Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Nun Harvesting Phalluses from a Phallus Tree and a Monk and Nun Embracing
  • Creator: Jeanne de Montbaston
  • Description: The bas-de-page of this fourteenth-century manuscript of the Roman de la Rose pairs two erotic and likely humorous scenes. At left, a nun plucks disembodied phalluses from a tree brimming with phalluses and gathers her harvest in a green basket. At right, the same nun engages in a taboo embrace with a blonde, bearded monk in a grey habit. Several additional folios in the manuscript depict equally subversive scenes, such as a team of nuns gathering phalluses, sex among monks and nuns, and a nun leading a monk by a chain attached to his penis. This risqué marginalia comes from a secular Parisian atelier run by a husband and wife team, Richard and Jeanne de Montbaston. The couple collectively copied and illuminated nineteen extant manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose. Jeanne operated the atelier independently after Richard died in 1353, leading some scholars to speculate that the whimsical and often bawdy illuminations in this particular manuscript were solely her creations (Camille, 2003; Rouse and Rouse, 1999).

    Although the appearance of a phallus tree may seem strange at first, the iconographic motif appears to have been quite popular in the late medieval secular world. Phallus trees appear in various mediums, including lead pilgrimage badges, wood carvings, and perhaps most famously, in frescoes like the Massa Marattima fountain mural. While a single concrete meaning behind the phallus tree remains elusive, the image carried connotations of fertility and generation (Hoch, 2006). In other instances, phallus tree iconography poked fun at fear of male impotence. More simply, representations of a phallus tree may have been intended to be funny, especially when they appeared as parodies of images associated with popular devotion (Koldeweij, 2004). Given the monastic subjects of the Roman de la Rose’s illumination, and the raciness of the poem itself, intent to parody spiritual and courtly love may have motivated Jeanne de Montbaston to include the phallus tree and embracing couple in her marginal illustrations.

  • Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Eroticism   Humor, Bawdy   Monks   Nuns   Penis   Sexuality   Women Artists
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 14
  • Date: Mid-14th century
  • Related Work: Page-turn view of the entire manuscript: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6000369q; Massa Marittima Mural: http://www.thehistoryblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/massa_marittima-mural.png;
  • Current Location: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 25526, f. 106v
  • Original Location: France, N. Paris
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 26.3/19.3/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Camille, Michael. Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art. Reaktion Books, 2003. pp. 147-49;
    Mattelaer, Johan J. "The Phallus Tree: A Medieval and Renaissance Phenomenon." Journal of Sexual Medicine 7:2 (2010). pp. 846-51;
    Rouse, Richard H. and Mary A. Rouse. "A 'Rose' By Any Other Name: Richard and Jeanne de Montbaston as Illuminators of Vernacular Texts," in Manuscripts and Their Makers: Commercial Book Producers in Medieval Paris, 1200- 1500. Harvey Miller Publishers, 1999. pp. 235-260;
    Smith, Matthew Ryan. "Reconsidering the 'Obscene': The Massa Marittima Mural." Shift 2 (2009). pp. 1-27;