Detail map of London, England, United Kingdom,Isernia, Molise, Italy

A: London, England, United Kingdom, B: Isernia, Molise, Italy

Richard Payne Knight Records Early Archaeological Explorations of Ancient Fertility Rites


In 1786 Classical scholar, collector, connoisseur, and member of the Society of Dilettanti, Richard Payne Knight privately issued from London, in an edition supposedly of about eighty copies, and with twelve engravings of phallic objects, An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus, Lately Existing at Isernia, in the Kingdom of Naples. . . to which is Added, a Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, and its Connexion with the Mystic Theology of the Ancients.

The first and most explicit purpose of Knight's treatise was to provide a comparison of ancient (pagan) and modern (Christian) religious rituals, based on the archeological discoveries related in Sir William Hamilton's essay Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus Lately Existing at Isernia, in the Kingdom of Naples, with which Knight's work begins. Knight's second and less obvious purpose was to use his dissertation to attack the Christian church as bigoted, corrupt, and categorically opposed to the enlightened paganism that Knight wished to revive— a male-centered ethic based on phallic fertility which he believed would liberate modern man from the oppressions of an increasingly industrialized environment. 

Knight's major contribution to history and anthropology was his recognition of the fundamental religious significance of the sexually explicit fertility rites practiced in the ancient world, a recognition that restored Priapus to his rightful place as the symbolic principle of fertility, and opened new pathways for anthropological research. Unfortunately, the nature of Knight's subject matter caused him to be wrongly condemned as a libertine and pornographer both by his contemporaries (except for an open-minded few) and the strait-laced Victorians who followed; it was not until the late nineteenth century that Knight's work began to lose its pornographic stigma and gain recognition as a valuable source for the student of ancient religions.

The first edition of Knight's Priapus was restricted to approximately eighty copies printed for the Society of Dilettanti, "a group of enthusiasts especially concerned with the study of Grecian antiquity" (Messman, p. 41), of which Knight was a member.  Upon the work's publication, the Society voted "that the copies be lodg'd in the custody of the Secretary & one of them deliverd to each member of the Society, & that except these he do not on any Pretence whatever part with any other copy without an order made at a regular meeting.  [And] that each member be allowd once & no more to move the Society recommending by name a Friend to whom he wishes the Society to present a copy" (3 March 1787 minutes of the Society, quoted in Messmann, p. 43).

Knight was, perhaps ironically, best known as an arbiter of aesthetic taste. In his lifetime An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805) was Knight’s most influential work. "This book sought to explain the experience of ‘taste’ within the mind and to clarify the theorisation of the concept of the picturesque, following from the writings of William Gilpin and Uvedale Price on the subject. Knight's views on the aesthetics of the picturesque are also formed in engagement with Edmund Burke's emphasis on the importance of sensation, which Knight partly rejects in favour of a modified associationism. The philosophical basis of Knight's theories have implications for his account of the relationship between the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘picturesque’ " (Wikipedia article on Richard Payne Knight, accessed 12-20-2008). 

Messmann, Richard Payne Knight: The Twilight of Virtuosity (1974) 41-43.  Rousseau, "The sorrows of Priapus," in Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment, ed. Rousseau & Porter, 101-153. Hook & Norman, The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine (1991) no. 1226.

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