The Bilious Bishop and the 'Prevy Partes'
Whilst recently clearing out the spam from the odd corners of the website's mailbox, I came across some messages promising a cure for inadequacy in the Membrum Virile. I was reminded of the Suffolk-born Bishop John Bale. (1495-1563).
Bishop John Bale was a fiery radical preacher who gained the nickname 'Bilious Bale'. He was well-known for railing against the imposition of celibacy on priests. He married a woman called Dorothy, and came under the influence of Thomas Cranmer. His particular hate was Saint Walstan, the patron saint of Farm-workers. In around 1534, He preached vitriolic sermons on the belief in the curative powers of this saint by virtue of the waters of St Walstan's Well.
Bishop 'Bilious' Bale asserted that St Walstan was a thinly disguised version of the roman god Priapus, who was particularly venerated by the roman soldiers, and was characterised by a very conspicuous erect penis. The waters were attributed restorative powers. These powers were actually general healing and restorative powers, but the Bishop mis-represented them as being used to 'restore mens prevy parts'.He went on, in his book, 'English Votaries'
..that men and Beastes which had lost their Prevy Parts, had newe Members restored to them, by this Walstane. Marke thys kyne of Myracles, for your Learnynge, I thynke Ye have seldome readde the lyke.'
The effect of this preaching, designed to pillory the beliefs of the East Anglian farm-workers, had quite the opposite effect to the one he intended. Instead of wakening from their absurd superstitions, the well of St Walstan became the most popular shrine in East Anglia. 'Bilous Bale' was eventually forced to flee East Anglia for Germany. He was finally ushered back by Henry VIII and then once more exiled by his daughter Mary when she inherited the throne. John Bale's lasting contribution to history was to perpetuate the veneration of this splendid saint. Any malfunctions or inadequacies in the Prevy Parts were soon dealt with by a trip to the shrine, and many generations of East Anglians had cause to be grateful to the bishop for bringing this to general attention.
It would not be unusual for the veneration of Priapus to be carried on into the christian era. In the neighbourhood of Brest, for example, stood the chapel of the famous Saint Guignole or Guingalais, whose Phallic symbol consisted of a long wooden beam, which passed right through the body of the saint, and whose forepart was strikingly characteristic. The devotees of this place, like those of Puy-en-Velay, most devoutly rasped the extremity of this miraculous symbol, for the purpose of drinking the scrapings, mixed with water, as an antidote against sterility; and when, by the frequent repetition of this operation, the beam was worn away, a blow from the mallet in the rear of the saint propelled it to the fore. Thus, although it was being continually scraped, it appeared never to diminish, a miracle due exclusively to the mallet.