Ladies: salt your husbands!

Matthew Chatfield

Ranger reader Dave Larkin has been hot on the virtual trail of the salted pigeon story. Following up the tale he found some remarkable images of products from yesteryear showing little children putting salt on birds’ tails… and now he’s gone a step further, discovering this intriguing French woodcut from 1557:

Women salting their husbands
(Engraving, 1557, Bibliotheque Nationale (Estampes), Paris)

The caption reads:

Les femmes sallent leurs maris pour du doux les rendre gueris

The Ranger’s feeble French mangles this to:

Women salt their husbands to softly cure them

More accurate translations would be much welcomed! But frankly, the idea is pretty outlandish however you translate it. It looks as though the two chaps (yes, there are two of them in there) are putting up a bit of resistance, and possibly being locked into a kind of barrel, presumably in the salt-pork style to be kept over winter. The salt, in copious quantities, is being applied to the naked backside of the right-hand fellow, whilst his companion seems to have it poured onto his shoulder. What’s all that about?

UPDATE: A far better translation and a much more forthright explanation is provided in the comments below.

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

5 thoughts on “Ladies: salt your husbands!

  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Found this blog via a google search myself. Am currently reading “Doctor Thorne” by Anthony Trollope, published 1858. Contains the following usage:

    “Mr. Moffat had an idea that Miss Dunstable was not a fool, and that in order to catch her he must do more than endeavour to lay salt on her tail, in the guise of flattery. It was evident that she was a bird of some cunning, not to be caught by an ordinary gin, such as those commonly in use with the Honourable Georges of Society.”

    Nice, eh?

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Thanks so much for your explanation – it’s delightful reading. I was unable to resist using ‘cure’ because of the salting connection – but frankly, you’re a step or two ahead of me here. The image was contributed so I’m unaware of the original source, but I’ve asked my correspondent to let us know more.

    Reply
  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Hi Ranger:

    I forgot to ask where you found this? I’m trying to find a copy so that I can read the entire ballad. If it was in Kurlansky’s Salt: a World History (2005), darn! …the verses are illegible there.

    Reply
  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I should have pointed out that I was playing on the pun between gueris (to cure) and guerrils (warriors).

    So, Ranger, more than you asked for and/or possibly want:

    I am interested in this image because it is roughly contemporaneous with an academic ritual that seems to have spread during the Reformation (primarily in universities in Protestant countries). It was known as “salting” in England and other vernaculars. Milton’s “Sixth Prolusion” is understood to have been composed on the occasion of a “salting.” The “deposition,” as it was known in Latin, was performed after “matriculation” (upon matriculation, students took oaths that placed the “fresh”-men in the jurisdictional custody of the university and whatever “faith-based” qualifications that the crown or church had secured within the colleges’ foundations). The salting rituals involved the performance of burlesque verses and skits by senior class members that were designed to separate the incoming “freshmen” (this is the origin possibly of that designation, by the way) from the “mothers’ wit” of their parochial/provincial youth in preparation for the “brotherhood” of academic fellowship. It often culminated in a kind of mock communion or drinking game where the boys were given either salted beer or “cawdle” to drink depending on their weaknesses or strengths as extemporaneous satirists of their own modest origins. Martin Luther favored the rite because it removed the disciplinary order of academia by degrees from the solemnities of the church. In the place of the instruments of the Roman church, these rituals made use of instruments from other ordinary civic crafts (including things like the carpenter’s lathe and also tools from the kitchen) to confer what was often a painful kind of “dignity”. In other words, it imitated the craft guilds’ own imitation of the church’s rites of sacred investment in the fabric of the church. Think of the Flemish paintings from this period which situate the gospel stories in the milieu of the crafts of Antwerp, Bruges, etc. The “deposition” (literally, a preparation for burial–and rebirth) arguably persists in many hazing rituals practiced by university fraternities to this day. You can examine a famous German book on the ritual that is almost exactly contemporary (1580) with the “femmes sallant” image at the University of Mannheim’s website.

    So: there is a sense in the broadside that you have reproduced here, too, that the ladies are taking their men to “school” to make men out of them. Their men’s ordeal has sharper teeth here because it represents their manhood becoming fully dependent upon female authority (the reverse of the intention of the scholastic rite and the craft/church rites that it channeled).

    Coming back around to your original topic, I know that my mother was told by her grandmother in rural Iowa during the 1950s that she could catch a rabbit if she salted its tail. The idea there was that the rabbit would stop to lick the salt and become ready game for whatever my mother and her brother may have had in store for it! Mother’s wit. I wonder if the pigeon story is connected? (yikes! …but… Trafalgar Square and the lesson taught to some children by a famous nanny there in the face of an old woman casting salt crumbs?) “Tuppence, tuppence.” 😉

    Reply
  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    A better translation to capture what is being suggested in the couplet in question would be:

    The old ladies are salting up their husbandry
    To turn these softies into men with weaponry

    The idea is that the men need to be rendered like other fats in the flesh from a soft state into something hard, if you follow my drift.
    Thanks for posting an image of this delightful broadside. I was searching for it!

    The Ranger responds: Thanks T, for a proper translation – with rhyme and metre intact. Very deft, and much appreciated. Any more information, or indeed speculation, you have on the image, the text or the practice would doubtless be well received here.

    Reply

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