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The One-Eyed Monk Who Got an Eyeful: A Reading of the Second Tale of the Cent nouvelles nouvelles
Fein, David A.
MIRATOR 10:1 (2009)
This article explores various layers of meaning in a tale from the Cent nouvelles nouvelles, a collection of stories from the fifteenth century loosely modeled on Boccaccio’s Decameron, with particular attention to the psychological subtext. The article argues that the vulgar, obscene, and grotesque elements of this tale (typical of many in the collection) actually conceal certain patterns and preoccupations that are more problematic and complex than one might expect. A close reading focuses on key moments of the narrative, identifying underlying tensions and conflicts.
Introduction: Loosely inscribed within the tradition of Boccaccio’s Decameron, the Cent nouvelles nouvelles, a collection of tales dating from approximately 1460, each ascribed to a member of the inner circle of Philippe le Bon, Duke of Burgundy, inevitably gravitates to sexual topics— naïve cuckolds, adulterous wives, lecherous monks, lascivious women from all walks of life, acts of seduction, improbable feats of sexual prowess, unexpected pregnancies, impotence, castration, and other related topics. The deceptive simplicity of these narratives with their strong penchant for obscenity, cruelty, violence, and the grotesque, often disguises a surprisingly complex and revealing subtext related to male perceptions of female sexuality. The second tale of the collection proves especially rich in this regard. Curiously, despite its highly unusual content and its privileged position at the front of the Cent nouvelles, enabling it to carry out an important thematic function and to introduce narrative elements that will appear repeatedly throughout the collection, the second nouvelle has never attracted any significant critical attention.
A beautiful and gifted adolescent girl in London, the pride of a wealthy merchant and his wife, courted by many suitors, develops an alarming case of hemorrhoids. A midwife attempts various herbal remedies, but the problem only worsens. The parents then summon numerous physicians, but none is able to effect a cure. Finally an elderly, one-eyed friar, famous for his medical knowledge, is summoned to the house. The girl is positioned on her stomach, exposing the affected area, which the friar proceeds to inspect at great length and with great interest. The girl’s buttocks are then covered with a sheet, leaving only a small opening for the treatment. The friar inserts a tube through the opening in the sheet, and administers a medicinal powder. He then peers into the tube. At this point the girl turns around, and seeing the one-eyed practitioner’s face contorted by the act of intense squinting, she bursts into a violent fit of laughter, which subsequently provokes a powerful bout of flatulence that expels the powder from the tube into the friar’s eye, leaving him permanently blinded. He later attempts to sue the girl’s father, claiming that the incident has left him seriously disabled. The suit eventually reaches the London Parliament, much to the amusement of all involved. (The resolution of the case is not recorded.)