16th Century image of Vertumnus and Pomona based on an erotic tale, in which Vertumnus the god of seasons seduces Pomona by taking on the appearance of a lady - Image from the University of Chicago Library.

Parlez-Vous Obscenity?

With nearly fifteen million Britons visiting France as tourists every year and less than a third of us speaking a second language a new online database might help you to better understand any insults thrown your way by that rude French waiter.

French is the most common second language amongst Britons but most of us on holiday in Paris would never even know if we had been insulted.

However, a research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), has brought together 30 researchers from the UK, France, USA, Switzerland and the Netherlands who have created a digital database of obscene phrases used in Renaissance France. 

Four hundred years on and the database contains terms that would still be considered obscene today, in the most open meaning of the word - from sexual double-entendres to scatalogical insults - in French and in neo-Latin, with an explanation in modern French, the source and the date.

It is not even a problem if the user does not speak or read French as an online translation service, such as Babelfish, and a French-English dictionary can helpfully translate the modern French phrase into English for you.

Led by Dr Hugh Roberts, Senior Lecturer in French in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Exeter, the research network on the ‘Notion of Obscenity in Renaissance France’ aims to show that though the French Renaissance is all too easily thought of as a time of coarse and bawdy humour and debauchery the reality is more complex and more interesting. Obscenity was an emergent concept at this time, well before official structures of censorship and control were really put in place.  This meant writers and artists in the most diverse fields were constantly worrying about the acceptability or otherwise of their work.

The serious use to which the database is being put is as an academic resource for all those interested in French Renaissance language and culture, however, it is also hoped that students and anyone else who might have lost interest in learning a second language might find it a useful way to regain an enthusiasm for what is sometimes called the language of love but could now rightly be called the language of profanity.

Dr Roberts said “Already we have had a number of students accessing and even contributing to the database and becoming enthused again about the playfulness and vigour of the French language and wanting to know more. Hopefully other people will also enjoy roaming around the database”.

Further to the database going live the team are also working towards two major publications of the network:

Obscenity in Late Medieval and Renaissance France, vol. 14 of EMF: Studies in Early Modern France, ed. by Russell Ganim and Hugh Roberts (publication approximately late 2009/early 2010).

A book, L'Obscénité en France à la Renaissance/Obscenity in Renaissance France, ed. by Guillaume Peureux, Hugh Roberts and Lise Wajeman is forthcoming with Droz in 2010.

Date: 21 August 2009