A Case Of Mediaeval Ribaldry?

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As ecclesiastical carvings go this one definitely falls in the rude category. It is one of four known Shropshire Sheelagh Na Gigs, crudely worked images of women (emphasis on reproductive parts and/or breasts) found in parish church walls. According to The Sheelagh na Gig Project there are a dozen more examples known in Britain, but they are also found in early mediaeval churches across Europe.

This particular one is over the door of Church Stretton’s parish church (Church Stretton being Wenlock’s neighbouring town across the Edge). The church is mostly 14th century, but with earlier Norman parts, and it seems likely that this Sheelagh has been retained from the first building phase.

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As you can see, she is not easily spotted. But there she is above the side door, further implying that when the Norman church was being rebuilt, she was thought important enough to re-instate. It’s worth remembering, too, that this was in times when the church ruled over every aspect of people’s lives; adherence and attendance were not optional.

So what is meant by these crude effigies?

There have been all sorts of explanations: that they’re hang-overs from pre-Christian mother-goddess worship; are warnings against immorality; meant to confer success in childbirth; are simply part and parcel of the Norman tendency to add grotesque figures to their churches.

In other words, we do not know. It is yet another example of how the ancestors’ thought processes (much like our own) are not easily fathomed. But if you want to see more examples The Sheelagh na Gig Project is well worth a visit.

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The Square Odds #6

23 thoughts on “A Case Of Mediaeval Ribaldry?

  1. absolutely fascinating. There’s a different kind of project in Winchester looking at medieval graffiti, and again so much can only be guessed at

    1. That’s an interesting thought, Mak. But I’d be surprised. People lived in fear of their souls going to hell. And the local church was the authority. It also exacted regular tithes in terms of people’s produce.

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