Drive the peg in

In his speech in praise of a nymph’s tits (‘En faveur des tetins d’une nymphe’), the early seventeenth-century French comedian known as Bruscambille describes an apparently disturbing dream involving this part of the female anatomy. He is saved from this nocturnal vision by seeing a Latin saying at the end of Mercury’s wand: ‘Quae mutuo sumpseris pari vel etiam | Maiori mensura reddas’ [‘Take fair measure from your neighbour and pay him back fairly with the same measure, or better, if you can’] (Hesiod, Works and Days, 349-51).

Disarmingly claiming to understand Latin like a cow, he gives his own version of Hesiod’s moral injunction:

Pour mettre la femme a son aise,

Il la convient un peu flatter,

Mais pour du tout la contenter

Il faut cheviller la mortaise.

My Exeter colleague and translator of Guillaume Apollinaire and many others, Professor Martin Sorrell, has rendered this little poem as follows:

To make a woman drop her guard,

Flatter her somewhat.

But to please her, find the slot

And drive the peg in hard.

Clearly, Bruscambille has an unusual take on the dictum about paying your neighbour back the same, or better, but what, one may well ask, has all this to do with tits? The answer lies in the fact that men pay women back for their bosomy apples with their Priapic pears, which are accompanied by comforting and stiff branches.

This noble image of human cooperation and exchange has inspired one of Dominic Hills’s most recent prints, itself inspired, as ever, by Japanese erotic prints known as shunga. And of course this whole blog is the result of an exchange of the fruits of academic research and artistic practice. Thus Hesiod’s view from the seventh or eighth century B.C. resonates centuries later, in the early 1600s in France, through to the present internet age, as humans continually exchange their apples and pears, whether to ‘drive the peg in’ (‘cheviller la mortaise’), or for other pursuits.

P.S. Men also drive the peg in to hang four hams from it, but that is another story.

Cheviller la mortaise
© Dominic Hills

The big genital thumb without a nail

In his speech in praise of the number three, the four-hundred year-old French comedian known as Bruscambille notes:

doesn’t a man have seven times three fingers, i.e. ten on the hands, ten on the feet, and the big genital thumb, which even if lacking a nail, nevertheless does more duty than all the others put together, because in a single blow that he strikes on nature’s anvil, sometimes he makes a great captain, sometimes a coward, sometimes a Braggadochio, sometimes an attorney, sometimes a merchant, sometimes an officer of the court, sometimes a witness, or even less, sometimes a pimp, sometimes a kitchen boy, sometimes a footman, and so on and so forth, Nature in truth has been a little harsh as far as he’s concerned because not content with having made him without a nail, she has also made him one-eyed, albeit that in compensation she has doted him with such clarity of vision that when he wants to meditate and rifle through the secrets of nature, he has no need of glasses nor of a candle to find the chamber, the wily fellow like a good blood-hound knows where the hare is hiding, allowing him to complete his commission, and what makes him welcome among ladies is that he lives without pride and ambition, his flight is not too high, in fact all his aims  are only towards the mid and single point, he only ever wishes to lodge in a small, narrow and tight space.

(Exceptionally devoted readers of this blog may recall the expression ‘to strike on nature’s anvil’ – forger sur l’enclume de nature – as the subject of another print and accompanying post).

This remarkable big genital thumb without a nail (‘le gros pouce genital despouveu d’ongle’) has inspired one of Dominic Hills’s most recent prints.

Le gros pouce
© Dominic Hills

The big genital thumb without a nail is clearly so overwhelming that the comedian devotes almost as much attention to it as the number three, although he does eventually return to his purported theme. This was of course only ever a pretext for a whole series of comic conceits like these and indeed an umbilical pistol soon joins this pantheon of phallic imagery (this pistol incidentally requires three things: 1. to be well cocked and full of gunpowder; 2. to be charged with a couple of bullets; 3. to have a new holster, for if you put it in a old rotten holster covered in cobwebs, your pistol will be ruined), making an unholy trinity with the masculine peg (‘cheville masculine’), one of three things needed for procreation…

Seduction and not saying the Lord’s Prayer

One of Dominic Hills’s most recent prints illustrates a self-explanatory Latin catchphrase, ‘Scholasticus loquens cum puella non praesumitur dicere Pater noster’ [A student talking with a girl doesn’t think of reciting ‘Our Father who art in heaven’].

The phrase apparently originated with the great fourteenth-century Italian jurist Baldo degli Ubaldi, who used it to convey what it is to be presumed guilty. As well as a student, different versions of the joke have a cleric, a scholar or simply a man talking with the girl.

As is the way with such witticisms, it took on a life of its own. In France, it occurs in one of the late sixteenth-century tales of Noël Du Fail, in which an apothecary gives his wife some medicine to sweeten her breath before a ball – yet conveniently when one of her dance partners starts whispering sweet nothings in her ear (cue the Latin phrase) it transpires the supposed breath freshener was in fact a laxative, leading her to make a rapid exit from the dance floor. The early seventeenth-century comedian known as Bruscambille (see previous posts) borrows the expression from Du Fail in a speech of his in the form of a mock court case. The comic sees his opponent whispering into the ear of a female friend, naturally presumes he isn’t saying the Lord’s prayer, yet wonders if his actions will match his words or whether he will end up being accused, like another man, of ringing his bells when the parishioners don’t want to come.

Given the way the Latin phrase itself inspired different versions, it is strangely appropriate that Dominic Hills’s version:

Scolasticus cum puella© Dominic Hills

Scolasticus cum puella
© Dominic Hills

should itself be a close adaptation (with a religious twist) of a piece of Japanese shunga:

2013-11-19-ShungaPoemofthePillow

Kitagawa Utamaro (d. 1806), Lovers in the upstairs room of a teahouse, from Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow), c. 1788. Sheet from a colour-woodblock printed album. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Final Exhibition

In December 2015, the Gossip and Nonsense project organised a final exhibition of Clare Qualmann and Dominic Hills’s artwork at The Bank Gallery at the Cass, in Whitechapel, London.

2015-12-11-9Dom wired his beautiful evocations of Renaissance double entendres into the window and flyposted his ephemeral prints alongside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2015-12-11-5The exhibition took place at the same time as a protest just along the road, where students had occupied the gallery space to contest the sale of the art school.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dom’s prints and flyposters occupy the windows of the Cass.

Gossip___Nonsense_0020

Clare staged a series of games of Chinese Whispers, working through Sol LeWitt’s sentences on conceptual art.

 

Gossip___Nonsense_0064

She set the results in Letterpress.

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Gossip___Nonsense_0196

Irrational judgement needs a new experience.

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.