The Bayeux Tapestry: Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons. Image modified from original.
Montfaucon's 1730 drawing. Photo by Christopher Monk.
"The traces of the design only existing by means of the holes where the needle had passed. On attentively examining the traces thus left, I found that in many places minute particles of the different coloured threads were still retained; a circumstance which suggested to me the possibility of making extensive restorations. I accordingly commenced on a small portion, and found it attended with so much practicability as well as certainty, that I believed I should be fully justified in attempting to restore the whole."
Charles Stothard in his letter to Samuel Lysons.
"Such parts as I have left as traced by the needle, either afforded no vestiges of what the colours were, or such as were too vague in their situation to be depended on." Stothard in his letter to Lysons.
Phew! Looks like Adam's erection is original after all. Well, sort of...
You see, anyone – except those with a defiant sense of prudery – can see that the Bayeux Tapestry's 'Adam' has a rather impressive erection (impressive, that is, if you’re one of those people persuaded by size).
But I wasn’t sure if it was originally part of the world’s most famous embroidery. (The Bayeux Tapestry isn’t actually a tapestry.)
As I explained, the problem is that a drawing of the Tapestry from the 1700s (left) has the whole of the lower body of Adam missing. The poor thing has more pressing concerns, it would seem, than erectile dysfunction.
However, his legs and generous member magically return in an early nineteenth-century engraving by Charles Stothard (below).
As I’m sure you can appreciate, all this penile uncertainty has been a terrible burden for me, especially as I’ve been writing a chapter on the Tapestry’s naked figures for a new book.
I’ve been rather anxious that my discussion of Adam’s virility would be completely undermined if he hadn’t been created with his appendage in the first place.
No original erection? Then my argument would wither like ... well, like you know what.
I thought I had better get to grips with this erection at once.
So last Friday I scooted off to the John Rylands Library in my home town of Manchester, and availed myself of its wonderful special collections.
I needed to see for myself just what Mr Stothard was seeing that his predecessor could not see.
In a beautifully bound facsimile of his coloured engravings, I found the relevant plate. Ta dah!
The very nice librarian peeked over my shoulder: “Oh, that’s rather lovely, isn’t it,” she whispered.
She was obviously charmed by the bright colours of the facsimile – who wouldn’t be?
But... Oh no! Adam’s erection was drawn with dotted lines! What did that mean?
The rest of his body was drawn with bold black lines – but not so the critical bit.
My CDROM copy of the Stothard facsimile at home had let me down: it didn’t reveal this dot-to-dot penis!
I just had to find out what Stothard was up to with his dotty depiction.
I located a letter of his, written to a member of the London Society of Antiquaries, which had commissioned him to make the drawings.
Once I’d adjusted to Stothard's rather circumlocutory eighteenth-century prose (and you think I’m longwinded), I managed to join the dots.
You see, amazingly, Stothard had realised that it was possible to recreate damaged areas of the Tapestry – including the bit of the border where our Adam was.
On close inspection, he could see how the design of any missing part could be traced by observing needle holes, some of which actually still had vestiges of thread attached.
Now it would appear that most of Adam’s lower body did indeed have vestigial threads, and so in line with his practice, Stothard fully ‘restored’ Adam’s backside and legs in his own copy.
However, all that remained of Adam’s erection, it would seem, were the needle holes, and even these may have been a little vague.
Whatever the specifics (unsurprisingly, he doesn't in his letter dwell on our embattled penis), Stothard obviously decided to represent Adam's erection with dots.
(He uses dots elsewhere, too, especially at the end of the Tapestry where there was a lot of damage.)
Now, you are thinking: How come then Adam’s thingy (your word not mine) is now stitched in place on the Tapestry? Stothard may have restored it in his drawing, but surely he didn’t get his sewing kit out!
Well, that’s true. In fact, the Tapestry was extensively restored in the 1840s by French embroiderers, and so likely that was when Adam was given his needlework Viagra.
And, according to Alex Makin – the embroidery expert I referred to in my previous post – the restorers did a pretty good job of sticking to the original needle holes in this scene.
So where does that leave us? Or, more precisely, how should we look at Adam's wotsit (OK, my word this time)?
Well, you may well know that in the world of medieval reconstruction, it is not always possible to be 100% sure about matters.
Nevertheless, I feel confident in this particularly sensitive matter that it is fair to say that Adam was created with his erection!
However, it temporarily dissipated sometime between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries... and then gradually revived, with a little bit of assistance, by the early Victorian period.
Charles A. Stothard, ‘Some observations on the Bayeux Tapestry’, Archaeologia 19 (1821), 184-91. Charles A. Stothard, ‘The Bayeux Tapestry’, Vetusta Monumenta, 6 (1885), plate 1.
Stothard's drawing of 'Adam' in the Bayeux Tapestry. Photo by Christopher Monk.