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Anglo-Saxon obscenities: Explicit art from early medieval England

The phrase ‘medieval obscenities’ typically bring to mind such curious late medieval depictions as the penis tree and obscene pilgrim badges featuring crowned vulvae being carried around by penises. This blog post deals with explicit art from an earlier period: the time of the Anglo-Saxons (c. 500-1100). As we shall see, the depiction of exposed genitalia served multiple purposes: from political commentary to markers of the monstrous, the diabolical and the sinful.

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Ye Old Medieval Obscenities: Nuns picking the fruit from the penis tree © Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 25526, fol. 160r; Obscene pilgrim badge (1375-1450) with crowned vulva being carried by three walking penises (source)

1) The Bayeux Tapestry erection

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Perhaps the most famous depictions of nude figures in a work of early medieval art are found in the lower margins of the Bayeux Tapestry (made in the late 11th-century, by Anglo-Saxon nuns for a Norman patron). Whereas the main panels of the Tapestry depict the events leading up to and including the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the margins are home to an array of animals and human figures. It has been suggested that some of these marginal figures were meant as political commentary on the events depicted in the main panels. The scene of Harold Godwinson brought before William the soon-to-be-Conqueror, for instance, is accompanied by a virile and naked man reaching for an exposed woman whose hand gestures suggest discomfort. Is it possible that the Anglo-Saxon nuns were not-so-subtly comparing the interaction between William and Harold to non-consensual intercourse?

The Bayeux Tapestry  features several other naked men with exposed appendages. The obscenity of these marginal scenes proved to be something of an obstacle for 19th-century, Victorian embroiderers who were intent on making a full-size replica of the tapestry. When I visited Reading Museum last year (where you can see the replica in a special gallery on the first floor), I noticed that at least one of the nude figures was given a pair of underpants:

 

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Left: Original Bayeux Tapestry erection; Right: Victorian reproduction now in Reading Museum

(For more on censored nudity and the Bayeux Tapestry, see this blog by Christopher Monk)

2) Marvels of the East au naturel

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Obscene monstrosities © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.v, fols. 80r, 82r, 83v.

The Marvels of the East is a catalogue of monsters that survives in two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. The text, accompanied by illustrations, features descriptions of marvellous beasts (including exploding chickens!) and semi-humans (on this text, see The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex). Some of these humanoid monsters are depicted in their birthday suits. As Kim (2003) has noted, their full-frontal nudity acts as a marker of monstrosity: it sets these weird and wonderful creatures apart from mankind. This difference is particularly clear in the depiction of the Donestre (half-human, half-lion, who speak to travellers in their own languages, then eat them and cry over their victim’s heads): whereas the monsters are naked, their human victims are clothed.

3) Woden, a well-endowed god

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Left: Naked Woden on Finglesham buckle (source); Right: Well-endowed Woden figurine © British Museum (source)

Prior to their conversion to Christianity, the Anglo-Saxons practised Germanic paganism. Evidence for their pagan beliefs includes various grave goods, which imply that they believed in an afterlife where such material goods would come in handy. Archaeological finds in early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries include objects that feature depictions of what are believed to be pagan gods. Two such objects, both dating to the seventh century, feature depictions of the god Woden as a semi-naked warrior. By the looks of it, the pagan Anglo-Saxons assumed Woden was well endowed, indeed.

4) Phallic…er…Fallen angels in the Junius Manuscript

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Fall of angels © Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, p. 16

The so-called Junius Manuscript (a 10th-century manuscript containing Old English religious verse) features an interesting set of illustrations. In the depictions of the Fall of Angels, the fallen angels are depicted as losing their clothes and, in some cases, gaining visible, male genitalia (as opposed to their angelic, genderless and concealed counterparts). Possibly, the Anglo-Saxon artist masculinized the fallen angels because male nudity was associated with sin in Anglo-Saxon writings and art (see Karkov 2003, and examples below).

By the by, the Junius Manuscript also contains an intriguing depiction of Noah flashing his son Ham, which I have discussed in another blog post: Flashed after the Flood: Seeing naked fathers in Anglo-Saxon England.

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Fall of angels © Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, p. 17

5) Disrobed demons and strap-naked sinners in the Harley Psalter

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© The British Library, Harley 603, fol. 3v

The association of male nudity and exposed genitalia with sinfulness is further revealed by this depiction of Psalm 6:6 (“and who shall confess to thee in Hell”) in the Anglo-Saxon Harley Psalter (an 11th-century manuscript of the Psalms, featuring illustrations of literal interpretations of the Psalm texts). The sinners, wrapped in snakes, are all fully naked and the second one from the left is quite clearly a man. The two demons on the right, too, show distinctively masculine features (even if  the rightmost demon seems something of a hermaphrodite). The addition of these diabolic reproductive organs is remarkable, since these obscene features are not clearly present in the exemplar of the Harley Psalter, the ninth-century Utrecht Psalter (see here).

6) Pulling your beard in a canon table

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Sinner pulling his beard…and something else in late 8th-century Anglo-Saxon Gospels © Rome, Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica, Barberini Lat. 570, fol. 1r

The 8th-century Barberini Gospels is a beautifully illuminated Anglo-Saxon manuscript that resembles the famous Lindisfarne Gospels. Tucked away in a canon table (a list of corresponding passages in the four Gospels), we find a naked, male figure surrounded by snakes. The presence of the serpents suggests that this is another depiction of a sinner in Hell. The man is tugging his beard with one hand, while the other reaches for his male appendage. While stroking one’s beard may seem like an innocent action today, medieval depictions of ‘beard-pulling’ had a strong connotation with masturbation (see here). The depiction in the canon table, then, seems to depict what punishment awaits those who indulge in onanism: snakes biting your snake!

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Works referred to:

  • C. Karkov, “Exiles from the Kingdom: The Naked and the Damned in Anglo-Saxon Art”, in Naked before God: uncovering the body in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. B. C. Withers and J. Wilcox (West Virginia University Press, 2003), 181-220
  • S. M. Kim, “The Donestre and the Person of Both Sexes”, in: Naked before God: uncovering the body in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. B. C. Withers and J. Wilcox (West Virginia University Press, 2003), 162-180
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