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Would medieval Christians have blushed at a giant chalk erection?

21 May 2021

Last week, it was revealed that the delightfully priapic Cerne Abbas giant might date to the 10th century (or more loosely, 700–1100). The origins of this 180ft-tall chalk figure etched onto a hillside in the Dorset Downs have long been a mystery; previous estimates have placed it anywhere from prehistoric times to the 17th century. Since the announcement of the new dating, determined by analysis of the soil undertaken by the National Trust, the thought that such an image was tolerated by the medieval Church, specifically Cerne Abbey in the valley below, has been met by some with puzzlement. Certainly, the figure’s aggression and nudity seem at odds with all the notions of Christian censorship we have developed since its makers first put shovel to soil. Perhaps this is one of the factors lying behind suggestions that the figure’s origins – if religious – are more likely to be pagan than Christian.

But was this kind of image really too rude for medieval Christianity? It’s worth considering what else was afoot in southern England during the 10th century – in the middle of the date range suggested by the Trust’s analysis. A lot of bureaucracy, that’s for certain. We might call to mind contemporary figures like Archbishop Dunstan and Bishop Æthelwold, movements such as the Benedictine Reform, and the encroaching presence of the Danes. This is a century that saw the consolidation of ecclesiastical power, the revival of Latin learning and the strengthening of England’s ties to the Continent. It is the century in which Cerne Abbey was founded, in 978. Surely it is a century far too official, far too sensible, for the laborious carving of a sexually excited giant on the side of a remote hill? Surely it must be the work of an earthy group of recalcitrant pagans: a counter-cultural hilltop troop sticking two fingers and a large, calciferous phallus up at the establishment?

However, even if the giant dates to the earlier end of the suggested range, and thus closer to the pre-conversion period, such ‘obscene’ images were not the preserve of those outside the Church.  It has been proposed that the giant’s celebrated erection may be a later addition – and perhaps it is, but there is a risk that the theory could gain ground due to a misperception of medieval Christian sensibilities. Pre-Reformation England had a rather different relationship with nudity than is often assumed. The clues to this are everywhere; one need only look to the 14th-century sanctuary screen of St Nicholas’s Church, King’s Lynn, on which a fist-sized wooden figure scoops faeces from his anus to his mouth. Or to the mid 12th-century carved corbels of Kilpeck church, one of which shows a female figure stretching open a disproportionately large vagina. Or to the Junius 11 manuscript of the late 10th century, in which a naked, pot-bellied Devil is whipped by a minion. Art historians of the Middle Ages – among them, notably, Paul Binski –  are increasingly committed to the idea that depictions of the sacred and the profane could coexist in Christian contexts. They had their own pedagogical ends. The Cerne Abbas giant might too have had such an end.

In the Old English poem Beowulf – which was written down in perhaps the very century that the Cerne Abbas giant was dug – the giant-like character of Grendel devours the inhabitants of the hall Heorot night after night, because, it seems, he cannot bear the sound of revelry from his lonely home in the marshes. Likewise, in the 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the first colonisers of Albion (led by Brutus, whence ‘Britain’) encounter a dwindling race of giants, prone to territorial in-fighting. Thanks to the work of researchers such as Alixe Bovey and John Clark, we know that from at least the 15th century the turf of Plymouth Hoe – not all that far from Cerne Abbas – once bore a depiction of the wrestling match between the last survivor of this race, the terrifying Gogmagog, and Corineus, known for his giant-slaying prowess. It was hereabouts, as medieval sources had it, that Gogmagog was thrown into the sea and the Trojan coloniser secured his claim to Britain.

In the medieval imagination, giants were one of the monstrous races. These races exhibit physical excesses – whether in overall size or a single body part – reflecting excessive impulses. The faces of Blemmyes, for instance, are in their stomachs, the seat of greed. Giants or monstrously large human-like beings are, in early and later medieval literature, jealous guardians of the land. They are social pariahs: nemeses to community and civilisation, symbols of the wild. Nudity and an engorged penis would be effective emblems of those traits.

Seen through Christian eyes, the Cerne Abbas giant’s graphic nudity and raised club might have been apt expressions of his race’s immoderate lust for territory and the threat he posed to peaceful human society. In this way, he could even have served as a potent daily reminder to the chaste community in the valley below of the kind of spiritual evils they had vowed to fight. Was he the villain in a now-forgotten local tale appropriated by the abbey? It’s not impossible; Antonia Gransden has written extensively on the use of myth and legend by medieval English ecclesiastical institutions. True, the sources are quiet on such a legend, but its existence should not be dismissed on the grounds of impropriety. Even if Cerne didn’t sanction its chalky 55m neighbour, the community wasn’t necessarily shielding its innocent eyes or frowning in disapprobation.

Amy Jeffs is an art historian specialising in the Middle Ages. Her book Storyland: a New Mythology of Britain (riverrun) will be published in September 2021.