Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Rabelais, Tutivillus, and the Devil's parchment in White-Jacket

"There is a story told somewhere of the Devil taking down the confessions of a woman on a strip of parchment, and being obliged to stretch it longer and longer with his teeth, in order to find room for all the lady had to say. Much thus was it with our Purser's steward, who had to lengthen out his manuscript sick-list, in order to accommodate all the names which were presented to him while we were off the pitch of Cape Horn. What sailors call the "Cape Horn fever," alarmingly prevailed; though it disappeared altogether when we got into the weather, which, as with many other invalids, was solely to be imputed to the wonder-working effects of an entire change of climate." 
Although he chooses not to specify where he found it, Melville probably got the story of the Devil's stretching parchment with his teeth from Rabelais' obscene account of the birth of the giant Gargantua:
Whereupon an old ugly trot in the company, who had the repute of an expert she-physician, and was come from Brisepaille, near to Saint Genou, three score years before, made her so horrible a restrictive and binding medicine, and whereby all her larris, arse-pipes, and conduits were so oppilated, stopped, obstructed, and contracted, that you could hardly have opened and enlarged them with your teeth, which is a terrible thing to think upon; seeing the Devil at the mass at Saint Martin's was puzzled with the like task, when with his teeth he had lengthened out the parchment whereon he wrote the tittle-tattle of two young mangy whores.  --Gargantua and Pantagruel
Footnotes in the 1807 London edition give a note from Du Chat by way of further explication, citing the Collection of Cato's Golden Sayings by Pierre Grosnet and offering the following lines of verse in translation:
“ Two gossips prating in a church,
The dev’l, who stood upon the lurch,
In short-hand, on a parchment roll
Writ down their words; and when the scroll
Would hold no more, (it was so full)
His devilship began to pull
And stretch it with his teeth, which failing,
He knocked his head against the railing.
St. Martin laugh’d, though then at mass,
To see the devil such an ass,
To think a parchment roll, or e’en a skin,
Would hold two women's chat, when they begin."
These Englished verses present the story as a vision of St. Martin and were reprinted as witty indictments of "female loquacity" in several early 19th century miscellanies, sometimes given as "from Rabelais."

Medieval versions often delegate the Devil's role to a subordinate demon named Tutevillus or Tutivillus.  From a modern anthology of Devil Stories, crediting Francis Oscar Mann, "The Vision of Saint Simon of Blewberry":
According to mediaeval tradition the devil has his agents even in the churches. In the administration of hell where the tasks are carefully parcelled out among the thousands of imps, the church has been assigned to the fiend with the poetic name of Tutevillus. It is his duty to attend all services in order to listen to the gossips and to write down every word they say. After death these women are entertained in hell with their own speeches, which this diabolical church clerk has carefully noted down. Tradition has it that one fine Sunday this demon was sitting in a church on a beam, on which he held himself fast by his feet and his tail, right over two village gossips, who chattered so much during the Blessed Mass that he soon filled every corner of the parchment on both sides. Poor Tutevillus worked so hard that the sweat ran in great drops down his brow, and he was ready to sink with exhaustion. But the gossips ceased not to sin with their tongues, and he had no fair parchment left whereon to record their foul words. So having considered for a little while, he grasped one end of the roll with his teeth and seized the other end with his claws and pulled so hard as to stretch the parchment. He tugged and tugged with all his strength, jerking back his head mightily at each tug, and at last giving such a fierce jerk that he suddenly lost his balance and fell head over heels from the beam to the floor of the church.  
Mann's tale of Tutevillus appears in The Devil in a Nunnery, and Other Medieval Tales.

Image Credit: Jeanne de Montbaston
As explained in the online entry for Tutivillus at Feminae: Medieval and Gender Index:
"Tutivillus is very popular on English misericords as he tempts women to gossip and then notes their chatter. Women were first included by Robert Mannyng of Brunne in his Handlyng Synne, and often the list is so long that the scroll has to be stretched. On a misericord in Ludlow parish church the infamous ayle-wife is delivered to Hell with the aid of the scribbling Tutivillus." --Feminae
Image Credit: Great English Churches / Ludlow

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