Sex, Contraception, and Abortion in Medieval England

617px-Artemisia_absinthium_(Köhler)

Artemisia absinthum (Wormwood)

Centuries of nostalgic medievalism have given us some funny ideas about sexuality in the Middle Ages. We know religion ruled, no one married for love, and sex was for procreation only…right?

Not so much. When studying the Middle Ages, you need to consider the sources. Every author had a bias and could only write what they saw. Most of our modern ideas about sexuality come from Canon Law, but people did not obey all of the laws of the Church in the Middle Ages any more than they do today. To get a better idea of what life was really like, we have to draw on other sources as well.

Today we’re going to jump into the deep end with medieval contraception and abortion. The popular assumption is that contraception did not exist and abortion must have been a serious crime, if it happened at all. The issue with this argument is that we take for granted that they must have had a similar understanding of pregnancy and a greater sense of religious morality when it came to the issue of contraception and abortion. To get to the bottom of this, we have to throw out these assumptions and start at the beginning.

Sex

Fornication was still a sin, but it was one most were guilty of. When primogeniture became the rule in the eleventh century, it created a whole class of people were unlikely to ever marry. Noble families with multiple children could only pass on their property to the eldest. The rest of the children would remain in the household even as adults until they married other property-holding people or until circumstances changed. Many entered the Church, where marriage and concubinage among the clergy was still common until the twelfth century. Wealthy families might equip younger sons as knights. Knights could not be expected to marry until they inherited property or came by it through other means; most younger sons never married at all. As for daughters, the pool of landed noblemen to marry was pathetically small. With larger families and fewer opportunities for marriage, much of the nobility never married. To assume they all remained celibate in a culture that all but deified love and had a popular handbook for conducting romantic, sexual, and frequently extramarital relationships is naïve at best. (1)

As for the lower classes, marriage was almost a fluid concept. It was common for people to marry in secret, and these marriages were every bit as valid as any performed outside a church. According to Gratian’s Decretum, all it took to make a marriage legal was three things: love, sex, and consent. As long as the love and consent were there, sexual relationships including those with concubines could be considered informal marriages.

Because the line between fornication and legal marriage was a bit blurry, fornication was more or less accepted in practice. Who’s to say the consenting couple did not marry in secret? Many penitentials appearing during and after the twelfth century classified sex outside of marriage as only a minor sin. Members of the Synod of Angers in 1217 stated unequivocally that they personally knew many confessors who gave no penance for it at all. In practice, the Church tolerated fornication as long as there was no adultery being committed.

Prostitution was legal and common. Although the Church did not condone it, this did not stop it from regulating and profiting from it (see Prostitution and the Church in Medieval Southwark). After all, someone had to see to the needs of the scores of unmarried men and those who had entered the Church out of necessity rather than desire. The Church viewed prostitution as a necessary evil. While active sex workers could not be viewed as respectable members of society, they nevertheless performed an important public service.

Outside of the Church, many medieval writers, such as Albertus Magnus and Constantine the African, viewed sex as a crucial component to overall health on equal footing with food, sleep, and exercise. Sexual release was believed to be the best way to get rid of toxic humors and abstinence could lead to weakness, illness, madness, and death. Sexual enjoyment was necessary for men and women, and was an essential component to conception.

Sex happened. Penitentials were distributed throughout the Church to prescribe penance for every vice we can imagine today (and a fair few we can’t). Troubadours sang about it in their filthy, filthy songs. Pregnancy was inevitable and dangerous. So how did they deal with it?

Menstrual Regulators

It sounds obvious, but people in the Middle Ages did not have the same understanding of pregnancy that we have today. As they could not pinpoint the moment of conception, there was no distinction between the prevention of pregnancy (contraception) and the ending of one (abortion). “Remedies to regulate the menstrual cycle” were common and arguably more widely accepted than they are now. Recipes were recorded in medical texts, shared between women, and they appeared in household handbooks. They could be made at home with a few ingredients most women would recognize.

This ninth century recipe appeared in the Lorsch Manuscript, a medical treatise written by Benedictine monks:

A Cure for All Kinds of Stomach Aches
For women who cannot purge themselves, it moves the menses.

8 oz. white pepper
8 oz. ginger
6 oz. parsley
2 oz. celery seeds
6 oz. caraway
6 oz. spignel seeds
2 oz. fennel
2 oz. geranium/ or, giant fennel
8 oz. cumin
6 oz. anise
6 oz. opium poppy

These recipes did not come out of the blue. There is evidence that similar abortifacients had been used as far back as ancient Egypt. Pepper had been used since the Roman period as a contraceptive, and fennel is related to silphium, the ancient plant farmed to extinction for its contraceptive properties. The other ingredients have been found to have antifertility effects, and the opium was used as a sedative. Other similar recipes were employed throughout the period and beyond; menstrual regulators using the same ingredients continued to be sold as late as the nineteenth century.

Juniperus_communis,_Common_juniper_(3543483554)

Juniper

In addition to those mentioned above, artemisa and juniper were both known to inhibit fertility. Artemisia is a genus of plant in the daisy family asteraceae. There are more than two hundred types of artemisia, among them mugwort, tarragon, and wormwood, the key ingredient in absinthe centuries later. In the twelfth century, Trotula recommended artemisia as a “menstrual stimulator” and in the thirteenth century, Arnald of Villanova advised taking it with capers for maximum efficacy. Modern medicine has confirmed its use: artemisia inhibits estrogen production and can prevent ovulation much like pharmaceutical contraceptives today.

Artemisia was not without its side effects. Wormwood is a notorious toxin known to cause hallucinations and changes in consciousness. Ingested in large quantities, it can cause seizures and kidney failure. (2)

Juniper had been used as a contraceptive since the Roman period. Pliny the Elder recommended rubbing crushed juniper berries on the penis before sex to prevent conception. Its popularity continued throughout the Middle Ages; Arabic medical writers Rhazes, Serapion the Elder, and ibn Sina all list it as an abortifacient, and this knowledge was made more readily available throughout Europe when Gerard of Cremona translated their words in the twelfth century. According to ibn Sina, juniper produced an effect very similar to a natural miscarriage, and so it could be employed without detection.

Historian John Riddle argues that all women knew which plants inhibited fertility and how to use them effectively. They were under no illusions as to their purpose. Although most of what we know about medieval contraception and abortion does come from medical texts written by men, they would have come by the information from women who were using it on a regular basis.

Morality

In the ancient world and even the early Christian Church, abortion was not considered immoral. Although it is often interpreted differently today, the medieval church followed the guidelines of the Bible in believing that life began at birth (Genesis 2:7). St. Thomas Aquinas argued that souls are created by God, not by man, and that the soul did not enter the body until the infant drew its first breath.

Abortion or “menstrual regulation” was not explicitly mentioned in the Bible except to recommend it in the case of suspected unfaithful wives (Numbers 5:11-31) (3), and whether or not it was immoral in the Middle Ages depended on who was asked.

Burchard of Worms’ Decretum tackled the issue of abortion in the section titled Concerning Women’s Vices. Burchard unequivocally opposed it, but the penance recommended varied. To Burchard, the severity of the sin was not dependent on the act itself, but the status of the woman and the circumstances of conception. The worst crime was that resulting from adultery. For this he orders seven years of abstinence and a lifetime of “tears and humility.” Abortion stemming from fornication was also bad (penance for ten years on fast days), unless the woman was poor or a sex worker (statistically likely). If the woman was poor and acted because she would not be able to feed a child, it was understandable and no penance was prescribed.

Regardless of the Church’s recommendations, abortion was not actually illegal. In fact, the first law that made abortion illegal in the English-speaking world did not come until the Ellenborough Act of 1803, and even that only outlawed abortions obtained by taking “noxious and destructive substances.” It was not until 1869 that the Catholic Church decided that life began at conception.

Conclusions

If there is one thing we should take away from this, it is that when it came to sex, the Middle Ages were not as different from today as we often assume. People married for love, they had sex for fun, and family planning existed and was used more or less effectively. Due to centuries of literature and art portraying the Middle Ages as an idealized time of chastity and moral superiority, we have come to collectively accept a fiction that bears only a passing resemblance to a much more complicated truth.

Through this Contraception in History series, I have tried to show that although reproduction has been the primary purpose of sex throughout history, it was not the only purpose, and people have always found ways to take their reproductive destinies into their own hands.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Brundage, James. Sex and Canon Law. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 33-50.
Burchard of Worms. Decretum (c. 1008).
Burford, EJ. Bawds and Lodgings, a History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675. London, Peter Owen, 1976
Cadden, Joan. Western Medicine and Natural Philosophy. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 51-80.
Capellanus, Andreas. The Art of Courtly Love. Translated by John Jay Parry. New York, Columbia University Press, 1960
Gaddesden, John. Rosa anglica practica medicine. Venice, Bonetus Locatellus, 1516.
Gies, Frances and Joseph. Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages. New York, Harper & Row, 1987
Payer, Pierre J. Confession and the Study of Sex in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 3-32.
Riddle, John M. Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 261-274.
Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History. New York, Stein and Day, 1992

1. See The Art of Courtly Love.

2. Fun fact: Nicholas Culpeper claimed that wormwood was the key to understanding his 1651 book The English Physitian. Unlike the rest of the book, the entry for wormwood is a stream-of-consciousness ramble that reads like someone who was ingesting it at the time.

3. It is very possible the bitter waters in this verse refer to wormwood, a notoriously bitter substance known to induce miscarriage.

If you would like to know more about Contraception in History, see below for the rest of the series:

Contraception in History I. Aristotle, Hippocrates, and a Whole Lotta Lead

Contraception in History II. Contraception in Ancient Egypt: Hormonal Birth Control, Pregnancy Tests, and Crocodile Dung. 

Contraception in History III. Ancient Birth Control: Silphium and the Origin of the Heart Shape

Contraception in History IV. Minos, Pasiphae, and the Most Metal Euphemism for V.D. Ever

Contraception in History V. “Love’s Pleasing Paths in Blest Security”: Seventeenth Century Condoms

 

The Joy of Confessing: “Women’s Vices” and Burchard’s Decretum of 1003

Some people think medieval history is boring—all religion, suppression, and marrying for alliances—but we know better, don’t we? Medieval history is a Pandora’s box of surprises, and the deeper you go, the stranger they get. Case in point, penitentials. Yes, I’m going to get into sources here with you for a minute, but bear with me, it’s worth it.

When studying the Middle Ages, the temptation is to stop at Canon Law, that is, the rules and guidelines set by the Church. The mistake is in assuming everyone lived by it; even prominent people within the Church disagreed with each other on many key points, and the laws they reached by consensus were laws for an ideal world where everyone lived perfect Christian lives according to the standard of whichever pope they happened to have at the time. As you can imagine, not everyone lived the way Rome wanted them to. To get a more accurate picture of medieval life, we need to consider other sources like court documents, medical texts, and even popular literature. The source we’re going to be looking at today is a personal favorite of mine: pentitentials.

sex with a dragon

When I get busy with dragons, I never forget my crown

What, pray tell, is a penitential? It’s every bit as exciting as it sounds. Penitentials were confessional literature compiled by monks as guides to the theory and application of confession. Spanning hundreds of pages and multiple volumes, penitentials listed every sin imaginable in separate categories and advised punishments for each. Penitentials are fantastic sources for those studying the Middle Ages, but proceed with caution: while many of the sins do give us a better idea of the ways in which common people could misbehave, it is impossible to say how often some of the sins came up (or how many were products of a bored monk’s imagination. See also marginalia, below).

With that disclaimer firmly in place, we are going to take a look at the Decretum of Burchard of Worms.

Apart from having the best name ever, Burchard served as the bishop of Worms from 1000 until his death in 1025. During his tenure, he wrote his Decretum, a massive twenty-book list of every sin conceivable to the medieval imagination, drawing on a combination of earlier penitentials and things actually heard in confession at that time. Some of the penitentials he used as sources dated back to the seventh century, and this may help to explain some of the stranger sins below.

wolf as monk

A wolf dressed as a monk. Why not?

The nineteenth book of Burchard’s Decretum has a section dealing in sickness of the soul, including magic, divination, and “women’s vices.” It is worth noting that many of the “diabolical practices” mentioned here could be forgiven with a fairly light penance, as opposed to the death sentences handed out like candy four hundred years later with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum. Many of these are framed as questions a priest would ask his penitent. I have included some of my favorites here, but if you want to read this in its entirety, you can also find it here.

As relevant art from these period is sadly limited, I have added some marginalia to our…erm…margins. Enjoy.

***

“Have you violated a grave, by which I mean, after you see someone buried have you gone at night, broken open the grave, and taken his clothes? If you have, you should do penance for two years on the appointed fast days.”

I mean, not since college. Is that bad?

bunny“Have you refused to attend mass or prayers or to make an offering to a married priest, by which I mean have you not wished to confess your sins to him or receive the Body and Blood of the Lord from him because you thought he was a sinner? If you have done so, you should do penance for one year on the appointed fast days.”

That’s right. Married priest. At this point, priests were still allowed to marry or have concubines. Clerical marriage wasn’t condemned by the pope until Leo IX in 1049, but the ban didn’t take hold until well into the twelfth century after the Lateran councils in 1123 and 1139. The more you know!

“Have you tasted your husband’s semen in order to make his love for you burn greater through your diabolical deeds? If you have, you should do seven years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Okay, oral sex has magical properties. So far, so sensible. What next?

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take their menstrual blood, mix it into food or drink, and give it to their men to eat or drink to make them love them more. If you have done this, you should do five years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

fish

That poor fish.

How’s that for a binding spell? If that doesn’t work:

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a live fish and put it in their vagina, keeping it there for a while until it is dead. Then they cook or roast it and give it to their husbands to eat, doing this in order to make men be more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Wait, what?

“Have you done what some women are accustomed to do? They lie face down on the ground, uncover their buttocks, and tell someone to make bread on their naked buttocks. When they have cooked it, they give it to their husbands to eat. They do this to make them more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Bread…on my butt?

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a man’s skull, burn it, and give it to their husbands to drink for health. If you have, you should do one year of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Who hasn’t? Next…

nude knight on a hobby horse

See what happens when you don’t have your burnt skull potion?

“Have you believed what many women turning back to Satan believe and assert to be true: you believe that in the stillness of a quiet night, with you gathered in your bed with your husband lying at your bosom, you are physically able to pass through closed doors and can travel across the span of the earth with others deceived by a similar error? And that you can kill baptized people redeemed by Christ’s blood without using visible weapons and then, after cooking their flesh, can eat it, and put straw, wood, or something like this in place of their hearts, and, though you have eaten them, you can bring them back to life and grant them a stay during which they can live? If you have believed this, you should do penance for forty days (that is, a quarantine) on bread and water with seven years of penance subsequently.”

Do any women believe that? Show of hands, please.

“Have you done what some adulterous women do? As soon as they find out that their lovers wish to take lawful wives, then they use some sort of evil art to extinguish the men’s sexual desire so that they are useless to their wives and unable to have intercourse with them. If you have done this or taught others to, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”

baking magic butt bread

Baking some magic butt bread

Sure. Someone put a “spell” on you. Right.

“Have you done what some women are accustomed to do? They take off their clothes and smear honey all over their naked body. With the honey on their body they roll themselves back and forth over wheat on a sheet spread on the ground. They carefully collect all the grains of wheat sticking to their moist body, put them in a mill, turn the mill in the opposite direction of the sun, grind the wheat into flour, and bake bread from it. Then they serve it to their husbands to eat, who then grow weak and die. If you have, you should do penance for forty days on bread and water.”

Is this a sin or a recipe? And hang on, only forty days for murdering a spouse with magic bread?

Also included under “women’s vices”, for some reason:

“Have you eaten any food from Jews or from other pagans which they prepared for you? If you have, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”

BURCHARD. What. The. Heck? I guess there wasn’t a chapter for xenophobic culinary guidelines.

As batty as these sound, some of them are nevertheless revealing of superstitions and pagan rituals that had survived until the eleventh century through confessional literature, if not in real life. We do need to take these with a pinch of salt, however; while some of them could be indicative of real practice, others are just as likely to have been imagined or embellished by the monks painstakingly copying these manuscripts and doodling madness in the margins.

You can find this section translated here.

Jessica Cale

Smallpox vs Edward Jenner: How One Doctor Invented Vaccination and Cured the World

1808_cruikshank-vaccinia

The deadly disease smallpox had been feared by man for thousands of years by the 1800s, and rightly so. It was highly contagious, incurable, and killed a third of those unlucky enough to catch it.

Those who survived it were rarely left unscathed. Aside from the inevitable permanent scarring, it could leave victims blind and doomed to spend the rest of their days battling lung or joint problems. The disease also did not discriminate between the rich or poor.

Several royals and world leaders contracted it. Queen Elizabeth I, George Washington and Joseph Stalin all had pock-marked faces which they took great pains to disguise. The 18th century fashion for wearing patches stemmed from the desire to hide the damage smallpox had done to aristocratic skin. Smallpox killed both King Louis XV of France and Queen Mary II of England, monarchs who could well afford the best physicians to try to save them, so the merest threat of it was enough to send the population into a panic.

Of course, it didn’t help matters that medical scientists had no idea how the disease was spread and had no way of treating it. The concept of bacteria and viruses would not begin to enter into medicine until 1861, so physicians were clueless. Theories abounded over time, blaming God, the alignment of the planets, and eventually evil miasmas (bad air) as the root cause of an epidemic. Treatments were equally as primitive. Prayer, smelling sweet nosegays, and bonfires were the only weapons the Western World had for centuries. As a result, outbreaks could kill thousands in a very short space of time with terrifying speed, especially children or the old. The only thing they did know, was once you had caught it, you couldn’t catch it again.

In the East where medicine was traditionally more advanced and largely unencumbered by religious interference, physicians expanded upon this idea. Using the healing scabs of a recovering smallpox victim, which they scratched into the skin of healthy people, they protected them. Although they did not realise it at the time, what they were doing was building up the body’s antibodies using a weakened dose of smallpox and thereby rendering the body resistant to any stronger. It’s still a common practice nowadays with certain diseases. Polio is a classic example. Variolation (or inoculation as we now know it) was brought to Britain in 1715 by Lady Wortley Montague, an ambassador’s wife who had suffered smallpox as a child and lost a brother to it.

Whilst inoculation did work in a great majority of cases, it was not without serious risk. By exposing people directly to smallpox, albeit a significantly weaker version of the disease, at least ten percent of those inoculated contracted full-blown smallpox in the process, often with fatal consequences. King George III lost his son Prince Frederick after he had the boy inoculated. When even the king could not guarantee its safety, a great many preferred not to take the risk. Inoculation was also very expensive, which put even more off it, so smallpox remained a devastating killer throughout the eighteenth century.

In 1784, after extensive study of smallpox victims during an epidemic in his hometown of Chester, Dr John Haygarth became convinced smallpox was transferred by human contact. He recommended quarantining anyone with smallpox and gave sound advice as to how anyone coming into contact with a victim should stop the infection spreading:

“During and after the distemper, no person, clothes, food, furniture, cat, dog, money, medicines or any other thing that is known or suspected to be bedaubed with matter, spittle, or other infectious discharges of the patient should go out of the house until they have been washed…When a patient dies of smallpox, particular care should be taken that nothing infectious be taken out of the house so as to do mischief.”

Haygarth’s methods were soon widely adopted. Wherever possible, smallpox victims were isolated away from the rest of the community. Every item of clothing and bedding used was burned to avoid contaminating others. Sometimes, this occurred using quarantine ships. These were hardly floating hospitals as there was little doctors could do other than let the disease run its course, however, moving sufferers offshore was fairly successful in containing the disease if they caught it quickly enough.

cowpoxThe big breakthrough came thanks to a country doctor called Edward Jenner. He decided to test the validity of an old wives’ tale which claimed all those who worked with cows were immune to smallpox. Over the course of many years, he discovered that those new to working with cattle–such as milk maids–often caught a relatively harmless disease from them. Cowpox caused a mild fever and an irritating skin rash in humans which quickly cleared up of its own accord. Jenner began to suspect cowpox was the key to the immunity from smallpox. However, to test his theory he would need to infect a human with cowpox who had never come into any contact with cows before.

In 1796 he paid the parents of James Phipps, and then injected the pus from a cowpox pustule into the boy. A few weeks later, he exposed the boy to smallpox and when nothing happened declared it a resounding success. He called his new treatment vaccination as the word vacca is Latin for cow and was convinced it was the only thing capable of defeating the ‘speckled monster’. However, the Royal Society did not welcome his research with open arms. They declared it too revolutionary and asked for more proof. It took until 1798, and several more experiments with cowpox including one on his own baby son, before they published his findings.

Although conclusive, the people were less enthusiastic to this new miracle prevention. There was an enormous backlash against Jenner’s vaccination accompanied by an extensive propaganda campaign. Aside from the fact the new prevention was more expensive than the old-fashioned inoculation, the widespread resistance came because of two things:

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, vaccination was seen as ungodly. The very religious masses listened to the anti-vaccination sermons preached from pulpits the length and breadth of the British Isles. After all, in Corinthians is stated quite clearly: “All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts”. Mixing the two things was grossly unacceptable according to the scriptures.

800px-The_cow_pock

James Gillray, The Cow Pock. An anti-vaccination cartoon from 1802.

Secondly, although Jenner was able to prove vaccination did work with none of the risks caused by inoculation, he had no earthly idea why. Even the educated struggled to justify agreeing to vaccination without knowing the science behind it. Perhaps it was possible they would begin to sprout horns and udders in the future? Nobody could say for certain this wouldn’t happen.

Others were less resistant. Napoleon honoured Jenner with a medal after the Frenchman vaccinated his troops. Before that, more of his army were killed by smallpox than by battle. Another fan was President Thomas Jefferson who, in 1806, wrote a gushing letter of thanks to Edward Jenner:

“I avail myself of this occasion of rendering you a portion of the tribute of gratitude due to you from the whole human family. Medicine has never before produced any single improvement of such utility… Future nations will know by history only that the loathsome small-pox has existed and by you has been extirpated.”

While history proved Jefferson’s prediction correct, such accolades from Britain’s then enemies did not really do Edward Jenner any favours at home. Vaccination remained hugely unpopular with the masses and some dyed-in-the-wool physicians despite overwhelming evidence of its success and continued to be during Edward’s lifetime and beyond. He died in 1823 with his vaccination still as controversial then as it had been in 1796.

Things came to a bit of a head in the UK when the government stepped in. In 1840 they declared the old inoculation illegal, thus eliminating the choice. Then, the 1853 Vaccination Act made it compulsory in law for all babies to be vaccinated before they were three months old. Failure to do so resulted in a one pound fine and potentially the risk of prison. People argued they were now denied the right to decide what they could put into their own bodies and many took to the streets to protest. Compulsory vaccination was so unpopular, the government had to back down and stopped prosecuting those who refused.

It was only once the brilliant French scientist Louis Pasteur began to do more experiments on vaccination in the late 19th century, and was finally able to explain why it worked, that public objection lessened. Smallpox vaccination became widespread and the catastrophic and destructive epidemics died out. The last known recorded case of smallpox was in Somalia in 1977 and in 1980 the World Health Organization declared the disease eradicated save the few samples kept secure in laboratories. And all thanks an old wives’ tale and a tenacious, mild-mannered country doctor from Gloucestershire who never wanted to be famous.
virginia heath cover
Virginia Heath writes witty Regency romantic comedies for Harlequin Mills & Boon. The first book in her ‘Wild Warriners’ series, A Warriner to Protect Her, will be released in April 2017.

Mediomania: Spiritualism, Crisis, and Mediumistic Hysteria of the 19th Century

A depiction of table-turning in Le Magazine L’Illustration, 1853

Who doesn’t love a good ghost story?

The residents of Hydesville, New York were sure intrigued when rumors erupted of the Fox sisters and their ability to communicate with the dead through taps and rappings in their home. Kate and Margaret Fox invited the public to demonstrations of their abilities, asking the spirits to respond to questions with the correct number of knocks. And from these few taps, a religious movement grew.

But it wasn’t the need or the determination to speak with the dead that drove the development of Spiritualism. The religion came along at the right time when it was needed most by those wishing to enact social change. In the 1850s, Quakers were looking for an escape. Abolitionist Quakers in particular were in a fix. Their religion forbade them from taking a stance on measures such as abolition and women’s rights. But when the Fox sisters started knocking, those looking for an answer saw a way out.

Taking spiritualism by the horns, Quakers began to convert, picking up the torch of spiritualism in the name of women’s leadership, abolition, and a host of other social crusades. Spiritualists traveled the country to speak at assemblies and conventions, some on the subject of spiritualism, but most often at the conventions of social endeavors such as women’s right to vote and abolition. Spiritualism simply served as a means for working toward such change.

With such a surge in social improvement, women were put in a position of opportunity. Suddenly communicating with the dead meant women could assume leadership roles in the community. They became trance speakers, touring the country to speak to large assemblies. Trance mediums wrote books, counseled the distressed, and even ran for president. That would have been Victoria Woodhull in 1872. Women harnessed a power that seemed to favor the female body and used it to propel themselves up in terms of equality with men.

But with such upward movement came backlash, and such backlash took the shape of an accusation of insanity. Dr. R. Frederic Marvin finally gave a name to the disease of which spiritualism was considered to be a result. Mediomania was suddenly a diagnosis spread far and wide, labeling mediums with a type of female insanity. The female reproductive system was to blame, a system so much more “complex” than a man’s and thus in danger of such insanity. While it was not used in place of utromania, the two diseases were often linked. It was determined the angle of the uterus was the cause of the disease. If it were tilted too far forward, women would develop this mediomania and begin to exhibit its horrible symptoms.

Symptoms of this “mediumistic hysteria” often were a woman’s determination to leave traditional roles and her propensity to overuse her mind. Historian Ann Braude argues, “Doctors asserted that, if women used their brains to attempt the mental exertion required for higher education, they would overtax their systems and suffer gynecological disease.” As Marvin asserted, “She becomes possessed with the idea that she has some startling mission in the world.” Such an idea was horrifying by late 19th century standards, and mediums were deemed insane for such behavior.

Treatment was often forced upon the afflicted. I say forced because most often the cure of mediumship was the “Rest Cure.” It entailed the female subjecting to the will of the male doctor. It was believed she must no longer assert her own will in order to be healed. Such a cure inherently suggests a level of force upon the afflicted.

So while women enjoyed a blitz of equality through their abilities as mediums, it quickly came crashing down in the 1870s and into the 1880s as “science” proved these women to be simply insane. Spiritualism lost favor as it failed to organize successfully, and heretics took advantage. Doctors proclaiming the “rest cure” pronounced mediums fit for asylums, and hoax mediums caught in charades gave the movement a bad reputation. More, the movement had already accomplished a major goal in the abolition of slavery, and because of this, lost momentum in their endeavors. The Spiritualism movement would fade away by the 1880s, and with it the persecution of female mediums for their mediomania.

Jessie Clever

Source:

Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Jessie Clever decided to be a writer because the job of Indiana Jones was already filled. Taking her history degree dangerously, Jessie tells the stories of courageous heroines, the men who dared to love them, and the world that tried to defeat them. Jessie makes her home in the great state of New Hampshire where she lives with her husband and two very opinionated Basset hounds.
Don’t miss To Save a Viscount. Find out more at jessieclever.com.

The “Poor-Whores Petition” and The Shrove Tuesday Riots of 1668

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You can’t read as much about prostitution as I do without coming across mention of the Shrove Tuesday Riots. They’re little more than a footnote now, but for years they were the terror of every working girl in greater London. Apprentices turned up in droves to participate in the “sport” of whore-bashing, which EJ Burford assures us was an ancient tradition.

Wait, what?

The Riots

For many years* in London, it was an annual tradition for the local apprentices to attack prostitutes and forcibly tear down brothels on Shrove Tuesday. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many years, as these riots were so commonplace they were rarely mentioned unless the property damage was particularly notable.

The Shrove Tuesday Riots of 1668 were notable for a few reasons. They lasted for several days, involved thousands of people, and the damage was so extensive that eight apprentices were actually hanged for it. When two of Elizabeth Cresswell’s brothels were destroyed, she sponsored a satirical pamphlet beseeching Lady Castlemaine, Charles II’s then-mistress, to intercede on their behalf to protect them and their property from future attacks.

Samuel Pepys describes it in his diary entry from March 25th, 1668:

The Duke of York and all with him this morning were full of the talk of the ‘prentices, who are not yet [put] down, though the guards and militia of the town have been in armes all this night, and the night before; and the ‘prentices have made fools of them, sometimes by running from them and flinging stones at them. Some blood hath been spilt, but a great many houses pulled down; and, among others, the Duke of York was mighty merry at that of Damaris Page’s, the great bawd of the seamen; and the Duke of York complained merrily that he hath lost two tenants, by their houses being pulled down, who paid him for their wine licenses 15l. a year. But here it was said how these idle fellows have had the confidence to say that they did ill in contenting themselves in pulling down the little bawdyhouses, and did not go and pull down the great bawdy-house at White Hall.

The official reason for the riots was a general displeasure at the decadence of the Charles II’s court and disapproval at the immorality of London as a whole.

But was that it? Let’s take a closer look.

Apprentices

By 1660, it is estimated that there were 20,000 apprentices working in London. The whole city only had about 105,000 people at this point. Boys were apprenticed around age eleven, and would remain that way until about age twenty-four. During this thirteen-year period—almost half of the average lifespan—they worked without pay under masters obliged to monitor their behavior and see to their moral instruction as well as their vocational training. They were frequently beaten and relied on their masters for all of their basic necessities, including food, clothing, and shelter. They were forbidden from fornication, marriage, visiting taverns, or displaying immoral behavior such as violence or drunkenness.

In spite of the outrageously strict guidelines they had to agree to, London’s apprentices were notoriously rowdy. It’s not difficult to see why. One fifth of London’s total population and almost half of its men were essentially indentured servants forced to endure beatings and work long hours with no pay, little rest, and no accepted outlet for their energy short of attending church once a week. They were energetic, hormonal, and their systematic repression was so well established and legislated that it was an unquestioned aspect of society. Indeed, London’s commerce was largely dependent on the free labor provided by these boys in the name of training them in what amounted to one of history’s longest, most thankless internships.

However, guidelines are written not because everyone follows them, but because people don’t. London’s apprentices were not the models of sober, moral industry they were meant to be.

According to Peter Ackroyd, apprentices were known for heavy drinking, overindulgence, laziness, and starting fights with servants, foreigners, prostitutes, and random passersby. Additionally, they frequently rioted after football matches they attended in Cheapside (yes, really), proving once again that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In addition to the annual Shrove Tuesday Riots during which apprentices assaulted prostitutes, looted, and physically pulled down brothels, they rioted over food shortages, out of drunkenness, or because of xenophobia. During the May Day riots of 1517, apprentices, artisans, and children looted the houses of foreigners in the city. In June of 1595 alone, apprentices rioted twelve times against the Lord Mayor over inflated food prices.

Apprentices were overworked, underfed, often abused, and rarely paid. Not only were they not allowed to visit prostitutes, but they couldn’t afford them. When business suffered, they were the first to be sacked, so they did not even have the security of a steady job. With no money to spend and no way to vent their frustrations, it’s no wonder they were so prone to fighting and crime. Many apprentices were executed at Tyburn for crimes from petty theft to even murder.

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In this plate from Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness, we can see an apprentice has turned to highway robbery and is betrayed to the law by a prostitute

Prostitutes

Of London’s 105,000 people, an estimated 3,600 were female prostitutes working from their own premises. That doesn’t sound like much until you consider the female population was only about 50,000 people, and a large number of them were children. The average person didn’t live to see their forties, and the vast majority of people in London were under thirty. This figure also does not include streetwalkers, casual prostitutes, or those operating primarily in the alleys and parks, of which there were many. It would not be an outrageous estimate to suggest that as many as thirty percent London’s women were employed as prostitutes in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Even with this generous estimate, apprentices would have outnumbered them at least two- or three-to-one.

Apprentices were badly behaved and prostitutes were frequently blamed for it. In his Industry and Idleness series, Hogarth uses a prostitute as shorthand for the apprentice’s depravity (above). Prostitutes were to be resisted at all costs: when apprentices assaulted the women, it was accepted, if not seen as completely justified. By tacitly encouraging vice with their very presence, what else could poor, impressionable boys do but resist with violent force?

When apprentice Thomas Savage was hanged at Tyburn in 1668 for murdering a fellow servant, he used his “last dying confession” to lay his fall from grace at the feet of a lewd woman:

“The first sin…was Sabbath breaking, thereby I got acquaintance with bad company, and so went to the alehouse and to the bawdy house: there I was perswaded to rob my master and also murder this poor innocent creature, for which I come to this shameful end.”

That escalated quickly.

While it’s not impossible to believe a woman could have persuaded Savage to rob his master, there’s no motive to wish her would-be paramour a murderer. It’s far more likely the unnamed woman was a convenient excuse. Prostitutes were seen as particularly toxic to apprentices and servants—a kind of gateway drug into all manner of immorality—so accusations of any misdeeds on their part would have gone unquestioned.

The_Whores'_Petition_(1668)The Poor-Whores Petition

It’s not difficult to see why London’s prostitutes were not overfond of apprentices. After the Shrove Tuesday Riots of 1668—a particularly bad year—Elizabeth Cresswell took action. She was a successful madam, and while her brothels had survived both the Great Plague and the Great Fire two years before, they were destroyed by apprentices that year. Cresswell co-sponsored a pamphlet addressed to Charles II’s mistress, Lady Castlemaine, asking her to intercede on their behalf as the highest-ranking whore in the country. I have transcribed it here:

The Poor-Whores Petition.
To the most Splendid, Illustrious, Serene and Eminent Lady of Pleasure, the Countess of CASTLEMAINE, & c.
The Humble Petition of the Undone Company of poor distressed Whores, Bawds, Pimps, and Panders, & c.

Humbly showeth,

That Your Petitioners having been for a long time connived at, and countenanced in the practice of our Venerial pleasures (a Trade wherein your Ladyship hath great Experience, and for your diligence therein, have arrived to high and Eminent Advancement for these last years), But now, We, through the Rage and Malice of a Company of London-Apprentices, and other malicious and very bad persons, being mechanic, rude and ill-bred Boys, have sustained the loss of our habitations, Trades and Employments; And many of us, that have had foul play in the Court and Sports of Venus, being full of Ulcers, but were in a hopeful way of Recovery, have our Cures retarded through this Barbarous and Un-Venus-like Usage, and all of us exposed to very hard (shifts), being made uncapable of giving that Entertainment, as the Honour and Dignity of such persons as frequented our Houses doth call for, as your Ladyship y your won practice hath experimented the knowledge of.

We therefore being moved by the imminent danger now impending, and the great sense of our present suffering, do implore your Honour to improve your Interest, which (all know) is great, That some speedy relief may be afforded us, to prevent Our Utter Ruine and Undoing. And that such a sure Course may be taken with the Ringleaders and Abetters of these evil disposed persons, that a stop may be put unto them before they come to your Honours Pallace, and bring contempt upon your worshipping of Venus, the great Goddess whom we all adore.

Wherefore in our Devotion (your Honour being eminently concerned with us) We humbly judge it meet, that you procure the French, Irish, and English Hectors, being our approved Friends, to be our Guard, Aid, and Protectors, and to free us from these ill home bread slaves, that threaten your destruction as well as ours, that so your Ladyship may escape our present Calamity, Else we know not how soon it may be your Honours Own Case: for should your Eminency but once fall into these Rough hands, you may expect no more Favour then they have shewn unto us poor Inferior Whores.

Will your Eminency therefore be pleased to consider how highly it concerns You to restore us to our former practice with Honour, Freedom, and Safety For which we shall oblige ourselves by as many Oaths as you please, To Contribute to Your Ladyship, (as our Sisters do at Rome & Venice to his Holiness the Pope) that we may have your petition to the Exercise of all our Venerial pleasures. And we shall endeavor, as our bounden duty, the promoting of your Great Name, and the preservation of your Honour, Safety and Interest, with the hazard of our Lives, Fortunes, and HONESTY.

Needless to say, Lady Castlemaine did not take this well.

In case you skimmed it, there was some top-notch seventeenth century shade in that petition. Yes, London’s whores had suffered violence and the destruction of their property at the hands of several thousand frustrated apprentices with more testosterone than sense, but the petition was firmly tongue-in-cheek. It was a satire, and possibly written by Cresswell’s lover, Sir Thomas Player, an anti-Catholic MP who detested Lady Castlemaine.

He wasn’t the only one, it so happens. Castlemaine was Catholic in a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was rife in England, with many suspecting Charles II of being Catholic himself. Castlemaine was known to be Charles’ mistress, but her elevated status as a married countess did not make her less of a whore in the eyes of London’s working girls. You may have noticed a few digs in there about Catholicism and the Pope—these were not idle comments, but pointed sedition. The concern expressed that the apprentices might be coming for her next is not only an insult to Castlemaine, but to Whitehall as a whole—the biggest, most debauched brothel of them all.

Interestingly enough, the official reason for the apprentices’ rioting was anger over the decadence of Charles’ court and London in general; the petition does not refute this, but drives it home by addressing it to the king’s mistress. If we accept that the riots were political protest as opposed to natural frustration boiling over and that the petition was moral criticism rather than just an elaborate burn on Lady Castlemaine, it would seem the apprentices and the whores were in agreement with each other with regards to the shortcomings of the court.

Although Lady Castlemaine did not intercede on behalf of London’s prostitutes as requested, the damage was such that eight apprentices were executed for rioting. Rioting was akin to treason at this point, and the penalty was likewise severe, if infrequently carried out.

While these riots are a thing of the past, Shrove Tuesday is not the only Spring holiday that has resulted in exuberant violence and sexual assault. You consider Mardi Gras and now Holi in India, which has made the news this week for the extremes one school in Delhi has gone to to keep their female students from being groped and it makes you wonder if maybe sexual repression is not the healthiest policy.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography.
Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London.
Brooke, Alan and Brandon, David. Tyburn: London’s Fatal Tree.
Burford, E. J. Bawds and Lodgings: A History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100 – 1675
Pepys, Samuel. Diary entry for March 25th, 1668.
Picard, Liza. Restoration London.

Notes

The header image is not from this riot. It illustrates sailors rioting in a brothel some years later in The Strand. Madam Damaris Page, coincidentally co-sponsor of The Poor-Whores Petition, was said to have press ganged dock workers visiting her brothel into the navy, which made her understandably unpopular. 

*At least throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 

“A Cesspool in the Palace”: Prostitution and the Church in Medieval Southwark

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London Bridge, from Southwark facing north. Southwark Cathedral is in the foreground. Claes Van Visscher, 1616.

Prostitution flourished in medieval London, and in the 12th century, Southwark became the city’s official red light district by order of Henry II. His ‘Ordinances touching the gouerment of the stewhoulders in Southwarke under the direction of the Bishop of Winchester’ (1161) gave control of the Southwark brothels to the ecclesiastical authorities, which would allow the church to draw untold sums of money from them through the sale of licenses. At the time of the ordinance, there were eighteen licensed brothels in Bankside employing about a thousand prostitutes at any one time. As a result of the church taking control, most of London’s churches built during this period were largely financed by prostitution.

Why Southwark? By the 12th century, Southwark had already been a hot spot for prostitution since the Romans built the first known brothel in England at what was then an obscure military outpost. Southwark itself grew out of a brothel. More than that, Southwark had been a privileged borough for most of its history, its many churches creating a place of asylum that extended to protecting criminals and prostitutes from the full extent of the law. Southwark served as a “bastard sanctuary,” offering a kind of asylum to those rejected by society: prostitutes, criminals, lepers, and the poor lived among brothels, jails, rubbish tips, and the smellier trades, just far enough away from London that they could not be seen without a boat ride or a long walk across London Bridge.

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The Last Hour. Florence Harrison.

While the church officially condemned prostitution and sexual promiscuity, they had no reservations about profiting from it. St. Thomas Aquinas himself compared it to “a cesspool in the palace; take away the cesspool and the palace becomes an unclean evil-smelling place.” Southwark already smelled pretty evil; it was the perfect place for a ‘cesspool.’ Prostitution was accepted as a necessary evil, and from the end of the 12th century onward, regulated to maximize revenue for the church.

As E. J. Burford explains:

“By this act of recognition, the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury gave certain advantages to the licensed brothelkeepers or stewholders. It was much easier for them to carry on business in a protected premises in a protected area. The regulations and penalties, although set out in great detail and with seemingly terrifying (or at least terrifyingly expensive) punishments, were of little practical consequence. Most infractions would be hard to prove, and all could be nullified with a little judicious bribery.”

Brothels or “stews” had been traditionally run by bawds, but Henry’s ordinance put their management into the hands of (mostly male) brothelkeepers licensed by the church. Single women were not allowed to own brothels with exceptions being made for those who had inherited one from a relative or left one by a husband.

The ordinance was devised both to protect the women employed in the sex trade and to limit certain behaviors. One of these protections was freedom from accusations of consorting with the devil. It sounds obvious to us (and convenient for them), but at the time, witchcraft and prostitution had been almost synonymous in the public mind since King Edward the Elder linked them in the 10th century.

Prostitutes were no longer individually licensed as they had been in Roman times and did not have to wear special clothing to set themselves apart. They could not be bound to or enslaved by bawds or brothelkeepers, with limits placed on how much they were allowed to borrow from their employers at any one time (six shillings and eightpence) to prevent them from being imprisoned for debt or obliged to remain in the employ of their moneylender.

Brothels became boarding houses that rented rooms to prostitutes without board. Like the provisions preventing women from borrowing large sums of money from the brothelkeepers, this was designed to protect them from those looking to take advantage of them through inflated food prices, keeping them in poverty and confined to the precinct where they worked. Brothels were closed on holy days to encourage the women to attend services. They were refused Christian burial, but could still receive Holy Communion.

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“No grabbing!”

In return for these protections, prostitutes were ordered to refrain from aggressive soliciting on penalty of imprisonment. They were not allowed to grab or call out to potential customers, or curse or throw rocks at them if refused or cheated. As Burford puts it, Southwark “was a dockside area with dockside manners” and prostitutes were known not only to throw stones but chamber pots at any customers who thought to make a run for it without paying their fee.

Quarterly inspections were ordered to ensure no women were working unwillingly and to reduce the spread of venereal disease. Gonorrhea and “burning sickness” (likely chlamydia) were common and even expected; those found to be infected were fined twenty shillings and sacked. Symptoms were treated by washing in white wine, animal piss, or a mixture of vinegar and water. Many cases of gonorrhea are asymptomatic in women, so it would have been impossible to remove all infected parties, as evidenced by the epidemic of 1160.

In his Compendium Medicine (1190), physician Gilbert Anglicus described another kind of sexually transmitted disease resembling leprosy. If what he saw was syphilis, this would have been one of the earliest documented cases of it in Europe, three hundred years before Columbus is thought to have brought it back with him from the Americas.

Bizarrely, the harshest punishment was reserved for prostitutes who had lovers on the side. Men were permitted to whore out their wives and married women could sell themselves to their hearts’ delight, but any prostitute discovered to have a lover not paying for her services would be fined six shillings and eightpence, imprisoned for three weeks, and subjected to the humiliating punishment of the cucking stool – being tied to a chair and publically immersed in filth. Naturally the woman’s lover would not receive any punishment for his involvement with her; the rule would seem to have been in place to maximize profits while cutting down on her leisure activities.

Another interesting rule is that for the last customer of the day, once the woman had taken his money, she was obliged to lay with him all night. Brothelkeepers were prohibited from keeping boats and the boatmen that worked the Thames were not allowed to moor their boats on the south side of the river after dark. Once customers were in Southwark for the night, there was no leaving until morning. Burford suggests the reasoning for this is that political plotters or criminals were easier to monitor with reduced traffic on the river. Anyone needing to cross would have to go via London Bridge and they would be seen on the way.

While the Bankside brothels flourished with Henry II’s statues, Southwark’s reputation for vice was cemented when Edward I cracked down on those he deemed undesirable* a century later. He believed that these “women of evil life” attracted criminals, so prostitutes were no longer allowed within the city of London at all. Any woman found breaking this rule was subject to forty days in prison. This effectively forced any and all prostitutes well south of the river where they would stay for centuries. Although Covent Garden became something of a red light district with Harris’ List in the 18th century, the vast majority of London’s prostitutes lived south of the river through the 19th century.

Jessica Cale

* Prostitutes, Jews, the Welsh, the Scottish…how long have you got?

Further reading
Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London. St. Martin’s Press, 2012.
Burford, E.J. Bawds and Lodgings: A History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675. Peter Owen, 1976.

“The Lays of Ancient Rome”: Pompeian Pornography and the Museum Secretum

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Priapus as Mercury. Pompeii

On August 24, 79AD, the day after Vulcanalia, the festival of the god of fire, Hell came to the Gulf of Naples. Vesuvius erupted and a searing pyroclastic cloud scorched, choked, and buried the prosperous provincial Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum under thousands of tons of blistering ash and boiling mud. The thermal energy released dwarfed that of the atomic bombings of Japan, and to the witnesses and victims it must have felt like the apocalypse. ‘You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men,’ wrote Pliny the Younger, ‘People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore’ (Hutchinson: 1931, 495).

Entombed and oddly preserved at the moment of their destruction, the ruins lay undisturbed for over 1,600 years, while above them the Roman Empire fell, the Ostrogoths, Byzantines, and Lombards fought for control of the region, the early-Christian Church became established, the Kingdom of Sicily rose, the Black Death decimated Europe, the Reformation came, and Florence, Milan, and Venice became the cultural hubs of the Renaissance. Then one day in 1709, a peasant in the small town of Resina came across some interestingly coloured marble and alabaster while digging a well…

Initial excavations in search of more of the valuable gallo antico yellow marble during the Austrian occupation of Southern Italy were inconclusive and abandoned after a couple of years. Almost thirty years later, when the region was once more under Spanish control, the army engineer Roque Joaquín de Alcubierre was overseeing the building of a new summer palace for King Charles of the Two Sicilies when he discovered – or more correctly rediscovered – the remains of Herculaneum. With permission and a modest grant from Charles of Bourbon, who saw the potential for the discovery and display of Roman artefacts as a symbol of the continuing cultural significance of Naples, Alcubierre began the first serious excavation of the site. His workmen soon unearthed the amphitheatre of Herculaneum, and over the next eight years provided a steady stream of remarkably well-preserved artefacts for the new Museo Borbonico in Naples.

By 1745, however, the stream had begun to run dry. Archaeologists and engineers therefore turned their attention to ‘Cività Hill,’ a few miles south-east of the Herculaneum dig. ‘Cività’ means ‘City,’ and under the hill, where local legend suggested a lost city lie, possibly the small seaside town of Stabiae (also obliterated by Vesuvius), Alcubierre found the much larger port of Pompeii. The going was much easier as the city had been buried by ash rather than the mud that had set like concrete over Herculaneum, and the first intact fresco was found in 1748, in what appeared to be a dining room in a house that also contained a skeleton clasping Julio-Claudian and Flavian coins, with all that implies for the unfortunate occupant’s priorities during the cataclysm.

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Fresco, House of the Centenary, Pompeii

Classical Graeco-Roman culture had always been the foundation of art and learning in Europe, a model for ‘Civilization,’ with obvious parallels in particular drawn between the might of the Roman Empire in the past and the British in the present, the global superpower that would dominate the 19th century. Never had the modern world had such a direct window to the ancient as the one afforded by these excavations, but despite what scholars thought they knew about the glory of Rome, they were not at all ready for what they found in the ashes. There were sculptures, ceramics and frescoes depicting Roman deities, natural, mythical and historical scenes, and celebrating sporting prowess; there was even political graffiti carved into walls, and plenty of those clean, white marble statues so beloved by classicists, symbolising purity of body and spirit through aesthetic perfection. So far, so good; nothing Thomas Babington Macaulay wouldn’t have included in his epic poem ‘Pompeii’ or the Lays of Ancient Rome. But there was also something else, and a lot of it; and by 1758 rumours began to circulate in antiquarian circles concerning apparently ‘lascivious’ frescoes being discovered beneath the ruins.

Up until the cities of Vesuvius were excavated, Roman artefacts existed as cultural diaspora, the result often of quite random finds, and subject to millennia of subtle Christian censorship and academic classification. This meant in practice that those clean marble statues became the mark of antiquity, while anything more raunchy or challenging was lost among the acceptable works of art, or possibly even quietly destroyed. But Herculaneum and, especially, Pompeii afforded a different opportunity for historical study. By being effectively frozen in time, the descendants of Rome finally saw how their ancestors really lived, and they lived in a world surrounded by dirty pictures.

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Relief found over a door in Pompeii

Explicit sexual imagery was everywhere, in public and private spaces, and across social classes; clearly, anyone could unproblematically own and view this material. Unsurprisingly, there were ‘lascivious’ pieces in brothels; but there were also paintings depicting couples making love in a variety of positions in the homes of artisans, merchants and politicians, in the quarters of their servants and their slaves, as well as the public baths, while erect phalluses were carved into paving stones and doorways as symbols of potent protection (right), and beautifully rendered statues of deities cavorting with both animals and human beings were proud centrepieces of any fashionable piazza. Discovered in its original context, whether an individual piece was intended to titillate, amuse, or ward off the evil eye, it was apparent that this was not untypical, and that erotic art must have been common throughout the empire and an everyday part of Roman life.

A particularly impressive and representative example was unearthed at the Villa dei Papiri, a country house about halfway up the slope of the volcano, believed to have been built by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. The villa is named for its library, which contained nearly 2000 papyrus scrolls, charred but preserved, making it the most complete and intact classical library ever discovered. The villa was also notable for its owner’s large collection of statuary, which included an intact and intricately carved marble, about six inches tall, of the god Pan on his knees penetrating a she-goat (below). ‘It is impossible not to admire the expression of sensuous passion and intense enjoyment depicted on the Satyr’s features,’ wrote the French antiquarian Cesar Famin in his privately published catalogue Musee royal de Naples; peintures, bronzes et statyues Erotiques du cabinet secret, avec leur explication (1816), adding, ‘and even on the countenance of the strange object of his passion.’ He goes on to cite Herodotus, Virgil and Plutarch to demonstrate that ‘The crime of bestiality was not rare among the ancients’ (Fanin: 1871, 22).

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Pan copulating with a goat. Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum.

And the shocking revelations did not stop there. Diggers also found ornate drinking bowl masks fashioned like mouths but with a penis instead of a tongue, several bronze tintinnabulums – a kind of hanging chime depicting a winged phallus with little bells attached to it (below right) – a terracotta lamp in the shape of a particularly well-endowed faun, icons of Priapus, fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit, gardens and male genitalia, usually depicted with a large and permanent erection (hence the term ‘priapism’), and a two-foot tall painted phallus on a limestone plinth in the garden. The Catholic archaeologists were nonplussed. In their culture, sex was the ultimate taboo, with the phallus and representations thereof completely hidden from view, let alone graven images doing it in public. Their instinct was to hide it up. King Charles himself therefore placed the statue of Pan and the goat under the supervision of the royal sculptor, Joseph Canart, with strict injunction that no one should be allowed to see it.

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A tintinnabulum

As the art historian Walter Kendrick has argued, similar artefacts found elsewhere over the centuries had very probably ‘succumbed to the zealous progress of Christianity’ (Kendrick, 1996: 10); but the sheer volume of explicit material unearthed around Vesuvius presented excavators with a problem not so easily disposed of, although some Pompeii frescoes were subsequently vandalised by outraged diggers. (We know this because contemporary records include sketches of paintings that survived the volcano but have since been obliterated.) Experts and politicians knew that these artefacts were of priceless archaeological and cultural value, and, in any event, the word was out about their collective existence. They could not be destroyed, but neither could they be publicly exhibited.

The solution was concealment. Like Pan and the goat, the erotic artefacts of Pompeii and Herculaneum were hidden. At the suggestion of Francesco Gennaro Giuseppe, Duke of Calabria and later Francis I, King of the Two Sicilies, over a hundred pieces were locked away in a special room in the Museo Borbonico known as the ‘Gabinetto degli Oggetti Osceni’ or ‘Cabinet of Obscene Objects.’ Access to these objects was limited to ‘persons of mature age and of proven morality’ (qtd in Tang: 1999, 29), which basically meant male scholars of notable social rank, who were deemed to be capable of rising above the baser instincts that exposure to these artefacts might provoke. A royal permit was required, and obviously women, children and members of the lower orders need not apply. What had begun as an Enlightenment project – the excavation of the ruins – had now become, in effect, proto-Victorian, and other ‘secret museums’ were established in Florence, Dresden and Madrid housing ‘obscene relics’ from not only Rome but also Egypt and Greece.

Thus was 19th century European culture reconciled with this erotic challenge from classical antiquity, a final invasion by the Imperium Rōmānum, unleashed from beyond the ashen grave of Vesuvius. And they needed this reconciliation, as Europe had fashioned itself in the Greco-Roman image. That this image was now demonstrably tarnished was potentially catastrophic to the collective sense of civilized identity. As historians such as Simon Goldhill, Lynda Nead and Walter Kendrick have persuasively argued, 19th century archaeologists and classicists overcame their dilemma by creating a new physical and cultural space, where both knowledge and morality were preserved, inventing the category of the ‘obscene object’ and then segregating it, with access both restricted and carefully monitored.

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Wall painting from a Pompeiian brothel

This was, in effect, a political act: the contents of the secret museums were part of classical culture, but not the part that we had inherited, and represented the dark decadence that had destroyed Rome and which the modern world must resist. Art, therefore, should only stimulate aesthetically and intellectually, never physically.

Nead, in fact, has made a strong case for the origin of the word ‘obscene’ as we understand it in the Latin term ob scena, which refers to the space off to the side of a stage (Tang: 1999, 29). While the presence of the material was not denied, museum authorities would act as if it did not exist, in exactly the same way that sex was central to the human condition yet never acknowledged in polite society. A new word was found to describe this material: pornography, from the Ancient Greek πορνογράφος ‎(pornográphos), which in turn was derived from πορνεία ‎(porneía, ‘fornication, prostitution’) and γράφω ‎(gráphō, ‘I depict’).

In 1865, the British Museum established its own Museum Secretum in order to house the erotic components of the private art collection of the antiquarian George Witt, whose bequest contained what amounted to an ‘all or nothing’ clause. Much of this material has now found its way into the main collections, but some of it is still kept under lock and key. My wife and I visited the Witt collection a few years back, while she was researching a paper, and there we saw, its access still restricted to scholars by prior appointment, a terracotta replica of the statue of Pan and the goat.

Works Cited

Fanin, Colonel. (1871). The Secret Erotic Paintings: Pictures and Descriptions of Classical Erotic Paintings, Bronzes and Statues. London.

Hutchinson, W.M.L. (ed). (1931). Letters of Pliny By Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus. William Melmoth, (trans). London: William Heinemann.

Kendrick, Walter. (1996). The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tang, Isabel. (1999). Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation. London: Channel 4 Books.

Suggested Further Reading

Carver, Rachael. (2011). Pompeii, Pornography and Power. Norwich: University of the Arts.

Clarke, John R. (2007) Roman Life: 100 B.C. to A.D. 200. New York: Abrams.

— (2007) Looking at Laughter: Humour, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C. – A.D. 250. Berkeley: University of California.

— (2006) Art in the lives of ordinary Romans: Visual Representation and Non-elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315. Berkeley: University of California.

— (2003) Roman Sex: 100 B.C. to A.D. 250. New York: Abrams.

— (2001) Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C. – A.D. 250. Berkeley: University of California.

Gaimster, David. (2000). ‘Sex and Sensibility at the British Museum.’ History Today L (9), September.

Goldhill, Simon. (2011). Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity. Princeton: University Press.

Grant, Michael. (1997). Eros in Pompeii: The Erotic Art Collection of the Museum of Naples. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

— (1979). The Art and Life if Pompeii and Herculaneum. New York, Newsweek.

— (1971). Cities of Vesuvius: Pompeii and Herculaneum. London: Book Club Associates.

Hunt, Lynn. (1993). The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800. New York: Zone Books.

Nead, Lynda. (1992). The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality. London: Routledge.

Richun, Amy. ed. (1992). Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome. Oxford: University Press.

Dr Stephen Carver is a cultural historian, editor and novelist. For sixteen years, he taught literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia, spending three years in Japan as Professor of English at the University of Fukui. He is presently Head of Online Courses at the Unthank School of Writing. Stephen has published extensively on 19th century literature and history; he is the biographer of the Victorian novelist William Harrison Ainsworth and the author of Shark Alley: The Memoirs of a Penny-a-Liner, a historical novel about the wreck of the troopship Birkenhead. He is currently working on a history of the 19th century underworld for Pen & Sword, and a sequel to Shark Alley.

For more from Dr Carver, visit:

Shark Alley – ‘Re-imagining the Victorian Serial’

Author Blog: Confessions of a Creative Writing Teacher

Academic Blog: Essays on 19th Literature & The Gothic