Late-medieval Sexual Badges
An unequivocal ‘sign of the times’: an image from the first half of the fifteenth century that leaves nothing to the imagination. Sex sells. This was equally true in centuries past as it is today. The image is clear: a penis protruding from a pair of breeches and stroked by two women. The eyelet at the top shows that the pendant was intended to be worn. Sexual, offensive and obscene imagery has existed in all periods, but the function of such imagery has not always been the same. The image is clear, but what was its function? Who bought such objects? How were they used? Were they worn openly or concealed in people’s undergarments? What did people wish to communicate with them?
Lead-tin alloy badges were part of a visual language that was understood by people in the late Middle Ages but today their meaning and message is no longer clear. This article is a discussion of the various theories that have been put forward to explain these mysterious symbols.
Easy to make and therefore inexpensive, they were made for people with limited means. These badges thus give us an insight into the medieval poor, a group about which little is known. Because the poor have left few traces in history, there are no mediaeval visual or written sources showing or describing people wearing these badges.
Hundreds of badges with sexual motifs have been found. Fig. 2 shows a map from the Kunera database indicating the sites where these badges have been found. Remarkably, the majority have been found in the Low Countries. There is no adequate explanation for this.
An example of a sexual badge of which more than a hundred have been found is the ‘phallus creature’: a penis with legs and in some cases a bell around its ‘neck’. Some examples depict a bird pecking at the glans penis (fig. 3).
Is this a play on words? The Latin word ‘glans’ also means acorn and the bird in fig. 3 and the wings in figures 4 and 5 are an allusion to the Dutch word ‘vogelen’ (literally, ‘to bird’), which means to engage in sexual intercourse. Many profane badges contain puns that refer to sexual activities.
Art historian Jan Baptist Bedaux has pointed to these badges function in warding off evil and has compared them to Roman wind chimes known as tintinnabuli (fig. 5).1
These mobiles in the form of winged phallic creatures with feet and bells were intended to ward off the evil eye. Plutarch writes in his Quaestiones Convivales (V.7.3) that anything obscene, indecent or ridiculous possesses the power to attract the eye of evil persons or demons thus leading it away from the threatened person. The phallic badges should be seen in the same tradition. They are both shocking and humorous: the perfect combination for warding off evil.
Malcolm Jones, who has written extensively about sexual culture in the Middle Ages, comes to a similar conclusion. If phallic symbols were intended to ward off evil, then they also brought happiness, in this case sexual contentment. The key to this theory is a badge found in Middelburg with the inscription ‘DE SELDE’ (fig. 6), which means ‘happiness’ in Middle Dutch.2
Like Bedaux and Jones, Dutch art historian Jos Koldeweij also believes in the apotropaic and happiness-bestowing character of the badges but he links happiness to fertility and thus to prosperity and status.3
Jones describes the satirical character of some of the badges. The badge depicting a pilgrim in the form of a vulva, carrying a rosary and a pilgrim’s staff (fig. 7) is clearly an indictment of female pilgrims who, as in Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale, went on pilgrimage solely for the sexual adventures to be had along the way.
Another example shows a vulva on a bier carried by three phalluses (fig. 8). Jones posits that this was a critique of Catholic processions: a crowned vulva has replaced the effigy of the Virgin.4 Another possible interpretation is that the badge shows that women are the bosses: the vulva reigns over the phalluses.
Jones has also shown that some of the badges were intended as parodies. A comb with a copulating couple (fig. 9) is a parody of the costly combs use by the aristocracy, depicting elegant couples engaged in courtship (fig. 10). The lead-tin alloy examples make very clear where such courtship leads.5
There are also writers who think that the badges were worn during carnival, a celebration of the world turned upside-down or le monde renversé. In this context, the sexual badges would have represented an inversion of chastity and a mockery of a virtuous and decent life. Scholar Gaby Herchert believes that these badges were satirical prizes awarded during meetings of the carnival societies such as the Narrengerichten6.
These last two theories treat the sexual badges as abnormal, for use in abnormal situations such as carnival. This assumes that the badges had no place in the everyday life of medieval people. However, too many such badges have been found for them to have been used only during the short period of carnival.
In 2013 writer Christopher Retsch put forward a different theory. He believes that these badges are tokens of affection exchanged by lovers. This theory is supported by those badges inscribed with the word ‘AMOUR’ (figs. 11 and 12).7 They are unmistakably objects that you would give to your sweetheart. The example found in Den Bosch is the more ribald of the two.
The theories outlined above are probably applicable to some of the badges, but not all of them. Since they exhibit so many different motifs, they probably had overlapping functions.
A fact that is unthinkable for people today is that the average medieval person had very little contact with images. Parchment and paper were expensive and affordable only for the wealthy. The only images that ordinary people had access to were those on and in churches and public buildings and carvings they made themselves; the printing press had not yet been invented.
Given this context, it is not hard to imagine that once a means had been found to produce inexpensive images in the form of wearable lead badges there would be a ready market for them. These badges were the first mass-produced images in Western Europe. The first to be produced were the pilgrims’ badges. When these proved successful, it didn’t take long for enterprising individuals to offer profane and even sexual versions. Another important consideration is that, given the limited availability of images, communications between people in the Middle Ages were very different to ours today. Medieval people processed their observations very differently to us. Visual information was much more scarce and was therefore more emotionally charged, especially when, as was the case with the badges, they were offered to another person.
Some scholars, such as Malcolm Jones, argue that these badges were simply decorative or were intentionally humorous. This may well be true without invalidating any of the aforementioned theories.
Art historian Gerhard Wolf believes that, in contrast to the religious badges, which speak for themselves, the profane badges were intended to provoke a response from the viewer, thus resulting in communication. A sexual badge could have numerous meanings depending on the wearer and the situation.8 A badge could provoke amusement or offense, depending on who bought it and to whom they showed it. It is probable that these badges were essentially devoid of content and derived their meaning from how they were used.
The disappearance of sexual badges after 1450 was most probably due to the advent of printed images. Printing became cheaper than casting lead-tin alloy badges. The role of imagery in society underwent massive changes due to the availability of printed matter.
As long as we have no textual or visual sources that say something about the function of these badges as sexual symbols, we cannot prove anything with certainty.
Bedaux, Jan Baptist, Laatmiddeleeuwse sexuele amuletten. Een sociobiologische benadering in; Bedaux, Jan Baptist (red.), ‘Annus Quadriga Mundi. Opstellen over middeleeuwse kunst opgedragen aan prof. dr. Anna C. Esmijer’, Zutphen, 1989, p. 16-30 ↩
Jones Malcolm, The Secret Middle Ages: Discovering the Real Medieval World, Westport, 2002, p. 250 ↩
Koldeweij, A.M., Geloof en Geluk. Sieraad en devotie in middeleeuws Vlaanderen, Arnhem 2006, p. 113. ↩
Jones, Malcolm, The Secular Badges in; Beuningen, H.J.E. van, Koldeweij, A.M., ‘Heilig en Profaan 1. 1000 laat-middeleeuwse insignes uit de collectie H.J.E. van Beuningen’, Cothen, 1993, p. 99-109. ↩
Jones, Malcolm, Sex, Popular Beliefs and Culture in; Evans, Ruth (ed.), ‘A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Middle Ages’, Oxford/New York, 2011, p. 151. ↩
Herchert, Gaby, ‚Wer trägt des Pfaffen Schand’ am Hut? Deutungen erotischer Tragezeichen aus literarischen und rechtlichen Perspektiven’ in Winkelman, J.H., Wolf, G., Erotik aus dem Dreck gezogen, Amsterdam 2004, p. 91-111 ↩
Retsch, Christopher, Obszön-erotische Tragezeichen als frivole ‘Liebesgaben’ in: Kühne, Hartmut, Lambacher, Lothar, Hrdina, Jan (ed.), ‘Wallfahrer aus dem Osten. Mittelalterliche Pilgerzeichen zwisschen Ostsee, Donau und Seine’, Frankfurt am Main, 2013, p. 425-459. ↩
Wolf, Gerhard, ‘Phallus am Grillspiess und Vulva auf stelzen. Überlegungen zur kommunikativen Funktion erotischer und obszöner Tragezeichen aus den Niederlanden‘ in Winkelman, J.H., Wolf, G., Erotik aus dem Dreck gezogen, Amsterdam, 2004, p. 291 ↩