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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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"The history of civilization is the history of a long warfare between the dangerous and powerful forces of the id, and the various systems of taboos and inhibitions which man has erected to control them," says British author Gordon Rattray Taylor in 1964 in his curious work but often striking Sex in History (1954). Nowhere is his statement more applicable than in the Middle Ages. Explicit references to sexuality are undoubtedly very conspicuously absent in the medieval arts and nudity in general is painstakingly avoided, yet churches are teeming with sexual images that rival the most explicit pornography of the 21st century.

To be able to see them, you will need to stretch your neck, for the "stumbling stone" are high on the walls of the church. They under the form of corbels, stones jutting out of a wall to carry a super-incumbent weight, or other functional elements with a decorative secondary function. The best known are the chimeras (monstrous creatures in which different animals are grafted together), grotesques (human and animal forms as curly designs) and gargoyles. A not so significant number of these ornaments are obscene in nature.

In Britain they are called sheela-na-gigs (image) called - exhibitionist sculptures of women - and they are found most frequently on Irish churches. Similar sculptures are also found on the mainland, such as the mooning gargoyle in Freiburg, Germany (image). In France, the oldest examples are from the 11th century (image) and Spain, where tradition supposedly arose, has even order specimens.

Like the baubo in Greek arts, the function of these decorations is open to many interpretations. Four explanations are put forward: fertility symbols, vestiges of pagan gods, a warning against lust and a protection against the evil eye. Whichever statement is best to your liking, they offer a much less exalted view of the medieval erotic culture than the paintings and frescoes which have so far illustrated this chapter.

Also, the penis-shaped and winged fascina we know from Roman antiquity, are apparently still alive. In medieval times they are worn as amulets to ward off the evil eye or ensure fertility. They are popular with pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela or other shrines. Some amulets also honour the vulva. (image)

This page Jahsonic/AHE/The Middle Ages/The caveman hides in the church, part of the AHE project is copyright Jan Willem Geerinck and may only be cited as per the fair use doctrine. The images mentioned in the text can be found here and the translation notes here.

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