Phallus & Vulva

The pilgrim and secular badges found by archaeologists unexpectedly teach us how the symbols associated with sexuality were perceived in the late Middle Ages.

The secular badges confront us with the aspect of everyday life, which until now remained largely unknown. The written sources were silent about them, and the objects themselves were preserved in very few copies. The motifs used in them can be surprising for modern viewers. They often depict the image of Vulva or Phallus as carriers of moralizing content. It is part of the medieval world of meanings, in which the sacred dimension was confronted with the secular one. And each of them had their own designated role.

Phallus protruding from trousers and stroked by two women, 1400-1450, 63 x 33 mm, found in Bruges, Van Beuningen family collection, Langbroek

One of such amazing images is a badge showing three phalluses with a crowned vulva. Some interpreted it as an extreme reversal of Marian symbolism. Others as a representation of Vrouw Minne (ie the Dutch equivalent of Venus, the goddess of lust). Vrouw Minne, like Eve, in a meaningful way was associated in the medieval symbolism with the figure of Mary as the one overcoming original sin.

Crowned vulva carried on a bier by three phallic figures, 1375-1425, 56 x 45 mm, found in Bruges, Van Beuningen family collection, Langbroek

An another badge, found in Vlaardingen, shows a woman pushing a huge wheelbarrow loaded with penises on the back of a huge phallus. It has the same meaning as the earlier badge and refers to the power of lust. Apparently the woman, as a penis worshiper, has spent a lot of effort to satisfy her desires.

Badge displaying an enormous phallus, the reverse shows a woman pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with phalli, 1375-1450, found in Vlaardingen (private collection)

It is possible that these badges fulfilled a function in the public stigmatization of adulterers. Communities could punish this sinners by pinning such badges to both women and men. Thus, they would be disgraced in the eyes of the whole group. That would explain the considerable size of these badges, which had to attract immediate attention.

The standards and values of the Medieval time were based on the ubiquitous Christian system of beliefs. Images reversing this order contrasted such holy figures as Mary with more mundane themes. Motifs with phallus and vulva worshipers displayed the wrong path they had chosen. In their pursuit of short earthly pleasures, they served the devil instead of focusing on eternal life alongside Christ and his saints.

These badges in their function balance between the secular and religious meaning. Their recipients were so aware of the truths of christian faith that these almost blasphemous contents did not pose a threat to them. On the contrary, they provoked reflection on the values beloved by the beholder. Although they were not sanctioned by the Church, they were not banned as well. As the very fact of their existence indicates. And certainly ordinary people did not consider them to be blameworthy.

Phallus creature with crown and wings, 1375-1425, 29 x 28 mm, found in Nieuwlande, Van Beuningen family collection, Langbroek

P. S. [edit] A large part of the preserved badges is of a pilgrim nature, that is, it belonged to pilgrims traveling to holy places. These travels were made in various intentions, not only for the salvation of the soul but also for the more earthly reasons. Such as the longing for the conception of an offspring. And as the comment to this post rightly states, such a badge could later be kept as a souvenir of a pilgrimage, a votive offering, and also a talisman of fertility. Like this badge from Langbroek.

I recommend a very interesting article on which I based this entry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.