Kissing, Squirrels, and Arse-faced Men

Recently, the internalized mansplainer who lives in my head has been exuding pitiful sighs. ‘Why do we always focus on women objectified by the male gaze?’

It’s a tough life for a mansplainer trapped in a woman’s body, so, fortunately, I’ve just seen this article:

It’s men! In sterotypical female poses! Advertising bikes! Call the international feminist conspiracy hotline, it’s men’s bodies getting the same treatment as women’s.

The guys in these pictures have been getting a lot of kudos. And they should. But no one looking at these photos can kid themselves that we look at men’s bodies in the same way that we look at women’s bodies. We’re in a cultural context where simply flipping the gender of the participants doesn’t automatically undo all gendered connotations of bodies. We’re conditioned to realize that poses like these are ‘sexy’ and ‘feminine’ – and to know that men posing like women is either a joke, or camp. So we know these pictures are a parody.

This is something that interests me, because in certain parts of medieval culture, it’s not women’s bodies that are constantly the subject of pictures – it’s men’s.

Pictures like this one – of a hooded medieval peasant baring the ample hot cross buns of his behind – are found all over medieval manuscripts.

British Library, MS  Additional 49622, fol. 61r (The Gorleston Psalter)

British Library, MS Additional 49622, fol. 61r (The Gorleston Psalter)

If that’s not enough, an image like this is really not enough to raise medieval eyebrows:

rutland merman

Rutland Psalter

In fact, such was the popularity of images of nude bodies, that we find delightfully coy types like this:


These images seem to us pretty obviously obscene. It may be fine to show women’s arses in seductive poses on daytime TV, but pictures of men like this are beyond the pale. We really have very little context for ‘artistic’ images of nude male bodies depicted in anything but classical poses. The coy over-shoulder glances here aren’t what we see as masculine (and on that note, how often do you see a merman?)

While the above pictures obviously are rude, they also – I think – display the sort of casual attitude to men’s naked bodies and body-parts that you find in the art of Jeanne de Montbaston. These naked male bodies are not found, as we might expect, in the margins of sexy romances or rude poems – they are found in prayer books, right alongside the Latin psalms and hymns people recited in church. 

This, more than anything else, illustrates the general attitude towards men’s bodies – and private parts – which we don’t share in the 21st century. In medieval England, the slang term for for what – for the sake of my mother and to the sad detriment of my google hits – I shall primly call ‘male genitalia’ was delightfully cute and cuddly. People referred to a ‘squirrel’ – a furry little pet. Medieval artists were really quite fond of male bodies, especially when they could show those bodies doing something slightly rude, nude, or plain bizarre.

This image is from the Luttrell Psalter, made in the fourteenth century, and it visualizes that slang term, showing a woman crouching for a squirrel to jump into her lap.

British Library Add. MS 42130, f.33 (Luttrell Psalter)

British Library Add. MS 42130, f.33 (Luttrell Psalter)

Before we dismiss these images as simply rude and crude and nothing more, we need to look at the context in which they were made. Our own cultural understanding of male and female bodies gives us the context to interpret the motercycle pictures in the link. For medieval readers, the surrounding culture was very different. One example neatly illustrates this, challenging our preconceptions about how men relate to other men’s bodies.

In the romance Gawain and the Green Knight, our hero Gawain makes a pact with his newfound host to swap whatever they get during the day with each other. While his host Bertilak goes off hunting and being masculine, Gawain – who at this stage is exhausted – stays in for a long lie-in. However, his hostess turns up, confesses that she has the hots for him, and strongly suggests he hand in his car keys to the communal pot.

Gawain is, of course, a lovely and virtuous knight, so the idea of adultery doesn’t tempt, and though the narrator give us a tantalising image of his body barely covered in bedclothes, all he does is give the lady one kiss. And so it is that, at the end of the day, Gawain gets a lovely Abel&Cole-style present of fresh game from his host, and is forced to admit his own winnings.

“He hasppez his fayre hals his armez wythinne,/ And kysses hym as comlyly as he couthe awyse”

(‘He clasps his arms around that handsome neck,/ And kisses him, as pleasantly as he could’)

Now, as you might expect, reams have been written on the homoerotic connotations of this kiss. And reams have also been written from the Its Not Homoerotic But I’m Not A Homophobe perspective. But the majority vote amongst medievalists honestly is that these kisses probably weren’t interpreted by medieval audiences the way we’d think. Gawain kisses his host pleasantly and courteously, and everyone watching really sees nothing odd in it. Men just do sometimes kiss other men.

This isn’t so odd: in modern-day Russia and parts of the Middle East not particularly famed for enlightened attitudes to gay rights, it is – perhaps tellingly – far more culturally acceptable for men to hold hands or kiss each other than is the norm in the UK or the US.

So in Gawain, we’re seeing men’s bodies in situations we don’t usually associate with modern masculinity, and this is the context in which the naked male bodies of the illuminated manuscripts – and the cute pet names for male body parts – start to make sense.

So, do these images mean that we should forget Jerome’s comments on women’s revolting pregnant bodies, and contact Tim Lott to speak out on the shocking misandry that dogged medieval men’s every step? Or should we accept that, while pictures like the motercycle men above help us to recognise how objectified women’s bodies are in modern visual culture, they only do a small part of the work in undoing that objectification. Misogyny can coexist quite happily with a culture where men’s bodies are the objects of rude, crude, sexualised imagery, because these images do not undermine the fact that, in medieval England, men had the power.


In my pre-caffeine haze this morning, I forgot to add this little image. Granted, he’s neither naked nor flashing, but he is quite literally arse-headed.

Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 1-2005 (The Macclesfield Psalter)

Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 1-2005 (The Macclesfield Psalter)

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