Last week I received the following Tweet from scholar and #WoodcutWednesday fan Sjoerd Levelt:



I’m not sure how I attained a reputation to have expertise on the history of art in general and of woodcuts of erections in particular–I have absolutely no formal training in art history, though I do have some experience with boners and woodcuts, and have some knowledge of early modern woody woodcuts. While I was initially horrified that I was Sjored’s go-to source for information on early modern woodcut erections, I was happy that his query directed me to the fantastic image John Overholt, Houghton Library’s curator of early modern books and manuscripts had Tweeted earlier in the day.


Title page of A new Sect of Religion Descryed Called the Adamites. (1641).

Title page of A new Sect of Religion Descryed Called the Adamites. (1641).

Overholt followed Marcus Nevitt who cited David Cressy as speculating that A new Sect of Religion Descryed Called the Adamites (1641) “contains perhaps the first depiction of an erect penis in English popular print” (Nevitt 133).1 Overholt had his suspicions about the validity of Cressy’s claim, but it appears that each person in this chain of citation hedged their bets, even as they perpetuated the notion that A New Sect of 1641 contained the “first depiction of an erect penis in English popular print.” Even Cressy puts forth this claim tentatively, noting that it is “perhaps” the first, but it was enough to set a chain of authority going that self-perpetuated even as every person citing that claim had their own doubts.

The most horrifying aspect of Sjoerd’s question was that while I did not know to a certainty when the first erection was printed in English popular print, I did have an answer. Apparently, my knowledge of early modern dirty pictures is better than I thought, and I immediately thought of one woodcut from an early printed edition of Mandeville’s Travels without needing to consult any sources other than my own, apparently, equally dirty mind. The following image can be found in the Wynken de Worde edition of 1499 (STC 17247):

A couple of hermaphrodites packing some serious heat. From Wynken de Worde's edition of Mandeville from 1497

A couple of hermaphrodites packing some serious heat. From Wynken de Worde’s edition of Mandeville from 1499

The image depicts two hermaphrodites confronting one another with their exposed and engorged–or, perhaps, more accurately, half-staffed–virile members. While not quite the full erection of the chap on the “A New Sect” title page, I believe this image puts to bed Cressy’s claim that the first erect penis did not appear in an English woodcut until 1641–unless, of course, hermaphrodites or “halfsies” don’t count.

There is reason to believe, however, that the early modern English were penis squeamish. Both the de Worde edition of 1499 and his (probable) next edition of [1503] contain the same graphic depiction of a hermaphrodites’ genitalia, including their erect penises. There is an eventual shift in the printing of Mandeville’s travels towards concealing their once very prominent members. If you look at Thomas East’s edition of 1568 (STC 17250), one sees the model for what subsequent printings in English would do with the woodcut of the hermaphrodites.

Thomas East symbolically castrates Mandeville's hermaphrodites.

Thomas East symbolically castrates Mandeville’s hermaphrodites.

East’s hermaphrodites follow the same tendency found in de Worde’s earlier editions. De Worde showed the hermaphrodite as being composed of two halves, one male and the other female. His doing so gives the impression, even as the “monstrous” hermaphrodite mergers or blends the two genders, that the two genders are separate and distinctly separable–even when encoded within the same figure. Such a tendency reaches its limit, however, when we get to their privies. Their vaginas and penises exist one on top of the other, complicating the depictions of the hermaphrodites as being composed of two discrete halves. East’s hermaphrodites, however, by hiding their parts, more starkly divides the two genders whereas the naughty bits rise up to complicate the binarization of gender within the figures of de Worde’s hermaphrodites.

East’s approach would be the predominant model for many later editions of Mandeville in early modern England. It would seem that some form of self-censorship, if not mandated censorship, disappeared the penis from the Mandeville representations of hermaphrodites. From this point forward, the poor hermaphrodites are never (to my knowledge) re-membered to completeness. While I am not familiar with the scholarship on early sixteenth-century censorship, it strikes me that the figurative castration occurs after Protestantism, with its more rigorous policing of both aberrant and normative bodies, genders, and sexualities, came to dominance in England2.

There certainly were other depictions of erections that I know of prior to “A New Sect,” but those that I know of are typically not given the same amount of verisimilitude as either de Worde’s Mandeville or Bray’s “A New Sect.” These were the pointy, horn-like erections of pucks, devils, and satyrs.3 Here, for example is an image of Robin Goodfellow.


Notice that, unlike the de Worde and the Bray, Robin’s erection takes on a very animal and unrealistic form. The same type of erect penis can be found in a border detail of Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna of 1612 in several places, and in the central image here.


While still far more common in the emblem books and printed materials of the continent, many of the illustrations of Early Modern English erections take this form, a form somewhere between a horn and a penis, between the animal and the human. What is far less common–even if we cannot say when the first appears in print–is an erection with the same gestures toward verisimilitude that we find in de Worde’s hermaphrodites or Bray’s “A New Sect.”

While I am sure that there are more early modern woodcut phalluses to be discovered in the archives, I can definitively say that the A New Sect of 1641 does not contain the first depiction of an erection in English popular print, even if I can neither be certain if the de Worde Mandeville hermaphrodites constitute the first nor why the later editions censored them. Cressy’s claim, however, confirms my own earlier speculation that such depictions of aroused penises are rare in early English print. Flaccid penises are something else entirely, but there just aren’t many woodcut woodies in English popular print.

At this point, I can only speculate that some form of censorship was involved with the decision to castrate Mandeville’s hermaphrodites, and that forms of censorship kept realistic human erections from popularly printed English illustrations.

I thought the only responsible and scholarly response to Overholt’s fantastic find was to create a GIF. I’m pretty sure this GIF has potential legs considering the rampant fapping addictions plaguing the Internet at large. Let this GIF remind you to keep that flesh under control.4 I feel like I’m doing God’s work here.

Downe proud flesh! Downe!  -A senseshaper animated early modern woodcut GIF. Now with 100% more working!

Downe proud flesh! Downe!
-A senseshaper animated early modern woodcut GIF. Now with 100% more working!

Sorry to those of you who saw the original post earlier which was all kinds of GIF-ed up. For posterity, I leave it here. Some of you may even prefer and enjoy a little GIFus Interruptus.

Downe proud flesh! Downe!  -A senseshaper animated early modern woodcut GIF.

Downe proud flesh! Downe!
-A senseshaper animated early modern woodcut GIF.

By way of apology for my earlier mistake, I offer a bonus to those of you who have returned to see the “Downe Proud Flesh” GIF in all of its glory. We here at Shaping Sense have found a copy of the “Downe Proud Flesh” GIF as if scanned and digitized by EEBO rather than by Harvard’s special collections.5

"Downe Proud Flesh," EEBO version.

“Downe Proud Flesh,” EEBO version.

This probably counts as too much of a juvenile thing, but I thought I’d also add a shorter and more lightweight version for your internet comment forum pleasure. You’re welcome Internet. Link, share, or steal to your heart’s content.

A light and portable version. I hope I see my GIF on a comment thread at some point.

A light and portable version. I hope I see my GIF on a comment thread at some point.

If this doesn’t end up in porn comments, all is not right with the world. This is the last addition. As Lacan and Žižek would say, ENJOY!

Works Cited

Cressy, David. Agnes Bowker’s Cat: Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England. Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

Mandeville, John. Here Begynneth a Lytell Treatyse or Booke Named Johan Mau[n]deuyll Knyght Born in Englonde in the Towne of Saynt Albone [and] Speketh of the Wayes of the Holy Londe Towarde Jherusalem, [and] of Marueyles of Ynde [and] of Other Dyuerse Cou[n]trees. [Emprynted at Westmynster: By Wynken de worde, 1499. Print.

—. Than Is There an Other Yle Ye Men Call Dodye. [London: Wynkyn de Worde, 1503. Print.

—. The Voiag[e] and Trauayle, of Syr Iohn Maundeuile Knight, Which Treateth of the Way Toward Hierusalem, and of Maruayles of Inde with Other Ilands and Countryes. Imprinted [at London]: In Breadstreat at t[he nether ende,] by Thomas [East, 1568. Print.

—. The Voyages and Trauailes of Sir John Maundeuile Knight. Wherein Is Treated of the Way Towards Hierusalem, and of the Meruailes of Inde, with Other Lands and Countries. London: Printed by Thomas Este, 1582. Print.

Nevitt, Marcus. Women and the Pamphlet Culture of Revolutionary England, 1640-1660. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006. Print.

Peacham, Henry. Minerva Britanna Or A Garden Of Heroical Deuises, Furnished, and Adorned with Emblemes and Impresa’s of Sundry Natures. [London, Printed in Shoe-lane at the signe of the Faulcon by Wa: Dight.], 1612. Internet Archive. Web. 4 Nov. 2013.

Yarb, Samoth, active 1641. A New Sect of Religion Descryed, Called Adamites: Deriving Their Religion from Our Father Adam : Wherein They Hold Themselves to Be Blamelesse at the Last Day, Though They Sinne Never so Egregiously, for They Challenge Salvation as Their Due from the Innocencie of Their Second Adam : This Was First Disclosed by a Brother of the Same Sect to the Author, Who Went Along with This Brother, and Saw All These Passages Following. London: s.n.], 1641. Print.

  1. Nevitt cites this from Cressy’s book Agnes Bowker’s Cat, page 261, but I have not had a chance to consult Cressy’s book directly but I trust her footnote is correct.  (back)
  2. With a few notable exceptions, of course. But by the time Mary reached the throne, new methods and forms of censorship and self-censorship had taken root  (back)
  3. HT to @ExhaustFumes for reminding me of this first example  (back)
  4. I’m talking to you r/gonewild.  (back)
  5. Just kidding. We’re still cool, EEBO, but change your exclusive and exclusionary pricing model. It’s fairly disgusting. Open access NOW, motherfuckers!  (back)
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