Human beings have always had a distinct taste for the bawdy and salacious, but it isn't uncommon in our modern age of swoonily nostalgic Janeites and easily accessed pornography to assume that sex as we know it was invented at Woodstock in 1969, a renascence of the distant Roman Empire's debaucheries. Not so. Every era has produced its own erotic literature and relished it. While there's little doubt that sex in Victorian literature was a wee bit more, ahem, refined, even the Victorians, whom we so love to deride as prudish and repressed, made up for it with a booming trade in prostitution and pornographic photographs. All of the books on this list were written, and most published, before 1800.
The Metamorphoses - Ovid (8 AD)
Chronicling history from creation to Caesar's deification, and recounting more than 250 mythic stories in the process, Ovid's masterpiece is one of the most influential works of Western literature. Ovid's favored theme is love in all its incarnations, from the lustful love of Venus for Adonis to the self-love of Narcissus, the tragic love of Orpheus for Eurydice to the jealous love of Juno for Jupiter. Sex in the Roman mythological universe is a lavish cornucopia of experiences, which makes modern day pornography look rather tame.
The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (1616, written 12th century)
Abelard and Heloise were two of the most brilliant minds of ecclesiastical Medieval society, lovers whose tempestuous affair led to an illegitimate child and Abelard's castration at the hands of her incensed relatives. Abelard became a monk, a renowned philosopher and teacher, while Heloise became an abbess and one of the few respected and admired female scholars of her time. Their correspondence centers on religious and spiritual concerns, but also divulges the history of their legendary amour.
The Decameron - Giovanni Boccaccio (1353)
A group of young men and women take refuge in a country estate from the plague raging in Florence, where they pass the time telling stories on different themes. Sex, the most conspicuous theme, is portrayed as both a healthy human impulse and an undeniable appetite. The clergy, particularly cloistered nuns and traveling monks, are as susceptible as the troublemakers, gamblers, and aristocrats. The stories, ranging from the side-splitting to the tragic, weave a colorful and kaleidoscopic tapestry of 14th century Italian life.
The Canterbury Tales - Geoffrey Chaucer (1400)
The seminal work of English language literature, Chaucer's magnum opus is a collection of tales related by the diverse men and women who meet on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The prologue of the Wife of Bath, in which a sexually rapacious woman exhausts her husbands to death with her unending demands, is the most notoriously lascivious of the tales. The book is heavily influenced by The Decameron, particularly in its often humorous depictions of the clergy.
Pick a Shakespeare, Any Shakespeare (1589-1613)
Shakespeare is undoubtedly the king of sexy one-liners, puns, and metaphors, and nearly every play has examples, from Romeo and Juliet to As You Like It, A Midsummer Night's Dream to Hamlet. Take this advice on women that Mercutio gives Romeo: "Oh that she were/An open arse and thou a poperin pear." Or this from "Sonnets to Sundry Notes of Music:" "Were kisses all the joys in bed,/One woman would another wed."
Moll Flanders - Daniel Defoe (1722)
Written as the memoirs of a reformed prostitute and thief, Moll Flanders follows its anti-heroine from her birth in Newgate Prison to a mother facing transportation to her eventual penitence and return to an honest way of living. The book's frank depiction of female sexuality, prostitution, and incest, and in particular Moll's eventual good fortune, has made it a frequent target for censorship.
Tom Jones - Henry Fielding (1749)
Tom Jones is a foundling child, adopted by the Squire Allworthy, who despite his affection for his foster son, objects to Tom's pursuit of the virtuous Sophia. Tom's situation as a bastard of unknown parentage is the occasion of biting social satire, but his amorous adventures with various ladies of both ill and sound repute would give Casanova a run for his money. Tom Jones is a comic gem.
Les liaisons dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1782)
This epistolary novel tells the story of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, aristocratic ex-lovers who exact a heady revenge on each other by seducing and humiliating the innocent and virtuous, recounting their successes and misadventures in a malicious correspondence. Whether interpreted as a condemnation of the excessive vices of the blase aristocracy or a salacious and voyeuristic glimpse into their luxurious debaucheries, this novel is a guilty pleasure.
The 120 Days of Sodom - Marquis de Sade (1905, written 1785)
Written while the Marquis was imprisoned in the Bastille, this notorious novel is about four wealthy men who repair to a remote castle and indulge in every conceivable sexual and sadomasochistic scenario they can think of. Deeply misogynistic, the unfinished work portrays sex as a parade of rape and torture, most of it committed on women. Though I can't recommend a book that I find repulsive, look no further for confirmation that our ancestors weren't as straitlaced as we might think. In the Marquis's own words, "the most impure tale that has ever been told since the world began."