Everyday Semiotics

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ladies and gentlemen

While still mired in heterosexism (a misogynistic heterosexism at that), "The Decameron" (1353) includes a fair amount of gender bending

Turning first to the recurring character Calandrino, who in IX.3 is convinced by his mischievous friends that he is pregnant. The metanarrative of course is that men do not get pregnant; Calandrino, however, is a dunce and superstitious too, and never guesses any of the jokes played on him, least of all this one. The punchline of the tale is a little inscrutable:
"Alas! It's your fault, Tessa. You always lie on top. I told you how it would be."
I say inscrutable because Calandrino ostensibly refers to a superstition about sexual positions. The question is whether in 12th century Florence such a superstition obtained, or whether Calandrino is inventing his own superstition.

If, in the primitive worldview, femininity is tantamount to homosexuality, then we have a clever tale in II.3. The daughter of the King of England travels in disguise as an Abbot of the church -- for reasons not altogether very clear -- seducing a young Florentine along his/her way to Rome.
the Abbot laid a hand on his chest and began to touch him as girls touch their lovers. This greatly astounded Alessandro, and he began to think the Abbot was a person of unnatural tastes.
[...]
Alessandro laid his hand on the Abbot's chest, and found two round, firm, delicate woman's breasts, as if carved out of ivory. When he touched them and realized the Abbot was a woman, he stayed for no further invitation
Zinerva passes as a man to regain her husband's trust and restore her own honor in II.9, ultimately bearing her breasts to end the charade.

The bearing of breasts as a declaratory statement has a third counterpoint in II.8 where a lady tears open her dress and accuses the Count of Antwerp of trying to rape her.

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