The World's Biggest Porn Stash

You might not think much of a visit to the largest library in France, but then you probably haven't seen its collection of historic erotica yet.
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You might not think much of a visit to the largest library in France, but then you probably haven't seen its collection of historic erotica yet.

As you enter the softly lit L'Enfer chamber in the basement of the most famous library in France, you'll immediately notice a cabinet containing a couple of well-thumbed illustrated books. They were published in 1750; one features a picture of a handbag-sized dog giving oral sex to a Paris Hilton lookalike and the other reveals a hand-maiden thoughtfully guiding a donkey’s cock into the buxom bottom of her smiling friend.

Strange enough for you? No? Well check out the 250-year-old action in the illuminated alcoves nearby. There's men with hooves mounting nymphs against trees, Anthony slipping Cleopatra a quick one and that original sex god Venus showing exactly why she enjoying being on top when she shagged Mars. It's all a bit disconcerting, and so it should be – I've just arrived in Hell.

Well, a Parisian version of hell at least. Referred to as L'Enfer (or Hell in French), the Bibliothèque National's collection of pornography and erotica is probably the biggest in the world. The reason why is simple: when the public library was established in 1720, its most important duty was to collect a copy of every book, etching and pamphlet produced in France. As the collection grew so did a worrying trend for pornography.

By 1830, tales of wild Parisian brothels, naughty nun novels, rampant riding donkeys and insatiable nymph pictures were starting to pile up all over the place. Something had to be done. So, the librarians carefully annotated them into categories – novels, poetry, etchings, shagging goddesses, etc – and hid them. There was a collective sigh of relief. Good work. Higher authorities had spoken, the lower classes were saved from themselves and nobody need ever see this terrible collection again. Except, of course, the poor overworked librarians in charge of the collection who were annotating themselves silly.

The result was that by the late 20th Century the L'Enfer collection had grown to at least 1,900 works, featuring examples of wonderful artistry, comic genius and often astonishing depravity. In fact, those secretive librarians had done their job so well that many believed the collection was an urban myth, a porn collector's wet dream, until two years ago when the library opened the doors of Hell for three months only and a curious public piled in to see just what they had been missing. More than 80,000 people turned up. Including me.

So how hot, er, was Hell? Well, it depends on what you're used to. When I visited there were aspects that certainly turned my stomach, especially the 'pet pictures', featuring skeletal caged monkeys buggering girls from behind bars or giant dogs mounting Japanese women with their cartoon tongues out (the dogs, not the girls).

Sadly, I've never been able to tell my martinets from my discipline des moines, so I couldn't really appreciate the engravings illustrating the vicious sadomasochistic fantasies of the infamous Marquis de Sade. People embedded on spiked cogs, women being raped while suspended from chains and pregnant women being squashed in that 18th Century favourite, the 'people crusher', have never done it for me.

Whatever. Dont let Sade's miserable view cloud your perspective of this wonderful collection. Much of the work would make you seriously laugh. There are 18th Century etchings featuring woods of dick-shaped trees, women beating men with cock clubs, giant ejaculating volcanoes and an engraving of "the biggest penis of the world", with Lilliputian women climbing on ladders to get a better view of the gigantic 40-metre-high balls. It's beyond surreal.

Sociologically, the exhibition opens up whole new chapters on Europe's hidden history. There are handy 18th Century guides to the brothels of Paris that are obsessive in their detail from the price of each girl, with illustrations, to her location and specific specialties. Like all good guidebook writers, these guys took their work seriously, and there are hundreds of pencil marks in margins noting good or bad value for money.

Pornography often played a satirical role in the 18th Century. The church, for example, comes in for a serious 'pornover'. Bishops are, naturally, bashing away, priests have more on their minds than prayers and nuns are shown as frigid and frustrated. In one bizarre illustration a lobster is inexplicably attached to a mother superior's pubes.

But the most vicious satire is reserved for the royal family. Louis XVI's wife Marie Antoinette is demonised in 18th Century pictures as the happiest hooker in Paris with a Versailles-sized appetite for sexual excess. Her husband, meanwhile, is portrayed as a giant deflated cock, too exhausted to carry out the affairs of state let alone stand long enough to service his wife. It's hardcore, and difficult to imagine 21st Century cartoonists being as vicious with, say, 'the People’s Princess', Diana.

And let's not forget, erotic writing and art have always attracted contributions from seriously heavy hitters, and they are well represented in L'Enfer. There is a photo of a blowjob by the modernist photographer Man Ray that is unflinching in its detail, from the clarity of the fat cock to the exquisitely applied lipstick of 'Kiki of Montparnasse'. The surrealist Salvador Dali was also fond of playing with dicks, particularly his own, and his illustrations for the self-explanatory Onan have pride of place in the library's 20th Century cabinets

The strange thing was that, after a couple of hours wandering around L’Enfer, everything blurred into one. After the occasional sharp intake of breath (a 19th Century blueprint for a shagging rocking horse machine, perhaps) or a schoolboy snigger (the 18th Century cock lollipop, maybe) everything became repetitive. The fucking, the sucking, the group sex, the solitary sex, the lesbian shows, the whipping and man's relentless obsession with his bits.

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After a while nothing seemed unusual. The tide of work tirelessly followed the same obsessive themes that have been around forever from shagging couples painted on Roman urns in 79AD to, well, shagging couples photographed in 20th Century books.

The thing is that, as soon as man worked out how to paint an urn, carve a woodcut or build a printing press, that mode of reproduction was instantly used to create porn. So, when the camera came along in about 1850, it wasn't only used to photograph generals, presidents and politicians, but rather lesbian shows, buggery by men in top hats and lots of girls with their legs open on comfortable cushions.

L'Enfer’s collection of photography is limited because many pictures were destroyed by police during raids in the 19th Century, but there is enough to give a decent overview. One particularly enthusiastic amateur, for example, took pictures of more than 1,500 girls with their bits in the air between 1889 and 1910 and then carefully pasted them into children's scrapbooks.

But the most wonderful L'Enfer artifact of all, in my opinion, is the restored footage of a 1921 silent porn film. It's wonderful because, beyond a love for a more hirsute woman, it could have been shot in 2010.

And the plot seemed vaguely familiar. Basically, two lesbians en flagrante are disturbed by a Charlie Chaplin-esque figure. "Oh, shock, horror, what are we to do?" say the girls in subtitled French. "We'll do anything if you don't tell." "Don’t worry," says Charlie, comforting the poor things. The girls then thoughtfully go down on him. I know it's an 89-year-old film, but stop me if you've seen it before…

In 1969 the collection of work for L'Enfer officially stopped. The world of erotica had changed beyond recognition and morals had come a long way from being shocked by naughty nuns (even those with lobsters). The move was timely. Erotic imagery was more readily available, VHS and BETA formats were just around the corner and soon broadband would open up a whole new universe of horny-handed opportunity.

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The collection's curators say the library has occasionally stocked up on a rare Sade first edition or some internationally recognised erotic photography, but the main reason they couldn't continue with its original function of collecting everything published was practicality. The task would have been simply impossible. There is now enough erotica produced every day to fill a dozen libraries.

Away from the soaring towers of the Bibliothèque, I took a taxi to Gare du Nord and passed the peep shows, lap dancing clubs and sex shops of Pigalle. Behind the beaded curtains of a thousand neon lights were racks of material offering updated versions of what I'd just seen and lots of men transfixed by images on mobile phone screens. The medium may have changed, but the message is always the same.

Tragically the L’Enfer exhibition did not go on tour, but many of the documents can still be publicly viewed. "It is possible to view some of the documents fromL'Enfer, but you must apply in person at the library for a reader card," said a library spokeswoman. "The documents can never leave the library and each item is individually monitored. Some of the older more precious archive material cannot be accessed without special permission." It sounds complicated. "We produced a book about L'Enfer, but I don’t know if there are many around now, they were very popular."

For more (if you can take it) go to www.bnf.fr