Leeds Update # 2 – the one with the swyving

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.

Sex in the Middle Ages: Satisfaction Guaranteed!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.

Stop, Revive, Scribe: Campaign  Against Scribal ErrorAnalysis: 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…


11 Responses to “Leeds Update # 2 – the one with the swyving”

  1. Annelise Says:

    Very cool that you can get some impression of audience response and context to a work by looking at the way it was retold by its scribes.

    In terms of Chaucer’s making women use euphemisms, and that being considered deviant from social expectations – how about other authors in his time? Is it more the scribes who allow women to have a sexual identity (as was the impression I got on first reading here), or is Chaucer unusual among his peers?

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      I have no idea, actually! Carissa might know, but I certainly don’t.

      • Annelise Says:

        Mm, a very particular question, but would be interesting to know! My idea of a period is so caught up in the impression of its literature (as much as I’ve read…), so it’s good to know how the author is relating to parts of society around them. Crystalising, defying or commenting on others’ paradigms, at any time?

  2. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    I have a whole wardrobe of clothes at my disposal…

    Ha! Call yourself naked?

    But seriously folks. If the scribes are normalising Chaucer’s text in two opposite directions, doesn’t that show that there are a variety of different positions on women’s pleasure (er…) out there among his readers? Does this not tend towards meaning that the manuscripts’ audiences must be very small?

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      I know, I know, it’s a terrible misnomer. And it’s been *years* since I did any sort of literary study, philological or otherwise, in states of undress!

      I have no idea about the size of his audiences, but I’m not convinced by your argument there. Observe the contradictory opinions on women’s pleasure and how to achieve it and how to describe it to be found in any major newspaper today.

      • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

        A good point. It would still be interesting to know how the prudish and non-prudish tendencies grouped, in terms of regional distribution, use and circulation. If at all of course! If you’re right maybe we should just expect a scatter.

        • highlyeccentric Says:

          Carissa did say that the most prudish one was produced in some kind of religious context, I can’t remember what.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      Besides, my clothes are fabulous, and you know it.

  3. Bram Cleaver Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post (not only because I was there to enjoy Carissa’s paper with you, but also because you relate how fun it was in a quite elegant, pithy and succinct manner [I suppose using both succinct and pithy is a bit redundant]). I sent Carissa a message about this post; I’m sure she will be happy to know that her paper had such an impact.


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