natural and mechanical figures against gyno-idolatry

From the perspective of monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, idolatry is a terrible failing. Men nonetheless are prone to gyno-idolatry. The great classical Roman dispeller of delusions Lucretius vigorously satirized gyno-idolatry. Medieval authors more humanely used figures of natural scenery and nature-driven machines to emphasize the bodily humanity that unites women and men.

Boccaccio’s Corbaccio, an outrageous medieval work of men’s sexed protest, challenged gyno-idolatrous belief that women don’t fart. A specter recounted metaphorically his experience of sleeping with his wife:

What shall I say further to you therefore about the village of Evilhole, placed between two lofty mountains? From here sometimes just as from Mount Etna, first with great thunderclaps and then silently, issues forth a sulfurous smoke. It’s so fetid and repulsive that it pollutes the whole surrounding countryside. I do not know what to say to you about it except that, when I lived near it (for I remained there longer than I would have liked), I was offended many times by such blasts that I thought to die there something other than a Christian death.

{ Che ti dirò adunque più avanti del borgo di Malpertugio, posto tra due rilevati monti, del quale alcuna volta, quando con tuoni grandissimi e quando senza, non altrimenti che di Mongibello, spira un fummo sulfureo sì fetido e sì spiacevole che tutta la contrada atorno apuzola? Io non so che dirmiti, se non che, quando io vicino v’abitai (ché vi stetti più che voluto non arei), assai volte, da così fatto fiato offeso, mi credetti altra morte fare che di cristiano. }[1]

The two lofty mountains are his wife’s buttocks. Men historically have been attracted to women with large buttocks. Evilhole {Malpertugio} was the name of the gate in Bologna through which criminals passed on their way to execution. Evilhole here figures the wife’s anus. Her farting is like volcanic eruptions from Mount Etna {Mongibello} in Sicily. The ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles reportedly committed suicide by jumping into a volcanic crater of Mount Etna.[2] Imaginatively realizing his metaphor, the narrator admits to thoughts of unchristian death: suicide by sodomy in attempting to plug Evilhole. Boccaccio’s Corbaccio was appreciated in medieval Europe as a morally instructive work. Yet some might perceive in it a comic sense.

medieval windmill

John Heywood’s The Play of the Weather, which he composed about 1530 within the circle of the learned and devout Thomas More, similarly treats corporal reality. In this play, persons with different interests petition the god Jupiter for favorable weather. A water-miller seeks more rain and less wind. A wind-miller asks for more wind and less rain. The two millers viciously and ridiculously argue with each other about the relative merits of wind and water. The wise fool Merry-Report interrupts their bickering:

Stop, foolish knaves, for your reasoning is such
that you have reasoned even enough and too much.
I heard all the words that you both have had,
so help me God, the knaves be more than mad!
Neither of them two has wit nor grace
to perceive that both mills may serve in their place.
Between water and wind there is no such discord,
but each mill may have time for use in accord.
This matter I can tell by experience,
for I have my own not far hence,
in a corner together — a couple of mills
standing in a marsh between two hills.
They’re not from inheritance, but by my wife.
She is endowed in the tail for the term of her life
with one for wind and the other for water.
And between them both, I thank God, there stands another.
And, let this be solemnly spoken,
the water gate is no sooner open
then boom goes the windmill even straight behind,
there God help the devil and all they grind.

{ Stop folyshe knaue, for your reasonynge is suche
That ye haue reasoned euen ynonght and to muche
I harde all the wordes that ye bothe haue hadde
So helpe me god the knaues be more then madde
Nother of them bothe that hath wit nor grace
To perceyue that bothe mylles may serue in place
Betwene water and wynde there is no suche set
But eche myll may haue tyme to vse his fet
Whiche thynge I can tell by experiens
For I haue of myne owne not farre from hens
In corner togyther a couple of mylles
Standynge in a marres betwene two hylles
Nat of wherytaunce but by my wyfe
She is feofed in the tayle for terme of her lyfe
The one for wynde the other for water
And of them bothe I thanke god there standeth nother
For in a good houre be it spoken
The water gate is no soner open
But clap sathe the wyndemyll euyn streight behynde
There is good spedde, the deuyll and all they grynde }[3]

Just as in Boccaccio’s Corbaccio, the two hills represent the wife’s buttocks, and the wife farts. This important medieval understanding has now been largely lost, as least in literary works and public discourse.

Merry-Report frankly acknowledges his own bodily limitations. He reports that his wife often has sex with other men: “my water-mill many times is clogged {my water myll many tymes is choked}.” The water miller counsels:

So will she be, though you in working burst your bones,
except that you be perfect in setting your stones.
Don’t worry about the balls — beware your boner.
Yet as to the balls, before you have worked her,
consider if the balls lack good grinding.

{ So wyll she be thought ye shulde bruste your bones
Excepte ye be perfyte in settynge of stones
Fere nat the lydger beware your conner
Yet this for the lydger or ye haue wonne her
Perchaunce your lydger dothe lacke good peckynge }

Merry-Report responds:

So says my wife, and that causes all our quarreling.
She would have the mill grinding, grinding, grinding every day!
But, by God, millers must grind when they may.
So often have I ground that my stones have become very thin,
and all my other gear isn’t worth a pin,
because with grinding and grinding I have been so working
that I have ground a good grinding-rod to nothing.
However, if I stick no better with her,
my wife says she will have a new miller.

{ So sayth my wyfe and that maketh all our checkynge
She wolde haue the myll peckt, peckt peckt euery daye
But by god myllers must pecke when they maye
So ofte haue we peckt that our stones wax ryght thynne
And all our other gere nat worth a pynne
For with peckynge and peckynge I haue so wrought
That I haue pecke a good peckynge yron to nought
Howe be it yf I stycke no better tyll her
My wyfe saythe she wyll haue a newe myller }

Classical Latin literature recognized the epic disaster of men’s impotence. But bodily life is as it is.

Imaginative literature allows persons to perceive what they couldn’t otherwise perceive. That isn’t necessarily fantasies. In fact, even without imaginative literature, humans are fully capable of creating their own nonsense such as gyno-idolatry or belief in misogyny and patriarchy. Imaginative literature like Boccaccio’s Corbaccio and John Heywood’s Play of the Weather helps persons to perceive nothing more than human existential reality.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Il Corbaccio, section 295, Italian text from Padoan (1994) via the Decameron Web, English translation (modified slightly) from Cassell (1993). The subsequent localization of Evilhole {Malpertugio} in Bologna is from Cassell (1993) p. 138, n. 255.

Boccaccio is thought to have written the Corbaccio about 1355, although Padoan dates it about 1365. Cassell (1993) p. xxvi. Boccaccio wasn’t shunned for having written the Corbaccio. Showing the extent of medieval interest in the Corbaccio, the Florentine notary Ser Lodovico Bartoli translated it into ottava rima about 1387. The Corbaccio was regarded as a “moral tract” for nearly three centuries following its composition. After the fall of the Middle Ages and the long slide to ignorance, repression, and bigotry, the Spanish Church in 1631 placed Boccaccio’s Corbaccio on the index of prohibited books. Id. pp. xxi-ii. Here’s some discussion of modern literary criticism of the Corbaccio.

[2] On Empedocles committing suicide by jumping into a volcanic crater of Mount Etna, Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 8.69, 8.74. Different stories exist about how Empedocles died.

[3] John Heywood, The Play of the Weather, A new and very merry interlude of all manners of weather {The Play of the Wether, A new and a very mery enterlude of all maner wethers} vv. 710-29, Middle English text from Heywood (1544?), my English modernization. Axton & Happé (1991) is the best current critical edition. It uses the original Tudor spelling. For editions with modernized spelling, Bevington (1975) and Staging the Henrician Court. The subsequent three quotes above are similarly from The Play of the Weather, vv. 739, 740-44, and 745-53.

The Play of the Weather, called an “interlude,” encompasses aspects of morality plays, debate poems, and Shakespearean comedy. Bevington characterized this play as “essentially courtly.” Bevington (1975) p. 990. For context and review of interpretations of this play, Ailles (2013), Mullini (2017), and Staging the Henrician Court.

Merry-Report is the first character called a Vice in an English play. But Merry-Report has characteristics of a Shakespearean fool:

Mery Reporte has not the sinister and mischievous traits of later Vices, nevertheless he already impersonates a Vice’s ability in wordplay, bawdy language, and performance, and such a character’s skill in manoeuvring the plot, albeit a thin one like this.

Mullini (2017) p. 33. On the differences between Vices and Fools, Rycroft (2009).

[image] Medieval windmill: countships grainmill of Zeddam {Grafelijke Korenmolen van Zeddam}, Netherlands. This windmill was built early in the fifteenth century. Source image via Rasbak and Wikimedia Commons.


Ailles, Jennifer L. 2013. “Ecocritical Heywood and The Play of the Weather.” Early Theatre. 16 (2): 185-196.

Axton, Richard and Peter Happé, eds. 1991. The Plays of John Heywood. Suffolk: D.S Brewer.

Bevington, David M. 1975. Medieval Drama. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Cassell, Anthony K. trans. 1993. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Corbaccio, or, The Labyrinth of Love. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.

Heywood, John. 1544?. The play of the wether. A newe and very mery enterlude of all maner wethers made by Iohn Heywood. The players names. Iupiter a god. Mery reporte the vyce. The gentylman. The marchant. The ranger. The water myller. The wynde myller. The gentylwoman. The launder. A boy the left that can play. London: W. Middleton. Via Early English Books.

Mullini, Roberta. 2017. “The Play [not only] of the Wether: Gender, Genre, and Wordplay in a Very Early Modern Comedy.” British Institute of Florence. Online.

Padoan, Giorgio, ed. 1994. Giovanni Boccacio. “Il Corbaccio.” In Carlo Delcorno, ed. Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio. Volume 5, Book 2. Milano: Mondadori.

Rycroft, Eleanor. 2009. “The Vice and the Fool.” Staging the Henrician Court. Online.

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