Negative Campaigning, Medieval Style

Good natured readers have been sending me links to op-eds and letters to the editor in which someone drops the old M-bomb while referring to something McCain, Obama, Palin, or Biden said or did recently. Thus far, I have decided to distance myself from the presidential election. As a medieval blogger, I have a responsibility not to seem partisan or biased. With this blog’s vast reach, if I were to intimate that the Middle Ages somehow taught us which candidate to vote for, it would jeopardize the very fabric of our fragile democracy.

Consider this a blanket response to claims that a candidate is “getting medieval” by doing this or that.  The medievals  weren’t so big on the whole democracy thing, but if they had had presidential elections, their attack ads wouldn’t pussyfoot around the real issues that mattered to voters. They would get straight to the point:

No, this is not further evidence of my obsession with magical private parts. It is, rather, more or less what some scholars think actually happened in the medieval town of Massa Marittima in the thirteenth century.

Back in 2000, workers restoring the wall of a medieval public fountain in the town discovered a mural hidden under years of grime. At first blush, it was a pretty tame find:

Just a big tree with a group of women in medieval garb clustered beneath it, presumably the sort of women who would have frequented the fountain in its heyday, right? Oh, how wrong you are, my naive readers.  As the layers of grime came off, it became apparent that the tree’s branches were inhabited–by over two dozen detached penises:

At first, it was thought that the mural was meant as some sort of fertility display. But more recently, George Ferzoco, director of the Centre for Tuscan Studies at the University of Leicester, published a book that argues the mural was meant as political propaganda. During the time when the fresco was likely painted, Massa Marittima was controlled by the Guelphs,* who had recently expelled their rivals the Ghibellines. The black eagles flying about underneath the tree were the symbol of the ousted Ghibelline faction.  Taken together with other details in the mural, Ferzoco says that it is meant to send a clear message to the people of Massa Marittima: “if the Ghibellines are allowed power they will bring with them heresy, sexual perversion, civic strife and witchcraft.”

Let’s run down the charges:

Civic strife?

Check. The two women bent over at the foot of the tree are pulling each other’s hair and fighting over one of the tree’s inhabitants. (Hard to make out with the images I could find, but it’s there.)

Sexual perversion?

Check. The woman on the far left in the beatific pose is being sodomized by a penis. (Click the image above to zoom in; you can just make out the back end of the perpetrator.)

Heresy and witchcraft?

Well, this requires a bit more of a stretch. According to the Malleus Malificarum, AKA The Witch Hammer, a guidebook written in Germany in the fifteenth century in order to assist and instruct the pious in recognizing and responding to the threat of witchcraft, witches have the ability to remove a man’s penis and keep it alive and mobile while detached:

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.

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 while I doubt the witchcraft allegations, I’m still sold overall on the political message of the mural.  If you let Ghibellines run your town, it’s going to be pretty much 24/7 your daughters and wives getting sodomized by flying penises.  That, my friends, is not change we can believe in.

*Who you may remember as that medieval Italian political party that you’re supposed to be able to distinguish from their rivals the Ghibellines, but why do they both have to begin with G if they wanted you to remember which is which?**
**Actually, all we literature scholars are supposed to know is that Dante was a White Guelph and he was exiled from Florence by the Black Guelphs, primarily because the medieval Italians decided that having two similarly named political parties just wasn’t going to be confusing enough for future students of the Middle Ages and went and subdivided and color coded themselves.
***I’ve been trying to get a good scan of that for a Mmm… Marginalia, but so far no luck. Anyone have one?
****Essentially the most popular medieval joke: Man, those women, they sure do like sex.  Haha!  I tellya, once there was this lady, and she totally had sex with this guy.  And then with this other guy. And then one or both of them found out.  Heyooo!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Erika M

    Hi Carl,
    Great concept for a blog, esp. the “dictionary” definitions with links. I just did a google search but could not re-locate a great NPR interview John Putnam Demos did with Lee Ann Hanson when they first uncovered that mural. (Demos is a witchcraft historian and author).

  • Got Medieval

    I couldn’t find it, either, but I did find this NPR story from 2006 concerning the mural.

  • brokenmellcifer

    The mural reminds me a lot of this video, minus the awesome Guelph smackdown:

  • Bearded Lady

    Hi Carl,

    Very interesting post.

    I read your blog weekly because I am illustrating a children’s book which requires many medieval settings. Your blog has been a big inspiration for clothing, hair styles, settings, and medieval hi-jinx. When I first saw this lovely image I thought…..pretty I can make a tree just like that for my young readers. I still think the tree is pretty, but I seriously hope its appendages do not enter my self-conscience.

  • ak

    I"m not writing a children's book (about penis trees or otherwise) but rather a blog about the arts in Tuscany (THE official blog in fact) and I'd say this would go well in the category of "things to see in TUscany that are off the beaten track"!!
    I'd actually heard about this and seen the tree and other related objects in a forthcoming book with Ashgate about the sexual in the Italian Renaissance (the editor is Sara Matthews-Grieco and I think it should be out this summer).
    I'm going to share it on facebook now 😉 ( FYI)

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  • Matt Culler

    You’ll find a picture of the Bib. Nat. Roman de la Rose penis-tree in the following article:
    Johan Mattelaer, “The Phallus Tree: A Medieval and Renaissance Phenomenon.” The Journal of Sexual Medicine 7 (2010): 846-851. It’s figure number 2. There are also numerous other “phallus trees” pictured. I haven’t read the article yet, but it’s written by an MD, so I’m not sure how historical it’s gonna be.

    • Matt Culler

      The Journal of Sexual Medicine should be available online if your library pays for online journal access (any university library will probably have this). From there you can copy the image from pdf as a jpeg or whatever you wish.

  • Frakkyfire

    Oh my God, I had no idea that there’s a medieval story with the same basic premise as Starkid’s play “Me and My Dick”! Though I don’t know if the older one has talking vaginas as well. But judging from your blog, it might have ambulatory ones.

    (Seriously though, I think you’d get a kick out of the play. It’s available to watch on YouTube, if you have some spare time. Also, it’s a musical!)

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  • LivingWithGhosts

     A friend of mine recently discovered the venerated medieval dick tree, which she decided to share with me. As I have just started a rather absurd history blog, I decided to repost her discovery here:
    We then did some further research and arrived at your post above, which prompted me to create a part two to the medieval dick tree:
    I have quoted your noble self along with my own ideas on the aforementioned trees. Hopefully you don’t mind and if you do, please let me know and I’ll remove it.
    Feel free to check out the rest of my blog, which at the present time includes posts on Victorian earthquake-causing catfish, farting Japanese gods and the dangers Elizabethan breasts posed to good Christian men, among other things, and thank you for the generous laughter you provided us with.
    Cheers to you and yours!

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  • Emily Violet Duff

    i was google imaging medieval jokes, the first image came up
    safe to say i was rather confused
    now i understand.
    kind of

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