Sex and obscenity in medieval art
Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care: Vol. 35:1 (2009)
When researching early or ‘forbidden’ historical subjects it can be a considerable challenge finding primary sources that give a first-hand experience of contemporary events. In some periods, such as post-Roman, there is very little documented evidence, to the point where we only know of the existence of some kings purely from coins. In social groups where an inability to read and write produced virtually no first-hand documentation, we often rely on the notes of doctors or courts. Women were very rarely taught to read – never mind write – until the 18th century. There are exceptions that light up the past with their first-hand experiences of life, and often love, but these gems are fragmented and rare.
All is not lost, however, to the researcher who is prepared to do some lateral thinking, as there are other forms of contemporary evidence in the form of paintings, sculpture and needlework. Many of these were produced by artisans who were ‘unlatined’, but their evidence is every bit as important as ‘official’ documents of the day and often much more thrilling. An example of this is the ‘Sheela-na-gig’, a shocking, immediately noticeable figure found in Celtic and medieval stonework. ‘Sheela’ is most commonly depicted as a squat, ugly female creature using her hands to display grotesquely large genitals (Figure 1). These well-known sexual idioms were sometimes perceived as threatening but more often were a symbol of fruitfulness. Many ‘Sheelas’ seem to be almost Roman goddess-like, as if the physical presence of such an image could cause an effect.