Spanking, seduction, pregnancy, violence – and spinning bees

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.

Plate 1:  a man beats  his  wife for being proud, impious , lazy, and drunk

Plate 1: a man beats his wife for being proud, impious , lazy, and drunk

Plate 2:  a woman beats  her hus band for gambling, drinking, gluttony, and chas ing pretty girls

Plate 2: a woman beats her husband for gambling, drinking, gluttony, and chasing pretty girls

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.”

Sebald Beham, Spinning Bee, woodcut, ca. 1524, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford

Sebald Beham, Spinning Bee, woodcut, ca. 1524, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford

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.

Sexual Misbehavior 3Sexual Misbehavior 2Sexual Misbehavior 1

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.”

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‘I have learned from your letter of the wonderful agreement that allows you now to blow fire out of your sweet little Anna’s ass’

Lucas Friedrich Behaim was a young man recently returned to Nurnberg from four years of “bachelor journeying”. It was 1612, less than a decade before the continent would explode into thirty years of war, and Lucas wanted to get married.

His story is told in the book, Flesh and Spirit: Private Life in Early Modern Germany, by Steven Ozment. Love letters and other correspondence between family members and the betrothed take us back in time, and into the minds of the long-dead lovers.

Lucas is a passionate Lutheran, but he is also a man who has experienced the world. His youthful travels took him to Paris, Venice, Crete, Tripoli and Jerusalem, among other cities. He only missed seeing Constantinople because his ship was rerouted due to a report of plague.

His letters to his beloved, Anna Maria Pfinzig, are — as Ozment says — full of  “lust and piety”, a fact which did not much surprise me.

Dear Maiden Bride, in my solitude, I contemplate your good and faithful heart intently and I am comforted by it alone. I rejoice in it with my whole heart, and yes, I kill most of my leisure in such pleasant thoughts of you. … Therefore, I ask you very kindly, my darling, to send me a portrait of your beautiful physical form, so that I might, from time to time [by looking at it], know true consolation and singular joy when such sad thoughts arise.”

Unbeknownst to their parents, Lucas and Anna had exchanged private vows before their wedding, a fact which thankfully remained hidden from Nurnberg’s disciplinary Committee of Ten. The agreement was known to several of their family members, notably Lucas’s cousin Albrecht who wrote Lucas a letter of his own, the text of which did surprise me.

“I have learned from your letter of the wonderful agreement that allows you now to blow fire out of your sweet little Anna’s ass, something I would also dearly like to do to her myself, if only my own dear maiden would give me permission. Were she to do so, I think it could not be better done than by inserting my self-extended reed into her from the front and then blowing bravely into it, whereupon the coals and excess heat generated in her hind quarters would sail forth. If this plan of mine pleases you, perhaps you could write to my maiden [Juliana] and ask her if I may be allowed to try it. For were I to proceed without her foreknowledge, the soup would surely turn sour and kind words become dear. I am also pleased to learn that your penis is loyally standing by you, giving you your first wakeup call of each day. I shall make this happy news known to Anna Maria on Sunday, Capis Casari, when I console her and counsel fond patience [during your absence].”

Clearly, the pious Lutherans of the Early Modern age were not as pious as we sometimes believe.

Nurnberg

Nurnberg, from Civitates Orbis Terrarum, 1572

The Ring, The Whiffe and The Gulp

Writing accurately about the 1600’s has proven to be a serious challenge, especially since I’m focusing on the lives of common people.

What were the “common” attitudes about sex, alcohol, witchcraft, smoking, marriage, death, and a host of other issues?

It’s fairly easy to find out what James I thought of smoking, since he wrote his “Counterblaste to Tobacco” in 1604.

For James, smoking was “a custom loathesome to the eye, hatefull to the nose, harmfull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomlesse.”

Nevertheless, the “reeking gallants” of the day displayed such fashionable tricks as “The Ring” and “The Gulp”.

Alfred Dunhill, in The Gentle Art of Smoking, notes that the first men who brought tobacco to England from Virginia in 1586 popularized the practice of “drinking” tobacco.

It’s exciting to find details which bring a story alive, and the more I look, the more I find. In a wine bar in Stralsund, one of my characters drinks tobacco and suffers in the way one might expect. The question is, should he live or die?