Rabelais on reforming penal justice in shadow of castration culture

Penal systems predominately punish persons with penises. That punishing inequality is a gross social injustice built upon the social construction of the penis as a criminal sign. Wholly apart from impartial criminal justice, penal punishing is an extension of castration culture. Rabelais recognized that reality. Penal systems must be reformed to be without sex bias, not just to conserve semen, as Panurge proposed, but to support more generally an eternal spring for humanity.

Castration historically has been associated with brutality and punishment. In an ancient Viking story, vicious courtiers tormented others:

They heaved some men high with ropes and then batted their dangling bodies in the manner of playing ball. They laid goat-skins before the advancing steps of others. When the others tottered on the slippery surface, the courtiers pulled on hidden cords and toppled them over unexpectedly. Other men were stripped of their clothes and flayed with various tormenting lashes. They inflicted on some mock-hanging by fixing them with nails in the form of a noose. Some had their beards and hair set alight with candles. Other men had their genitals and pubic hair submitted to fire and burned.

{ Quosdam enim restibus in sublime pertractos more agitabilis pilae pendula corporum impulsione vexabant; aliis haedinum incedentibus corium substernentes lubrici tergoris offendiculo per occultum funis raptum incautos subegere gressus; alios veste nudatos variis verberum suppliciis lacerabant; alios clavis affixos laquei more suspensionis multavere ludibrio; quorundam barbae et verticis pilos faculis torruerunt; aliis pubem atque inguina subiecto torre cremabant. }[1]

Historically, a man’s testicles and penis have often been targeted in violence against men. Primitive punishment for rape, which has long been regarded as a serious crime, specifically targeted men’s genitals:

If anyone dared to seek defilement of a virgin by force, the offender would be washed clean by having those parts of his body cut off. Otherwise, the man who had sex compensates for his wrongdoing with a thousand talents.

{ si quis virginis stuprum vi petere ausus esset, supplicia abscisis corporis partibus lueret, alioqui mille talentis concubitus iniuriam pensaturus. }

Few men would have that large amount of money. Moreover, few men would seek to rape a woman. Hence such a law could exist without causing a large share of men to be castrated. Mass incarceration of men in sex-segregated prisons effectively castrates men in relation to women in much larger numbers.

Rabelais’s Panurge narrowly sought to reform penal punishing to support the seminal blessing. Panurge put forward a highly specific policy proposal:

My counsel is that from henceforth, in all my lands of Salmagundi, whenever one wishes according to justice to execute a malefactor, a day or two beforehand he will made to bang like a pelican so thoroughly that there will be not enough left in his seminal tools to write a Greek letter Y. A substance so precious must not be foolishly lost. Perhaps he will engender a man. And so he would die without regret, leaving a man for a man.

{ suys d’advis que dorenavant en tout mon Salmigondinoys, quand on vouldra par iustice executer quelque malfaicteur, un iour ou deux davant on le face brisgoutter en Onocrotale, si bien que en tous ses vases spermaticques ne reste de quoy protraire un Y Gregoys. Chose si precieuse ne doibt estre follement perdue. Par adventure engendrera il un home. Ainsi mourra il sans regret, laissant home pour home. }[2]

While this policy proposal at least squarely recognizes the gendered nature of capital punishment, it has obvious shortcomings. Without effectively implementing the wise lawgiver Solon’s proposal for sexual welfare, men facing execution without wives or girlfriends wouldn’t have the opportunity to negotiate such seminal emptying. Moreover, the seminal blessing involves continual replenishing. A man’s seminal blessing is much more fruitful than merely making a man for a man. Most importantly, as meninist literary criticism emphasizes, men should not be reduced to sperm suppliers or wallets.

Greek letter upsilon

Penal punishment systems should be abolished and replaced with equal criminal justice under law. Men’s lives matter for the seminal blessing and other blessings. Men are not disposable or replaceable. Men are essential.

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[1] Saxo Grammaticus, Deeds of the Danes {Gesta Danorum}, Latin text from Olrik & Raeder (1931), English translation (modified) from Davidson & Fisher (1979-80). The context of this quote indicates that the persons being tormented are men. The text subsequently addresses the abuse of young women (virgins) and married women. The subsequent quote above is similarly from Gesta Danorum

[2] François Rabelais, The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, The Third Book of Pantagruel {La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel, Le tiers livre de Pantagruel}, Chapter 26, Middle French text from Bon (1992-3), English translation (modified) from Screech (2006).

Unlike donkeys, pelicans haven’t been historically regarded as randy. The pelican in medieval Europe was a symbol of sacrificial love. “A pelican in her piety” was a phrase associated with a pelican feeding her young with her own blood. Rabelais seems to have recast the sacrificial love of a pelican as the working penis of a man soon to be executed.

Salmagundi is a fictive castleship that Pantagruel gave to Panurge. The Greek letter Y (upsilon) is a geometrically appropriate letter for a man’s genitals to attempt to write.

[image] Greek letter upsilon. Source image thanks to Speravir and Wikimedia Commons.


Bon, François, ed. 1992-3. François Rabelais. Gargantua et Pantagruel, Le Tiers-Livre. Electronic edition of the Édition Fezandat, Paris, 1552. Paris: P.O.L. Alternate presentation.

Davidson, Hilda Ellis, commentary, and Peter Fisher, trans. 1979-80. Saxo Grammaticus. History of the Danes. Vol. 1 (English translation). Vol. 2 (commentary). Cambridge, GB: D.S. Brewer.

Olrik, Jørgen and Hans Raeder, eds. 1931. Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta danorum. Hauniae, Levin & Munksgaard.

Screech, M.A., trans. 2006. François Rabelais. Gargantua and Pantagruel. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin Books. (review by Barbara Bowen)

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