Cult, Church, City: The Cult of Andrew 

In the Wardlaw Museum, there stands a carved oak statue of a man bearing a diagonal cross. The wood is elegantly worked, with curves hollowed out to form delicate drapes of cloth, and the piece has been oriented so the grain suggests wrinkles on his tired, downcast face. The man is Saint Andrew, carrying the cross he died on. 

Image shows a wooden statue of St Andrew, he is carrying his cross under his left arm
Image source: National Museums Scotland 

Over the centuries, many people have looked at this carving, just as you are now. However, instead of standing alone behind glass in a museum, it would have stood amongst other religious objects, as part of a screen or altar display for the cult of Andrew, a system of devotion which venerated Andrew the Apostle – the first disciple to be chosen by Jesus, and Peter the Apostle’s brother. Although it may have started as a way for Christians to pay respects to one of their religion’s most important founders, the cult has meant different things for different groups of people. Over time and place, it has been a driver of economic development, a bestower of power, and a promotor of community spirit and brotherhood. 

The cult’s role as a driver of economic development can be seen here in St Andrews. During the medieval era, pilgrims flocked here to see Andrew’s relics. They came from all around Europe, meaning that they were travelling long distances and required convenient transportation, leading to fording bridges and founding ferry services so that they could cross the Firth of Forth. This travelling also took a long time, resulting in a string of inns which provided food and shelter for weary pilgrims heading to and returning from St Andrews. Once in the town itself, the pilgrims would want tokens such as pilgrim badges as proof that they had made a pilgrimage, and to absorb some of the relics’ healing powers to take back home. This encouraged a bustling market with skilled craftsmen that could produce those badges, as well as anything else a pilgrim could need. 

Towards the later half of the medieval era, the cult also brought economic development via an influx of students, who came to study theology and law before taking up positions in the church. Although the cult is much less religiously important today, its economic legacy lives on – in the last academic year alone, tuition fees for every student at the University added up to £121.9 million.  

The University also allowed the cult of Andrew to play the role of bestower of power. Medieval towns and cities in Europe founded institutes of higher education to display their wealth and importance, which in turn helped legitimise their country’s right to self-governance – how could a nation be trusted to rule itself if it couldn’t educate its own people?  

Though universities are not quite so rare these days, there are other ways in which the cult has been used by recent governments to legitimise themselves. In the 1980s, Romania’s first president, Nicolae Ceauşescu, wanted to prove that his Communist government could measure up to the old monarchy, which had ended in 1947. He did so by emphasising Romania’s history of Christianity. 

According to official church history textbooks, the ancestors of Romanians had been evangelized by Saint Andrew himself. While travelling through Dobruja in the winter, he took shelter from the elements and wild animals in a cave. Desiring water, he struck the ground with his staff, and a spring sprang forth. Its waters had healing powers, which he used to heal the local Romanians, thus converting them to Christianity.  

Ceauşescu pushed this rendition of history to support his claims that Romanians were the first people to occupy Romania. Thus, they owned the land, and had the right to rule over themselves, via a president that they elected – him. However, Ceauşescu only allowed the people to govern themselves in the way someone agrees to a request when a gun is held to their head. Eventually, in 1989, they seized the right to self-rule in its rawest form: a revolution, culminating in his execution. 

Ultimately, Ceauşescu failed to abuse the cult of Andrew to feed nationalism and instill a sense of superiority in his people. But elsewhere, the cult of Andrew has been a promotor of brotherhood with communities both local and global, while still encouraging the expression of national identity.  

The use of Saint Andrew as a symbol of national pride might be most familiar from expressions of Scottish identity – after all, he is Scotland’s patron saint, and his cross is emblazoned right across the Scottish flag. This is especially true when the proclamation of Scottish identity is an act of defiance against those who seek to quell it. For instance, the famous Scottish rebel William Wallace’s battle cry was “Saint Andrew mot us speed!”, meaning “May Saint Andrew support us!” 

This was true outside Scottish borders as well. As globalisation occurred, Scots took their culture and their cult with them, establishing societies in the name of Saint Andrew wherever they went, like in my home country of Hong Kong. But rather than using these organisations to insulate themselves from the international community, these organisations were often charities that helped the needy. A notable example is the St Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, which was founded by Scottish immigrants to the USA in 1729, making it the oldest charity in New York. 

However, Saint Andrew does not belong exclusively to Scotland and the Scottish diaspora – Ukraine and Russia also view him as a symbol of national pride and claim him as their patron saints. This stems from a legend about his travels, documented in The Tales of the Bygone Years

According to the Tales, Andrew was travelling to Kherson from Sinope (in modern-day Turkey), when he realised he was close to the Dneiper. He followed it upstream until he reached some hills, whereupon he stopped, prayed, erected a cross, and told his followers, “See ye these hills? So shall the favour of God shine upon them that on this spot a great city shall arise.”  

Eventually, a great city indeed arose: Kyiv. It was almost as if Andrew had seen the future (or rather, as if the authors of The Tales of the Bygone Years had manipulated their past to have a wondrous origin). At the time, there was no Ukraine or Russia. They were all one people – the Kievan Rus – and Kyiv was their capital city.  

Though the Kievan Rus were later fragmented into parts that would someday become the two separate countries, due to a Mongol invasion in 1240, their shared history gives Ukrainians and Russians a special brotherhood that some still acknowledge. Perhaps it can last as long as Andrew’s brotherhood with Peter, still going strong after two millennia: in 1969, Pope Paul VI received Cardinal Gordon Gray at Rome, to give him part of Andrew’s skull as a replacement for the relics that had been destroyed in St Andrews during the Reformation of 1559. Standing in St Peter’s to welcome the first Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh since the Reformation, the Pope simply said, “Peter greets his brother Andrew.”

Coming back to the museum, perhaps the expression on Andrew’s face makes a little more sense. All the roles that he and his cult have played, and continue to play, must make up a burden infinitely heavier than the cross at his side. Yet he still bears his cross; still marches on, a symbol of brotherhood and pride in one’s identity even in the face of adversity.  

Written by Patsy Ng, 2nd year student of Computing Science at the University of St Andrews and volunteer with University of St Andrews Museums.

Medieval Pilgrimage to St Andrews  

When walking down Market Street on a busy afternoon in St Andrews, a myriad of different languages can often be heard. While it may seem surprising for a small town in northeast Fife to have such a global population, in actuality, this international demographic has been central to the story of St Andrews for centuries. Today, most people are attracted to the town because of the university or golf course, however back in medieval period, visitors were drawn to the town for a different reason: that being pilgrimage.  

A pilgrimage is a journey taken to express spiritual beliefs and devotion. In the Middle Ages, it was common for both men and women to embark on pilgrimages to sites of religious importance in an effort to absolve themselves from past sins and thus ensure their entrance to heaven. From the early twelfth century onwards, the town of St. Andrews was one such holy site that pilgrims flocked to for one specific reason: to revere the relics of Saint Andrew himself.  

According to legend, the bones of Christ’s apostle, Saint Andrew, were carried to Scotland from Greece by the monk Regulus in the 350s. The far more likely story is that the relics arrived in St Andrews from northern England centuries later. While the relics only included three fingers, a kneecap, upper arm bone, and a tooth, this was enough to put the town on the map as a site for international pilgrimage as relics from Jesus’s twelve disciples were extremely rare in northern Europe in the twelfth century.  

Image of Saint Andrew whose relics transformed the town of St Andrews – Saint Andrews the Apostle Icon Creative Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St_Andrew_the_Apostle_-_Bulgarian_icon.jpg  

The arrival of Saint Andrews’ relics changed more than just the name of the town (as it was still known as Kilrymont until around 1200). In the years leading up to 1100, the number of pilgrims traveling to see the relics was so large that Queen Margaret of Scotland established a free ferry across the Firth of Forth to aid pilgrims on their journey northward. In the town itself, a hostel specifically for housing pilgrims was established at St Leonards. Pilgrimage even influenced the urban layout of the town. As the relics were housed in the Cathedral, the town’s streets were built to accommodate the circular procession of pilgrims up and down North and South Street, with Market Street providing food, trade, and entertainment for the people that came on pilgrimage.  

A map of a city

Description automatically generated with medium confidence

Map of St Andrews from the early 1580s by John Geddy. While not entirely geographically accurate, the Geddy Map provides an idealized conception of the town and gives a sense of how the flow of pilgrims would have travelled to the Cathedral by progressing up South Street and down North Street.   

“S. Andre sive Andreapolis Scotiae Universitas Metropolitana.” (National Library of Scotland MS.20996) 

One such item that would have been sold by merchants to pilgrims on Market Street were pilgrim badges like the ones pictured below. These badges were produced in large quantities and often depicted Saint Andrew on his trademark diagonal cross, which is replicated on the Scottish flag. Pilgrims would buy badges to wear as souvenirs to mark the completion of their journey to St Andrews and indicate their special status as a protected traveler.  

Examples of medieval pilgrim badges. The badges included holes in the  
corners for pilgrims to sew them onto their clothing.  
https://electricscotland.com/history/st_andrew.htm Open Access API 

By the fifteenth century, the number of pilgrims traveling to St Andrews had greatly decreased. The popularity of St Andrews as a site for pilgrimage waned as other shrines throughout northwestern Europe were established. With its harbor, castle, cathedral, and university, by the fifteenth century St Andrews had become a bustling town that may not have been as attractive to pilgrims as a site of spiritual transformation.  

While St Andrews may no longer be known as a site for traditional pilgrimage, to this day it still attracts people from all over the world. International students, golfers, and tourists continue to flock to this northeast corner of Fife, often following the same route across the Firth of Forth that hordes of pilgrims traversed hundreds of years ago.  

Written by Cally Wuthrich, 4th year student of Art History and Management at the University of St Andrews and volunteer with University of St Andrews Museums.

Cult, Church, City

Oak figure of St Andrew, patron saint of Scotland, On loan courtesy of National Museums Scotland, ©National Museums Scotland

The cult of a saint
The power of the Church.
A city defined by them both.

Cult, Church, City: Medieval St Andrews, a new exhibition at the Wardlaw Museum, brings together medieval artefacts from St Andrews and the rest of the UK to explore the town in the Middle Ages.

Despite its size and location, St Andrews has never been a backwater. In fact during the medieval period it was quite the opposite; a bustling trading port, a centre of spiritual government, a pilgrimage site for the veneration of Scotland’s patron saint, and an ancient seat of learning. It was also visually stunning, as demonstrated by the collection of objects on display, brought together from collections across the country for the first time in 500 years.

The exhibition invites you into a mysterious world, with beliefs, priorities, worldviews and ways of living very different to those we experience today. It also invites you to walk the streets of the town and see the sites; many of the places referenced in the displays today lay in ruins, while some, such as the tolbooth that used to stand on Market Street, have gone altogether. Digital reconstructions from the medieval period, based on detailed research carried out at the University of St Andrews, show the splendour of the cathedral as it was, the long gone cloisters of St Salvator’s College and more besides.

The exhibition is the work of Professor Michael Brown and Dr Bess Rhodes, world experts in the town during this period, and is a collaborative partnership between the Museums of the University of St Andrews, the Schools of History and Computer Science, the St Andrews Institute of Medieval Studies, and the Institute of Scottish Historical Research. It is based on the book Medieval St Andrews: Church, Cult, City (2017); edited by Michael Brown, along with Professor Katie Stevenson, Vice Principal of Collections at the University of St Andrews.  The book will be available in the Wardlaw Museum Shop along with a new publication created specially for the exhibition, Voices of the Past by Bess Rhodes and Michael Brown, which delves deeper into the stories told by the objects on display.

The exhibition takes visitors through four sections, each exploring a different aspect of the town and each with their own objects to uncover. Cult investigates Saint Andrew and his devotees, who travelled from all over the British Isles and further afield to pay their respects to his relics. Church uncovers the now almost unimaginable power of the bishops and archbishops that sat in St Andrews and shows some stunning artefacts, including a brightly coloured causable, or priest’s robe, on loan from the V&A Museum in London. Burgh – defined as an autonomous region, often a town with a degree of self-governance – explores how St Andrews governed itself, and its relationship with the surrounding areas. Finally, in Reformation, uncover how the town changed as a result of the religious turmoil that marked the end of the medieval period.

John Hardyng’s Map of Scotland, on loan courtesy of the British Library, ©The British Library

Alongside the exhibition is John Hardyng’s Map of Scotland, which is on loan from the British Library with the support of the Helen Hamlyn Trust. This rare document is the first detailed map of Scotland, created by the English spy John Hardyng in the 1450s. The map was created in a failed attempt to encourage the English king to claim sovereignty over Scotland, with the ultimate intention of conquest.

Along with the exhibition comes a varied programme of in-person and online events for all ages, interests and levels of knowledge. Take a mini-pilgrimage with expert Dr Ian Bradley, explore how the town has changed on an evening walk with Dr Bess Rhodes, discuss religious division as part of our online Critical Conversations or catch John Hardyng before he takes his secrets to England in our SpyCatcher medieval escape room experience. To find out about the events on offer take a look at our website.

Cult, Church, City: Medieval St Andrews and Treasures on Tour: John Hardyng’s Map of Scotland are both on at the Wardlaw Museum until 3 July 2022. Entry is free.

Opening times: Monday to Friday, 11am – 7 pm,  Weekends, 10am – 5pm

Wardlaw Museum, 7 The Scores, St Andrews, KY16 9AR

Dive In! Are we hypocrites?

Entrance to Dive In! Protecting Our Ocean exhibition, Wardlaw Museum, Image courtesy of Aurelia Cloup, ©Aurelia Cloup

“Dive In! Protecting Our Ocean” at the Wardlaw Museum is an urgent call to action to stir citizen engagement on climate action. We provide audiences with actions that they can take in their daily lives to support environmental sustainability.

But museums need to take action to become more sustainable too.

Exhibitions have large carbon footprints. Museums across the globe stage major blockbuster exhibitions that showcase highlight artefacts on loan from other museums. Loans are packed up (in custom-made wooden crates and non-recyclable materials like bubble wrap) and shipped across counties, countries or entire continents in specialist climate-controlled vans or air freight. On arrival at an exhibition venue, loans are met by a courier from the lending institution who usually travels two round trips to oversee the installation of objects in an exhibition and its journey home.

The production of exhibitions is no less resource intensive. Single-use graphics, display plinths and bespoke acrylic mounts for artefacts are produced for exhibitions, and then disposed of after the exhibition closes.

But Dive In! is an exhibition; so aren’t the Museums of the University of St Andrews just hypocrites, for producing an exhibition that tells everyone else to be sustainable?

For us, it is important to practise what we preach. Sustainability was at the core of our thinking when we developed Dive In! We worked closely with the exhibition designers, Aurelia Cloup and James Poppa, to build sustainability into our design choices and also question and unlearn some of our usual exhibition processes:

Graphics installed in the Dive In! Protecting Our Oceans exhibition which are printed on paper instead of vinyl Photo courtesy of Aurelia Cloup, ©Aurelia Cloup

‘There is a lot that needs and can be done to address sustainability in Museums, but critically you can’t aim to stir engagement on climate action without questioning the design choices that need to be made to deliver an exhibition like Dive in! There is never one magic green answer to the various parameters involved but I think that honesty and transparency are key to inspire any behaviour change and that recognising potential for improvement is as important as celebrating successes. For Dive in! we’ve questioned every design choice we’ve made through the lens of long-term reusability for future exhibitions and recyclability where single use was the only option.’ Aurelia Cloup, Exhibition Designer

‘By working closely with the client team from the outset, we were able to understand why the exhibition’s material choices and printing methods needed to be considered. Through our work, we believe we have helped create an exhibition that provides thoughtful and engaging interpretation, and where its recyclability or reusability are as important as its accessibility.’ James Poppa, Graphic Designer

Guided by Aurelia and James’ research into sustainable products, we sourced recyclable graphic materials, such as paper wall coverings instead of vinyl (plastic = landfill). We also avoided commissioning any custom-made acrylic display stands for artefacts, which we knew would never be used again. Display furniture has been designed for use in future exhibitions.

To minimise the carbon footprint of Dive In! we selected exhibits from the University’s own collections, rather than relying on loans that needed to be transported long distances. Any artefacts that we have borrowed have been sourced from local museums.

Dive In! has helped us to become more environmentally aware in our museum practice. Looking ahead, our learning from the project will help us develop more sustainable exhibitions in the future.

Claire Robinson, Collections and Exhibitions Curator

Dive In! Protecting Our Ocean is a partnership with the Scottish Oceans Institute and the People Ocean Planet initiative from the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland. It has been generously funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch) and Museums Galleries Scotland.

Dive In!: Why Behavioural Change?

You’ve probably met people who say why should I change?”, “I’m just one person, I can’t make a difference” or “why should I change when others don’t?”Maybe you have thought it yourself.

It’s true that we need governments and corporations to step up to the challenge of climate change and biodiversity loss. But it’s also true that the decisions of most governments and corporations are driven by the expectations, demands and choices made by citizens. As others have said: Lifestyle change and system change are two sides of the same coin.

voices and choices of everyday people therefore give direction and momentum to the bigger system changes. And those system changes enable more and faster lifestyle change.

What’s more, just as there are potentially calamitous tipping points in the climate and ecosystems, there are also tipping points for behaviour change. We’ve seen human behaviours around consumption and waste of resources tip into widespread bad habits. What we need to do now is to tip it back the other way, so that an accumulation of good behaviours amongst citizens and organisations become good habits, and that those start to be seen and accepted as socially normal. This is where we can take the leap from behaviour change to social and cultural change that can really accelerate positive outcomes for people and planet.

Sociologists tell us about the importance of ‘social norms’ and ‘social identity’ and their role in shaping our behaviours and actions as individuals. What’s really exciting about this is that we don’t actually need to convince everybody to change for the better: we just need to convince enough people to make personal changes and to make those changes visible or known to their friends, family and colleagues, and our tendency to copy those around us will do the rest.

If we go back to the title of this blog… you’ll notice that we actually asked, ‘why behavioural change’, rather than ‘why behaviour change’?

At the level of individuals and households, a tangible behaviour change is indeed the goal. But we need to recognise that getting to that point is a transitional journey. Most people need quite a lot of lead-in before making the leap to deliberate and positive behaviour change. As such, we think about behavioural change as including developing awareness

and understanding, to shifting values and attitudes, adopting good intentions and finding the agency (ability) to make changes… before an actual behaviour change happens.

This way of thinking about behavioural change aligns well with the concept of ‘ocean literacy’, which recognises multiple dimensions that include these psychological precursors to behaviour change. There is a big drive on for improving Ocean Literacy at the moment, as part of the UN Ocean Decade (2021-30). To this end, we recently surveyed Fife residents to understand their awareness, attitudes and actions towards the ocean environment, including climate-related behaviours. We will publish results soon on the People Ocean Planet website: A Fife-Eye View.

Behavioural change is a massive and complex area of work. Unfortunately, its commercial (mis)use has contributed to driving over-consumption of resources and all the collateral damage that can cause. But we can turn the tide and use similar methods to achieve positive outcomes for people and planet – if human behaviour can create a problem, then it can also fix it. Dive In! is a public exhibition taking up this challenge. It aims to motivate individuals with knowledge, asking people to make and socialise their positive changes, and to ease those changes with some readily accessible tools and information to help us turn good intentions in to action.

Dr Chris Leakey, Coordinator of the People Ocean Planet initiative at MASTS.

www.peopleoceanplanet.com

Twitter: @OceanBehaviours

Dive In! Protecting Our Ocean is a partnership with the Scottish Oceans Institute and the People Ocean Planet initiative from the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland. It has been generously funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch) and Museums Galleries Scotland.

Women and the Beggar’s Benison

(approx. 3.5 minute read)  

Trigger Warning Disclaimers:  

This blog post concerns sexually explicit content which potentially includes historical non-consensual sexual activity and images. Please proceed with caution. Resources can be found in the Resources tab of this microsite for anyone who is affected by these issues.  

Language used in these blogs refers to cis, heteronormative gender identities owing to the historical context of the Beggar’s Benison Club. Today, we are aware of and acknowledge a wider spectrum of gender identities. 

From 1732 to 1836, Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife was home to the Beggar’s Benison Club. The secret all-male club was devoted to the idea of male sexual liberation. Members created symbolic sexual imagery and may have practised sexual rituals. Members also had interests in subversive politics and illegal smuggling.  

For women, the Club existed at a time when they could neither vote nor work in a range of industries, and they did not even have legal guardianship over their own children. In terms of sex, they were not supposed to derive any pleasure from sex. Indeed, it was a common belief in 1700s Britain that a female’s main purpose should purely be to satisfy male sexual needs and bear children. Women had little control over their own bodies. This is especially exemplified by the activities in which members of the Beggar’s Benison participated. 

The Club would fantasize about women through the reading of pornographic texts such as ‘Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure’ and ‘A New Description of Merryland’ (see our ‘Trip to Merryland: Fantasising About Sex’ blog to learn more about this!) Some of the objects used in their meetings featured imagery of vulvas. However, the most disturbing of the Club’s activities was that young girls were paid to come to private club meetings and exhibit their naked bodies to members.  

Vagina Heart Seal Matrix from The Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Seal Matrix, 1731-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1068, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/seal-matrix/762417 

It is important to note that while many sources refer to these models as women, they were in fact young girls. Their ages ranged from 15 to 19 years old, in contrast to the members whose ages ranged from 30 to 50 years old.1 Unfortunately, we have scarce other details about who these girls were. Certainly, it is clear from the Club records that their identities did not matter to the Club. At private meetings, they would be stripped naked with their face’s half covered and would be made to pose for the members.2  

While there were no consequences for the men who participated in these meetings, even when the Club would become more an open secret than a secret, this was often not the case for the girls involved. Their half-covered faces did little to conceal their identity, and this could have repercussions outside of the Club meetings. Indeed, there is one recorded story where a bride on her wedding day was openly mocked and ridiculed for her previous hiring by the Club.3 Meanwhile, members were referred to as ‘gentlemen’ and there are no accounts of them facing any kind of consequences.  

It also must be stressed that there was likely little consent involved in how the girls were exhibited as part of these meetings. Members of the Club were mostly upper middle-class men from the East Neuk of Fife with influence within the local community, whilst the girls exhibited held much lower social status. This difference in status between the members and the girls in tandem with gender expectations at the time, was unlikely to be conducive to an equitable power dynamic. 

The Beggar’s Benison was not the first sex club in Scotland; there was another before it, although short lived. This club was the Knights of the Horn, established in Edinburgh in 1705. Very little detail survives about this Club. However, we do know that in contrast to the Beggar’s Benison, the Knights of the Horn reportedly held “mixed” meetings – in other words they allowed both men and women to participate.4 It is interesting to note that unlike the Beggar’s Benison, this Club was openly mocked and became the subject of hostile satire, in a way the Benison, to our knowledge, never was, even when the Club became an open secret within the local community. There is no clear evidence why the two were treated so differently. But given that the Knights of the Horn was founded in a similar time period to the Beggar’s Benison, it is more likely that this was due to the participation of women, thus evoking more vocal disapproval for the activities and conduct of the Club. 

 

Women’s March in 2017, London 
 
Equality Hurts No One, © Caroline Gunston, CC BY-NC 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/151312084@N02/32147533110 

      The Beggar’s Benison brings up issues that are still vitally important to discuss today. Women still do not have the same power or freedoms regarding sex, and they don’t always have control when it comes to their own bodies. Activist groups continue to educate people about the idea of consent and its importance. The male gaze is still a significant factor influencing depictions of a woman’s body in the media. But this is changing. Women and marginalised groups are beginning to take control. They are deciding how and when their bodies can be depicted. Female sexuality is starting to be recognised for being empowering, when consent is freely given. We hope our exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club can further amplify these issues through its exploration and display of the Collection of this all-male sex club. 

Written by Nicola Law, student in MLitt. Museum and Galleries Studies at the University of St Andrews

[1] Stevenson, Chapter Two 

[2] Stevenson, Chapter Two 

[3] Stevenson, Chapter Two 

[4] Stevenson, Chapter Four 

  • Baker-Benfield., G.J, The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth Century Britain, 1992  
  • Dabhoiwala, Faramerz, The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, 2012 
  • Stevenson, David, The Beggar’s Benison Club: Sex Clubs of Enlightened Scotland and their Rituals2001 

The Beggar’s Benison Club in the 21st Century

This blog post concerns sexually explicit content which potentially includes historical non-consensual sexual activity and images. Please proceed with caution. Resources can be found in the Resources tab of the exhibition microsite for anyone who is affected by these issues.   

Language used in these blogs refers to cis, heteronormative gender identities owing to the historical context of the Beggar’s Benison Club. Today, we are aware of and acknowledge a wider spectrum of gender identities. 

From 1732 to 1836, Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife was home to the Beggar’s Benison Club. The secret all-male club was devoted to the idea of male sexual liberation. Members created symbolic sexual imagery and may have practised sexual rituals. Members also had interests in subversive politics and illegal smuggling.  

Today, the University of St Andrews has objects and archival material in its Collection which relate to the Club. The collection includes badges, sashes, seals, glasses, and a test platter used by Club members, with many being explicitly sexual in nature and often inscribed with sexual innuendos and phallic imagery.  

Wine Glass from the Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Wine Glass, 1732-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1064, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/wine-glass/762412 

This Collection is now being put on public display for the first time at the University in our exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club at the Wardlaw Museum. 

The Exhibition displays the objects through a feminist lens, considering the actions of the Club under the three main themes of Subversion, Fantasy, and Power. For our exhibition team, this was an opportunity to explore and learn from the past, by using the actions of the Beggar’s Benison Club to reflect upon and discuss continued issues in society today. Curated by an all-women team, the Exhibition served as a platform from which to address consent, sexual identity and freedom, and gender equality. 

              In their devotion to all-male sexual liberation the Beggar’s Benison Club participated in many sexually-themed activities. One of the more shocking events was its hiring of ‘posture girls’, an activity that occurred on multiple occasions. Young women, between the ages of fifteen to nineteen were hired to display themselves naked for the members’ pleasure. While the men were not permitted to touch the young women, the action of viewing them is a very literal representation of the male gaze.  

             To this day, women, particularly young women and girls, are often sexualised, objectified and represented in the media through the male gaze.  

 

Wine Advert in Australia from 2008 
 
…or three or four, © Jes, CC BY-NC 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/91256982@N00/2382662270 

Thanks to television and social media, objectification and gender stereotyping is happening on a global scale, with real world consequences. From a young age, girls absorb hypersexualised images of women which can impact mental health, including anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Young boys encounter these images too, which can lead to forming of stereotypical ideas of gender roles. These ideas often encourage dominance and aggressiveness in men, which increases risks of violence against women. These stereotypical ideas also cultivate a cultural narrative that women do not have autonomy over their own bodies, but in their dominant role men do.   

By displaying this Collection, the audience is prompted to consider the power dynamic that allowed the Beggar’s Benison Club to objectify young women and how this power dynamic still exists today. The exhibition also makes efforts to reclaim parts of the Beggar’s Benison’s legacy for women. Within the Collection only one object shows exclusively female genitalia, a seal with a heart surrounding a vagina. The seal alone is a strong representation of the Club’s possessive attitudes over women’s bodies. In keeping with the feminist theme, the seals design was chosen as the exhibition logo. This not only contrasts with the numerous phallic images in the exhibition, but also demonstrates how women can reclaim the image and use it to represent sexual empowerment.  

Exhibition Logo for Sex as Subversion, Fantasy, and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club Exhibition Logo for Sex as Subversion, Fantasy, and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club, © The University of St Andrews 

            The logo was also the key image used as a pattern for the first event of the Exhibition, an embroidery workshop, hosted on 8 March 2021. Non-coincidentally, the 8 March also marked International Women’s Day, an annual global day which celebrates the achievements of women and raises awareness for greater gender equality. The logo was embroidered alongside other images of women’s bodies to represent female reclamation of their own bodies.  Embroidery itself is part of a wider subversive stitch movement which continues the long legacy of women using needle and thread in protest and resistance. Many of the issues that the Beggar’s Benison Club raise in modern times are issues feminism is still fighting and therefore it is fitting to connect the exhibition to other feminist movements.  

Subversive Stitch: Embroidery Workshop Advert Image 
 
Subversive Stitch: Embroidery Workshop Advert, © The University of St Andrews 

          In viewing this exhibition, audiences will explore the Beggar’s Benison Collection but will also be confronted with the negative power dynamics and objectification that the Club subjected women to. These actions reflect what, over two hundred years later, is still occurring to women. However, today, women have a much stronger voice, proven by the widespread feminist movements to reclaim their power. Audiences should consider whether their daily actions are taking this power from women or placing the power back into their hands

This article was written by Sarah Takhar, Museum and Gallery Studies student 2020/21.

Further reading:

  • Stevenson, David, The Beggar’s Benison Club: Sex Clubs of Enlightened Scotland and their Rituals, 2001.   
  • Swift, J. and Gould, H, ‘Not an Object: On Sexualization and Exploitation of Women and Girls’, UNICEF USA, 2021. <https://www.unicefusa.org/stories/not-object-sexualization-and-exploitation-women-and-girls/30366>  

The Secret History of the Beggar’s Benison Collection

(approx. 4 min read) 

Trigger Warning Disclaimers:  

This blog post concerns sexually explicit content which potentially includes historical non-consensual sexual activityPlease proceed with caution. Resources can be found in the Resources tab of this microsite for anyone who is affected by these issues.  

Language used in these blogs refers to cis, heteronormative gender identities owing to the historical context of the Beggar’s Benison Club. Today, we are aware of and acknowledge a wider spectrum of gender identities. 

From 1732 to 1836, Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife was home to the Beggar’s Benison Club. The secret all-male club was devoted to the idea of male sexual liberation. Members created symbolic sexual imagery and may have practised sexual rituals. Members also had interests in subversive politics and illegal smuggling.  

From medals and seal matrices to phallus shaped drinking glasses, the Collection of the Beggar’s Benison has survived the 185 years since its disbandment in 1836, yet it has spent much of that time hidden.  

After 1836, the Collection was left in the hands of one of the last Club members, Matthew Foster Conolly.  Since then, the objects have passed through multiple hands. The Collection held at the Wardlaw Museum is likely only a fraction of what existed during the Club’s height. Even before the Beggar’s Benison disbanded, some of the records of the Club and its objects had already been lost.  

Throughout the life of the Collection, no one has really known what to do or make of it. Certainly, Conolly, who had control of the Collection for about forty years, appears to have been conflicted over whether to preserve or destroy it.  

His uncertainty around what to do with this Collection is somewhat understandable. For instance, on one hand, the Collection contains objects connected to illustrious figures in society at the time. Indeed, the Collection includes a snuff box that is thought to have been gifted to the Club by the then Prince Regent, the later King George IV, whilst visiting Scotland.  He is said to have been intrigued by the Club and was subsequently given an honorary membership. However, on the other hand these objects, due to the imagery displayed, form and function, after the Club’s decline leading to its eventual disbandment may have seemed less warrantable to preserve without its once captive audience.1 For instance, the snuff box is said to have once been filled with pubic hair belonging to the mistress of the then Prince Regent. 

The Prince Regent (later George IV) 
 
George IV (1762–1830) as Prince Regent, after Lawrence, Bequest of Collis P. Huntington, 1900, Open Access API, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/435697 

Indeed, the historian David Stevenson, who has written a book dedicated to the history of the Club, believes that Conolly’s eventual decision to preserve the Collection mostly probably came down to the fact that he was an avid local historian. However, it is clear this decision was not made without serious consideration, highlighted by the fact that he burnt many of the records, clearly intending to destroy them, but not before he partially copied many. He passed the Collection down to his son-in-law, a Reverend Gordon, on his death. 

Reverend Gordon believed that, despite its nature, the Collection was significant enough to warrant preservation.2 This is evidenced by the fact that after Gordon, the Collection passed to Mcnaught Campbell, who worked at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow. Once in his possession, he loaned them to the Kelvingrove Museum who reportedly displayed some, yet not the more obscene, of the items that formed part of the Collection.  

The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow  
 
The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum (Glasgow), © Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, CC BY 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/72746018@N00/3839582240 

The Collection later passed on again to a new owner who tried to sell the Collection to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, now the National Museum of Scotland. The Museum seems to have considered purchasing them but instead chose to pass on the sale. The Collection, it seems, was too obscene for the Museum, making it difficult to display.3 

Eventually, after the death of its last owner, the Collection was donated to the University of St Andrews. For a long time, the Collection sat in the basement of the stores. A University Librarian left a note stating that the Collection “was not for female eyes.” In addition, the Collection was later covered with a sheet. The Collection has since been preserved in storage, deemed unfit for display.   

Now the Wardlaw Museum will publicly display the Collection for the first time as part of the exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy, Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club.  The Exhibition will explore the hidden stories behind this controversial Club and its members. The Exhibition team, along with co-curators from our Advisory Panel, aims to highlight the issues and themes surrounding the Beggar’s Benison Club and its activities. 

In this Exhibition, we particularly wish to examine how the unequal balances of power wielded by the Beggar’s Benison Club relates to continuing issues surrounding sexuality and gender in today’s society. Certainly, this Collection, when explored in a sensitive, collaborative way, can highlight and spread awareness of issues related to sexuality, sexual injustice and gender discrimination. 

Written by Nicola Law, student in MLitt. Museum and Galleries Studies at the University of St Andrews

[1] Stevenson, Chapter Two 

[2] Stevenson, Chapter Two 

[3] Stevenson, Chapter Ten 

  • Stevenson, David, The Beggar’s Benison Club: Sex Clubs of Enlightened Scotland and their Rituals, 2001. 

Exploring Merryland: Fantasising About Sex

(6 minute read) 

Trigger Warning Disclaimers:  

This blog post concerns sexually explicit content which potentially includes historical non-consensual sexual activityPlease proceed with caution. Resources can be found in the Resources tab of this microsite for anyone who is affected by these issues.  

Language used in these blogs refers to cis, heteronormative gender identities owing to the historical context of the Beggar’s Benison Club. Today, we are aware of and acknowledge a wider spectrum of gender identities. 

From 1732 to 1836, Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife was home to the Beggar’s Benison Club. The secret all-male club was devoted to the idea of male sexual liberation. Members created symbolic sexual imagery and may have practised sexual rituals. Members also had interests in subversive politics and illegal smuggling.  

Indeed, a central activity of the Beggar’s Benison Club was to fantasise about sexual exploits. This came in many forms, from conjuring grandiose origin myths, appropriating mythological and Biblical stories, to reading pornographic texts, and drinking toasts to genitalia. These ideas were essentially tied to sexual imagination as a way to satisfy male lust and fantasy. However, they also served a more practical purpose; to support the Club’s quest for sexual pleasure, to validate its rituals and to be ‘enjoyably ludicrous.’1 

It is important to note that here, in this context of the Beggar’s Benison Club, ‘fantasy’ is not associated with innocent, positive connotations. The ways in which Club members fantasised about sex were from a male perspective that was exploitative and misogynistic. These dynamics have not been explored in great detail thus far by historians, especially in terms of the impact and implications for the young women hired by the Club. We endeavour to explore these dynamics within this exhibition and investigate the unequal sexual power dynamics. 

Possibly the most important myth conjured by the Benison was that which explained the Club’s origins, ‘The King and the Beggar Maid.’ The folktale is attached to King James V of Scotland [1513-1542], who possessed hero-status according to the Benison, as he set an example of sexual licence within high society.  

James V 
 
James V, King of Scotland. Reigned 1513-1542. Father of Mary Queen of Scots. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0), https://wellcomecollection.org/works/a3qh5udr 

While disguised as a commoner, James V visited the Dreel Burn, the river boundary between Anstruther Easter and Anstruther Wester in the East Neuk of Fife. He did not want to wet his feet crossing the water (the height of royal heroism); therefore, he received the help of a beggar maid to carry him across the water. As thanks, James gave her a gold coin and in return, the maid thanked him in the form of a blessing or ‘benison’. 

In this context, ‘benison’ is a colloquial term for sexual favours. Indeed, the Old Scots rhyme associated with the myth describes its sentiments towards wealth (the gold coin) and sex (the benison):  

May your purse naer be toom (never empty) 

And your horn aye in bloom. (always) 

The club also referred to the punchier, anglicised version as their toast and motto:  

May Prick nor Purse never fail you. 

The name of the Club was thus a most suitable title for their endeavours and desires. It references the Beggar Maid myth and its connotations of sex and money. Members idolised King James V as an archetypal figure of sexual fantasy and saw themselves in him; ‘for they too were rulers, by right of the phallus.’2 

Other fantastical origin myths for the Club go even further back than the reign of King James V. Club members metaphorically imagined that the Beggar’s Benison originated with the biblical Creation. This biblical reference can be found on one of the surviving Club medals within the exhibition, where a depiction of Adam and Eve is accompanied by the phrase ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ This coy play-on-words appropriates God’s directive to procreate, into such a meaning that justifies the Club’s desire for sexual pleasure. 

Even within a small town such as Anstruther, the Beggar’s Benison found ways to attach sexual innuendos to their surrounding environment. The Isle of May, off the coast of Anstruther and visible from its harbour, found its way into the Club’s imagination. Members speculated about sex-crazed monks that inhabited the island, taking it for granted that masturbation was a monastic speciality. The name ‘May’ also added to their fantasies as it bore a girl’s name and the month of May was associated with spring and fertility. 

 Isle of May 
 
Isle of May, © Jerzy Morkis, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/5491174 

It must be reiterated that these sexual fantasies were conjured to satisfy only the male perspective. They were not simply cheerful, innocent imaginations of consensual sex. Indeed, Club members may have enabled and encouraged one another in their objectification and fantasising of the female body. As well as drunken songs, toasts and general debauchery, Club members would read and celebrate pornographic texts in order to satiate their male lust. In line with the Club’s love of sexual innuendo and double entendre, 1700s pornographic texts describe the female body through metaphor.  

In texts such as A New Description of Merryland, the notion of male sexual dominance is rampant. The author consistently highlights the imperfections of female genitalia while simultaneously praising his own penis. Female masturbation is considered abhorrent, yet male self-pleasure is considered natural and normal. The female body, denoted as ‘Merryland’, is a foreign country to be conquered as a man’s rightful territory.  

A New Description of Merryland 
 
A New Description of Merryland P.C.20.b.7.(1), title page, British Library, Public Domain, https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2019/02/smutty-stuff-for-debauched-readers-the-merryland-books-in-the-private-case.html 

Other texts read by the Beggar’s Benison include Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland, or more commonly known as Fanny Hill. The text describes Fanny, aged fourteen, as lewd, promiscuous and sexually insatiable, with a theme of shame which she should feel for her pleasures. Again, the double standards of celebrated male sexuality and shamed female sexuality is shown here, not to mention the shocking imbalance of power concerning the sexual relations between a fourteen-year-old girl and older men. We know that this text was read by the Benison on St Andrew’s Day in 1737, where ‘two nymphs’ of eighteen and nineteen years old exhibited themselves nude for the members.  

This act of hiring girls to pose naked will be explored in the ‘Subversive Sex’ and ‘Women of the Beggar’s Benison’ blogs. In this context, however, it shows us how Club members were obsessed with fantasising around the female body in male-dominant and misogynistic forms. This sexual imagination was compounded with the exploitative physical observation of naked young women.  

Written by Leonie Leeder, student in MLitt. Museum and Galleries Studies at the University of St Andrews

Sources:

1 Stevenson, 14. 

1 Stevenson, 17. 

  • Dubois, Sharon O’Toole, ‘Merryland: Gender and Power in an Eighteenth Century Pornotopia’, Utopian Studies, 11:2 (2000). 
  • Lord, Evelyn, The Hell Fire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies, 2008. 
  • Peakman, Julie, Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century, 2004. 
  • Stevenson, David, The Beggar’s Benison Club: Sex Clubs of Enlightened Scotland and their Rituals, 2001. 
  • Stretzer, Thomas (pseudonym Roger Phequewell), A New Description of Merryland: Containing a Topographical, Geographical and Natural History of that Country, 10th ed, 1742. 

Subversive Sex

(Approx. 3 minute Read) 

Trigger Warning Disclaimers:  

This blog post concerns sexually explicit content which potentially includes historical non-consensual sexual activity and images. Please proceed with caution. Resources can be found in the Resources tab of this microsite for anyone who is affected by these issues.  

Language used in these blogs refers to cis, heteronormative gender identities owing to the historical context of the Beggar’s Benison Club. Today, we are aware of and acknowledge a wider spectrum of gender identities. 

From 1732 to 1836, Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife was home to the Beggar’s Benison Club. The secret all-male club was devoted to the idea of male sexual liberation. Members created symbolic sexual imagery and may have practised sexual rituals. Members also had interests in subversive politics and illegal smuggling.  

The Exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club at the Wardlaw Museum aims to explore this Club and its Collection through the three central themes of Subversion, Fantasy, and Power.  

Taken at face value, the objects from the Collection displayed within this Exhibition will likely elicit shocked gasps and exclamations, especially due to their appearance with many featuring phallic imagery. Certainly, as is explored in our ‘The Secret History of the Collection’ blog, these objects have been left undisturbed in storage since the mid-1800s as they were simply deemed too obscene to show to the public.  However, the Club’s fascination and celebration of sex must not be misunderstood and dismissed as merely raunchy. The Club used the idea of sex to be politically subversive, to fantasise about male dominated sexual exploits, and to exhibit power over women. This blog will briefly discuss the subversive nature of the Club’s relationship with sex, which is reflected by the objects from the Collection and the activities of the Club. 

Indeed, the surviving relics of, and records belonging to, the Club explicitly highlight their members’ convivial advocation of male sexual freedom. They emphasise the Club’s belief that sex should be enjoyed for pleasure, which at the time was extremely subversive, rebelling against the widespread belief in the 1700s that sex should be purely for procreation.   For instance, the records belonging to the Club, which will be presented as part of our online exhibition, describe a version of the initiation ceremony in explicit detail. From these we learn that new initiates to the Beggar’s Benison Club were required to demonstrate their ability to perform sexually. This included exhibiting his phallus to his fellow members-to-be, masturbating in front of existing members, and sometimes masturbating together as a sociable activity.  

The novice (prospective member) would be ‘prepared’ in a closet in which two members would ‘[cause] him to propel his Penis until full erection.’ Coming out of the closet (an interesting choice of words given the Club’s disapproval of homosexuality, as shall be explored in later blogs), the initiate was greeted by existing members who wore sashes and medals in full fanfare. He was required to place his phallus upon the Test Platter to demonstrate his ability to perform sexually.  

Test Platter from the Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Test Platter, 1783-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1072, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/test-platter/762421 

This action was accompanied by ‘four puffs of the Breath Horn’ to simulate ejaculation. The records then note ‘The Members and Knights two and two came round in a state of erection and touched the novice Penis to Penis.’  

 Breath Horn from the Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Breath Horn, 1732-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1062, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/breath-horn/762410 

A wine glass displaying the Club’s motif was then used to drink a toast to the new member, who was bestowed with his own sash and medal. The ceremony was thus concluded by reciting the Club’s motto: ‘May Prick nor Purse never fail you.’  

Wine Glass from the Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Wine Glass, 1732-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1064, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/wine-glass/762412 

This ritual was inspired by the founding myth of the Club. According to this, in the mid-16th century, King James V travelled around Scotland pretending to be a common subject. He acquainted himself with his subjects in this way. In Anstruther, he met a maid whom he offered a golden coin for carrying him across a stream. In turn, she thanked him with a ‘benison’, a slang term for sexual favours.   

Another activity adopted by the Club in the 1700s was to add pubic hairs of mistresses to a wig. Specifically, the mistresses of King Charles II (1660-1685). The King offered it to his friend and Club member, the Earl of Moray. Later Minutes of the Club confirm in 1775 that new members must kiss the wig and wear it during their initiation ceremony. The collection and use of pubic hair in this way is an example of how these sex clubs attempted to objectify, possess and control the female body. It was an act to wield power over women through somber mockery.  

Initiation rituals were adopted by the Club to legitimize their male sexual activity and advocation of male sexual pleasure. They served to prove a potential member’s ‘manhood’ and sexual capability. Both these criteria were essential to be accepted into the Club.  

However, discretion had to be taken to ensure such interests did not cause public scandal, as such sexual conduct went against the moral and ethical teachings of the Church and State. Hence, the secrecy that surrounded the Club. As the historian David Stevenson, who has written a history of the Club, puts it, the Club’s activities had ‘the spice of being naughtily outrageous’.  

Indeed, throughout the 1500s and 1600s, there was a rise in religiously inspired sexual repression, where sex for anything other than procreating was strictly prohibited. Until the end of the 1700s, a strong taboo surrounded masturbation. This theme will be explored in a later blog, ‘Sex as Science’.   

The Age of Enlightenment in the 1700s and 1800s was important for developing new ways of thinking about sexual liberation (for heteronormative men). The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical revolution where scientific inquiry was favoured over religious faith. The idea of sexual freedoms and sex as pleasure fitted perfectly into progressive thinking at this time. As such, the attitudes of the Beggar’s Benison Club toward sex align with this wider movement. 

Fast forward to the present day, it is interesting to think that whilst the Beggar’s Benison Club was sexually subversive during the 1700s and 1800s, the Collection of the Club was still deemed to be too subversive and obscene to display until very recently. Indeed, our Exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club at the Wardlaw Museum will be one of the first bold public displays of the Collection at the University. The exhibition aims to explore the theme of subversion further, and deconstruct and discuss the taboos surrounding the Club. Certainly, this chapter in Fife history and display of sexuality and sexual freedom, can also help us to explore and discuss issues relating to sexuality and sexual freedom ongoing today.    

Written by Leonie Leeder, student in MLitt. Museum and Galleries Studies at the University of St Andrews

Sources:

  • Peakman, Julie, Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of the Eighteen Century, 2005 
  • Stevenson, David, The Beggar’s Benison Club: Sex Clubs of Enlightened Scotland and their Rituals, 2001