Archive for the ‘History’s Taboos’ Category

Fact or Fiction: All the below books were once banned?

  1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)
  2. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
  3. The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer)
  4. Slaughterhouse Five (William Kurt Vonnegut)
  5. Lord of the Flies (William Golding)
  6. A Wring in Time (Madeleine L’Engle)
  7. 1984 (George Orwell)
  8. Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift)
  9. Candide (Voltaire)
  10. OF Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)
  11. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
  12. The Harry Potter Series (J.K. Rowling)
  13. The Ginger Man (J.P. Donleavy)

Fact: Over the history of literature many books have been banned for sexual, racial, political, or religious reasons. The above books have all been banned for some (if not all) of these reasons.

Breakdown: Interestingly, all the above banned books are now considered classics. A banning on literature such as this should give writers the confidence to write what they artistically feel is necessary. Censorship will occur, but censorship cannot fully destroy or stop popularity or literary acclaim. In fact, in some instances, censorship probably helps gain recognition for a book or artist. Perhaps this is why many writers take on taboo subjects in their stories: taboo literature has been well received by history. The lesson here: write without chains!

Extras: For more banned books look at the American Library Association’s list of “Banned and Challenged Classics” here.

Fact or Fiction: The breakfast cereal Cornflakes was initially invented to help stop the human race from masturbating?

Fact: In the late 19 century, John Harvey Kellogg invented cornflakes in part to curb people (mostly men) from masturbating. At the time it was widely believed that masturbation led to insanity and in order to help contain sexual desire a bland diet was recommended. Thus, Cornflakes became the perfect prescription. In addition, Kellogg was a proponent of both male and female circumcision.[1]

Breakdown: How many of us realize this when we pick up a box of Cornflakes from our local supermarket? Perhaps this once again shows how the truth, in many ways, is taboo. If this happened today you would probably see the boycotting and discontinuation of the cereal.

[1] The History Channel, How Sex Changed the World: Sexpocalypse, 2013.

Fact or Fiction: The breakfast cereal Cornflakes were initially invented to help stop the human race from masturbating?

Taboo: Gavage is the act of giving food or drugs by force, especially to an animal. In other words it is the process of force-feeding. And in Mauritania (a country in West Africa) some parents force their daughters to eat and eat until they cannot eat anymore. And once they are filled they are forced to eat more. Certain stories tell of girls being tortured for refusing to overeat. Mauritania is (was?) a country that believes obesity is beautiful. Some men in the country prefer to marry women who are purposefully overweight and therefore parents often fatten up their daughters to increase their chances of being married.

Breakdown: Mauritania has an established an idea of beauty that is very dissimilar from much of Western civilization. Whereas Western societies put an emphasis on the skinny or anorexic, the people of Mauritania find beauty in the opposite body type. In truth beauty can be found in both the so-called skinny of fat. And most things are both ugly and beautiful at the same time. Yet since anorexia and obesity are linked to serious health conditions, the thought of forcing a person to be either of these seem inherently wrong. Perhaps gavage is now more of a forbidden taboo. But the past is so often resurrected.


A common saying emphasizes that beauty is different to each and every eye, and if that were true the opposite would be the same: ugliness is in the eye of the beholder. However, the laws of not so long ago saw this differently. According to the almost forgotten “ugly laws” certain people were seen as too unsightly to be viewed in public:

Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares, or public places in this city, shall not therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 [about $20 today] for each offense. (Chicago City Code 1881)1

Some might say that this isn’t much different than a law against public nudity. Yet this doesn’t quite seem the same. I couldn’t imagine a law today that refused to allow wounded veterans to walk the streets. Even calling a person ugly is one of those minor taboos we now call bullying. Nevertheless, it is unknown why there has never been a law that kept those who are ugly on the inside out of public view. Perhaps that is really what laws are supposed to do, though.

1 Susan Schweik, The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public (New York: NYU Press, 2006), 1-2.

Different cultures and time periods give rise to different taboos. These are fluid taboos, those that change like the seasons. Monthly, I will search through history in order to find these subjective taboos, or non-universal taboos.

“In the 1700s as many as 4,000 boys were castrated each year in Italy and 70 percent of all opera singers were castrati.”1

Today, in many parts of the world this action would be considered appalling and taboo.  But for those in the 18th century the castration of boys became commonplace: used to retain a boy’s high voice before the unset of puberty so that they could sing soprano or alto in the opera.

Some taboos become taboo and then stay taboo.  Yet I don’t foresee this practice regaining popularity, but perhaps all things are recycled.

1 Shih-Shan Henry Tsai, The Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty (New York: SUNY press, 1996), 11.

Sexuality is a major aspect of life that ties much of mankind together. Regardless of gender, race, or creed most humans find a need for sexuality. It then becomes curious that the Catholic Church would refuse to allow its priests to marry when sexuality is part of what makes a human a human.

Although a person does not need sexuality in order to actually be a human being, most, if not all human beings possess some sort of sexuality. Even asexuality speaks to sexuality’s impact in its denial of the very thing itself. Celibacy involves avoiding both marriage and sexual relations. But the recent sex scandals in the Catholic Church have made many reevaluate this stance, even going as far as calling to allow priests to marry. The very thought seems taboo to most of us. Yet not so long ago the opposite was true:

Married clergy were relatively common in the early Middle Ages, a time when the parish priest belonged as much to his village community as to the external community of the church. From the eleventh century onward, there was a movement of reform in the church that sought to draw a sharper distinction between clergy and laypeople, in part by forbidding priests to marry.1

The above passage shows us the cyclic nature of taboo. For a while now we have denied priests of sexuality, almost as if they are somehow less human than the rest us in terms of desire. But suppressing a thing, or disallowing a thing is not the same as its nonexistence.

The Western world emphasizes a censoring of sex while at the same time promoting it and using it to sell everything. Sometimes it is hard to watch a commercial break without watching a series of sexual references and innuendoes. How odd that we attack the very things we promote.

But why are we so afraid of sex? What is so taboo about sex and sexuality? about sexuality and faith? Would a priest be less of a priest because he has sex or marries? Do those who have sex really love God less?

These are the questions that we have to ask. And they are also the questions with multiple answers, yeses and noes.

But imagine a world of only celibates. Now, map out how many Homo sapiens exist?

1 Jeffrey L. Forgeng, Jeffrey L. Singman, Daily Life in Medieval Europe (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999) eBook.