The naughty nun – a raunchy engraving from 1555

I came over this thrilling little engraving some time ago. After some discussions around this picture I decided to make an image analysis of what we acctually see in this picture and what it represents:

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We see a slightly depressed looking nun trying to bribe the housecat with a fish as an exchange for an extremely erected penis the cat is running around with.  In the background we see an amused fool flaunting a pair of male underpants. The quote on the bottom reads “Flaisch macht Flaisch” which translates into either “flesh gives flesh” or “flesh equals flesh”. This depiction is found in the Rijkmuseum in Netherlands, artist unknown and with the description “Nun walks with fish in hand chasing a cat , she wants to trade the fish with a penis that the cat has in its mouth. A jester watches through a window frame”.

Obviously this is a humorous satire with a very naughty message: driven by her carnal desires the nun wants to get her hands on the erected penis and tries to bribe it from the cat. The quote “Flaisch macht Flaisch” can possible be connected to german wordgames: the word “fleisch” can be tied the german word “Fleischeslust”, with the same meaning as “desires of the flesh”, showing that the nun have sexual reasons for hunting the cats prey. Also the german word “Fleisch” could be a slang for, well, the penis. Simply put: the nun wants the bratwurst! But why does she use specifically a fish to bribe the cat? It could either be derived from the catolic medieval practice of eating fish on fridays. Or its simply a clever trick as fish is a wellknown favourite dish for felines.

snusknunnaBut what does the engraving actually mean? Well, when looking at the date of production – 1555 – its quite clear. This is in the middle of the Reformation spreading over Europe. It is obvious that this is a protestant satire – a example of popular protestant criticism of catholic practices. These satires portrayed Catholics in celibacy (cleric, nuns and monks) as secular, perverted and driven by carnal desires. This derives from one of the key pillars of Protestantism: criticism of the celibacy. Protestants claimed that the catholic idea of celibacy was a fraud – celibacy instead resulted in corrupted perverts doing nothing but hunting sexual outlets. The protestant idea was instead that marital intercourse was God given and therefor natural. Celibacy on the other hand was an unnatural concept and not even supported by the bible! Making popular caricatures of Catholics like this woodcut was a weapon in the political war.

Back to the engraving – this is a caricature meant to show the viewer the catholic hypocricy. Lacking martital sexual outlet the nun is perversely obsessed with sex. All the vows of celibacy are soon forgotten as soon as a chance for “meat” is presented. Please also note the rosary the nun is wearing…. what do we see there, instead of a crucifix?

But why is the fool in the background? Often in medieval and early modern depictions the fool is a symbol for mockery, stupidity or someone being fooled. Maybe he is there to show us this is a satire. But why is he smugly wagging his underpants? Is it to show the nun that he is available for action if she doesn’t get a hold of the cats prey? Or is it perhaps to show us that it is the fools private parts the cat is running around with? This is all just up for guessing unfortunately… What do you think?

32 thoughts on “The naughty nun – a raunchy engraving from 1555

  1. Pingback: The naughty nun – a raunchy woodcut from 1555 | littlefootbigstep's Blog

  2. My first impression was that the penis was actually a wooden dildo and being that it was probably used liberally (Given the celibacy and all that) the joke here was that it smelled like a woman’s vagina (which some people say smells like a fish) hence her trying to pull the old switcharoo with a dead fish.

    Also, I am really trying to wrap my head around how those underpants work since one side of them appears to be untied, do they tie up on each side? I have no freaking clue how ye olde underwear worked!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment and thoughts around this, Zachary. I think its a very entertaining way of looking at the engraving – although I do think that interpretation is quite modern 😀 This engraving was most surely made as a political/religious statement & referring to dildos & vagina-odours might be slightly to over the top for a early modern viewer, even in this context. But I like how you reason! 😀

      About the male underpants its exactly like you say – you only tie them on one side. Why they didnt choose to have knots on both sides i don’t know – my guess is that this is an early version of the “pocket” we see on modern male underpants – simply for easier access when nature calls! 😀

      I hope you didnt miss my entry on the subject: https://vulgarcrowd.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/why-the-langberg-finds-are-not-knickers/

      All my best!

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      • Coming to this a bit late (sorry)

        I don’t know about the fish-vagina connection, but dildoes certainly figured in early modern satire and humour. Thomas Nashe’s ‘Choise of Valentines,’ for example, features a prostitute turning to her dildo because the customer cannot satisfy her, and the 17th century ballad ‘Portsmouth’s Revenge’ describes deluxe dildoes in some detail:

        New swinging Dildoes, richly wrought
        With Satin & Velvet ends:
        With Furling water, to draw’t up streight,
        And Rowels to heighten delights
        New-fashion’d Springs, to Scour her Twat
        From slimy sperm and whites.

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  3. The German says Flaisch macht Flaisch, not “match”, as you say twice in the text. The German word is “Fleischeslust”, not Fleischlust. I can’t say that I have ever heard Fleisch as slang for penis, that sounds like an anglicism to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Ina & thanks for your comment!
      Im sorry for the spelling errors, Im swedish so thats why 🙂 Ill change it.

      Using meat as a word for the genitalia is quite wellspread, connected to the idea of sin being in the flesh. But I appreciate you pointing it out.

      All the best!

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  4. The quote on the bottom derives from an old Spanish proverb. “Carne, carne cria; y peces, agua fria”. This translates roughly into “meat gives meat and fish only cold water”. The meaning was that meat is more satiable than fish.
    The Spanish proverb was also used in German. “Fleisch macht Fleisch und Fische kaltes Wasser”, meaning exactly the same as the Spanish proverb.
    This has also changed to “Fleisch macht Fleisch, Fisch macht nisch” (meat gives meat, fish gives nothing).
    Fish equals cold water equals celibacy. Meat equals penis equals carnal desire.
    The nun tries to exchange celibacy with carnal desire.

    The cat stands for heresy. In 1484, Pope Innocent issued the papal bull “Summis desiderantes affectibus” (desiring with supreme ardor). It basically was about witchcraft and the well known witch-hunt. But it was also the start of 300 years cat massacre. For the cat was the devil.
    So the nun trades with the devil to get rid of celibacy.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello Qugart & thank you so much for all of your inputs. Absolutely very interesting! I had no idea that it was an old spanish proverb, thanks for sharing that.

      I didnt even occur to me that the cat symbolizes the devil – but the cat have always been looked upon as a tool of Satan, and we do have the mass executions of cats during the period. So thanks for pointing that out aswell!

      I guess we can conclude that it is a protestant caricature depicting a nuns hypocricy, devilry and sexual desires!

      All the best!

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  5. Hey,
    And what about the sausage she has on the bottom of her dress in some secret pocket? It appears to me like one. And maybe joker represent fool aka mentaly ill person. So the result is that noon is preocupied with giving the food to cat, means she has a lot of food for herself (fish, sausages in her dress), definitely not living in poverty and her main interest in church is to have fun and sex. She even doesnt care about possibly hungry mentaly ill people on the streets (joker face), which she, like a nun should rarher take a care for haha 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • I dont think that is a sausage unfortunately, but her back foot just sloppily drawn by the artist. But I love your ideas and the notion that the nun is not focusing on her godly duties but focusing on more earthly pleasures instead.

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  6. Pingback: The naughty nun – a raunchy engraving from 1555 « Historical Tours Ireland

  7. I’m thinking that the cat has gotten hold of her dildo and she is trying to coax him to give it back – the nun’s concupisence is revealed and she is trying to hide it again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, thats a very possible reflection also! ll though I think it is slightly modern interpretation as dildos did certainly exist at this time but probably not commonly enough to be used as a symbol in this woodcut.

      But we can never say never! 😀

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  8. I think “meat makes meat” would be a better translation. There are several proverbs using “Fleisch macht Fleisch”. The common theme there is essentially “meat will make you strong” – eating meat (flesh) gives you muscles (flesh). One of the proverbs points out “. “Fleisch macht wieder Fleisch, Fisch macht nisch.” -> “meat makes meat, fish makes nothing”. I do agree with the interpretation as a criticism on the Catholic church, the penis rosary makes that perfectly clear.

    Maybe the cat is meant to be saying that – the text is directly placed below it, after all: “if you want dick you’ll have to give me some meat, not just a lousy fish”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fridolin Groenemeyer – Thank you for your comment! I think what you write about the ways the proverb is used in german is very interesting. If it is used in the sense “meat is meat, fish is nothing” that makes the interpretation even more interesting. Its hard to know how old this use of that proverb is. What is so annoying is that a contemporary viewer of this depiction most certainly understood EXACTLY every detail and symbolism in it. I sometimes wish I could go back and ask people of the period, about lots of things.

      But yes, a satirical anti catholic engraving it is for sure 😀

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  9. I enjoyed with this interpretación , i agree with you vulgaracrowd it’s a sátira and the history context that you say is fundamental for the
    analysis
    Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Perhaps not pertinent, but there was a belief that witches could detach genetalia & hold them hostage ( or is a belief: it has had something of a resurgance https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koro_(medicine)#Africa )
    As for feline massacres, cats were merely one of many household beings whose shapes were held to be assumed by familiar spirits. The actual driving force for mass cat killings were that they, at times, transmitted the diseases of the vermin they hunted, & bred freely, becoming vermin themselves. The Belgian Kattenstoet https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kattenstoet is an example of this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello and thanks for your comment! Very interesting indeed, and it seems like this little woodcut never cease to create new possible interpretations!

      Ang yes, Ive also rea alot about witches deattaching and trapping penises, I have a great woodcut of witches keeping penises in little cages (german woodcut from 16th century) that they’ve fiendishly caught,

      And interesting about the cats (allthough sad for all of us animal lovers)! Ill definately read in on the link you sent.

      Thanks again!

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  11. I agree with your depiction with the exception of one thing. I really don’t think the jester is holding men’s underwear. I think it is a face mask, just as we have been wearing for this pandemic or that a doctor or nurse would wear. Maybe perhaps he just preformed some sort of medical procedure? However then it leads to more questions, such as where is the man who has been casterated? I also think the fish represents the smell that maybe on the penis. According to some, the sent of a vagina. Thank you for sharing this peice of ancient artwork. Truly interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Sabrina and thanks for you comment! This woodcut seem to inspire alot of interesting ways of interpreting the symbols in it.

      I do think though that we cant be very certain that he is holding a pair of underpants. Ive recently read that we cannot say today if these underpants were only worn by men, but the depictions certainly seem to point that way. (Did you read my other post on these exotic male tangas? Is not, here it is: https://vulgarcrowd.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/why-the-langberg-finds-are-not-knickers/)

      Thanks again and please come back again, I promise ill post here more often during 2020.

      Like

  12. I’m wondering if the fish has a different meaning… Sometimes when women were kept together, such as in a harem or maybe possibly a nunnery, they sometimes turned to each other for sexual gratification…. So maybe she was tired of “fish”

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    • Hello, and thanks for your comment! I guess that is a way to interpret it. But what do you mean the fish symbolize then? Would you mean that the fish represents the female sexual organs? I guess in order to be sure if that would be the case, we would need to find evidence that the fish often was used to represent the female naughty parts during the late medieval/early modern period and I have no evidence that that would be the case. But it is an interesting idea! 🙂

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