Fragile Minds and Vulnerable Souls: The Matter of Obscenity in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Fragile Minds and Vulnerable Souls: The Matter of Obscenity in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Fragile Minds and Vulnerable Souls: The Matter of Obscenity in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Fragile Minds and Vulnerable Souls: The Matter of Obscenity in Nineteenth-Century Germany


Fragile Minds and Vulnerable Souls investigates the creation of "obscene writings and images" as a category of print in nineteenth-century Germany. Sarah L. Leonard charts the process through which texts of many kinds--from popular medical works to stereoscope cards--were deemed dangerous to the intellectual and emotional lives of vulnerable consumers. She shows that these definitions often hinged as much on the content of texts as on their perceived capacity to distort the intellect and inflame the imagination.

Leonard tracks the legal and mercantile channels through which sexually explicit material traveled as Prussian expansion opened new routes for the movement of culture and ideas. Official conceptions of obscenity were forged through a heterogeneous body of laws, police ordinances, and expert commentary. Many texts acquired the stigma of immorality because they served nonelite readers and passed through suspect spaces; books and pamphlets sold by peddlers or borrowed from fly-by-night lending libraries were deemed particularly dangerous. Early on, teachers and theologians warned against the effects of these materials on the mind and soul; in the latter half of the century, as the study of inner life was increasingly medicalized, physicians became the leading experts on the detrimental side effects of the obscene. In Fragile Minds and Vulnerable Souls, Leonard shows how distinctly German legal and medical traditions of theorizing obscenity gave rise to a new understanding about the mind and soul that endured into the next century.


What kind of society sends its citizens to prison for their fantasies?

—LAURA kipnis, Bound and Gagged, 3

In the diverse, decentralized patchwork of states that constituted the German Länder in the decades following the Napoleonic Wars, citizens and subjects were not sent to prison for their fantasies. Yet authorities were increasingly preoccupied with the contents of people’s minds and souls, and those caught producing or distributing “heart-destroying texts” faced confiscations, fines, loss of their business, and even jail. Meanwhile clerics, doctors, and pedagogues occupied themselves with understanding how souls were constructed and minds shaped. As books, pamphlets, and images traveled new routes and found untapped audiences along the way, these readers and texts were scrutinized and categorized. in a world quickened by revolutions and wars, expanding transportation networks, novel ways of living, and widening mental horizons, the circulation of print suggested that visible changes in the material world were accompanied by invisible transformations in the inner lives of individuals. Because people operated with fundamentally different concepts of inner life, both within and across periods, they conceived of the effects of print in various ways. What was consistent, however, was the conviction that exposure to certain kinds of texts and images could transform selves and societies, for better and for worse.

Print mattered, and because it did, various groups of people—from police and censors to publishers and pedagogues—devoted their energies to sorting through publications in an effort to identify which ideas, knowledge, and stories should be excluded from circulation. There was no consensus, of course, but together these groups forged . . .

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