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Author: Malcolm Jones
Editor: Fedwa Malti-Douglas
Date: 2007
Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender
Publisher: Macmillan Reference USA
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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In contemporary English the word obscene has connotations of strong disapproval, even disgust. For some, any depiction of sexual activity or the sex organs is by definition pornographic, for others it is a legitimate, morally neutral branch of art, "erotic" art. In this entry the term is construed to refer to all sexual acts, gestures, and exposures that for most of European medieval and post-medieval history have been perceived or received as offensive (scatological obscenity is beyond the purview of this entry). However, the notion of obscenity is culturally relative, and chronologically relative even within the same culture: autres temps, autres mœurs.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, when the traveler John Fryer visited a Hindu temple in Madras in the 1670s, his reaction to the erotic figures carved there was predictable: "On the Walls of good Sculpture were obscene Images, where Aretine might have furnished his Fancy for his Bawdy Postures." This may have been the era of Rochester and the bawdy excesses of the court of Charles II, but Fryer knew obscenity when he saw it. The "Bawdy Postures" of the carved temple figures he interpreted as obscene images similar to the frankly pornographic and notorious modi (positions for intercourse, known in contemporary English as the Postures) engraved by Raimondi to illustrate Aretino's sonnets, a work that was publicly burned in Venice in 1527 and became synonymous with sexual obscenity for the early modern English.

In Adam de la Halle's thirteenth-century play, Le Jeu de Robin et de Marion, searching for some means of entertaining themselves, one of the adult actors asks, "Faisons un pet pour nous esbatre?" (Shall we fart to amuse ourselves?) a suggestion accepted with, we may think, surprising alacrity. Obscenity cannot be accidental but must be intentional—by which definition, neither of these instances qualifies as obscene: the offense taken by Fryer was certainly accidental—contemporary Indians would not have been offended—and the medieval French farters entered into their game without giving it a second thought.

However, it is in this very propensity to offend that the power of the obscene lies. When obscenity is not accidental but ostentatious, what is its function? One obvious function is to promote sexual arousal regardless of whether such art or writing is labeled pornographic or erotic. Such deliberate incitement began in postclassical times with the Aretino/Raimondi I Modi (Lawner 1988) and continues in the present era via "girlie" magazines and Internet porn sites.


During the Restoration period English travelers abroad were expected to bring back Continental pornography. Page 1082  |  Top of Article"A Stranger [who] discourseth with a Roman Book seller" in Torriano's Italian-English phrase book of 1666, eager to buy a copy of Aretino, is told that "they are forbidden, both the Postures [I Modi] and the Discourses [Ragionamenti], that imbracing of men and women together in unusual manners." In Vanbrugh's The Country Wife (1675), having just returned from France, Horner significantly protests, "I have brought over not so much as a Bawdy Picture, new Postures nor the second part of the Escholle des Filles." In the same year a group of Oxford undergraduates was discovered trying to run off copies of these same Postures on the Clarendon Press clandestinely at night.

Horner's Escholle des Filles was first published in Paris in 1655 (and unillustrated); a generation later it was translated into English and published anonymously as The School of Venus (1680). Opposite the title page of the only extant copy is an etched frontispiece that depicts a modestly dressed woman standing behind a booth selling dildos. Images of dildo sellers are also to be found on a German fifteenth-century biscuit mold, and a sixteenth-century Flemish game sheet, and one such salesman features significantly in a twelfth-century Latin comedy, the Alda.

In Histriomastix (1633) two of the many evils William Prynne inveighed against were "the obscene jests of Stage-players and obscene pictures." Puritans such as Prynne had time and censorship on their side. Material of this nature is peculiarly prone to censorship, especially censorship by destruction: L'Escholle des Filles, for example, was read in the original language by Samuel Pepys in 1668 but then burned so "that it might not be among my books to my shame."

One has to be suspicious of the popularity of images of Lucretia's suicide in the inventory of King Henry VIII, as that subject allowed the artist to display the naked female bosom under the guise of exemplary chastity. One cannot help suspecting that there is some sadoerotic frisson here, as well as in some of the many images of Phyllis riding Aristotle. Similarly, the ostensibly biblical subject of Bathsheba bathing afforded male viewers the same voyeuristic pleasure in spying on the naked female body that King David was unable to resist; so too the subject of Susanna and the Elders. All these female nudes were sanctioned by biblical or classical history: although they may look like early modern women, their historicity protected the contemporary owner of such images from the suspicion owning pornography.

Similarly, Italian Renaissance engravers produced erotic prints thinly disguised as illustrations of classical mythology, including the loves of the gods, nymphs and satyrs, and the like. However, the success of these print series led to copying in the Netherlands and Germany, particularly by the "Little Masters." The Nuremberg engraver Hans Guldenmund came to the attention of the city council in 1535 for possessing "a most shameful and sinful little book in which are many unchaste pictures of unconventional lovemaking." This sounds like a copy of Aretino's Postures.

In Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist (1610), trying to account for the visits of so many people to the alchemist's house, Lovewit opines, "Sure he has got/Some bawdy pictures to call all this ging [crowd]/ The Friar and the Nun." Protestant image makers could not resist the spectacle of monks and nuns engaged in mutual sexual activity. Among titles that appear to belong in this category, the print seller Peter Stent's 1662 advertisement included a "Friar whipping a nun." The corporal chastisement of naked or seminaked female penitents by friar confessors afforded Protestant controversialists particular satisfaction (especially in connxion with the scandal of Brother Cornelius of Dort), and provided a convenient excuse for the Protestant amateur of pornography, who could claim to possess such voyeuristic scenes of flagellation and female nudity merely as proof of the debauchery of the Roman church and its practices.

In the same "incidental" way explicit sexuality was used as a device to smear other religious denominations or factions in the seventeenth-century Civil War era in England, but such sexual "cartoons" have always been employed to denigrate one's opponents, whether religious or political, as in the many scurrilous drawings and prints attacking Marie Antoinette during the era of the French Revolution. This satirical function has always been one of the most important uses of obscenity in European culture.


The use of obscene names for places, people, and things in the medieval and early modern eras is another area of the obscene that is at odds with modern sensibilities. In 1658, for instance, while discussing the earwig, an entomologist noted that the "Northern English by an obscene name call it Twich-ballock" (Oxford English Dictionary), though it was more commonly plants that were given such sexual names. Ophelia noted that to the wild orchids known as "long purples … liberal shepherds give a grosser name," for just as the generic name derives from the Greek orchis ("testicle"), the same visual resemblance was noted in the vernacular, and one such name Elizabethan shepherds might have used was fooles ballockes.

Highly obscene personal nicknames were in routine use in late medieval Europe and provide invaluable—often the earliest—evidence for the vernacular sexual lexicon. Interpreting such names is fraught with danger, but the perennial male concern with penis size would appear to be Page 1083  |  Top of Articlereflected in the English Langgeters (i.e., "long tarse" ["penis"]) and the precisely cognate late medieval German Langzers. Tax rolls from the decades around 1300 record names such as Jehan Fout-en-Paille, Roger Gildynballokes, John Swetpintel, Richard Twychecunt, Bele Wydecunthe, and Jehan Con-doré.


Such names may be either admiring or insulting but certainly are comic, for obscenity can also be humorous; indeed, the capacity of the obscene to raise a laugh, to "divert," is intimately related to what may arguably be its most important function:, defense against harm, an apotropaion (charm) that will divert the anonymous malignity of the Evil Eye.

Recent decades have seen the publication of hundreds of bizarre small lead badges of late medieval date in the form of ambulant and often winged phalluses, similarly animated vulvas, couples copulating, and so on. The strongly represented phallic presence in this corpus seems to confirm suggestions that these badges are rooted in the tradition of late Roman iconography, embodying precisely that combination of bizarrerie and visceral shock that Plutarch declared was the perfect antidote to the Evil Eye. The exposure of the sexual organs functions as a protective shock tactic, whether on the public monumental scale of the numerous female exhibitionist sheelagh-na-gig sculptures set into the exteriors of churches and over municipal gateways, or on the private miniature scale of these badges. Such artifactual literal dismemberment is paralleled in literary works such as Claude Chappuys's Blason du Con, Dafydd ap Gwilym's Cywydd y Gâl, and Gwerful Mechain's answering cywydd in praise of the vagina.

In earlier eras it was male fashion that would be considered obscene by modern commentators, especially the increasingly obvious—and increasingly stuffed—codpiece (derided by Rabelais as hypocriticques braguettes). Long before Sigmund Freud identified thrusting weapons as phallic symbols, the ballok-hefted ("testicle-handled") dagger appeared in the late middles ages; worn at the girdle, such weapons present a blatantly phallic appearance when sported by the young courtiers who surround the Duc de Berry in his Très Riches Heures, for instance.

However, images of the phallus might also be part of interior and exterior decoration in the late middle ages. When in 1551 Rabelais describes Lent daydreaming about penises flying and creeping up walls, this is not mere fantasy. Recalling the same period, Brantôme attests to the existence of such wall paintings in Spain. Recently a thirteenth-century mural of a phallus tree resurfaced in Massa Marittima, joining one in the Tirolean Schloss Lichtenberg. The phallus tree was also visible at carnival: at Nördlingen in 1510 a branch bearing phallus fruit was carried around the town, and a late fifteenth-century German drawing of such a tree survives in Istanbul.

Fashions in obscenity come and go. A British court ruling of 1969 that pubic hair was not obscene led directly to a crop of self-styled "beaver movies," yet a depiction of the trimming of female pubic hair appeared as the subject of a statue situated over the Porta Tosa in twelfth-century Milan; there could hardly be a more public venue. An early sixteenth-century woodcut print by Floetner depicts a woman performing this intimate form of grooming, and a thirteenth-century Parisian street was named the Rue de Poile-Con (Cunt-Trimming Street) now euphemised as the Rue de Pélican (Pelican Street). There are similarly several minor Middle English place names that appear to recall this same aspect of feminine toilet: a spring named Shavecuntewelle is attested in Kent, and a Swylcontdich (Swill-cunt-ditch) in Cheshire in 1396.

The ability raser et tondre maujoint (to shave and clip the cunt) is one of the numerous talents of the eponymous Varlet à Louer (servant for hire), as it is of the related Chambrière à tout faire (maid-of-all-work), who is also required raser et tondre le cas, and the practice is frequently referred to in other French comic literature around 1500. Brantôme similarly devotes considerable space to fashions in female pubic hair in the French court around the middle of the sixteenth century.


2006. "Obscene." Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press.

Bullough, Vern L., and James A. Brundage, eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. New York: Garland.

Hunt, Lynne. 1993. The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500–1800. New York: Zone Books.

Jones, Malcolm. 2002. The Secret Middle Ages. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Lawner, Lynne, ed. and trans. 1988. I Modi: The Sixteen Pleasures: An Erotic Album of the Italian Renaissance. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Talvacchia, Bette. 1999. Taking Positions: On the Erotic in Renaissance Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thompson, Roger. 1979. Unfit for Modest Ears: A Study of Pornographic, Obscene and Bawdy Works Written or Published in England in the Second Half of the Seventeenth Century. London: Macmillan.

Wagner, Peter. Eros Revived: Erotica of the Enlightenment in England and America. London: Secker & Warburg.

Webb, Peter. The Erotic Arts. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.

                                                Malcolm Jones

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2896200456