With knobs on
July 21, 2018 1:19 AM   Subscribe

There are 93 penises in the Bayeux Tapestry What do they tell us?

Most of them are on horses, which isn't a surprise as the embroiderers were more precise in their depictions of horses than people, and there seems to be some correlation between horse penis size and the status of the rider.
posted by Helga-woo (24 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

And with that, possible-human-penis.jpg takes its rightful place in my browser cache.
posted by saturday_morning at 1:40 AM on July 21, 2018 [7 favorites]

I don't understand how he can write all of that and make not one single mention of the tradition of marginalia. Yes, the Tapestry predates what could be described as the golden age of weird shit happening in the margins (I think it really gets going from the 13th century, but am happy to be corrected), but the tradition of marginalia is much older - starting with written commentary on biblical passages in the margins of copies of biblical texts and then iterspersed with those you can find comments on what the copyist is thinking about, or complaining about. Illustrated marginalia flourished as illumination flourished. This is a story told in a visual medium, so it has visual marginalia. There is a huge literature on marginalia, and the Tapestry has been included in that.

though one may nevertheless imagine some tittering on the part of needlewomen (if they were not needlemen) as they embroidered these bits of the design, vestiges of which are still traced on the back of the linen.
People lived in one-room houses. People lived in close proximity to animals. Women went into nunneries after becoming widows. Why would they giggle about dicks? This is basically an Oxford Prof saying he has a modern male adolescent mindset about dicks, so everyone else does. He imposes this weird mindset on a thousand year old object, and expects to be right about it. Yet again, I come to the conclusion that there should be a moratorium on straight white men saying things without proper supervision.
posted by Vortisaur at 1:58 AM on July 21, 2018 [41 favorites]

Take one down, pass it around, 92 penises on the Bayeux Tapestry
posted by chavenet at 1:58 AM on July 21, 2018 [31 favorites]

Surely the main thing they tell us is that someone took the time to count them.
posted by Fuchsoid at 2:28 AM on July 21, 2018 [3 favorites]


posted by Freelance Demiurge at 2:53 AM on July 21, 2018 [7 favorites]

Also, I think it was quite normal for early medieval churches to have depictions of nudity and sex. I've seen some, and probably a lot were lost during the reformation.
posted by mumimor at 2:59 AM on July 21, 2018

Anglo-Norman Bingo:

"Who needs an I?"

posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:09 AM on July 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

Human and equine penises of predominantly prodigious dimensions, sexual harassment, and comic dwarves, together with the enormous interest displayed in military matters, all look likely to appeal to laymen more than to clerics

I think it's safe to assume Prof Garnett doesn't know many clerics.
posted by verstegan at 3:10 AM on July 21, 2018 [10 favorites]

Best pub quiz question ever
posted by fallingbadgers at 3:27 AM on July 21, 2018 [7 favorites]

They tell us "more inside", obviously.
posted by Vesihiisi at 4:17 AM on July 21, 2018

They say that lawyers spend an inordinate amount of time learning the law and learning how to look up stuff.
They say that authors write better when they write what they know.

All I'm saying is someone learned how to weave a tapestry AND they really knew penises...
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:19 AM on July 21, 2018

"All I'm saying is someone learned how to weave a tapestry AND they really knew penises..."

It's actually embroidered, not woven (and therefore not properly a tapestry) -- but they sure did know their penises!

But yeah, uh:

"Keeping a tally of penises reveals that the designer of the tapestry had a hitherto unremarked obsession of his own. I say his, because this is just the sort of thing which will be familiar to anyone who has spent any time in a boys’ school, but seems unlikely to have been the product of a female mind "

What. The. Fuck. Apparently the purpose of this exercise was to remove women from authorship of an important work of art and historical record.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:04 AM on July 21, 2018 [29 favorites]

I am making large assumptions about continuity in male and female psyches over a millennium, but in this instance I do so with few qualms.
posted by sockermom at 7:34 AM on July 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

I visted the Bayeux tapestry. It's majestic in person, particularly since being confronted with it all at once forces you to go slow, to read it like a comic book. If you have 20 minutes this animated view of the tapestry seems cheesy at first but is a good way to see the whole thing with some explanatory narrative.

I remember during my visit being struck by how many penises were in the tapestry. I mean maybe I just like dick or have an adolescent sense of humor, but the stallions with erections really seemed quite prominent. But I couldn't find any pictures of them online! I wonder if websites mostly republish later censored copies or alterations? That video I linked above did: compare the stallion here. Anyway, I'm glad for all the restored pictures here. I wish the article were more authoritative though, it felt pretty junky for something written by a professor of medieval history.
posted by Nelson at 8:11 AM on July 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

it felt pretty junky for something written by a professor of medieval history.

I see what you did there
posted by chavenet at 8:13 AM on July 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

I visted the Bayeux tapestry. It's majestic in person, particularly since being confronted with it all at once forces you to go slow, to read it like a comic book. If you have 20 minutes this animated view of the tapestry yt seems cheesy at first but is a good way to see the whole thing with some explanatory narrative.

That video was posted previously here, and I went back and watched it again to see how many penises I could find. The narrator points out one early on, and claims it is the only example of genitalia in the entire work. Then at the end he points out that this is not the original, but the Victorian replica in Britain that had been bowdlerized. I couldn't find any sort of high definition depictions of the original online so I guess I'll just have to go see it for myself some day.
posted by TedW at 8:32 AM on July 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

When I saw it I was impressed by the sly way the margins were used for commentary. It is by no means a simple or unsophisticated document. But clearly I didn’t notice quite how much dicking around was going on.
posted by Segundus at 8:41 AM on July 21, 2018

the golden age of weird shit happening in the margins (I think it really gets going from the 13th century, but am happy to be corrected)

I believe Sergio Aragones would like a word with you.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:54 AM on July 21, 2018 [7 favorites]

I just got out my Bayeux tapestry book and looked at it with newly attuned eyes. I'm not sure I buy all the arguments in this article (for instance: are the horse penises particularly prodigious? I speak as someone who lives in the country and sees horses all the time. Also: how well known were Aesop's fables at the time? They were influential in the 12th century, but what about the 11th? I don't know.), However, I'll accept that the horse penises don't seem to simply be naturalistic observation. As someone who lives in the country, I usually see horse penises when the horse is peeing, generally while stationary and looking thoughtful, not in armed battle.

[I will now go write my scholarly paper.]
posted by acrasis at 9:18 AM on July 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

There are loads of anecdotal accounts of men having spontaneous ejaculations in extreme circumstances, usually involving great fear as I recall, such as an account I read of a canoeist who thought he was going over a falls but managed not to.

In at least some of the cases, men report not having erections, but I couldn't say whether that's the rule, and I imagine very prolonged extreme fear and rage of the sort a person might experience in a pitched battle could change that, and I also wonder whether berserkers have priapic erections.

I've never seen stallions battle it out and don't know whether they get erections, but it doesn't seem like the best possible move from a strategic point of view, though I would think a mount in the state of mind of a mating battle would make a more effective warhorse -- but a similar remark might be made about human beings.
posted by jamjam at 10:16 AM on July 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

The male historian here was probably convinced that he was charmingly evoking that same "Victorian decency" in his use of the term pudenda—with its etymology of something worthy of shame—to refer to the vulva, or perhaps he is reflecting the lexicon of his department at Oxford, or perhaps his dad liked to use the word, and now he uses it, too. But nothing evoked was charming. Not a thing.

Sorry. It's a snipe from the sidelines, but MeFites are pretty unanimous in distaste for the word, and I felt it was worth a remark.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 10:17 AM on July 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

There are 93 penises in the Bayeux Tapestry What do they tell us What do they stand for?

You're welcome.
posted by Devonian at 10:25 AM on July 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

...I think (charitably) that the author of this piece is an expert in history - battles, dates, famous men etc. but not that familiar with actually primary sources, or secondary sources, nor does he have a heck of a lot of an idea what the culture of the time was like.

In ancient Rome, there was a phallus or a priapistic figure at every hazardous intersection. This is because they had a tradition of grabbing their own dicks for good luck when they were about to do something risky. They weren't considered obscene or even sexual. They were more like a "Merge with caution" sign. A dick pic means something different in different cultures.

A horse is well endowed. And a destrier (knight's war horse) was usually an aggressive stallion, the more imposing the better, since one of the functions of a destrier was to frighten the opposition into running away when the destrier charged. So it is not a stretch to believe that a good destrier was chosen for an overall impressive package: speed, noise, huge dinner-tray sized hooves, willingness to stomp people, large dick, massive withers, thick neck, horrible big teeth...

There is a decent amount of medieval art work still around that depicts male and female genitalia. One painting in a book of hours depicts a couple sitting side by side facing the fire, with their skirts lifted warming their personal parts in the winter. Your average medieval person would have seen a lot of dicks. Not only were there a lot of male animals around, which walked through the streets with their penises visible but the gutters ran down the centre of the roads, because that's where the water ran after it rained. And if you were a medieval man out strolling in the town, rather than looking for a privy if you needed a piss you would face this gutter - turning your back on no more than half the street and allowing the other half to see what you were doing. It would have been highly inconsiderate to piss against some householder's wall.

If you were indoors and you felt the urge to take a piss, you could always go outside into the street but if it was raining or cold or you weren't dressed or something, you would probably prefer to piss indoors. And there might be a chamber pot, later to be emptied out the window with a hearty warning shout of "Gardez l'eau!" but there might not. So frequently men, women, and especially little children being housebroken, would just walk over and use the fire pit - and of course until the advent of the chimney the fire pit was in the middle of the room, not discretely tucked into an alcove in the wall.

If you want to take a look at the clothing worn by little children of an age to be toddling, they all wore long skirts, except little boys in warm weather who wore their tunic just above the level of their genitalia, as this was a helpful saving on laundry. That's how you can tell they are little boys. You never saw little girls exposed like that. They wore the long skirts summer and winter. Italian, German, Dutch and English little boys until the age of five or so were quite likely to have everything on view in public. I don't know about French little boys, but the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons were both Germanic.

An interesting note about the depiction of nude bodies in medieval art, is that it is much more often it is the male body being depicted, not the female one. In our culture we constantly depict sexualized females, but the male body is much less likely to be shown. For example in a movie the couple may be shown in the bed together naked and the female gets up and walks around while the male remains draped. It would be much rarer in our culture to have the female remain in the bed draped in the sheets, while the male walks past the camera showing his nudity in more detail. In the medieval era it was the other way around. Male bodies were considered the norm, and even, having been made in the image of God, somewhat holy, whereas female bodies were more obscene. Consider that women in the period very rarely allowed their hair to show; a woman's hair was something that she would only show to her husband. Her skirts went down to the ground for better modesty. Meanwhile guys didn't worry about flashing the whole neighbourhood.

I think that the depiction of dicks in the Bayeux tapestry was mainly because they were there and it was realistic to depict them for one reason or another, especially the horses.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:01 PM on July 21, 2018 [12 favorites]

I asked my friends in Reading if they'd done a count on the Victorian-era reproduction kept there, and was immediately informed about the multiple penectomies and added pants.
posted by bethnull at 12:02 AM on July 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

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