The unbridled tongue

Claude Paradin, Devises heroïques, 1557

‘Where are you going?’ The emblem addresses this question to an alarmingly disembodied tongue with whippy serpent’s tail and wings that strain to fly away. It expresses an anxiety that crops up constantly in Renaissance writing on the tongue and talk: that is, the ungovernable and uncontrollable nature of the tongue, and the fact that words cannot be taken back once spoken, but seem to take on a life of their own. The accompanying text refers to the tongue as an ambivalent organ, one that can be used for good or evil. But it’s the strange, almost uncanny autonomy of the tongue in the illustration that is most striking: uprooted from the mouth it flies off independently, a warning that this slippery organ needs careful governance and constant vigilance. There’s something interesting going on with the gendering of the tongue here too: while in the French text ‘la langue’ is insistently feminine, the illustration is undeniably phallic, with a muscular and virile energy. Where are you going? And, we might add, What are you, exactly?

Jeu du bilboquet sans chandelle (Cup and ball game with the lights off)


Jeu du bilboquet [print]

This is Dominic Hills’s first print illustration of a Renaissance double-entendre (see Gallery for other examples). The phrase ‘Jeu du bilboquet sans chandelle’ (literally, cup and ball game without a candle) comes from a speech by the early seventeenth-century French stand-up Bruscambille, when he describes intervening in an argument between the king of the gods, Jupiter, and his long-suffering wife, Juno, about which sex gains most pleasure from … the cup and ball game with the lights off.

The gods initially turned to Tiresias, who was born a man but became a woman for seven years, to settle their dispute. Bruscambille goes to the heavens to support Tiresias’s judgement that women gain more sexual gratification than men. Indeed, he says that if any man in his audience is arguing with his wife on this very topic they should send her along to him, so he can prove that she can gain more pleasure in under fifteen minutes than a man could get in an entire day…