Main menu

The Sheep-biter, the Villain, the Politique, and the Piglet

How did it happen that two scholars working mainly on early modern French culture spent some time recently sorting through a collection of obscene and insulting words, mostly from contemporary English? Well, at the start of our session on ‘Renaissance Insults’, we had asked an audience at the Oxford Curiosity Carnival (September 2017) to write down ‘the worst words they could possibly think of’.

It was interesting to find an offering of many creative variants of the more traditional swearwords (‘shittard’, for instance); and that most of the suggestions included several words, as if one just wasn’t enough. In the Renaissance, too, insults were often strung together, though often more excessively (Rabelais’s lists of insults exceed fifty in some parts of his text). Other striking features of our insult haul included animals (donkeys, fish, and, in three cases, that much maligned and noble creature, the pig), and geographical references (one person bluntly wrote ‘Southerner’; another referenced Swindon). We also had insults in Italian and Korean, as well as one word in English that we had to look up (‘hooning’, which apparently means ‘loutish’, or ‘very drunk’ and is of Australian origin). All of this material gave us a pungent flavour of the linguistic and geographic range of insulting vocabularies available to an audience at the Ashmolean Museum in September 2017.

A memory that many language learners have is their first experience with the swearwords and insults of their target language: though it’s kind of silly, kind of fun, these words are important tools for getting by in an unfamiliar society. Before they spend their third year abroad, every university student of French would do well to know the diverse uses of the word merde (which among other things, even means ‘good luck!’). Similarly, to understand what society was like in the past, it is useful to know how people in past centuries experimented with being rude, silly, or just plain insulting. With this in mind, our aim at the Curiosity Carnival was to introduce our audience to a selection of insulting words in early modern English and French. We got our participants thinking about where these words came from, what they meant, how they were used – and what all this tells us about the Renaissance world. We also hoped to provoke thought about what we can learn about our own society from the insults used today.

Our workshop began with a sketch, taken from a sixteenth-century French text by Bonaventure des Périers, in which we played a scholar and a fishwife who have an angry disagreement over the price of fish. In the end, the scholar runs out of juicy insults and the fishwife wins the fight; we reversed the gender roles for this sketch, though, in order to challenge the misogynistic theme… The sketch was an opportunity to bring some of the insulting language of the sixteenth-century to life, and to discuss the social stereotypes that informed them.

This was followed by a brief discussion of why we look at insults in our work. Jonathan has worked on the word ‘villain’ as part of an exploration of social, moral and legal status in early modern Europe, while Emma works on politics, and was struck early on in my research career by the fact that politique (‘politician’) was used as an insult during the French Wars of Religion (c. 1562-98). We then passed round a goldfish bowl containing a number of early modern insults so that every member of the audience had one each, and we discussed as many as we had time for. Perhaps because of our interests, many of the insults pertained either to socio-economic status or to political identity (including politique and Machiavel). Crowd favourites seemed to combine the obscure and the absurd: ‘poltroon’ (coward) was popular, as was ‘sheep-biter’ (which meant something like ‘rascally harasser of women’). An English Renaissance insult that drew a wry laugh from our French participants was, well, the word ‘French’. Plus ça change.

Once the dust had settled, we looked over what our audience had anonymously offered us as ‘the worst possible insults’. Beyond the local and national references mentioned above, by far the most common form of insult related to genitalia, bums, and shit, and often all three together, with intensifiers such as ‘absolutely’. This was what we expected, and corresponded with our sense of the most popular Renaissance insults. Words like ‘cunt’, for instance, have been used in English for hundreds of years. We also had a number of insults that related to stupidity (perhaps with less variation than the amazing range we’ve found in the early modern period, from ‘fat’ and ‘niais’ in French, to ‘coxcomb’ in English), and a small but striking number of political insults (‘Brexiteer’, ‘rocketman’, ‘Theresa May but with less charisma’) that were revealing about our audience’s sympathies and frustrations.

It was essentially quite fun to read through the slips of paper that offered us such gems as ‘piglet’ and ‘eggfish’ alongside the swearwords we had expected (surely these weren’t the worst our audience could come up with…). Renaissance insults, too, were often fun, and used for comic purpose; they also represented a form of linguistic innovation in an age of particularly rich verbal experimentation. It takes some imaginative work to see how they have potential to cause real damage. As one participant at the Curiosity Carnival rightly pointed out, context is crucial in any judgment of how insulting an insult may be. Today, certain forms of sociability favour exchanges of otherwise offensive words in a spirit of camaraderie. There is fundamentally nothing new about this, as readers of Rabelais will know. But if our research has taught us anything, it is that what begins in some contexts as so-called ‘banter’ can be transposed – all too easily – into destructive forms of dehumanising hate speech. Our fishwife and the scholar trading insults back and forth may have ‘safely’ amused their sixteenth-century readers because no lasting mental or physical harm ensued, as far as we know. In a story of stereotypes, you can call your adversary a diabolical fiend and it can be funny. But when you put your books aside, and return to your daily business, in an age where words like diable could launch witchhunts… you’d need to pick your words wisely.

In preparing our ‘Renaissance Insults’ workshop, we were particularly keen to find out what, if anything, has changed about the kinds of insults we still use today. Of course this was hardly a controlled experiment, as we set the terms very loosely, and most of our ‘Renaissance’ insults came from printed and often literary texts, rather than from slips of paper containing the first mean thing to come to a person’s mind! We discovered though, perhaps inevitably, that some of our Renaissance insults have lost their power. In the sixteenth century ‘rascal’ was a serious slur; today it’s – well, quite cute.

We wondered what these similarities and differences between the Renaissance and the present day imply. The constancy of some themes (misogyny, stupidity) was striking. What does the continuing prominence of misogynist terms say about sexism today? Meanwhile, although many insults contained references to national identity, we noted the absence of racist insults from our Curiosity Carnival offerings, with some relief. What might that absence suggest? Does it imply that racist insults are nowadays considered more damaging than, for example, sexist ones, or rather that they are more damaging, so that our audience didn’t dare to even write them down? Was it that the spirit of our workshop was more in jest than in earnest, and racist insults are simply not thought to be funny? We had, though, asked our punters to think of the worst insults they could think of: might their answers in fact suggest they were not especially aware of racist language? More research would be needed to begin to answer such questions.

We work on the assumption that insults tell us all kinds of things about social structures, and participate in the formation of these structures by conferring or undermining power: examples from the early modern and the contemporary world often relate to the imposition of racial and gendered hierarchies. Insults show that language of all kinds doesn’t just reflect the world as it is: words do things. But words are part of a network of information in both verbal and non-verbal form. Staging insulting language in a number of ways, ‘live’ at the Ashmolean, reminded us that the words themselves are only a part of the story, or of the problem. Perhaps it is appropriate that participating in the Curiosity Carnival has both informed us, and made us more curious about the stories and problems surrounding (and created with) insulting language, past and present.