11 September 2009

Pornography of the Puritan

Much of these past two months has been consumed by research into Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, its supposed author and the clergymen who perpetrated the hoax. Words are nearly always accompanied by images that are disturbing and, in some cases, unintentionally comical. The Disneyesque depiction of Maria above, taken from the cover of an undated 20th century English edition, ranks with the most tame. Time and again, I'm reminded of Richard Hofstadter's observation that 'anti-Catholicism has always been the pornography of the Puritan'.

Most 19th century editions feature the same 38 engravings, all depicting characters and scenes in the book. There is, for example, the 'inhuman priest' Bonin in action pose. According to the book, it is he who, with an undisclosed number of nuns, trampled Sister St. Frances to death. Many of the images feature tormented nuns, women who have endured rape and torture, such as the 'melancholy' Sister St. Martin and 'Mad Jane Ray'. In the illustration below we see Maria herself, recovering from 'the cap', an instrument of punishment described as 'small, made of a reddish looking leather, fitted closely to the head, and fastened under the chin with a kind of buckle.' The reader is told that it was 'common practice to tie the nun's hands behind, and gag her before the cap was put on, to prevent noise and resistance.'

While the reader is shown the convent's tools of torture, the closest we get to an actual depiction accompanies a detailed description of the punishment inflicted upon poor Jane Ray. Remarks our heroine, 'I could not help noticing how very similar this punishment was to that of the Inquisition.' And so, we're provided with an engraving.

Bondage, flogging, branding... it's no wonder that the 'awful disclosures' found readers amongst those attracted to the works of Sacher-Masoch, Sade and Mirbeau. Indeed, the book has at times been packaged to attract just such an audience. Here, for example, is a 1971 edition from London's Canova Press (publishers of The Order of the Rod and Harriet Marwood, Governess).

The most egregious illustration I've yet come across comes not from a copy of Awful Disclosures, but a tract promoting the book's claim that the Hôtel-Dieu convent contains a lime pit into which the infants of nuns and priests are thrown.

Perhaps a bit of comic relief is in order. I recognize and appreciate that there will be some who will not recognize this last example as such, but like the ranting of conspiracy theorist and crazy man Glenn Beck, I find it pretty amusing. In 1854, an earlier loon named H.M. Hatch self-published Popery Unmasked, a 76-page booklet intended to expose the 'debasing tendency of Roman Catholicism'... and, it seems, Pius IX as Satan. The author references Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk as one of five works that 'stand as high as any historical works now in use'. Not that the authority conferred by Hatch in any way prevents him from tampering with the text – he abridges here and adds a phrase or two there, pretty much making a mess of things. For Hatch, like Beck, there isn't a lie that can't be improved upon.


  1. There's something very funny about 'One of the most powerful accounts of depravity ever written' - 'ILLUSTRATED'!

  2. "Most 18th-century editions"
    18th century?

  3. My bad. This should read '19th century'. I've been making this same mistake since elementary school (not that I was reading Maria Monk then). I'll correct it.