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
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
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.
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.’