(This post originally appeared here on the F Yeah History blog)
We’ve all been there. Maybe it was on the Internet or maybe you were lucky enough to be there in person. I’m talking about viewing the Bayeux Tapestry, probably the most recognisable and iconic piece of medieval art. But as serious as the Tapestry is, every now and then, she throws us a massive curveball. This is what I’m talking about:
And here's another:
In fact, if you were to count them — and somebody has — there are 93 penises on the Bayeux Tapestry. That person is George Garnett, Professor of History at Oxford University. Of the 93 penises, 88 belong to horses and the remaining 5 to men. Historians agree that the presence of so many penises has a deeper meaning, and I’m inclined to agree. The story of the Norman Conquest has as much violence, intrigue and scandal as any other story in history. Excuse the pun, but the Norman Conquest doesn’t need sexing up. So if they’re not there for aesthetic, or even erotic, purposes, why are they there at all?
Well, Garnett argues that the penis is the ultimate symbol of power and virility, associated with particular figures in the Tapestry. For example, the scene below shows a groom presenting a horse to Duke William. This horse has the largest penis of all animals depicted on the Tapestry, and it’s no coincidence that such an animal should be presented to William, the warrior who conquered the English:
In some instances, nudity functions as an illusion to contemporary fables; fables which would have resonated with the Tapestry’s audiences. The example below is believed to represent a well-known fable in which a father raped one of his own daughters. While sexual assault is not a theme in the Tapestry or the Norman Conquest, the notions of treachery and predation are. The placement of this image is deliberate: it sits below Harold Godwinson, the man accused of breaking his sacred oath to Duke William.
What I find really interesting about Garnett’s analysis is how he uses it to make wider claims about the people responsible for creating the Tapestry, Before looking at those in more depth, it’s worth remembering that there remains significantly controversy over who commissioned the Tapestry: Was it William’s half-brother, Odo of Bayeux, to celebrate and commemorate the Norman victory? Or, as Carolina Hicks has argued more recently, was it the brainchild of Edith of Wessex, Harold Godwinson’s sister, who found herself in an awkward spot after Hastings and wanted acceptance from the new regime? Similarly, the debate still rages over who stitched this beautiful tapestry, which, interestingly, isn’t a tapestry at all; it’s an embroidery. Was it stitched by English nuns, either in one place or across the country, or was it put together by professionals?
Either way, the point is that Garnett uses these 93 penises to make some rather bold claims about who commissioned the Tapestry and who actually stitched it. Firstly, he argues that it must have been a man because the number of penises is indicative of a “male adolescent mentality”. Secondly, he contends that the Tapestry must have been stitched by men because medieval women, nuns particularly, could not have been so well acquainted with and comfortable around male genitalia. In asserting both of these claims, he acknowledges that he makes some pretty sweeping generalisations about the “male and female psyche” in the last century, but he remains convinced by his conclusions.
I have no doubts that Garnett’s views about gender and sexuality are influenced by his own life experiences. His recollections of life in a boys’ school, for instance, have clearly moulded a particular view. In contrast, being a woman, being educated at a state school and at a non-Oxbridge University, being of a different generation; all of these factors lead me down a very different path of analysis when I think about Garnett’s arguments and the assumptions on which they are based. With this in mind, it’s important to critically examine the generalisations that Garnett makes about the male and female psyche if we are to make any further progress in this debate:
1. Is it fair and accurate to say that Anglo-Saxon women, nuns included, were ‘prudish?’ Did they lack the awareness and/or confidence to stitch 93 penises? Conversely, is it fair and accurate to suggest that male members of the Norman aristocracy, like Odo of Bayeux, possessed this “adolescent mentality?” 2. Is it possible that there were other motives at play during the creation of the Tapestry, like revenge for English humiliation?
Frankly, you could write a book on this — and I’m sure somebody probably will. However, on the first point, we know that there are multiple examples of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman nuns who broke their vow of chastity. As for a widespread prudishness, there is evidence that the Saxons literature shied away from overtly sexual tendencies. But it’s worth remembering that the surviving literature was created in a monastic context; a context that sought to safeguard sexual morality. As for the “adolescent mentality” of men, like Odo of Bayeux, we are left to make inferences about their character. We know Odo wasn’t your typical clergyman: he was once described as a man of “uncontrollable lust” and was tried for defrauding the crown in 1076.
On the second point, nothing quite says revenge like stitching 93 penises all over someone’s moment of glory. I don’t mean to lower the tone here, but we could argue that those who stitched the Tapestry — be they male or female — wanted to momentarily regain some of the control they had just relinquished to the Normans. Maybe the feelings of treachery and predation that were expressed through the naked man and woman were English feelings towards the death of Harold Godwinson, not those of the Normans.
These are questions that might never be answered; assertions that might never be validated (or disproved, for that matter). In the meantime, let’s keep talking about the Bayeux Tapestry and its plethora of penises because, if nothing else, we could all do with a laugh in the COVID-19 pandemic.