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Sex and Literature: Erotica in the 15th Century & before:

by Beth Divine 2 Jul 2018

From caveman days to ancient Rome and Greek, man has long been fascinated with sex. The oldest art that has been found usually boasts some sort of sexual component as their basis. These are mostly symbols of fertility. These are usually not subtle, men are depicted with large erect penises – inhumanly and improbably large! – while women are shown as having enormous breasts and booties, and exaggerated genitalia with protruding labia. This art was in the form of wall paintings and sketches, and small, rudimentary carvings in wood and stone – materials that were ready to hand and easily manipulated with primitive tools.

Oral legends and creation stories mainly involved gods, or godlike beings, using their own body parts, with the more open specifically mentioning semen or ejaculate. Nature goddesses were portrayed as bountiful and curvaceous, with life flowing from her breasts and vagina – a clear nod to the real-life miracle of reproduction.

Roman and Greek art moved to manmade objects: large statues carved painstakingly from dressed stone: marble and similar that has aesthetic value, rather than rough and ready granite and quartz. Bronze was also a commonly used material, and ceramics and other forms of pottery were often decorated with sexual love in all its manifestations, including homosexual liaisons and orgies.

Moving into early Western times, porn – or what passed for sexual stimulus in those times – was limited by widespread illiteracy, and strict controls on what subjects and objects that artists could paint, and in what manner. Most artworks were based in religion, with any hint of human desire being decried as unholy, blasphemous and even heretical. Artists were strictly controlled, needing to be members of guilds in order to get work, and being required to toe the line laid down by the authorities. Education and literacy was considered to be a major privilege given not only to the wealthy, but to the deserving. This very elitist system ensured that very few people could read and write, which gave the ruling classes (predominantly the Church (capital letter very much in force) enormous influence over societal laws and expectations.

Therefore, porn was very much frowned upon in public (while probably being collected lasciviously in private by churchmen, aristocrats and so on), leaving poorer folk to find their pleasures wherever they could – fumbled encounters in the dark streets, and bawdy theatre performances, where they would learn sex-themed lyrics to popular songs.