More sexy fruit : The penis tree and the medieval nun

You might have read my article Sexy fruit from Renaissance Italy and seen the picture of a young woman putting a special kind of fruit in her basket. I had found this surprising scene on a Renaissance plate in the Louvre in Paris, when strolling around in the museum. I started researching the iconography of this picture, and looked particularly into italian albarelli, Renaissance pharmaceutical jars. Unfortunately, I wasn’t rewarded with much useful information and quite frustrated when chance, that unpredictable goddess Fortuna, decided to do something. Sitting on my couch, I went through a history magazine, when this caught my eye :

Drôlerie marginale : nonne faisant la cueillette dans un arbre

A nun plucking penises from a penis tree. ‘The Romance of the rose’, 14th century manuscript (detail), FR 25526 © Bnf, Paris

In the lower left corner of the manuscript page, a nun wearing a brown frock and black veil (she was maybe a member of the newly founded Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, or of the Franciscan Clarist Order), holds a green basket in her left hand and reaches out for a tree, on which hugh penises are growing. The motif on the mentioned Renaissance plate is very similar, only the tree has disappeared. The medieval picture here is not of a young women of the world, but of a nun who vowed chastity. The illuminations of the manuscript were made by Jeanne or Richard de Montbaston (Jeanne de Montbaston being also the blog name of medievalist Lucy Allen), for the 14th century poem Romance of the Rose, a medieval love handbook by french poet Jean de Meun. He wrote a long sequel to Guillaume de Lorris‘ Roman de la Rose, which the first author begun in 1237, but never achieved.

How did this satirical(?) medieval picture from the Romance of the Rose manuscript travel onto a italian albarello, and later onto a earthenware plate? Are there more of these pictures out there, and on what kind of medium? I don’t have answers to these questions at the moment, but what the male fruit plucking picture shows, is the unbroken popularity of stories such as these of the Romance, and the transmission of images from Medieval up to Early Modern times. I suppose that at the end of the 16th century and the growing influence of Protestantism, indecent pictures like these were removed, hidden away and eventually disappeared in closed areas of private spaces and libraries like the BnF, the National Library of France, where the room with these forbidden books is called « L’Enfer » (hell). In 2007-2008, the National Library Paris held the very first exposition on these immoral books and images kept in « Hell » : « L’enfer de la Bibliothèque. Eros au secret« .

People were definitively more relaxed 500 years ago, when they openly mocked human weakness with explicite pictures instead of hiding them away.

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