On nobility, courtship, moral justification, and sexy tapestries

Last month I had the absolute pleasure of popping over to see friends in Basel to check out Fastnacht, as my lovely Patrons have had to hear about in detail. It was amazing! It was deeply weird! It was a super wonderful thing to be a part of! However, one of the most magical things I came across in Basel was not just the thousands of people playing piccolos or marching around in the dark with lanterns – it was the absolutely overwhelming collection of medieval tapestries that were on display in the Historisches Museum Basel.

Full disclosure: when I was but a young foolish thing I was very “meh” on tapestries. I blame the following factors: First, I mostly saw baroque ones in museums, and while I like baroque architecture from the outside almost nothing else in that particular art moment works for me. Second, medieval tapestries are, by the nature of the passage of time, very old. This means that they often are quite faded by the time silly little me gets to see them in a museum somewhere. The best tapestries, then, are usually the ones that have somehow made it to us across the vast sea of time hidden in a trunk or something somewhere – for example the Museé de Cluny’s unicorn tapestries.

So anyway, I am now willing to admit that tapestries do, in fact, whip but the odds of actually getting one that managed to go the distance off display is low. Imagine then, the way that I absolutely lost the plot when I turned a corner in the basement to be presented with not just a great tapestry, not just a great collection of tapestries, but a collection of tapestries that have sexual themes.

Friends. I was practically hyper ventilating.

First up, I have to show you these shots of enemy of the blog Aristotle engaged in some light pony play with Phyllis.

We’ve already talked at length about this particular medieval story and its meaning, so we don’t need to go into it at length again here. Suffice to say, the fact that women were hot little sluts (reclaimed word – used as a positive, thanks.) who were DTF seems to have been a concern to the good people of Basel. Clearly they felt that some tapestries needed to be woven to remind everyone how you will be wearing a bridle in seconds if you don’t keep your eyes on the women around you. Of course this also serves as a way where kink minded medieval people with a serious budget could also just have some kink art on the walls while also pretending that they were warning everyone to definitely not be horny about service play. 

To lend a little plausible deniability to the owners, this particular scene is a part of a larger tapestry that shows unruly love and it’s consequences.

On the left, you can see a disenchanted lover taking off on pilgrimage – his scallop on the hat gives it away that he is going to Santiago de Compastela in Spain.

One honey is seeing him off.

The other young people are playing a game called Haussepied or Quinatine. A chick is sitting on a dude and the other young people are trying to kick her off.

This is very sexy because you might see up her dress. Also you get to sit on people (defo not a kink) and kick them (???). You may note that behind the girl sitting on the guy the tree is growing testicle fruit. I mean pears. Yeah. Pears.

We’re just normal fruits. We’re just innocent fruits.

Anyway, this tapestry is all very “which way Western Man”? You can either do stuff like this and end up getting ridden by Phyllis (which is bad?), or go on pilgrimage. It’s up to you, and this tapestry is definitely a warning and not an incitement. Ahem.

And if you definitely just had this tapestry as a warning, and not because you like kink art, then you might want to augment it with this lovely Phyllis and Aristotle wall carving, which is also definitely a statement about not doing kink, thanks.

Cool headdress, girl.

Now as if in answer to the warning about how being too sexy and kicking your friends will have you in a bridle, there were also a few tapestries that I found particularly interesting as counterpoints. They give a visual reminder of a phenomenon that I have had to read Andreas Capellanus expound upon at length – namely – that nobility, both the concept and the class – are able to overcome the pitfalls of sexy love.

For Capellanus class was, to an extent, naturally constructed. Those of the noble classes were established as such because their virtue set them apart from everyone else. All humans are descended from Adam and Eve, right? So how did society become so stratified? By nobles and royals being really great and having super good manners which means they should be able to literally own humans or whatever. Fine. Sure. As Andreas put it, a man born to the nobility gets good manners “from his ancient stock and from his noble father and derives it as a sort of inheritance from those from whom he gets his being”.[1]

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Those born noble just are noble, on a level that we would consider genetic, but which Andreas can’t because he doesn’t know what a gene is.

The ideal noble, then, has both the natural inherited nobility proper of his class and the good manners that show why it was his family had got to that point. These manners are important, because they can stop you from being totally horny all the time.

And buddy, I saw multiple tapestries about just that.

The first shows a bunch of young nobles engaging in the right kind of courtship games.

Chess! Love poetry! Chilling with friends where you are being supervised! These are all the acceptable ways to have love affairs which do not call your marriageability into question, and therefore keep your family happy. These are then ways of interacting that can be celebrated and also show the good manners and noble breeding of their subjects as well as reinforcing those same ideals within the audience that views the tapestry.

I also just want to shout out this silly lil’ dog chilling out at the feet of the love poets. Good dog.

Incredible stuff. Very good!

Back to the subject – you can see the ideal of nobility triumphing over the wrong sorts of love in these amazing examples:

Here you see a noble woman and man and two very ferocious beasts, but the nobles have the beasts with collars and leashes on. Surprise surprise it’s a symbol!

The beasts here represent the worst impulses generally, and more specifically in this context sexual impulses more generally. Through the grace of nobility the young people are able to master their raging libidos and steer a course through to respectability.

Here of course mastering the bad impulses represented by the beasts is presented as a good thing but also … the beasts are really cool? They are rendered with such a lot of detail that the tapestries belie a kind of fascination with the theoretical bad behaviour that the beasts represent.

And indeed we see some longing for out and out sexuality in other tapestries in the collection, specifically in the several tapestries that depict wild men and women.

The wild people are depicted as clothed in their own hair and cavorting in wild spaces, but still behaving like people. They have houses. They hunt. They go hawking. Hell, in another tapestry they even court and raise families together.

BUT they are unencumbered by the restrictions that their noble counterparts in the other tapestries are subject to. They don’t wear clothes. They get to enjoy their natural surroundings, and each others’ company without worrying that they are letting their families down. They aren’t noble, so they just get to chill. They are thus living the lives that the nobles who know they need to be taming their inner sex beast wish that they could live.

One of my favourite wild people tapestries was this little lady right here who sums the whole thing up:

She is sexual. Even in her hair clothed state my girl said TITTIES OUT, which is a choice that I, for one, celebrate. However, you see how she is snuggling with a unicorn? Well that shows that she is still a maiden. Cuz, you know, unicorns are very vicious lion/goat beasts who usually tear shit up, unless they are presented with maidens who they love. (Weird, but OK.)

She is therefore in many ways the very embodiment of all the tension that these nobles with their money, their ideas about inherited manners, and their tapestries are grappling with. The wild woman is a balancing act of the innocence of nature. She is sexual but not acting on it. She can just chill, titty out, and not make it a whole thing, unlike these nobles and their supposed bred-in (not to say inbred) moral superiority.

They know that you are supposed to be restrained by your noble breeding and inheritance, but they secretly want to give in their worst impulses. They want to be ridden like a pony. They want to play weird kicking games and wrestle around. They just want to go dick about in the woods and make out, and enjoy a tasteful titty tapestry, but they have to deny this because otherwise it would call their entire place in society into question.

SO, tapestries that show you this and hopefully get you to behave yourself.

I would submit to you that any culture which has to make high art to remind its members to behave in a particular way is probably not actually benefitting from a genetic propensity toward said behaviour. But there has to be some way to justify the fact that some people get to hang out and look at tapestries like this, while other people make those tapestries for those same people. A world view that pretends that they deserve all of this because they have access to a genetic wellspring of good manners is one way.

Anyway, I just think the tapestries are neat. Right? Right.

[1] Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, ed. and trans. John Jay Perry, (New York: Columbia Unioversity Press, 1960), p. 38.
[2] Ibid., p.. 56.
[3] Ibid.

For more on courtship, see:

On incels and courtly love
On courtly love and pick up artists
On courtly love, sexual coercion, and killing your idols

Ⓒ Eleanor Janega, 2023

If you are enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon for more exclusive content. If not, that’s chill too!

Want more audio medieval history? Check out my podcast, We’re Not So Different.

My book, The Once And Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society, is out now.

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

One thought on “On nobility, courtship, moral justification, and sexy tapestries”

  1. Awesome post, it must be great going to museums with you.
    And talking about museums, Basel has an impressive selection.


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