The Cerne Giant, often known as the Rude Man of Cerne, is the most priapically preeminent figure in the country. Singularly commanding, and seemingly holding his club in ireful threat over the tranquil Dorset village of Cerne Abbas, he has stood upon the hillside since time immemorial. His origins are obscure, with a handful of theories relating to his genesis having vied for the public’s attention down the years. The most colourful and, indeed, popular of these, now an integral part of local lore, relate to his supposed status as a fertility figure, with his manly appendage having hitherto become the focus of much attention from childless couples. However, as his manhood is now protected from public trespass, few are likely to repeat the visit that the Marquis of Bath and his wife Virginia made to lie with him one night in 1958, in the hope that their five barren years would be brought to an end. And it would seem that the old fellow wrought his magic, for Virginia was duly delivered of a daughter – Silvy – within ten months.
Who, or what, is he? An Iron Age fertility figure? A Roman depiction of Hercules dating from the reign of Commodus? A memorialisation of a real giant who was beheaded upon the hill for his violent predations upon the village? Or, is it that he is a lewd seventeenth-century satire of Oliver Cromwell?
His form is certainly crude, and those who favour an Iron Age provenance point to a certain stylistic congruence between it and the artwork found on some of the coinage of that era from this part of England. Those, on the other hand, who favour a Roman dating of the figure, point to the discovery within the last twenty years or so of evidence for the Giant once having held a cloak over its left arm, which they interpret as representing the skin of the Nemean lion, as was the convention in Roman depictions of the hero. Both explanations seem plausible, until, that is, one takes into account some highly salient factors relating to the parish, one of which should be obvious from its name, for it was once home to a Benedictine Monastery – Cerne Abbey – which was integral to the life of the local community from its foundation in 987, until its dissolution in 1539. It seems peculiar both that its records make no mention of the Giant, and that the monks should have permitted the regular scouring of the hill figure’s lines necessary for its survival. Secondly, the first reference to the Giant dates only from 1694 – a repair bill amounting to three shillings in the churchwarden’s accounts – and an earlier survey of the parish from 1617 makes no mention of any chalk figure. These facts would seem to militate against the figure’s survival from antiquity.
Thus we are left with the alternative theory that the carving of the Giant dates from the seventeenth century, and represents a fanciful joke at the expense of our then Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. What better way to rile the Protector and his godly supporters than to create a massive and libidinous depiction of this ‘English Hercules’ (as Cromwell was often termed, as depicted in this satirical Dutch cartoon dated 1653) waving his club and his manhood at onlookers and passers-by?
Whereas it would seem that the Cerne Giant is modern in origin, the feature lying above his head atop the hill – the Trendle, or the ‘frying pan’ – would seem to date from genuine antiquity or prehistory.
The Giant is, of course, without a consort: he has neither wife nor lover. However, if we take him to be a representation of the humourless, self-righteous spirit of seventeenth-century puritan religiosity, he has now been provided with a spiritual heir in the form of Beatrice Clemens – the Rude Woman of Cerne. Although a Christian, of sorts, her fundamental beliefs are held within the cage of a rigid, highly dogmatic interpretation of a certain type of politically correct socialism, that result in her being without doubt as to the righteousness of her cause, and conduct. Her heart may be in the right place, but her head is a zone of confusion, stuffed with contradictory beliefs thanks to her ideological blinkers, that transform her into an egregious canting hypocrite. Despite her steadfast profession of belief in the principle of equality, she thus ends up treating her guests and others around her in a very unequal fashion, with her inclusive zeal manifesting itself in a painfully acute and active discrimination.
Beatrice Clemens, like Cromwell, proves to be very much out of step with the spirit of the place, and it is to this spirit that she must ultimately answer. Thus a strong vein of the supernatural is woven into the warp and weft of this satirical comedy in which the protagonist may be seen, in certain respects, as a contemporary inversion of Basil Fawlty. So, the question is, dare you spend any time in the company of the Rude Woman of Cerne? Beatrice is waiting. She’d be delighted to see you, especially on Meatless Monday.