crapping crows, laying eggs & medieval masculine difference

medieval Viking excrement

Excrement and sex are fundamental aspects of human bodies. The recent, acclaimed scholarly book Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics explains:

There is one thing that all medieval bodies have in common — the male body, the female body, the transgendered body, the eunuch body, the bisexual body, the feminized body, the masculinized body, the sodomized body, the sodomizing body, the chaste body, the celibate body, the married body, the lecherous body, the heretical body, the devout body, the Christian body, the Jewish body, the Saracen body, the visionary body, the lay body: they all defecate. This is not to say that these bodies may not defecate in different socially constructed ways. … Defecation as a ritual is a process of relations that constructs a series of tensions. If, every time we defecate, what we produce is utilized on a dunghill, our excrement is validated; if it is hidden in a cesspit and regarded as the source of filth, pollution, and horror, our bodies disgust and alienate us. [1]

Like humans and human work generally, excrement is produced in a particular time, place, and culture. A medieval Latin story of men’s sexed protest invoked crapping crows. A later, closely related medieval French story replaced the masculine figure of crapping crows with a more feminine one of laying eggs. As that literary development suggests, cultural space for recalcitrant masculine voices is tenuous within the development of gynocentric human society.

The medieval Latin story of crapping crows expresses concern about wives betraying their husbands’ secrets. The social process of evaluating offenses is gender-biased toward punishing men. That makes men particularly concerned about keeping secrets.[2] The Latin story comes from a mid-thirteenth-century collection of stories apparently designed to provide material for sermons. According to the story, a husband resolved to test experimentally the maxim that wives divulge their husbands’ secrets. The husband said one night to his wife:

My dear wife, I have a secret to communicate to you, if I were certain that you wouldn’t reveal it to anyone. If you should divulge it, that would cause me the greatest uneasiness and vexation. [3]

The wife responded:

My lord, fear not; we are one body, and your advantage is mine. In like manner, your injury must deeply affect me.

Accepting his wife’s assurance, the husband then told her:

Well, then, know that my bowels being oppressed to an extraordinary degree, I fell very sick. Having gone to the privy to perform a call of nature, I defecated a crow. It flew away and left me in the greatest trepidation and confusion of mind.

A crow has coloring like feces and the size of an impressive pile. To the husband’s outrageous story of his bowel movement, the wife responded:

Is it possible? But, husband, why should this trouble you? You ought rather to rejoice that you are freed from such a pestilent tenant.

The next morning the wife hurried off to talk with a neighboring woman. She secured a promise of secrecy from her and then told her:

a marvelous thing has happened to my poor husband. Being last night extremely sick, he voided two prodigious crows, feathers and all, which immediately flew away. I am much concerned.

That neighboring woman then told another neighbor that the man had set three crows to flight from his posterior. That neighbor told another that it was four. The story spread “until it was very credibly reported that sixty crows had been evacuated by one unfortunate young man.” The husband gathered his neighbors He explained that he hadn’t actually crapped crows, but had merely validated wisdom about husbands revealing secrets to their wives.

A treatise compiled in French about a century after the Latin collection included a rewritten version of the story about crapping crows. The French story, like the earlier Latin one, addressed wives betraying their husbands’ secrets.[4] But for the empirical test of wisdom about telling wives secrets, the French version has the husband tell his wife that he laid two eggs. The wife then tells that secret to a neighbor, who tells another neighbor, and so on. In the French version, what the whole country came to know was the husband laid five eggs. Laying eggs is distinctly feminine action. Masculine stories favor crudeness, singularity (“lone ranger”), and extremes. That’s reflected in crapping a crow, a single crow, that is then gossiped into a massive pile of sixty crows. Feminine story-telling tends to be more social and more respectful of conventional behavior. That’s reflected in the husband claiming to have laid two eggs, and the two eggs becoming only five. In short, a masculine story of men’s sexed protest became more feminine in its vernacular translation. Not surprisingly, women’s social dominance shaped Latin culture less strongly than it did vernacular culture.

Cultural development has largely determined the collective intelligence of human societies. Men being imprisoned without the benefit of counsel merely for having sex of reproductive type and being too poor to pay the subsequent state-imposed financial extractions is a gynocentric culture development. Within the context of existing mass incarceration, strong efforts to punish and criminalize men for a wide range of ordinary human sexual interactions is a gynocentric cultural development. So too is elite prioritization of violence against women in the context of much more frequent and harmful violence against men. Historically, medieval Latin literature of men’s sexed protest has been one of the most vibrant intellectual currents contrary to gynocentric culture. Even with respect to fundamental aspects of human bodies such as excrement and sex, recalcitrant masculine voices are crucial for questioning social-intellectual idiocy and promoting collective intelligence.[5]

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Notes:

[1] Morrison (2008) pp. 2, 7. Morrison explains:

Fecal discourse can be read as a culturally coded and determined event. We might say we are exploring the ideology or metaphysics of excrement.

Id. p. 7. The rest of Morrison’s paragraph quotes Andrew Shail, Gillian Howie, Elizabeth Grosz, Judith Butler, and Jonathan Dollimore. A subsequent section of her book invokes Bataille, Freud, Deleuze and Guattari, Kristeva and Mary Douglas among academic cult figures, as well as quoting many others with more obscure positions in academic status citation networks. Morrison is Professor of English, Texas State University-San Marcos. She authored Women Pilgrims in Late Medieval England: Private Piety as Public Performance.

Among blurb statements for Morrison’s book:

  • “In this fine and comprehensive study of that which we mark off as different from us, excrement become the necessary stuff for understanding identity, desire, and history.” Michael Uebell, author of Ecstatic Transformation: On the Uses of Alterity in the Middle Ages and co-editor of The Middle Ages at Work.
  • “In a truly fearless and foundational work, wide-ranging and adventurous in scope, Morrison draws from new and pertinent critical approaches (ecocriticsm, waste studies, green studies) and some of their source disciplines (psychology, anthropology, sociology) to invent, define, illustrate and examine the practice of fecopoetics – the ‘cultural poetics of excrement.'” Jeff Persels, French Department and Director of European Studies, University of South Carolina and co-editor of Fecal Matters in Early Modern Literature and Art.
  • “Morrison schools us in the nuanced meaning of medieval excrement, whose position in medieval culture was in fact ambivalent and various.” Kathy Lavezzo, English Department, University of Iowa.
  • “Susan Signe Morrison makes the case that we cheat both the authors and ourselves if we fail to look at the full range of medieval poetic expression. After this rigorous, astute, and insightful book, no one should doubt her. Using both theory and close textual analysis, Morrison has produced a persuasive argument for the fact that we should take these matters as seriously as Chaucer did. This book will turn thought about medieval vulgarity on its end.” Martha Bayless, English Department, University of Oregon and author of Parody in the Middle Ages.

Morrison’s book is part of The New Middle Ages book series. That series has “particular emphasis on recuperating women’s history and on feminist and gender analyses.” The New Middle Ages book series “has become notorious for offering little copyediting or proofreading.” Bildhauer (2010) p. 389.

[2] Stories of men’s concern about women betraying men’s secrets existed in ancient Roman. In a story attributed to Cato the Elder, Papirius Praetextatus revealed to his mother that the Roman Senate was considering allowing one man to have two wives or one woman to have two husbands. Papirius’s mother told that secret to many other women and caused an uproar. Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 1.23. That story was widely disseminated in medieval Europe as Tale 126 of Gesta Romanorum, from Latin trans. Swan & Hooper (1876) pp. 227-8.

Men’s concern about women betraying secrets is expressed three times in Book 3 of Andreas Capellanus, De amore (written c. 1180): para. 70, 87-8, 102-3. The final instance states:

no woman can keep a secret. The more she is bidden to keep something in confidence, the more eagerly she strains to tell it to everybody. No woman to this day has been found to keep any secret undivulged, no matter how important or even likely to cause someone’s death. Any secret confided to a woman’s trust seems to burn her up inside if she does not first expose the confidences so disastrously reposed in her. You could not prevent women acting like this by bidding them to do the opposite, the rule of thumb which I stated earlier, because all women take the greatest pleasure in gossiping about something new. So be sure to keep your secret from every woman.

De amore 3.102-3, from Latin trans. Walsh (1982) pp. 317, 319. Book 3 of De amore is a subtle dialogical manipulation of men’s sexed protest.

Men’s protest of  women divulging men’s secrets exists in many subsequent medieval works of men’s sexed protest. Leading works are Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose and Liber lamentationum Matheoluli. See notes [3] and [5] in my post on Marie de France’s Bisclavret. Marie de France’s Bisclavret is itself an poignant and powerful work underscoring the importance of respecting men’s secrets. In Chaucer, Wife of Bath’s Prologue, the wife states about her close friend:

To her I revealed all my secrets.
For had my husband pissed on a wall,
Or done a thing that should have cost his life,
To her, and to another worthy wife,
And to my niece, whom I loved well,
I would have told every one of his secrets.
And so I did very often, God knows it,
That made his face often red and hot
For true shame, and blamed himself because he
Had told to me so great a secret.

ll. 533-42, modernized by Larry Benson at his Harvard Geoffrey Chaucer site. See also the Wife of Bath’s retelling of Ovid’s tale of Midas and his donkey ears, id. ll. 945-82.

Sexual betrayal has particular significance to men and is commonly addressed in medieval literature of men’s sexed protest.

[3] Gesta Romanorum, Tale 125, from Latin trans. Swan & Hooper (1876) pp. 226-7. I’ve made some minor modernization to the translation. Id. translated paraphrastically the Latin text:

Cum ad privata accessissem ut opus naturae facerem, corvus ingerrimus a parte posterorii evolabat.

I’ve included above a more direct translation of that Latin text. All the subsequent quotes above are from id.

[4] The French version of the crapping crows story is from Livre pour l’enseignement de ses filles du Chevalier de La Tour (Book of the Knight of Tour Landry) Ch. 74. Geoffroy IV de la Tour Landry, a knight, compiled that book about 1372. An English translation of that text, written in the mid-fifteenth century, is available online in Wright (1868), pp. 96-7. A modernized English version of the translation that Caxton printed is available in Gregg (1997) p. 119 (W9). The story is no. 1359 in Tubach (1969).

[5] On the importance of culture to humans’ capabilities, Henrich (2015).

[image] The Lloyds Bank coprolite: a nine-inch (23 cm) long stool that a Viking defecated at Jorvik (present-day York, England) early in the tenth century. Image thanks to Linda Spashett and Wikimedia Commons. Here’s more information about Vikings living in tenth-century Jorvik. Most men are much stronger than almost all women:

In terms of upper body muscle mass there’s less than a 10% overlap between the two distributions. The vast majority of men have more muscle mass than all women. 99.9% of females have less upper body muscle mass than the average male. The 61% greater average muscle mass in male upper bodies translates into 90% greater average strength (the respective values for the lower body are 50% and 61%).

However, Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti insightfully reported the nickname of a Penobscot Indian women in colonial America:

Mali me’sadwədjan, “Mary big-faeces” (identity omitted), derived from advertising her ability to surpass the tribal cannon {an old iron cannon that the Penobscot Indians acquired} in capacity of discharge.

Despite men generally being much stronger than women, one should not assume that a man produced the massive Lloyds Bank coprolite.

References:

Bildhauer, Bettina. 2010. “On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages, and: Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics (review).” Studies in the Age of Chaucer. 32 (1): 386-389.

Gregg, Joan Young. 1997. Devils, women, and Jews: reflections of the other in medieval sermon stories. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Henrich, Joseph Patrick. 2015. The secret of our success: how culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Morrison, Susan Signe. 2008. Excrement in the late Middle Ages: sacred filth and Chaucer’s fecopoetics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Swan, Charles, and Wynnard Hooper, trans. 1876. Gesta romanorum: entertaining moral stories. New York: Dover Publications Inc. (reprint edition of 1969).

Tubach, Frederic C. 1969. Index exemplorum; a handbook of medieval religious tales. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Walsh, P.G., trans. 1982. Andreas Capellanus on love {De amore}. London: Duckworth.

Wright, Thomas. 1868. Geoffroy de La Tour Landry. The book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry, compiled for the instruction of his daughters. London: Pub. for the Early English Text Society, by N. Trübner & Co.

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