Let me tell you a story.
Once, in a time and place that now seems as remote and unfathomable as any long-lost Atlantis, I trained as a medieval musicologist. A rigorous and thorough preparation for a life very different than mine. That’s not the story. But that distant far-off place is where I learned this story, by reading the lines and what lies between them.
In a smallish town, many years ago, there lived a man called Noe. He had a wife and some married sons. There’s no point in asking his wife’s name – no-one remembers it. This town was perhaps a little licentious. On special occasions it’s possible that it could even have been described as libidinous. Noe – most assuredly a virtuous man – certainly thought so. Often he could be seen moping about and grumbling into his beard about the `youth of today’ and `sinks of iniquity.’
Evidently Noe wasn’t alone in his opinions, for after a few years of moping he began building a sizeable boat. The town being fairly well inland, it would be fair to say that this attracted some local attention. Noe told all who asked – and many did – that God planned on flooding the entire Earth and drowning everyone, since the youth of today were simply not up to scratch, the whole place was a sink of iniquity and thoroughly libidinous to boot. Only he and his family were to be saved.
It’s unclear whether Noe started out thinking that only he and his family were to be saved, or whether his sceptical reception from inquirers led him to this view.
His wife rolled her eyes and did her best to ignore the sounds of sawing and hammering. She did her best not to see the thick layer of wood-dust that settled on everything as fast as she could wipe it. She went about her business as usual, selling her goods in the market, meeting with her friends and sharing the news of the town. Perhaps she spent less time than usual at home, but in this she was alone within her family. For the sons had been roped into sawing and hammering, and the daughters-in-law were occupied with tending an ever-increasing menagerie whose yammering and clamouring threatened to outdo even the noise of construction.
And then the rains came. At first this was a welcome break in the dry season, a chance for the wells to be replenished, an omen of a good harvest free from drought. But they did not stop.
And Noe’s wife looked at the ark and at her husband’s barely disguised glee at the prospect of divine retribution.
The rains continued. People retreated to the highest ground within the town, to the rises, the hillocks, the roofs. All crowded together, people grew sick from strange illnesses and died, especially the very old and the very young.
Noe’s boat began to float.
And here is where the story diverges. In the usual version, Noe’s wife gets on board like a good little girl, leaving her friends, their children, her relatives and all to drown. On the ark, she floats for forty days and forty nights. Eventually one of my namesakes is released, disappears for a few days before flapping back with an olive branch.
But in some much later versions – plays enacted in England’s wealthier market towns in the later middle ages – the tale is told a little bit differently.
In one, Noe’s wife refuses to board the ark. Then, feeling the water at her feet, her courage fails her and she runs aboard.
In another, Noe’s wife refuses to board the ark. Her sons bodily haul her aboard and once there she mourns her friends’ drowning.
In yet a different version, she and her friends are gathered before the ark. She refuses to board unless they too are saved. Noe forces her aboard and leaves her friends to drown.
At the time these plays were performed, Noe’s wife was understood as a comic character – an example of the vice-filled, contrary wife. Her refusal to board the ark is meant to be funny. Whether through her own cowardice, or a lack of physical strength, her rebellion is so easily undone. But to me, peering at her this way and that through my mis-matched eyes, Noe’s nameless wife does not seem so very funny.
For left to my own devices, virtue and vice should be assigned quite differently.