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Related: bawdy - burlesque - dirty - erotica - farce - humour - obscene - picaresque - pornography - racy - risqué - satire - subversive - vulgar

Ribaldry has likely been around for the whole history of the human race, and is present to some degree in every culture. Works like Aristophanes' Lysistrata, the Cena Trimalchionis by Petronius, and the Metamorphoses or Golden Ass of Apuleius are ribald classics from ancient Europe. Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" from his Canterbury Tales is a classic medieval example. François Rabelais showed himself to be a master of ribaldry in his Gargantua. Mark Twain's long-suppressed 1601 certainly falls in this category. More recent works like Candy by Terry Southern, films like Barbarella by Roger Vadim, or the comedic works of Russ Meyer are probably better classified as ribaldry than as either pornography or erotica.

Titles: The Golden Ass: Or Metamorphoses (100s) - Apuleius - The Indiscreet Jewels (1748) -

Plate from the I Modi collection (1524) - Giulio Romano (drawing), Marcantonio Raimondi (engraving)

In the early 1500s, Pietro Aretino wrote a collection of 16 ribald poems called Sonetti Lussuriosi to accompany Giulio Romano's 16 explicit drawings.

Falling into the hands of the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi, the poems and drawings received wider distrubition, which lost him the public patronage of Pope Leo X.


Ribaldry is the third and somewhat neglected genre of sexual entertainments, something different from either pornography or erotica, yet is often confused with them.

Unlike either pornography or erotica, which play sex or sexual fetishes "straight," ribaldry aims at humor. Sexual situations and titillation are presented in ribald material more for the purpose of poking fun at the human foibles and weaknesses that manifest themselves in human sexuality, rather than to present sexual stimulation either simply or artistically. Also, ribaldry may use sex as a metaphor to illustrate some non-sexual concern, in which case ribaldry may verge on the territory of satire.

Like any humor, ribaldry may be read as conventional or subversive. Ribaldry typically depends on a shared background of sexual conventions and values, and its comedy generally depends on seeing those conventions broken. Depending on your attitude, viewers can perceive this either as poking fun on the poor souls who suffer the consequences of breaking the taboos, or as flouting the taboos themselves.

The ritual taboo-breaking that is a usual counterpart of ribaldry underlies its controversial nature, and why ribaldry is frequently a subject of censorship. Ribaldry, whose usual aim is not "merely" to be sexually stimulating, often does address larger concerns than mere sexual appetite. However, being presented in the form of comedy, these larger concerns seem to censors to be un-serious. Moreover, the presence of satirical content in ribaldry tends to rouse the wrath of authorities, who may overlook more explicit sexual entertainments in order to prosecute comedians whom they perceive as attacking conventions they wish to maintain.

See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ribaldry


Suggestive of or bordering on indelicacy or impropriety. --AHD
[French, from past participle of risquer, to risk, from risque, risk. See risk.] --AHD

Bordering on indelicacy or impropriety: blue, earthy, off-color, provocative, racy, salty, scabrous, spicy, suggestive. See decent/indecent. --Roget's Thesaurus

Rabelais, Aretino and early print culture

But two less noble works did more to popularize print and bring literacy to the masses than the scholarly works. These were Pietro Aretino's Postures (1524) and Francois Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel (1530-40). Of the two, the Postures was the more pornographic in the strict sense, a series of engravings of sexual positions, each with a ribald sonnet. Rabelais' work, on the other hand, instantly entered the canon, where it has remained ever since. His tales of the two courtly giants, Gargantua and his son Pantagruel, the vinous monk Friar John and the reprobate scholar Panurge, are classics of satire and adventure, spoofing every vestige of the Middle Ages from feudal war to scholasticism to law to religion, with hearty doses of sex and scatology. Playful governesses introduce Gargantua to sex; Gargantua's horse pisses an army away; a woman scares the devil away by exposing her vagina; Panurge scatters musk on a fine lady who scorned him, exciting the dogs of Paris to rapine and rut. Both Aretino's and Rabelais' works were censured, but since censure at the time made no distinction between political, religious, and social heresies, one cannot be sure they were banned for smut. What is sure is that both were popular, Aretino remaining the underground porn classic for centuries, Rabelais traveling a somewhat higher road. Rabelais' boast in Gargantua and Pantagruel that "more copies of it have been sold by the printers in two months than there will be of the Bible in nine years" was first, probably true, and second, prescient advice to new media: sex sells. --http://www.law.indiana.edu/fclj/pubs/v49/no1/johnson.html [Jul 2006]

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