1996-Aug seminar

12 August 1996

Linda Jack: Sheelah na-gigs

Sheelah na-gigs are the carved figures with rather graphic renditions of genitals occasionally found on gothic doorways and in pedestrian walkways.

The following notes are due to Nancy Pinkerton (email dated 23 Sep 1996):

  • Linda Jack has been doing research on Sheelah na-gigs. Those are the carvings and adornments that are usually found in doorways and other pedestrian walkways, which are exceedingly graphic representations of a female person spreading outlandishly large genitals while grimacing in a threatening way. Linda (and the rest of us) couldn't come up with a sound reason why such a representation would be found on church buildings, in such obvious places, throughout Ireland, England, and parts of France. But they are. In addition to having many slides/overheads of samples of this sort of stone carving, she had overheads that summarized the various speculative reasons for what/why they are.
  • Characteristics: nude female, squatting or half sitting with legs widespread, narrow shoulders, exposed and exaggerated vulva, head hairless or capped, round eyes, flat nose, pursed or grimacing mouth, furrowed brow, scarred or (especially in Ireland) incised face. There was great discussion about them in the 18-19th C, with the renewed interest in medieval art and architecture, and the tensions between preservation and Victorian sensibilities, renewing the pagan vs. medieval debate. Other sources suggested they were imported from France with the Normans, fully developed by the mid-12th C, present in the company of other grotesques with similar features (corbel tables), in Ireland and Wales they are found in "normanized" areas, and are strange because nudity is unusual outside of the last Judgment or the Garden of Eden representations. Architecturally they are found in the following placements: corbel tables, quoins, doorways, windows, capitals, it is thought they either keep watch, provide protection, or serve warning; warding off evil, protecting from enchancement, are perhaps purely decorative, or leftover from fertility rites. They are now rather scarce in their original church settings, having been reemployed in castles, private collections, bridges, mills, museums, and over holy wells.

Bob Nyden: Was Salisbury's stone moved down the Nadder river?

Bob Nyden discussed the results of his attempt to determine whether the stone used to build Salisbury cathedral had been moved down the Nadder River - and his conclusion that it probably hadn't been.

The following notes are due to Nancy Pinkerton (email dated 23 Sep 1996):

  • Bob Nyden gave a very informative presentation about moving the stone for Salisbury down the river Nadder. He fashioned out of cardboard blocks of stone representing one ton - it made it easier for us to visualize the statistics he was quoting, the quantity that a horse cart or an oxen car could carry, etc. He had survey maps of the area, showing current and previous mill sites, river diversions, slope, etc. Much to his regret, he seemed to have proved that the stone DID NOT come down the river. He had set out to prove that IT WAS transported that way. The slope and drop in elevation between the quarry and the Cathedral isn't much, when you add to it the water levels at different times of year, mills blocking the flow, and even steep curvy shoreline preventing a horse-pull-track, it pretty much paints a picture that the stone didn't float to the building site. He had an abundance of figures, maps, sources, quotes, scenarios, and more to dazzle us with.

And here's a note from Bob himself (email dated 4 Oct 1996):

  • John, In the short term, the correction I would make to Nancy's conclusions re: my talk is that most of the stones were probably not moved down the river. I showed how it was theoretically possible for the river to have been used, but concluded that the normal benefits of water transport in medieval times (no animals to feed or tend but large and heavy cargo potential) didn't seem to apply to the River Nadder because of its shallowness. I showed that the presence of many mills along the river did not necessarily preclude its use for cargo. The depth of water is the main hinderance. I agreed with Bob Scott's observation that it's almost inconceivable that the river was not at least tried. I mean, there it was going right from the quarries to the building site, but it's not likely that the bulk of stone was shipped.