Penis Swallower?
Penis Swallower?

The Church

This figure resides high in the roofbeams of Avening Church Gloucestershire and has been described as a male exhibitionist by Malcom Thurlby in his paper on Studland church 1. The church at Avening is unique in being the only church commissioned by a queen. Namely Queen Matilda wife of William the conqueror. The story of the founding of the church has all the hallmarks of a romantic tragedy.

A Jilted Queen

In the year 1050, Brittric of Avening, Lord of Gloucester was sent by Edward the Confessor as an ambassador to Baldwin, Count of Flanders. It was here that he met Matilda who fell in love with Brittric despite him being married. However Brittric, who was said to be very pale (his nickname was Snow) rejected her advances much to the annoyance of Matilda. shortly after she became queen,she had the King disposses Brittric of the manor of Avening and had him thrown into prison at Worcester, where he died. Rumours have it that the death sounded very much like poisoning. Some years later the queen deeply regretted her actions and built a church at Avening in penance. The Queen consecrated the church in 1080 and gave a feast of a pigs head to the builders. This feast is still commemorated in the village as Pig Face Day on September the 14th where the villagers “feast” in the village hall.

The Figure

The figure is an acrobatic type with the head peering from between the legs with the hand gripping the knees. The “penis” juts out from the wall and enters the mouth of the figure. The contorted position of the figure makes it very hard to work out where exactly the penis is coming from. In fact the “penis” is not particularly phallic especially with the lack testes which are usually shown. This figure is a good example of the variety of explicitness in Romanesque figures. While its very hard to see the gaping vulva of the Kilpeck figure as anything but a vulva the impaled figrue at Rock is altogether more ambiguous yet still seems to have some sexual characteristics. This figure equally ambiguous in its representation. “Penis swallowers” are not unknown in Romanesque carving with worn but still explicit example at Denton in the Midlands. The later worn Scottish figure in Glasgow may also be another example of a penis swallower.  Another interpretation of  the figure is that rather than being a penis it may in fact be a musical instrument.  However if this is the case it seems more likely that  it would  be holding the instrument  rather than its knees.
Another Penis Swallower?
Another Penis Swallower or bagpipe player?
The Corbel outlined to make the figure clearer
The Corbel outlined to make the figure clearer
Another corbel in the church which I first thought appeared to be eating. However on closer examination and darkening the more deeply carved parts of the figure it turns out that the figure could be a muscian playing a bagpipe. However as Pat O’Halloran (www.danu.co.uk) has pointed out to me the fingers are in the wrong place for a bagpipe player. Anthony Weir is of the opinion that that this is another phallic sucking figure. In this case the pipe of the arm could be holding back a spindly leg. The damaged end of the leg couldbe a  snapped off foot. Click on the image on the left to outline the figure and hopefully the carving will be a little clearer and you can decide for yourself.

1 The Romanesque Church of St Nicholas, Studland (Dorset), Malcom Thurlby and Karen Lundren in Proceedings of the Dorset  Natural History and Archaeological Society.

John Harding