- The Distaff Gospels: A First Modern English Edition of Les Évangiles des Quenouilles
A welcome companion piece to Madeleine Jeay’s 1985 edition of the late-fifteenth-century Les Évangiles des Quenouilles, this first modern English edition, by Jeay and McMaster colleague Kathleen Garay, is also an important contribution to our corpus of medieval texts in translation. Included in this edition are translations of two manuscripts: the Paris Manuscript: BnF fr. 2151 (attributed to Fouquart de Cambray, Anthoine du Val, and Jean d’Arras, called Caron) and the anonymous Chantilly Manuscript: Musée Condé 654, as well as a list of translations of names in the texts, an extensive introduction, a note on the text, illustrations, six appendices, a select bibliography, and an index.
The ‘distaff’ of the title is the rod – or ‘staff’ – from which yarn is wound onto a spindle. In figurative terms, it is the mechanism by which the thread of the oral narrative – a collection of folk wisdom (or ‘gospels’) told by a group of peasant women (the evangelists of the title) – is spun into a written text by the male narrator, an unidentified cleric. The systematic displacement operated by this framing device (literal to figurative, oral to written, female to male, craft to art, personal to public, occult to open) also serves, as Jeay and Garay observe, both to situate The Distaff Gospels in a narrative tradition and to distance them from it. It is this narrative irony – what Peter Haidu has termed the ‘aesthetic distance’ of medieval narrative – manifested here as parody, mimicry, and an ambiguous anti-feminism, that makes of what would otherwise be a collective cultural artifact (albeit a very productive one) a piece of lively (and sometimes raucous) social commentary. The narrator and the women engage in deep play, a medieval literary cock and hen fight. As Jeay and Garay put it, using a term borrowed from Laura Doyle Gates, the clash of the sharp and singular male pen and the ‘active and multiple [female] distaves’ – with, I might add, a good measure of scabrous content thrown into the mix – concretizes the workings of the ‘“active and multiple” text itself.’
Jeay and Garay’s translation is very much in keeping with both the playfulness and the subtlety of this practice. The deftness of their linguistic touch activates the multiple meanings, the ambiguities, the semantic possibilities of the text, and their extremely useful footnotes leave it open to further exploration. In fact, my only quibbles with the translation and its ancillary material are grammatical, not semantic: a misuse of the subjunctive (‘remains’ for ‘remain’), a certain imprecision (‘the distaff side’ given as the English equivalent of ‘tomber en quenouille,’ for example), and the truly unfortunate confusion of direct and indirect [End Page 232] discourse, which mars the ending of what is, in all other respects, a remarkable and carefully-crafted introduction.
The appendices – selections, in English, from The Decameron, The Romance of the Rose, The Fifteen Joys of Marriage, François Villon’s Testament, Christine de Pizan’s Ballad 26 and The Book of the Three Virtues, and On the Properties of Things by Bartholomew the Englishman – are delightful additions to the body of the text. The translations themselves (all either done or adapted by Jeay and Garay) are charming, viz. this, from Villon: ‘And the thighs, / Are thighs no more, but thighlets, / Flecked with spots, like sausages.’ Each text is clearly referenced and is introduced in terms of its relevance to The Distaff Gospels, be that structural (The Decameron), thematic (The Romance of the Rose), moralistic (The Fifteen Joys of Marriage), stylistic (Testament), or scientific (On the Properties of Things). These introductions are very useful, as is the inclusion of the texts themselves, although the length of some of the selections tends to promote a reading of the texts as texts and to diminish their illustrative function. In other words, one tends to get involved in the texts themselves and to forget that one is reading them in terms of...