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The Obscene in Early Modern Literature (2021-)

Luca Lil Wirth, Research Area 1: "Competing Communities"
Doctoral Research Project

The project deals with the obscene in early modern literature and examines literary figures and actions that do not conform to the norm, that even break it, that are irritating, grotesque, bizarre, sometimes marvellous or magical, or teetering on the brink of insanity. The focus of the analysis is on German-language texts that are part of a larger European tradition. Indeed, the early modern period offers a wide range of obscene objects of study in the guise of various genres: from numerous dissolute Mären and comically crude carnival plays (Fastnachtspiele) to lewd Schwanksammlungen and obscene or gallant poetry ‒ the obscene runs like a thread through various, mostly (but not exclusively) 'low' literary genres of the early modern period, which are full of double or ambiguous allusions, motifs, characters and plots.

If today we usually understand 'obscenity' to mean sexual and scatological transgressions, the term must be thought of much more broadly in regard to the early modern period, as the project aims to show. Of course, the pornographic-erotic as well as the excremental also fall under the overarching concept of the obscene: thus, normative figures such as a priest or a nun, by acting in a lustful, immoral and shameless manner, can become figures acting obscenely. But in addition to those acting libidinously, there are also figures that are considered obscene per se: The fool, the madman, the homosexual, the hermaphrodite, the person with disabilities, even the educated woman ‒ they all belong to these 'others' who diverge from the social norm by their very existence. What is striking here is that the obscene and the characters who act in an obscene manner are equally related to the physical, which evokes shame or disgust. Thus, in addition to the sexual and scatological, the levels of the repulsive, the diverse, the ugly, the grotesque, the ridiculous, etc. can also be subsumed under the obscene.

Situated within the project "Arts of Memory" at the Cluster of Excellence "Temporal Communities", the project will also focus on themes of pictoriality, text-image relations and different media, since writings branded as obscene were often published together with more or less salacious woodcuts. Thus, on the one hand, the project overcomes the (artificially) set barrier between the different media and allows the interdisciplinary networking of literature to come into focus; on the other hand, this approach opens up the possibility of examining individual and collective memory, which is always shaped by media and therefore not neutral, from a hitherto neglected point of view: the obscene.