Pregnant Barbers

Last October, The Sun published an outraged sally against the EU and its latest ‘barmy’ meddling in British business practice. This time, The Sun reported, ‘They get their claws in salons’, threatening legislation that would force hairdressers to wear non-slip soles, leave their jewellery at home, and gossip with their clients for their ‘mental wellbeing’.

The association of hair-cutting and gossip is an ancient one that goes back at least to the time of Plutarch (first century CE). Plutarch explains the tendency of barbers to gossip with the number of idle and talkative men who hang around their shop all day, with nothing better to do but chat. It seems that in sixteenth-century Europe, the gossiping barber was more than just a literary stereotype, as barbershops were often targeted by the authorities keen to eavesdrop on rumours of sedition and unrest.

I wonder what the EU commissioners (or, come to that, The Sun) would have made of this barber, who appears in the Dutch humanist Erasmus’s 1525 treatise on talk, Lingua:

‘We see so many people today like that barber; tell them a secret and they go into labour as if they would burst unless they pass on what they have heard, blurting it out to someone else. They look for another like themselves, demand eternal secrecy with many oaths, and then drop their burden; he in turn looks for someone else, who looks for another, until the whole country knows within a few days what was entrusted to one man.’

What Erasmus’s metaphor – the secret as pregnancy – seems to imply is that for a man to act in this way, unable to keep silent about the secrets he is told, is something of a travesty: a man behaving like a woman, labouring under that eternal female burden, the desire to gossip. Little ‘emotional wellbeing’ comes from this compulsion to talk: it appears more like a curse, with each link in the chain obliged to pass on what they have heard. Be careful what you tell your hairdresser.

Un cul de ménage, il y a à boire et à manger (A household arse, food and drink supplied)

Here is Dominic Hills’s video animation of his print of an old French saying about a big bottom, ‘a household arse, food and drink supplied’ (‘un cul de ménage, il y a à boire et à manger’):

Those with good French will notice some deliberate mistakes in the spelling, to mimic the printers’ errors that are so frequent in early printed books and that annoyed authors, who would complain about their printers in prefaces typset by those same printers.

One such author was Bruscambille (see previous posts) who, at the end of his speech in praise of the pleasure of defecation (‘En faveur de la félicité chiatique’) comments that  ‘escornifleurs’, that is to say, in Cotgrave’s translation, ‘A base pickthanke, or parasite; greedie feeder, or smell-feast; one that carries tales, jeasts, or newes from house to house, thereby to get victualls’, or, in the deflatingly prosaic modern vernacular, a ‘freeloader’, will always find in the loos of great houses ‘some household arse, who will save them something to eat and drink’ (‘quelque Cul de mesnage, qui leur conservera à boire et à manger’).

Bruscambille’s audience would have recognized this expression. As if to demonstrate how widespread it was, modern dictionaries note that the heir to the throne, the not quite three-year-old future Louis XIII, was introduced to it in August 1604. In his journal, Louis’s doctor, Jean Héroard, notes the following exchange between the young prince and one of the courtiers:

“Monsieur, voilà Mama dondon qui a un cul de mesnage où il y a à boire et à manger”. Respond: “Et moy aussy”. “Par où boit-on?” Resp.: “Par là”, monstrant sa guillery. “Par où mange-t-on?’ Resp.: “Pa là”, monstrant de la main son derriere en sousriant. (ed. Foisil, I, 504).

[“Sir, there’s Mama fatty with her household arse, food and drink supplied”. Replies: “Me too”. “Where does one drink from?”. Reply: “From there”, pointing to his willy. “Where does one eat from?”. Reply: “From there”, gesturing towards his bottom and smiling.]

Cotgrave translates ‘dondon’ as ‘A short, fat, and grosse woman; a femall bundle of farts’. Indeed, the household arse is not to be confused with the household fart (‘pet de ménage’), which is found in Rabelais among others, although the household fart also comes with food and drink supplied…

Viresque adquirit eundo: Montaigne and Rumour

Sometime after 1588, 8 years after he published the first edition of the Essais, Michel de Montaigne added this Latin epigraph to his ever-growing, ever-increasing book: Viresque adquirit eundo, ‘winning vigour as she goes’. The quotation is from Virgil’s Aeneid, and describes the goddess Rumour, flying through Libya on swift and eager wings to broadcast the news of Aeneas and Dido’s dalliance, their amorous and voluptuous winter. ‘Rumour!’ exclaims Virgil. ‘What evil can surpass her speed?’

Here she is in a sixteenth-century woodcut by Hans Weigel, with rustling wings and eyes all over her body:

Virgil's Fama

Virgil’s Fama

Montaigne tackles the issue of rumour himself in a chapter from Book 3, ‘Des boyteux’ (‘Of the Lame’). Here he talks of the plentiful ‘miracles’ – monstrous births, falling stars, plagues, and other portents – that had been spawned by the anxieties and suspicions of civil-war-torn France. His ‘miracles’ are very much products of the human imagination, however: they are born and gain persuasive power through our innate desire to exaggerate and amplify; to embroider a good story. This is how he describes the work of Rumour:

J’ay veu la naissance de plusieurs miracles de mon temps. Nous faisons naturellement conscience de rendre ce qu’on nous a presté sans quelque usure et accession de nostre creu. L’erreur particuliere faict premierement l’erreur publique, et à son tour apres, l’erreur publique faict l’erreur particuliere. Ainsi va tout ce bastiment, s’estoffant et formant de main en main: de maniere que le plus esloigné tesmoin en est mieux instruict que le plus voisin, et le dernier informé mieux persuadé que le premier. C’est un progrez naturel.

In John Florio’s magnificent 1603 translation:

I have seen the birth of divers miracles in my dayes. We naturally make it a matter of conscience, to restore what hath beene lent us, without some usury and accession of our increase. A particular errour, doeth first breede a publike errour: And when his turne commeth, a publike errour begetteth a particular errour. So goeth all this vast frame, from hand to hand, confounding and composing it selfe; in such sort that the furthest-abiding testimonie, is better instructed of it, then the nearest: and the last informed, better perswaded then the first. It is a natural progresse.

The ‘natural progress’ of rumour means that the miracle itself is inflated, blown out of all proportion and even all recognition, as the story is passed along the line, gaining substance as it goes. The whole process sounds like a particularly frantic and creative game of Chinese Whispers, where each teller is more convinced of the truth of the story than the last. As it is passed along, moving in and out of the public domain, error becomes contagious and infects all who come into contact with it. What makes rumour particularly pernicious is the subjective investment people seem unable to resist making in the story that they are passing on: it becomes almost a moral duty, a matter of ‘conscience’, to make the rumour more credible with some little added detail, or some clinching convincing witness.

So, Montaigne goes on to say, once we have risked our own credibility on a particular rumour, we are disproportionately attached to its future success; rejecting a rumour means rejecting the credibility of all those who have believed it. Irrational and arbitrary attachment to a story means that any resistance it encounters is met by the violence of frustrated opinion. Montaigne lists in a crescendo some increasingly violent responses: ‘le commandement, la force, le fer, et le feu’, ‘commandment, force, sword, and fire’. Since this chapter is, amongst other things, a plea for moderation and clemency in witchcraft trials, the fire that ends the list brings to mind the pyres on which heretics and witches were burned alive throughout sixteenth-century Europe; an association that Montaigne makes himself in a celebrated aphorism that comes a little later in the chapter: ‘Après tout, c’est mettre ses conjectures à bien haut pris que d’en faire cuire un home tout vif’ (‘When all is done, it is an over-valuing of ones conjectures, by them to cause a man to be burned alive’).