Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Bottoms up: a corbel in Felmersham church, Beds

Felmersham, Beds, west front
Last week a friend and I spent a day cycling round churches west of Bedford. Of the six we visited, four were open (one of these was generally locked but we happened to arrive as a very friendly lady was cleaning): a hit rate of 66.66% is pretty good going, I think you'll agree. We started at Turvey, which is remarkable for a major series of Renaissance monuments, and worked our way north, encountering much to make me reflect how underrated Bedfordshire is. It even seems to underrate itself; in the 1990s the slogan that appeared on the road signs on the county boundary announced that you were entering 'Bedfordshire', which was 'Central to the Oxford-Cambridge arc'. Claiming a distinction in being not quite halfway between two other places seems to display an almost pathological sense of existential anxiety. 'Sorry, we know we're rubbish, but we're not far from some really quite nice places. Sorry to have troubled you. Sorry!' On the evidence of the countryside, villages and churches we saw, the county has no reason to belittle itself.

The architectural climax of the trip was Felmersham church, which I've known about for years but unaccountably have never visited before. It was built from about 1220 to 1240, and is a superb example of Early English Gothic. The west front (above) and crossing (see the bottom of the page) are both breathtaking; no one seems to know why a relatively unimportant village should come to have such a large and elaborate church. However, I'm not going to write about the building now - maybe another time - but instead I'm going to concentrate on one eye-catching feature. Well, it certainly caught my eye, though as far as I can see it hasn't previously been noticed by anyone willing to look at it in detail, which is a good reason to discuss it now. I mean the fourth nave corbel from the west on the south side:

The church has a good website (here), which has better, and more, pictures than my hasty snaps. It describes the corbel as an 'upside-down male figure with his head between his legs, poking out his tongue.' This description is true enough as far as it goes, but stops some way short of being complete. The same website comments 'Much can be read into this figure but the original purpose was to ward off evil spirits entering the church through the north chancel [sic] door*' (a slip for 'nave door'). This at least acknowledges that there's more to be said; how true it might be, and whether it's the whole truth, we'll come to in a minute. There's also the excellent Greater English Churches website, which doubts that the figure is male, commenting that it seems 'buxom', an easy enough mistake to make if you look at it only from immediately below and not from the sides.

A slide held by the Bedfordshire Archives and Record Services is titled simply 'Corbel with protruding tongue', which again overlooks the most obvious feature of the corbel: the man is displaying his buttocks. It's as if everyone wants to avoid confronting or even mentioning this awkward fact.

There is a significant tradition of sexual, or apparently or arguably sexual, carvings in medieval churches. They most commonly take the form of sheela na gigs, exhibitionist females displaying (usually greatly exaggerated) vulvas, but men displaying their anuses or penises occur too. (See the Sheela Na Gig Project, which includes male figures along with the women, though so far it's overlooked Felmersham's example.) The Felmersham corbel is clearly what is known as an anus-shower**, or a variation on that theme. He is sticking his tongue out, as the previous observers have noted, but what they've failed to see, or failed to record, is that he is sticking his tongue into, or licking, his anus. A mooning man in himself is perhaps just amusing, but this detail is shocking.

Sexual carvings are found in churches in France, Spain, England, Wales and Ireland. (Perhaps they occur in other countries too but are yet to be documented, or have all been destroyed or mutilated beyond recognition.) They mostly seem to date from around the 12th century. The drawings below are from Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches by Anthony Weir and James Jerman (1986), one of the very few books on the subject (it too overlooks the Felmersham corbel). All three of the anus-showers illustrated here are from churches in south-west France.

Anus-showers seem to be relatively rare, but there are probably hundreds of sexual carvings extant. What were these carvings for? The only certain answer is that we don't know. No documents survive, as far as I know, and even if one did it would prove only what one person at one place and time thought they meant. But we can make educated guesses:
  • They're apotropaic, ie intended to ward of evil.  This is an attractive theory. This is the explanation given by the Felmersham church website (but I don't think there's any compelling evidence that medieval people thought that evil came from the north: there are plenty of south-facing possibly apotropaic carvings in churches). We might ask, though, why they're not therefore much more widespread. Didn't all churches have to defend themselves against attacks from the devil?
  • They're warnings against the sin of lust. It's enticing to think that they're dire warnings against the enticements of the flesh, which could send you to Hell. Medieval Christianity, following the teachings of the early Fathers Jerome and Augustine, was extremely concerned with the evils of sex; punishments for the sins of fornication and sodomy, for example, were severe. The Church elevated the virginal and celibate over the married (quite unlike Judaism). There was also a virulent streak of misogyny running through the Church. All this perhaps explains why sheela na gigs in particular are nearly always distorted and ugly: to make them and sex seem as off-putting as possible, in order to frighten the populace and ensure they followed the Church's teachings. This explanation seems highly plausible, though if the Church was so set on condemning most sexual activity, why did this condemnation find physical expression only in the form of corbels and other stone carvings? Why not, for example, stained glass and wall paintings? This quibble can be countered by positing that all, or nearly all, such artefacts would have been destroyed since the Renaissance as obscene, whereas stone carvings, especially if they're high up in a church roof, are much harder to damage.
  • They're fertility symbols. All cultures have to be concerned with fertility: crops have to grow, farm animals have to breed, married couples have to procreate, in order for society to survive. In pre-industrial societies these concerns were extremely pressing, as a poor harvest could well mean famine and starvation. The sexual carvings are a way of encouraging nature to continue renewing itself, or a plea to God that he should ensure that nature will do so. This is another attractive theory, putting medieval Christianity in a much more appealing light than the previous explanation. I'd really like to think that churches were places where fertility rites took place. But, unfortunately, this goes against most of what we know about the Church, and if this were true you'd expect some corroborating evidence to survive in the form of, say, written records of such ceremonies, and as far as I know none does. (If I'm wrong I'd be delighted to hear about it.) Also, if the carvings are intended to effectively encourage sex, why are they so ugly, the opposite of arousing?
  • They're relics of pre-Christian religions. This explanation is clearly related to the previous one. Christianity made an effort to subsume and supplant paganism; several churches are next to prehistoric standing stones, for example, and Knowlton church, Dorset, is built within a Neolithic henge monument, presumably as a way of visibly demonstrating that a new religion had triumphed over the old, but simultaneously almost acknowledging the continuing power of the old gods. Perhaps the sexual carvings are Christianised versions of pagan gods and goddesses. In particular, it's been claimed that sheela na gigs represent the 'divine hag', which can be loosely explained as a powerful and probably terrifying Celtic territorial or war-goddess. Again, I want to believe this, but there's too little evidence for it to be more than a hopeful guess. Would the patrons, those who paid for the building, decoration and furnishing of churches, be happy to finance pagan idols in their sacred buildings? It seems most unlikely.
  • They're pornographic. On the face of it this seems absurd, and I don't suggest that patrons ever intended to have titillating carvings in or on their churches. But it's just about possible that the patrons paid for moralistic carvings and got something they didn't quite mean. The masons who actually did the carving may have gleefully slightly misinterpreted their instructions in order to produce images designed to appeal to the sexual instincts of the populace. It's not hard to imagine young men sniggering at sheela na gigs as young men nowadays titter over page three.
  • They're humorous. Some carvings, including the Felmersham corbel, make us smile today. Chaucer will be invoked to describe the type of humour they apparently embody. It seems all but certain that bums and willies and bodily functions have always had their humorous side; surely hunter-gatherers must have laughed at fart gags. There are other carvings in churches, notably misericords, that seem to display a sense of humour; maybe the sexual carvings were just meant to be funny. But there's the problem of the patrons again: would they have paid for jokes in a deadly serious building, one designed to steer the congregation away from Hell and towards Heaven? Furthermore, many of the carvings don't seem funny now, and it's hard to see how they ever could have been.
  • They're satirical. Perhaps they're lampooning individual members of the community, or types of people, who for whatever reason had fallen foul of the patrons, or masons, who took their revenge by portraying them in humiliating postures. I'd love to think that this happened, and that the man in the Felmersham corbel was, for example, the local miller who'd short-changed the mason, who stuck his likeness and posterior up in the roof for posterity to laugh at. If this happened at all, however, it's very hard to think that it happened more than a handful of times; and many of the carvings have too generalised or distorted facial features to be recognisable portraits, which would defeat the satirical object.
Not all of these explanations are mutually exclusive; more than one of them could be true, or they could all be true at different times and in different places. Weir and Jerman think that most of the sexual carvings are primarily moralistic messages about the dangers of lechery. They're usually designed to shock, frighten and persuade the populace to obey the Church's teachings on sexual behaviour. I tend to agree with the authors as this explanation best fits the facts, though, as I've said, I hope some of the other theories are true at least sometimes.

All this might not seem to explain the Felmersham corbel, and the carvings of other anus-showers, which are rude and crude but not obviously sexual. There are two possible approaches to finding an explanation.

The first involves relating the carvings to those of acrobats and contortionists, who were, along with sexual sinners, subjects of ecclesiastical opprobrium. This might seem a bit unfair on the poor old entertainers, who probably seem harmless to us, but to medieval priests were far from so. As Weir and Jerman put it, acrobats are usually depicted in such a way as to make it 'plain to see that the artist wished to impart to us some notion of uncouthness, of lack of decorum and spirituality.' This is a pretty good description of the Felmersham corbel. Acrobats were being used as symbols of ungodliness. Acrobats and other popular entertainers were despised by a puritanical Church as they led the populace away from a moral life and to a world of deeply suspect pleasure. As St Augustine put it, 'Devils take pleasure in popular songs, in frivolous display, in the manifold immoralities of the theatre.' So the corbel is a dire warning about the dangers of show business. What would Augustine have said had he seen Keeping up with the Kardashians or Big Brother?

The other approach to try to find a meaning in the corbel is to examine its sexuality. The man is sticking his tongue in his anus in a way that could be read as lascivious or inviting. It's possible that the corbel is intended as a fierce denunciation of sodomy. Weir and Jerman claim that 'sodomy was the most heinous crime in the Middle Ages, its punishment often far exceeding that doled out for manslaughter or murder. St Augustine [what a pleasure to meet this cheerful chappy again so soon] considered it the vilest of acts, amounting to a sin against the Holy Spirit because it was so contrary to nature.' Its supposed unnaturalness is emphasised by the extremely cumbersome, not to say impossible, contortion of the man; he looks very uncomfortable, and hardly human.  The bestial nature of the act he is contemplating is thus stressed. This seems to me the best and likeliest explanation of the corbel. Why Felmersham out of thousands of other places found it necessary to so publicly condemn homosexual acts we can't know; conceivably there had been a recent local case when the corbels were commissioned, and the church authorities were acting to stamp out similar sinful activities.

The clerestory the corbels support is one of the few later additions to the church, being 15th century Perpendicular, but the corbels themselves date from the original 13th century building. Another mystery of the church is why a building on which no expense was spared has such poor quality nave corbels. Some of them are really crude, not in the way the anus-shower is, but in the unsophistication of their carving. (They're bigger than usual too, and so easily visible from the ground.)

St Mark is shown in the guise of a lion, or at least one mason's attempt at a lion.

A characterless lady in a box-like headdress.

An only slightly more competently carved man.

An ungainly angel holding a shield.

This lady is if anything even less well carved than the other. This mason really couldn't do mouths, could he?

St Matthew in the guise of an angel, slightly more convincingly carved.

St Luke in the guise of a goofily grinning ox.

A man, possibly a monk?

The anus-shower.

Another characterless man.

A shouting or grimacing bearded man, looking almost Romanesque in style. Perhaps the most characterful corbel.

St John in the guise of an eagle, with a face like that of a befuddled penguin.

Felmersham crossing

Felmersham crossing, north-east pier
Felmersham church is I believe open every day, so don't get left behind (oh come on, give me a break - I've been very restrained; this is only the third buttocks-related feeble pun in a fairly lengthy post), visit soon, and relish the spectacular architecture, but look up and hail the church's very own backside-barer.

* The supposed association between the north door and evil is a post-Reformation invention, dating back possibly no earlier than the Victorian period. It was invented, probably, to make medieval people seem quaint and picturesquely superstitious. There is no evidence at all to support it, and plenty of evidence to contradict it. See this article by Dr Nicholas Groves for a thorough demolition job:

** An anus-shower is obviously someone showing their anus, but, because of the sometimes wonderful, sometimes infuriating ambiguities of English, in some contexts it might seem as if a shower (as in a rain shower) of anuses was meant, which has a surreal charm, or a shower from anuses, which doesn't.