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Adam Matthew

Related: pornography - history

History of pornography

Exactly when "pornography" began is a matter of scholarly debate. Although the Greeks and Romans produced sexually explicit artifacts, including frescoes, vases, and statues, and although the works of Martial, Catullus, Juvenal, and Suetonius occasionally employ obscene satire, these items rarely resemble "pornography" in the modern sense of the word: graphic depictions of sexual activity designed specifically for the arousal of the audience. Nor would certain works by Chaucer, Boccaccio, and Marguerite of Navarre qualify. The Italian writer Pietro Aretino, famous for his whore dialogues, is generally considered the founding father of modern pornography, but even his works are dramatically different from their modern descendents. One of the most famous writers of obscene literature in seventeenth century England was John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester (1647-80). Also notorious for his libertinism, Rochester wrote poetry that was intended solely for the small aristocratic circle in which he moved and not for the general public.

By the eighteenth century, however, there was an explosion of fiction and pictorial art that could be called "pornographic." One of the most famous works is John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure or Fanny Hill (1749), a book which was frequently reprinted and widely translated but not legally available in the USA until the 1960’s. By the end of the century the Marquis de Sade is dramatizing the connection between sex and violence and artists such as Thomas Rowlandson are producing increasing numbers of lewd prints. Walter Kendrick insists in The Secret Museum (1987), the nineteenth century invented the word "pornography," and soon after "the past was scoured to locate those books and pictures that had been ‘pornographic’ all along without anyone knowing it". It is possible, Kendrick argues, that "pornography" will in the future come to mean something quite different from what it does today.

What exactly does the word "pornography" mean? Although a contemporary dictionary might offer something along the lines of "Written, graphic or other forms of communication intended to excite lascivious feelings," in the nineteenth century the word also meant "a description of prostitutes or prostitution, as a matter of public hygiene" or as "a description of the life, manners, etc of prostitutes and their patrons: hence, the expression or suggestion of obscene or unchaste subjects in literature or art". In the eighteenth century, the word did not exist at all! Thanks to H Spencer Ashbee, one of the most famous of the nineteenth-century bibliophiles, we have a detailed record of many of the obscene works from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Two of Ashbee’s bibliographies of erotic works [...], Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1877) and Catena Librorum Tacendorum (1885). They were published under his pseudonym of Pisanus Fraxi, were limited to 250 copies per edition and privately distributed as they were aimed at a niche market – the very rich. Ashbee is also believed to have written the erotic autobiography My Secret Life (1890) [...]. Ashbee’s thoughts on the value of quot;pornography" were evidently mixed. In the "Preliminary Remarks" of Catena Librorum Tacendorum (1885) he felt compelled to declare, "Better were it that such literature did not exist. I consider it pernicious and hurtful to the immature but at the same time I hold that, in certain circumstances, its study is necessary, if not beneficial." -- Sex and Sexuality, 1640-1940 Literary, Medical and Sociological Perspectives, http://www.adam-matthew-publications.co.uk/collect/p678.htm [Jun 2004]

Part 3 includes:

-- Sex and Sexuality, 1640-1940 Literary, Medical and Sociological Perspectives, http://www.adam-matthew-publications.co.uk/collect/p678.htm [Jan 2005]

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