We’ve all been there. Maybe it was on the Internet or maybe you were lucky enough to be there in person. I’m talking about viewing the Bayeux Tapestry, probably the most recognisable and iconic piece of medieval art. But as serious as the Tapestry is, every now and then, she throws us a massive curveball. This is what I’m talking about:
And here’s another:
In fact, if you were to count them –and somebody has– there are 93 penises on the Bayeux Tapestry. That person is George Garnett, Professor of History at Oxford University. Of the 93 penises, 88 belong to horses and the remaining 5 to men. Historians agree that the presence of so many penises has a deeper meaning, and I’m inclined to agree. The story of the Norman Conquest has as much violence, intrigue and scandal as any other story in history. Excuse the pun, but the Norman Conquest doesn’t need sexing up. So if they’re not there for aesthetic, or even erotic, purposes, why are they there at all?
Well, Garnett argues that the penis is the ultimate symbol of power and virility, associated with particular figures in the Tapestry. For example, the scene below shows a groom presenting a horse to Duke William. This horse has the largest penis of all animals depicted on the Tapestry, and it’s no coincidence that such an animal should be presented to William, the warrior who conquered the English:
In some instances, nudity functions as an illusion to contemporary fables; fables which would have resonated with the Tapestry’s audiences. The example below is believed to represent a well-known fable in which a father raped one of his own daughters. While sexual assault is not a theme in the Tapestry or the Norman Conquest, the notions of treachery and predation are. The placement of this image is deliberate: it sits below Harold Godwinson, the man accused of breaking his sacred oath to Duke William.
What I find really interesting about Garnett’s analysis is how he uses it to make wider claims about the people responsible for creating the Tapestry, Before looking at those in more depth, it’s worth remembering that there remains significantly controversy over who commissioned the Tapestry.
Was it William’s half-brother, Odo of Bayeux, to celebrate and commemorate the Norman victory? Or, as Carolina Hicks has argued more recently, was it the brainchild of Edith of Wessex, Harold Godwinson’s sister, who found herself in an awkward spot after Hastings and wanted acceptance from the new regime? Similarly, the debate still rages over who stitched this beautiful tapestry, which, interestingly, isn’t a tapestry at all; it’s an embroidery. Was it stitched by English nuns, either in one place or across the country, or was it put together by professionals?
Either way, the point is that Garnett uses these 93 penises to make some rather bold claims about who commissioned the Tapestry and who actually stitched it. Firstly, he argues that it must have been a man because the number of penises is indicative of a “male adolescent mentality”. Secondly, he contends that the Tapestry must have been stitched by men because medieval women, nuns particularly, could not have been so well acquainted with and comfortable around male genitalia. In asserting both of these claims, he acknowledges that he makes some pretty sweeping generalisations about the “male and female psyche” in the last century, but he remains convinced by his conclusions.
I have no doubts that Garnett’s views about gender and sexuality are influenced by his own life experiences. His recollections of life in a boys’ school, for instance, have clearly moulded a particular view. In contrast, being a woman, being educated at a state school and at a non-Oxbridge University, being of a different generation; all of these factors lead me down a very different path of analysis when I think about Garnett’s arguments and the assumptions on which they are based.
With this in mind, it’s important to critically examine the generalisations that Garnett makes about the male and female psyche if we are to make any further progress in this debate:
Is it fair and accurate to say that Anglo-Saxon women, nuns included, were ‘prudish?’ Did they lack the awareness and/or confidence to stitch 93 penises? Conversely, is it fair and accurate to suggest that male members of the Norman aristocracy, like Odo of Bayeux, possessed this “adolescent mentality?”
Is it possible that there were other motives at play during the creation of the Tapestry, like revenge for English humiliation?
Frankly, you could write a book on this – and I’m sure somebody probably will. However, on the first point, we know that there are multiple examples of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman nuns who broke their vow of chastity. As for a widespread prudishness, there is evidence that the Saxons literature shied away from overtly sexual tendencies. But it’s worth remembering that the surviving literature was created in a monastic context; a context that sought to safeguard sexual morality.
As for the “adolescent mentality” of men, like Odo of Bayeux, we are left to make inferences about their character. We know Odo wasn’t your typical clergyman: he was once described as a man of “uncontrollable lust” and was tried for defraud the crown in 1076.
On the second point, nothing quite says revenge like stitching 93 penises all over someone’s moment of glory. I don’t mean to lower the tone here, but we could argue that those who stitched the Tapestry – be they male or female – wanted to momentarily regain some of the control they had just relinquished to the Normans. Maybe the feelings of treachery and predation that were expressed through the naked man and woman were English feelings towards the death of Harold Godwinson, not those of the Normans.
These are questions that might never be answered; assertions that might never be validated (or disproved, for that matter). In the meantime, let’s keep talking about the Bayeux Tapestry and its plethora of penises because, if nothing else, we could all do with a laugh in the current pandemic.
Kaye Jones is a freelance writer, specialising in history. You can view her recent work here.
History is full of ladies that never get the due they deserve. These ladies very much fit that bill! From freedom fighting piracy to leading samurai armies and even straight up Game of Thrones-esque batshittery, it’s time we celebrated the mark left by these baddest bitches from history:
1. The tank wielding badass: Mariya Vasilyena Oktyabrskaya
When Mariya’s husband was killed fighting in WW2, she did what any grieving widow would…
Sold everything she owned, bought a tank, named it ‘fighting girlfriend’ and set off to kill as many Nazis as humanly possible.
Mariya grew up dirt poor in Crimea at the start of the 20th century. One of 10 children, there was rarely enough food to go around.
Yet Mariya didn’t let this destroy her, instead channeling her hardship into a love of politics and the military.
The fiesty young girl grew up to be a kickass young woman, who didn’t give a shit about gender rules; learning how to drive and shoot.
She married Ilya Oktyabrskaya, an army officer and the love of her life. Though the couple couldn’t have kids, they had each other and that was all Mariya wanted.
Still, when Ilya was called to fight for The Soviet Union in WW2, Mariya happily bid him farewell. After all Russia was being invaded by Germany and needed brave soldiers like Ilya.
And then Mariya got the call that is everyone’s worst nightmare.
Her beloved Ilya was dead.
Following Ilyas death, Mariya wrote to Stalin:
My husband was killed in action defending the motherland. I want revenge on the fascist dogs for his death and for the death of Soviet people tortured by the fascist barbarians. For this purpose, I’ve deposited all my personal savings – 50,000 rubles – to the National Bank in order to build a tank. I kindly ask to name the tank ‘Fighting Girlfriend’ and to send me to the frontline as a driver of said tank.
Stalin, agreed…because, well you would wouldn’t you?!?
Mariya was made to go through several months of tank training (way more than her male comrades)
It soon became clear that Mariya could drive, shoot and lob grenades like no other. So she was sent to the front line.
Her first mission in Fighting Girlfriend was to help block German troops route to Moscow.
She nimbly manovered Fighting Girlfriend around the battlefield, destroying several anti tank guns, machine gun nest and enemy soldiers.
Then she was hit!
With Fighting Girlfriend out of action, Mariya was ordered to remain where she was and wait for help…
Obviously she didn’t.
Instead she calmly got out her tank in the middle of a war zone; fixed it, leapt back in and entered the fray once more.
Now promoted to Sergeant, Mariya and Fighting Girlfriend continued their steady stream of casual bad assery.
Then in 1944 Fighting Girlfriend was again hit.
As usual, Mariya refused to let this stop her doing her job. She leapt out and starting working on Fighting Girlfriend.
Just then another shell hit.
Even Mariya didn’t stand a chance against a blast like this.
She was taken off the battlefield in a coma, from which she never woke.
But Mariya and Fighting Girlfriend lived on. She was honoured with the Soviet Unions highest military honour. To this day she is still remembered in Russia for her bravery and badassey.
2. The Samurai Sex Symbol: Tomoe Gozen
Forget everything you think you know about samurais. Because we’re about to blow the doors off these stoic blokes with swords.
You guys…there were female samurais, and they were a level of badass never before seen! (Thanks by the way to @elaanfaun on Twitter, who suggested we check this out!)
From the medieval period onwards, girls from samurai families could be trained up as onna-bugeisha, which roughly translates as:
They trained in fighting (of course), as well as in maths and science.
These were insanely intelligent ladies who could both lead military strategising and single handedly take down a group of men in hand to hand combat.
One of the most badass of these ladies was Tomoe Gozen.
Known for being both beautiful and ballsy, Tomoe was a 12 century warrior not to be messed with. Tomoe had an unparalleled collection of war trophies…which in the 12th century came in the form of the decapitated heads of enemies who had died at your hands.
Tomoe’s pad was full of dead guy heads (which must have been a treat for overnight guests!)
And she wasn’t just killing it at interior design!
See, Tomoe was around during Japan’s, Genpei War (a monumental civil war) and her fighting chops were so good that she was made into a leading commander for one of the armies by its leader, Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka!
In 1183, Tomoe led over 1000 men into battle!
Of course she led from the front and of course they won.
Such fears of badassery weren’t unusual for Tomoe.
She regularly led huge forces of men into war; once even leading a force of just 300 samurais into battle against 6000! Emerging as one of only 5 survivors!
Tomoe’s final battle was a doozy!
With her side emerging the clear victors of the war, it was time to decide who would get to actually lead Japan when all was said and done.
It was a toss up between Tomoe’s boss, Lord Kiso and his cousin Minamoto no Yoritomo.
Of course voting for a leader would be way too logical…so they had their strongest warriors duke it out instead.
Though Tomoe was one fierce fighter, the rest of Lord Kiso’s forces were no match for Minamoto no Yoritomo.
Soon only Tomoe and 5 others were left alive.
Lord Kiso called for his warriors to retreat…but Tomoe wanted to have the last word.
So, she charged into a group of 30 of the enemies best fighters and emerged a few minutes later with the head of the strongest.
Let’s assume it had pride of place in Tomoe’s decapitated head tablescape.
3. Jeanne de Clisson – The Lioness Of Brittany
The definition of a woman scorned, Jeanne went from an average medieval noblewoman to one on the warpath.
She dealt with her enemies brutally and soon become Frances most feared force….seriously guys this is some Game of Thrones shit right here!
Jeanne had already been married twice before she married Oliver de Clisson in 1330.
But this marriage wasn’t like the others. See, Jeanne and Oliver actually loved each; a rarity in this era!
The couple had several children and lived in relative bliss, until Oliver was called up to war…and everything went fully tits up.
The French and the English, were at war over the dukedom of Brittany. Oliver chose to fight for France; under the leadership of Charles de Blois.
Things were going great…until Oliver was taken prisoner by the English…and Charles de Blois suspected Oliver of losing to the English on purpose.
And so, when England and France eventually called a truce, France decided to celebrate by executing Oliver.
Jeanne was (understandably) devastated by her husbands celebratory beheading
But Jeanne didn’t want to go off and play the repentant widow. She wanted revenge on everyone who had allowed Oliver’s death.
So she sold everything to buy war supplies and set off to bring down the French nobility, Charles de Blois and even Frances ruler, King Philip.
Her first stop was the home of one of Charles de Blois’s pals.
She arrived outside his castle with her children…and a small army of men.
Still – what could a woman do? And so, the gates were opened.
By morning almost everybody in the castle had been massacred. Its contents stolen and only a few wide eyed survivors left to tell of the what they’d witnessed.
Jeanne fled across the channel with her children, in hopes of using England to fund her revenge spree.
She got her wish; buying three war ships, which Jeanne painted black and hung red sails on.
Then, with a band of pirates, outlaws and supporters, she set out for the channel; attacking any ship with a French flag.
For 13 years, Jeanne waged war on France via the sea.
It was said that if a French noble was onboard a ship then Jeanne would get an axe and behead them herself; just as she believed, they had allowed her husband to be.
Only a few survivors remained from each ship. Allowed to live so they could return to France and tell of the horrors they’d witnessed
Then just as suddenly she had started her quest for revenge…Jeanne stopped.
She moved to England, where she was gifted lands and wads if cash for so kindly cleaning the channel of the French enemy.
Then she remarried and (weirdly) returned to France…where she peacefully lived out the rest of her days.
4. The rebel pioneer: Sophie Morigeau
With one eye, bright green glasses and a ‘not taking any of you’re bullshit’ attitude, Sophie Morigeau took the pioneer world by storm and redefined what it meant to be a woman.
She refused to set up home and let some guy go have her adventures. Instead she broke all the rules and set out to rule her male dominated world.
Growing up on the Canadian frontier, Sophie was brave, bulshy and able to give as good as she got; she was basically built for having ridiculous pioneer adventures.
Sadly, that’s not what nice girls like Sophie did.
Her parents tried everything they could to ‘civilise’ her. Sending off for a good catholic education and teaching her homemaking skills.
At 16 she was married off to guy almost a decade older. He was nice enough, but married life just wasn’t Sophie’s bag.
So she ditched the husband, took back her maiden name and set up a gold mining trade businesses.
As you do.
Ditching a husband and running a business solo were unheard of female pursuits in this age. Still, Sophie wasn’t done…she wanted more.
She wanted to grow her business. And the best way to do that was to do what every other entrepreneur with any business sense did at the time; find some good land and claim it.
Except women couldn’t do that.
…but Sophie did anyway.
On this plot of land she almost single handedly built herself a home and a trading post.
With her business thriving, Sophie started opening herself up to male company – obviously no strings attached, after all she wasn’t giving everything up to be a wife again!
The community described Sophie’s boyfriends as ‘husbands’…just husbands who obeyed everything Sophie said and got their marching orders when she got bored/tired of them.
There were of course ‘husbands’ who weren’t happy with Sophie having so much independence…
One ‘husband’ who emotionally abused Sophie, mysteriously turned up drowned.
And ‘husband’ no 12 somehow ended up shot after failing to make way for ‘husband’ no 13.
Luckily though, Sophie didn’t need men to have fun. As a good pioneer, she had plenty of adventures!
On one adventure she lost an eye when hit by a tree branch; thus creating the need for her signature bright green specs.
She also famously got into a dramatic horse and buggy crash, after which she was left lying in the road with one rib sticking out of her stomach.
What did Sophie do? Amputate the rib herself of course!
Then she hung the rib bone in her home, a pink ribbon tied neatly round it (If only Sophie and Tomoe Gozen had lived at the same time! Together they could have owned the most niche interior design business)
Despite her self surgery shenanigans, Sophie lived to a ripe old age, continuing to build her business and live life to the fullest until she was well into her twilight years.
5. The Pirate Queen: Grace O’Malley
Known as Ireland’s pirate queen, Grace O’Malley was a women you didn’t mess with. She went from innocent little girl to seafaring warrior Queen, battling for her peoples rights and giving two fingers to Queen Elizabeth I.
Graces’ Dad was an Irish Chieftain; earning cash from both massively overcharging the boats who used the waters that fell under his control and sailing to and from exotic lands (well…Spain)
Sadly for Grace, Daddy O’Malley wasn’t crazy about his baby girl joining him on his pirate filled sea adventures.
It’s said that when she asked to join him on the high seas, her parents lied and said as she was a girl, her hair was too long to sail.
This didn’t stop Grace.
She grabbed a knife, lopped off her locks and rocked up at her Dads ship the next day ready for Pirating 101!
Grace turned out to be a natural leader and following her fathers death it was she who took over the family business, not her brothers!
This meant Grace now owned a good chunk of Ireland, had wealth of her own and was a Queen. Nice!
But obviously Grace wasn’t content to stop there.
At 15 she married a famous war hero, who was also heir to the O’Flaherty title and thus due to own an even bigger chunk of Ireland not to mention a ton of cash!
Grace and her new husband had 3 children together before he was killed by a rival clan in an ambush.
Unsurprisingly, Grace didn’t slink away a devastated widow.
Instead she took control of his ships and got herself a new lover!
Sadly, Graces new lover was also murdered by a rival clan…so Grace stormed their castle and had them all horrifically killed. As you do.
By her early twenties, Grace had a sizeable hunk of Ireland, a shit ton of ships and even more supporters.
She married again, this time to a guy called Iron Richard, for political reasons (*cough* he was very very rich *cough*)
Grace gave birth to the couples child onboard one of her ships.
Almost immediately after she had given birth, the ship was attackers.
Grace of course led the charge against these merciless attackers; firing a blunderbuss whilst wrapped up in a blanket.
Sadly, for all her badass adventures, things weren’t as exciting at home. Graces new husband was all kinds of boring!
So a year into their marriage Iron Richard returned home to their castle to find the whole thing locked up.
Grace stuck her head out of the window and shouted down to him:
‘I dismiss you Richard Burke’
Just like that. Marriage over. Graces next big challenge came from England. See Queen Elizabeth I was determined to bring the Irish clans under English rule.
Elizabeth used both bribery and force to take power away from Ireland’s leading Chieftens, Princes and Princesses.
Yet Grace managed to keep building her empire up.
Well, at least until Elizabeths governor in Ireland squeezed out much of Graces income, attacked her home and took two of her sons and her half brother as ransom.
Naturally, Grace didn’t back down and instead set sail for England, to demand Elizabeth give back her family and basically calm the fuck down.
The pair met at Greenwich Palace where Grace refused to curtesy for Elizabeth. After all…they were both Queens.
She also refused to remove her dagger and did a massively snotty sneeze into a noble woman’s fine silk handkerchief…which she duly chucked in the nearest fire; shrugging off the courtiers outrage.
With the nicities over, Grace talked finalities with Elizabeth in fluent Latin.
It was decided that Elizabeth’s governor would be removed from Ireland and Graces family freed. In return, Grace had to promise not to join any Irish rebellions.
Grace agreed and set off back to Ireland…where she joined the Irish revolts and went on to live to a ripe old age.
This was interesting! Where can I find out more? I’m glad you asked! I’ve popped some suggestions for further reading on each of our badasses below:
Grace O’Malley: Pirate Queen, The Life of Grace O’Malley by Judith Cook.
Well this is awkward...they aren’t any more books on the others (unless you can read french, then you my friend are in like re. Jeanne De Clisson!) However, Tomoe, Mariya and Jeanne are all including in the below cracking book (along with tons of other amazing women!)
Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by Jason Porath