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Medieval Monks Living in the Margins, Drawing Sexual Demons

I saved this link to Living in the Margins by Colin Dickey just to highlight on its own; how often do you get to discuss, let alone see, “a demon of some sort firing an arrow into the ass of a merman”?

This, and other wicked imaginings, are found in medieval manuscripts, as Dickey discusses with Michael Camille, author of Images on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art.

Depictions of sexual consort are frequent, among men and women, among various species of animals, and enough other combinations to make even contemporary readers blush. Camille cautions against reading such images as violations of the sacred text; because the medieval world was so rigidly hierarchized and structured, “resisting, ridiculing, overturning and inventing was not only possible, it was limitless.” That these psalters and books of hours often contained sacrilegious sentiments right alongside their holy piety, it seems, was perhaps the point: “We should not see medieval culture exclusively in terms of binary oppositions—sacred/profane, for example, or spiritual/worldly,” Camille explains. “Travesty, profanation, and sacrilege are essential to the continuity of the sacred in society.”

…But while the text itself is focused around this aristocratic world, it was copied and built by tradesmen and the working class, and as Camille suggests, one finds in these marginal notes and images a subtle reflection on the power structure inherent in the medieval manuscript: “The artists who painted these images were sometimes servants in the retinue of the nobility, but even those who were professionals were lower on the social scale than those for whom they worked. Was the servant able to poke fun at his master in the margins in the same way that the Latin fabulist Phaedrus…thought he could?”

Dickey’s article’s published in Means of Communication, the Spring 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, which includes a transcribed list of complaints made by the monks literally writing the books. The whole issue has much to learn about and delight in.

Posted in Art, Artists, Books, Religion, Sex History.

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