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This course aims to introduce students to the history of English laws surrounding obscenity, and the book trade that developed around “forbidden books” between 1810 and 1960. Working with a wide range of rare books, ephemera, and bibliographical material, students will examine how, at different times, this trade linked the production, distribution, and reception of diversely arrayed publications—including pornography, medical and scientific works, song and joke books, radical political tracts, and avant-garde literature—and was associated with different industries and movements outside the book trade. The trade’s on-going affiliation with the risqué, the censored, and the banned has often overshadowed its relationship with public culture, and influenced its production processes in ways that can make it difficult to trace the publication histories of the works it produced. Another aim of the course, therefore, will be equipping students with strategies for approaching ‘books that (might) lie,’ and introducing them to bibliographical skills that can shed light on such works’ histories.

Educational Aims

This course aims to give students an introduction to the history of English laws surrounding obscenity, and the book trade that developed around “forbidden books” between 1810 and 1960. Examining books, periodicals, and ephemera produced both within and beyond the nation’s boundaries, the course investigates the relationship between the book trade, its products, and cultural and political debates about what constitutes permissible reading material for different groups.

Learning Outcomes

1. An understanding of the nature of English laws surrounding obscene publications, and how they changed over time.

2. An understanding of how obscenity laws impacted the book trade at different times.

3. An understanding of the print culture that developed around books thought to be “forbidden” or “banned” during this period.

4. An appreciation of the book trade’s interdependence with other forms of industry.

5. An understanding of the challenges involved in undertaking research on clandestine or semi-clandestine publications, and of strategies that may help overcome them.

Recommended/Introductory Reading

Colligan, Colette. A Publisher’s Paradise: Expatriate Literary Culture in Paris, 1880-1960. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.

McCalman, Iain. Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988

Mendes, Peter. Clandestine Erotic Fiction in English, 1800–1930. Aldershot: Scolar, 1993.

Potter, Rachel. Obscene Modernism: Literary Censorship and Experiment, 1900-1940. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Sigel, Lisa Z. Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in England, 1815-1914. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002.


Sarah Bull is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, where she is completing her first book, The Business of Sexual Knowledge: Medical Publishing and Obscenity in Victorian Britain. She joined Cambridge in 2015, after completing her PhD in English, with a focus on nineteenth-century British print culture, at Simon Fraser University. Her work on the histories of censorship, obscenity and print has appeared in Book History, the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Porn Studies, and the Victorian Review.