The Naughty Bits

medieval censorship
‘Mettener Regel’, Germany 1414.
München, BSB Clm 8201d, fol. 24r

I have found reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain (2010, W.W. Norton) particularly salient. Carr writes about no longer having the attention span to read long texts, or finding his mind drifting off. I have noticed this with myself, as well. And, it’s been a very depressing experience. I am not exaggerating when I tell people that I had read The Odyssey, The Iliad, and War and Peace by the age of 11. I loved reading. It was an escape to another world.

I had just accepted the mental drift was a facet of aging. However, as Car contends, it has much more to do with brain science and the (and I am most assuredly taking the cheap, lazy summary route at this point) manner in which “tracks” are imprinted in the brain. He likens the brain to the flow of water: water will carve out a path, then continue to take that same, easy, and comfortable route at every opportunity. I like to think of the brain as another muscle. If some parts aren’t exercised, they will atrophy. Scary stuff, no?

But, coming back to all things medieval and material. In his discussion of the advent of the printing press, Carr makes note that it wasn’t just the good old Gutenberg Bible or other holy texts that were being snapped up. Carr tells us:

Along with the high-minded came the low-minded. Tawdry novels, quack theories, gutter journalism, propaganda, and of course, reams of pornography poured into the marketplace and found eager buyers at every station of society. Priests and politicians began to wonder whether, as England’s first official book censor put it in 1660, ‘more mischief than advantage were not occasion’d to the Christian world by the Invention of Typography.’

The Shallows, p. 70

Now, my mind is not mired in smut. But, I will be honest. I was struck by that “reams of pornography” claim. So, what does one do when confronted with such a statement? Hop down the internet rabbit hole, of course.

Illuminated Manuscripts and Censorship and Sex

The first image for this post is taken from the Mettener Regel, which is summarized in the Library of Congress as follows:

Together with the Biblia pauperum (Paupers’ Bible), Abbot Petrus I of the Benedictine Abbey of Metten in Bavaria commissioned another outstanding manuscript, known as the Mettener Regel (literally, The Metten Rule, referring to the rule of Saint Benedict as practiced at the Abbey of Metten) in both Latin and German versions. The abbot had the illuminators, whose style, as in the Biblia pauperum, shows signs of Bohemian influence, paint in color scenes from the life of Saint Benedict at the openings of the chapters.

At first, one might think the image is an example of what the authors of “Coming Out: Queer Erasure and Censorship from the Middle Ages to Modernity” (DR. BRYAN C. KEENE and RHEAGAN MARTIN), refer to as dirty pages that show signs of particularly keen interest:

Books have always been intended for touch, as hands have historically manufactured, opened, held, and manipulated these bound objects. Illuminated manuscripts often led especially eventful lives, since each new owner could potentially alter the codex with marks of possession or by leaving signs of haptic usage (dirty pages).

However, it is rather apparent that someone made a decision to blur the nakedness of the maidens. I suppose medieval readers would not be as strong-minded as the monks who are able to avert their gazes. They did not need another authority to help them make the correct choice, which their frail human flesh most assuredly would have lead them to.

The second image comes from the Trinity Apocalypse. We have progressed from the redaction of images to censoring of nudity as part of the creative process. Why the difference?

Some thoughts. Or, perhaps, questions.

Does gender make a difference? It seems as though female sexuality is something that can both be traded on, contained, and constrained. Male nakedness is, well, while naked, but not as threatening. Males get loin clothes and censorship bars. Women are nearly erased.

I don’t know. But, the good news… I think this is where I want to go for my end of class research project. So, yay?

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