Monday 20 January 2014

Why so serious? Phallic trees and humour in medieval imagery

Fig. 1 Detail, BNF fr. 25526, fol. 106v
Several weeks ago the image of a Phallus tree from an illuminated manuscript of the Roman de la Rose (BNF fr. 25526) made rounds through the twittersphere (Fig. 1). Originally tweeted by Sarah Peverly, it was probably the closest thing of to a hype a medieval image can get these days, not only being shared and retweeted throughout social media, but also getting attention from several blogs and even making it to the Times Higher Education. I shared the image on Facebook as well and it got the largest amount of attention compared to anything else ever posted on my profile. So it seems that sex sells, even if the sex predates the modern period. The way the image  appeals to such a large modern audience intrigued me, so that I had a look at the background of this kind of imagery

Fig. 2 Massa Maritima Mural
Phallic trees have in the past been ascribed with a number of meaning by scholars. They have been suggested to be related to ideas of fertility and infertility, witchcraft and virgins and moral decline.1 Though some of these interpretations collide and debate on these questions has been ongoing, I don't wish to side with one particular reading. The appearance of the phallus tree in such different contexts as the Mural in Massa Maritima (Fig. 2) and the manuscript of the Roman de la Rose suggests, however, that its meaning is largely object dependent and should not be generalised.

Instead of siding with one particular argument regarding these images, I wish to point out one aspect that is repeatedly left out or only touched upon in passing: the humour. These images makes us chuckle if not downright laugh. To the modern audiences these images are first and foremost entertaining despite their more complex meanings, which leads to our introductory example to its wide dissemination over the internet. But is it just that? The perspective of a modern viewer disconnected from the serious meanings the visual imagery had for its medieval audience?

I cannot help but think that the medieval audience, whether they also understood the underlying meaning or not, might have initially reacted with a chuckle as well. The joking aspect in these images have been mentioned both in regards to the Massa Maritima Mural as well as for the Phallus tree in the Roman de la Rose.2 Similar obscene humour can also be observed elsewhere as for example in
Fig. 3 Detail, Très Riches Heures, 9v,
Musée Condé.
the exposed buttock of a peasant in the later
Très Riches Heures (Fig. 3) or in the Miller's Tale of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. When we think about the complex implications of such imagery we thus also need to consider the humorous aspect. Based on the assumption that medieval viewers would have reacted with amusement, would not the artist himself been aware of this? This throws up further questions as to how visual jokes worked and were used as communicative tool. After all, serious content and jokes do not exclude one another. We might just think of contemporary comedians who often address serious social and political issues, nevertheless humour is their means of transporting these ideas. Would it be possible to consider humour in visual material in a similar way, as essential part of transporting an intended meaning to its audience? A joke quite often addresses that which is a taboo and deals with what cannot be spoken in seriousness. Like the fool in  Shakespearean plays, the joke can tell the audience what no one else will say, unless they are willing to face social sanctions. So it appears to me that this side of humorous imagery needs to be analysed in more detail, in order to fully understand what the visual material communicated to the audience, both the funny and the serious side.

Yet, we must not forget that humour changes. Not everything we might consider funny would have been received in the same way by a medieval audience. Our own humour can therefore not be reliable guide to find medieval jokes, but needs to be evaluated on the background of medieval material. However, the same is also true the other way around, what the medieval eye might have discovered with laughter might create discomfort in the modern viewer. I have come across this problem recently in my own research when considering how humour might have also been a tool in negotiating Self-identity in the face of the Other. Images of violence, of obscenity and even of being the victim of severe undeserved punishment keep appearing within the context of the depiction of non-Christian. Their place in a discourse of the Other is undisputed and they tend to make us uncomfortable as they are signs of intolerance and of prejudice that we (hopefully) have overcome. Yet, I started wondering whether our discomfort might sometimes be a way of recognising that some of these images might have been considered to be funny by their medieval audience. After all, these images address important social anxieties in the face of an experience of alterity. What role did the joke play in these images and might they sometimes enable the viewer to laugh into the face of the Other? I have not come to conclusions regarding this issue so far, but it did make me consider that we might need to reconsider the importance that humour might have played in many visual materials.


1 See among others Ferzoco, George, The Massa Marittima Mural, (Florence: Regional Council of Tuscany Central Communication Unit, 2004); Smith, Matthew Ryan. "Reconsidering the 'Obscene': The Massa Marittima Mural." Shift 2 (2009), 1-27; Mattelaer, Johan J., "The Phallus Tree: A Medieval and Renaissance Phenomenon', Journal of Sexual Medicine 7:2 (2010), 846-51.
Smith, Matthew Ryan. "Reconsidering the 'Obscene': The Massa Marittima Mural." Shift 2 (2009), 5; Camille, Michael, Image on the Edge. The Margins of Medieval Art (London: Reaktion, 1992) 147-149.


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