Nov 072011

Peakman, Julie Mighty lewd books: the development of pornography in eighteenth-century England Palgrave Macmillan, 2003 Gbooks

As in just about any discussion of pornography, this book addresses the problem of definition. Peakman “place[s] pornography as one genre within a superfluity of other types of erotica, erotica being used as an overarching description for all books on sex… either overtly or in a ‘hidden’ form; for example, through metaphor, innuendo or implication.” (pg. 7) She defines pornography based on carrying the intention to sexually stimulate. I don’t consider that an adequate definition, as texts that are not pornographic or even erotic (in Peakman’s usage) can be read pornographically. This is particularly relevant in discussing anti-Catholic propaganda/”Convent Tale” pornography. Peakman introduced me to the useful term of metalepsis, “layer upon layer of figurative terms (particularly metaphors) distancing the real subject (sex) under discussion…. It also reveals the multiplicity of images and understandings of men’s and women’s bodies which were current, many of them conflicting, some of them constant.” (Pg.9)

Peakman also makes the point that erotica does not demonstrate actual sexual behaviour. In the case of BDSM, however, there is such a dearth of data that sometimes all I have to go on is the pornography. Case studies like the Self household or the Munby-Cullwick relationship are few and far between.

The same sets of tropes and ideas that were transgressive in Catholic church-dominated France became reactionary in Catholic-phobic England. English publishers freely adapted French books for English readers and cut out things like philosophizing about love and lesbianism. (Pg.18,20) See Venus dans la Cloitre (Jean Barrin, 1683) and the English version, Venus in the Cloister (freely translated by Henry Rhodes, 1692) (Pg.17)

The transition from relatively factual reportage about the Girard-Cadiere affair and other instances of clerical malfeasance to pornography is a long and tricky one. Peakman writes:

These trial reports were in fact erotic texts finding their voice. Sexually combative language was used to establish a relationship of dominance and submission. Girard demands, ‘Will you not yield yourself up to me? This was followed by a Kiss, in which breathing strongly on her, he so infected her, that she answered, ‘Holy Father, I will submit without reserve.‘ The archetypes of male dominator and passive female are used. Girard is portrayed as an ardent lover and is ‘gallant’, Caidere’s character is defined as the embodiment of innocence and modesty.


Flagellation becomes the ultimate stage in her subordination as he commands Cadiere to kneel, shifting the erotic content up a gear into sadomasochism. He introduces her to the ‘Whip of Discipline’ and to sodomy.

Pg. 144-5

Peakman sees this kind of material as key in the overall increase in violence in erotica.

More than any other material, early anti-Catholic erotica was particularly important to developments in other pornographic material and exerted a great influence on the long-term development of other erotica. Themes in the body of this material, sexual visions, blood, submission, flagellation and gothic terror would have a profound effect on the development of English pornography overall. Flagellation material was driven by religious erotica…. The trial reports [of the Girard case] therefore provided a set of themes and a form of language that were to provide a base for the later English pornographic novel.

Pg. 160

Ultimately, it was the anti-Catholic erotica that provided the springboard for the development of more private pornographic themes. On the whole, earlier English erotica had portrayed women as sexually on equal terms with men but the anti-Catholic material stands out for its depictions of women in submissive victim roles…. The setting of the convent was crucial, not only in the establishment towards the private, ‘hidden’ and secret space, but also in providing a stimulus for the breaking of one of the biggest taboos, that of sex within the religious ‘family’. English flagellation material would take this idea from the convent into the home of the middle-class nuclear family.

Pg. 193

Peakman says that in 18th century English erotica, flagellation was just one of the menu of sexual activities described (e.g. Fanny Hill) and it wasn’t until the last quarter of the 18th century that there was flagellation specialist erotica. She also says that the domestic or pseudo-domestic (i.e. boarding schools) setting became more popular than the convent.

Within this new sub-genre of English pornography, the domestic arena became a target for writers, moving flagellation from the French settings of the convent (although this would continue to be explored) and placing scenes within a ‘family’ environment — the parlour and schoolroom. Furthermore, the relationships of the flagellants were domestic, involving mother/stepmother or governess. Both these factors, the settings and the relationships, linked sex to the home or its substitute, the boarding-school. This in turn introduced incestuous overtones to the scenes.

Pg. 166

The most interesting item in this book’s chapter on flagellation is that there were letters about flogging well before the 1870s, when Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine published fetishistic letters. (The EDM might still be significant for being intended for a primarily female readership, instead of the homosocial all-male culture of other publications.)

Fakes correspondence on disciplining children was carried in various magazines throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most expressly in the Gentleman’s Magazine of the 1730s and the Bon Ton in the 1790s….

Pg. 169

The Bon Ton included letters arguing for the value of birching for disciplining children (pg. 170) and, in December 1792, reported a club of female flagellants. Both of these instances have that kind of poker-faced delivery of outrageous information.

The shift to the domestic setting also put an emphasis on the dominatrix as a quasi-maternal figure from an elite background, her dress described in great detail, particularly hands and feet (i.e. as fetishes).

Furthermore, a particular type of dress emphasizing a particular class of women, from the elite or upper-middling sort, would also become a necessary part of this material. The image of this character was identifiably the strict disciplinarian, the controlled female. this added to the excitement when she invariably collapsed in a frenzy of uncontrolled sexual abandonment.

Pg. 181

Purple gloves and large nosegays (i.e. flower bouquets) were particularly fetishized details. If the letters and stories were to be believed, these were covert signs of an interest in flagellation, as well as fetish objects in themselves. Note also that purple has longstanding associations with aristocracy and the clergy.

Peakman argues that this English, domestic, quasi-incestuous erotica was a continuation of the same themes as French anti-clerical erotica: an attack on a corrupt institution in the sexual register.

Just as the writers of French erotica had an understanding how an attack on the Church would be perceived as erotic, the English writers comprehended that an attack on the highly prized family could lead to a new erotic threat. Furthermore, as flogging became less public and more ‘hidden’, erotica took the opportunity, once again, to expose what was meant to be hidden in polite society.

Pg. 186

It’s interesting to note how that in these histories of European pornography, there’s little mention of the colonial strain of pornography, whether the Orientalist variety epitomized by The Lustful Turk and other harem stories, and the American variety based on Atlantic slavery and racial tensions. I think we need a grander theory of the history of pornography and a bigger pornographic canon.

Note also that this ties into the “everything taboo is eroticized”: the French held sacred the Church, the English the bourgeois family, so there was transgressive value in depicting them as settings of sexual anarchy. However, these texts were read in other places and times, when the transgressive element became irrelevant.

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