Vintage filth: a guide to history’s rudest texts

The Guardian Entertainment 1 month ago

You will, of course, be familiar with the epic Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose), the vast poem written in the 13th century that is reckoned to have been the most popular book of the medieval period. It is also sensual and subversive, with bits so pleasingly filthy they were censored. Some of the more highly charged fragments, torn out of one of the original manuscripts, have now turned up in that hotbed of medieval sexuality, Worcester Record Office.

The love-pilgrim’s “staff” is “stiff and strong”; he talks of being “full of agility and vigour, between the two fair pillars … consumed with desire to worship”. Racy stuff – and we can no doubt expect a new popular edition soon. But is it the tip of the ... iceberg? Should we be racing to read the dirty bits of other ancient texts? You bet your life we should. Here are a few suggestive suggestions:

Catullus The Roman poet Catullus is the father of dirty books. Some readers loved his earthy sexual imagery, others less so, but he didn’t have much truck with critics, attacking them in a poem so filthily abusive it wasn’t translated literally until the 1970s: “Up your ass and in your mouth / Aurelius … / Calling me dirt because my poems / have naughty naughty words in them.” I feel we need more of this engagement between writers and critics.

Martial The other great dirty writer of the Roman period, writing a century after Catullus and more satirist than satyr, unpicking his fellow Romans’ fascination with pederasty, oral sex, voyeurism and incest. It was all too much for some later scholars. “To read Martial is to walk with him along the streets of ancient Rome, but few of us need accompany him when he bathes in the sewers,” wrote one Victorian translator/censor.

The Decameron Boccaccio’s 14th-century masterpiece, with its tales of lustful nuns, did not find favour with the Catholic church, and the Inquisition took great pleasure in editing (or as they argued improving) it in the late-16th century. The lustful nuns became anonymised ladies, suggesting the Inquisitors were more anxious about the dignity of the church than the sex.

Lord Rochester The poetry of the late-17th century rake John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, was immensely popular in his (predictably brief) lifetime – he died of venereal disease, complicated by alcoholism, at the age of 33 in 1680. His poem The Imperfect Enjoyment is a moving description of the perils of premature ejaculation: it gets dirtier from there. The Victorians, being Victorians, censored the really filthy bits, and some of Rochester’s poems were in effect banned in the UK until the Lady Chatterley trial in 1960 made publication of explicit material legal.

Marquis de Sade The French aristocrat, who made Lord Rochester look like an amateur in the libertine stakes, is the ultimate censorship test: imprisoned for his writing, deemed insane, banned everywhere after his death in 1814. His most notorious book, The 120 Days of Sodom, was not published until the 1930s, and the censorship battle still continues in some parts of the world. Arguments over whether Pasolini’s infamous film version could be shown uncut, even in club cinema conditions, raged in the UK until 2000. There are books and films where filth becomes something more sinister.

Tags: Books

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