UNDERWEAR MYSTERY IN “THE DECAMERON”
Many years ago, when I had an honour – still being a student – to present my paper on certain medieval manuscript on a Very Serious Meeting of the art historians, the Very Serious Audience got themselves into a discussion: was it acceptable for a young aspiring scholar (i.e. me) to refer in her paper to the Internet sources?
Of course, that sounds funny today; I am now actually an editor of the quite respected (and well-indexed) international scholarly art history journal that is only published on-line. But that is a result of a change that occurred within past years, while the Very Serious Meeting that I refer to took place two decades ago. Back then indeed there was no easy access to proper scholarly publications online. So, what did I refer to, that confused the Very Serious Audience? Well, it was a digitalised medieval manuscript. My point – which, in fact, was accepted – was that a digitalised manuscript is just a primary source, which may be referenced to in the same way as it would be if I went to the library and got the book physically in my hand. I just now can do it without going to, let’s say, Paris.
Today all that is considered obvious – and I am glad it is! Digitalisation is especially important in cases of medieval manuscripts; they are not widely available, not displayed as are paintings and sculptures in museums. Meanwhile, the manuscripts are very important part of medieval visual culture; and finally, nowadays they are available online. On that regard, one of my favourite services is Gallica, containing lots of amazing illuminated manuscripts from Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. And they provide all of that in public domain.
So, today I would like to tell you a story about how the decoration one of the manuscripts helped me find mistranslations in Polish version of “The Decameron” by Boccaccio. And the whole thing is about… male underpants!
The manuscript, digitalised in Gallica service, has a signature Ms-5070 réserve – it is „The Decameron”, translated from original Italian into French. It is the oldest translation, completed by Laurent de Premierfait in 1411-1414. The manuscript was written in late gothic script called bastarda, by a scribe Guillebert de Mets (Metz), back then staying in Grammont in Flanders (he died after 1436). The book was most likely commissioned in the 1430s by the abbot of Saint-Adrien de Grammont, perhaps as a gift for Philippe the Good, the Duke of Burgundy. Anonymous illuminators who decorated this manuscript are called Master of Guillebert de Metz and Master of Jean Mansel.
I very much like „The Decameron” – this manuscript is beautifully illustrated, though the miniatures are not particularly bawdy, considering actual contents of the book. Of course I know the text in Polish translation; the most popular one, by Edward Boyé (1930) apparently turned “underpants” into “pants” in two novellas, changing the merit of the stories!
“The Decameron” is a book for pandemic times: it is set during the Black Death epidemic in the 1340s. Seven young Florentine ladies and three gentlemen (“yet not so young that the age of the youngest of them was less than five-and-twenty years” – all the citations here come from John Payne translation) decided to leave the city taken over by the disease and to seek for safety in the country. To pass time during ten days of their stay, they entertained themselves with various stories: each of them telling one story daily. Together that sums up to 100 short stories.
The fifth story of the eight day summary reads: “Three young men pull the breeches off a Marchegan judge in Florence, what while he is on the bench, administering justice.” It is thus a story of a practical joke: we may read that two friends pretended to be quarrelling before the judge, each pulling the skirt of his robe. Meanwhile, the third joker “without being seen of any, crept under the bench and posted himself immediately beneath the judge’s feet.” Then, while “the judge stood up and leaned towards” a prankster „thrust his hand between the crack of the boards and laying hold of […] galligaskins by the breech, tugged at them amain. The breeches came down incontinent, for that the judge was lean and lank of the crupper.”
In original Italian text the garment that got pulled down is called “le brache”, correctly translated into English as “breeches”, though without knowledge on medieval fashion we may misunderstand this term as short pants. In Polish translation it reads literally “trousers” – and so we may miss the point of the true nature of the judge’s humiliation. The thing is that what was called “breeches” in the late Middle Ages was in fact underpants – and the miniature depicts it correctly, though spares us details about to what extent in fact the judge’s body was displayed.
In the Middle Ages men did not wear trousers: they covered their legs with hosen (resembling stockings) plus they wore simple underwear. The evolution of that piece of clothing made it smaller over the centuries: earlier men wore knee-long breeches (e.g. in the 13th c.), and later male underwear became short and tight, more similar to nowadays panties (in the 15th c.).
The other example of a similar issue is the second story of the ninth day, of following storyline: “An abbess, arising in haste and in the dark to find one of her nuns, who had been denounced to her, in bed with her lover and, thinking to cover her head with her coif, donneth instead thereof the breeches of a priest who is abed with her; the which the accused nun observing and making her aware thereof, she is acquitted and hath leisure to be with her lover.”
This time the male breeches had been confused with a nun’s veil; precisely: “Thinking to take certain plaited veils, which nuns wear on their heads and call a psalter, she caught up by chance the priest’s breeches, and such was her haste that, without remarking what she did, she threw them over her head, in lieu of the psalter, and going forth, hurriedly locked the door after her.” One may wonder why the veil was called “a psalter”, and that is another interesting aspect, probably lost for nowadays’ reader. In fact, it is a mistranslation, as “psalter” means the Book of Psalms, but in this case Boccaccio used „il saltero” (archaic version of „salterio”) which may also mean “a psaltery”, i.e. a string instrument: a fretboard-less box zither. It came in a triangular shape, often with cuts that in fact made it look like underpants! The veil was called after the instrument probably because of it’s shape – no wonder that the abbess could have mistaken her lover’s underpants for her own cloth of a similar form.
Again, the miniature in the manuscript shows precisely what kind of “breeches” did the abbess put on her head. We may also want to remember that medieval underwear was strictly male piece of clothing (on that see my previous post “Fight for the Pants”).
And this is why we should research both the text and the images when we deal with medieval literature! The illustrations of medieval manuscripts may help us understand what was the actual meaning (for contemporary readers) of the text we are researching. On the other hand, we have to remember that the translators of medieval vernacular literature living in the 19th and early 20th centuries often made choices that were aimed to conceal the real lewdness of medieval culture. It was simply considered too indecent (!) for nowadays readers – but that bawdiness is one of the reasons why I truly love the Middle Ages.