Our theme for the month of June is “Sex and the Church.”

I have blushed and blundered and nodded and smiled my way through many a conversation that branches into unfamiliar slang territory, especially of the sexual variety. During my freshman year of college, I was more familiar with 1930s phrases such as “makin’ whoopie” than I was with the term “to bang.” This particular gap in my knowledge had embarrassing consequences when I told a room full of my peers that “banging” was my pet peeve. Of course, I meant people who nervously tap things, but that’s what not what everyone else immediately thought.

But I don’t believe that I’m the only one who has felt out-of-the-know. Sex and bodies have offered humankind an endless reservoir of ever-evolving euphemisms, some of which are obvious, while others remain obscured by their cultural and temporal specificity.   

Lest you think sexual euphemisms and imagery stray too far from this month’s post calvin theme, let’s take a quick and superficial dive into the wild world of the Middle Ages, an era when the church prescribed all patterns of human behavior, including when and how to have sex. For example, the medieval church declared you could not have sex on Sundays (or Thursdays, Fridays, or Saturdays) or during certain chunks (long chunks) of the church calendar like Advent or Lent. And, if you must have sex, only the missionary position was sanctioned and excessive caressing was discouraged. Sex should be a quick in and out with procreation as the only objective.

Here’s another of my favorite medieval sex tips: a man should wear a hat during sex, lest his wife suck out all his body heat. According to the anatomical structure of the four humors (the liquids they believed made up the human body), women tended to be cold and wet, while men, as befit their supposedly superior intellects, were warm and dry. A hat could help the man retain his heat against his wife’s clammy coolness.

As twenty-first century people, we are quite “out-of-the-know” when it comes to jokes about medieval sex culture. So gird your loins, and I’ll illuminate some of the more subtle “need-to-knows” about the objects that often symbolized sex in the Middle Ages.  

Fruit, especially with seeds
Lots of different fruits can take on a sexual flavor with a bit of imagination. Anything with a lot of seeds— like strawberries or pomegranates—were medieval favorites. Also, figs, because of their dark exterior and red interiors, were considered symbolic of female genitalia, while pears represented a male. Think of these as the eggplant emojis of their time.

Animals, in general
Animals often represent the beastial human passions. But certain animals took on more specific connotations—even the most innocent and cuddly creatures. A sleeping dog could denote a hiatus from sexual chastity. Rabbits were associated with a willingness to breed.

Even squirrels could become a sex symbol. (Warning: if you happen to think squirrels are cute creatures, maybe skip this part. But, if you, like me, already think squirrels are nasty, garbage-bloated vermin, then read on!)

In one medieval French tale, a lady asks a man what he holding beneath his tunic. He says it is a “squirrel,” and he asks if he can put the squirrel into her belly so that it can “eat some nuts.” The willing lady encourages the squirrel to eat up.(1)

Anything round-ish that opens
You name it, if it is round-ish and can be opened, poked, and somehow marked as having been penetrated—it could be a medieval symbol for a vagina. Oysters reminded medieval readers or viewers of the precious pearls inside, waiting to be plucked. Rings receive fingers, the open pages of a book are punctured by the pen. The famous poem “The Romance of Rose” literally revolves around an elusive, erotically charged rose with titillating metaphorical petals that are peeled back.

Anything that pierces
Needles, plows, pens, swords, scabbards, protruding shoes, arrows, towers. Get the point?

The obvious
And then there’s stuff that needs less explanation. Lots of medieval art is overtly sexual. You don’t really have to guess that a painting depicting a nun collecting male genitalia off a tree has something to do with sex! Some medieval visual culture is as boldly bawdy now as the day it was made.

Of course, what continues to be a mystery is why the Middle Ages were so rife with sexual imagery, which appears even as decoration in the margins of holy books. What was the context? Would everyone have been in on these jokes or just a limited literate audience?  Are images of lusty apes in a prayer book satirical? Cautionary? Or just goofy? Today, scholars still surmise and wonder about these images, and there are fascinating studies that seek to answers these “whys.” But a full understanding may always remain somewhat mysterious— lost to ribald ages past.

(1) Lucy Freeman Sandler, “A Bawdy Betrothal in the Ormesby Psalter,” in Tribute to Lotte Brand Phillip: Art Historian and Detective, ed. W.W. Clark et al (NY: 1985): 155-59.


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