The Politics of Preservation & Censorship

'BnF: L'Enfer de la Bibliothèque, Eros au secret'

'BnF: L'Enfer de la Bibliothèque, Eros au secret' by Yann Caradec (y.caradec) on Flickr.

I’m accustomed to tales of librarians sticking up for our rights to read whatever we like. Attendees at the Music: Parts and Labor conference at New York University recently were treated to exactly that kind of demonstration, as Columbia University librarian and activist Aliqae Geraci discussed a variety of labor and access issues (including the move away from owning an item toward licensing of e-journals and e-books: when an item is only licensed, it can easily be removed without the purchaser’s agreement. And even open access e-journals/e-books, she suggested, still have problems, including the hidden labor involved in creating and maintaining them). I also remember the librarians sticking up for Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men in 2002. To be honest, it has been a while since I encountered a recent tale of library censorship, but it transpires that Florida libraries have removed an erotic novel from their shelves: Fifty Shades of Grey banned from Florida libraries (Guardian).

Libraries ‘protecting’ readers from encountering erotic material has a pretty long history. The l’Enfer collection in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France was created in the nineteenth century to make sure erotic materials could only be seen by those who would not be affected by them. (This is the odd thing about censorship: the censors look at stuff that they may then decide would deprave or corrupt others. I’m not a fan of pornography—much of it is misogynistic, and I don’t find misogyny erotic—but I don’t think the way to deal with misogyny is to sweep it under the carpet and pretend it’s not there.) Many books on historical erotic materials open with authors’ accounts of going to the BNF and being taken in to a private room (so they couldn’t corrupt other readers) and having to be supervised while consulting images, pamphlets, poems and books. But back in 2007/8, the BNF put on a public exhibition of materials from the collection, and the catalogue is still available.

The equivalent in the British Library is the locked case book. I read sixteenth/seventeenth century Italian editions of Pietro Aretino’s works that were treated like any other rare book: they arrive, you give your seat number when you collect the book, you carry the book back to your seat and work away until you finish. When I read a modern English translation of Aretino (from the 1970s or 1980s), however, it arrived in a locked case. I had to switch desks within the Rare Books & Music reading room so that the music librarian could watch over me; the issuing librarian brought the case over to me and unlocked it at my new desk. After that, it was the same. But it was really quite bizarre: you can order up any number of English-language scholarly books about Aretino or about eroticism, and even more recent translations don’t seem to be in a locked case, but this book, for some reason, was considered particularly precious. Perhaps it was the only copy left in the world, although I don’t think that explains the locked case since most of their rare books aren’t in locked cases. However, at least I could consult the book, which is more than can be said for Florida library users who want to read Fifty Shades of Grey.

The Shepherdess and the Shepherd


So, I’m sure you can guess what’s coming next, so strong is the association between shepherdesses and eroticism in the sixteenth century (and if you can’t, you might wish to have a look at Titian’s Three Ages of Man in the National Gallery of Scotland). This is a text in a 1533 publication, best known because it’s the first time the word madrigal appears in a title: Madrigali novi . . . Libro primo de la Serena. Stefano Campagnola has convincingly argued that the book is associated with the Colonna family, one of the big Roman families. The collection is a mix of chansons and Italian texted pieces, among them this song about a shepherdess. As far as I know, this song does not appear in any other music collections (although I have yet to check Jeppesen).

Quando mia pastorella
voi ch’io ritorni al delettevol monte
dove è d’ogni dolceza il vivo fonte
non son Chirsuto* fauno, orso ne ladro    * hyrsuto in the bassus partbook
ma quel pastor che fai
“O più bella che rosa, lacte e giglio
se[i] in queste silve.” “Mi provasti mai.”
Allor, quando al legiadro
bel volto, ai labri d’un color vermiglio
con morsi io diedi, piglio
oime, oime che gli è pur si suave il fonte
che vorrei sempre ritrouarmi al monte.

(I’ve retained the original spelling, but added punctuation, accents and speech marks.) I’m not entirely sure I’ve got the metre, accents and dialogue right yet.

Here’s my working translation (input welcome).

When my shepherdess
desires that I return to the delightful hill
where the living source of all sweetness is,
I am not a hirsute faun, bear or thief [i.e., I do not behave like]
but that shepherd who says,
“O more beautiful than rose, milk & lily
you are in these woods.” – “You never ?tasted me.”
Now, when to the graceful
beautiful face, to the vermilion lips,
with bites I gave, she took,
Oh, it is so sweet, the spring/source
that I would like always to find myself on the hill.

How should “mi provasti mai” be translated? I used “tasted” because of the references to milk and biting. But I’m not sure it’s the best way to understand “provasti”. And the only way I can understand this is if it’s the shepherdess speaking, but is there something I’m missing?

Photo credit: sheeps by staflo, on Flickr.