To Try Oneself at Sex Between Two Essais
'The Crooked (Wo)man Doth It Best'
Montaigne is known for three things: his enduring 'bromance' with Etienne de la Boétie, a passionate plea in defense of the American Indians and an early and firm denial of the existence of witches. The latter is found in book III, chapter XI 'Of the Lame and the Crippel' (from John Florio’s 1603 English translation), a chapter mostly known, unsurprisingly, for this very defence of sorceresses.
In late sixteenth century France, there were mass reprints of the infamous medieval inquisitor’s summa, the Malleus Maleﬁcarum along with the lofty minded jurist Jean Bodin’s work On the Demon-Mania of Witches. Finding himself in a very delicate situation, Montaigne had to be very astute. Hence, he could not - unlike in his case for the Natives - develop his argument straightforwardly and lengthily. Rather Montaigne, in chapter XI of Book III , makes use of a parallel between the question of the existence of witches and another widely held belief during the Early Modern Period: 'the lame doth it best'. Since the witches' case has been thoroughly discussed by now, I wish to examine the other side of the coin and see what is said about the lame in the Essais and in a wider context.
The inquiry starts with a jest about the lame woman myth, suggesting that Montaigne ﬁrst thought of far-fetched explanations — very much in the vein of the medical discourse of his time — for her peculiar aptness at 'Venus sports': 'I would have saide, that the loose or disjoynted motion of a limping or crooke-backt Woman, might adde some new kinde of pleasure unto that businesse or sweet sinne, and some un-assaid sensuall sweetnesse, to such as make triall of it'. He was not the only person to suggest that the 'loose and disjointed motion' of the lame added something special to her voluptuousness: abbot Pierre de Bourdeille or Brantôme, tells us in the Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies that men can revel in 'some sort of movement and motion' unlike the common sort. Moreover, the lame woman myth was seemingly widespread at the time: Montaigne claims he heard it as a popular saying in Italy and Pierre de Bourdeille heard it at the court in France.
As any other proverb, it had to ﬁgure in Erasmus' impressive collection called the Adagiorum Chiliades or Thousands of proverbs (about 4 000 proverbs with commentaries). Thus, Montaigne went to the source of this humanist knowledge and learned that the myth was already present in Greek folklore. However, through time the myth underwent an odd yet interesting change from its original version. In Ancient Greece, 'the crooked doth it best' referred to the crippled males which were kept as sex slaves by the Amazons: '...and make onely that use of them, that we in our World make of our Women'.
The crooked males would ironically be better at it for they were kept from doing anything else. Obviously, this casts a shadow over any biological explanation of the phenomenon and we can reasonably assume that Montaigne paraphrases the remaining part of Erasmus’ explanations, that he himself drew from Aristotle's Problems, with the same touch of antiphrasis and is a good example of Montaigne’s usual irony and his contempt towards Aristotelian science:
..but I have lately learnt, that even ancient Philosophy hath decided the matter: Who saith, that the legs and thighs of the crooked-backt or halting-lame, by reason of their imperfection, not receiving the nourishment, due unto it followeth that the Genitall parts that are above them, are more full, better nourished and more vigorous.
So, as any good humanist and philosopher, Montaigne starts out by separating what comes from commonplace ideas and what is from the very nature of things. Whereas Aristotle had a ready answer to that problem, Montaigne goes straight to the core and argues that, regarding lame women’s sexual ability, early modern science is in no way more valid than gossip, or even that science may be shaped by gossip. Note that this chapter began by a lengthy discourse concerning the unreliability of our knowledge. Montaigne tells us that knowledge fails humanity because we are always ready to believe that which we do not understand, even more so if a good deal of imagination is involved in the demonstration. We generally prefer being tricked rather than make any eﬀort towards true science. Nowadays, even for our skeptic philosopher, the lame woman retains a voluptuous 'je-ne-sais-quoi'. This is where Montaigne’s philosophy may seem quite postmodern at times: the later Essais — the third book was ﬁrst published seven years after the original work — often advocates the use of self-suggestion to harness new sensations. All this about the lame woman’ sex prowess serves to prove this point. Nothing should prevent the use of unfounded beliefs - if they are harmless - to improve experience, and the same goes for literature or poetry.
Montaigne thinks that we should in fact make use of them every time it benefits us, (especially when it may re-enhance the watered down pleasures of old age). Thus, wise skepticism, rather than an end to knowledge and a way to attain wisdom, can be an incentive for fully-ﬂedged hedonism:
For, by the onely authoritie of the antient and publike use of this word or phrase, I have heretofore perswaded my selfe, to have received more pleasure of a Woman, in that she was not straight, and have accompted hir crookednesse in the number of hir graces.
It was generally thought, in sixteenth century France, that not only did the lames do it better, they also did it more often. For instance, there was a lame woman famous for her lubricity in Montaigne’s time: Catherine de Lorraine, more commonly referred to as Madame de Montpensier, figured as a symbol of the scheming, ultra-catholic nobility close to the Guise family during the reign of Henry III. She became a favourite prey for protestant polemicists since everyone knew about her many aﬀairs.
The chronicler Pierre de l’Estoile tells of a leaflet containing the 'personal library' of Madame de Montpensier. Among other fictional books, we may find, between Duchesse d’Uzès' Leçon de Fouterie ('A Lesson On Getting Laid') and Madame de Nermoustier's Un Répertoire des Proportions des Vits Françoys avec les Grands Cons de Lorraine ('A Catalog of French Dongs along with Lorraine’s Great Cunts') one may ﬁnd Madame de Montpensier’s own contribution: Le Moyen de Besogner à Cloche-Pied à Tous Venans ('How to Screw the First Person who Comes Along on One Leg') . Such was the attractiveness of the lame that she could obtain sensitive information with the use of her charms. L’Estoile later quotes another satiric stanza stressing in suggestive terms her skills as an agent:
Il n’est pas jusqu’à la boiteuse
Qui de la queue au singe n’use,
Pour son beau taint entretenir
Et faire en lumière venir
Les secrets du parti contraire.
[Even the lame woman nowadays
Is pulling over the monkey’s tail
To keep her nice complexion
And make come to light
The other party’s secrets.]
Nevertheless, not everybody fell to the hidden charms of the lame. Her ugliness did not prevent some from despising her. Brantôme tells of one brazen Gascon - southwestern France locals with a reputation for bragging, such as Montaigne boasted to be – who was condemned to death and yet cast off the limping woman who wished to save his life if he accepted to marry her. He preferred the gallows to the 'désplaisir et incommodité' ('uneasiness and inconvenience') he would suﬀer with such a wife.
Why did Montaigne write a chapter dealing at length with the lame woman’s reputation for being skilled in 'Venus sports' to attack mankind’s trust in science and to stand in defence of witches, that for which the chapter is still acclaimed today? Indeed, it was far too dangerous to address directly the witches issue, a 'hot topic' in every sense of the word. But the scheming, ugly, and yet alluring lame woman could be compared to a witch. Like the witch, the lame was regarded as an almost supernatural creature whose curse and sex cravings made her both an object of desire and of dread. A clever reader aroused by those bedtime stories would keep in mind the essential morals this chapter teaches us: 'When all is done, it is an over-valuing of ones conjectures, by them to cause a man to be burned alive'.
JEAN-NICOLAS MAILLOUX is from Quebec and is currently doing a Phd in Paris at Sorbonne-Paris-Cité on political speeches during the French wars of religion. He likes books (obviously), all things made out of wood, old manuscripts, cats and two, maybe three dogs. .