Rob Hardy on books


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Naughty Reading, Centuries Ago



Rob Hardy


Two hundred years from now, some academic will publish an analysis of pornography on the inchoate internet; how it reflected our medical and social views, how it changed our views of the sexes, how it favored some activities over others, and so on. Everyone knows that humans have enjoyed porn for about as long as they have enjoyed sex, but probably the age of the internet is going to make things different. In eighteenth century Britain, people had to put up with the print media, but the eighteenth century was a time of rapid change, with advances in medicine, science, and exploration. Many of these were reflected in the erotic works of the time, and such works have now been analyzed in Mighty Lewd Books: The Development of Pornography in Eighteenth Century England (Palgrave Macmillan) by Julie Peakman. Peakman, who is a historian of sex, has gone through scads of original material from the time; her extensive bibliography, for instance, has four pages of works attributed to that prolific author, Anonymous. Her title comes from a diary entry of Pepys, in which he confesses to reading a little of "... a mighty lewd book, but yet not amiss for a sober man once to read over to inform himself in the villainy of the world." Peakman's own book is far from lewd; it is a serious academic treatise, and as for villainy, most people who take an interest in this subject are probably not going to be as self-servingly judgmental as Pepys was. There is necessarily some low humor in some of the works covered, the publishers were often a furtive lot whom society wished to castigate, and there are prejudices we now think are unfashionable; but this is far from a catalogue of villainies. Peakman has written in an unjudgmental and detached tone throughout, giving a valuable view of some of the foundations of modern pornography. 




Italy had taken the lead in producing erotic books during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and then France took over as a center of pornography and developed a graphic style. The initial English pornographic works were translations from the French; the translators and printers were not particularly interested in giving exact renditions, so the books were very free translations, with interspersions or omissions that would better please their target audience. For instance, French philosophizing on love could be left out, and more specifically sexual terms put in. The biggest debt English pornography owed to the French was anti-Catholicism. The French version had frequent attacks on the cloistering of nuns or the secrecy of the confessional; such attacks would have been in accord with the British hostility to Catholics due to political distrust, popular fear, and theological disagreement. Corruption in the Catholic church was a popular topic, and so tales of vice within nunneries, or of priests seducing nuns or parishioners, were popular not just as sexual entertainment, but as propaganda. In The Nun (1803), a young novitiate Agnes was shown an instrument of glass, some sort of artificial phallus, and learned that there were more than fifty such devices in the convent, and that the nuns handled them more than they handled their rosary beads. The terms "nun" and "abbess" became English slang for whores and their bawds.  




The English detested the Catholic advocacy of flagellation as a penance. Sir Francis Dashwood, famous as the leader of the notoriously orgiastic Hell Fire Club, was so disgusted at the penitents flogging themselves in the Sistine Chapel that he grabbed a whip and began to flog them himself. Flogging was, of course, nothing new in Britain. It was so standard as discipline for the wife that comedies were based on the reversal of the wife flogging the husband. It was frequently applied to students (remember Mr. Thwackum in Tom Jones). According to some medical theories of the day, it was a means of curing impotence; the translated medical work of a German doctor read, "I further conclude, that Strokes upon the Back and Loins, as Parts appropriated for the Generating of the seed, and carrying it to the Genitals, warm and inflame those Parts, and contribute very much to the irritation of Lechery." (Peakman points out, "The line demarcating medical literature and pornography was a fine one, and the boundaries shifted.") With the antagonism to the Catholic Church, English society took to the stories from France having to do with priests, monks, and nuns flagellating each other for sexual rather than sacred reasons. While English pornography retained these characters as well as the settings of cloisters and convents, it also expanded into the boarding school and into the family for incestuous themes. This sort of pornography, besides emphasizing the power of birching, subverted the dominant morality of the patriarchal family. In addition, it emphasized body parts like thighs and buttocks that pornographers had neglected before. Flagellation, and later other sadomasochistic play, became particularly associated with the English; forty years ago when coyness used to be needed in the personals ads, "English Art" was taken to mean S & M.  




Peakman shows repeatedly that pornography incorporated ideas of the time that we should usually not at all regard as erotic. Botanical works were written in decidedly erotic terms; to write about sex when the ostensible theme was mere botany allowed for sexual suggestion without fear of censorship. For example, in winter (old age), "... they are subject to become weak and flaccid, and want Support, for which Purpose some Gardeners have thought of splintering them up with Birchen Twigs." At a time when static electricity was being investigated, rubbing a rod to produce a spark was sure to get a mention in erotic parodies of scientific writing. Medical texts received similar eroticism; in a 1732 work, Betty Sly asks her mistress, Miss Forward, to describe signs of a maidenhead, and gets the reply, "According to the new Doctrine of our modern Surgeons, there is no Sign to be perceived, but I believe they FIBB." Her answer alludes to the contemporary scientific understanding, but also reinforces the folk wisdom that an intact hymen (and thereby virginity) could be infallibly detected. World exploration and nautical themes were included in such works as A Map or Chart of the Road of Love, showing a fantastic map, realistically drawn, with parts labeled Covetous Lake, Cuckold's Bay, and Cape Extasy. The whole map, reproduced here as are many other illustrations of the time, is dedicated "to his Majesty Hymen and Prince Cupid". 




Peakman makes the useful finding that with literacy increasing, it was not just the upper classes that enjoyed pornography, as might be concluded from the beloved leather-bound limited copies that have come to us from the libraries of the rich. Chapbooks and broadsheets could be bought and enjoyed by the working class. Women had access to such works; prostitutes would keep them in stock. London was, of course, a center for printing and for porn, but there were thousands of itinerant hawkers who would carry pornographic productions to the provinces. Peakman also shows how pornography reflected (and thereby influenced) sexual attitudes; porn before the eighteenth century tended to have men and women equally active and eager for satisfaction, but especially with the anti-Catholic porn, women were put in submissive or victim roles. This is a serious work for those with serious interest in the theme, but given the rollicking nature of that theme, there is reason to smile frequently. After all, in what other bibliography will you find such works as A Flaming Whip for Lechery or the Whoremonger's Speculum, The Birchen Banquet, Or Curious and original Anecdotes of Ladies fond of Administering the Birch Discipline, or A Full and True Account of a Dreaded Fire that Lately Broke out in the Pope's Breeches




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