Obscenity: when were the Middle Ages in the United States?

Hunter Osborn, a young footballer from Arizona, was caught by the American justice system for showing off his penis in a group photo. News item?

Relayed by the Huffington Post, The Independent and American public opinion, the schoolboy misadventure of Hunter Osborn (19 years old) could make one smile… if he had not been facing 70 charges (including 69 for molestation). A symbolic figure if ever there was one, which helps to accentuate what, unfortunately, is not a hoax.

In an American society where obscenity is a charge, exhibition should not be trifled with.

“I know her when I see her”

If England (The Obscene Publication Act, 1857) and Canada (Criminal Code of 1892, amended in 1959) were already pioneers in judgments on “good morals”, the United States (Supreme Court of the States, Justice Potter Stewart, Jacobellis vs. Ohio trial, 1964) added a new legislative test for ruling on obscene: “ I know it when I see it ”.

Regarding Hunter Osborn, everyone has their own opinion: “the small size of the photograph […] makes details difficult to distinguish” (Helen Hollands, Mesa Public Schools). In addition to the subjective nature of “recognition”, the legal criterion poses a problem…

Indeed, the group photo at the start of the year of the Red Mountain High School football players circulated for weeks in a very official way on various media without anyone realizing the incongruous detail. Not to mention the 69 counts of indecent assault which correspond to the 69 people present in the group photo who certainly did not see the object of the offense…

“It feels like we’re in the Middle Ages!” »

Embrace of a couple. Modillon today located inside the lower Romanesque part of the chapel adjoining (16th century) the nave. Saint-Quentin Church, 12th-13th centuries, Chermignac, Charente-Maritime. Author provided

This is the impression given by this news item… Not to mention the numerous other condemnations, bans and censorships linked in recent years to questions of obscenity (see the photo of Kylie Minogue holding a teddy bear and an unfortunately misplaced microphone , removed from Facebook in 2010).

Yes, “it feels like the Middle Ages”: because the notion of obscenity was born during this period to express the norm and its transgression. But the Middle Ages did not use it to censor and condemn on the grounds of “good morals” and religion.

The sexual and scatological images which adorn medieval churches are an illustration of this, as are the lucky sexes exhibited by the pilgrims of Santiago de Compostela.

Erotic sign: three phalluses, one female penis. Cluny Museum/Jean-Gilles Berizzi, Author provided

And what to think of this Christ revealing an enormous phallus found in an 11th century breviary?

Liber evangeliorum et capitulare, Porrentruy, Bibl. Jura cantonal, ms. 34, p. 31. Christoph Flüeler, Ramona Fritschi, Fabio Montefiori, Author provided

Even medieval law seizes the obscene to strengthen its power: exhibited, the naked body participates fully in the legal procedure (in the case of infamous sentences, the condemned are undressed and exhibited, or placed head to tail on an animal ; in adultery judgments, the lovers must run naked through the streets, the woman holding her lover’s penis by a rope).

Obscenity, in the Middle Ages, is therefore a device for exercising judgment: in the literal sense, it is a means of defining common law and particular law; figuratively speaking, it is an intellectual force for thinking about freedom.

Obscene Middle Ages? – Obscene contemporary world?

In the face to face of cultures where the barbarian, since Montaigne, is always the other, a collective work Obscene Middle Ages? tried to understand what obscenity is at its origin. If obscenity refers, according to its first etymology, to “mud, mire” (from the Latin caenum ), it is also, according to another etymology, “that which is off-stage” ( ob-scanea ).

Thus, obscenity, far from prohibiting and judging, lends itself to questioning what societies “put behind” (by showing “behinds”, precisely). Calling on freedom of thought, the exercise of lucidity and critical thinking, the medieval obscene helps to question the contemporary obscene to rid it of ready-made categories and a priori. When were the Middle Ages in the United States?

And if we only needed one clue to referee the cultural match between France and the United States, we could cite L’Équipe , which relayed the information of the obscene gesture of Hunter Osborn speaking of “a little joke which worked too well […] to make his friends laugh.” The tone is set.

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