De verrassende Middeleeuwen


Beware of the monster

Monstrous beast Chiceface

This woodcut is the first image still extant of a monster that haunted medieval literature. French fourteenth-century poems describe Chicheface (lean face) or Chichevache (lean cow) as a monstrous beast that feeds upon obedient wives. As the story goes, these were so scarce that the monster was constantly starving, while its fat counterpart, Bigorne, thrived on obedient husbands, an abundant food. The story is a cheeky warning not to be too nice for your spouse: don’t let them boss you around! Medieval audiences must have loved the story: many medieval texts contain in-passing references to the monsters that show their authors expected readers to know them, and English poets Chaucer and Lydgate also produced their own versions. Lydgate’s one was a theatre play that was performed with a décor representing the monsters, but the painted sheet did not survive. 

The woodcut produced to illustrate a broadsheet by Parisian printer Guy Marchant in the 1490s is therefore the first visualization of Chicheface that came down to us, but it was probably inspired by earlier images. The she-monster is scary, with its unassorted feet and sharp teeth, and in the poem in French below it, the woman laments: “farewell, good companions, take example on my life and follow your head [i.e. your will]. If your husband gets angry, just let him yell”. 

We may have forgotten about them today, but the two medieval monsters remained hugely popular in Western Europe until the 17th century: many engravings representing Bigorne and Chicheface have survived, that were probably made to decorate a home or an inn, and they even have survived in paintings on the walls and ceilings of the castles built around 1500 for two courtiers of the French King. If you visit one of them, beware of the monster!

Katell Lavéant

Further reading

Jones, Malcolm. “Monsters of Misogyny : Bigorne and Chicheface – Suite et Fin ?”. Marvels, Monsters, and Miracles. Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations by T. S. Jones and D. A. Sprunger. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2002: 203-21.

Castles of Villeneuve-Lembron (Auvergne) and Plessis-Bourré (Anjou)


Chicheface suis appelee [Paris] [Guy Marchant] [ca. 1495]. München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Einbl. IV b,1.

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