Spanking seems to be making quite a comeback, thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey. Beatings? Not so much. But back in the 16th and 17th centuries things were a bit different. Martin Luther’s complaints against Catholicism in the early 1500’s had led to a religious and cultural Reformation. Printers began to churn out pamphlets and books by the millions. The combination made for some interesting reading.
I’m not going to delve too deeply into the literature. I’ll leave that to you, dear reader. The following illustrations should give you someplace to start. First, German History in Documents and Images notes “the rapidly growing literature on the conditions of a happy marriage and on codes of behavior reinforced gender roles.” The following two images are from a woodcut by Abraham Bach, produced in the latter half of the 17th century.
Second — and from an author I’ve mentioned before, Alison G. Stewart — comes a treatise on “Distaffs and Spindles: Sexual Misbehavior in Sebald Beham’s Spinning Bee.”
In Nuremberg, an imperial city answerable only to the emperor, spinning bees served as meeting places for rural girls and women during the fall and winter evenings. Spinning bees were widely called Spinnstuben and Rockenstuben in German, but Lichtstuben in Nuremberg’s Franconian dialect. Despite their ostensibly female nature, spinning bees were also visited by men. Indeed, in the sixteenth century, spinning bees throughout Germany were officially viewed as centers for scandalous socializing and were forbidden under penalty, although forbidding spinning bees was not the same as abolishing them, as we will see.
Here are a few enlargements (no pun intended) of certain portions of Beham’s woodcut.
Yep, they’re getting jiggy, alright.
Undoubtedly, the sexual behavior characterized at spinning bees has much to do with the phallic shape of the primary spinning implements used at the time — distaff and spindle. Just as round forms encouraged association with the womb and the female, the word “spindle” stood for the penis in Late Medieval English, French, and German. For example, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (ca. 1599) (1.4.108-10), Sir Andrew Aguecheek looks for a bride. Sir Toby Belch remarks directly that the former’s hair “hangs like flax on a distaff; and I hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs and spin it off.” Although spinning was a female activity, spinning tools assumed unquestionably male shapes. This gender-jumping seems to have appealed to contemporaries.
It might not be Fifty Shades of Grey, but, as Stewart notes, “Beham’s Spinning Bee indicates a chaotic, violent and oversexed world where female sexuality and virtue serve as the point of departure for male desire, aggression, and humor. Beham’s woodcut needs to be understood within its cultural context at a time in Europe when women, as well as men, were viewed as lustful, although women then and since antiquity were seen as the more susceptible sex.”