“It is true that a woman’s desire is more burning than a man’s, but, as true as the gospel, fear always moderates excesses.”
In the wake of Hobby Lobby and universities claiming its students never get raped and general waves of discussion regarding the unceasing violence against women–against our legal rights, our bodies, our sexual lives, our ability to speak–let me share some recent reading, which reminds me that it has always and ever been thus.
(I don’t know if that’s supposed to make any of us feel better).
I recently greatly enjoyed Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde: Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, a history of fairy tales, mother-wit and how the figure of the female teller (they are mostly female) transforms over history (from Nattering Old Wife to Jolly Mother Goose), as well unpacking the major tropes of fairy tales themselves. Reading it, I felt like I was 18 and taking Women’s Studies all over again. Like a virgin touched for the very first time by feminist theory.
Warner led me to Les Évangiles des Quenouilles (The Distaff Gospels in an edition translated and edited by Madeleine Jeay and Kathleen Garay), a popular and widely published and disseminated 15th-century collection of “women’s wisdom”.
The Distaff Gospels are framed as an old lady’s hexameron: during the week between Christmas and New Years–a time when women would gather over the long dark evenings with their spindles and distaffs to work and gossip–the ladies beg a scribe to come and document their conversation. Each night for six nights, one older woman in the community takes charge, sharing her particular reservoir of knowledge: tips on pregnancy, cure-alls and potions, child-raising, the management of husband and husbandry.
Parody as Control
While the work remains for us a kind of encyclopedia of medieval women’s beliefs, it was rendered safe (to men) through a parodic, anti-feminist sensibility enforced by the male writer’s voice.
The old ladies speakers presented are midwives, former prostitutes and procuresses and priest concubines, herbalists, suspiciously from towns known for their occult and heretic practices. Speakers have names like “Transeline the Hooker” and “Gomberde the Sorceress”–in attendance are Badly Screwed, Perrett Dangling Breasts, Jennette Big Box, and Little Perry Stink Hole.
Each “chapter” of advice has a “gloss”, a response by another woman in the room; unlike Biblical commentary which interprets and proves the truth of text, these glosses often slyly subvert and undermine the wisdom in the form of supporting it.
The author states of the gathering that “in reality, it really looked like a market where nothing was sold but talk and discourse, conversations of little consequence and value.” He then proceeds to document all of it. And isn’t that what happens? his clear desire for such information masked by the contempt for it–the need to write it and share it while undermining everything for which it stands.
All of this parody points to the real framing device–of this and the Hobby Lobby decision.
Things that men find threatening:
- Women liking sex.
- Women talking about sex
- Women gathering and talking to each other honestly about their lives.
- Midwives for their knowledge of the mysterious workings of the interior body.
- Even the woman’s main tool after which the book is named, the distaff, is dangerously phallic for a woman to wield–
“If a man is journeying on horseback and comes across a woman who is spinning, it is a very bad encounter: he must turn back and take another way.”
Masculine Anxiety battles Desire. Part of a book like this (and this provides interesting framing to say, a whore’s dialogue) is the erotic power of being in the room for womens’ secrets.
Part of the selling point of a book like this is the sex. These women are bawds (interestingly distinct from now. I feel like our culture doesn’t have bawds. Sluts, but not bawds).
Those long winter evenings post-Christmas was a time of almost carnival festivity, boys and girls spending a lot of time together, sexual tension and intrigue.
“Young women shouldn’t play with their suitors at eating the last cherry because usually the one who eats the last one will be the last one of all to marry.
Gloss. Dame Sebile des Mares said then that young women should not eat their soup playing “hide the ladle” with their lovers, because their husbands will usually have affairs on the side.”
Women describe experiences waking mid-embrace with incubi covered with “pretty silky hair”; there are several mentions of the friendly merchants to whom you bring your chickens at market, (“I often got presents from a certain merchant, which would not please my husband if he knew about it.”)
I loved this one:
“When a woman has sore breasts, the only thing she needs is for her husband to make three circles around them with his member.
Gloss. Saintine Tempremeure said that it must be understood that these three circles should be done at the end of the stomach, a little below the waist.”
They are for real about sex.
“When a sexually inexperienced young man marries a young virgin, their first child is bound to be simple.”
Virgins produce imbeciles! Love it!
And yet, women’s desire triggers legal control.
In the notes, I learned that:
- Women’s rights had increased in the 12th and 13th century, but then started decreasing as men regained legal control over their wives. Backlash, 14th-century style.
- The increased control over their wives, who became their husbands’ wards, meant it was entirely legal for men to beat their wives up to the shedding of blood if it was “necessary to amend her conduct.” And even if he beat her until she bled, justice could not intervene.
- In the case of adultery, a man could institute criminal proceedings against his wife; while the woman could only institute civil proceedings for redress against a cheating husband.
- And in terms of the admissibility of women’s testimony—two women’s testimony was needed for every one man’s testimony.
Even in the bawdy, sexy, parodic text itself, the vulnerability of women’s lives breaks through.
Tips on marriage revolve around vital issues of “money, power and infidelity.” One chapter states:
“It is the gospel truth that a man who does something without informing his wife is, in conscious, worse than a thief, for even a thief would not dare to behave like that.”
The impotence of such an attempt to wield shame points only to the inability to actually do something about such a husband. Other chapters include desperate attempts to control husbands’ feelings, not only towards them but towards their own children.
“If a woman wants her husband to love one of the children more than the others, she must have him eat one of the tips of his dog’s ears and give the other one to the child.”
“If a woman wants her husband to love all the children beyond measure, she must take all the children’s clear, clean urine and, without his knowledge, have him wash his face and hands in it for nine days: without fail, he will love them beyond measure.”
And then there’s this:
“If a man beats his pregnant wife or traples her with his feet, she will deliver with great difficulty, and often she is at risk of losing her life.”
The only way to solve this one is for the wife to find the shoe with which he kicked her and drink from it. Which leads to the most important part of this reading, at least for my purposes.
Because women had no real power, no reach choices, they are left with magical solutions or divine punishment or divine threat.
A man who comes to his wife or mistress with stinky feet will have a boy with stinky breath or a girl child with a stinky butt. If a pregnant woman’s food cravings are not satisfied, baby could be born without some vital organ. God will strike down the husband who does not take his wife’s advice about financial affairs.
Womens’ tools are mostly symbolic. And often, communicated with narrative. So they get together to gossip and share their wisdom and their stories.
Perhaps still, magic is all we have.