Scandal and Obscenity: Free Downloads!

Emily’s chapter on ‘Scandal’, co-written with Rowan Tomlinson, from Renaissance Keywords, edited by Ita McCarthy, is available as a free download from the Legenda website.
The chapter explores the secular and theological charge of the word scandal in the sixteenth century, and argues that it was a keyword for both the Renaissance and the Reformation.

Hugh’s état present of studies on early modern French obscenity is also available for free download from the French Studies website.
Hugh’s AHRC-funded Obscenity network was in many ways a precursor for our current project on Gossip and Nonsense.


Waiting … in a Hairdressers

While You Wait

In early 2013, I was involved in a collaboration with the performance poet and writer Malika Booker, to produce a podcast for the While You Wait series commissioned by Fuel Theatre. The series is an extended meditation on the idea of waiting, and the podcasts can be downloaded and listened to, while you wait for the bus, for a friend, or for the sun to come out. Malika’s podcast is called Waiting … in a Hairdressers, and is a portrait of a Caribbean hairdressers on the Walworth Road in London (close to where I used to live, above a launderette … but that’s another collaborative story). We also made a short film about the podcast, where we talk about the collaborative process and the finished piece. I met Malika to talk about gossip and passing the time, and early modern barbers whose shops became a hive of rumours and tittle-tattle, thanks (according to Erasmus) to the idle men who hung around there. She was particularly interested in anthropological theories of gossip from the 1960s, which see gossip as a kind of grooming activity, one that cements friendships and promotes social cohesion, an idea which plays nicely with the setting she chose for the podcast. Gossiping with your hairdresser might be even better for you than the head massage before the hair cut. Malika’s exploration of a twenty-first century hairdressers reveals a place where people wait, talk, and swop stories, a place you might choose to go and spend time in, even if you weren’t getting your nails done.

Procne and Philomela: A Cautionary Tale for Babblers

In Andrea Alciato’s famous, influential, and much-translated book of Emblems, can be found this surprising and somewhat troubling appropriation of the Procne and Philomela story.

Alciato Caquet 1549

This is the French translation by Barthélemy Aneau published by Guillaume Rouille and Macé Bonhomme, Lyon, 1549 (the emblem was first published in Latin in 1546):

Pourquoy romps tu mon repos Hirondelle

Par ton babil? digne d’estre huppe telle
Que fut Tereus, Quand par glaive trencher
Voulut ta langue: & non pas l’arracher.

Comme Progné ayant par Tereus son violateur la langue couppée, fut muée en une hirondelle jase-resse. Ainsi ceulx qui savent & peuvent moins bien parler, sont les plus babillars, faschans les aultres de leur cacquet.

Why do you disturb my rest, Swallow,

With your babble? Worthy of being a hoopoe

Was Tereus, when with his blade

He sought to sever your tongue: and not to tear it out by the roots.

As Procne, whose tongue was cut out by Tereus her violator, was transformed into a jangling Swallow, so those who know least and talk badly, are the loudest babblers, upsetting others with their cackle.

The emblem shows a solitary bird flying into a ruin, possibly depicting the babbler’s destruction of all civil relationships and communication with her excessive noise. What is odd about the verse and its explanatory gloss is that it almost entirely ignores the violence and abuse in the original Greek myth. In Ovid’s retelling of the story in Metamorphoses, Procne and Philomela were sisters; Procne was married to Tereus, who raped his sister-in-law Philomela, and cut out her tongue so she could not denounce him to her sister. When Philomela managed to tell her story by weaving it into a tapestry she sent to Procne, the two sisters took their revenge by killing Itys, Philomela and Tereus’s son, and serving him up as a meal to his father. Mad with grief, Tereus went after the sisters with a sword but was turned into a hoopoe, while Procne and Philomela became birds: Ovid is not specific, but usually Procne becomes a swallow and Philomela a nightingale. (In the emblem, the names of the sisters are reversed.)

In Alciato’s emblem, this story of rape and extreme vengeance becomes a cry of irritation against a babbler. ‘Procne’ is no longer the victim of horrific violence and the perpetrator of infanticide, but an ignorant woman who doesn’t know when to shut up and so deserves to have her tongue ripped out. The transformation of Tereus from mutilating rapist into a man driven to distraction by a woman’s incessant talk is, to say the least, odd: the horror of the story feels entirely excessive to the point it is used to make. This appropriation of the story as a moralising tale and a warning to babblers, particularly women, suggests that the stereotype of the scolding, gossiping, talkative wife was undercut with an understanding of the relationship between the sexes as one fundamentally based on violence and antagonism. But the remnants of the Greek myth – the parts of the story that aren’t told – are so much in excess of the moral of the emblem that I am left feeling confused and a little disorientated.

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.

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’).

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?