The History of Porn

*This page is a work in progress! But eventually I hope to provide the definitive history of porn here 🙂

c.40,000 – 2,000 BC – Porn in the Prehistoric World

The earlist known depiction of a naked human being is The Venus of Hohle Fels, dated between 35-40,000 years ago. The figurine carved from mammoth ivory and found in Germany, depicts a large breasted very plump woman. It has been generally assumed that it represents some kind of fertility symbol, rather than intended as erotic stimulation, but who knows – perhaps our caveman ancestors were into BBWs?

The oldest nude figurine – fertility symbol or stoneage BBW porn?

In 2012 archaologists working in southeastern France discovered what is believed to be the oldest known cave art – dating from 35,000 years ago. To their astonishment, many of the paintings etched on to the ancient cave walls appeared to depict female sexual organs.

The oldest yet discovered depictions of sexual acts were found in Germany in 2005 and consist of stone figurines that apparently represent a man and woman having sex.

c.500 BC – 500 AD – Porn in the Classical World

Ancient Roman Porn

Like most of the inhabitants of the Classical World, the Ancient Romans were not a prudish bunch. In fact, when a 19th century European king set eyes upon the newly recovered art works from the ruins of Pompeii, he ordered many of them to be locked away out of sight due to their indecent nature. Indeed, the remarkably preserved frescos and paintings unearthed in the doomed Roman city provide our best insight to Ancient erotica as well as art in general. And artworks depicting graphic sexual acts have been dug up not only in the ancient brothels of Pompeii, but the houses of private Roman citizens, as well as even the Public Baths.

Ancient Roman erotic fresco painting Pompeii

An erotic Ancient Roman fresco on display in the restored public baths of ruined Pompeii

Roman oil lamp depicting sex

An Ancient Roman oil lamp depicting doggy style sex.

Ancient Indian Porn

The ancient Hindus of India, meanwhile, were creating the world’s first sex manual – the famous Kama Sutra, written somwehere between 400 and 200 BC. The book is divided into two parts, with the first discussing the philosophy of love, and the second part famously describing a large number of creative lovemaking positions. However, the original versions of the work did not actually carry any illustrations.

c.500 AD – 1500 AD – Porn in the Medieval World

Medieval European Porn

The medieval world may have been God fearing and more puritanical than the Greeks and Romans who went before them, but they surely thought about sex as much as any other people in history and sometimes were able to at least hint at it in their art. For example, Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous ‘The Canterbury Tales‘, written between 1387 and 1400, contains graphic sexual language including the common words for penis and vagina, and frankly depicts the sexual power that women have held over men, even in the Middle-Ages.

Medieval Indian Porn

Whilst Europe was going through a period of relative backwardness in art, technology..and sexual attitudes, the Hindus of India were still at it, creating their famous ‘sex temples‘ fully adorned with beautiful sculptures depicting a huge variety of hardcore sexual acts and positions. Ironically, India in the 21st century has taken a much more puritan tone.

khajuraho Indian sex temple

Sculptures adorning the famous Khajuraho Indian sex temples

c.1500 AD – 1700 AD – Porn in the Renaissance World

The renaissance began with a revival of interest in Europe’s classical past, and artist, painters, and sculptors began to turn away from exclusively religious subjects and begin again, like the Ancient Greeks and Romans had, to portray the beauty and grace of the human body. Most of the early Italian renaissance artists, such as Donetelli and Michaelangelo, seemed to be more interested in the bodies of youths and even boys, but ‘the Three Graces’ had been a popular symbol of female fertility since ancient times, and the great 16th century Italian artist Raphael painted it at least twice.

Raphael red chalk study The Three Graces

Raphael chalk study The Three Graces


Raphael Three Graces

The famous Three Graces painting by Raphael

Porn and the Printing Press

But it was the invention of the printing press, by the German Johannes Gutenberg in around 1439, the really opened up the floodgates of intellectual freedom which ended the closed outlook of the medieval world. And it wasn’t long before the printing presses were rolling out not only treatises against the established church, and Latin bibles translated into the local vernacular, but also some hardcore smut. The first true mass produced porn in history.

The very first true printed pornographic work may have been ‘I Modi‘ a collection of erotic engravings by Marcantonio Raimondi that were published in 1524, and were based themselves upon erotic drawings made by a student of Raphael (Giulio Romano) that depicted sexual positions. The work was suppressed by Pope Clement VIII, and the engraver Raimondi thrown into prison for a year. Nethertheless, they inspired the notorious Italian author and poet Pietro Aretino, perhaps the original literary pornographer/erotic fiction writer, to pen some sonnets to accompany the engravings. These became known as ‘The Sixteen Pleasures‘ when published together in 1527. It is believed that this was the first time in history that erotic images and text had been combined. Although the text of Aretino’s sonnets survive, only a few fragments of the original engravings are known to us (and housed in the British Museum).

fragments I Modi The Sixteen Pleasures

The nine surviving fragments of the original I Modi engravings

I Modi fragment naked woman

One of the 9 I Modi fragments

c.1700 – 1900 – Porn in the 18th & 19th Centuries

By the 1700s, the puritan movement of the previous century had finally been consigned to history, and the Englightenment ideas sweeping across Europe and the New World across the ocean were opening up a new era of sexual openness. Combined with the rise of the novel, this resulted in the first erotic fiction. The real catalyst in this regard, was a work named ‘Fanny Hill’, the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ of the Georgian era. According to Wikipedia :

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (popularly known as Fanny Hill, an anglicisation of the Latin mons veneris, mound of Venus) is an erotic novel by English novelist John Cleland first published in London in 1748. Written while the author was in debtors’ prison in London, it is considered “the first original English prose pornography, and the first pornography to use the form of the novel”. It is one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history.

Fanny Hill Les charmes de Fanny

An illustration to Fanny Hill by Édouard-Henri Avril.