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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Idealizing the Bodies of Medieval Mermaids: Analyzing the Shifted Sexuality of Medieval Mermaids in the Presence of Medieval Mermen


In Medieval manuscript images from 1200 to 1400, mermaids appear as supernatural female archetypes performing a variety of acts like standing idle, playing musical instruments, embodying sirens to lure sailors, and using weaponry.  These early images show mermaids with short or partially concealed hair and sagging breasts.  Medieval manuscript images begin depicting mermen in the 1400s, with the mermen performing acts like wielding weaponry, playing musical instruments, and raising phallic objects over their heads.  These mermen appear primarily clothed in cloth garments or metal armor with head coverings and weaponry.  As images of mermen appear, mermaids embrace a more decorative role with depictions of them primarily combing their hair and looking into mirrors while neglecting most of their previous actions.  Medieval mermen act as heroic entities of the Medieval merfolk species, consequently forcing Medieval mermaids to forfeit their agency and serve as sexual entities of the Medieval merfolk species.

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