Michael P. Kuczynski

title.none: Jeay and Garay, eds., The Distaff Gospels (Michael P. Kuczynski)

identifier.other: baj9928.0705.012 07.05.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michael P. Kuczynski, Tulane University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Jeay, Madeleine and Kathleen Garay, eds. and trans. The Distaff Gospels: A First Modern English Edition of Les Évangiles des Quenouilles. Broadview Editions. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2006. Pp. 325. ISBN: $15.95 (pb) 978-1-55111-560-3 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.05.12

Jeay, Madeleine and Kathleen Garay, eds. and trans. The Distaff Gospels: A First Modern English Edition of Les Évangiles des Quenouilles. Broadview Editions. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2006. Pp. 325. ISBN: $15.95 (pb) 978-1-55111-560-3 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Michael P. Kuczynski
Tulane University

The Middle Ages have this in common with our quirky relatives and neighbors: they're both like and unlike us. For all our academic posturing about the alterity of medieval people and attitudes, scholars today are becoming aware of how much the modern age owes to the Middle Ages--reading habits, for instance, and an interest in the political uses of torture.

This book enriches our awareness of modernity's double relation to the Middle Ages. Les Évangiles des Quenouilles is a fifteenth-century French compendium of popular wisdom, presented as the discursive conversations over six winter evenings between several old women, assembled to do their spinning. Their words are recorded by a shadowy male secretary and offered, in mock-academic fashion, as alternative "gospels": good news for those seeking reliable advice on a wide range of matters sexual, medical, religious, and social. At several points it is implied or stated explicitly that the knowledge being dispersed is "secret"--that is, the purview of women alone. So it is ironic that the text is bound to become better known by way of this very readable, facing-text translation, the only English version since the one printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1510.

The text exudes otherness. It is a hodgepodge of strange instruction--on how to ensure the faithfulness of husbands (put dog hair in their ears), the dangers of urinating against monastery walls (apoplectic seizure--or at the very least, gallstones), and the value of facing the moon while playing at dice. Within, through, and beneath the 250-odd folk beliefs assembled in The Distaff Gospels, however, run a set of concerns that are at times also contemporary. I fail to agree with the editors, Madeleine Jeay and Kathleen Garay, that the text deserves more than casual mention alongside the Canterbury Tales or the Decameron. (The Gospels is similarly a "framed" narrative.) Nevertheless, like two works that appear excerpted in this volume's appendices, the Roman de la Rose and Bartholomew the Englishman's On the Properties of Things, the Gospels reflect certain medieval dilemmas that, centuries later, we have yet to resolve: for instance, conflicting male attitudes toward women, the resultant treacherous relations between the sexes, and an obsession with reducing experience to its constituent parts, while insisting at the same time that it remain integrate or whole.

As Jeay and Garay explain, the Gospels were an evolving or "open" medieval text, an omnium gatherum that took shape by accretion, but which became enshrined in two deluxe copies intended for aristocratic readers: Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris MS fr. 2151, the text's long version, and Musée Condé, Chantilly MS 654, the short version, from which the longer text grew. (Jeay and Garay give the longer, more interesting text first. The Old French of both is that of Jeay's standard 1985 edition.) Besides de Worde's 1510 printing--a few of its woodcuts are reproduced here--there were several late-fifteenth century continental incunables and sixteenth-century adaptations in Dutch, German, and Occitan, attesting to a high level of popularity with late-medieval and early modern readers.

The immediate interest of the text for us is anthropological. The lore about sex, childbirth, and wild animals, for instance, provides valuable insights into the concerns of an older rural culture and the nature of medieval love and fear--the manifold ways such emotions become fossilized in minute beliefs about persons, places, and things. At first, there seems to be something to be learned from The Distaff Gospels about what today is called "alternative" medicine, the palliative use of herbs. Much of this material, however, slips over into the realm of superstition or practical magic, such as advice on using herbs on Midsummer's Eve to enthrall a potential lover. (The culinary instance on page 159 is noteworthy given euphemistic references elsewhere in the Gospels to lovemaking itself as "eating soup with Venus.") There are also numerous examples of para-religious practices, such as instructions on crossing oneself to ward off demons and on pacifying an abusive husband by slipping his shirts underneath the altar cloth before the Good Friday service.

For all its quaintness, however, it is too easy to dismiss such material as merely curious. As Jeay and Garay point out, some of the superstitious beliefs recorded in The Distaff Gospels are still with us, even if held by only a few (e.g. the idea that a shooting star portends a death, 185). More to the point, the material in the Gospels attests to a serious effort to understand the health of the body as connected with the wider world of nature, to explain and (when possible) to manage physical behavior by way of spiritual or mental practices, and to establish fairness and equality between men and women in marriage. All of these concerns or similar ones are current. When at one point the women's male amanuensis dismisses their advice as meaningless chatter and the reading of it as "a pastime for idle moments" (189), we have already been persuaded otherwise by much of the text itself. The material that deals with childbirth and the rearing and observing of children is poignant in a timeless way. For instance, Dame Ysengrine du Glay (Ysengrine the Joyous) notes, "When you see small children running in the streets on wooden horses, holding spears and dressed up as warriors, it is a sure sign that there will be shortly war and turmoil in the country," an observation that prompts (as with Scripture itself) a "gloss" by Perrine Hulotte (Perrine the Night Bird): "when small children play in the streets, singing and holding banners and standards, it is a sure sign of coming death" (97). Beneath the superstitious veneer of such statements, there is an acute awareness of infant mortality and an affection for and desire to protect young innocence because of its fragility, especially in an aggressive, male-dominated world. In the lament of Dame Gomberde la Faee (Gomberde the Sorceress) that her husband hasn't made love to her in nine months, no doubt because "he must be making his novena to some saint" (157), there is a touching frankness joined to what modern therapy might describe as an insidious form of denial--the use of laughter to evade bitter truths.

One of the striking things about these moments in The Distaff Gospels is that they occur in the midst of trivial ones. One minute a speaker is discussing the differences between how a man treats his male and female offspring, and in the next, the sort of weather we're in for when hens gather under a shed. Introducing the text, its editors give a lot of attention to such matters as irony and antifeminism, both of these obvious features of the Gospels, and the persona of the text's fictional scribe, which its author spends little time developing. Instead, something more expansive might have been said about the Gospels' variegated rhetorical patterns (within their strict hexameronic structure) and their frequent broad shifts in tone, features that enhance the text's literary appeal. But it is difficult to fault the editiors for such oversights, which at any rate are beyond their aims. There is much more to admire than not in this version of Les Évangiles des Quenouilles: the clarity of the translation itself, the volume's expansive and very helpful footnotes, its several appendices (A-F) of related texts, its list of translations of the names of the speakers and other women mentioned in the Gospels, and its superb double index: of subjects (from abortion to Zoroaster) and of the names of the women speakers and their husbands. There is also a full bibliography. Jeay and Garay provide all the basic materials necessary for new scholarship on this fascinating work, both in its own right and in relation to a number of other medieval and early modern texts, in Latin and in various vernaculars.