Here, George Garnett, a professor of medieval history at the University of Oxford, uncovers the human – and horse – genitalia featured in the Bayeux Tapestry, and considers what they might tell us…
The Bayeux Tapestry can arouse obsessiveness of many kinds in modern historians. One type involves tallying the number of images. There are, we are told, 626 humans, 190 horses, 35 dogs, 37 trees, 32 ships, 33 buildings, etc., in the tapestry.
To the best of my knowledge, no-one has yet tallied the number of penises, except in the negative sense that the human ones were systematically edited out, and the equine ones shrunk to dimensions compatible with Victorian decency, when Elizabeth Wardle and her team of lady embroiderers produced an English replica of the whole tapestry in 1885. By my calculations there are 93 penises in what survives of the original tapestry. Four of these are attached to men, and what may be a fifth appears on a soldier’s corpse in the margin below a late stage in the battle of Hastings, as his chain mail is stripped from him [fig 1].
There is also what appears to be a pair of testicles, the penis itself being concealed by a discreetly positioned axe handle [fig 2].
All of these human male genitalia are confined to the upper or lower borders. Men shown wading in the sea in the main action do so with bared legs, presumably to save their clothes from getting wet, but all of them have taken the trouble to cover their modesty [fig 3].
There are 88 penises depicted on horses, all in the main action; and curiously, none on dogs, or on any of the other many creatures in the main frame or borders. With the possible exception of the dead soldier, all the human members are shown tumescent. A small minority of the equine ones are too.
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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 – 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. A fortiori this is likely to have been the case if the needlewomen were nuns, and therefore debarred by vocation from carnal relationships. 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. Does the profusion of penises reveal anything more than a male adolescent mentality on the part of the tapestry’s designer?
It seems to me that it does. The penises depicted on certain stallions might be thought to demonstrate no more than the designer’s scrupulous anatomical accuracy. But it cannot be simply a coincidence that Earl Harold is first shown mounted on an exceptionally well-endowed steed. And the largest equine penis by far is that protruding from the horse presented by a groom to a figure who must be Duke William, just prior to the battle of Hastings [fig 4].
This, the viewer is meant to infer, was the charger on which the duke fought. The clear implications are that the virility of the two leading protagonists is reflected in that of their respective mounts, and that William was in this respect much the more impressive of the two, as the denouement of what survives of the tapestry showed to be the case. Odo of Bayeux, the duke’s half-brother, plays a very important role in the action, but although he is depicted in the thick of the fray, cockily rallying the Norman forces at a critical juncture, the genitalia of his very large horse are modest indeed by comparison [fig 5].
That might be thought only appropriate in a senior man of the cloth, sworn to celibacy, but it is also true of all other mounted participants in the battle, who appear to be laymen. Duke William had to be the outstanding individual in every respect, including his horse’s penis.
As I have already said, the human male genitalia are restricted to the top and bottom borders of the tapestry. By contrast with the horses, there are only five sets, or six if we include the dead soldier. The images in these borders have recently been the subject of an extremely important paper, by Professor Steve White. He has shown that three of them are not simply gratuitous erotica, but learned literary allusions to Phaedrus’s Latin versions of Æsop’s fables. The first appears below the scene in which Guy, count of Ponthieu takes Earl Harold, his captive, to Duke William. It depicts a naked man with an erection reaching out towards a naked woman, who is covering both her face and her pudenda with her hands [fig 6].
This, it has been suggested, depicts a fable concerning a father who had raped his own daughter. Perhaps the designer considered relevant the theme of a treacherous act of predation which could scarcely have been more heinous. It would certainly have coloured the interpretation of the main scene above by any viewer of the tapestry who caught the allusion.
Much later in the tapestry’s story, as the Norman forces ride towards battle at Hastings, there are two further obscene images very close to each other in the upper border. The first is of the naked man whose testicles are visible, but whose penis is concealed by his large axe. He is proffering an unidentified object to a naked woman. The other is of a raffishly moustachioed, naked man and a naked woman, whose pubic hair is, uniquely and profusely, depicted [fig 7].
These two pairs of figures are thought to invoke two fables. The first concerns a widow who embarks on an affair with a guard stationed at the cemetery where her husband is buried. The guard’s role was to prevent the bodies of crucified criminals from being recovered by their relatives. When one was stolen while the guard and widow were disporting themselves, she gave him her husband’s corpse to hang on the empty cross in its place. The second concerns a man and a prostitute, in which the prostitute professes that she loves this client above all others, and he says that he likes what she says, but does not believe her. Both therefore involve illicit sex, dissimulation, deceit, and betrayal, and suggest to the well-read viewer a subversive interpretation of the main action. Even a viewer entirely ignorant of Æsop, provided he or she were observant, might find these distracting images puzzling or disquieting, when contemplated in juxtaposition with the adjacent main action.
The other two penises are in the bottom border and even closer proximity, at a much earlier stage in the narrative. The first is of a naked man, bending over, and holding an axe. It is placed beneath a group of counsellors in attendance on Duke William when he first receives Earl Harold in his palace [fig 8].
If this does, as suggested by Professor White, allude to the Æsopian fable in which a man persuaded trees to provide him with wood for a handle to his axe, and then proceeded to chop them down, his nakedness is irrelevant to the point being made. In this instance the axe handle does not cover anything up. The subsequent squatting full-frontal male figure, pubic hair, testicles, and erect penis brazenly to the fore, though pointing straight downwards, appears immediately beneath one of the tapestry’s enduring mysteries, a scene in which an unidentified priest is shown harassing a woman named Ælfgyfa [fig 9].
There has been much speculation about who she was, and what happened, but nobody now knows. It is clear, however, that this #Me Too moment was for the intended audience so notorious that they immediately grasped its significance, and its place in the tapestry’s story. It pricked the public memory. It therefore seems to me that in this particular priapic instance no fable is being alluded to, just a very familiar recent scandal. The final penis, on the marginal stripped corpse of a dead knight beneath the final stages of the battle, is so unclear, so apparently flaccid, that it may be no such thing. If it is indeed what it appears to be, it is nothing more than an anatomical detail. It is not making a particular point about the action shown above, but is an insignificant element in a broader one about the carnage of war.
There is, therefore, much more to be said about the handful of human penises displayed in the tapestry than the 88 equine ones, even though none of the former appears in the main narrative, and all of the latter do. In most cases the human ones serve to alert well-read viewers to the themes of betrayal and deceit which are central to the tapestry’s account of the Norman invasion of England.
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Who that projected audience was is an interesting question. It is now widely accepted that the tapestry was intended for a clerical audience, that it was displayed in a church – perhaps St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, in close proximity to which it seems to have been designed and perhaps made – on some special liturgical occasion. It must however be questioned whether such scenes would have been considered appropriate viewing for monks, or to accompany any event in the liturgical calendar. The tapestry’s subtly jaundiced message about the Conquest may have been acceptable to a monastic audience, especially to a monastic audience composed predominantly of Englishmen. It is the message conveyed not long afterwards by the great works of English history written in English monasteries in the early 12th century.
The first of those works, Eadmer’s History of Recent Events, was written in Canterbury, and has often been compared with the tapestry in its arch, sceptical treatment of important elements in the Norman account. But the manner in which bits of that message were conveyed, as distinct from the message itself, would have been deemed quite unsuitable for a monastic audience. Male and female genitalia were not a persistent minor theme in the great histories of England. Far from it. Our written sources for the Conquest, all by clerics, fail even to mention the notorious case of Ælfgyfa and the predatory priest.
Moreover, the tapestry is primarily concerned with secular matters; it pays almost no lip service to ecclesiastical ones, other than a very well-informed interest in ecclesiastical (as well as secular) architecture. The highlighting of a vassal – and, to judge from his garb, jester – of Odo of Bayeux as a dwarf looks likely to be an in-joke [fig 10] of a sort designed to appeal to ‘lads’ of the sort Odo is depicted rallying on his large but relatively un-priapic horse during the battle of Hastings.
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. If one mind designed the whole tapestry, if, as the spelling of names and some lapses in captions confirm, that incontrovertibly well-educated mind was English, and if it was male, as I think likely on grounds other than its apparent obsession with the male member, then the question of whether it belonged to a cleric or layman must remain unresolved. So must that of who he envisaged as his primary audience. But the tapestry designer’s priapic predilections supply an important and hitherto neglected snippet of evidence.
George Garnett is a professor of medieval history at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and author of The Norman Conquest: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009).
Prof Garnett delivered a talk titled ‘The Bayeux Tapestry as Embroidered History’ at our Bayeux Tapestry Day at St Anne’s College, Oxford last month.
This article was first published on History Extra in July 2018