Mind your language

Are we living in a new pornocracy?

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

Are we living in a new pornocracy? The first one spanned six decades of the 10th century, during which there were 12 popes. Their elections were much influenced by Theodora, wife of the powerful consul Theophylact, and her daughter Marozia.

The idea of loose women running the papacy so excited Edward Gibbon that in The Decline and Fall, he claimed ‘the bastard son, two grandsons, two great grandsons, and one great great grandson of Marozia – a rare genealogy – were seated in the Chair of St Peter.’ In his enthusiasm he mistook Theodora and Marozia for sisters, not mother and daughter.

One of Marozia’s lovers, Pope John X, certainly had other interests, shoring up the Mozarabic liturgy and treating the Old Church Slavonic rite with suspicion, at least in Dalmatia. A brave man, he took the field in person against the Saracens, who had a fort on the Italian mainland. He won, but Marozia betrayed him and he died in a dungeon, perhaps regretting his moments of madness.


In Shakespeare’s day, the historian Cardinal Baronius called the years around the reign of John X the Saeculum Obscurum, the Dark Age (a phrase, as now, to throw about pejoratively). But the 19th century, so keen on ideas of sex and papal corruption, gave it the name of the Pornocracy. The term was first used in German, as Pornokratie, by Alfred Edersheim, an Austrian who became a Presbyterian in Aberdeen and an Anglican in Bournemouth. A German alternative was Hurenregiment – the Monstrous Regiment of Whores.

Women always get the blame, for the porn– element in pornocracy came from the Greek porne, a prostitute. Porn– became a productive prefix in words from pornogram (a short poem) to pornomania, an obsession, hungry or hostile, with pornography.

From the 1950s, pornography was abbreviated as porno. But from the 1960s, porn displaced it. When he began his inquiry into pornography in 1971, Lord Longford became known in Private Eye as Lord Porn.

Orwell had invented a section of the Ministry of Truth called Pornosec, whose employees ‘turned out cheap pornography for distribution among the proles’. At least the proles could read. Now porn is video, viewed by those who rule us, the new pornocracy.

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