In honour of Father’s Day (19-06-2016), this blog post calls attention to three Anglo-Saxon responses to the story of Ham seeing his father Noah’s nakedness (Genesis 9:21-25). This intriguing biblical tale inspired one Anglo-Saxon artist to draw what may be one of the most x-rated illuminations of the early Middle Ages.

Seeing his father’s nakedness in The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch

The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch (The British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv) contains an Old English translation of the first six books of the Bible and is lavishly illustrated with over 400 illuminations (you can find out more about this fascinating manuscript here: The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book). Since the Old English translation (written in part by Ælfric of Eynsham) follows the Latin Vulgate closely, the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch is a good place to start exploring how the story of Ham witnessing his father’s nakedness circulated in Anglo-Saxon England.

We find the story in Genesis 9:21-25. After relating how Noah survived the Flood in his ark, the biblical account continues with Noah’s building of a vineyard and tasting the fruits of his efforts:

7 ða ða he dranc of ðam wine, ða wearð he druncen 7 læg on his getelde unbehelod. His sunu ða, Cham, geseah his gesceapu unbeheled, 7 cydde hit his twam gebroðrum ut on felda.

[And  when he drank of the wine, then he became drunk and he lay naked in his tent. Ham, his son, then saw his naked genitals and made it known to this two brothers out in the field.]

The artist of the Old English Hexateuch captured these three actions in the following marvellous illustration (note how Ham sneaks around the frame to peek at Noah in his multi-coloured tent) :

Noah getting drunk with wine (top left); Ham seeing his father’s nakedness (right) and Ham telling his brother Sem and Japhet (bottom left) © The British Library, Cotton Claudius B. IV, fol. 17v

The biblical account continues with Sem and Japhet showing more restraint than their voyeurish brother:

Hwæt, ða Sem 7 Iapheth dydon anne hwitel on heora sculdrum, 7 eodon underbæc 7 beheledon heora fæderes gecynd, swa ðæt hi ne gesawon his næcednysse.

[Lo! Then Sem and Japhet took a mantle over their shoulder and went backwards and covered their father’s genitals, so that they did not see his nakedness.]

The artist once again captures this biblical verse perfectly (one of the brothers is slightly overdoing it: not only walking backwards but shielding his eyes with his cloak at the same time!):

Sem and Japhet covering up Noah © The British Library, Cotton Claudius B. IV, fol. 17v

Noah then awakes from his sleep:

Noe soðlice ða ða he awoc of ðam slæpe, 7 he ofaxode hwæt his suna him dydon. Ða cwæð he: Awyrged is Chanaan, 7 he byð ðeowena ðeowa his gebroðrum.

[Truly, Noah, when he awoke from sleep,  asked what his sons had done to him. Then he said: ‘Cursed is Canaan [Ham’s son] and he will be the slave of slaves for his brothers.’]

The artist now shows an awake Noah (still in a floating cocoon!) addressing Sem and Japhet (who are about to blessed).This time, Ham, whose offspring has just been cursed, has his face turned from his father (too little, too late!):

Noah cursing Ham’s son Canaan  © The British Library, Cotton Claudius B. IV, fol. 18r

The Venerable Bede and the various  explanations of Ham’s punishment

As you can tell, the biblical account is rather brief and leaves much to the imagination, especially since cursing the son of your son to a life of servitude seems a rather harsh punishment for an act of voyeurism. Due to the obscurity of many of the details of the story, interpretations of Ham’s seeing Noah’s nakedness have run wild. The phrase “seeing your father’s nakedness”, in particular, has led some interpretators to refer to Leviticus 18:6-19, where the phrase “uncovering someone’s nakedness” implies sexual activity: Ham may have masturbated his drunk father or, perhaps worse, sent in his youngest son Canaan to perform this act (since it is Canaan that is cursed!) (see: UK Apologetics). Others have suggested that Ham did not have any sexual dealings with Noah himself, but with Noah’s wife (cf. Leviticus 18:8: “Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy father’s wife: for it is the nakedness of thy father”; see: New World Encyclopedia ). Did Ham sleep with his own mother while his father was drunk ? Scandalous!

The Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Bede (d. 735) did not imagine anything other than Ham simply seeing the nakedness of his father. What made Ham’s actions so repulsive, Bede wrote in his commentary On Genesis, was not just the act of seeing, but the act of making it public knowledge. What’s more, Bede added that Ham had laughed at his father’s nakedness and he linked Ham’s actions to how the Jews had derided Christ:

Ham, who laughed when he saw that his father’s private parts were uncovered, signifies the insulting and incredulous Jewish people, who rejoiced rather to hold in contempt the passion of our Lord and Saviour to their own destruction than, for the sake of being saved, to be glorified by it. (trans.  Kendall, p. 210)

Bede also weighed in on why Ham’s son Canaan was punished, rather than his father:

And according to the literal sense it should be noted also that, although Ham sinned, there is a reason why not he but his son Canaan is cursed, especially since the latter was not the first-born of Ham, but his last son. … For at the same time it was foreseen on the spiritual level that the offspring of Canaan were going to sin much more than the other offspring of the sons of Ham, and therefore that they would deserve either to perish by the curse or to groan under the slavery to which they were subjected. (trans. Kendall, p. 213)

Bede goes on to explain that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24-30) descended from Canaan. Thus, since God had foreseen the transgressions of the Canaanites, the curse on Canaan and his descendants was anticipatory punishment! (for the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and its depiction in the Old English Hexateuch click here)

Laughing at his father’s genitals in the Old English Genesis

Bede was not the first to add to the biblical narrative the idea of Ham laughing at his father’s exposed state; the idea goes back as far at least as the theologian Origen (c. 185-c. 254; quoted here). Nor was Bede the last. The poet responsible for the Old English verse adaptation of Genesis (full text available here) made the same addition to the story:

ða þæt geeode,      þæt se eadega wer
on his wicum wearð      wine druncen,
swæf symbelwerig,      and him selfa sceaf
reaf of lice.      Swa gerysne ne wæs,
læg þa limnacod. …

þa com ærest      Cam in siðian,
eafora Noes,      þær his aldor læg,
ferhðe forstolen.      þær he freondlice
on his agenum fæder      are ne wolde
gesceawian,      ne þa sceonde huru
hleomagum helan,      ac he hlihende
broðrum sægde,      hu se beorn hine
reste on recede. (Genesis, ll. 1562-6, 1577-85)

[And then it happened that the blessed man became drunk of wine in his dwellings, he slept weary of feasts, and he himself cast the cloth from his body. Then he lay naked of limb, as it was not fitting.  …  Then Ham, the son of Noah, first went in, where his elder lay, deprived of mind. There he did not want to look upon his father with reverence, nor conceal his shame from their kinsmen. But, laughing, he told his brothers how the man rested in his dwelling.]

Interestingly, the Anglo-Saxon poet has Noah then curse Ham, rather than his youngest son Canaan – thus avoiding any confusion.

This Old English poetic version of Genesis is found in the early-eleventh-century manuscript Oxford Bodleian Library, Junius 11. Like the Old English Hexateuch, this manuscript is beautifully illustrated and the artist responsible also captured the various scenes that make up the story of Ham uncovering his father’s nakedness:

Ham seeing his father’s nakedness (top); Ham telling his brothers (middle); his brothers covering Noah (bottom). (c) Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 11, p. 78 (source)

One of the striking features of this illustration is the explicit depiction of Noah’s genitals. Whereas the artist of the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch obscured our view by having Noah conveniently raising up his legs, the artist of Junius 11 gives us the whole stick and balls:

Top: Noah lifting up the covers to expose his genitals in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, p. 78 (source); bottom: Noah’s genitals obscured by his legs in The British Library, Cotton Claudius B.IV, fol. 17v.

Perhaps, the artist of Junius 11 wanted to test his audience with this particular illustration: he gives us the choice to look upon Noah’s genitals (like Ham) or avert our eyes (like Sem and Japhet). If so, I failed the test!

Works referred to:

  • Bede, On Genesis, trans. C. B. Kendall (Liverpool, 2008)

3 thoughts on “Flashed after the Flood: Seeing naked fathers in Anglo-Saxon England

  1. The story is depicted in later medieval art too. In some instances, Noah’s genitals are drawn and in at least one case the genitals have been scoured out. I wrote about this sexual narrative and others from the Hexateuch in an article in Medieval Dress & Textiles, vol 10, should anyone be interested in reading it. I explain how the use of covers, tents, and curtains are deliberately deployed by the artists to provoke emotional and intellectual responses to the stories. For that reason, I like your suggestion that the Junius artist is testing us out. Like you, I failed!

    Liked by 1 person

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