Note: I’m back in Sydney, where it is still technically winter, but often warmer than English summer anyway. I have a whole wardrobe of clothes at my disposal, many many books, a kitchen to play in (and a housemate to bother me into eating when jetlagged <3), a class to teach and a thesis to write. Back to normal, in short. The next week or so of posts is already in the scheduled posts pipeline; we’ll see how long I can keep this regular-blogging thing up after that.
During the dance at Leeds, a lovely person asked me if I was coming to her paper the next day, and promised me that there would be dick jokes. As everyone knows by now, I am all about the dick jokes.1 So instead of going to hear ADM talk seriously about Carolingian women (which I did want to hear, but one has one’s priorities…) I went to hear Carissa Harris talk about dick jokes.
As it turns out, this paper was far more than just amusing medieval comments about penis size, although there was plenty of that. It was entitled ‘”Mi lordis tente serveth me not thus!”: Obscene scribal innovation in 15th-century Manuscripts of the Canturbury Tales’. Carissa’s work here was so good, so thoroughly researched and clearly laid out, that I would be doing it a disservice to rehash it entirely. You will all just have to take my word that you should read anything she writes.
But a brief summary of things I learned from her paper:
Fact: Chaucer restricts his female characters to euphemistic terms: swyve is rarely used, but never used by women. Men on the other hand have access to both euphemism and direct crudities.
Fact: Scribes altered the text of the tales in two key ways: one is to reduce Chaucer’s existing obscenities, swapping swyve out for more fuzzy terms; another is to add in more swyving, often by putting swyve in t he mouths of female characters.
Analysis: Carissa gave examples from several manuscripts, but particularly a group of three manuscripts which all contain the same group (although not all contain the totality of this group) of scribal additions. These additions added in quite a bit more description to the sex scenes in The Merchant’s Tale. Most notably, May gets some first-person speech, in which she describes her preference for her lover’s cock over that of her husband; she gets to use the word swyve; and her pleasure becomes a focus in the scene.
Carissa posits that since scribal emendations often function to ‘normalise’ texts felt to be aberrant, whichever scribe or series of scribes is responsible for this series of additions felt that a sex scene which *didn’t* give any heed to the woman’s enjoyment wasn’t really sufficiently normal.
IN SHORT: This was a truly fantastic paper, with detailed manuscript readings, good critical background, and excellent delivery. Plus, it had dick jokes in it. I will very much look forward to reading a published version of this material one day.
1. Even my students know this. I like to think my inner twelve-year old is amusing, at least…