Comic Medievalisms

Medieval Comic Relief: Cannibal Cow, Duck’s Neck and Carry On Joan of Arc — Stephen Knight

Department of English, University of Melbourne, Australia


1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Early medievalism parodies, in sexually-oriented masculinist mode, high-status material to escape modern moralistic attitudes. Pope vulgarizes Chaucer with the early ‘Imitation of Chaucer’ and his simplifying of the Wife’s Prologue and the Merchant’s Tale, while Fielding in 1730 diminishes the medieval royal myth of Arthur through the farcically lascivious discourse of Tom Thumb. The holy grail of pre-modern prurience was Voltaire’s representation of Jeanne d’Arc as a naïve girl admired by great warriors, patronised by Saint Denis, frequently revealing her body and, in a version Voltaire officially disavowed, having sex with an ass. Proto-medievalism was the male adolescence of the enlightenment.


2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 1.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Now that medievalists have claimed postmodernism, it seems only fair that we should ask, when did medievalism really start? I always thought Malory was consciously harking back in order to speak of his own fifteenth century, but then I realized that Chrétien de Troyes and the Charlemagne authors were doing much the same. Currently what Raymond Williams called the ‘elevator’ of periods back to past golden ages seems to have reached the Historia Brittonum and quite possibly Gildas’s De Excidio Britanniae as a contender for the earliest, indeed pre-medieval, piece of medievalism.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 6 But while that train of thought, or to be medievalist, that carriage of thought, might be instructively minatory, we can still speculate about just when people started doing what we now describe in a rational way as medievalism, that is, consciously deploy story from the medieval past to realize, debate, or just admire issues of modernity in displaced form. ‘Consciously’ is the key. It seems to me possible to be decisive and assert that neither Spenser nor Dryden were actually medievalists in that sense: they were both conservative enough to feel that major elements of the past were still alive or deserved to be — for Dryden and Charles I, literally so. Spenser and Dryden were not conscious of an unbridgeable difference across which they might displace thematic material. It seems important to recognize that Dryden’s King Arthur, The British Worthy of 1691 (though drafted in some form before 1688) sees or would wish to see a continuity with the medieval, the Catholic, the Stuart. That was not the case with Dryden’s own imitator Sir Richard Blackmore, doctor to King William and Whig ideologue, and author of the distinctly dull Prince Arthur (1695) and the even duller, even in its title, King Arthur (1697). He understood it was a new world, but Dryden’s model weighed heavily on him and especially on his leaden poetry: the meaning of modernity and its medievalist realization was only evident in his awkwardness.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 But we do soon see writers making confident displacing moves with the medieval material, reworking it consciously as comedy and satire, at once displaying displacement and a spirit of disposal for the culture of centuries not capable of admiration as modern. The writers discussed here are Pope, Fielding and Voltaire. I will take them out of chronological order, to assert an order higher than chronology, namely the growing complexity of the level of engagement with the medieval — and the fact that Fielding is also here, at least, an Arthurian with some contact with Dryden gives this procedure a certain formalist gloss, or perhaps just glossiness.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 2.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 In 1730 Henry Fielding created four shortish and quite successful plays. The mode was parody, especially of the grandiose classical theatre that the Whig-leaning royal influence favored, and one of the four was Tom Thumb, a two-act after-play. This was ‘Fielding’s first overwhelming success,’ says its editor L.J. Morrissey (Fielding, 1970, 3). It had a forty-night run and packed houses, though always as an afterpiece: the first version is only ten pages long.  In a sense it is a gesture towards medievalism: King Arthur is the only ancient survivor. But it still is, if negatively, dismissively, medievalist, though the primary rejection may not be of the middle ages so much as of Dryden’s King Arthur, as all the action is like a broad parody of Restoration theatre, first romantic then tragic. Arthur’s queen has become the Italianate joke Dollalolla and their daughter is Huncamunca. Tom Thumb, as in the early seventeenth-century ballad when he is born to an old couple by Merlin’s art, has gone to court, and is the mightiest of Arthur’s heroes; there is a crowd of captured giants outside the court, and a giant princess Glumdalca. The early action is a parody of Restoration romance: both Tom and Lord Grizzle, a trouble- making courtier, love Huncamunca, or Huncy as she is known to Tom; but the queen also loves Tom, and in generous addition she loves Grizzle. Extending the comedy, a couple of other courtiers named Noodle and Doodle comment on events and introduce anti-Walpole satire: Tom Thumb the Great is a reference to Walpole being widely called ‘The Great Man,’ much to Fielding’s contempt. That makes Dollalolla the queen into Queen Caroline of Anspach, another Tory target of the time. Colly Cibber, a personal enemy of Fielding’s, and Pope’s, is another viciously treated target. Much of the writing is vigorously comic: Arthur hopes Tom and Hunca will breed like maggots in a Cheshire cheese.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 It all turns to ludicrous tragedy: the king hears that Tom has been eaten by a red cow, and his triumph turns to deep lament; in the very sudden aftermath the scene turns into a fine parody of the end of Hamlet, best presented through a quotation:

Ghost of Tom Thumb rises.

GHOST. Tom Thumb I am — but am not eke alive.

My Body’s in the Cow, my Ghost is here.

GRIZZLE. Thanks oh ye Stars, my Vengeance is restor’d,

Nor shalt thou fly me — for I’ll kill thy Ghost.

Kills the Ghost.

HUNCAMUNCA. O barbarous Deed! — I will revenge him so.


DOODLE. Ha! Grizzle kill’d — then Murtheress beware.


QUEEN. O Wretch! — have at thee.


NOODLE. And have at thee too.

Kills the QUEEN.

CLEORA. Thou’st kill’d the Queen.


MUSTACHA. And thou hast kill’d my Lover.


KING. Ha ! Murtheress vile, take that.


                        And take thou this.

Kills himself, and falls.    

(Fielding, 1970, Act III, Scene the Last, lines 27–36)

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 2 Barely medieval as it is, this could be just taken as no more than a sign of the possibility of comic medievalism at the time. But it is intriguing to note that as the play develops it becomes somewhat more medievalist. In 1731 Fielding reworked it in three acts as The Tragedy of Tragedies. One major new element was provision of preface and footnotes parodying Whig scholarship, as Pope and Swift had done, even making the link by allotting both play and commentary now to Martin Scriblerus the second, a move away from the scanty medievalism into modernity. But there is also more action, including more medievalism: Merlin actually appears saying he is ‘Merlin by Name, a Conjuror by Trade’ (Fielding, 1970, Act III, scene 8, line 14), and as in his major medieval function, he prophesies fame for Tom and the play, but also Tom’s bovine fate.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 2 The show marched on. In 1733 Eliza Haywood and William Hatchett produced The Opera of Operas or Tom Thumb the Great, a musical version with no less than thirty-three songs, including at least some music by the substantial composer Thomas Arne, whose son played Tom Thumb. Here again there is a little more medievalism: Tom having been eaten by the red cow, Merlin appears and instructs it to regurgitate him, in what may be one of the finest pair of couplets of Augustan comedy, if not English poetry:

Now, by emetick Power, Red Canibal, (waves his Wand)

Cast up thy pris’ner, England’s Hannibal.

Forth from her growling Guts, brave Worthy, come,

And be thyself — the Little Great TOM THUMB.’   (Haywood and Hatchett, 1733, 42)

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Though the play has so far been very much the basis for the opera, the end is entirely happy. Grizzle’s rebellion is over; Merlin brings all the murderees to life, and Tom is set for a very happy and sexually active future with Huncamunca:

Thum. Tell me, Huncy, without feigning,

Dost thou longer like abstaining ?

Hunc. View my eyes, and know my meaning.

Thum. I see the lent of love is past;

Hunc. And yet I have not broke my fast;

Thum. But soon you shall —  I’m in the fit —

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 In general response the king cries ‘Thrice three! nine times happy Arthur!’ And we end with the finely mock-heroic chorus ‘Let fierce animosities cease’ (Haywood and Hatchett, 1733, 43).

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 2 The strengthening of the medieval here may be based on little more than the rising fame of Merlin on the stage as a general trickster, often in charge of lightly-clad ladies, but it does indicate a move towards the recuperation of the rejected medieval, with a sexual implication — especially in the final musical version the medieval extends a space for sexual licence. This double appropriation of the medieval for both contemporary comment and personal licence — two forms of resistance to eighteenth- century modernity — is what we see in fuller form in the two other instances under discussion.

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 3.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 1 Dryden not only re-validated Arthur and Merlin. He also reworked and published in his Fables (1700) a substantial version of Chaucer. Not fully aware of how Chaucer’s verse sounded, he found the work ‘a rough diamond’ (Dryden, 1900, vol ii, 265), but was still strongly committed to its quality as art of value — and not without classical features. Pope knew this edition well but also had a copy of Speght’s 1687 edition of the works. That he made at first something quite dismissive of Chaucer, if also of real interest to himself, is evident from the short ‘Imitation of Chaucer’ he wrote, apparently when he was just in his teens. Here, as later, he sees the base form as tetrameter, partly because he missed the pronunciation of final e but also because he did not have Skeat and Robinson to insist on, if necessary fabricate, the perfect iambic pentameter in all lines. But also what catches the lad’s eye, and imagination, is sexuality.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 The duck’s neck, focal to the story, is a large borrowed phallus displayed to knowing women: the imagined medieval permits exciting boyish sexual fantasy:

Women ben full of Ragerie,

Yet swinken nat sans Secresie.

Thilke moral shall ye understond,

From Schole-boy’s Tale of fayre Ireland:

Which to the Fennes hath him betake,

To filch the gray Ducke from the Lake.

Right then, there passen by the Way,

His Aunt, and eke her Daughters tway:

Ducke in his Trowzes hath he hent,

Not to be spied of Ladies gent.

‘But ho! Our Nephew,’ (crieth one,)

‘Ho!’ quoth another, ‘Cozen John!’

And stoppen, and lough, and callen out, —

This sely Clerk full low doth lout:

They asked that, and talken this,

‘Lo here is Coz, and here is Miss.’

But, as he glozeth with Speeches soote,

The Ducke sore tickleth his Erse Roote:

Fore-piece and Buttons all to-brest,

Forth thrust a white Neck, and red Crest.

Te-he cry’d Ladies; Clerke naught spake:

Miss star’d; and gray Ducke crieth Quaake.

‘O Moder, Moder,’ (quoth the Daughter,)

‘Be thilke same thing Maids longen a’ter?

‘Bette is to pyne on Coals and Chalke,

‘Then trust on Mon, whose yerde can talke.’   (Pope, 1964, 41-42)

76 Leave a comment on paragraph 76 0 The first edition of 1727 spoke of the ‘Lecherie,’ not the ‘Ragerie,’ of women, and gave the story in line four to a ‘Clerk,’ not a ‘Schole-boy.’[1] These points seem a little more direct and uncensored: lechery is plainer than ragery and the clerk, a traditionally sexually active figure, is presumably father to the boy’s desires; but the maturer Pope of 1737 displaced the sexuality a little further, but left the clerk in the action as the central figure, next to the duck.

77 Leave a comment on paragraph 77 0 Like Tom Thumb at Arthur’s court, a simple gesture of resistance to contemporary mores finds a convenient means of expression in a medieval motif, here a low-level version of a fabliau to express both boyish sexuality and knowing female management of it, an adolescent dream one might think. The women who meet the duck play much the same complicit role as Huncamunca in the Haywood/Hatchett ending of Tom Thumb. But after this Pope goes further than Fielding or Haywood/Hatchett in seeing the medieval matrix as a way of expressing contemporary issues. A few years later he turned to Chaucer’s actual gender-focussed practice in reworking ‘The Wife of Bath’s Prologue’ and ‘The Merchant’s Tale,’ possibly not in that order: the dates are obscure. These are not the sexually obvious Chaucerian fabliaux, but two stories which deal in somewhat restrained, even displaced, ways with sexuality.  This was not only an interest for Pope: as Geoffrey Tillotson shows in his introductory note (Pope, 1962, 6), there were three fabliau versions by other writers in 1712–13 and another in 1731, but there is special interest in seeing what Pope’s comic medievalism amounted to. In the Chaucer connection it is notably very different from the hostile account of tyrannical Norman forest rule in the near-contemporary Windsor-Forest, which reads curiously like a highly anti-medieval version of the ‘Norman Yoke’ theory, especially since the hunting enthusiasms of the modern monarchs are much admired in a later part of the poem.

78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 0 In the Chaucer reworkings, the verse is again tetrametric, but can be very close to the original; occasional lines survive intact.  Pope tends to cut the more medieval and theological of the material, and also the one-line summaries which Chaucer uses to mark a transition from one narrative unit to another. The former means that the Wife’s Prologue is, especially in the opening two hundred lines, a good deal shorter — and also that the emphasis is thrown on the Wife’s sexuality rather than Chaucer’s parallel revelation of her quasi-scholarly wit.

79 Leave a comment on paragraph 79 0 So we are seeing a shape emerging where Chaucer, the medieval, is a medium for the expression of the sexual. The duck has come into the parlor. But not all the way in. Pope recurrently blurs or censors the most explicitly sexual references. Warton noticed this, saying that Pope ‘omitted or softened the grosser and more offensive passages’ (Warton, 1775–81, vol ii, 7). But this is not so major a feature of the Wife rewrite, the choice of the source being in principle a way of resuming the sexual interest in women from the early poem, now emphasizing the female voice and presence. Pope makes her say she has led ‘Five Captive Husbands from the Church to Bed’ (Pope, 1962, line 8),[2] where Chaucer merely mentions five ‘Housbondes at chirche dore’ (Chaucer, 1988, line 6); similarly, Pope introduces the idea that though she ‘took no Pains to please’ she in fact ‘had more Pleasure than they had ease’: Chaucer’s Wife only speaks of ‘my profit and myn ese’ (214), where profit might well imply financial matters.

80 Leave a comment on paragraph 80 0 But if this suggests Pope wishes to foreground sexuality, it is still somewhat subject to displacement — here through the use of  ‘bed ‘and ‘pleasure’ and in other euphemizing  instances, closer to the pattern that Warton saw, Pope does diminish and also defeminize, sexuality. For example, where Chaucer’s Wife speaks fondly of her ‘bele chose’ (447), Pope refers merely to ‘what Nature gave’ (201). In the same mode, Pope quite omits Chaucer’s reference to her having ‘Martes mark’ both on her face and ‘in another privee place’ (619–20). When the Wife speaks of a husband-murderer, Pope omits the comment that she ‘lete the lecchour dight hire al the night’ (777), and maybe this is why he omits from a list of classical man-killers Pasiphae, the details of whose activities even Chaucer conceals — one of Pope’s very few classical cuts in this text (‘The Merchant’s Tale’ will have more, as a medievalizing move, to be discussed below). The apparent withdrawal from the power of women, especially in sexual mode, may explain why Pope does not refer to the real happiness, including sexuality, of the fifth marriage, and conceivably why he changes the image of the whining and biting wife from potent horse to probably manageable, and at least domestic, dog (Pope, 152; Chaucer, 386).

81 Leave a comment on paragraph 81 0 So with the classical referentiality generally respected and even enhanced, the medieval sexuality both privileged and euphemized, this is a distinctly modern, Augustan, treatment of the medieval, and it would seem clear that the sex-linked potential of the material is what is of interest to Pope — if somewhat difficult interest. The Prologue operates like a developed projection of the Imitation poem: a sexually challenging woman’s voice again invades masculine sexual anxiety, but here the memory of female action is added.

82 Leave a comment on paragraph 82 0 That action is brought to present life, though only eventually and after a substantial masculine prologue (though fraught with fragility), and some further sexual action is added, though with significant containment of the original, in Pope’s other Chaucerian juvenilium, ‘The Merchant’s Tale,’ retitled ‘January and May.’ This offers a fuller display of the same patterns as the Wife’s Prologue and, though certainty is not possible, the creation of this appears to follow it in date.

83 Leave a comment on paragraph 83 0 First, it asserts the sexual value of the medieval:

For long ago, let Priests say what they cou’d,

Weak, sinful Laymen were but Flesh and Blood. (7–8)

86 Leave a comment on paragraph 86 0 As it did in the Wife’s Prologue, the text adds the words ‘in Bed’: here the conceivable euphemism completes January’s fantasy about ‘young Flesh in Bed’ (102). There may well be a male-viewpoint double entendre when January says ‘Now Sirs you know to what I stand inclin’d’ (137): Chaucer’s old fool is simply direct in his claims of sexual potency. Pope omits what is apparently a wry joke about bachelors: ‘On brotel ground they build’ (1279), perhaps just because ‘brittle/brothel’ is not a pun in the eighteenth century. In fact there is little else but these opening displaced sexualizations to testify to the sexual interest the story had for Pope. He makes it clearer that May is pregnant when she speaks of January’s chance to ‘save the life / Of thy poor Infant, and thy longing Wife’ (725), where Chaucer leaves this implied by her interest in apples (which may just be an interest in Damian’s tree). Pope also cuts the affectionate physicality of January stroking May’s ‘womb’ at the end (Pope, 813; Chaucer, 1170): this may be anti-physical in motive, or just part of Pope’s reduction of the inner life of the characters.

87 Leave a comment on paragraph 87 0 Throughout, Warton’s comment on Pope’s euphemization fits well.  The physical reality of sexuality and its connections is consistently reduced. January at Pope, line 244, does not as he does at Chaucer, line 1599, fantasize about her in his bed; Pope after line 348 quite omits January’s parallel fantasy that he will be too fierce for her through his ‘corage’ being ‘so sharp and keene’ (1759). The wedding night scene is quite without Chaucer’s bravura sequence showing the white-whiskered old man straining away — and May reflecting, it seems glumly, on her experience. Equally Pope quite omits the physical commentary where May first reads Damien’s letter in the privy and then, when delivering her answer, fiercely twists his hand. In the same censored mode, the scene in the fruit tree ends for Pope not with Damian’s blunt action — ‘in he throng’ (Chaucer, 2353) — but  with May thinking this was ‘a merrier Fit’ than she had felt before (Pope, 745–6); and where Chaucer’s old husband says he saw that ‘ye, algate in it wente’ (2376), Pope’s January says, ‘I plainly saw thee whor’d; Whor’d by my slave’ (769–70): for Pope the sexuality is contained in moral — and indeed class — terms.

88 Leave a comment on paragraph 88 0 So what for Pope is clearly a story attractive for its sexuality, its atavistic liberation, is also a story that needs to be controlled, made not too atavistic. It is also tonally controlled: the entire Pluto-Proserpine sequence is cut. By that sequence Chaucer makes complex both this particular story and also his own range of social and intellectual reference, but Pope clearly wants the medieval to make no claim on the classical – interestingly, he also cuts Venus’s wedding presence and the reference to Martianus Capella. In the same way — and here not unlike the Wife’s Prologue — January’s opening speech is simplified in referential terms. The story is pared down towards a simple fabliau of age and youth, but also to one where both the natural force of sexuality and the conflict in desires of the characters — including Damian — are brought under a form of control.

89 Leave a comment on paragraph 89 0 So here too we see the comic medieval serving a contemporary sexual interest — much like the action of the Imitation poem, but also by its re-treatment indicating some of the contemporary difficulties around its theme of sexual liberty for characters and, especially, authors.

90 Leave a comment on paragraph 90 2 The mix of past and present was also a factor in Pope’s fourth and most serious piece of medievalism, his reworking of Chaucer’s Hous of Fame as The Temple of Fame. This is a major treatment that invites serious critical treatment but as it is not in any way comic or sexuality-oriented it is not relevant here, though it is interesting to note that Pope uses none of the sexually highly-charged Aeneas-Dido sequence of Book One and almost all of the amusing ironies, including the eagle, are removed from the rest.

91 Leave a comment on paragraph 91 0 But comic medievalism in the eighteenth century survives and goes further with Voltaire. Where Fielding used the medieval primarily as a convenient peg on which to hang comedy and satire, and where Pope saw a specific value of sexuality as, within limits, available in the medieval material, Voltaire combines their impact and introduces to a serious medieval topic, the legend of Joan of Arc, both modern-based satire and a prurient interest in sexuality.[3]

92 Leave a comment on paragraph 92 0 4.

93 Leave a comment on paragraph 93 2 La Pucelle d’Orléans is a travesty of an intriguing, noble and tragic woman’s life — in being that, it combines and seriously magnifies the offences committed against Chaucer and King Arthur and the medieval period in general by Pope and Fielding. A long poem, of over eight thousand lines, it appears that Voltaire started writing it by 1730: it became popular by word of mouth and through borrowed or even stolen manuscript versions, though he distributed them himself, including one to Madame La Pompadour. Copies were being printed by mid century, some of them pirated and apparently varied by other hands. There was church criticism and some deplored its obscenity. Voltaire apparently did some rewriting to tone it down and in 1762 — some say 1755 — produced an authorized version, but others seem to have heightened its offensiveness. The textual state is a mess: the number of cantos varies from eighteen to twenty four, there are many parallel passages, and so far editors have not constructed a credible authorial original, with specific reworkings. The version used here is that of 1762, with twenty-one cantos, but a number of the variant sequences will be noted.

94 Leave a comment on paragraph 94 0 The poem makes one hostile reference to the earlier Jeanne d’Arc source material, to Chapelain, the sombre seventeenth-century poet who in 1656 treated her story as an archetypal Christian and patriotic allegory: ‘thou whose violin Produced of old so harsh and vile a din’ (Voltaire, 1899, Vol I, 2).[4] In general, the poem is far from the well-known legend of Jeanne though it is not alone in this. Surprisingly many Jeanne writers do not reach the burning at the stake. Shaw just made her a knowing re-visitant, Schiller ended with the final battle against the English (where she dies in heroic/romantic grandeur) and others thought the crowning of Charles VII at Reims was a good place to stop. Voltaire only reached the raising of the siege of Orleans, and though he has Jeanne fighting well in Canto 3, she shares the attack on Orleans only in Canto 21, in the revised version. Very extensive sequences of the poem are non-Jeanne filling: a lengthy sequence is about a French hero La Tremouille and his beloved Dorothea (they get killed by the English in the revised version and Jeanne insists on the taking of Orleans to avenge them); this story-line and some others spend time drifting about in Italy — not the classical world so much as the renaissance Italy of Ariosto, who is name-checked and broadly imitated, though there are a few story threads with classical links, and even some Old Testament-inspired passages. There is also a good deal of Christian satire in Hell, in various religious establishments and focussing on corrupt and demented medieval clerics with comic names, Grisbourdon and Lourdis. The English occupy a fair amount of the text, notably the ferocious general Chandos and the very handsome page Monrose — but both get involved not only with warfare but with a major recurrent plot about Agnes Sorel and Charles VII. The last is at least a presence from the true Jeanne legend, as is Dunois, the Bastard of Orleans, who is here as in Schiller (whose Voltairean links are not often noticed) ramped up into being Jeanne’s beloved as well as co-warrior.

95 Leave a comment on paragraph 95 0 Many of these elements can be seen as medieval, such as the Jeanne story itself, the romance sequences which have some semi-Arthurian contact; the exposés  of the medieval Catholic church; and the occasional interest in medieval fighting and cruelty. The text does at one moment claim a satirical position when it states ‘Wisdom must yield to superstition and rules, / Who arms with bigot zeal the hand of fools’ (I.104). The satirical references are primarily anti-religious: there is no trace of any anti-aristocratic or anti-royal attitude, but much personal perusal and mockery of Jeanne.

96 Leave a comment on paragraph 96 0 Just as both Pope and Fielding offered some contemporary political satire, though not quite like Voltaire’s excitable anti-clericalism, the main thrust of all three of these eighteenth-century comic medievalism writers is to do with gender, and especially sex. With Voltaire the first point to note, and in some ways the most offensive, is that the actually very strong personal power of Jeanne d’Arc is here disavowed, or as Voltaire would no doubt have preferred to say, stripped from her. Here she does not invent the idea of crowning Charles and saving France: this is all dreamed up by St Denis who plays a strong recurrent role and master of ceremonies, unsatirized, patriotic, and occasionally involved in combat with St George of England. As the spirit of France he is not vulnerable to anti-clerical mockery, and Jeanne is the main target.

97 Leave a comment on paragraph 97 2 At the start of Canto 2 she is belittled by saying her father was the local curate and that at sixteen she was like a handsome barmaid.   She is always seen as only a partner of Dunois in battle and her very rare veridical moments of authority — like insisting on attacking Orleans — seem very strange as she is consistently set as an operative in a male world, with saint, bastard, king and soldiers crowding out her heroic real personality. She is shown as wearing armor, but the only time she is specified as wearing male clothing, it is Sir John Chandos’s trousers, or in a variant his underpants, as a result of a sequence of allegedly comic confusions.

98 Leave a comment on paragraph 98 0 Jeanne is reduced to being a lackey of St Denis and being Dunois’s lady-friend, and her actions are remarkably restricted as a fighter or even as a protagonist. It will not seem surprising, remembering Pope in particular, that her central recurrent role is to play a handsome woman who is repeatedly threatened with sexual activity or made victim of scopophilia; a male viewing presence is consistently established. It is rather revealing, and not in Voltaire’s usual way, that though the ‘test for virginity’ sequence that she more than once underwent in reality is brief, it comes at the unemphatic end of a canto and seems to bear no interest for the text. She is, as is not uncommon with women in this story, stripped naked, but this is the only instance when a woman’s body, especially thighs, buttocks and breasts, are not described in considerable if also repetitive detail; this scene takes four lines only, presumably because the impact is anti-sexual.

99 Leave a comment on paragraph 99 0 The text makes up for this elsewhere. As we first hear of Jeanne she is said to be ‘in stays and petticoats arrayed,’ and that of course rhymes with ‘maid’ (I.1) And we are immediately told this story is about ‘how she kept her maidenhead — a year’(I.2). We regularly observe scenes where a woman’s body, both breasts and waist, front and back, become exposed, as if in an extreme version of Carry On comedy and the seaside postcard. First it is Jeanne, in Canto 2, asleep and scrutinized by an English Franciscan, or cordelier, and a muleteer. They will recur in the text as bad people: all they do here is permit the text to observe Jeanne’s body; St Denis drives them off. Jeanne is then for some time replaced as a sexual focus by Agnes Sorel, who is quite often undressed, or falls off a horse, or is even, by Chandos, skirt-lifted while asleep. There are other grounds for body-examining: though the virginity test is quick, Jeanne and Dunois are in Canto 4 both captured in the palace of Hermaphrodix (a classical intrusion ultimately from The Golden Ass: he is the ass on whom Dunois flies and with whom Jeanne will be later involved). They are condemned to be impaled and stripped naked for the purpose. Much of the rank flavor of this early medievalism is in this scene, providing a medium for sadism as well as sexual fantasy and a dream of chaotic legalism — a triple dark other of Augustan retroculture.

100 Leave a comment on paragraph 100 0 After this, in a narrative owing more to The Golden Ass than medieval romance, Agnes does quite a bit of stripping and she has sex with Charles, with Chandos and with the very handsome English page, Monrose. In a particularly grotesque scene, to escape Charles the page pretends to be a saint posing nude in a niche. They identify him because Jeanne has earlier, in a scene without much lucidity, painted two fleurs de lis on his bare buttocks, a form of gutter patriotism to diminish her further. The vulgarity can as readily embrace religion and there are various sex-crazed clerics and nuns, even a few apparent nuns who are in fact sex-crazed males. The Dorothea and La Tremouille in Italy sequence, lasting for several cantos, affords a fair amount of nudity and sex, and the intersection of both. The Agnes/Chandos/Monrose narrative passes through a nunnery; Jeanne is also briefly present, long enough to get stripped and to kill a would-be rapist. A little later we find Jeanne thinking of Dunois when he is himself naked. As if in narrative revenge she is soon defeated by Chandos, who undresses her and admires her breasts; he goes no further, but the text offers a lengthy digression on sex in history, largely classical.

101 Leave a comment on paragraph 101 0 That discussion possibly inspired what seems an attempt to legitimate all the dirty postcard activity, an invocation to Venus:

‘O thou voluptuousness, in whom we see

Nature’s true source, Venus to bright Deity’ (I.21).

104 Leave a comment on paragraph 104 0 And this is extrapolated a little:

Let universal love control us all,

To flames our codes and flimsy laws consign,

We only follow one; and that is thine.’(I. 22)

108 Leave a comment on paragraph 108 0 The text will finally become battle-oriented as Jeanne in Canto 19 declares Orleans must be their goal, but in Canto 17 it has lurched off into a fantasy where all, including Jeanne, lose their minds, think each other an enemy, and behave very foolishly — and of course all get naked. Though Jeanne is largely a spectator of this grotesque action her secondary role is remembered in comments like ‘The mighty Bastard and his lady blest’ (I.48)

109 Leave a comment on paragraph 109 0 But threats gather round her: in the penultimate canto 20, Grisbourdon, in Hell, decides he needs revenge on her. Hermaphrodix himself (currently male) will be the agent. As an ass he attends Jeanne, who is asleep and unprotected by St Denis, who has become cross with her. But after some routine breast-viewing Dunois hears the ass: St Denis returns, and Jeanne and Dunois drive the ass off. In the last canto it is Dunois who attempts her virtue, with the usual body-viewing, but in spite of her fondness for him Jeanne refuses, saying ‘tis not yet time’ and that when he has defeated the English ‘Thine I protest the virgin bed shall be’ (II.81). Then she gives him a possibly misinterpretable thirty sisterly kisses. This prefaces the final battle at Orleans, given in some detail, when the English general Talbot fights hard: love themes recur in the narrative but finally the French win and all we are told is that Jeanne keeps her oath to Dunois, presumably giving him her maidenhead.

110 Leave a comment on paragraph 110 0 That seems a reasonably consistent ending, downgrading Jeanne as pretty limited, if at least determined, uplifting the male French whether generals or saints, and maintaining a steady obsession with sexuality and the female body. But, and it is a remarkably large but, that version of Canto 20 is a rewrite. An earlier version, which has been claimed as not by Voltaire, without any clarity in the argument, opens with comic and vulgar business in which Louvet, a French politician and his wife are ludicrously and erotically involved with Talbot, whom Voltaire basically seems to admire, perhaps because as an English general he hates French aristocrats and priests. Then the metamorphic ass, in his animal form, visits Jeanne. In this version he is known as Conculix, which basically means ‘Shagger’: the more classical and distanced name Hermaphrodix, implying ‘sexual shape-shifter,’ is a later form, characteristic of the self-censorship Voltaire practised in his rewrites and is deployed apparently because people objected to the obscene implication of ‘con’ in French.

111 Leave a comment on paragraph 111 0 The question remains whether the obscene sequence is Voltaire’s own. He claimed other hands had put unacceptable material in the text, but this is a complete and early ending to the whole text: if that is by another hand, what did Voltaire have there in the original? Editors seem to want to avoid this debate, but as it stands it seems Voltaire is most likely to have generated and then withdrawn the very offensive sequence about sex with the ass. In the recent major edition Jeroom Verrcruysse appears satisfied that Voltaire’s tone throughout is merely one of ‘scepticisme irreligieux,’ yet the evidence he brings does not suggest with any clarity that the encounter between Jeanne and the ass is not authorial: the evidence suggests rather that it was by Voltaire, and was withdrawn and rewritten (Voltaire, 1970, 11).[5]

112 Leave a comment on paragraph 112 2 In this narrative, Jeanne asks the ass if it is true he loves her: he assures her it was always so. She is amazed and angry, yet also a little flattered and extends her ‘lily hand’ (II.91). The ass refers to animal-lovers Leda and Ariadne: like leaving the rude bits in Latin, classical knowledge can serve a base purpose. But grotesquerie grows: this was also the ass on whom Christ rode into Jerusalem. Then epic simile is enlisted: as in a storm at sea Jeanne is troubled, and so she bares her nether parts, ‘Twisting her rump and twining close her thighs’ (II. 92), and, with a few more classical references, the deed is done and the ass three times ejaculates into the maid of France. Early versions often illustrated the poem and this was a favorite moment.

113 Leave a comment on paragraph 113 0 Suddenly, Jeanne hears a voice calling her to war: it is Dorothea, not dead in this first version, who is shocked at this scene, noted as similar to Venus with Vulcan. Jeanne asks her to keep it secret; Dorothea agrees, but then gives her a good telling-off, asking how could she

The handsome Dunois for an ass to leave

Hoping, withal, some pleasure to receive;

For pleasure you received, my beauteous Dame,

I read it in your eyes, your eyes of flame. (II.92)

118 Leave a comment on paragraph 118 0 Jeanne sighs and says she wished Conculix had loved Dorothea instead of her. And that is the end of the canto and apparently the end of this version of the poem, a bathetic, obscene, anti-woman, ending that reveals fully just what the medieval can liberate as comic relief and can be taken, whether by Voltaire or not, as the logical completion of his unpalatable attitudes to Jeanne d’Arc, as shown throughout the poem.

119 Leave a comment on paragraph 119 0 5.

120 Leave a comment on paragraph 120 0 Describing a heroine having sex with an ass is in a real way a logical extension of waving a duck’s neck out of your trousers at two women, and only slightly different in its expression of masculine desire in dialectic with masculine weakness is the image of a tiny hero who defeats giants and has royal women lusting after him. Fielding’s medium, the stage, required greater displacement of male sexual hostility than the verse of Pope and Voltaire, but the three early medievalists are walking the same side of the aggressively neurotic masculinist street.

121 Leave a comment on paragraph 121 0 And as has become clear in each case, they have all back-tracked to cover the worst of their traces. The duck’s neck becomes the story of January and May, and also the Wife of Bath’s prologue, still revealing sexually active and quick-witted women but bringing them under the control both of their original ironizing author and the euphemizing touch of Pope, and his last engagement with the Chaucerian medieval in The Temple of Fame is fully inserted into both classicism and contemporary satire, stripped of the sexual excitement of the Dido-Aeneas sequence that Chaucer stresses in Book 1. In very much the same way Fielding’s initial bald fable is about masculine size reversed (and as Pope’s duck’s neck and Voltaire’s ass’s penis indicate, size is a literal matter here except on the displacing stage): but that concern is then concealed beneath a costume of contemporary satire in the elaborate scholarly mechanisms of the 1733 edition. The rewriting by Voltaire is usually concerned with toning down sexually direct references, concerned with all three of the female leads, though there appear to be some other more mechanical motives for improvement: there is a completely new Canto 17, which seems more based on narrative improvement than sexual caution.

122 Leave a comment on paragraph 122 3 But the variation of the two versions of Canto 21 is enough to confirm that the prime source of excitement in the medieval for these writers was its availability as an alternative domain where writers could misbehave and deploy without guilt elements of sexual desire and sexual fantasy. Interestingly, the earliest of them is closer in touch with a real medieval sexual motif: Pope can find in Chaucer material that at least adverts to the overtly phallic domain of his adolescent interest, though this obscures the levels of irony and critique that Chaucer has inserted. Both Fielding and Voltaire, as it were, pervert the dignity of their medieval sources to bear the burden of sexuality — displaced in Fielding’s case, extremely and grotesquely emphasized in the case of Voltaire — or really reversed: Jeanne’s virginity is the new challenge.

123 Leave a comment on paragraph 123 4 Though they all went on to cover their traces, the banal sexual drive of this early medievalism is both clear and rather disturbing. We might well wonder how much of it has really gone away? There are always dumb football-playing students who think Chaucer is going to be dirty fun; for the pre-Raphaelites the medieval is always in some way a form of interpersonal sexuality except when Christianity gets in the way (and sometimes you get both as in Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience). For moderns, the bodice-ripper is firmly medieval:  Robin Hood’s bow and arrow has evident sexual implications, not to forget Errol Flynn’s green tights. We think of Scott as pretty stitched up, but Ivanhoe has Locksley perform a remarkable act of symbolic phallic destruction when splitting the arrow, and also has a pair of women, dull necessary wife and exciting female outsider who is too exotic to be marriageable. Thrilling stuff for the nineteenth-century male. Maybe we need to establish what it is that the medieval comic gives relief from. Maybe we need to read our early comic medievalism with Poe, Fielding and Voltaire in one hand, and Freud in the other.

About the Author

124 Leave a comment on paragraph 124 0 Stephen Knight, retired from Cardiff University, has returned to the University of Melbourne as Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow and research professor in English Literature. As a cultural historian he has written on a range of medieval topics such as Chaucer, King Arthur, Merlin and Robin Hood, as well as more recent themes in crime fiction, Welsh literature and the politics of myth. His next book will be Reading Robin Hood with Manchester University Press (E-mail: stephen.knight@unimelb.edu.au).


125 Leave a comment on paragraph 125 0 1. The original edition of 1727 opens with the lines:

Women, tho’ nat sans Lecherie,

Ne swinken but in Secrecie:

This is our Tale is plain y-fond,

Of Clerk, that woneth in Irelond.

(See Pope, 1964, 41).

131 Leave a comment on paragraph 131 0 2. Line numbers for Pope and Chaucer’s respective versions are inserted in the text.

132 Leave a comment on paragraph 132 0 3. ‘Joan’ is an inappropriately English, and so even offensive, form of the name. As `Jeanne’ is a preferable version and the one found in Voltaire’s text, that is what will be used for the rest of this essay.

133 Leave a comment on paragraph 133 0 4. References here are to pages (no line numbers available).

134 Leave a comment on paragraph 134 0 5.  Verrcruysse’s discussion of the versions appears to give some standing to the Jeanne-ass encounter, and he holds that the change from Conculix to Hermaphrodix, on the basis that the former seemed offensive, is quite late.

  • 135 Leave a comment on paragraph 135 0
  • [1] The original edition of 1727 opens with the lines:
    Women, tho’ nat sans Lecherie,
    Ne swinken but in Secrecie:This is our Tale is plain y-fond,
    Of Clerk, that woneth in Irelond. (See Pope, 1964, 41.)
  • [2] Line numbers for Pope and Chaucer’s respective versions are inserted in the text.
  • [3] ‘Joan’ is an inappropriately English, and so even offensive, form of the name. As ‘Jeanne’ is a preferable version and the one found in Voltaire’s text, that is what will be used for the rest of this essay.
  • [4] References here are to pages (no line numbers available).
  • [5]  Verrcruysse’s discussion of the versions appears to give some standing to the Jeanne-ass encounter, and he holds that the change from Conculix to Hermaphrodix, on the basis that the former seemed offensive, is quite late.


136 Leave a comment on paragraph 136 0 Chaucer, G. 1988. The Riverside Chaucer, gen. ed. Larry D. Benson. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

137 Leave a comment on paragraph 137 0 Dryden, J. 1900. Essays, ed. W. P. Ker, 2 vols. Oxford, UK: Clarendon.

138 Leave a comment on paragraph 138 0 Haywood, E. and W. Hatchett. 1733. The Opera of Operas; or Tom Thumb the Great. London: Rayner. Reprinted in Selected Fiction and Drama of Eliza Haywood, ed. P. R. Backscheider. Women Writers in English 1350-1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

139 Leave a comment on paragraph 139 0 Fielding, H. 1970. Tom Thumb and The Tragedy of Tragedies, ed. L. J. Morrissey. Edinburgh, UK: Oliver and Boyd, 1970

140 Leave a comment on paragraph 140 0 Pope, A. 1962. The Poems, The Twickenham Edition, vol. 2, The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems, ed. G. Tillotson, 3rd ed. London: Methuen.

141 Leave a comment on paragraph 141 0 Pope, A. 1964. The Poems, The Twickenham Edition, vol. 6, Minor Poems, ed. N. Ault, completed J. Butt. London: Methuen, corrected reprint.

142 Leave a comment on paragraph 142 0 ‘Voltaire’ (= F.-M. Arouet). 1970. La Pucelle d’Orléans, Les Oeuvres Complètes, vol. 7, ed. J. Verrcruysse. Geneva, Switzerland: Institut et Musée Voltaire.

143 Leave a comment on paragraph 143 0 ‘Voltaire’ (= F.-M. Arouet). 1899. La Pucelle: The Maid of Orleans, trans. E. C. Dowson (based on W. Ireland’s version), 2 vols., vol. 1. London, Lutetian Society; vol. 2, Internet Archive, http//:archive.org/stream/lapucellemaidofo02voltila.

144 Leave a comment on paragraph 144 0 Warton, T. 1775-81. The History of English Poetry, 2 vols. London:  Dodsley et al.

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