2007 March 28 Wednesday
Erotic Literature Widespread In England 300 Years Ago

Popular views of England in recent centuries seem to revolve around Victorian standards of behavior. But a new study argues erotic literature was widely available and cheap in 18th century England.

Prostitutes, perversions and public scandals – the stuff of the 21st century tabloids was familiar to readers three centuries earlier, according to new research from the University of Leeds.

The reading of erotic literature was already a social activity 300 years ago.

Erotic texts were read out loud in public settings.

And despite earlier work suggesting that these texts were only for solitary consumption – at home, alone, and behind closed doors – Skipp’s work throws up a surprising image of how these works were used. "They would be read in public – everywhere from London's rough-and-ready alehouses to the city’s thriving coffee houses, which weren't quite the focus of polite society in the way we sometimes think," she explained. "Some texts even came as questions and answers and were clearly intended for groups of men to read together, with one asking the questions and the others answering them."

But erotic literature of the 1700s was better written than modern era porno stories.

And Skipp describes a literary quality to the writing which you might struggle to find in modern erotic fiction or top-shelf pornography. "It is very different to today's erotica," she said. "It is more humorous, more literary and more engaged with the wider issues of the life and politics of the times." Its metaphors mirror the passions of the age: "At a time when military power was equated with virility, armed conquest is often used as a metaphor for sex – in phrases such as 'unsheathing the weapon', 'storming the fort' and 'releasing the cannon'."

Today's scandals and celebrity intrigues shown on TV and in tabloids find their parallels in the 1770s.

By the 1770s, the transcripts of adultery trials became a new source of titillation. To secure a divorce, a man would first have to successfully sue a rival for 'violating his property', before petitioning Parliament to dissolve the marriage. "There is something rather voyeuristic about these trials," said Skipp. "Often servants would give evidence while innkeepers would testify about lovers taking rooms together."

Imagine if you could go back in a time machine with very small hidden cameras. You could go to trials and ale houses and record stories every bit as scandalous as anything that happens today.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2007 March 28 09:47 PM  Human Nature

Agnostic said at March 29, 2007 9:37 AM:

Not surprising if you've seen any of Hogarth's engravings.

Peter North said at March 29, 2007 10:07 AM:

Porn has been around forever. Check out the walls of some of the villas in Pompei. Makes Hustler look tame by comparison. In any event, it has enabled me to make a pretty good living. Thanks and please buy my DVDs.

Russell said at March 29, 2007 9:08 PM:

I think the era you're talking about is actually before the time when Victorian-era norms of morality took hold. The Victorian era, with all of its well-known (and mocked) propriety was a reaction to the shocking depravity (sexual and otherwise) of Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries. Child prostitutes (and I mean child prostitutes) were unremarkable, for instance. William Wilberforce, the guy who got the slave trade outlawed, also was the biggest single force in reforming England and in a sense created the Victorian era. After his and others' success in reforming "public morals," there was a social sea change in England, and what we think of as Victorian gentility actually was pretty remarkable.

So it's not right to suggest that the common beliefs about the Victorian era wrong based on what was going on 300 years ago.

Vanishing American said at March 29, 2007 11:19 PM:

The reaction against the lax morals of the 17th-18th century probably began with the great English evangelists like Whitefield and Wesley, and later on, Spurgeon.
There have always been cycles; the periods of license and libertinism are often followed by more restrained ages.

Lawrence Auster said at March 30, 2007 4:26 PM:

I was about to make the same point that Russell made, but since he made it, I'll just underscore it. Britain was irreligious, secular and vice-ridden in the 18th and early 19th centuries. There were a whole series of movements aimed at turning things around and restoring decency and morality to English life. Victoria and Albert became the epitome of this, virtually creating the modern ideal of the nuclear family. Victoria's own father and uncles were just the opposite, as is shown in the remarkable story of how Victoria came to be born.

When the only child of the future George IV, Princess Charlotte, died in 1817, there were no remaining children in the generation following George IV and his brothers, who at that point were unmarried middle-aged men with mistresses. So all these middle aged bachelors got married in a rush to produce heirs for the throne. Victoria's own father, the fourth eldest son of George III, married and Victoria was born in 1819.

Thus the very circumstances of Victoria's birth were a result of the morally libertine ways of the 18th century, but then she and Albert, who also came from a royal line in which there had been a lot of hanky panky, reacting against the ways of their parents, became the symbols of middle class virtue and stability.

I haven't read it, but Gertrude Himmelfarb had a highly praised book on the Victorian program of re-moralizing society.

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