Years ago I retold the story below in John Keats’ letter of December 1819 to my then colleague Peter Caracciolo, an expert on fable, the Arabian Nights in particular. Peter, knowing that such stories always flow from the sea of stories, wondered where Keats had got it from.
My dear Rice,
As I want the coat on my back mended, I would be obliged if you will send me the one Brown left at your house, by the Bearer … If you do not see me soon it will be from the humour of writing, which I have had for three days, continuing. I must say to the Muses what the maid says to the Man---"take me while the fit is on me."
Would you like a true Story "There was a Man and his Wife who being to go a long journey on foot, in the course of their travels came to a River which rolled knee deep over the pebbles---In these cases the Man generally pulls off his Back. This Man did so; and his Wife being pregnant and troubled, as in such cases is very common, with strange longings, took the strangest that ever was heard of. Seeing her Husband's foot, a handsome one enough, look very clean and tempting in the clear water, on their arrival at the other bank she earnestly demanded a bit of it; he being an affectionate fellow and fearing for the comeliness of his child gave her a bit which he cut off with his Clasp Knife---Not satisfied she asked another morsel---supposing there might be twins he gave her a slice more. Not yet contented she craved another Piece. "You Wretch cries the Man, would you wish me to kill myself? take that!" Upon which he stabb'd her with the knife, cut her open and found three Children in her Belly two of them very comfortable with their mouth's shut, the third with its eyes and mouth stark staring open. "Who would have thought it" cried the Widower, and pursued his journey …
Ever yours sincerely John Keats---
I have just been reading Simon Goulart’s Admirable and memorable histories containing the wonders of our time. Collected into French out of the best authors (1607). What a collection! I must check if Jonathan Sawday found it before writing his study of ‘Renaissance Bodies’, for Goulart was a busy anthologist from all kinds of medical writings. Here are all kinds of horrendous stories of unrecognized pathologies, ghastly injuries, hideous executions, and nightmare pregnancies. It’s a kind of early modern Fortean Times. And, in their place, come his collection of purportedly true stories about pregnant women who just have to eat a part of a man that they happen to see:
There is no man almost living, which knoweth not some particular Histories of the extraordinary appetites of certaine women with child, for the which the learned Phisitions give a reason. We will report some Examples, to incite the reader, entring into the consideration of them and others that he shall call to minde, to honor GOD in so many wonders, without naming in particular the divers sorts of these Appetites, which are as variable as the countenances, & conditions of women that be with child. I have seene one who longing to bite a yong man by the nape of the necke, and for that she had forborne a little to satisfie her furious desire, she began to feele gripings and exteame paine in her belly. She therfore like a desperate woman leapes upon this yong man, gets hold of the nape of his necke, and bites him so sore, as he thought to have died of it.
L. Viues, in his Comment vpon the 7. Chap. de Cituit. dei. Chap. 25.
My Mother bearing mee in her wombe: an Appetit tooke her to eate Creveses [crayfish]. She sent sodenly to seeke some, and being impatient to have them washt and made cleane, she began to eate them rawe and alive, until that she had satisfied her desire.
Trincavelle. lib. 7. Chap. 5.
Of the meanes to cure diseases in mans body. A Woman of Nisues, beeing with Child, and seeing a young man, a Fuller of cloth bare legged, shee came so neere him, as with her teeth she laies hold of one of his Legges and carries away a peece of it. He was content shee should use him twise in this sort, but seeking to returne the third time, hee refused her and went his way. This poore woman a while after was brought in bedde of three children whereof two were alive and lusty, and the third dead. An other woman with Child longing for a Bakers shoulder, which carried her bread unto the Oven, she rejected all other meate and drempt onely of that. Her husband desiring to content her, wrought so with the Baker, as for a certaine some of money, he was content his wife should tast of that shoulder shee had so much desired. Hee had endured her teeth twise but she had bitten him of sore, as he would not endure a third charge. The woman Longing still, fell in Labour of three Sonnes, two alive and the third dead.
In a village not farre from Andernac a Towne seated upon the
Goulart goes on with more general instances of pica. I was struck by his opening remark that everyone knows a story of this nature. I imagine that this may be one of the many recorded motifs of folk story. Between Goulart and Keats may come somebody like
Perhaps one can hazard something about the story type. Obviously, it’s about long-suffering men and demanding women, but there’s the myth of Chronos here somewhere: the recurrent feature of the pregnant woman demanding to eat part of the man’s legs, and her unborn child suffering if she doesn’t get it, perhaps speaks of the disabling effect of fatherhood, the man who loses part of his strength to the unborn generation, and has to accept as much.
I have illustrated with a St Christopher by Dieric Bouts. I couldn’t think of a picture, but having looked at the array of St Christophers on the Web Gallery of Art, would now claim that the motif in painting is popular because it taps into the same feeling: the large adult with the weight of the world on his back is a burden of fatherhood idea, dressed up as religious. Mixed in with this is conversion: the giant was pagan or a servant of the devil, until he carried the child, whose preternatural weight and divine nature forced him down and baptised him. The mother is absent, but marriage and fatherhood, sacrifices and responsibilities, reforms the man.