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Mary Vretas (BA '12)

Published May 3, 2012

Erotic Badges in the Middle Ages

“A number of secular lead-tin alloy badges have resurfaced in many museum collections alongside pilgrim badges. These badges, dating from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, stand in stark contrast to their religious counterparts, taking lewd and obscene forms. Due to their explicit sexuality, scholars have paid little critical attention to these badges. Given their medieval context, a time period seemingly unlikely to produce obscene art, it is the purpose of this study to explore these erotic badges in the context of life in medieval Europe. After examining a multitude of sexual badges, literature was studied as a point of departure for portraying life in a manner similar to the badges. The French fabliaux, very well known, but never connected to secular badges, describe many of the same graphically sexual elements that are found in the badges. When juxtaposed to the fabliaux, the badges correspond to the sexual overtones implicit in many fabliaux intrigues. Elements of the fabliaux correlating to the badges include the personalization of, detachment of, as well as the reduction of the body to a sexual organ. Medieval Carnival provides a plausible context during which people could wear these badges, as the festival viewed all things in a systematically altered relationship. The notion of the “world upside down” constructed an atmosphere in which insignia employing graphic sexuality could be both utilized and received. By connecting these badges to the fabliaux and placing them within the context of Medieval Carnival, this study researches an area that has received hardly any art historical discussion. Additionally, this work contributes to future research on the complex topic of obscenities in the medieval period.”

Mary Vretas – BA Art History ’12