France still acknowledges the crime passionel. In Spanish, Italian and Portuguese folklore, cuckoldry confers magic powers that compensate for the absence of sexual potency or loss of domestic authority. The same pronged gesture, in which the hand is partially clenched to resemble a horned head, denotes the cuckold and wards off the "evil eye". Wayne Bridge's problem, however, is that the British have never given the cuckold that kind of break or that level of status. In Britain, the cuckold inspires derision.

Chaucer launched the tradition in The Miller's Tale: though the adulterous interloper gets duly punished with a scalded arse, he is clearly the hero of the story, while the duped husband is robbed not only of his wife's virtue but also of every smidgeon of dignity and respect. He ends up lampooned as foolish and traduced as insane. Cuckolds were among Shakespeare's ripest sources of jokes. Addison complained that comedians in his day seemed to have no other subject to hand.

Wayne Bridge's predicament has brought cuckold jokes back into fashion. Bar-room comedians show a savage lack of sympathy with him. The left back is left out. The bloke is on the bench while his friend is in his bed. He is "not even first choice with his missus".

No one makes jokes of this kind about aggrieved women, who can always count on sympathy when they are betrayed. In the days before divorce became "guilt-free", women could garner lavish alimony when they were the injured parties, while men who sued for "alienation of affection" or "criminal conversation" simply incurred contempt. The sexes are supposed to be equal. So why does society pick on betrayed men?

First, his plight is an implied indictment of his character. He must be stupid or insensitive to be unaware of what is going on: that is the implication of the already outworn joke about Terry losing his captain's armband under Wayne Bridge's bed.

Second, the cuckold is suspected of complaisance or fetishism of the kind that inspires wife-swap websites and voyeuristic pornography. The most famous criminal conversation case in English history – which the actor Theophilus Cibber brought against his lodger in 1737 – won the plaintiff contemptibly small damages when his complaisance was proved. Suspicion piles on suspicion, for complaisant husbands invite speculation about their own sexuality: Harold Nicolson licensed his wife's affairs because he preferred sex with men.

Even worse, for the cuckold's esteem, is the imputation of pimpish lust for profit or advantage in exchange for his wife's body. The Duchess of Cornwall's great-grandmother, Alice Keppel, secured her husband's collusion in her indiscretions – culminating when she became Edward VII's mistress – by providing a means of social ascent. Harold Macmillan refused his wife a divorce, despite the pain her infidelity caused him, to protect his career.

Third, the cuckold represents fears of subverted masculinity: impotence, like Charles Bovary, or literal emasculation, like Clifford Chatterley.

It is hard to imagine anything more damaging to a footballer's image than to have his machismo undermined. So there is not much hope of Wayne Bridge recovering respect or acquiring dignity. If people discount or ignore his protestations of injured innocence, lost love, and broken friendship, they have a long tradition of victimising the cuckold behind them.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is author of '1492: The Year Our World Began'

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