Podcast 5: Blood-Filled Cucumbers, Honour, and Spanish Epics

Last week we promised you bloody cucumbers, and we’ve done our best to deliver. Danielle Bishop, who recently finished her MPhil in Medieval Spanish Literature, joined us to talk about ways of besmirching honour in medieval Spanish epic narratives, one of which was to fill a hollowed out cucumber with old pig’s blood and throw it at someone who has insulted you or your family. The stain it creates is a stain on your honour.

In particular we focused on Los Siete Infantes de Lara, or the seven princes of Lara. This is one of the earliest Spanish epics or cantares de gesta, and traces the legendary history of the  Lara family. As you can see from this illustration, things don’t end well for the eponymous characters:

leyenda_7_infantes_de_lara_13.jpg

Illustration of Los Siete Infantes de Lara. Engraving by Otto van Veen (17th century)

And here is the cucumber episode:

Perhaps more importantly: what on earth is going on with the tentacular demon in the background on the left-hand side? Absolutely terrifying.

You can find the full range of engravings at the British Museum website.

Like many epics, La Poema de Fernán González is all about honour. It involves corrupt priests, people switching places in prison, cross-dressing, and all sorts of other shenanigans! You can read it in Spanish here or there’s an English version, which you can get here.

We talked about some other ways to dishonour someone, such as giving white feathers to those who refused to join up in the First World War, or biting your thumb at someone. Neither Rachael nor Emily had any idea where these things came from, but luckily, the internet exists:

  • Apparently the white feather, which had been used since the 18th century, derived from cockfighting since the cockerel with white feathers was more likely to be poorly bred, and therefore more likely to lose. This idea was extended to those young men who had an exaggerated sense of self-preservation and didn’t enlist in the army. ArnoldBennettColliersWeekly
  • Thumb biting, it seems, was the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger in Shakespeare’s day, and may have been derived from an even more serious insult of ‘making the fig or fico’, ie. sticking one’s thumb between the fingers. It seems that a lot of scholarly work has been done on what it all means, but there haven’t been any concrete conclusions.

 

Feel free to leave a comment or get in touch if you have questions! If you want to read more about some of the things we discussed, you can check out the following:

Burt, John. ‘The Bloody Cucumber and Related Matters in the Siete Infantes de Lara’, Hispanic Review 50.2 (1982): 345-352

Camacho, Teresa. ‘Blood Vengeance and the Depiction of Women in La leyenda de los siete infantes de Lara, The Nibelungenlied and Njal’s Saga’, Journal of International Women’s Studies 7.4 (2006): 141-152.  

Hazbun, Geraldine. Narratives of the Islamic Conquest from Medieval Spain. New York: Palgrave, 2015.

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