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The Spinning Sow (1673)

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In this 17th-century Dutch engraving a team of pigs are shown spinning flax, while in the corner a woman — who’d normally be associated with the work — sleeps. Across the top runs the rhyme “Die met gemack sijn kost wil winnen // Die set sijn Varcken aen het spinnen”, which can be roughly translated as “He who easily wants to make a living / should put his pig to spinning”. Rather than a serious suggestion for female empowerment through porcine labour, we can almost certainly take this to be satirical in tone. The artist here seems most likely to be referencing, at least to some level of remove, a popular medieval motif of the “spinning sow”, an image with often distinct misogynist associations. As Malcolm Jones explains in his (excellent) article “Folklore Motifs in Late Medieval Art III: Erotic Animal Imagery” (in Folklore journal, 1991).

‘La Truie qui file’ was a very popular motif in Northern Europe during the later Middle Ages, especially with the carvers of misericords, but it appears also in manuscript margins, as a house/inn-sign, as well as in early prints, e.g. a South German example dated 1488 which is untypically-provided with a text which reveals that — in this instance at least — the application is misogynist: nowadays men have no decent shirts or trousers to put on as women no longer, as in former times, work at their spindles. This sloth brings immorality with it, and men, both married and single, are warned against prostitutes and bawds. Instead of looking for any good at their hands, one should observe these swine and learn from them. The spinning sow herself complains that flax has become dear as women no longer pursue their work but want to be men and masters. … With women on top, the world is turned upside down, in these wicked times in which we live, we should hardly be surprised to see a sow spinning and urging on her piglets!

In this way the print could be seen as a misogynist take on the popular “World Turned Upside Down” theme. However, we imagine the text at the bottom of the image might perhaps illuminate more, so if any Dutch speakers want to enlighten us in the comments it would be very welcome! Likewise for the related image below from the following year. There is almost certainly something going on regarding the Bernhard von Galen, the Prince-bishop of Münster, who was (be it coincidence or not) nicknamed Zwijnenbisschop (the Swine Bishop), on account of the famous export product of his principality, and also, perhaps, because it wasn’t too far a leap from the name of Bernhard to Berend to “beer” (i.e. boar / male pig). More on this and an ingenious “hidden pig portrait” of the Bishop here.

Anyhow, this was actually meant to be a relatively quick post on a striking image but we’ve ended (as is so often the case) being dragged down some unexpected rabbit holes, made the more long and winding perhaps by lack of Dutch skills (not to mention Medieval / Early Modern iconography) — so any help would be appreciated!

Rijksmuseum: Above / Below
Underlying Work: PD Worldwide | Digital Copy: No additional rights
Download: Right click on image or see source for higher res versions

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  • David Smith

    Can’t help with the Dutch language, but my-wife-the-spinner suggests that the pigs are preparing and spinning flax, not cotton. I couldn’t tell the difference but she doesn’t lie to me about important things, and it does make sense that flax would be more common in Northern Europe (where flax is grown natively) than cotton (which would be an exotic imported from Egypt).