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Obscenity in Sixteenth– and Seventeenth–Century France
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Obscenity in Sixteenth– and Seventeenth–Century France

In 1702 Pierre Bayle devoted nineteen folio pages of the second edition of his Dictionnaire historique et critique to answering accusations that he had let obscenities slip into his monumental work of erudition.1 Almost two centuries before this, Erasmus had raised a similar set of issues in his Christiani matrimonii institutio (1526), not at such length as Bayle, but in a more wide–ranging way and from a different starting point, as the great humanist considered multiple ways in which unmarried women might encounter obscenity, from inn signs to wedding songs, as well as through more scholarly pursuits.2 Erasmus’s and Bayle’s works indicate an enduring preoccupation with the issue during this period when France became an epicentre of obscenity, taking on that mantle from Renaissance Italy.3

Obviously, obscenity did not wait until the Renaissance to spring into being, as recent work on ancient Rome and the Middle Ages makes clear.4 Nevertheless, developments in such diverse fields as printing, the editing of ancient texts, geographical exploration, anatomical and medical science, as well as the influence of Italian culture, and, not least, the Reformation and Counter–Reformation, all provided a particularly potent context in which the notion of obscenity was able to reemerge in sixteenth– and seventeenth–century France. Figures from the obscure to the canonical produced scandalous works, which were pursued with differing degrees of success by various censors or which authors themselves signalled as being somewhat beyond the pale. While modern mainstream scholarship once tended to neglect smut of this period, more recent studies have pulled down the veil that used to cover many of the pornographic and scatological works of sixteenth– and seventeenth–century France. This état présent gives an account of [End Page 535] this renewal of interest in obscenity, and related questions, in French culture of this period, as they are encountered not only in literary history but also in the history of medicine, the history of art, travel writing, and so on (for the obscene is no respecter of disciplinary boundaries).

Two books published in quick succession, Joan DeJean’s The Reinvention of Obscenity (2002) and Jean–Christophe Abramovici’s Obscénité et classicisme (2003), explored the link between obscenity and seventeenth–century writing in French, not least by Molière, while Michel Jeanneret’s Éros rebelle (2003) engaged with many of the same materials and questions.5 These books in turn helped inspire a number of edited collections that addressed the surprising lack of similarly substantial works on the issue as played out in the Renaissance (with neo–Latin writings, studied in Éros et Priapus (1997), being an exception): Obscenity (2010) and Obscénités renaissantes (2011), both produced by members of an interdisciplinary research network; and Licences et censures poétiques (2009), on pornographic and/or erotic poetry of the period, whose Introduction, by Cécile Alduy, constitutes a very helpul état présent on work on Renaissance pornography.6 Naturally, other recent works also engage with the notion of obscenity in sixteenth–century France, even if it is not their primary focus: important examples include Katherine Crawford, The Sexual Culture of the French Renaissance (2010), Gary Ferguson, Queer (Re)Readings in the French Renaissance (2008), and, on scatology in early modern Europe but with many French examples, the essays published in Fecal Matters (2004).7 These works in turn are testimony to a general renewal of intellectual and public interest in such questions in French cultural history through the centuries, seen not least in the spectacular success of the Bibliothèque nationale de [End Page 536] France’s exhibition in 2007–08 of works previously consigned to its ‘Enfer’, Éros au secret.8

All work on obscenity during this period is faced with the twin difficulties of definition and the risk of anachronism when dealing with the terms obscène and obscénité, which entered the French language very gradually. Nevertheless, the terms obscenitas and obscenus were in widespread use in neo–Latin, and their vernacular equivalents do occur in late sixteenth– and early seventeenth–century French texts, notably in medical discussions of contemporary taboo areas of...