The Mystery of Ælfgyva (Mmm… [Tapestry] Marginalia #22)

UPDATE 6-21-11: If you just arrived here from Cracked.com’s 8 Filthy Jokes Hidden in Ancient Works of Art, you might be interested in a bit of context on the article.

This week, I thought I’d write a bit about a more famous bit of marginalia than I usually tackle.  This guy:


A lot of scholarly ink has been spilled trying to explain what this naked guy is doing standing so brazenly in the lower margin of the famous Bayeux Tapestry, right underneath a woman and a clerk who are labeled “ubi unus clericus et Ælfgyva,” or (loosely translated) “Look here! It’s a clerk and Ælfgyva”:


Clearly, there’s something interesting going on here.  Ælfgyva is the only named woman in the entire Tapestry,* and there’s a naked guy standing right under her with his little naked guy standing out for all to see. But just what is going on is a question that has divided scholars for a long time.

It would help if we could figure out who Ælfgyva is supposed to be.  Her name means “Elf-Gift,” which is a pretty name used for lots of Anglo-Saxon women, including those who are also called something else.  I think it must have been the medieval equivalent of how hip dudes in the 1950s  used to call all attractive women “Kitten.”**  Some scholars with better eyesight than I can see a hint of a pink veil over her face, so many, many brides and bethrotheds of various Anglo-Saxon and Norman nobles have been suggested over the years.  None of these bridal candidates, however, quite explains the naked man under her.  So other scholars, looking for a lady a touch more naughty, have suggested various mistresses of other Anglo-Saxon and Norman nobles.

The problem with the mistress angle is that none of them have anything to do with the story being told on either side of the mysterious robed woman.  Immediately before Ælfgyva and her clerk we have William and Harold meeting at court after William secures Harold’s release from Guy of Ponthieu, a Norman noble who captured Harold after his ship was run aground in his territory.   On the other end, immediately after the mysterious lady, the Tapestry turns to William and Harold riding out together to scourge Conan (not the barbarian, sadly) and the rebels in Brittany, a Norman province.

It’s fairly clear to me that we are meant to take Ælfgyva as a part of the same narrative chunk as the meeting.  The scene is flanked on either side by castles, which, in the Tapestry-maker’s visual lingo, means that it’s all one piece.

So that brings us right back to where we started, our conspicuously naked marginal man.  Or, should I say “men”?  If we zoom out a little more in the picture, we can see that there’s another naked guy immediately before Ælfgyva’s, this one holding an adz (the image should expand if you click it–it’s kind of thin, I know):


And now let’s zoom in on our naked adz-wielding man:


In addition to being an excellent Scrabble word, an adz (or adze) is a tool for smoothing down wood.  According to Wikipedia, the user of an adz usually stands astride the wood being smoothed and pulls the adz towards him, exactly the sort of motion one would not want to make while naked, if you ask me.  The potential for self-Bobbiting is, I think, clear, and also suggests to me the beginnings of an interpretation of the two naked men in question that, to my knowlege, nobody else has suggested.***

I believe we are meant to see the man using medieval power-tools in close proximity to his junk as handy shorthand for Harold’s state of mind in the scene above.  At this point in the Tapestry’s story, Harold has pretty much jumped out of the proverbial frying pan and into the less proverbial sharp blade near one’s danglies.  Guy of Pothieu, the man who first captured Harold, was just a minor noble who had the good fortune to own the territory that Harold’s ship got shipwrecked upon.  When Willaim subsequently comes along and buys his freedom, Harold is suddenly beholden to a much more powerful man.  Negotiating his way out of that mess is going to be tricky.  Perhaps as tricky as woodworking while your willy is hanging out.

The second naked marginal man, on the other hand, has his legs parted and his willy on display, as if to say, “Hey, look at me! I managed to use that adz without becoming a castrado, thank you very much!”****  And what do you know, in the next scene, Harold has managed to talk his way out of his predicament.  He now rides out with William as an ally to fight Conan.

Explaining why Ælfgyva is relevant to this bit of fast-talking on Harold’s part is a little harder.  Maybe the veil-spotters are right, and Harold just betrothed one of his sisters to William (or betrothed himself to one of William’s sisters) in exchange for his freedom.

*I suppose an optimist might say that clearly women are more important than men to the Tapestry’s architect, since a full 50% of them are named, as compared with the much smaller percentage of named men.  The only other woman depicted in the Tapestry is a mother leading her child away from the thatched-roof cottage that the looting Norman knights have just burninated.
**Or so Hollywood has led me to believe.
***That’s right, kids, this post is veering into “Actual Scholarship™” territory.  I apologize to the readers who come here exclusively for monkeys with trumpets on their butts. Hey, at least he’s naked, right?
****”Also, I have this smooth board, if anyone’s interested. And what do you mean you don’t want it if touched my Tom Johnson? Don’t be so square, daddio.”*****
*****Also, the naked guy is from the ’50s.  Weird, I know.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • tenthmedieval

    I had never made the connection with the lefter naked guy before, and I agree that’s got to be part of the reference. I’m not sure it really explains the woman however. (Also, is that a flying penis to the right of squatting naked man?) I think I still prefer the idea that this is some reference to a well-known sex scandal involving a cleric, because the tapestry-makers clearly expected the audience (whoever that was supposed to be… there’s the answer, I suspect, if we could only solve the question) to know who Ælfgyva was.

    A problem also with the idea that she's part of the same narrative is surely her Anglo-Saxon name. All the action between which she's sandwiched is across the Channel from where such names belong. But on the other hand, the marginal men definitely connect the two scenes. If she's at this court, then, what's this lone Englishwoman doing there? If it's only a by-name, why is it English? And if she's part of the deal Harold strikes, as you suggest—which would make sense—who's the cleric? Is she having to bid goodbye to a sometime lover because of a betrothal? (If so, doesn't she have to be some relative of Harold’s? What was she doing there, then? Or is she only there by association?) And meanwhile what of the naked wood-worker? Did she also have a thing for carpenters?

    I guess what I’m saying is that though your interpretation is ingenious, I’d still be happier with one that related the naked guys to the scene they seem to attach to, and which stands out of the narrative as we see it just as much as do they from the general pattern of birds and beasts of the field which is otherwise all about the court.

  • Peggasus

    I am certainly not a scholar, but I love all things Medieval, and I love the Bayeux Tapestry, and I think I love you too (in a totally chaste medieval way, of course).

    @10th medieval: I think the ‘flying penis’ is just an overhanging foot from the portion depicted above.

  • Got Medieval

    I admit, the problem with my reading of the naked guys is still the same problem we all have–who the heck is this Ælfgyva person? (And the secondary problem, who’s this clerk?)

    She doesn’t have to be an Anglo-Saxon because of the name, though. Emma, Edward’s mother, was a Norman who took the Elf-gift name as her official queenly name, didn’t she? This lady here could be someone who later did the same thing, coming to be known as Ælfgyva after she arrived in England.

  • Amy

    So the little naked guys might be illustrating a proverb, sort of? Like putting a little picture of a frying pan and a fire… maybe there was a proverb current at the time that said something like “whether the adz meets the willy or the willy meets the adz, it’s bad for the willy.” Or “He’s luckier than a naked carpenter!”

    Actually, I think I might try to put that last one into general circulation.

  • Tim in Albion

    To be pedantic – it’s not an adz, it’s a broadax[e]. Both are used to smooth wood, just in different ways. I don’t think there are any adzes depicted in the Tapestry; broadaxes were much more commonly used for the purpose in the early MA.

    It’s a common confusion. The tools leave very different marks in the wood, so anyone with some experience can readily identify which was used. Unfortunately many people with no such experience make incorrect assertions that become accepted without question, so the adz/axe confusion persists.

    I wouldn’t want either tool anywhere near my tool. I’ve done some crazy shit in my day, but never hewed nekkid.

  • tenthmedieval

    “Friends don’t let friends hew naked”.

  • Anne Gilbert

    I’m chiming in on this, a bit late. I’ve looked at that “Aelfgyva” picture(and yes, the naked man underneath) many times, and have read a number of different interpretations of this particular panel, while doing research for my own novel set in this period. The upshot of all of this is, nobody seems to really know who this Aelfgyva is, or who or what she may represent(a lot of the BT is put tog in a way that was at least at the time, highy symbolic and may be full of disguised meanings). Some interepretations claim that Aelfgyva may be a stand-in for Harold, and(in some interpretations), his “oath breaking”. Or it may represent something else entirely. I’d love to see more discussion of this.
    Anne G

  • Happy

    Thank you for a nice discussion on these mysteries. I have some Interpretations I would appreciate some feeback on.

    I interpret the top and bottom levels of the tapestry as the heavenly and underworld realm, hence the naked guy is working under ground level, and judging from his symbolicly naked white body and small amount of red hair on top of his head, this character is the personification of the Amanita Muscaria mycelium (in other words: 'the force that presses the mushrooms up through the ground).

    In that time they did not know that the Amanita Muscaria mushroom (and other enthoegens) facilitated a mystical experience (or at least an altered state of consciousness) through chemical reactions that activates the pineal gland, situated in the middle of our brain as the only non-dual piece of brain we've got, hence often reffered to as the seat of the soul'. The psychadelic effects and the common reports of talking to other enteties (e.g. elf) gives rise to my re-interpretation of this tapestry.

    I interpret the Elf Gift (or Ælfgyva, Norwegian: Alvegave) as being a personification of the entheogen called Amanita Muscaria mushroom. Although I will not draw the whole Santa is a Siberian Shaman picture here, there is pleanty of research that places the Amanita Muscaria mushroom right in the middle of this tapestry's story, and its entheogenic properties was considered godly and probably also fit for a king.

    For example, John Allegro connects Amanita Muscaria to Saint Peter through etymology, and the fact that this mushroom actually looks like a penis in its middle life cycle stage (a.k.a. 'rod stage'), and to quiet honest it actually looks like a clown (due to white and red polka dotted color combination) is lying just below soil level with only his private part penetrating the soil (check Gordon Wasson and James Arthur's research). The mushroom is only the small fruit of a vast underground network of Mycelium (root systems), hence it is only the Man's penis that is cut during Amanita Muscaria harvesting, the rest of the mushrooms/man's body remains underground.

    I'm still investigating other clues, like the fact that one can actually just hold an Amanita Muscaria in ones hand and get affected, which could help explain the gentle touch on the womans cheek. The red veil Ælgyva wears resembles the red thin veil that emraces the Amanita Muscaria mushroom. The Psilocybe mushroom looking trees are also of interest for further research, as are all the mushrooms that the phoenix'es [another Amanita Muscaria personfication] and gargoil-looking animals in the heavenly and underworld realms seems so occupied of eating thoughout the entire tapestry. The last picture [far right side] of the entire tapestry ends up with one guy standing with a mushroom in each hand, one Amanita Muscaria and the other one intrepreted as of a Psilocybe genom. The king even enters the heavenly realms, probably through the Ælfgyva (Amanita Muscaria mushroom) on his quest for the golden mushroom at the far left, which seems to contain the fountain of life [look closely] … I have more, but rest my case …

    One small tip for all future religious research, don't forget that it reasonable to believe that people at that time would interpret a psychadelic experience as divine, as this seems to reveal most esoteric secrets….

    Happy Days!

    - Espen A.

    • Angus

      Hi Espen. If you don’t already have it, check out the book “Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy” by Clark Heinrich. It’s ‘out there,’ but definitely an entertaining read.

  • Harry Campbell

    Well I'm no expert but that looks nothing like an adze to me, and the figure is not remotely in a position to be using an adze. You don't pull with an adze, it's a swinging or chopping motion — look again at the Wikipedia article. If an adze slipped the danger would be to your feet not your genitalia. The blade is nowhere near the, er, danglies.

  • Got Medieval

    I think the joke works regardless of which tool he's got near his tool, people. Naked bandsawing isn't appreciably more rational than naked jigsawing.

  • whitehound

    Personally I think it was just an embroidered rude gesture. The tapestry us supposed to have been sown by English nuns on the orders of their conqueror and I think it's just the equivalent of sticking two fingers up at him and/or saying "I squat down and crap on you".

  • Got Medieval

    That would, however, require particularly stupid Normans who never bothered to look carefully at the embroidery they ordered constructed once it was finished. This, incidentally, is pretty much my problem with all the 'hidden subtext of resistance' interpretations in general. It requires buried messages that would be obvious to Anglo-Saxons, opaque to contemporary Normans, and yet recoverable by people 900 years later.

  • Angus

    Nice post, and an interesting theory! I dig your entertaining writing style as well (especially enjoyed the footnoted footnote). I found this page through an article citation link at Cracked.com.

    ~Angus

  • Pingback: The Eleventy-Seven Most Mind-Blowingly Inaccurate Facts in Cracked.com’s “8 Filthy Jokes Hidden in Ancient Works of Art” — Got Medieval

  • Colinillustrator

    I agree, that is not an adze at all.  An Adze is like a hatchet, with the blade mounted at 90 degrees, so that you can chop out a trough, and if you missed, it would hit more wood as you are digging a bowl.  His axe is a standard medieval wood working broad axe, you can see a replica here:  http://www.wisementrading.com/woodworking/gransfors.htm  , and they are for ship building among other things.  Your self-castration theory is way off.  

  • Ales Jamsek

    Who make handtextil work and art in medieval time? Woman in the castel,who know for many sicrect of relacionship in this period.

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