Sex, Scandals and Censorship: Mirabeau’s Errotika Biblion

Written by Erika Delbecque, Special Collections Librarian

Our copy of Errotika Biblion, part of the Overstone Library.

Inconspicuous amongst the venerable old tomes on the shelves of our rare book store, an unassuming binding contains one of the most infamous texts of the Ancient Regime: Errotika Biblion, Ancient Greek for The Erotic Book, by Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau. On the occasion of Valentine’s Day, we explore the scandalous love affairs, forbidden passions and relentless prosecution that are intertwined with its publication history.

Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti (1749-1791) was a famous French statesman who played a key role in the early stages of the French Revolution. He was equally well-known for numerous scandals, several of which landed him in prison. When he joined the French cavalry regiment aged 18, he had an affair with the love interest of a superior, which resulted in his first imprisonment. After he was released, he joined the French mission to Corsica as a volunteer, where he had another scandalous affair. In 1772 he married the rich heiress Marie-Marquerite-Emilie de Covet, allegedly under controversial circumstances. She was already engaged to someone else and had rejected him several times, so he devised a treacherous plan to win her hand. He is said to have bribed one of her maids to let him into the room next to hers, and appeared on the shared balcony in the morning in his underclothes, chatting to passers-by. Her furious father realised his daughter’s reputation was at risk and arranged for the marriage to take place within days.

The Chateau de Vincennes, where Mirabeau was imprisoned when he wrote Errotika Biblion (photograph by Daniel Kakiuthi)

Mirabeau was imprisoned again in 1775 for taking part in a violent brawl. Whilst he was there, he obtained permission to visit the nearby town of Joux, which is where he met Marie Thérèse de Monnier, known as ‘Sophie’, who was also married at the time. The couple escaped to the Low Countries, and Mirabeau was sentenced to death for seduction and abduction. He was captured in 1777 and imprisoned in the Chateau de Vincennes in Paris, where he would remain until his release in 1780. To pass the time, he became a prolific writer. He wrote a series of erotic letters to Marie Thérèse, which he published under a pseudonym as Les Lettres à Sophie:

Are you sometimes happy, O dearly beloved? Do you in your dreams seem to realise all that my love means to you? Do you feel my kisses on your lips, do you press your own to mine in an abandonment of tenderness? [1]

The table of contents page of Errotika Biblion

It was during his imprisonment at Vincennes that he also wrote the Errotika Biblion. It is a peculiar work. Organised by different sexual practices and perversions into eleven chapters, including topics such as bestiality (‘Béhéma’), female homosexuality (‘L’Anandryne’) and nymphomania (‘La Linguanmanie’), it purports to offer a history of human sexual behaviour. Mirabeau draws on quotes from the Bible and ancient sources to provide historical examples of each sexual practice, and attacks the corruption of the clergy and the aristocracy in the process.

Fully aware of the outrage that his work would cause, Mirabeau published the book anonymously under a false imprint: although it was in fact printed in Switzerland by François Mallet, a bookseller who would later be arrested for publishing this work, the title page states it was printed ‘in Rome, at the Vatican Printing House’. This deliberate attempt to provoke the clerical authorities did not go unnoticed. The work was immediately banned by the Ancient Regime, and its publishers and booksellers were ardently prosecuted. It was destroyed on such a large scale, that only fourteen copies of the first edition are said to have survived.

The title page of Errotika biblion with the false imprint

However, all these efforts could not stop the text from circulating widely and achieving a notorious status. In 1783, the same year in which it was published, a pirated edition appeared on the market. A second official edition was printed in 1792, after which the book was included in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the list of books that were forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church. Although the work remained banned until the mid-nineteenth century, it was never out of print.

Given the amount of censorship it attracted, Mirabeau would undoubtedly be surprised to know that his infamous book is now freely available to all. Digitised copies from the Bibliothèque nationale de France and Ohio State University can be consulted online through, respectively,Gallica and the Haiti Trust website. Anyone who wishes to view our copy is welcome to contact us to make an appointment to view it in our reading room.

References

[1]  Mirabeau, Honoré-Gabriel de Riquetti. Mirabeau’s love-letters. London: A.L. Humphreys, 1909. Available at: <https://archive.org/details/mirabeauslovelet00miraiala>.

Leave a Reply