‘the beast with two backs’ | ‘la bête à deux dos’



The following definition is from A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London: S. Hooper, 1785), by the English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91):

Beast with two backs, a man and woman in the act of copulation.

And this definition is from the first volume of Dictionnaire comique, satyrique, critique, burlesque, libre et proverbial (Lyon: Chez les Héritiers de Beringos Fratres, 1752), by Philibert-Joseph Le Roux:

Faire la bête à deux dos. Manière de parler qui signifie être couché avec une femme, faire le déduit.
To make the beast with two backs. Manner of speaking which signifies to be in bed with a woman, to have sexual intercourse.




The phrase the beast with two backs is first recorded in The Tragœdy of Othello, the Moore of Venice (London: Printed by N. O. for Thomas Walkley, 1622), by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616)—in Act I, scene 1, Iago reveals to Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, that she has eloped with Othello:

I am one sir, that come to tell you, your daughter, and the
Moore, are now making the Beast with two backs.

The French phrase la bête à deux dos is first recorded earlier, in La vie treshorrificque du grand Gargantua, pere de Pantagruel iadis cōposee par M. Alcofribas abstracteur de quinte essence. Liure plein de Pantagruelisme (Lyon: François Juste, 1542), by the French satirist François Rabelais (circa 1494-1553):

Comment Gargantua fut vnze moys porté ou [misprint for ‘au’] ventre de sa mere, Chapitre .iii.
Grādgousier […] En son eage virile espousa Gargamelle fille du roy des Parpaillos, belle gouge & de bonne troigne. Et faisoient eux deux souuent ensemble la beste a deux doz, ioyeusement se frotans leur lard, tāt quelle engroissa dun beau filz, & le porta iusques a lunziesme moys.

The Scottish author and translator Thomas Urquhart (1611-60) rendered the passage as follows in The first Book of the Works of Mr. Francis Rabelais, Doctor in Physick: Containing five Books of the Lives, Heroick Deeds, and Sayings of Gargantua, and his Sonne Pantagruel (London: Printed for Richard Baddeley, 1653):

CHAP. III. How Gargantua was carried eleven moneths in his mothers belly.
Grangousier […] In the vigor of his age he married Gargamelle, daughter to the King of the Parpaillons, a jolly pug, and well mouthed wench. These two did often times do the two backed beast together, joyfully rubbing & frotting their Bacon ’gainst one another, insofarre, that at last she became great with childe of a faire sonne, and went with him unto the eleventh moneth.

According to two Shakespearean commentators, Thomas Percy (1729-1811) and Edmond Malone (1741-1812), in The Dramatick Writings of Will. Shakspere, with the Notes of all the various Commentators; Printed complete from the best Editions of Sam. Johnson and Geo. Steevens. Volume the Nineteenth (London: John Bell, 1788), the beast with two backs is a loan translation from the French phrase la bête à deux dos:

—your daughter, and the Moor are making the beast with two backs.] This is an ancient proverbial expression in the French language, whence Shakspere probably borrowed it […]. Percy.
[…] “Et faisoient tous deux souvent ensemble la bête à deux dos joyeusement.”—Rabelais, liv. i. There was a translation of Rabelais published in the time of Shakspere. Malone.

The earliest occurrence of the English phrase that I, for my part, have found is from The Derby Mercury (Derby, Derbyshire, England) of Friday 29th September 1769—the beast with two backs refers to the sexual relations of Gabrielle d’Estrées (1573-99), duchess de Beaufort, mistress of Henry IV (1553-1610), king of France from 1589 to 1610:

Anecdote of Henry IV. King of France.

Soon after the Peace of Vervins [cf. note], Henry, as he was returning from Hunting in a plain Dress, crossed the River Seine; perceiving the Waterman did not know him, he asked him what People said of the Peace?—“Faith, answered Charon, I don’t know much about it, for my Part, but this, that every Thing is so taxed, even to this old Tool of a Boat, that I can scarce get a Livelihood.”—“Well, but, continued the Monarch, does not the King intend to see the People soon eased?”—“The King, replied the Waterman, is well enough of himself; but he has a Mistress, who must have so many fine Cloaths, and Gew Gaws, and it is we that pay for all. However if he had her to himself it would not be so much; but she is devilishly belyed, Master, if she does not play the Beast with two Backs with some others.” Henry, who had been excessively diverted with this Colloquy, sent next Morning for the Waterman, and made him repeat before the Duchess of Beaufort, without mincing one Word, what he had said the Evening before.—Her Grace was so incensed, that nothing would atone for his Insolence, but the King’s ordering him to be hanged immediately:—“Poh! poh! said that sensible Monarch, are you mad? Don’t you see he’s a poor Devil, only sour’d by Distress?—I’ll hit on a much gentler Method; his Boat shall pay no Tax, and then he’ll be continually singing Vive Henri, Vive Gabrielle.”

Note: The Peace of Vervins (1598) was a peace treaty signed at the small town of Vervins, in Picardy, northern France, by the representatives of Henry IV of France and Philip II of Spain. It ended the French Wars of Religion by obliging Philip to withdraw his troops from France, thus depriving the Catholic League of Spanish support. The Edict of Nantes, which defined the rights of French Protestants, was signed the same year.

In the following paragraph from The Bell’s New Weekly Messenger (London, England) of Sunday 30th September 1832, the beast with two backs may sarcastically allude to sexual intercourse:

We observe that some “Radicals” of Leeds have been holding a Meeting in support of the Tory Mr. Sadler. We have all heard of Centaurs, of “the beast with two backs,” and of other singular monsters; but we have never heard, or read of so strange a beast as this junction of the Leeds “Radicals” and Mr. Sadler—it out-beasts all the Menageries of the Kingdom!


Grandgousier – illustration for the third chapter of La vie treshorrificque du grand Gargantua, pere de Pantagruel (1542):

Grandgousier – illustration for the third chapter of La vie treshorrificque du grand Gargantua, pere de Pantagruel (1542)

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