Meet Sheela Na Gig
Thanks to a tip from a member of my online reading group, I found out about an unexpected side to Norman churches, Sheela na gigs, carvings of an old woman squatting and pulling apart her vulva.
One suggestion is that this is a survival of pagan imagery, particularly perhaps in Ireland where a Celtic goddess was shown in a similar way. Another theory is that they were medieval morality figures, another that they represent the passageway to and from the afterlife. There's a sensible summary of the theories here.
There's a feminist, Mary Daly-style, article about them here. It says: "The reason for the adoption of Sheelas on secular buildings has been attributed to the Irish seeing them as a protective force, as noted by nineteenth-century researchers who “were told by local Irish people that Sheelas were intended to ward off evil.” This is reported along with a fascinating claim from a traveler in Ireland in the 1840s that, in order to lift a curse of bad luck, the afflicted should “persuade a loose woman to expose herself to him”.
Curious that such a widespread image (the first website has a long list and is collecting more) should be so little known and its history so unclear - but then perhaps not. Can't imagine Victorian historians talking about them, at least not without lapsing into Latin.
You can even buy a modern pendant reproduction here. It would certainly be a talking point.