Ok, stop me if you’ve heard this before:
“What shall we think about those witches who somehow take members in large numbers – twenty or thirty – and shut them up together in a birds’ nest or some box, where they move around like living members, eating oats or other feed? This has been seen by many and is a matter of common talk…
…A man reported that he had lost his member and approached a certain witch in order to restore his health. She told the sick man to climb a particular tree where there was a nest containing many members, and allowed him to take any one he liked. When he tried to take a big one, the witch said you may not take that one, adding, because it belonged to a parish priest.”
I can’t take credit for that joke. Where do you think it’s from – a bawdy medieval romance? A lesser-known Chaucer passage? No, this is from the Malleus Maleficarum, also called the Hammer of the Witches, a fifteenth-century manual on how to root out sorcerers, that advocated torture and burning at the stake. So, not exactly a comedy text. But, though not incredibly common, the penis tree is an interesting and slightly mysterious concept that reappears in both medieval images and texts. This article will be your basic field guide to the medieval penis tree, if you will, looking at four examples from different media to shed light on the varying aspects of disembodied penises. That way, if one ever springs up in your vicinity, you can amaze and horrify all your friends with these facts. (If you want to explore the issues touched upon here of gender relations, humour, the psychology of losing one’s penis and art history of the phallus, the references at the bottom form a suggested reading guide). Also, strap in (strap on?) as I make no apologies for any of the puns included here.
You might have seen the above picture doing the occasional rounds on Facebook or any of its various meme pages. Is the artist commenting on gender roles? Is it a depiction of a witch? Or is this an early branch of Ann Summers?
This penis-picker appears on folio 106 of a copy of the Roman de la Rose. Over 300 manuscripts or fragmentary copies of this tale still exist, testifying to its immense popularity during the medieval period. The story is that of an allegorical dream vision, intended to entertain and teach its audience about the art of love through the main character meeting others personifying love’s different aspects. The first editions of the poem appeared around 1280, though the manuscript which contains our lady here was produced around the mid fourteenth-century by Richart and Jeanne de Montbaston. This particular manuscript, Paris Bibliotheque National ms. Fr. 25526, is one of nineteen extant copies of the same story by the Montbastons. It is lavishly illuminated throughout, including an image on fol. 77 identifying Richart as the writer and Jeanne as the illuminator. However, the pictures do not necessarily correspond to the text on the same page, and indeed the subjects of the images vary from Bible tales to courtly scenes, and also to the group of nine “lewd” images which include two penis trees, and more naked members.
They seem to follow a short story, starting with a couple in bed on fol. 63, although this is clearly not a great encounter as the next picture is of a woman with a chopping-board chasing a naked man into a tower (we’ve all been there). Next, a nun leads a man by a chain around his penis to a tower where he climbs up to meet her. Overleaf is our picture of the woman and penis tree, followed by the couple embracing. The next sequence sees a man and woman meeting, making love, meeting in front of a church, two women gathering penises from a tree, and the man offering the woman a crowned phallus – she, much like the modern recipient of the unexpected dick pic, does not look best pleased.
It is true that some of the pages with these images contain text about love and making love, but as this is the central theme to the Roman, it cannot be argued that the illustrations necessarily relate specifically to the passages. These images are likely jokes designed by Jeanne, playing on the male fear of impotence and, through the characters’ appearance as monks and nuns, a pointed comment about the futility regarding vows of chastity in then popular religious movements. An interesting theory suggested by a blogger who takes her name from Jeanne de Montbaston herself, is that the illustrator was responding to the misogynistic nature of the Roman, which treats women as mere sex objects. One character, Genius, argues that men are obliged to take advantage of all women as sexual objects, going on to compare sex to writing. Women are passive, blank pages, and the act of writing is intrinsically linked to the possession of a penis – the argument that one “should” only be using such a tool on women is also intentionally homophobic. In amongst the tale’s mansplaining of female desire and male superiority, the nun appears to be saying, “well, if you have to have a penis to tell a good story…look how many I have!”
The penis tree can be found in a very different context from the Roman illuminations, this time appearing in the Fonte Nuova mural in Massa Marittima, Italy. This fountain was built around 1265. Shown above, twenty-five phalluses hang from the branches of a large tree: underneath four women stand calmly on one side, but on the left, two women appear to be pulling each other’s hair, fighting over a penis which they are putting in a jug, while another woman tries to hit a phallus out of the tree using a stick. The figure on the far left has one of the fruits of the tree behind her, almost at knee level, possibly utilising it as some sort of pleasure device. George Ferzoco, who completed the first analysis of the mural when it was rediscovered in 2000, argued that the image was propaganda put up by the Guelph family, to discredit the Ghibelline faction. The large black birds are the symbol of the Ghibelline family, who had recently been expelled from the town by the Guelphs: the mural indicates that, if allowed back, they would bring sexual perversion. This is depicted through the woman possibly being sodomised on the far left, strife, the two women fighting, and witchcraft. The last of these themes comes from the idea that witches store the penises they have stolen from men in trees, an idea also present, as outlined above, in the Malleus Maleficarum. However, there is little else to suggest that the women are witches: the connection to the Malleus is tenuous, seeing as it was written 200 years after the mural was created, in a different country, and there being no evidence of other stereotypical signs of witchcraft – namely infant sacrifice, sex with male demons, and suchlike.
Massa Marittima’s fresco raises more questions than it can answer. Ferzoco’s conclusions have been challenged recently by Matthew Ryan Smith, who offers various interpretations in his article “Reconsidering the Obscene”. He draws attention to the red outline to the right of the tree, which could be a bird or perhaps a snake. If the latter, this would introduce a new level of Christian iconographic analysis to the mural; Smith suggests that the serpent could be tempting the women below, and their ensuing sin is shown on the left of the tree. Otherwise, being near a fountain’s life-giving water, the penises could simply be a fertility symbol, or designed to ward off evil.
This brings us to the pertinent question of what could a penis, flying or in a tree, mean? There is much more effort put into these than the average phallic doodle on a schoolboy’s textbook. The phallus has long been associated with fertility and good luck in Celtic, Greek, and Roman traditions, but there are no known depictions of them in trees. Plutarch, the Greek essayist, wrote that the Romans believed indecent images protected against the evil eye, that omni-present but vague menace, by distracting, confusing or frightening the eye so it left the wearer alone. Both male and female genitalia apparently worked for this, but the phallus was also thought to attract good luck. Small amulets of penises called fascina were commonly worn across the Roman world. It is possible that rediscovery of these by medieval people sparked the re-adoption, or more prominent continuation of such thought in the production of medieval sexual badges.
Badges were a common part of a pilgrim’s attire, collected as souvenirs from different shrines. However, excavations in Northern Europe have yielded badges depicting mobile vulvas and phalluses engaged in sexual activity, or going about their daily business. The one above is called “Pussy goes a-hunting.” You can buy modern replicas online too. Their purpose is not clear: they could protect the wearer, be the medieval equivalent of a “kiss-me-quick” hat, or intended to surprise people who might lean in for a closer look. Malcom Jones, an expert in this field, believes that the badges are meant to attract good luck and frighten away bad, like in the Roman era, but one must also take into account the likely humorous intention behind the images. Clearly the “wandering” phallus and vulva were in some way a part of medieval consciousness.
There is one element, mentioned only in passing so far, but integral to the understanding of the penis tree: humour. I have skirted around this because it is so hard to define, especially when it is subjective from person to person. Furthermore, humour changes as time progresses, and we must be careful in using our modern humour as a reliable guide to medieval jokes. It is also important to remember that our modern reactions to penises are influenced by Victorian prudish sensibilities, and that penises were quite prevalent across medieval art. One thing that can be agreed on, however, is that from ancient times, many people have found the penis hilarious – just see some of the phallic graffiti from Pompeii. It is likely that the medieval phallus art could be created to raise a laugh on one level, regardless of other messages that may or may not be understood by the average medieval audience. Indeed, there are no doubt nuances to the images that modern viewers do not understand because we lack an intimate and submersed knowledge with the then contemporary culture.
This brings us back to our amusing little anecdote from the Malleus Maleficarum. As said, the Malleus was a “how to” guide for investigating witchcraft written by the German cleric, Heinrich Kramer, in the mid fifteenth-century. It developed a detailed theological and legal theory behind witchcraft investigations, and recommended torture to obtain confessions. Kramer’s work greatly influenced the increasing idea that witchcraft was a gendered crime. Prior to Kramer both men and women had performed magic, with learned men indulging in its particularly dangerous form, necromancy. But the fifteenth-century saw a change, with the new charge of witchcraft thought to be mostly a female preserve. Inherent misogyny in Malleus Maleficarum played no small part in this. Women, as usual, were seen as the morally weaker sex, and hence more susceptible to the approaches of demons since “Witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.”
In the section on various practices, Kramer describes witches stealing men’s penises for unclear but nefarious purposes. Two examples are straightforward recounts of events. In the first, a “certain young man” reported that he lost his penis after having a liaison with a girl, so he approached her again and threatened to kill her unless she restored him whole. She touched him between his legs, and his member was returned. The second tale is reported by “a venerable father” (who some think was Kramer himself), who had a man confess to him that he had lost his penis, and stripped off to prove it to the confessor. He was advised to go and plead with the woman he suspected of bewitching him, and he returned a few days later, saying he was back to normal. Eyewitnesses supported both of these tales. Our opening story from the Malleus Maleficarum, and Kramer’s third example, does not have the same agreement of witnesses, and no conclusion; indeed, it stops dead with a punchline. Anti-clerical humour was popular at the time, and such a story could be the ordinary folk laughing about the stereotypically lusty nature of celibate priests, much in the same vein as the Romance de la Rose pictures of nuns and monks.
The important point here is not if Kramer uncritically accepted this tale as fact, but what this tells us about the beliefs of the era. He writes that it is a matter of “common report” – so, widely believed by people – which is what qualifies it to be quoted when he doesn’t have more concrete evidence to draw upon. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and where there’s rumour there’s truth, perhaps.
It is worth noting that Kramer put some serious theological work into how a penis could feasibly be stolen. He concluded that the theft was not physical, but actually an illusion created by the witch – presumably small comfort to the men afflicted. Penis theft, or shrinkage, is an occasional fear or affliction in various cultures (see reading below). While we read a theologically-grounded but still fantastical idea that attacks women, the story’s humour helps explore men’s fear of losing their most vital appendage. Jokes and the serious nature of the Malleus can be mixed; humour is a vehicle to explore serious ideas and address taboos, to push boundaries and discuss topics which make society anxious, without suffering the consequences.
This whistle-stop-tour through four depictions of “wandering” phalluses has tried to show that the mobile penis appears in different contexts for different reasons, mostly humorous. Debate rages as to the meaning of the penis tree, partly because we do not possess enough information about the use of humour in the middle ages, and also because it is not always clear what the sources in which they are found are actually trying to convey. The “pilgrim badges” are perhaps the most illustrative and infuriating in this respect. In any event, gentlemen, keep an eye on your jewels if there’s a witch about, and ladies, if you can’t afford a trip to the adult store, then you could try “gathering nuts in May” in a forest near you.
For related writings on wandering genitalia by Elizabeth Wilson head here.
 Malleus Maleficarum, Part II, Question 1, Chapter 7, translated by Moira Smith.
 “Penis Trees Against the Misogynists?”, Jeanne de Montbaston October 13th 2013. https://readingmedievalbooks.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/jeanne-de-montbaston-penis-trees-against-the-misogynists/
 Carl Pyrdum, “Negative Campaigning, Medieval Style”, Got Medieval October 22nd 2008. http://www.gotmedieval.com/2008/10/negative-campaigning-medieval-style.html
 Matthew Ryan Smith, “Reconsidering the Obscene: The Massa Marittima Mural”, Shift 2 (2009): 1-27
 Malcolm Jones, The Secret Middle Ages, (The History Press, 2004): 253.
 “Why so serious? Phallic trees and humour in medieval imagery”, Beyond Boarders 20th January 2014.
 Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, trans. Montague Summers, (New York: Dover, 1971): 47
References other than footnotes:
Ilechukwu, Sunny T.C. “Magical Penis Loss in Nigeria: Report of a Recent Epidemic of a Koro-Like Syndrome”, Transcultural Psychiatry 29:2 (1992). A recent study of modern belief in penis theft.
Koldeweij, A.M. “A Barefaced Roman de la Rose (Paris, B.N., ms. Fr. 25526) And Some Late Medieval Mass-Produced Badges of a Sexual Nature” in Flanders from a European Perspective: Manuscript Illumination around 1400, (Leuven, 1994) 499-516.
McDonald, Nicola, Medieval Obscenities (York and Woodbridge, 2006) is a good introduction to different aspects of medieval “vulgarity”.
Mellinkoff, R. Averting Demons: The Protective Power of Medieval Visual Motifs and Themes, (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004).
Smith, Moira “The Flying Phallus and the Laughing Inquisitor: Penis Theft in the “Malleus Maleficarum”” Journal of Folklore Research 39:1 (2002) 85-117. Looks at humour and broader witchcraft meaning.