On Strange Tastes and Old Antipathies
Updated: Feb 16
When I was sixteen, I pestered my mother into agreeing to buy me a pair of pale blue, chequered, bell-bottom trousers. Today I would not be seen dead in the same neighbourhood with them, but at the time I regarded them as a great acquisition. Tastes change over time and vary from place to place.
The very prominent cultural differences between the English and the French are a source of the legendary intolerance between these two great nations and cultures. This intolerance derives from different attitudes and abilities and has a great deal to do with jealousies and competitiveness, for example in matters of cuisine, fashion, hygiene and sex. In 2007 the British newspaper The Telegraph published a rather banal list of "30 reasons why we [the English] hate the French". These centred mainly on allegations that the French are rude, lack humour, are unclean, aggressive and, of course, produced that despicable French hero, Napoleon.
This dislike is nothing new and can be traced back at least to the Middle Ages and perhaps to Anglo-Saxon reactions to the Norman invaders who subsequently became the ruling class in England. And it can be found the following century in the Latin East. In 1191, during the Third Crusade, the French king, Philip II returned home from the Holy Land, leaving the Duke of Burgundy, Hugh III to represent him. The English and the remaining French troops were under the leadership of Richard I of England. In April 1192 while Richard was busy rebuilding the walls of Ascalon, 700 French knights who had been with his army were recalled to Tyre by Hugh and Conrad, the marquis of Tyre, both rivals of the king, who, according to the anonymous chronicler of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi were "burning with jealousy" at Richard's successes.* The chronicler gave a florid account of what the French knights got up to while in Tyre. His description was no doubt somewhat coloured by the English-French rivalry. Here is what he had to say on the behaviour of the French combatants:
"It would not be irrelevant to describe the occupations and activities with which they [the French] idled away their time there. For although it was thought that their devotion had led them to come to the Holy Land on a true pilgrimage, they had left the military life and indulged in the amatory life, with songs about women and bawdy feasting."
He goes on to describe the French knights as delighting in dancing girls, wearing luxurious dress and leading an "effeminate life", paying particular attention to their dress:
"...the seams of their sleeves were held closed with intricate lacings; their wanton flanks were bound by intricate belts; and to reveal the fitting of their pleated garment more clearly to onlookers, they wore their cloaks back to front, twisted round to the front of their body and compressed between their arms."
It seems that the roots of French flair in their attire were already well-established, though the wearing of their cloaks in this way is to me oddly reminiscent of those hospital gowns which open at the back, so that, in a similar manner ",..."things which were originally designed to cover the rear parts were forced to serve other parts of the body". It was certainly a somewhat unusual fashion statement! But then, so were my bell-bottom trousers.
*The quotations here are from Helen Nicholson, trans., The Chronicle of the Third Crusade. The Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, Aldershot and Burlington, 2005, pp. 295, 299.