My cuckoo Valentine

As something of a corrective to the usual saccharine Valentine's Day fare, this week's video is on the word "cuckold":

The idea for this video came from my noticing that the first recorded instance of the word 'cuckold' was in the Middle English poem "The Owl and the Nightingale". Every year at Valentine's Day, medievalists like myself bring up the fact that Geoffrey Chaucer in his "Parliament of Fowls" invented the connection between the eponymous saint and the celebration of romantic love, but I knew I wanted to do something a little different, more surprising, and most importantly counter to the usual sentimentality of the season. So once I had the connection between the two medieval bird debate poems and of course the interesting etymology of the word "cuckold" (and the fact that the cuckoo plays a significant role in Chaucer's poem), I knew I had my subject. I had also been aware of the possible cuckold's horns background to the bunny-ears-in-photographs meme, so it was just a question of doing a bit more research into the history of the cuckold horns. And that's when I came across the wonderful capon theory!

The best source for this is Graber and Richter's article "The Capon Theory of the Cuckold's Horns" (see the the show notes for full bibliographic info). Amazingly, this regrafting of the spur to the head seems to be biologically possible. Graber and Richter tell of a 1929 article in the Journal of Heredity in which A.W. Kozelka performs and reports on just this procedure. Unfortunately I haven't been able to track down the original 1929 article (or the photograph it included) but if anyone has access to this I'd love to hear more about it. There are 16th century Italian references to this procedure as well, but unfortunately that's as far back as the evidence goes. However, there is a much earlier ram's horn reference to cuckolding in the late Greek Artemidorus (2nd century), so this would suggest that the theory that it's just a sarcastic reference to animal horns and virility is the real origin, which later perhaps inspired the practice of regrafting the spurs of the capon. As for the Actaeon story, Claire McEachern discusses this and the renaissance context for cuckoldry in her article "Why Do Cuckolds Have Horns?" It's probably not the original source for the association between horns and cuckoldry, but is a renaissance rationalization, and McEachern interestingly argues that cuckold humour and the various associations are a kind of comic defusing of the anxieties over the Protestant theology of election. No, really!

The main source for research on gesture in general (including the sign of the horns and the V sign) is Desmond Morris, who has published widely on the topic. I've listed a few of his books in the show notes, along with a few links to excerpts online. And if you want to read more about the Chaucer/Valentine's Day date question, I've listed a few articles and links in show notes. Suffice it to say there has been a certain amount of discussion of the topic. And though you may sometimes see it claimed that Valentine's Day has its roots in the Roman festival Lupercalia, sadly it doesn't appear to be true. It really is all down to Chaucer.

By the way, we've made a shareable, customizable, somewhat cheeky Valentine's Day e-card with the Horny Cock on it, which you can find at: -- feel free to share it in the spirit of Valentine's Day!

I mentioned that the "sumer" in "Sumer is icumen in" actually refers to spring. So says the excellent David Crystal as well (see the entry on "Cuckoo" in his book The Story of English in 100 Words, listed on the General Credits page). The term "spring" for the season in question isn't attested until 1547, with related terms appearing a little earlier: springing-time (1387), spring-time (1495), springing (1513), spring of the year (1530), spring tide (1530), spring of the leaf (1538). Before that the only other specific terms to refer to spring were references to Lent, part of the Church calendar, or forms of the Latin borrowing ver. Here's the relevant entries in the Historical Thesaurus if you want to look at more terms for spring.

For those keeping track, Oliver Cromwell was the repeat reference in this episode, last appearing in the Yule episode. Well, along with Chaucer and Shakespeare in the "Paddle Your Own Canoe" and "Loaf" episodes, I suppose.

I'd be interested to know how many people have heard the term "foolscap", and in particular if you knew it as the eggcorn "fullscap". When I was young I remember my teachers referring to long sheets of paper (legal?, A4?) as fullscap and short sheets of paper (smaller than letter size) as "halfscap". Please leave me a comment if you've heard of the word "halfscap". 

Finally, I'll leave you with another medieval cuckoo poem that I didn't mention in the video, the Old English cuckoo riddle, which revolves around brood parasitism. Here it is, first in Old English and then in a translation by Kevin Crossley-Holland:

Mec on þissum dagu     deadne ofgeafum
fæder ond modor;     ne wæs me feorh þa gen,
ealdor in innan.     Þa mec ongon,
welhold mege,     wedum þeccan,
heold ond freoþode,     hleosceorpe wrah
swa arlice     swa hire agen bearn,
oþþæt ic under sceate, ·     swa min gesceapu wæron
ungesibbum wearð     eacen gæste.
Mec seo friþemæg     fedde siþþan,
oþþæt ic aweox,     widdor meahte
siþas asettan.     Heo hæfde swæsra þy læs
suna ond dohtra,     þy heo swa dyde.

In former days my mother and father
forsook me for dead, for the fullness of life
was not yet within me. But another woman
graciously fitted me out in soft garments,
as kind to me as to her own children,
tended and took me under her wing;
until under shelter, unlike her kin,
I matured as a mighty bird (as was my fate).
My guardian then fed me until I could fly,
and could wander more widely on my
excursions; she had the less of her own
sons and daughters by what she did thus.