Sodomy, syphilis and scatology are the subjects of investigation by a new research network examining obscenity in Renaissance France, thanks to an award of almost £50,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Hugh Roberts, a lecturer in French at Exeter University, said: "France witnessed an official reaction against obscenity in the course of the 17th century, beginning most obviously with the trial in 1623 of Theophile de Viau, who wrote an infamous sonnet on sodomy. To comprehend this reaction, it is essential to understand its pre-history in the Renaissance."
What constituted obscenity concerned Renaissance artists as much as it does those in the modern day. "Writers in the most diverse fields, from law to literature and from religion to medicine, were constantly worrying about the acceptability or otherwise of their work," said Dr Roberts.
The team will study religious propaganda, which uses scatology to sully opponents, and Latin commentaries on obscene ancient poetry.
"Questions raised by these works have contemporary resonance," Dr Roberts said. "How far can a comedian go with his dirty jokes? What should a translator do when faced with work that oversteps his or her limits?"
Dr Roberts is setting up a network of more than 20 specialists in French Renaissance studies from the UK, US, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland. More than half the team members will be early-career researchers.
On awarding the grant, an AHRC assessor said: "The setting up of a vibrant new network in Renaissance French studies, an area under threat in isolated institutions (because it is relatively specialised), would be of invaluable benefit, affording it an international critical mass drawn from major institutions of the US, Europe and the UK."
The AHRC said the project would improve transatlantic collaboration among newer scholars.
It also praised its "huge interdisciplinary potential across the boundaries of literary, social, political, intellectual and art history, not to mention religious history and the history of censorship".