The disappearance of penis tree orchards from the European landscape has puzzled generations of scholars. Since the mid-twentieth century it has been accepted by historians and agriculturalists alike that the extinction of the European penis tree was due to the development of a new form of tree blight. Whilst this likely contributed to the removal of the tree from the European landscape, other factors ensured the tree’s complete disappearance. Instead of being completely wiped out by a mass extinction event in the 14th century, this paper argues that the cultivation of penis trees was already in decline due to their labour intensity which made growing penis trees no longer a viable investment in the wake of the labour shortages and wage increases caused by the Black Death.
The argument that the Penis Tree, or arboris pubescens, was wiped out by a form of blight has remained unquestioned largely because the trees were unable to be grown from seed, but rather had to be grown from cuttings taken from young, healthy and established trees. As such, once a tree was infected, it could no longer produce viable cuttings from new trees, in addition to the blight rendering the tree unable to bear fruit. This paper does not argue that the blight had no impact on the viability of penis tree orchards, but rather posits that the blight was just one of several events which led to the extinction of arboris pubescens.
Penis tree orchards were already considered archaic by the 13th century, as demonstrated by TV Bede in his landmark study of 1972. Bede showed that the number of orchards in England had diminished from nearly a hundred in 1200 to under thirty a century later, and that the penis tree orchard had completely vanished from the English agricultural landscape by the start of the 15th century (see figure 1). Bede concluded that this eradication of the penis tree from the English landscape was solely due to the presence of a new tree blight which effectively wiped out the crop. However, recently uncovered archival documents suggest that this may not have been the case; instead the penis tree simply fell out of fashion.
The penis tree was a highly labour intensive plant to cultivate. Orchards required constant care, from taking cuttings, milking the young saplings, to massaging the older growth. Few had the means to cultivate the crop and fewer still desired to do so. As such, when the population of Europe was decimated by the Black Death in the 14th century creating vast labour shortages, the penis tree orchards were abandoned early. The workforce focused primarily on subsistence farming, as well as crops which were less labour intensive and had higher yields.
Using archival sources, primarily manorial accounts, as well as visual material, this paper attempts to reassess the decline of the penis tree and better understand its disappearance from the European agricultural landscape. This paper only covers the penis tree orchards within England. For those in Wales, see G Monmouth’s 1992 study which includes penis tree orchards as part of a wider study of agriculture in the region. H Bingen has also included penis trees and their cultivation as part of her case studies on several nunneries on the continent.
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From the catalogue produced to accompany the Medieval Marvels Exhibition:
Item: Basket. 13th century. Twisted cane with wooden handle. Specialised shape used by those harvesting penises – the shape of the basket meant that the testes of the harvested penis were not crushed, thus preserving this valuable part of the fruit. See figure 1.
Item: Snail Saddle. 14th century. Leather with metal fastenings. Used for riding giant snails. The curved shape marks it as distinct from the more common horse’s saddles of the period.
Item: Manuscript. 4th quarter of the 13th century. Tract on farming with specific advice for the caring of barnacle geese.
Item: Stained Glass: 2nd half of 14th century. Fragment of what is believed to be a penis tree.
Three Previously Unpublished Miracles of the Virgin Mary - translated by TV Bede
[How the blessed Virgin Mary intervened to protect the crop of barnacle geese which belonged to her monks as part of their abbey of Beaulieu]
Even regarding small matters, the blessed Virgin comes to the aid of those in need. And these miracles are no less worthy of record, for they show how the goodness of God can be found in all places.
Some years hence, at lands under the care of the abbey of Beaulieu, a crop of barnacle geese were being grown. A local man by the name of Geoffrey held a grievance against the abbey, falsely believing that the monks had taken more than their due of his crop of grain. Thus aggrieved, he endeavoured to take the barnacle geese for himself to sell for his own selfish profit. The most holy Virgin however, knowing that these geese were rightfully hers, intervened. When Geoffrey came to wade into the shallow waters where the geese were growing, he found himself unable to move. In this state he remained for nearly two days, standing outside, until he humbly apologised to the blessed Mary. His arms then regained movement, and so he crossed himself, praying to the Virgin. Having appeased her, Geoffrey then regained movement in the rest of his body, and went henceforth to tell others of what marvels Mary had wrought, not caring that by spreading news of this miracle he was drawing attention to his own transgression for he knew that singing the praises of the holy mother of God was more important.
Then he came to the abbey of Beaulieu to offer a candle to the blessed virgin and so that the miracle may be known to the monks there.
[How an old tree bore new fruit]
At a small convent a small distance from the abbey, there was in the grounds an orchard which for many years had provided fruit for the nuns. One by one, the trees stopped bearing the penises for which they were kept. In dismay, the nuns prayed to Our Lady, and in her great kindness, Our Lady being merciful and forgiving, and through her favour, the penis trees bore fruit once more.
This miracle was related by the Abbess Juliana to a local man who was entrusted with journeying to us so that this miracle could be known to all and that stories of Our Lady’s greatness could be spread.
[How the Virgin’s favour led a knight to prevail in a snail joust]
The Blessed Virgin shows her favour in many ways, great and small. Some years hence, a knight by the name of Thomas was engaged in a snail joust and feared greatly for his life because his snail was much smaller than his foe’s. He was to face a wicked man by the name of Robert who he had watched defeat many other opponents through underhand tactics. As he was preparing himself, his servant urged him to seek the protection of the Blessed Virgin. Thomas, knowing the Virgin’s power, prayed to her, promising his winnings to her should he prevail. Thus prepared, he rode out on his snail, and valiantly defeated Robert.
And as he had promised, Thomas gave the gold he had won to the shrine of Our Lady.