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.
1) The Bayeux Tapestry erection
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:
(For more on censored nudity and the Bayeux Tapestry, see this blog by Christopher Monk)
2) Marvels of the East au naturel
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
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
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.
5) Disrobed demons and strap-naked sinners in the Harley Psalter
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
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!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:
- Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages?
- Flashed after the Flood: Seeing naked fathers in Anglo-Saxon England
- Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?
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
In the second episode of series two of The Last Kingdom, a row of decapitated heads has been placed outside the main gate of Dunholm/Durham. As this blog post will illustrate, this practice, barbaric though it seems, is well attested for Anglo-Saxon England.
Historical examples: Saint Oswald and the real Uhtred
Perhaps the best-known example of decapitation and impalement was that of Saint Oswald of Northumbria (d. 642). After Oswald had been defeated by the pagan King Penda of Mercia, Penda had Oswald’s head and arms cut off. Penda then had these body parts put on stakes, until Oswald’s brother Oswy retrieved them, a year after the battle. Later, Oswald’s head was likely buried in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert (about whom, see: Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb) which ended up in Durham, where it still remains today. Intriguingly, aside from Durham Cathedral, four other institutions today claim to have the skull of Saint Oswald (Bailey 1995), including Hildesheim Cathedral which houses a beautiful twelfth-century head reliquary depicting the head of Oswald (see image below).
The display of decapitated heads did not die out with the arrival of Christianity. In the De Obsessione Dunelmi, a Latin historical work from around 1100, we are told of a siege of Durham by the Scots in the early eleventh century. Luckily for Durham, their bishop Ealdun’s daughter had been married to Uhtred (d. 1016), son of the earl of Northumbria and the inspiration for Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series upon which BBC’s The Last Kingdom is based. This Uhtred came to Durham’s aid and massacred the Scottish host and had the Scots decapitated. Uhtred then sent for the most attractive heads to be brought to Durham:
The heads of the slain, made more presentable with their hair combed, as was the custom in those days, he had transported to Durham, and they were washed by four women and fixed on stakes around the circuit of the walls. The women who had previously washed them were each rewarded with a single cow. (cited in Thompson 2004: 193)
Aside from the intriguing reward of a cow for washing a dead man’s head, this episode in the De Obsessione Dunelmi reveals that the display of decapitated heads remained common (customary even) until the eleventh century, at least.
Heafod stoccan in Anglo-Saxon charters
Anglo-Saxon charters often contained vernacular boundary clauses which described the areas under discussion. Within these boundary clauses, the term heafod stocc ‘head stake’ is frequently attested, suggesting that it was common practice to mark the limits of estate properties with impaled heads. Various charters locate such head stakes in the vicinity of a road: e.g., “æfter foss to þam heafod stoccan” [after the way to the head stakes] (S 115); “of heafod stocca andlang stræt” [from the head stakes along the street] (S 309); and “7lang stret to þam heafod stoccan” [along the street to the head stakes] (S 695). These examples suggest that these head stakes would have been visible for people travelling from and towards locations, possibly along main access roads. Given their use as boundary markers in surviving Anglo-Saxon charters, these head stakes must have been a permanent as well as salient feature in the landscape. The existence of head stakes is supported by archaeological evidence, which also locates execution sites at the boundaries of estates (see Reynolds 2009: 169). Just like the heads of criminals spiked on the walls of old London Bridge, the purpose of these head stakes must have been to not only mark the boundaries of an estate, but also to warn potential transgressors against the consequences of wrongdoings.
An inspiration for Anglo-Saxon authors and artists
The spectacle of decapitating an enemy’s head and putting it on display proved inspirational for various Anglo-Saxon authors and at least one artist. The Beowulf poet, for instance, has Beowulf and his men parade Grendel’s head on a stake towards Heorot: “feower scoldon / on þæm wælstenge weorcum geferian / to þæm goldsele Grendles heafod / oþ ðæt semninga to sele comon” [four had to carry Grendel’s head with hardships to the gold-hall on a battle-pole, until they came to the hall] (Beowulf, ll. 1637b-1639). Here, Grendel’s head functions as a trophy, a sign of Beowulf’s heroic triumph.
A rare visual depiction of a decapitated and impaled head is found in the Old English Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv) an eleventh-century, illustrated translation from the Latin Vulgate of the first six books of the Old Testament (see: The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book). In his depiction of Genesis 8:7 (‘And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.’), the artist of the Hexateuch deviated from the biblical text and depicted a raven pecking at a head, impaled on Noah’s ark (see below). It has been suggested that the artist was drawing on his own creativity here, given the fact that there is no iconological tradition that depicts Noah’s raven in this way (Gatch 1975: 11). Perhaps, the Anglo-Saxon artist was so familiar with the practices of decapitation and impalement that he could think of no better way to depict God’s wrath!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other blog posts on The Last Kingdom or Anglo-Saxon decapitations:
- Chop chop! Three bizarre beheadings in Anglo-Saxon England
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How a peasant beheaded himself
- Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
Works refered to:
- Bailey, Richard N., “St Oswald’s Heads,” in Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint, ed. C. Stancliffe and E. Cambridge. 195-209. Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1995.
- Gatch, Milton McC., “Noah’s Raven in Genesis A and the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch”, Gesta 14:2 (1975), pp. 3-15
- Reynolds, Andrew, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Thompson, Victoria. Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004.
This blog post focuses on one of the most extensively illustrated books from the Middle Ages: The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch (The British Library, Cotton Claudius B.IV). A unique picture book from early medieval England.
The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch as a picture book
Thirty-three goats, twenty-six sheep, thirty-one camels, thirty cows and twenty-nine asses. The artist responsible for the illustrations of The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch made a valiant attempt to match the numbers of livestock mentioned in Genesis 32:13-14 as having been gifted by Esau to Jacob (“Two hundred she-goats, twenty he-goats, two hundred ewes, and twenty rams, thirty milch camels with their colts, forty kine, and twenty bulls, twenty she-asses, and ten of their foals”). His efforts exemplify the great ambition behind this unique manuscript: to fully illustrate an Old English translation of the fist six books of the Bible. These efforts resulted in one of the most important examples of Anglo-Saxon art, with over four hundred illustrations.
The illustrations accompany the texts of Genesis through to Joshua, translated into Old English from the Latin Vulgate. This translation has been partially attributed to the famous homilist Ælfric of Eynsham, who was responsible for the translation of Genesis up to 24:22, the second half of Numbers and the book of Joshua. The rest of the translation was made by one or more anonymous translators. The text survives in seven other manuscripts , but Cotton Clauius B. IV is the only one to be illustrated (Barnhouse and Withers 2000: 2-3). Most of its illustrations are original and were made especially to conform to the text of the manuscript: “In other words, the artist was not copying the pictures of a remote and long-forgotten age; like other creative artists he was thinking in terms of his own life and times” (Dodwell and Clemoes 1974: 71). As such, The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch is a unique, Anglo-Saxon picture book, that not only illustrates the text of the Old Testament, but also provides a glimpse of how an inhabitant of early medieval England imagined these events.
Sample: Sodom and Gomorrah and the seduction of Lot
To give you an idea of the joy of reading The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, here follows the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the seduction of Lot (Gen. 19:24-33). The text was edited by Samuel J. Crawford in 1922:
God sende to þam burgum ealbyrnendne renscur mid swefle gemencged 7 ða sceamleasan fordyde. God towearp ða swa mid graman ða burga, 7 ealne ðone eard endemes towende 7 ealle þa burhwara forbærnde ætgædere, 7 eall ðæt growende wæs, wearð adylegod.
[God sent to the towns an all-consuming shower, mixed with sulfur, and destroyed the shameless ones. Thus, God then destroyed the towns with rage, and all the land he cast down likewise, and he burned all the citizens together, and all that was growing, was destroyed.]
In the illustration below, note the rather anachronistic architecture!
Þa beseah Lothes wif unwislice underbæc 7 wearð sona awend to anum sealtstane na for wiglunge, ac for gewisre getacnunge.
[Then Lot’s wife unwisely looked back and was immediately turned into a salt-stone, not because of sorcery, but as a certain sign.]
In the added illustration, one of Lot’s daughters seems to be making a facepalm!
Lot and his daughters then find their way to a mountain, were the daughters plan to make him drunk:
Ða cwæð seo yldre dohtor to hyre gingran swyster: Vre fæder ys eald man 7 nan oðer wer ne belaf on ealre eorþan, ðe unc mage habban. Vton fordrencean urne fæder færlice mid wine 7 uton licgan mid him, þæt sum laf beo hys cynnes. Hi dydon ða swa, 7 fordrencton heora fæder
[Then the elder daughter said to her younger sister: ‘Our father is an old man and no other man is left in the whole world, who might have us. Let us quickly make our father drunk with wine and let us lie with him, so that there may be an heir of his kin.’ Then they did so and made their father drunk.]
The image below suggests that the artist deemed four drinks enough to get Lot drunk enough to sleep with his daughters – on the right we can see a happy Lot sharing a blanket with one of his daughters (with untangled hair!))
How to illustrate a medieval manuscript? A five step guide
One very interesting feature of the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch is that some of its scenes were left unfinished, allowing us to reconstruct the various stages of the illustration process. Johnson (2000: 175-176) has identified the following five stages:
- Outline sketches (often no longer visible)
- Added blocks of ground colours for bodies, surfaces of rivers, etc.
- Confirmed outline sketch by adding outlines of heads, feet and hands in red ink.
- Fill in facial details (nose, eyebrows, hair)
- Added shading and highlighting for draperies, hair and shoes
These five stages are illustrated below:
Twitter Project ‘Old English Hexatweets’: Tweeting the Old English Hexateuch
The above has hopefully convinced you that the Old English Hexateuch deserves to be more widely used and enjoyed. To ensure this and to give myself something to tweet about, I will start tweeting one image of the Old English Hexateuch a day, along with an accompanying Old English citation from the edition of the text by Crawford (1922). If you would like your daily fix of Anglo-Saxon manuscript illumination and Old English prose, follow me on Twitter.
Works referred to:
- Barnhouse, Rebecca, and Benjamin C. Withers (eds.). The Old English Hexateuch: aspects and approaches (Kalamazoo, 2000).
- Crawford, S. J. (ed.). The Old English Version of the Heptateuch, Ælfric’s Treatise on the Old and New Testament and His Preface to Genesis. Early English Text Society OS 160 (London, 1922).
- Dodwell, C.R., and P. Clemoes (eds.). The Old English Illustrated Hexateuch: British Museum Cotton Claudius B. iv, Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile 18 (Copenhagen, 1974).
- Johnson, David. A Program of Illumination in the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch: “Visual Typology”, in Barnhouse and Withers 2000: 165-200.