Bend the equinoctial line

Legal terminology often features in French Renaissance comic and nonsense writing, which tells us something about its audience, which would have included students and practitioners of the law. The nonsensical case between Baisecul (Kissarse) and Humevene (Sniffshit) in Rabelais’s Pantagruel is one example – see Souffler au cul.

During the period of festivities known as carnival, lawyers in Paris and elsewhere would plead ’causes grasses’, translated by Randle Cotgrave as ‘Bawdie suits, immodest actions’, absurd cases ‘proving’ things like 11-month pregnancies, which might be handy when proving the legitimacy of a widow’s child (it is also something Rabelais’s narrator, Alcofribas Nasier, attempts to demonstrate of the eponymous giant hero of Gargantua).

Bruscambille similarly has several speeches that are mock legal cases, which must have delighted the law students in his audience. In one such speech he wishes, but ultimately fails, to make a case against a variety of disreputable characters including one who, using the wall as a handkerchief, claimed:

‘not to be to be blame for having really and actually drenched everyone present from the very depths of his underpants, and maintained that he should keep all expenses, damages, and interest, upon which he concluded and, expanding his case, noted that he had bent his equinoctial line, by which he meant his natural crossbow, by way of his dear wife’s bottom, without any other type of legal palaver.’

Devoted readers of the blog may remember the phrase, bend back nature’s crossbow, which has already been the subject of one of Dominic Hills’s prints. The curiously scientific phrase ‘bander sa ligne equinoctiale’ (‘bend the equinoctial line’, technically the line around the earth’s circumference from north to south pole), is part of this more or less nonsensical parody of legal terminology and has inspired another print:

Ligne equinoctiale© Dominic Hills

Ligne equinoctiale
© Dominic Hills

Incidentally, the French term Bruscambille uses for the wife’s bottom is ‘ponant’, literally the west, but also used to refer to the ‘arse, tayle, bumme’, according to Randle Cotgrave. There is clearly something about hemispheres and equinoctial lines that is richly suggestive of other things, something Hills’s print also captures.

Making droning music from the depths of one’s trousers

In a remarkable speech in praise of lying, the comedian known as Bruscambille proves that deceit is better than truth. For instance, the beautiful widow Judith saved her nation through her lies when she seduced Holofernes, the Assyrian general, before beheading him. Similarly,

if someone had killed his enemy in a secret place, and he was arrested by the authorities, would he wish to confess his crime? In just the same way, if someone were accused of having made some droning music from the depths of his trousers, would he also wish to confess it for his honour? Would he not take the highway to Denial Town?

[si quelqu’un avoit tué son ennemy en lieu secret, & qu’il fust apprehendé de la Justice, le voudroit-il confesser? Tout de mesme si quelqu’un estoit accusé d’avoir fait quelque Musique en faux bourdon au fonds de ses chausses, le voudroit-il confesser aussi pour son honneur? Ne prendroit-il pas le grand chemin de Nyort?]

The great lexicographer Randle Cotgrave translates ‘faux bourdon’ as ‘the drone of a bagpipe’. In case we were in any doubt about the meaning of the expression ‘faux bourdon au fonds de ses chausses’, the royal interpreter Antoine Oudin, who in 1640 published a dictionary of French ‘curiosities’, many of which he drew from his careful reading of Bruscambille, defines it as a ‘big old fart’ (‘un bon gros pet’).

The bagpipe-droning fart has reappeared in one of Dominic Hills’s recent prints:

Faux bourdon© Dominic Hills

Faux bourdon
© Dominic Hills

The techniques of Japanese print-making practised by Dominic Hills are more complex than they might appear at first sight. Similarly, it might be tempting to dismiss Bruscambille’s humour as puerile, but that would miss the point of how he puts together his speech to set up all kinds of comic contrasts, equating denying a murder charge with pretending not to have farted, alongside precise references to Plato and Aristotle, among others. The seventeenth-century audience would have loved all this, and the persuasive ingenuity involved in naughtily demonstrating that lying is preferable to the truth. But just in case we were tempted to take any of this too seriously, Bruscambille immediately follows his speech praising lying with one eulogizing truth. Whether it is better or not to admit to making the sound of a droning bagpipe in the depths of one’s trousers remains, therefore, an open question.

 

Charivari Explored

Fauvel

In December, a group of KCL Music, French, and History students performed a series of medieval and contemporary explorations of the pre-modern shaming ritual, charivari. Charivari Explored took as its source text the extraordinary manuscript Le Roman de Fauvel, produced in Paris around 1317, which includes a description and musical notation of the songs sung by the charivari on the marriage of the horse-headed anti-hero Fauvel to Vain Glory.

Charivari often arose as protest against remarriage or marriages with a perceived age gap; usually involving the young men of a community, they would often feature masks, donkeys, and excessive noise, made by the clattering of kitchen implements, discordant instruments, shouts, cries, and improvised percussion. The procession would wind up outside the house of the newlyweds and would call them out into the street; sometimes – but not always – the charivari could be paid off with money or drink.

Charivari Explored included performances of the songs in the manuscript and two contemporary pieces inspired by the research the group had done: a contemporary motet by Callum Hüseyin, inspired by the spliced motifs in Fauvel, and Matthew O’Keeffe’s mash-up of modern and classical refrains of love, marriage, and divorce, after the nonsense soundscapes of the fatras in the manuscript.

The whole thing should soon be available online.

Artwork from the Project

There will be a final, close-of-show exhibition in London for the Gossip and Nonsense project’s artwork in mid-December.

The Bank Gallery at The Cass, Central House, 59-63 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7PF
Friday 11th December 2015, 12 noon – 8pm
Saturday 12th December 2015, 12 noon – 5pm

Come and explore the potential of rumour and chatter to degenerate into productive nonsense. Dominic Hills has taken inspiration from masters of French Renaissance wit and prolixity and from Japanese shunga in the construction of his sinuous, erotic, and explicit woodcuts. Clare Qualmann’s investigation of the distortions and creative potential of the parlour game Chinese Whispers is inspired by the late Renaissance essayist, Montaigne.

Programme of events:
Live: Games of Chinese Whispers throughout the exhibition (drop in)
Live: Letterpress printing, Friday 1 – 6pm, Saturday 1 – 4pm
Talk: Prof. Hugh Roberts and Dr. Emily Butterworth discuss the project Friday, 6 – 6.30pm, followed by a drinks reception.

Blaming the dog

One of the functions of a blog such as this is to record the synergy between academic research and artistic practice by documenting the process of knowledge exchange. One such exchange recently took place when the artist Dominic Hills produced another print of the old French proverb ‘Whoever farts valiantly and with courage extends his life’ (‘Quiconque pette bravement et avec courage prolonge sa vie’).

Whereas his earlier print featured two men and a medium emission of flatulence, the latest version was of a woman and a giant gas cloud:

Quiconque pette II© Dominic Hills

Quiconque pette II
© Dominic Hills

This immediately brought to my mind the gendered nature of farts for, in the very speech which contains the first known recording of this proverb, the comedian known as Bruscambille also remarks, ‘Isn’t it amusing that just carrying a little dog gives ladies leave to fart around the clock, and they are excused by a “Get that dog out of here, he farted!”?’ [N’est-il pas plaisant quand pour le port d’un petit chien il dispence les dames de peter à toutes heures, & les quitte pour un chassez ce chien, il a vessy?]

Knowledge duly exchanged, the academic-artistic process came full circle as Dominic Hills sharpened his tools to carve a little dog, hidden behind a flap, into the gas cloud:

Quiconque pette II (avec chien)© Dominic Hills

Quiconque pette II (avec chien)
© Dominic Hills

 

Gossip and the Fabrication of Reputation: Performance event at KCL

An immersive performance of the soundscape of pre-modern gossip, recreating songs and slanders through which stories circulated in the streets, will take place in the Chapel, King’s College London, on Wednesday 14 October at 6:30. It’s free to attend but tickets need to be booked here.

In a series of talks and performances, Simon Gaunt, Emma Dillon, Emily Butterworth, and Laura Gowing will explore how reputations were fabricated through street talk and song, performed by students from the Music Department. There will be twelfth-century speculation on what Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful queens in Western Europe, got up to in Antioch with her uncle, through a number of songs that were composed, improvised and circulated throughout Europe. Women’s reputations more generally will be under scrutiny in medieval motets. You will also hear sixteenth-century French songs, written for performance in small, elite social gatherings, which try to mimic the gossip of the country and the streets, and simultaneously reflect on the process of gossiping and the kind of audience it constructs. The rumours and insults of sixteenth-century London, reconstructed from court cases, will be performed by students from the History Department. The talks accompanying the performances will explore how gossip moved through social strata and through oral and written forms, and the impact it had on the reputations it tried to construct.

Babble

Paying attention to the words the past uses to describe itself sometimes gives unexpected results. I started this project thinking I would write a book about gossip in Renaissance France: after reading my corpus – actually, after even a cursory glance at sixteenth-century essays on talk – a different term emerged. It was ‘babble’. What we might call gossip was still there, in the texts – called caquet [cackle], or sometimes médisance [slander] – but what seemed to be of greater concern was this other species of talk, babil [babble]. And this made me think about what that might mean for the preoccupations of those sixteenth-century writers who thought it worthwhile to write an essay on the tongue and its dangers. Babble is a kind of unconsidered, almost automatic talk, a compulsion to speak about anything that strips the babbler of the qualities of reason and reflection that are the ideal characteristics of human speech. Babble is demeaning and also somehow dehumanising. It allows the subjectivity of the babbler to be submerged in the flood of words. This sounds like a concern that is rooted in the individual and their own personal identity, but it is an ethical one, too. In the Renaissance, a babbler is a betrayer: of himself and his own secrets, but more dangerously of others. Babble was a political vice. It was the worst thing a courtier could be accused of.

After thinking about Renaissance babble for a while, I was delighted to come across it in Ford Madox Ford’s wonderful books about Katherine Howard and Henry VIII, The Fifth Queen (1906-1908; Penguin, 1999). Magister Nicholas Udal, Lady Mary’s teacher, is ‘a notorious babbler’ who tells ‘many lies’ (p. 80); and Cicely Elliott asks Katherine to look for her husband: ‘in the Lady Mary’s room you will find my old knight babbling with the maidens’ (pp. 117-18). What is remarkable here – and in Renaissance treatises on the subject – is that men are particularly condemned for babbling. This was partly because men’s babble could do more harm since it was more consequential, as an early seventeenth-century pamphlet argued, in a rather double-edged defence of women. But in Ford’s vision of the Tudor court, it is women who guard their tongues and their secrets, and men who let their words blab.

And then I also remembered that my little sister, when she was 5 or 6, had made up a song that (if I were superstitious) I could take as some kind of omen (if omens deigned to pronounce on the subject of academic books): ‘Babble. When you’ve got nothing to say, Just babble.’

Cuckolds and cousins

In his speech on cuckolds and the usefulness of horns, the French comedian known as Bruscambille (see previous posts) observes that cuckolds embody generosity and are showered with honours by those who visit them and especially their wives.

He continues to justify his view of the happy lot of the cuckold by referring to a proverb:

I only need the common proverb to justify my statement, that all men are cousins to whoever has a beautiful wife: how much doffing of caps, how many recommendations and humblings, hugs and bows: for the gifts of fortune, the horn of Amalthea never overflowed like that of a man of good judgement who knows how to manage his household affairs, his horns produce for him, it’s a dairy cow that never runs dry, a meadow that always makes hay, that he can cut a hundred times a day, it’s a mine that he has at home, the more you dig it, the less you empty it, a garden that brings forth new flowers every day, what more shall I say? an infinite seed plot, an inestimable treasure.

[Je ne veux que le proverbe commun pour verifier mon dire, que quiconque a belle femme tout le monde est son cousin, combien aura-il tous les jours de coups de chapeau, de recommendations & submissions, de caresses & de reverences : pour les biens de fortune, jamais la corne d’Amalthée n’en repandit tant que celle d’un homme de bon jugement & qui sçayt bien mesnager, les siennes luy en produisent, c’est une vache à laict qui ne tarit point, c’est un pré de perpetuelle fenaison, qu’il peut tondre cent fois le jour, c’est une miniere qu’il tient en sa maison, que plus on fouit & moins on vuide, c’est un jardin qui chaque jour esclost de nouvelles fleurs, que diray-je plus ? une pepiniere infinie, un thresor inestimable.]

The proverb, ‘quiconque a belle femme tout le monde est son cousin’ (literally ‘whoever has a beautiful wife, everyone is his cousin’) encapsulates the happy fate of the cuckold and his horns of plenty, gifts that keep on giving, rather like Bruscambille himself, who seems to have been the first to have recorded this piece of wisdom in print, and which has now inspired Dominic Hills’s latest two-stage print:

Belle femme © Dominic Hills

Belle femme
© Dominic Hills

Belle femme © Dominic Hills

Belle femme
© Dominic Hills

 

Whispering Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on conceptual art.

Throughout the Gossip and Nonsense project Emily and I have been using Sol LeWitt’s sentences on conceptual art as phrases to ‘chinese whisper’. Written in 1969 these were first published in the magazine 0-9 in New York, and in Art-Language in London (both 1969). I’ve gradually been setting the resulting ‘translated’ sentences using metal letterpress type.

IMG_20141021_173739873

Possibly the most laborious way to produce a printed page, letterpress appeals to me because of the amount of care that it requires; the decision making and accuracy; and the physicality of the heavy-weight cubes of metal; the sound of the sticky ink; the smell of news print; and the effort required to pull the press.

IMG_20141021_175233227_HDR

To date (August 2015) the following sentences have been whispered and printed in an edition of 30, on newsprint.

1. Conceptual art are eternal optimists.

(whispered by London Met staff Cat Jeffcock, Aimee McWilliams, Charlotte Worthington and Marianne Forest in English)

12. For each work of art that comes from a circle there are many variations

(whispered by artists group members: Rebecca French, Agnieszka Gratza, Karen Christopher, Sheila Ghelani, Clare Qualmann in English)

14. The words of one artist to another might induce an idea strain.

(whispered by artists group members: Rebecca French, Agnieszka Gratza, Karen Christopher, Sheila Ghelani, Clare Qualmann in English)

15. Art can take whatever form it likes, warts are another matter

(whispered by participants in the Gossip and Nonsense symposium, Exeter, June 2013, in English and French)

16. If words come first of all it’s because of art, not literature.

(whispered by participants in the Gossip and Nonsense symposium, Exeter, June 2013, in English and French)

20. Successful art challenges our perceptions by changing our understanding.

(whispered by participants in the Renaissance Rumours event at Inside Out, King’s, October 2014, in English and French)

26. The artist makes the seed, but others do their own.

(whispered by London Met Fine Art students, May 2015, in English)

27. The concept of a work of art may involve the people.

(whispered by artists group members: Rebecca French, Agnieszka Gratza, Karen Christopher, Sheila Ghelani, Clare Qualmann in English)

34. When an artist makes his scene he makes his scene well.

(whispered by London Met Fine Art students, May 2015, in English)

You can compare the original sentences here.

Dominic Hills’s prints for sale

In the early seventeenth century, a highly successful comic anthology written in Latin appeared for the delight of students and other citizens of the Republic of Letters who would have known their classics: the Nugæ Venales, Thesaurus ridendi & jocandi ad gravissimos serverissimosque viros […] (Prostant apud Neminem: sed tamen Uibque, 1642), that is to say Trifles for sale, or thesaurus of laughter and jolliness, addressed to the most serious and severe men […] (To be sold at nobody’s address yet everywhere, 1642).

Among other things, as Annette Tomarken discovered, this collection features numerous passages translating bits of the French comedian known as Bruscambille into Latin, which means that his jokes, including mock learned discussions of farts and how these are good and spiritual, had an unexpected afterlife.

As followers of this blog will know, Bruscambille’s jokes have continued to resonate in the form of Dominic Hills’s prints, and these nugae are themselves for sale through Robert Eagle Fine Art (an online gallery, so truly Prostant apud Neminem: sed tamen Uibque).