Catholic and Protestant obscenity

It is worth pointing out that the mention of bodily function is likely to be more shocking in a Protestant than in a Catholic culture. It has often seemed to me that the offensive language of Protestantism is obscenity; the offensive language of Catholicism is profanity or blasphemy: one offends on a scale of unmentionable words for bodily function, the other on a scale of disrespect for the sacred. Dante places the Blasphemous in Hell as the worst of the Violent against God and His Works, but he has no category for punishing those who use four-letter words.

The difference is not, I think, national, but religious. Chaucer, as a man of Catholic England, took exactly Dante’s view in the matter of what was and what was not shocking language. In “The Pardoner’s Tale,” Chaucer sermonized with great feeling against the rioters for their profanity and blasphemy (for they way they rend Christ’s body with their oaths) but he is quite free himself with “obscenity.” Modern English readers tend to find nothing whatever startling in his profanity, but the schoolboys faithfully continue to underline the marvels of his Anglo-Saxon monosyllables and to make marginal notes on them.

John Ciardi, note on Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, The Inferno, Canto XXI (pp. 112-3)


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