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Ian Frederick Moulton. Before Pornography: Erotic Writing in Early Modern England

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Ian Frederick MOULTON. Before Pornography: Erotic Writing in Early Modern England. Oxford University Press, 2000, 288 pp., €45.94, ISBN 0195137094

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1The history of erotic representation in literature has received comparatively little attention so far. Michel Foucault in his History of Sexuality made no attempt to explore this field, but the hermeneutic instruments he provided have encouraged and helped many perceptive critics, like Moulton, to lay the foundations of such a study. Moulton explores a body of texts, written mostly in verse between 1550 and 1650, which circulated usually in manuscript form and were printed only centuries later. The bulk of the book deals with Pietro Aretino and his English heirs or counterparts, namely Thomas Nash, the author of “The Choice of Valentines” and Ben Jonson, who sometimes emulated the Aretine in Every Man Out and Volpone. Contrary to such pornographic texts as L’École des filles or Vénus dans le cloître which were meant above all to kindle the reader’s erotic desire and therefore to serve private individual pleasure, Moulton argues that these Renaissance poems addressed issues of gender and national identity; they criticized effeminacy and promoted the values liable to strengthen the nation. This doesn’t mean, though, that they weren’t read, and with good reason, with the same pleasure as the pornographic novels. Robert Muchembled, in a recent book entitled L’orgasme et l’Occident: une histoire du plaisir du XVIe siècle à nos jours (Paris : Éditions du Seuil, 2005), proves in fact that pornographic literature in Italy, in France and in England was also very much concerned with the issues of gender and nationality. Moulton’s approach is not unlike that of Jean Baudrillard who, in Simulacre et simulation, wrote about J. G. Ballard’s sexually explicit Crash: “No affect behind all that, no psychology, no flux of desire, no libido nor death drive.” Moulton’s thesis is not as original as it claims to be. Yet, his book is undeniably of great interest: it offers highly perceptive analyses of texts largely unknown and shows that Shakespeare’s protestant England was as fascinated with sex as Ronsard’s catholic France. Yet, considering the poetic form adopted by most of the authors mentioned in the book, it seems that English writers tended to use the aesthetic alibi more frequently than did the French ones. This form of assumed self-censorship may have paved the way for the modern novel which bloomed more than a century later in Richardson’s England.

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Maurice COUTURIER, « Ian Frederick Moulton. Before Pornography: Erotic Writing in Early Modern England », E-rea [En ligne], 4.1 | 2006, document 9, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2006, consulté le 14 décembre 2017. URL :

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