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Sex and Literature: Erotica in the 16th Century

by Beth Divine 19 Aug 2018

In the 1700s reading was still not terribly widespread although the burgeoning middle-class were beginning to educate their children, and holy books were making a highly controversial move from Latin to English. This horrified the clergy of the day, who were appalled at the thought that a well-to-do farmer, or a greengrocer, or a butcher, could simply pick up a bible and read the holy words without going through the mediation of a trained and ordained mind first!

Paper was a very precious commodity and books were highly valued. They were still mainly written in Latin, although there some foreign language (French, German and so on) texts and English books were working their way through the painstaking writing process.

Before the advent of the printing press, each book had to be copied by hand, lettered carefully, the drawings and diagrams copied faithfully, before being bound by hand and trimmed to size. Each book was littered with errors, which would be corrected on the page if picked up, and left alone if not spotted before it was sent to the customer. Paper was a precious commodity in its own right, ink had to be ground before anything could be written, and covers and bindings all had to be made by hand.

There was precious little left over for smutty books and drawings, although their existence is probably a certainty – they would have been ‘special orders’ made in secrecy for even more of a fortune than a more everyday book, and then hidden in the most secret places possible. Possession of such a book would mean loss of status and possibly even prison or death.

For the working man, reading and writing would have still been a mostly closed book still, but slates were coming into common usage, and it is quite possible that men in the pub entertained each other by sketching out pictures and scenes of an unsavoury nature.

Sexual encounters, all but illegal outside of marriage and severely frowned upon by the still powerful Church, would have taken place in dark alleys and down quiet lanes and byways. In many English villages these encounters have been immortalised in the street names, with almost every medieval town or city boasting a Gropecunt Lane, Butt Hole Road and Minge Street - all named in bygone days for the acts that occurred along these byways in the days before the time of discreet and uninterested hotel rooms by the hour… Some of these names survive, and many more can be recognised by sanitised variants, such as ‘Grapecant Lane’, for example. Either way, enough of these historic names survive to let us know that sex was, as it is now, a topic of enormous interest to people in the sixteenth century.