Book by Romance studies professor compares images of medieval saints to modern pornography

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Blaine Friedlander

The images of saints in medieval Europe bear an uncanny resemblance to modern pornographic images, says Cary Howie, assistant professor of Romance studies and director of Cornell's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies Program, in his new book, "Sanctity and Pornography in Medieval Culture: On the Verge" (Manchester University Press).

The book, which Howie co-wrote with William Burgwinkle of the University of Cambridge, examines the physical intensity of "sacred bodies." It uses images and accounts of pain and pleasure, bodily exposure and concealment to explore the links between medieval devotion and contemporary eroticism.

In "Sanctity and Pornography," saints and centerfolds appear side by side; medieval narratives and illuminations share the page with modern short stories, photography and film. From the life of Saint Alexis to XTube, from Renaissance pornographer Pietro Aretino to gay porn pioneer Wakefield Poole, "Sanctity and Pornography" uncovers texts and images that diminish the distance between the sexual and the sacred and between premodern Europe and contemporary California.

The book's central argument, as described in the introduction, is that the bodies of medieval saints, like the bodies of modern centerfolds and movie stars, "disclose themselves to us as they simultaneously summon us to be disclosed ... after all, the body in ecstasy, sacred or profane, is only ever as ecstatic as the viewer looking on."

The Modern Language Association held a special panel discussion Jan. 6 on Howie's book as part of its annual conference.

Linda Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.


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