Big noses and the bawdy aesthetic

Perusing my collection of scholarly papers, in search of some facts about city life in the Early Modern era, I rediscovered Large Noses and Changing Meanings in Sixteenth-century German Prints, by Alison Stewart. I first found the paper almost a year ago, and it’s been sitting ever since in my digital stack of research, waiting.

Or perhaps it’s been panting, wheezing or ejaculating, because the topic of the paper is just what you might think after reading the title.

Woodcuts produced by the Nuremberg school during the early sixteenth century provide insights into the history of taste, in particular the changing nature of the bawdy aesthetic so prevalent in the art of the time. Sebald Beham’s Nose Dance of c. 1534 offers a good case in point. The print represents in the foreground a group of large-nosed men and one woman, and a fool who exposes himself (at lower right).

The scene is a popular peasant holiday of the time, Kermis, “the celebration of the anniversary of a church or of the name saint to whom the church is dedicated.” Contemporary documents indicate that the nose dance was performed routinely.

The dancer with the largest nose will be crowned king of the dance and gets the garland. Second prize is the nose mask, and third the underpants. The garland is, of course, a traditional attribute or the victor; the nose mask mirrors the shape of the nose, and may well have been worn by some of the contestants; while the underpants reminds us of the popular belief that the size of a man’s nose is indicative of the size of his penis …

The description of the woodcut is by Nuremberg poet-shoemaker Hans Sachs.

Narrated in the first person, the text relates that numerous drunk peasants can be seen at the kermis held in the town of Gumpelsbrunn: there they eat, drink and yell, a maiden sings to the accompaniment of a bagpipe, two shawm players arrive to play for the row dance, and the young men run, wrestle and throw each other down on their stomachs, many smashing their penises. Gingerbread is for sale, and a rooster dance takes place, involving wonderful tricks waddling, bowing and turning around, so that one can see up the women’s skirts. Sachs describes the rows and disputes, with two men attacking three, and even a flogging.

The entire paper is worth reading, and some passages remind me of more recent events.

While not discounting altogether the moralizing aspects of the image and text, it is important to keep in mind that although they may seem outrageous to many today, sixteenth-century audiences would have found them highly entertaining. Nuremberg was then a loud and dirty place, the behaviour found there uncouth and often violent. People talked loudly in church – and even defecated in the street: an announcement was issued to warn residents not to use the streets in this manner during the Emperor’s visit, but to avail themselves of the public Sprachhauser, or latrines.

All that’s missing today is the fornicating, the violence, the maypole, and the fool exposing himself. Oh, wait, all of that did happen during the nationwide “Occupy Wall Street” protests. Perhaps today’s society is not as evolved as we pretend.