Of Woman Born: The Evolution of Pornography in Medieval Print Culture

A Series

Part I: Defining Pornography–A Community Standard

Mars and Venus United by Love 1570s
Paolo Veronese (Paolo Caliari) Italian
 On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 608; https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437891

I read about Veronese’ Mars and Venus United by Love long before seeing it. I had gone through a rather lengthy phase reading romance novels. To be precise, for a period of time I was obsessed with period bodice-rippers (to which they are sometimes euphemistically/derogatorily referred). This obsession probably began with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (which I mention here). With Gabaldon I could pretend my interest lay with the historical or scientific aspects of her works–not the smuttier bits!

I wouldn’t say that my taste evolved or devolved. My interests simply expanded beyond the borders of Scotland to Regency England. One of the most memorable romance novels I read along the way was Julie Anne Long’s What I Did For A Duke (cover art pictured below).

What I Did For a Duke: Pennyroyal Green Series Kindle Edition
by Julie Anne Long  (Author)  Format: Kindle Edition, Harper Collins e-books, February 22, 2011, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0049B1VMC/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

While the story of Genevieve and her Duke is enthralling, I was captured by the mention of the Veronese. The Duke’s description of the piece is particularly salient. In one scene, the Duke sits reading a book on art when he is confronted by Genevieve’s other love interest, young Harry. The two engage in a battle of wits (of sorts) about which of them best understands Genevieve. After Harry makes a remark about discussing Veronese for a whole afternoon with Genevieve, the Duke recalls that:

Veronese … Veronese … of course! As he’d told Genevieve, he’d seen a Veronese painting when he’d visited Italy. Memorably because he’d found it erotic: Venus and Mars again, this time Venus was wearing not a shred, and Mars was kneeling, getting ready to, as he’d inappropriately shared with Genevieve, give Venus a pleasuring.

What I Did For A Duke, 185

At the time I knew nothing about Paolo Veronese, but I did know that I had to see this painting. Naturally, I googled it. But that search was not sufficient to satisfy my curiosity. Finally, in the fall of 2019, I made my way to Manhattan, the Met, and the Veronese.

First, it’s large. Massive, in fact. I found the scale to be somewhat surprising considering the intimate subject matter. Second, I was struck by how tame the piece is at least by what I have come to think of as smutty, or even obscene. This last thought brought me to think about what modern viewers might mean when discussing obscenity, which lead me to also consider how obscenity might have been defined in the past.

I Know It When I See It

In his book, The Brethren, Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame), describes what came to be known as movie day at the U.S. Supreme Court. This was a time when the Justices would gather to watch allegedly obscene films in an effort to render decisions. Their clerks even created a rather humorous “shorthand” that reflected the Justices’ decision-making process.

I wonder what that experience must have been like for the Justices. I hear popcorn was consumed.

The Lovers film poster,  http://www.movieposterdb.com/poster/56e4ddb9

CinemoiFrenchFilm, The Lovers film trailer,
YouTube, Feb 9, 2010

In 1964, the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio came before the Court. Nico Jacobellis, a theater manager in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, had been charged with obscenity for showing a French film, The Lovers. The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Ohio state and appellate courts finding the film did not meet the definition of obscene. In his opinion, Justice Potter Stewart issued what has come to be known as the “I Know It When I See It” standard. While mulling over the case, Stewart reflected on his time as a Naval officer during WW2. Stationed in Casablanca, Stewart had seen the materials his men collected and brought back to the ship. From these material, Stewart developed a rather reasonable idea of what he believed constituted hardcore pornography. The impact of this experience is reflected in his opinion for Jacobellis v. Ohio. As Stewart wrote:

I have reached the conclusion . . . that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

Quoted by Rick Marshall in CBLDF.org http://cbldf.org/about-us/case-files/obscenity-case-files/obscenity-case-files-jacobellis-v-ohio-i-know-it-when-i-see-it/

Stewart’s somewhat evasive opinion highlights the paradoxically subjective nature of obscene or pornographic materials. My personal definition of pornography may not be the same as another’s. I might have especially lascivious tendencies, while my neighbor would object to Snow White (I will save my argument on S&M in SW for another day). The US Supreme Court reached a somewhat nebulous understanding of what constitutes standards of decency in 1973 with Miller v. California. Issuing the opinion for the Court, Justice Burger found that a piece could be labeled obscene based on the following:

(a) whether the ‘average person, applying contemporary community standards‘ would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,

(b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and

(c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Movie Day at the Supreme Court or “I Know It When I See It”: A History of the Definition of Obscenity;
This article was edited and reviewed by FindLaw Attorney Writers
 | Last updated April 26, 2016; https://corporate.findlaw.com/litigation-disputes/movie-day-at-the-supreme-court-or-i-know-it-when-i-see-it-a.html

The concept of community-driven standards provides a benchmark for determining the value of a given work. Thus, in order to decide if a text or illustration is obscene, one must first understand the accepted mores and principles of the community. For this project, the I will be attempting to ascertain the community standards of Western Europe in the Middle Ages.

Pornography in the Middle Ages

The genesis for this project began with a passage from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. Although already somewhat dated (it was originally published in 2010), Carr’s work is still a thoughtful commentary of the impact of technology on human thought. Carr juxtaposes the digital age boom with the explosion of literacy that followed Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press (between 1440 and 1454). The fervor and excitement of the age is almost palpable as Carr shares:

The growing availability of books fired the public’s desire for literacy, and the expansion of literacy further stimulated the demand for books. The printing industry boomed. By the end of the fifteenth century, nearly 250 towns in Europe had print shops, and some 12 million volumes had already come off their presses. The sixteenth century saw Gutenberg’s technology leap from Europe to Asia, the Middle East, and, when the Spanish set up a press in Mexico City in 1539, the Americas. By the start of the seventeenth century, letterpresses were everywhere, producing not only books but newspapers, scientific journals, and a variety of other periodicals. The first great flowering of printed literature arrived, with works by such masters as Shakespeare, Cervantes, Molière, and Milton, not to mention Bacon and Descartes, entering the inventories of booksellers and the libraries of readers.

p. 69-70

A seemingly insatiable demand for the products of the new technology, in this case books, spread rapidly. Is this not similar to the demand for the latest iPhone iteration? As with most market-based economies, demand for new reading materials quickly surpassed supply. While Gutenberg’s Bible became an almost ubiquitous possession, the emerging printing industry met the need for new and different texts, in part, by turning to the past. According to Carr,

It wasn’t just contemporary works that were coming off the presses. Printers, striving to fill the public’s demand for inexpensive reading material, produced large editions of the classics, both in the original Greek and Latin and in translation. Although most of the printers were motivated by the desire to turn an easy profit, the distribution of the older texts helped give intellectual depth and historical continuity to the emerging book-centered culture.

p. 70
One example of a myth from antiquity that might have made the transition from manuscript to print: Jupiter and Io, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Douce 117:
Metaorphoses. Translation by Clemont Marot, with dedicatory epistle to Franis I. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, after 1531

But, readers continued to ask for more. In response, printers also provided what Carr asks us to accept was the opposite of “intellectual depth”:

Along with the high-minded came the low-minded. Tawdry novels, quack theories, gutter journalism, propaganda, and, of course, reams of pornography poured into the marketplace and found eager buyers at every station in society.

p. 70

When I read the passage above, my eyes were drawn to the phrase, “reams of pornography.” According to Wikipedia, a ream is:

ream of paper is a quantity of sheets of the same size and quality. International standards organizations define the ream as 500 identical sheets…

The number of sheets in a ream has varied locally over the centuries, often according to the size and type of paper being sold. Reams of 500 sheets (20 quires of 25 sheets) were known in England in c1594;[

Units of paper quantity, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Units_of_paper_quantity#:~:text=A%20ream%20of%20paper%20is,as%20a%20’short’%20ream

I must admit to being incredulous. How was it possible for reams–thousands of pages–of pornography to have come into existence during the Middle Ages? What were the sources for these materials? What did the medieval reader find to be prurient? Is it even possible to arrive at an understanding of pornography and obscenity according to Medieval Community standards?

The answers for these questions can only be found through exploring the materials we have been left with. In effect, we must perform our own version of Justice Potter Stewart’s Casablanca Test.

In the pages that follow, I will analyze three examples of erotic Medieval materials: narratives about Saint Agatha, the Malleus Maleficarum (a handbook on witchcraft), and the works of Pietro Aretino, the so-called “father of pornography.” While the materials are drawn from different times in the Middle Ages, they present a rather coherent snapshot of the Medieval perspective on erotic materials.

Most notably, the common element in these seemingly diverse artifacts appears to be the appropriation of female sexuality. Not only are their bodies objectified, but the very thoughts and desires of women are presented through the male voice. Moreover, I argue that masculine presence is itself a product of the most dominant power structure to exist during this time: the Church. Thus, it would not be a great leap in logic to view the Church as the greatest source for, if not the greatest purveyor of pornography during the Middle Ages.

Who’s pleasuring whom? Mars and Venus lying on a bed and embracing each other at left, Cupid seated on Mars’s cuirass in lower left corner, Vulcan and Neptune at right behind an anvel, other gods (e.g. Mercury, Jupiter) watching the couple from clouds at top left, a chariot pulled by four horses at top right; a square cartouche with lettering held by an angel in top centre; after Primaticcio or Carpi (?). 1553
Engraving; Published by Hieronymous Cock

Dream a little dream

This week we returned to the medieval poem, Piers Plowman. In this work, which has been attributed to one William Langland, readers follow Will Langland as he walks along the Malvern Hills stopping for a nap along the way.

Malvern Hills, Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/place/Malvern-Hills-mountains-England#/media/1/360699/111998 , accessed April 10, 2022

It’s not difficult to imagine a peaceful walk here. Furthermore, the opening, soporific lines of the poem encourage readers to take a respite from their cares and join Will in his wee break:

In a summer season, when soft was the sun, I shaped me into shrouds as I a sheep were, In habit as an hermit, unholy of works,
Went wide in this world wonders to hear. As on a May morning on Malvern Hills
Me befell a ferly, of Fairy me thought.
I was weary of wandering and went me to rest Under a broad bank by a bourne side.
And as I lay and leaned and looked on the waters, I slumbered into a sleeping, it sweyed so merry.
Piers Plowman, Prologue, lines 1-10

The allegorical Vision of Piers Plowman is made possible through the act of dreaming. And, while dream narratives can be found in ancient sources (the Bible, the Dream of Scipio, and Apuleius’ Metamorphoses), the medieval period saw the genre reach peak popularity.

What was it about the dream vision that appealed so much to both medieval writers and audiences? And, why is the dream vision something that still speaks to contemporary readers?

Modern Psychoanalysis and the Dream


I have long been fascinated by the work of Carl Jung (who I came to through Joseph Campbell, but that’s another post). I know that many of his theories, like those of Freud, have been cast aside—often derided for not being scientific. Yet, for me, there is something about the lack of scientific foregrounding that I find appealing. Jung’s pseudo-gnostic beliefs regarding the origins of dreams mirror my own agnostic questioning. He wrote,

We know that something unknown, alien, does come our way, just as we know that we do not ourselves make a dream or an inspiration, but that it somehow arises of its own accord. What does happen to us in this manner can be said to emanate from mana, from a daimon, a god, or the unconscious.

Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 336

How are we to understand the origins for the poetic dream vision? Piers Plowman is presented as Will’s dream, yet it is a dream that comes to us through the literary efforts of its (presumed) author, William Langland. Are either Will or William able to control the workings of the unconscious psyche?

The Author-God

If the answer to the last question is yes, at least in regards to William Langland, we can see how the role of the author began to evolve during the medieval period. French philosopher Michel Foucault addressed the concept of the author in his theory of the author-function:

The author is also the principle of a certain unity of writing–all differences having to be resolved, at least in part, by the principles of evolution, maturation, or influence. The author also serves to neutralize the contradictions that may emerge in a series of texts: there must be–at a certain level of his thought or desire, of his consciousness or unconscious–a point where contradictions are resolved, where incompatible elements are at last tied together or organized around a fundamental or originating contradiction. 

Michel Foucault, ‘What is an Author?’ reprinted in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, New York: Vintage Books, 2010, p.119

Thus, it is William Langland and his unconscious vision that provides the unity for the dreams of Will Langland. Or, is it? Will’s dreams come from William’s ymaginatif — but what is the source for the author’s dreams?

The medieval scholar would most likely say, ”Well, God, of course.” It is God to whom we turn to resolve the mysteries of existence and its inherent contradictions. We can see then that the author, by extension, operates in the guise of a god in respect to his own creations.

For contemporary readers, I doubt there would be much concern about the creative, God-like presence of an omniscient author. But, what of the medieval author? Did Langland risk ecclesiastical heresy by giving his creation dreams? Langland actually seems to function as an intermediary for God. Readers are dependent on the author for not only the dream, but for the dreamer’s interpretation of the dreams.

This last point is ironic. Much of what Will the dreamer encounters on his journey is a condemnation of church practices, which, in large part, depended on the intercession and mediating role of the church and its clergy.

I think Jung (and Freud) could have a great deal of fun unpacking Will(iam)’s multiple dreams.