Late night medieval sex jokes: is there anything better?

Hi internets! Once again, I have blogospherical anxieties, which is why you’re not hearing much from me. Sorry about that.

In lieu of serious blogular thoughts, let me tell you about one of the more fabulous activities undertaken recently by our new Centre director, Juanita Ruys. She, along with three other Sydney Uni academics from disparate disciplines (Classical Archaeology; Entomology; Sexology/Sexual Health), recently made her stand-up comedy debut – not in a tiny bar or comedy competition, as most comedians do, but to a packed house at the Sydney Festival.

The evening was loosely themed around sex, and I’d already heard Juanita speak at an Alumni function about demonic sex, so really, how could I not go? A grand total of four medievalists were present, against vast hordes of biologists and a small clutch of Health Sciences folk (no classicists in evidence, either).

I may be biased, but I’m pretty sure medieval demons are funnier than classical archaeology, insects, or modern sex therapy (although that last one runs pretty close, if only because Patricia Weerakoon is completely adorable and was taking such joy in public speaking you had to giggle and grin back at her). Juanita – who I normally know as a fairly shy person – was absolutely brilliant on stage, and is pleased to announce that she’s the first person ever to cite William of Auverne in stand-up comedy.

Many jokes of varying degrees of smuttiness and erudition were made. For instance, Juanita noted that the word incubus means ‘the one who lies above’, and asked the audience why a woman needs to go to the demonic realm to find a man who’ll fall asleep on top of her. Ba-dum-dum tish. We were all advised not to model our sex lives on those of insects, because it’s rarely a good idea to impale your prospective partners. Patricia Weerakoon told us all that she’s up for review during the current staff cull, and wonders whether sex is irrelevant to the University of Sydney, or if the university community is too good at it to need her advice anymore.

And from Dr. Craig Barker, who heads up the Australian excavations at Nea Paphos, Cyprus, we learned that there’s a particular spot at the back of an ancient Greek theatre which, if you fling your voice right, will make a massive vibrating echo all around the ampitheatre. Dr Barker was pleased to inform us that during his team’s excavation of the theatre at Nea Paphos, the first word in about 2000 words to be projected in that space in this manner was a loud and resounding “FUCK”, from the site cook, who’d dropped something heavy on his foot while crossing the stage on an errand.

The University of Sydney has been doing assorted things over the last few years to improve its profile in and integration with the community – I’m not sure who came up with this particular idea, but they deserve a pat on the back. Funny, nerdy, and in the heart of the Sydney Festival. My idea of fun, basically. 😀


David Scott-McNabb, Chaucer, and the concept of a half-alien culture

This post has been a long time coming – first because I wanted to do some background reading on it, and then because it took quite some time to get the background reading and my notes from Scott-McNabb’s paper in the same place – an oddly difficult task. My modus operandi for the last… while has been to move both notebook and photocopied chapter back and forth between uni and home, neatly making sure that one of them was always on hand whenever I thought of this post, but never both.

HOWEVER. Let that not deter us! On the 25th of August, David Scott-McNabb, of the University of Johannesburg, on the topic of The Jokes of a Half-Alien Culture: The Case of Chaucer’s ‘Tale of Sir Thopas’. This paper delivered two things: an intriguing re-reading of the humour  in Sir Thopas, and many provoking thoughts on the nature of reading at several century’s distance.

First: Sir Thopas

Scott-McNabb gave us a concise introduction to the humour of Sir Thopas: for instance, the combination of dissonant elements in conventional description. The description of Thopas’ physical form, for instance, is structured conventionally, but contains the rather unimpressive comparison of the hero’s complexion to ‘pandemayn’ (white bread).

Monty Python's knights, singingSir Thopas has been assumed to satirise Flemish knighthood (since Thopas hails from Flanders). One set of readings argues that Thopas is inherently ridiculous, and incapable of doing, wearing, saying or appreciating anything which is not ridiculous.

With this in mind, Scott-McNabb turned to the Lancegay which Thopas bears when setting out. He noted the mixture of convention and dissonance: you expect a knight to set out, but you expect him to be fully armed, not carrying a Lancegay. Because Thopas is read as a bit ridiculous, the Lancegay is usually assumed to be an ineffective, perhaps even effete, sort of weapon.

BUT WAIT, says David Scott-McNabb. What is a Lancegay? First he went around asking weapons curators, and no one has a Lancegay or even a picture of a Lancegay. No dice there.  Next he looked in the literary canon: Lancegays appear in one other source, also from the early 1390s, Gower’s Confessio Amantis, where the God of Love carries a fiery lancegay.

So, what sort of weapon is it? Scott-McNabb gave us a French source, Guillame de Saint André, of the 14th century, who credited the Bretons to be skilled with the use of dardes, gavelots, et lancegaies. All of these were thrown down from the ramparts at the attacking French, so evidently, a lancegaie is a missile weapon. A deadly missile weapon at that – an English record from 1450 says that Isobel Thresham’s husband was murdered by being impaled with a lancegay.

Who owned lancegays? David Scott-McNabb found records of lancegays in the inventories of the armouries of Thomas of Woodstock and the Earl of Arundel, when they were inventoried by  Richard II in 1397. He also found – apparently previously uncited – records of  lancegays in Bolingbroke’s wardrobe accounts for the late 1380s.

Who cares about lancegays? Richard II, Henry VI and Edward IV, Scott-McNabb told us, all tried to prohibit the carrying of lancegays specifically as well as making more general prohibitions on armed men wandering about the countryside. In Richard’s case, the clause in question was issued twice – once in 1983 (7 Richard II 1383 cp. 13) and again in 1397.

These records confirm the French evidence that a lancegay is a missile weapon, but it seems more versatile: a light, short spear, which could be carried by a lightly armed warrior in peacetime, be he on horse or afoot. It seems to be useful for stabbing, thrusting, charging, and throwing. And it’s sufficiently menacing that a king feeling a bit wary doesn’t want people wandering about brandishing them all over the countryside.

A chap with a lancegay, David Scott-McNabb concluded, is not ridiculous, or ‘cute’, as some have called Thopas.

But a lancegay is funny, in the hands of Sir Thopas. Why? It’s that bucking-expectations thing: you expect a knight to be fully armed for jousting, if he’s in a romance (illustrations to medieval texts, as well as literary depictions, shape that expectation). Thopas’ lancegay is funny, not because it’s a a wussy weapon, but because it’s too modern and too realisitic. It’s something one might carry in real!England, but inappropriate for romance!land: Thopas has to go home and fetch a lance as soon as he encounters a stranger in the forest who wants to joust against him.

So what?

Medieval: a woman readingI’m going to expand on this in another post, I think. But David Scott-McNabb was using this to demonstrate that, when we go along with what looks funny enough to us, we can easily miss what was intended to be funny about the text.

It was an interesting paper, and the Great Quest To Find Out About Lancegays made for entertaining listening. I also found it a pleasing discrete example of the nifty things you can do with a combination of literary close reading and detailed historical research: I know the student who asks me most often how to do a close reading showed up to hear this paper; I’m hoping it helped them, as well as pleasing me.

MEMC lecture recap – ‘Adventures with Langland’

Or, What I did on my sabbatical, by Lawrence Warner

A couple of weeks ago – on Wednesday the 17 of August, in fact* – the MEMC (formerly CMS) lunchtime lecture featured Lawrence Warner, who’s been busy noseying about in archives, looking at marginalia in medieval and early modern manuscripts/books of Piers Ploughman. The paper itself was a rather fun one, featuring lots of pictures of scrawly writing, organised in more or less the order he looked at them. And, notably, one hand-drawn picture of a dog baiting a bear, in which Lawrence put his artistic skills to the test by copying out someone else’s marginalia before he cottoned on that he could use his cameraphone for this sort of purpose.

A monk, writing; caption 'geekery pokery'As well as looking at manuscripts with the entirety of Piers in it, Lawrence has been chasing up manuscripts with fragmentary quotations, including some which, as I understand it, aren’t on the standard catalogue. He’s particularly interested in manuscripts which have all of Piers and fragmentary quotations; these don’t get listed as two separate manuscript records, but Lawrence pointed out that that’s kind of strange – if the fragment were ripped out in 1700-and-something and found later, it’d be counted as a separate witness; and the fragment might tell us completely different things about the way people interacted with the text.

There are, apparently, many fun stories associated with Piers manuscripts/early books: Lawrence told us about the Douce MS (1802), which contains 64 lines of Peirs translated into heroic couplets, by a Mr Duprie – who turns out to have been a notorious forger of letters not actually by Brunetto; and Douce exposed him in the Monthly. The MSS appears to have been given to Douce as sort of payment/apology.

Lawrence also talked at length about some 18th century scholars who were busy cross-referencing their Crowley editions against ‘Lord Weymouth’s copy’, now in the Huntingdon Library – apparently there was one really fabulously detailed one, I think in Bailol College, which has alphabetical cross-refs to Harley 857 and numberical cross-refs to Lord Weymouth’s copy (my notes here say ‘Weymouth/Spellman’ but I haven’t the faintest who Spellman was. Or indeed, Weymouth).

A child, reading. Caption - Joie du livreApparently the 18th century is generally supposed to have been a fallow period for Piers scholarship. Says Lawrence, of these cross-referencing scholars: “It may be ridiculous, but it certainly wasn’t fallow”.

So, in conclusion if you wish to know why Piers Ploughman marginalia is sometimes ridiculous, often interesting, and not at all fallow, Lawrence Warner is your man.


* This will remain the lunchtime paper I remember as “the time I dropped a lemonade fruit in my own juice cup, one of my students helped me clean it up, I assumed the lemonade fruit belonged to said student, and several hours later the student came up to me after class demanding to know why I’d put a citrus fruit in her bag”.