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)

Lady Truth and the Author: Female Networking in Medieval Manuscripts

I’ve spent a lot of time so far looking at medieval images and texts – and records – that show how medieval misogyny shaped women’s lives, and how modern attitudes towards women’s bodies and women’s testimonies are embedded in this long history. There are more positive stories. I’ve suggested that Jeanne de Montbaston, the artist who produced the subversive and witty pictorial responses to the misogyny of the Romance of the Rose as she illustrated it, is one example. So, to find more, I went to look at more medieval artists and their work.

In medieval literature, virtues such as truth, wisdom and reason are often personified, and when they are, they are almost invariably pictured as women: Lady Truth, Lady Reason, gracious figures who act as teachers and guides.


In this image, for example, the author Boethius is pictured kneeling humbly before the crowned figure of Lady Philosophy, who offers him wings.

This isn’t so strikingly woman-friendly as it first appears. Images like this give women the appearance of status, but only the appearance. In effect, despite the humble postures of the male authors, the message is that these men have personified virtues – Truth, Wisdom, Philosophy – dancing attendance on them as they busy themselves with the important work of creating literature. Typically, the conversation follows the conventions of a romance – the male author treating his lady as a lover and trying to please her.

Here’s an image of Jean de Meun, author of the Romance of the Rose, looking suitably engrossed in his writing as his lady stands by with books for inspiration.

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Fr. 1728

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Fr. 1728. I like to imagine Jean is thinking ‘darn, why can’t real women be more like the ones in my head?!’

When a male writer or artist gives us a female ‘Lady Truth’, she’s as much a product of his mind as Eve was the product of Adam’s rib. In both cases, we’re seeing an idealized female, and hearing her speak voiced by the male author of the text. This convention is a means for authors and artists to translate a man’s internal monologue into a dialogue charged with erotic connotations – and Dante’s beloved Beatrice is the supreme example.
 One woman writer set out to challenge this picture, and these stereotypes of male creativity and male-voiced female inspiration. Christine de Pizan’s energetic criticisms of sexist male writers – and of Jean de Meun (pictured above) in particular – are accompanied by cleverly polemical illustrations. In Christine’s manuscripts, these implicitly heteronormative dialogues are transformed into something else. The old image of the male author being guided by ‘Lady Truth’ is reversed. In the illustration below, Christine sits lecturing men – she’s actually represented as an academic, sitting in the typical high-backed chair that symbolised male lecturer’s authority over their students. The open book before her reminds us that she is a writer, too. She is both ‘Lady Truth’, the person dispensing advice, and she is the author.


However, although this image pictures Christine herself as dispenser of wisdom, the book also features an actual personification of Wisdom, like those in the books of her male peers.


This image shows Christine, sitting at her desk in the same blue dress, while Minerva (goddess of Wisdom) stands beside her, carrying her sword and shield of truth. In this, the image resembles those of male authors. But because Christine is female, her artists were able to draw on a whole new set of connotations that are not evoked by male author portraits. So here, Christine sitting at her desk with her books resembles none other than the Virgin Mary, who was always pictured sitting with her prayer books at the moment when the Angel Gabriel came to tell her she was to bear God’s son.


Christine’s book, then, takes the established iconography of the male author and enriches it with feminine imagery. In presenting two female figures – Minerva and Christine – the artist also moves away from the implicitly heteronormative, erotic imagery of creative genius. It is worth noting that both Minerva (born parthenogenetically from Zeus’s forehead) and the Virgin Mary are examples of non-sexual reproduction.

The imagery of female collaboration in Christine’s book is the product of real-life collaboration between women, and of Christine’s passionate advocacy of the credibility of women as more than the objects of male desire. Unlike Jean de Meun, whose female artist Jeanne de Montbaston is almost forgotten by history, Christine makes sure that her readers know who it was that created some of the most famous images of her. Christine stresses the skill and importance of women artists as serious professionals. Her preferred illustrator was a woman, whom she praises warmly.

“I know a woman today, named Anastasia, who is so learned and skilled in painting manuscript borders and miniature backgrounds that one cannot find an artisan in all the city of Paris – where the best in the world are found – who can surpass her, nor who can paint flowers and details as delicately as she does, nor whose work is more highly esteemed, no matter how rich or precious the book is. People cannot stop talking about her. And I know this from experience, for she has executed several things for me, which stand out among the ornamental borders of the great masters.”

(from The Book of The City of Ladies)

Christine’s praise is part of her case against contemporary misogyny, but it’s also concrete evidence of networks of female support and cooperation, even in the male-dominated context of bookmaking. The portraits of Christine gives her authority by picturing her as a compound of personified ‘Lady Wisdom’ and of the Virgin. Christine’s words returned the favour. In modern terms, Christine and Anastasia’s partnership – each promoting the other as a credible professional – is not dissimilar to our own networks of women supporting each other.

Did Christine and Anastasia know Jeanne de Montbaston, the often-overlooked fourth participant in this sprawling debate over male and female creativity? It’s possible. Although Jean de Meun died in 1305, his artist Jeanne and her husband were living and working in Paris at the end of the fourteenth century. Paris was a large city at the time, but guilds of artists were tightly controlled, and two female illuminators both living and working in the same place at around the same time may well have known each other, and each other’s work. Were Christine and Anastasia supportive of Jeanne? Amused by her part in shaping responses to the Romance of the Rose? Did she know of Christine’s work? We may never know.

I started writing this blog because a network of supportive women encouraged me. It was a baptism of fire, because I knew that if I didn’t push myself, I wouldn’t keep at it. So, for this past week, I’ve done seven posts in seven days. I couldn’t have done it without supportive networks, and I am very grateful to everyone who’s cheered me on or shown me how to make the blog better.

Thank you.

Update: I should stress that this post is partly speculative. We don’t know much about Anastasia, other than what Christine says, although we do know that Christine worked closely with her illuminators to produce her manuscripts.

I can’t help feeling there must be a novel about Anastasia, Jeanne, and late-medieval Paris for someone, though!

Jeanne de Montbaston – Penis Trees Against the Misogynists?

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25526, f. 160r (Roman de la Rose, France 14th century)

The above image – a sheepish-looking monk handing an unfeasibly large penis to a disconcerted nun – may look familiar to anyone who’s read my first post in this blog.

It’s one of a sequence of illuminations made in the margins of a manuscript by the medieval artist Jeanne de Montbaston. Jeanne worked with her husband, Richard, in Rue Neuve in fourteenth-century Paris. She did the illustrations for a fairly large number of manuscripts, including dozens of copies of the popular Romance of the Rose. This poem is an allegorical reflection on love, but it is also justifiably famous as one of the most misogynistic books around, the subject of medieval author Christine de Pizan’s brilliant attack on male writers who treat women only as sex objects.

A short passage can illustrate what Christine meant. In the poem, the allegorical figure of ‘Genius’ (who is male) argues that all men should take advantage of women as sexual objects, and he compares the (male) act of writing with the act of penetration, while picturing women as passive, blank like an unwritten page. In a vicious rant, he declares:

“those who do not write with their ‘tools’ … on those beautiful, precious tablets Nature has made for them … should suffer the loss of their penis and testicles.”

The word Genius uses for ‘tool’ literally means both ‘pen’ and ‘penis’ – the pun is in the original French. This rant is primarily homophobic – or more precisely, it’s an argument against sodomy, since medieval people didn’t have the same sense of sexual orientation, rather than sexual activities, that we do now. It’s also, obviously, the speech of someone who really doesn’t think a great deal of women, and who thinks the activity of writing and the fact of having a penis are intrinsically related (if you think this sounds familiar, you’ll be pleased to know that V. S. Naipaul and dear David Gilmour, of Dickhead Detox fame, feel the same way).

Now, the question is, why would a woman artist – and one who was obviously pretty good – spend her time working on a book that puts forward such an unpleasant view of women?

I’ve heard it suggested that Jeanne was probably illiterate and that – because of this – she didn’t really know what she was illuminating and so popped in a silly story about nuns and penis trees instead of choosing a more suitable image based on the story itself.

I have a bit of a problem with this, not least because shedloads of medieval illuminators go off-piste in their choices of subject-matter and no-one suggests they’re all illiterate (though some of them surely were). But, more to the point, I think Jeanne’s illumination has quite an amusing relationship to the text and its messages.

On one level, of course, it seems to confirm what Jean de Meun says about women in general: we’re all about the cock, even the nuns. And the little pictorial narrative from which the image above comes concludes – predictably – with the monk and nun sleeping together. Though, honestly, they don’t look much happier about it than they did in the first picture!

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25526, f. 111v (Roman de la Rose, France 14th century).

However, I think there’s a bit more to Jeanne’s illuminations than that. In modern culture, as in medieval society, women are all too often viewed as a set of body parts, dissected by the male gaze and by popular media into legs, and breasts, nipped-in waists and airbrushed smiles. In modern culture it’s rare to see male anatomy treated that way. In fact, naked penises cause far more consternation than naked breasts.

This wasn’t the case in medieval England, where dozens of illuminators enjoyed drawing pictures of cocks merrily surging along the margins of pages. But Jeanne’s image of a nun who calmly gathers a crop of penises into her basket is more pointed that most. Standing in the margins of a romance full of mansplaining about female desire and the superior creative powers of men, it’s as if Jeanne’s nun is saying: ‘well, if you have to have a penis to tell a good story … look how many have!’

BnF MS Fr. 25526

BnF MS Fr. 25526

The Aesthetics of Rape Myths (trigger warning)

In my previous post about medieval English laws on rape, I described how difficult, isolating and exhausting the process of bringing a rape case to court was for medieval women, who were automatically considered less likely to tell the truth than men. My research project looks at the ways medieval narratives reinforced, or reflected, social perceptions of women and truth, amplifying the effect of the legal system. A modern parallel shows us how the qualities we usually associate with fiction – the aesthetic qualities of a well-written narrative – play important roles in conveying these social perceptions.

Modern laws have moved on from their medieval roots (not far enough!), but one of the biggest issues facing women in the UK today is the persistence and prevalence of ‘rape myths’.

Modern rape myths begin with the stranger in the ‘dark alley’, the man who waits for a woman walking home alone after nightfall. In reality this describes a tiny percentage of rapes, but it is often cited the default example of ‘real’ rape, of rape where the victim is innocent. It’s also a narrative in which the perpetrator is necessarily a blank, a shadowy figure without an identity, and not the named man known to the victim (as he usually is in real life).

The insidious impact of this myth is even more complicated than its simple lack of truth: in its visual imagery, it is a dead ringer for that other popular rape myth, the ‘grey area’. In rape mythology, a ‘grey area’ is the zone of confusion which – apparently – prevents otherwise decent and upstanding men from realizing that rape is rape. The same imagery of darkness or greyness, substitued for the figure of a named, identified rapist, encourages us to conflate these two myths in our memories. They work together to convince us that rape itself is something shadowy, something whose perpetrators are uncertain, hard to identify, hard to blame.

What is frightening – and frighteningly powerful – about these rape myths is that they are aesthetically powerful, like the most compelling story. They have the consistency of imagery that the best fiction has. So, they shape the ways we imagine and talk about rape, without us even realizing they have done so, and they blur together the distinction they claim to uphold, between the first, ‘valid’ kind of rape in the dark alley, and the ‘grey area’ of other rapes.

It is vital that we learn to recognise the ways rape myths work as narratives, so that we can be wise to the messages they send out, and so we can learn to counter what they say.

For more on rape myths, have a look at Rape Crisis’s page:

If you’re in the mood for a cracking rant deconstructing some of these rape myths, have a look here:

Believing Women

New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M 638, f. 16. The Rape of the Levite Woman

New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M 638, f. 16. The Rape of the Levite Woman

My research project – a study of the way medieval romances treat truth and gender – began with a question: what cultural assumptions lie behind stories that represent women as truthful or deceptive, as credible witnesses or as fantasists and liars? What can medieval and modern narratives tell us about the ways society is conditioned to believe – or disbelieve – women?

One medieval narrative that helps us to answer this question is that told by Margery de la Hulle, a young woman living in Berkshire in the thirteenth century. In a court case recorded in 1248, Margery states that, one July evening four years earlier, she had been raped by a man named Nicholas Whatcomb in Bagnor Wood, near Boxford.

At the time when Margery brought this case to court, the odds were heavily stacked against her. Medieval culture could be sympathetic to rape victims, but only when it was clear that they were ‘good’ victims – good women, wrongly accused and (almost invariably) well connected socially. Biblical stories such as the tale of the Levite woman, sent out of her house to be raped, drew horrified responses from medieval storytellers.

In real life, however, it was different.

Rape cases rarely made it to court. They were often withdrawn, and they very rarely ended in a guilty verdict. At every stage, the law reminded women that they were fundmentally less trustworthy than their male peers. The court members – always men – were required to inspect women for signs, such as bloodstained or torn clothing, which might give support to their claims. Women were legally required, before they brought a rape case to court, to describe their experiences to men ‘of good repute’. They were required to publicized their rape, to make a ‘hue and cry’ not only in their own local county, but in the neighbouring counties.

This is what Margery de la Hulle fell foul of. In her court case, the judge ruled that, since Margery did not ‘make hue and cry’ about her rape except in her local county of Berkshire, there was nothing to suggest the truth of her allegation. The penalty for Margery’s failure to follow the arcane rules of the court was immediate: she was guilty of making a false allegation of rape.

The medieval distrust of women who testified to their experiences of rape is frighteningly recognisable. We inherit the legal and theoretical framework that medieval women lived under, where ‘truth’ was a concept men were better equipped to interpret, judge, and communicate than women. The narratives that Margery’s society understood – the narratives in which women were treated as if they were automatically likely to lie – are narratives we still hear, but made more dangerous because for us, they are more insidious.

The King of Tars’s Daughter: Pregnancy, Deformity and Faith

I’ve got a post about my new project brewing, but I’m going to jump right in with this one, which I was turning over in my mind last night while I was watching the first episode of Helen Castor’s brilliant documentary ‘Medieval Lives’. It’s still up on iplayer, and well worth a watch.

Castor’s documentary looks at medieval childbirth, and she explores the state of medical knowledge, as well as the social attitudes and practices surrounding pregnancy and labour. The manuscripts she looked at include some fascinating medical textbooks, which show how medieval doctors imagined babies might be positioned in the womb.


Medieval Foetuses in the Womb (London, BL MS Sloane 2463, f. 217)

I wanted to think about another side of childbirth in medieval England, that is, about the stories people told and the fears and hopes these stories reflected. I look at Middle English romances, which were the popular fiction of late-medieval England. Bringing together drama and fantasy with sensationalism, sex, misogyny and racism, these stories are packed with information about cultural stereotypes and attitudes towards women.

The King of Tars tells a story familiar to medieval readers, in which a woman encounters the evils lurking in the world beyond Christendom. The Christian daughter of the King of Tars marries her father’s enemy, the Muslim Sultan of Damascus, hoping to convert him to Christianity. She becomes pregnant, and when she gives birth, the child is not a healthy baby, but a grotesque ‘lump-child’, a bundle of flesh without limbs or features. The narrator dwells on the horror of the scene:

      “lim no hadde it non … In chaumber it lay hem bifore/ Withouten blod &    bon. … it hadde noither nose no eye,/ Bot lay ded as any ston.”

      (“It had no limbs … It lay before them in the birth-chamber,/ Without   blood or bones … It had neither nose nor eyes,/ But lay dead as any stone.”)

The gruesome birth appalls and enrages the Sultan, who initially blames his wife. She, however, convinces him to let her have the baby baptised, and the act of baptism restores the ‘lump-child’ to a normal human baby who begins to cry. Convinced by this concrete proof, he converts to Christianity.

It’s easy to get caught up in the shocking aspects of this story – the extreme Islamophobia, the miraculous transformation of the baptism. But the description of the deformed, lifeless baby, the angry husband and the distraught new mother makes this story an unsettling one.

The Sultan’s initial anger towards his wife draws on a tradition of medieval men who were repelled by, and fearful of, the female processes of pregnancy and childbirth. St Jerome, noted medieval misogynist, declares ‘Women with child present a revolting spectacle’. Writing to a thirteen-year-old girl, he rants about the disgusting physical effects of pregnancy, the swelling of the belly, and the use of medicines to bring about abortions. This disgust and distrust of pregnant women extended to men’s attitudes towards the mothers of babies born with ‘deformities’. The Bible itself said ‘women in their uncleanness will bear monsters’.

Set against these powerful misogynistic messages, the miraculous conclusion of the romance seems flimsy and inadequate. How did medieval women listening to this story respond to its descriptions? Did they think of their own experiences of childbirth – or those of their mothers, sisters, or daughters? Was the mother of the story, who proves herself innocent of blame as well as true in her Christian faith, a source of inspiration, or a focus of pity?