The Codpiece and Other Conversational Bits

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I am guessing that most of you reading Morris House: Backstage are students – which is why in the past I’ve generally refrained from typing up an entry—until today. You hear me prattle away all too often in classes, so do I really need to inflict further punishment on you in the form of a blog?

Yes, I do. Yes. Today, I really need to break with convention, if only to let you in on the interesting kind of discussions I sometimes have with authors after their readings on campus. Michèle Plomer and Anne Fortier, who spoke at Morris House Reading Series this past week, are two of the more lovely and engaging writers who have visited us. As the discussion over supper proved, they are also dynamic conversationalists.

And it all started with the codpiece.

Wait – let me back up a little. It actually started when I broached a conversation related to feminism (no big surprise there for any student who has suffered through a class with me. That’s a little like acknowledging the sky is blue). We were at The Lion’s Pub. Yes, that’s right: we transitioned from feminism to codpieces over canned pop and other forms of nourishment as only one can find at The Lion’s Pub. And yes, we did not order beer. So we can’t displace responsibility for the conversation that ensued by gesturing towards the effects of alcohol.

Upon my broaching the topic about feminism, Plomer remarked upon the fact that, whatever contemporary challenges inherent in being a woman in North American society, the best era for women is unquestionably our own. Women have never had it better (even if we could still have it better). Fortier had stepped away from the table briefly and returned at this moment. In that engaging style she has, she observed that fashion for women was once so constrained and uncomfortable:  tight corsets and layers upon layers of clothing that rendered it difficult to move with any sense of ease. Whatever one may think about high heels (I love them! Did I say that out loud?) and other fashion currents, she added, we’ve come a long way, baby.

I agreed, but I mulled it over before adding playfully that I thought more men might consider wearing high heels. After all, it makes for a very handsome leg. And, once upon a time in eighteenth-century Britain, didn’t men once wear high heels? Powdered wigs? A little rouge? Très chic. What a disappointment that they’re restricted in their fashion options now.

This was the moment that Fortier’s research for her novel, Juliet, surfaced in the most fascinating way: codpieces. She explained (if I remember correctly) that English men of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had to wear codpieces, since their stockings stopped short of their genitals and their jackets or doublets became shorter and shorter—kind of like the 1960s mini-skirt. Handsome legs indeed.

If, however, a 1960s woman actually wore undergarments below her mini-skirt, our Renaissance man did not wear anything below his doublet. There was therefore an increased risk of—how shall I put this?—an increased risk of flashing his private parts. The real equivalent in the 1960s, then, would be a woman’s cleavage, with similar risks if she had burned her bra in protest marches.

And this brings me to the codpiece—the device invented to cover a man’s genitals as the doublet became … far more cost-effective in terms of the quantity of fabric used. Fortier pointed out that their costume was quite practical: they could relieve themselves without going to great lengths to undress. Still, they needed something to protect their anterior parts as they also rode horses and engaged in other martial activity.

And so the codpiece was born. But, after its birth, it became increasingly ornate and, quelle surprise, took on greater and greater dimensions to suggest, of course, the greatness of the dimensions of the very body part it was protecting.

Fortier and Plomber were, by the way, just as engaging during their presentation on Wednesday afternoon. In a couple of weeks, we’ll be posting the video of their talk. You won’t be disappointed by what they had to say—even if they didn’t talk about codpieces.

– Linda Morra

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A Show of Hands

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Reason, the ability to use tools, and opposable thumbs are, possibly, what separate us from the animals. If my cats suddenly develop any combination of these, I’ll either have fewer broken lamps or some sort of coup d’cat on my hands. That aside, how often do we think about our hands, really? Each one has nineteen bones and a network of muscles and tendons (and one opposable thumb each) which allow us, amongst a myriad of tasks, to thread a needle, write a book, play piano, and share language. Hands are remarkable products of evolution and part of the reason humankind has been able to get this far without the cats taking over.

This little diatribe leads me, by way of fingers on a keyboard, to articulate some thoughts about our most recent Morris House Reading Series guest, author Frances Itani and two of her novels. Recipient of more awards and honours than my word count will allow, she is, of course, a very fine author and was kind enough to read from two of her novels: Deafening about of a young girl who, in the years leading up to the Great War, loses her hearing, and Requiem, which, at its heart, is the story of a family coming to terms with the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Now, I am compelled to mention that, as with previous Morris House author, Katrina Best, I didn’t have much time to get caught up on the material beforehand. Still, I stuck to my resolution not to get in a state about it, so I took a seat, folded my hands, and listened closely.

Itani’s chosen excerpt from Deafening was about a young girl named Grania, who, in lieu of her voice, struggles with sign language and the outsider status her difficulties involve. Itani’s reading from Requiem was about a father and son, outsiders in their own country, and a ritual of practising Beethoven on a plank of wood in lieu of a piano. What struck me about these two passages, side by side, was the intense emphasis on hands and fingers as tools of voice and tools of art. Requiem bore a particularly brutal poetry with images of fingers bearing down on dry unrelenting wood or the sharp, mending tug of needle and thread on a split thumb. Deafening’s imagery, although less harsh, was no less effective in its description of the physicality involved in shaping each letter, each word by hand:  an act of will and persistence to find a voice and be heard. Both novels share in common a raw and beautiful nerve, a tether from mind to hand to page.

Writing is a labour both mental and physical. According to Itani, Requiem alone took four years to complete. The characters in Requiem and Deafening, Itani insisted, are not based on specific people, but it’s not unfathomable that they were crafted in very personal spaces in Itani’s life: she was and is intimately acquainted with people affected by deafness and the Japanese internment.  It’s not difficult to imagine her fingers guiding a pen or dancing across a keyboard, tapping out a kind of symphony, each letter a note, each note a letter to those people, acknowledging and amplifying their voices. I’m no novelist but just writing this humble blog entry requires a reasonable effort–especially if I use jokes (more so, if they’re meant to be funny). I’m a fairly new writer, still raw, still trying to find a voice.  If I’m to say anything worthwhile and be heard, Itani reminded me I need to keep my fingers moving because some stories are relentless and demand to be told. That being the case, I may need to keep the cats and their little needle claws out of here. They’re also pretty demanding and if they can figure out this computer the next blog post may be some sort of Catnip Manifesto.

-Jeff Parent