What it’s Like to be a Medievalist

I go to law school parties with my wife sometimes, and inevitably one of the laywers-in-training will ask me what I do. I tell them I’m a PhD candidate in medieval studies, to which they usually respond with a baffled, “Wow, that’s so cool. So, you, like read old books?”

If only they knew. Yesterday I spent an hour and a half at talk hosted by the English department that was nigh unto indistinguishable from an episode of Beavis and Butthead. It involved senior faculty snickering while looking at dirty medieval art and grad students trying to pretend that they were above such things.

Ostensibly, the subject of the talk was “Chaucer and the Relics of Vernacular Religion,” but the handouts were mostly dirty pictures like this one, which I took from an online auction house’s listing, because Prof. Minnis’s photocopies wouldn’t scan well:

Medieval pewter erotic [pilgrim’s] badge
Showing a vulva on stilts, crowned with 3 phallus.*

Complete with pin.

Don’t think that this is just some credulous internet site misidentifying an innocuous artifact (or mistaking a lead miniature Eye of Sauron for a medieval relic). They’ve got it right. While the talk didn’t feature the stilt-walking kind, we did see pictures of a badge of a crowned vulva being carried in a litter by three penis-men, several of flying winged penises of various sorts, and one of an anthropomorphic vulva-pilgrim wearing a hat and carrying both a rosary and a penis-shaped staff.** Here are some some pretty small modern pewter reproductions of the badges:***

Pilgrim badges are the sort of memento you’d get if you went on a pilgrimage to visit a saint’s holy shrine for penance or healing or the like. I suppose these naughty badges could represent a brilliant medieval marketing scheme, where you go to a shrine for forgiveness of your sins, but then immediately sin by purchasing erotic, sacrilegious brickabrack, giving your newly-cleansed soul enough black marks to ensure that you’ll have to come back and donate more money to the shrine. But more likely, the badges are just evidence that medievals loved scatalogical religious jokes just as much as modern South Park fans and a good bit more than self-appointed guardians of religious discourse.

It also shows that the medievals were a bit further along than our modern attempts at parody. The closest South Park has come to the anthropomorphic genital pilgrims is Nagix, the walking, talking taco that craps ice cream. Mr. Hankey seems almost wholesome by comparison.

*Of course, the site meant phalli. At 285 Euro, that’s a steal! Less than 100 Euro a phallus.
**The hat is rather jaunty, to boot. When I described this badge to a friend, he likened it to the Simpson’s Individual Stringettes Monty Python sketch, where the advertising executive plans out a television commercial:

There’s this nude woman in a bath holding a bit of your string. That’s great, great, but we need a doctor, got to have a medical opinion. There’s a nude woman in a bath with a doctor–that’s too sexy. Put an archbishop there watching them, that’ll take the curse off it.

The badge might be a bit like that.

There’s this anthropomorphic vagina holding a penis-shaped staff–wait, that’s too sexy. Put a rosary in its other hand. And a hat. Wait, that’s three hands. Do anthropomorphic vaginas have three hands? No, probably not. Put the hat on its head? But it doesn’t have a head. Arms and legs, yes, that makes sense, but a head? OK, so we put the hat on its… top, but at a funny angle–it’s so crazy it just might work!

***You can buy them here for six bucks each, if that’s the sort of thing you’re into. They’d probably make great stocking stuffers.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Chris

    Or you can buy one for $5 from my favorite pewter pilgrim-token merchant, Billy and Charlie.

    BTW, when I first ordered something from them I asked if they had named their business with malice aforethought. They were quite tickled that someone picked up on the joke. The original Billy and Charlie were 19th-century “mudlarks” (scavengers who eked out a living searching the mud of the Thames for salable items) who decided to take advantage of the Victorian fashion for anything medieval by creating new examples of medieval pilgrim’s badges and selling them as genuine. They collaborated with others, who made the molds, and cast lots of strange badges with made-up motifs and (mostly illegible) inscriptions. They made quite a bundle before they were caught.

  • Evilyne

    The wholesaler and manufacturer of the badges you linked to is here:
    Fettered Cock Pewters

    One-woman operation, friend of mine, and slightly less expensive. Also more selection on her site.

  • kg

    Reading your description of what it’s like to be a medievalist, I regret profoundly yet again not having gone into that field. The modern-day talking vaginas (http://www.caroleeschneemann.com/interiorscroll.html) are a lot less fun by comparison…

  • Margaret Maloney

    I never thought I'd google "vulva pilgrimage badge" and end up on the website of someone I've met. Hi, Carl! This is Phyllis Johnson's sister, Margaret. We met once when y'all were all still at Yale.

    Incidentally, I was reminded of pilgrimage badges (which had first been shown to me by my best friend from college, a medievalist) because someone sent me a link to this video of a walking, singing (rapping?) vulva.

  • Mike

    Did you notice the vulva is wearing roller skates?

    (I've got a brand new pair of roller skates, you've got a brand new key. I think that we should get together…)

  • RLR

    Actually, I’m wondering if these are sort of prayer medallions for relief of various “male” and “female problems”. Kind of like the ones you see at Spanish and Latin American shrines in the shape of legs, hearts, eyes, etc.

  • http://twitter.com/leoboiko leonardo boiko

    as of 2013, images are broken, and we moderns can only wonder what the anthropomorphic vagina looked like.

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