The Horny Nun and the Penis Tree: An Untold Story

Medieval art is an orchard ripe for meme pickings. Perhaps I’ve just fashioned a very niche worldview for myself, but it seems like everywhere I turn on the internet there’s some sort of mood board of medieval cats. Which is phenomenal. Medieval cats are great. However, the objectively best image medieval art has to offer the internet and society as a whole is the nun picking penises off of a tree laden with ripe phalluses. This image is found in the margins (that is, the borders) of Romance of the Rose, an incredibly popular Chivalric tale of the middle ages. There are an estimated 250 manuscripts of this tale –which when you consider that each of these manuscripts were hand-written and illustrated, makes it rather amazing. 

Items a reader will want for this article: 

  1. Your own copy of Romance of the Rose, I prefer the Frances Hogan translation. Unless, of course, you can read French or Latin and have your own manuscript. 
  2. Christain Materiality, by Caroline Walker Bynum 
  3. Voices in Dialogue, edited by Linda Olson and Kathryn Kerby Fulton
  4. The actual manuscript itself, fully digitized! Which can be found here, and I will be sure to reference the database’s page numbers specifically (which is why they look strange). The manuscript was digitized in February of this year, which is an insane coincidence and a marker for how we cannot take digitization of medieval manuscripts for granted! 

Romance of the Rose is your typical chivalric romance: young man loves unattainable girl and spends the entire tale wanting her and doing great deeds to be worthy of her love. You know, the kind of story that would have made Spenser cream his tunic. The entire story takes place in a dream, which allows for even more wild shenanigans, such as personifications of Shame (Catholic and Jewish readers know her), Vanity, False Seeming (which co-star has said I am guilty of) and company to come up and lecture the Hero and by extension the reader on various life and romance know-how. 

I only include False-seeming because I think he has one of the greatest lines, in my gay, cat-loving opinion: “But wherever I go and however I conduct myself, I pursue nothing but fraud; just as Sir. Tidbert the cat is only interested in mice and rats, I am only interested in fraud.” (pg 170, with a note that links Sir Tidbert to Roman de Renart, a collection about Reynard the fox with other animal characters). It’s so shoe-horned into the text — ‘I love falsehood, just like this cat from another tale loves chasing mice!’ — that it reminds me of myself being like, ‘Oh, you want to learn about the horny nun from medieval literature? Well here’s a digression about cats.’ 

Why is it called Romance of the Rose, though? Is it because the young girl, the object of the affections of our hero is named Rose? Absolutely not. The Rose is literally a rose, you see. We, the reader, are granted a long lecture about how men of virtue want a rosebud, not a fully bloomed rose. For they want the rose to bloom for them, and to have the whole of the rose’s… fertility cycle I guess? To be theirs and theirs alone. 

The rose is a metaphor for the vag, folxs. 

Now, that’s not especially wild nowadays. That wasn’t even wild for the Middle Ages. 

What is specifically important about this manuscript of Romance of the Rose are the illustrations on the margins of its pages. Typically, marginela (essentially fancy doodles on the bottom and side of the main text) have nothing to do with the text itself and serve to entertain. One example of the divide between text and marginal drawings is the Rutland Psalter, a devotional book of psalms, whose illustrations feature topless mermaids (both breasts, thank you, and yes, they do sag a bit), flirting birds, and nursing centaurs. 

However, the marginela of this copy of Romance of the Rose was drawn by one of the greatest known female illustrators of the time. Jeanne de Montbaston practiced in Paris, the center for manuscript art, during the 14th century, and ran the practice with her husband. Using the spatial safety of the marginela, de Montbaston was able to craft a rebuttal and parody of the chivalric romance formula, while specifically poking fun at the images and characterization of women in Romance of the Rose.  I have seen the penis tree image circulated a lot, but always without context, and certainly without acknowledgement that it was illustrated by a woman, Jeanne de Montbaston. To point and laugh at the image of the nun with her penis tree is partially the point of the image, but isn’t it better with the whole context? This is proto-feminism at its finest! It’s a spit in the face of academics who say women as a whole couldn’t read in the middle ages (a mistruth, most women of high class could read). 

(Jeanne de Montbaston on the left and Husband McGee on the right, page LXXVIIv)

So starts the saga of the Horny Nun, and I have compiled the images here in the order with which they show up in the manuscript. 

(Page CVIr)

It is important to provide the context for the sequence with which the penis tree shows up, and how that sequence relates to the story as a whole. Here, Jeanne de Montbaston pokes fun at the romance hero and how he is essentially led around by his dick, as showcased by our nun literally leading her monk fucktoy around by his dick. 

Take care to notice how the Monk’s dick has been sort of rubbed out, that is an active action, either someone rubbed it out on purpose or it simply faded due to over-touching and time. Now — peer in close, everyone — specifically, the shaft seems to have been rubbed out, while the tip remains intact and obviously, notably erect. I am not a conservator, but this seems to be purposeful, if only because the rest of the manuscript remains in excellent condition. I have no real theories as to why its been rubbed out, but it’s a cool thing to note. 

(page CVIv)

Now, because I am an ethical academic and genuinely adore medieval gender studies, I had to  look up what an uncircumsized dick looked like while erect. This tells you more about my sex life than anything else, but I can now say, with full confidence and a little disgust, that the dicks on the penis tree are fully erect. 

It’s worth noting that the penis is a visual divider between Jews and Catholics in medieval art. Jewish men, if their dicks are on display, will be circumcised — and actually, in Spain, they referred to Jewish men’s dicks as clitorises because of their circumcision. 

But I digress. The dicks on this penis tree are ROCK FUCKING HARD, and the nun is picking them off the tree in a direct reference to the rosebud from the walled garden that Romance of the Rose is centered upon. Here our nun says, “I’m a slut who wants a rock hard dick, and I’m proud!” She already has two in her basket and she’s going for a third on the tree. Again, and I cannot stress this enough, these are rock hard cocks. In plucking this erect fruit, the nun removes virginity from the top of the hierarchy, and stresses that what we really want is experience, not someone to bloom prematurely in your hand. 

(CXIr)

Here the monk begs for sex. This is pretty clear from the nun’s protective hand over her crotch, his pleading and prayer-like stance, and her speaking hand. The fact that she is speaking probably means that she’s setting the terms and conditions for their tryst. Their tryst is continued on the right, her hand grasps his shoulder and pulls him and his cock towards her body. 

(CXIv)

This is not as saucy as the others, but it is interesting only because it shows true intimacy. You see, doggy style was actually the most popular sex position in medieval Europe because it was quick and easy. Missionary was considered truly intimate because you had to look at each other, and here you can see the nun and monk are looking deeply into each others eyes. 

(CXXXIVr)

Ah, love in a chivalric romance is never easy. Here, the monk and nun embrace before she sets off on her quest. This whole sequence supports my theory of this specific nun’s tale being a parody of chivalric romance. Just as a female lover in adventure tales would swear herself to our hero, the monk gives our nun his purse (a constant symbol for his… purse, his balls) and pledges himself to her as she continues on her quest with her basket of penises (shown below). 

(CXXXVr)

(CXXXVv)

If you were curious about what the penises she carried were for, well, here’s the fate of one of them. Just as the chivalric hero uses his desire for the fair maiden to fuel his quests and do heroic things, so too the nun uses her love of dick to battle this dog/lion/griffin thing, who really does not seem perturbed at all. 

A reader asked why the nun had transformed into a monster in this particular drawing. I have absolutely no clue. 

(page CLXr)

Just in case you didn’t get the symbolism of the Penis Tree before, and how its contrasted against the virgin rose in the rose garden, Jeanne de Montbaston has taken it upon herself to provide it again here. Because of the constant medieval fear of lesbianism, and the use of dildos in lesbianism, I like to think these two nuns on the left are girlfriends who will rail each other off-page. On the right, we have the nun, who, having returned from her quest, is given the only thing that matters in chivalric romance, full ownership of her lover’s sexuality. The monk presents his very, very hard, dick to our heroine, and in doing so, Jeanne de Montbaston critiques how the writer of Romance of the Rose has made his main female character a sexual object. 

I don’t know about you, but I need a cold drink or three after analyzing these titillating images. General ribaldry and critique of patriarchal story-telling just gets me so hot. Jeanne de Montbaston’s nun treats the monk as Romance of the Rose’s main character treats his love interest, which is that both the monk and the love interest are nothing more than what sexual pleasure and submission they can give their romantic counterparts. By placing erect penises on a tree, de Montbaston mocks the idea of the virgin rose, and says that what she wants is a hard cock, not a virgin one. By using the nun and the monk she plays into the comedic trope of the middle ages (in which the holy members of the convent were really just a randy lot) and also pokes fun at the image of the virgin as being just that, a virgin. Finally, though the quest itself is vaguely formed, the fact alone that the nun uses the penis to both defend herself and go on the offensive against her attacker, de Montbaston asks us to consider the absurdity of the chivalric romance in its entirety. Truly, the only good art ever created is this. 

2 thoughts on “The Horny Nun and the Penis Tree: An Untold Story

  1. C says:

    This is genuinely fascinating and I had so much fun reading it. Also, the sentence “again, and I cannot stress this enough, these are rock hard cocks” hit me like a fucking train

    Liked by 1 person

  2. fisherpeak says:

    I loved this, it was a ton of fun. I’ve seen the illustration before and had never seen the context. Love the analysis.

    But I can’t help wonder if Jeanne de Montbaston is on the right rather than the left, and Husband McGee on the left rather than the right on page LXXVIIv.

    Like

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