Jé Wilson charts the migration of the Lustucru figure through the French cultural imagination — from misogynistic blacksmith bent on curbing female empowerment, to child-stealing bogeyman, to jolly purveyor of packaged pasta.
June 13, 2019
In France in the year 1659, an almanac was published that contained a scene of a forge filled with women’s severed heads. Mass-produced as ephemeral booklets, almanacs were popular reading material in seventeenth-century Europe. Astrologists, physicians, and surveyors compiled them, and the old ones were recycled as wrapping paper or toilet tissue.1 They contained a digest of facts and entertainment, calendars, festival details, tide tables, exchange rates, and astrological predictions, as well as songs, stories, medical advice, recaps of recent events, and prints such as the one above, which could be enjoyed even by those who couldn’t read.
This almanac of 1659, now lost, featured the first appearance of a character named Lustucru, a blacksmith turned brain surgeon or “operateur cephalique”. In the later print above, he appears at right in the central trio of blacksmiths, his mallet upraised over a woman’s head, which he’s gripping with a pair of tongs. Other female heads swing from meathooks, waiting their turn. In the left foreground, two men drag a still intact woman to the forge; the words near her mouth say, “I won’t go”. The sign of the shop, hanging at upper left, displays a decapitated woman’s body above the words “Tout en est bon”, from the saying, “Une femme sans tête: tout en est bon”, meaning “A woman without a head: everything is good”. To make the message absolutely clear, the block of text encourages men to bring their difficult wives to this head doctor, where their brains will be reforged and purged of all screechy, angry, lunatic, obstinate, rebellious, willful, and lazy ways. Any woman with a mind of her own is guaranteed a graphically brutal straightening out.
As sexist satire goes, this is dark. Even darker is the fact that, as soon as the image appeared, the head-pounding blacksmith “became all the rage” in France.2 Publishers began to churn out stand-alone broadsheets of his image in order to feed a demand for cheap copies, and versions of him in his forge spread from France to Germany and Italy.3 An entire almanac calendar for 1660 was dedicated to Lustucru.4 He was written into the latest comic plays and poems, and his image was even stamped on tokens or “jetons” (metal coins used mainly as counters in the age before calculators). In today’s terms, he went viral.5
His name, Lustucru, comes from a slurring of “L’eusses-tu-cru?”, a stock phrase used in that period by theatrical fools, which meant, “Would you have believed it?” or in this case, “Would you have thought a woman’s head could be fixed?” According to the seventeenth-century French writer Gédéon Tallemant des Réaux, Lustucru was born from a desire for male revenge. In his Historiettes, a collection of biographical sketches completed around 1659, he says that the “médecin céphalique” who appears in the almanac of that year was drawn by an anonymous “joker” specifically in response to the Langey affair, a divorce case involving two aristocrats.6
This case had been winding its way through the French courts for two years and had just then reached a verdict amid a flurry of public gossip and titillation.7 The Marquis de Langey, by that time aged thirty-one, was accused of impotence by his twenty-year-old wife (she’d been fourteen when he’d married her), and she wanted to leave him.8 Both parties were forced to undergo humiliating physical exams, and in the second round, after hours of trying, the Marquis could not get it up in front of a jury of ten doctors and five matrons.9 His wife was granted the divorce.
Horrified at the nerve of this young dissatisfied wife, the anonymous artist of the engraving imagined a “brain surgeon” who could provide surgical redressing on behalf of all men for the public humiliations undergone by the Marquis de Langey. After some surgery, the wife would be put back in her place as a mindless, compliant entity who’d no longer have the will or gall to question her husband’s virility or wish for a better life.
Male anxiety regarding the growing influence and power of women was generally on the rise in France during the 1650s. Women had begun to gain some standing in the literary arts and were established enough to have been satirized as “les précieuses”, a type of clever woman who frequented Parisian salons, wrote books, and favored an elegantly refined (or, to other minds, affected and pretentious) speaking and writing style. In 1659, Molière staged his Paris debut of Les précieuses ridicules (The Affected Ladies), a short satirical play that mocks a pair of young conceited women who think they are too smart and sophisticated for their suitors. They are given their comeuppance and made fools of.10 Some of the hastily written plays in the year Lustucru first appeared featured both Lustucru and the précieuses, capitalizing on the popularity of both subjects.11
As the scholar Joan DeJean has noted in an essay on “strong women” in Early Modern France, the speculative novel Épigone, histoire du siècle futur (Epigone, history of the future century) was anonymously published the same year the almanac appeared. This novel was a parody of tales about heroic women and imagined a future controlled by a race of Amazons, terrifying women who “privilege the life of the mind, thereby making life for all ‘unhappy and prudish.’”12 Once vanquished, the leader of the Amazons is first lobotomized (“debrained”) and then beheaded. These futuristic Amazons were yet another satire of the précieuses.
The extreme violence of both the Lustucru imagery and some of these literary satires powerfully expresses “the tensions underlying seventeenth-century debates over new roles for women”, as another scholar of the period, Katherine Dauge-Roth, has put it.13 Entering a climate already hot with mockery and hostility toward learned women, Lustucru’s character became the perfect figurehead for those who believed that women’s brains were a threat to society. Unsurprisingly, the danger of a female takeover became the explicit subject of a new set of Lustucru-themed images that appeared on the scene soon after the almanac was published.
In a Bacchic frenzy, the women in the scene announce they will “give him a hundred strokes and after his death tear him to pieces and carry his devilish head everywhere as evidence of our courage”.14 The lesson in these new engravings is that the danger is real: if they put their heads together, women can crush men. As he succumbs to the blows, Lustucru warns his fellow men: “Help me quickly because without me you are lost.”15
In the few years following Lustucru's first appearance, the symbolic associations attached to the figure seemed to shift. The manner of his actions became just as pertinent as their goal: from the violent saviour of threatened men, Lustucru came to represent simply violence itself. In 1662, there was a violent revolt by thousands of French peasants in the Boulonnais region over tax increases imposed by Louis XIV. The event came to be known as the Lustucru Rebellion and the angry peasants were given or took for themselves the nickname Lustucrus. Over the next couple of centuries, Lustucru’s belligerent and menacing reputation further permeated the French cultural unconscious so that, by the nineteenth century, his name had become attached to a giant folkloric bogeyman of nursery rhymes and lullabies:
Do you hear in the plain
This noise that's reaching us here?
It sounds like the noise of chains,
Dragging on the pebbles.
It's the great Lustucru who is passing,
Passing by and will go away,
Carrying off in his knapsack
All the little children who aren't asleep.16
Branching out from kidnapping to catnapping, he emerges in another popular song of the nineteenth-century called “La Mère Michel”. Sadistic and grim in the manner of many nursery rhymes, the verses describe a man named Lustucru who steals an old woman’s cat, cooks it, and sells it to diners as “rabbit”.
This rhyme, with its cooking theme, forms the link to Lustucru’s twentieth-century rebirth. These days, if you google his name, you’ll be met with a brand of French pasta. In a surprising turn of events, Lustucru experienced a sudden makeover in the early 1910s when his name became synonymous with packaged egg noodles.
The logo and checkerboard design of the brand (which now sells other secondary staples in addition to pasta) may be familiar to grocery shoppers in France. Some might even be familiar with the original mascot, a jolly egg-shaped man named Pèr’ Lustucru (Father Lustucru), who began appearing on advertising posters in the 1910s, eager to sell premade pasta to French housewives.
This fellow with a bon vivant shape and a jovial face made his debut in 1911, shortly after the owner of the Cartier-Millon pasta factory in Grenoble launched a competition to create a new look and name for his egg noodles. The winning design was the blue checkerboard pattern still in use, while Lustucru was chosen as the new brand name for the pasta.
According to company annals, the Lustucru name came into being when Jean-Louis Forain, one of the winning illustrators, began singing the Mère Michel nursery rhyme during the banquet for the contest. Reminded, in a moment of whimsical kitchen humor, of a song from his childhood, Forain burst out with a musical salute to the grotesque chef Lustucru who cooks the cat of Mother Michel. His exuberant song resonated with the crowd and the owner. It was decided that same night that “Lustucru” should be the catchy new brand name for the egg pasta. Perhaps there was a sense that the name Lustucru connected the noodles to memories of childhood, nursery rhymes, homes, and mothers. Perhaps also, by that point in time, Lustucru’s name was already less threatening than nostalgic, a character feared only by children.
Whatever the motivating spark, Lustucru once again captured imaginations and became, two and a half centuries after he first invaded the scene, fully transformed from the brute of French folklore into a smiling and palatable figure. In a curious echo of his past role as a lobotomizing blacksmith, an early poster campaign for the pasta featured a basket of eggs which, when the imagery from Lustucru's sinister past is recalled, cannot help but bring to mind those baskets of female heads in the forge. But the new Lustucru would have been more interested in feeding those heads than beating them. One might argue that, as a promotional mascot, he was still trying to bend French women (and their purses) to his will, but at least he was no longer sadistic. The twentieth century saw him a reformed character, fixing pasta meals instead of defiant women. L’eusses-tu-cru? Who would have thought that his head could be fixed?
Jé Wilson is a writer who lives in New York. @jewilsn