Friday, June 1, 2012

The Medieval Dick Tree Strikes Again!

So I recently posted this about the discovery of medieval dick trees by a friend of mine. We decided to do a bit more research, in the interest of sharing the spirit of medieval penises with all, which has nothing to do with the fact that I'm a history-obsessed teenage girl. *ahem*
Apparently, it has everything to do with witchcraft and propaganda.
On the subject of this image, which is actually a mural at a fountain and was included in the aforementioned post, George Ferzoco, director of the Centre for Tuscan Studies at the University of Leicester, has written an entire book. He claims that the mural was really a giant slur against a political group called the Ghilbellines by a political group called the Guelphs. Roughly speaking, the Ghibellines were a rural people who supported the Holy Roman Empire, while the Guelphs were wealthier and supported the Pope. They liked to argue and go to war against each other a lot and, according to Ferzoco, the Guelphs had just (however temporarily) kicked the Ghibellines out of Massa Marittima, the town in which this phallic mural was created.The black eagle was the symbol of the Guelphs (for reasons which escape me, as 'Guelph' is simply the Italian version of the Bavarian 'Welf' family, who were symbolised by a lion) and if you put it all together, Ferzoco claims the image says this: “if the Ghibellines are allowed power they will bring with them heresy, sexual perversion, civic strife and witchcraft.”

That's some pretty heavy mudslinging and to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure I buy it. Medievalists had little qualms about depicting things as they were; this is why we have a tree full of dicks and images of people with various weapons sticking out of them.
wound surgery, 1517. This poor fellow must have the worst luck in the world

If the Guelphs truly wanted to show 'civic strife' wouldn't there be people murdering each other or robbing each other? Instead of a rather contented scene, with the exception of two women who appear to be cat-fighting?

If they wanted to show sexual perversion, wouldn't they have something barbaric taking place, rather than what appears to be one of the disembodied penises gently poking the back of a woman's dress? After all, if pins depicting characterised genitalia wearing hats, crowns, wings and anything else you can think of were common in the Middle Ages (if this sounds like a must-have for your wardrobe, see this site. They're actually rather cheap) and blatantly detached phalli were accepted enough to be depicted on a large mural, I hardly think that 'sexual perversion' would be limited to this.

Heresy, I can perhaps see, as I'm not certain on the godliness of cock-trees and their possible usages. But was this really the greatest threat the Guelphs could think up? "The Ghibellines will infest your towns with cock-trees! No grove, no orchard, no bower will be safe! The streets will be littered with dropped dicks and your old women will be hit upon the head as they recline in the shade!"

And the witch craft? Well according the the Malleus Maleficarum, a famous fifteenth century book dedicated to finding and eliminating all witches, that is precisely how the dicks got into the tree in the first place.

And what, then, is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report?

For a certain man tells that, when he had lost his member, he approached a known witch to ask her to restore it to him. She told the afflicted man to climb a certain tree, and that he might take which he liked out of the nest in which there were several members. And when he tried to take a big one, the witch said: You must not take that one; adding, because it belongs to a parish priest.

Setting aside the obvious implications about parish priests and large members and the disturbing mental images of dicks eating corn (I think I saw that horror movie...) we now have another threat: "The Ghibellines will steal your dicks and put them in boxes and in trees!" I think that alone might have frightened men enough to keep them away, regardless of their political and religious views.

But Carl S. Pyrdum III of Got Medieval isn't so sure it has anything to do with witches. He states:

On the charge of witchcraft, I am less convinced. Beyond the problematic several centuries separating the Massa Marittima mural and the Malleus, there is little in the mural other than their proximity to the magic johnsons, that suggests that these women are witches. 
I know I’m going to take some heat from the medieval witchcraft lobby here, but not every medieval woman found taking an interest in a suddenly mobile phallus should be considered a witch. The Bibliotheque Nationale, for instance, has a manuscript of the Romance of the Rose with a marginal illustration of a woman trying to fish a penis out of a penis tree, much like the woman in the Massa Marittima mural, and in the Romance of the Rose it’s usually just thought to be a joke about how lascivious women are. Similarly, there is the German medieval story, Nonnenturnier, in which a man quarrels with his penis so much that it decides to leave him, eventually ending up at a convent where a group of nuns hold a tournament to determine who will get to have it.

So what does this mural really mean? I'm no Medieval scholar and I welcome corrections, but it seems to me there are two different things at play here.

First is the obvious: the Medieval period was all about interesting analogies and ways of referring to things. Chaucer's use of 'something green may I get' was so effective that we still have children singing 'Greensleeves' without being aware they're mourning the departure of a sexual strumpet. Penises growing on trees is in no way a far-fetched allusion to fertility and sexuality. So more than likely this was simply an interesting way of promoting the fertile waters of the particular spring (and perhaps those who met there for liaisons).

But what about the eagles? Well, if you take a look at them, aren't they placed rather oddly? In contrast to the smooth flow of the rest of the piece and the generous spacing of the individuals, we have eagles crammed wherever they'll fit and flying in odd directions. Unless they have somehow become intoxicated by the phalli in the trees, they don't appear at all to fit with the style of the people below them.

I think what we have here is a case of medieval graffiti. I can't be sure, as I have no way to examine the original mural, but perhaps the eagles were added later by someone in support of the Ghibellines. Or perhaps what Ferzoco says is largely true and the Guelphs added the eagles in an attempt to villainise penis trees?

We may never know.

The Magnificent Medieval Dick Tree: A New Discovery by RainstormDragon

From BnF MS Fr. 25526, a 14th-century copy of the Romance of the Rose
No, your eyes do not deceive you. The above is a genuine medieval manuscript in which a woman is harvesting a basket full of dicks from a tree.
Well, one can only presume if they weren't harvested while firm, they would go soft and eventually fall off the tree? I really don't know.

Apparently this sort of thing happened often in medieval times, because backtracking through links, I found a post that included this carving as well:
a contemporaneous altar carving

And further research yielded this illumination:
I gathered my courage and Google image searched, and it turns out that this may not have been just some medieval superstition... there is modern photographic evidence of this happening with a passion fruit tree in Brazil:

Passion fruit

But that's not all! This has happened on at least three other types of trees:

So yeah. I learned something tonight. Penises grow on trees.
Nature. Well then..

**This discovery was first made by my clever friend RainstormDragon. I found it so silly I had to share it. I take no claim for it. You can find the original post here.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Death To The Earthquake-Causing Catfish! A Tale of Farting Gods and Flattened Fish

When the Great Ansei Edo Earthquake struck what is now Tokyo, Japan on November 11th, 1855 there was only one thing on the minds of the survivors: Death to the catfish!


You may think catfish are fairly harmless Siluriformes, with cute whiskers and bulgy eyes, but that's where you'd be wrong.

Okay, yeah, he's pretty darned cute. © Tetzl on Flickr.

As everyone in Edo-period Japan knew, a giant catfish called Namazu lived deep underground, lurking under cities in the depths of the earth. He was generally restrained by the god Kashima, who had a habit of  standing on Namazu's head to keep him from being too unruly (works great on kids, too).

Kashima Flattens The Catfish
Before you start to sympathise too much with the poor whiskered fellow, let's talk about that fateful November day.

You see, every once in awhile Kashima got bored and wanted to join a war. Or had to get up to use the bathroom. Or decided to start a lightning storm somewhere else. And whenever this happened, he'd place a large rock on Namazu's head to hold him down (This also works well on children.) and enlist the help of a minor god named Ebisu.
Don't even deny it - you're envious of his hat. I wouldn't mind tasting one of those fish, either.

 Ebisu was a fisherman's friend, a merry fellow known as The Laughing God, who also bore a great fondness for large hats. He was, bizarrely, born without any bones, arms, or legs. How he managed to overcome this, I have no idea, but he somehow not only grew a skeleton, but became a god. This didn't fix his other birth defects, however, so though he has very large ears, he does not hear very well, he still limps, and is extremely absent-minded.

If I wanted The Giant Catfish of Doom & Destruction properly guarded, I don't think Ebisu would have been my first choice, but maybe Kashima didn't want to be rude. Maybe no-one else volunteered.

However it transpired, Ebisu was left to guard said Giant Catfish of Doom & Destruction while Kashima rode off to argue with Thor over who made a better god of thunder.

Given what we know about Ebisu, is the following scene particularly surprising to anyone?
Oh, Ebisu...

 That's right. Ebisu fell asleep. Of course, that's not all that's going on in this picture, but we'll get there.

It also shouldn't be too surprising that Namazu was not particularly thrilled with the boulder-on-his-cranium idea. He didn't much care to be stood on, either. And he definitely didn't like being slept on. (Ebisu snored and everyone knows catfishes hate snoring.)

So on November 11th, 1855, while Kashima was elsewhere, and Ebisu was sleeping, oblivious, Namazu tried to escape. He thrashed and he rolled and he flipped.

He didn't manage to get the stone off his head, (or wake up Ebisu), but by the time Kashima came riding back at a fast gallop, Namazu had destroyed a good bit of the city of Edo.
Kashima plays Asian Legolas.

Namazu got trod on some more, to the delight of the villagers, and Ebisu managed to keep his job by apologising profusely.

Namazue earthquake catfish picture --
Those are the scariest catfish I have ever seen. Also, Ebisu has a serious drunk-face going on.

Here we see 18 Namazu apologising to Kashima for their crimes. I think catfish in robes are adorable. Maybe it's just me. This picture was supposed to protect your house from earthquakes if you put it on the ceiling. It would, at the very least, give you interesting dreams if you fell asleep looking at it. Or maybe that's me too.
Woodblock print of earthquake catfish --
Behold the magical Japanese converse shoe of earthquake-protection.

It almost makes you feel sorry for them, until you realise that, here they are, clearly plotting the Tohoku Earthquake of 2011.
Is it me, or does the blue-robed catfish look like a communist?

But who on earth decided that catfish are the cause of earthquakes? And who is the strange fellow with the bare bum?

The catfish are the easier to explain. It is said that catfish are more sensitive to earthquakes than many other animals and so, before an impending earthquake, would thrash wildly, perhaps in agitation, fear, or an attempt to escape. People seeing this wrongly assumed that the whiskered fish were actually participating in the quake activity.

But the man with the naked backside is a bit of an odder story. Turns out his name is Raijin and he's the thunder god.
Thor has nothing on this. Sounds like he would have gotten on well with Joan of Finsbury. © Bamse

Gregory Smits explains in his work 'Shaking up Japan: Edo Society and the 1855 Catfish Picture Prints', that:
The strange looking man to the left of the print is the thunder deity, engaging in a peculiar pastime of some Edo residents, which we might call “extreme farting,” or perhaps “thunder farting.” The basic object of this sport was to make more noise than one’s opponents. According to the scholar Hiraga Gennai (1729–1779) in his treatise H¯ohiron (On farting), thunder farting made its debut in 1774 at the Ry¯ogoku Bridge, a major site of popular culture displays in Edo. Small drums issue forth from the thunder deity’s posterior, no doubt to emphasize the booming sonic element in his performance.

At this point, really nothing from Japan should surprise me.

Thanks to Bamse and tetzl for their photographs. Thanks to PinkTentacle for the namazu-e (catfish pictures) and if you want to see catfish partying with prostitutes, you should check out the rest of the images I couldn't put in the post. Thanks to Gregory Smits for information on farting gods and thank you for reading to the end of odd catfish post.

Pummeled For Pies By Prostitutes

About three o’clock yesterday afternoon a poor man who used to sell hot pies, &c, went into one of the infamous brothels in Dover-Street, to offer his pies for sale, when he was immediately surrounded by the wretches who inhabited it, his pies were soon picked up and devoured by them, they then hooted and laughed at him, setting him at defiance, and refusing to pay for his pies. They then struck him unmercifully with quart pots, a poker, &c, until he was quite senseless and left for dead, of which they only made sport for some time; but at length not recovering, the case became publicly known, and the poor man was carried home to his house, 14, Tower Street, facing Bethlem, but expired in a few minutes: a surgeon was sent for but could render no assistance. One woman, who is charged with the mortal blow, was secured and lodged in the watch-house.

~The Hereford Journal, September 1st, 1819

Self-Injury Among Victorians? A Picture of Misery.

Eliza Josolyne, February 1857.
Admitted to Bethlem "Bedlam" Mental Hospital,
Age 23,
For 'insanity from overwork'.

Eliza was admitted when she failed to keep up with the demands of a single-servant house - that is, she was unable to perform the task of tending, stocking, cleaning, lighting and banking the fires and lamps in all twenty rooms during the winter months all by herself.

She began to self-injure and when admitted, her records reported that she ‘has frequently tried to injure herself by knocking her head against doors and walls, and has slept in the padded room on this account’.

A few months later, Eliza was transferred to the 'Incurables Department' and no further record of her is known.

Another Breastoration!
Portrait of the Artist With His Wife & Son

Another marvelous example of Breastoration! This one comes courtesy of Jan Kupecky and was painted in 1718. I suppose if you're the artist and it's your wife, you get the benefit of depicting her topless. Makes me wonder what she thought of it. Or maybe as Ms. Loofbourow suggests, it was all part of the fashion.

Opium! The greatest gift a medical cabinet could have!

Opium, of course, is made from the Opium Poppy (Papaver Somniferum) as are a whole range of drugs, both medicinal and illicit.

Various opiates, such as laudanum, were once widely available. In Victorian times, anyone could purchase a bottle of laudanum for their pains, either physical or emotional, and opium was sold in large cakes wrapped in brown paper. From this, a mixture of sugar, opium and water could be made and this was frequently given to babies and small children to keep them quiet and still while their parents were busy. This naturally created a number of very young addicts, and in the 1800s there are numerous accounts of children as young as five attempting to buy bottles of laudanum for their own use.

Today, opiates are strictly regulated drugs because of their high potential for abuse. Personally, I find this a shame and an over-exaggerated fear.

The knowledge of the proper applications of opiates are no secret and have been well-known since ancient times. That doctors persist on prescribing these new 'wonder' drugs, when no-one has really any idea what they do, as they are only 'thought to work' in a particular fashion, seems impossibly reckless.

Moreover, nothing kills pain quite like opiates. There is no safer, more readily available, widely understood drug for the treatment of acute and chronic pains than the extracts of Papaver sap.

As a long-term sufferer of chronic pain (thankfully cleared up now through surgery) I understand both the great blessing of being temporarily painfree and the struggles involved to find a doctor who isn't too afraid of addiction to prescribe you a few pills.

 But this is a blog about history, not the modern medical field.