Constructing and deconstructing a medieval joke (1)

Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose (13th-c. French): Reason explains Fortune and her wheel to The Lover (as it were, so to speak, phnar phnar (or not)).

Morgan Library MS 948 f. 61r (French, c. 1520) c/o The Roman de la Rose Digital Library (Johns Hopkins University & the BNF)


  • May contain jokes
  • Does not contain any jokes about construction
  • Does not knowingly contain any actual deconstruction
  • Images and words may be NSFW (not just because they’re medieval)
  • Contains double entendres

This piece started out on Twitter. The medieval object at its centre (as it were) is also, as it happens, a nice neat introduction to the idea of a “text” as a woven knitted textile that’s not just words and that moves around and is moved around by a reader, used, shaped into making sense, manœuvred and manipulated (so to speak). Yes, that makes a very serious thing—The Medieval—look very unserious. Yes, there will be more of that sort of topsy-turvy humour. Yes, some of it will be “low”… or will it? is “low” really “low?” Can even the wheel of Dame Fortune tell? (A most diverting Medieval AI problem for the history of SF.)

The thing we’ll see is also a fine illustration of how a planche in a bande dessinée works: much of what I’ve been doing and reading on Twitter is thinking through how BD is and works, through reading others’ tweets  and seeing myself working with conjunctions of text, image, sequence, direction, framing, and marginalities. Yes, this makes something often seen as not serious—cartoons, graphic novels, bande dessinée—serious; in interwoven counterpoint to preconceptions, idées fixes / reçues about the medieval. There may be more such posts through the summer while I’m figuring out the January 2017 FREN 336 course, with posts like this one here running parallel or as marginal commentary to the building of the actual course itself. I’d like that: because I would like to be spending more time and thought and energy on things like BD that are important and matter, that are beautiful and add beauty and meaning to life and the world, and less time (and the rest) on the opposite. Summer sunshine has not fried my brains and scepticism remains strong: the world being what it is, there will of course be interruptions and digressions.

The image above is in a manuscript made for a king. Here’s its description:

The Roman de la Rose is one of the most-read and most controversial works of the Middle Ages. (If you’re new to the Rose, here’s the introduction to it by Lori J. Walters at that same project site.) It’s also read through the (French) Renaissance and into Modernity: one of the few medieval works not thrown out as primitive silly stories, or relegated to survival in marginalised oral cultures through folk tales and songs; and then if you’re lucky resurging through some other rewritings from the margins, as children’s literature and political satire. The Rose is in Montaigne’s library. It’s the first (or one of the first?) medieval work to be the subject of / subjected to modern scholarly edition, treated the same serious “modern scholarly” way as Western European Classical literature had and that would be extended to other “classics.” It will of course be re-edited in the 19th century, redacted and sanitised beyond recognition; not just tamed and civilised but disfigured, castrated, and denatured. It will manage to survive intact locked up in libraries, to be read by fin-de siècle decadents and later by other marginal counter-culturals like the Surrealists, with the allure of the illicit and esoteric as reading this work means reading Old French in said libraries. There won’t be access to a decent full Rose in modern French, widely available, until very recently: Armand Strubel’s 1992 edition for the Livre de Poche mass-market(ish) paperback “Lettres Gothiques” series (gen. ed. Michel Zink). A series that has revolutionised and is revolutionising medieval literature, and is opening it up inclusively and democratically; or rather, opening it up again in medievalist spirit.

(I acknowledge my own prejudice as a fan of the Rose. Second conflict of interest declaration: my favourite characters are Dame Raison and Faux Samblant. I quite like Venus too, but I dislike her son.)

Great work. Also—and remember that royal patron, one of many—not exactly what would pass as clean and generally SFW in the here and now: there’s scathing criticism of hypocrisy, religious satire, the “bawdy,” a lengthy discussion of testicles, “ploughing” and “tools,” and possibly world-record-contending long-running jokes on genitalia and sex. As in the entire length of the work (as it were). It may or may not be misogynist and about rape. It may be, and not be, at the same time (that is my position; as it were). It is a dangerous work because it infects a reader’s thoughts and words, turning everything you touch (as it were) to double-entendres. And triple, quadruple, and so on.

That a ruler and others in the political élite might own and be keen on such works is not an unusual idea on planet Earth in 2016. (That others might too, or have other kinds of access to such works and their ideas, might be less usual even now.)

But now, consider a different kind of book, one universally acknowledged as very serious indeed and also containing some material about human genitalia and sexual behaviour.

The Bible.

Now, it is a truth universally acknowledged that The Medieval takes religion very seriously. At the centre of everything, absolute, absolutely believed in blind faith, not open to any questioning, all heretics are burned and heresies burned out immediately, in a monolithic barbaric primitive culture that’s a world away from Modern progress, sophistication, refinement, and so on.

That’s what “medieval” is, isn’t it?












So here’s some parts of Genesis 17 in some M/modern versions in English:


Yes, that covenant.

Let’s have a look at the three operative parts; using the King James because it’s a beautiful Englishing and words and their beauty matter:




Some readers, including some non-theologians and non-medievalists on Twitter, have spotted a practical problem here.

God departs in v. 22 without leaving any step-by-step directions for the first occurrence of this delicate procedure.

Subsidiary problems:

  • V. 23 would indicate that Abraham does Ishmael first, and then all the others
  • But the order of persons mentioned in vv. 24-27 suggest that Abraham does himself first and then (Ishmael and) others
  • Yet as the same grammatical construction (“was […]ed”) is used throughout vv. 24-27 there’s an ambiguity between passive voice (in which case, who performs the action?) resulting in a state of being (and how one got there a mysterious unknown) and adjectival past participle used in a copulative construction.
    (No really, that one’s NOT a joke—or, OK, I admit, embeds an in-joke for Jean de Meun fans via the Rose and Abelard—just the grammatical copula that is
    “the subject+TO BE+predicate.”)
    Do they do each other?
    Or one another?
    Does each do himself?
    Is someone who turns out to be particularly skilled, after exhibiting his previously-unknown innate talent, appointed to perform on all the others?

Note that while these are modern translation issues (and worse in some more recent Englishings), the Latin text helps to clear up some of them: v. 24 should be something like “[…]ed himself” and is a different verbal form from that used in vv. 25-27:

Let’s return to that first problem. It’s related to the Roman de la Rose through thinking about how people think about, deal with, and talk about “sensitive” bodily issues in a Golden Age Of Innocence before The Fall and its aftermath, The Rise of Decency. Imagine yourself in the place of Abraham: you’d ask questions. (These hypothetical questions seem to have been lost in time, or between the lines, or fallen through the cracks of history.) Your divine interlocutor, being omniscient, knows what to do; it may be part of A Test not to tell you but to let you figure it out for yourself, or die trying. But that’s not terribly sensible: the risk of death is very high, and this is someone special who needs to be kept alive and with his crucial parts in full working order for his greater purpose of continuation.

Medieval solution? Replace God with a representative. Metatron or some other angel. That way they’re just transmitting the word of God—there’s nothing in the text specifying that didn’t happen—and can’t add anything further to the basic simple instructions.

The Angelic Substitution is a brilliant move because it allows for a bonus complication. Angels are ungendered or beyond gender; either way, or both, transgender. This could mean that an angel couldn’t really help, even if they wanted to, because they have no idea about human genitalia. Or plenty of ideas, perhaps too many of them… So if you’re illustrating this passage, it would be a criminal waste of an opportunity not to do something like this:

It’s a very medieval kind of illustration: not just because of superficial bawdy humour, but because the artist attempts to show the impossible: a moment of metamorphosis in motion, a fascination with transformation and transfiguration. (This is also why Ovid is so popular; OK, both reasons.) Catching two moments of v. 22 in one: Abraham’s action as the divine speech ends and the speaker leaves. Cumque is the word to highlight here, and its relative temporality (and spot its tone-deaf mistranslation in more recent Englishings).

This provides (at least) two sensible glosses explaining the conundrum of v. 22, and hinting at an Old Testament—New Testament analogy, leading the allegorical eye to “read forward into” an allusion to the sacrament of communion.

1) no explanation is written, none was provided, and none ought to be: there was no need for further words because the words spoken were accompanied by detailed explanatory gestures. The image attemots to represent the unrepresentable mystery of covenant, highlighting the privacy and intimacy of the covenant moment. Two things that cannot and must not be said: the explanation (knowledge passed from one person to another, but not willy-nilly for all); and the sacred moment à deux.

2) the action and the words are simultaneous and one, it’s a speech act that causes and is that first “covenant.” A miracle that also resolves the problems of vv. 22-27 in one fell swoop. (More on that miraculous act by the All-Powerful in the next post.)

But that bawdy humour is definitely also still there. And the cannibalism/communion consumption/consumation joke-set, and the profundities behind and under and through these jokes. Take the image out of context: as many medieval owners and users of books would, reading the images and decoration but unable to read the words. Displace it. Replace it online in the 21st century. It’s one of many medieval images that catch the postmedieval imagination because it’s at once obvious what’s going on, and not; it’s obvious there’s at least one other thing also going on; and it’s obvious that there’s subtexts (quite aside from text, context, etc.). Two curious features of medieval images in the postmedieval: that their richness shines out to anyone including nonmedievalists, and thus reaching out inclusively towards them; and that they generate words.

Medievalism comes naturally. 

(I want that on a t-shirt.)

(No, literally those words on a t-shirt. Tsk.)

Here is a first example, from the excellent medievalist blog Discarding Images

—followed by several hundred reblogs. (One of my tribe of inner nerds would love to turn that reading-and-reception history into a lemmatised mapping to track all the routes of transmission, and see which nodes are influencial verteces, and that sort of thing; but that would definitely be a significant digression even by my own standards and there is other more immediate work that needs to be done. I’ll leave that idea dangling, though, in case anyone out there is looking for a medievalist project that involves reading 2016 reading the medieval, and doing that reading like a medievalist scholarly reading. Very meta-medieval.)

Today, a friend brought something to my attention:

And it is brilliant: Spacegirl Incognito is Accidental Honorary Medievalist of the day! ❤️❤️❤️

Some of the other comments aren’t bad either:

NEXT UP: part 2, Text And Context Featuring A Further Joke. An actual medieval joke that will show you how, in comparison, veritably excellent the Natural Medievalist Jokes above still are. #WeAreALLMedievalists!!!

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