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Dialect Proverbs
Women? Witches who lead you to the gallows
To be used for love and child-bearing
La fèmmene fasce la forche e u uòmmene se mbbènne
[Women get the gallows ready and men get strung up]
(Northern Puglia)
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

Women mean trouble”. Cruel plot, no-holds-barred location. It brings to mind the main square all set up for some big celebration, the seething crowds, excited and bloodthirsty, and the poor husband making his way to the gallows, where the wife, perfidiously satisfied, is putting the last touches to the structure she has just finished setting up. It’s a crude image, taken from the gallery of female figures that populate Apulian proverbs: a very particular one, however.

Proverbs reflect the (numerous) vices and the (few) virtues that humankind possesses, so we find people of differing characters: the conman and the ingenue, the servant and the master, the scrooge and the spendthrift, the winner and the loser, the grasshopper and the ant, the wolf and the lamb… as far as men are concerned. For women it’s different. There are no astute women and ingenuous ones, domineering women and oppressed ones, perfidious women and mild ones, witches and fairies; only (or almost only) astute women, domineering women and perfidious women. Witches. And their relationships with men could not be more conflicting.

To rebuild the picture let’s run through a few of the other proverbs, again from the Bari area: there are very few women who have any admirable qualities:

Le fèmmene sò ccome a le melune / oggne e ccìinde n’acchie iune

[Women are like melons / only one in a hundred is any good].

In reality they are all very cunning:

La fèmmene è nnate prime du diàuue

[Woman was born before the devil]

and use their most powerful weapon – seduction – to damage men. With their beauty they conceal the vices of their heart:

La fèmmene iè ccome la castagne / da fore iè bbone e iìnde tène la magagne

[Women are like chestnuts / lovely on the outside but inside full of hidden flaws]

and they have immense power over men because they make them lose control of themselves, as if blind drunk:

Fèmmene e mmìire lèvene u gedìzzie o u uòmmene

[Women and wine cloud men’s judgement].

Men must fear women’s kisses, because by this means they intend to take advantage of their affections:

Fèmmene e peccenìnne se vàsene aquanne dòrmene

[Women and children should be kissed only when sleeping].

Beware the wedded state:

Iòmmene nzerate / mìinze nguaiate

[A married man / half doomed]

Ci pigghie megghière pigghie uà

[A man who takes a wife takes on trouble].

In fact

U prim’anne a ccore a ccore / U second’anne a ccule a ccule / U terz’anne a ccalge n-gule

[The first year is all heart / the second all flesh / the third she kicks your ass].

And so how should a married man behave? He has two strategies to choose from, one for the little woman at home and one for other women. If the wife is not satisfactory, the rule is:

Quanne iàcchie la mala megghière / fave credìve e lliòne de père

[When you have a bad wife / fava bean soup and a beating with pear wood].

Can a man ever be happy with a ‘bad’ woman? No, he must follow the golden rule:

Cìinde pe fenèste / e iùne pe requèste

[A hundred women for your pleasure / and one to keep as a relic].

With this last the picture of man-woman relationships is almost complete. To give them an emblematic title we could call on an old saying which is even cruder, cited in the Diurnali by Matteo Spinelli da Giovinazzo (1258) and attributed to king Manfredi, no less:

Women are sacks

That’s right, they are good for filling up and emptying. They are to be used for making love to (though the most appropriate verb is a less noble one) and for childbearing.

Now we have a rather more complete picture of the consideration in which women were held, I bet that some of our female readers feel less horrified by the idea of that square, that crowd and those gallows. Or am I mistaken?

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