Quick reader question: Hellfire clubs

I have nothing in mind today, but ages ago I asked for reader questions and didn’t answer them. Sorry about that!

“I’m curious about Hellfire clubs.”

Almost certainly 100% accurate.
Almost certainly 100% accurate.

Everyone is.

This early modern stuff is not my line, so if you know more about this period than I do, please forgive me, but as far as I know hellfire clubs were not as cool as their legend.

They seem to have been loose organisations of wealthy or wealthyish people, mostly but not universally males, who got together to poke fun at religious authority, get drunk and get laid. The most famous of these, at least in Britain, was probably the one run by Sir Francis Dashwood in a variety of locations including his home at Medmenham Abbey. Cocking the proverbial snook at religion was a sign that you were a real daring character in that age — an increasingly but still not comfortably irreligious one — but the proper rumours of devil-worship don’t really get started until the 19th century, I don’t think. Walpole seemed pretty clear that it was all hookers and wine and dirty engravings. Dashwood’s club wasn’t even called a hellfire club until much later.

My guess would be they probably didn’t even get up to anything that shocking by the standards of a modern night out. You ever meet someone who thought he was all transgressive and weird because he liked the same shit that everyone else liked, but he was just really loud and crude about it? In short: one bunch of rich jerks defies another bunch of rich jerks through the medium of drunken fornication and later readers get all carried away by the mystery. The 18th century version is all “the devil lol” and the 19th-century audience goes “the devil, eh? Interesting.” You ask me, they deserve each other.

Like the song says, “excess ain’t rebellion.”

Perhaps it’s one of those conservation-of-shockingness things. Like, the blasphemy was shocking at the time, but it’s totally non-shocking to us now. But we still remember that it was shocking, so we try to imagine something that would be edgy and controversial about a bunch of drunk toffs having sex with prostitutes. I guess they had sex with prostitutes in lavish and eerie surroundings, which is sort of cool.

Why is no one talking about Sebastian Shaw's thighs? Is it because they're uncomfortably close to his super-weird-looking area?
Why is no one talking about Sebastian Shaw’s thighs? Is it because they’re uncomfortably close to his super-weird-looking area?

Anyway, maybe I’m being uncharitable — it just feels like something that sadly is not as big and spooky a deal as it could be.

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Quick reader question: Hellfire clubs

2 thoughts on “Quick reader question: Hellfire clubs

  1. I kind of feel that the mythology of the Hellfire Club is evocative enough to make up for its limited basis in reality. Certainly, I’m a bit obsessed with having at least one Hellfire Club in every live game I run because I find them really rich places for storytelling and exploring transgression and taboo. In comparison, an actual Hellfire Club would no doubt be very disappointing. I think a lot of people like to believe that somewhere out there, someone is having the super fun orgiastic hedonism we wish we could have and it’s OK because they’re bad people who will be punished in the end.

    1. I agree — in fact, if you click on the link to the Medmenham hellfire club in this post you’ll see that there’s a blog all about the mythology (rather than the reality) of the hellfire club.

      There are actually quite a lot of things where the myth is more interesting than the reality; the Knights Templar would be one except that I find the reality quite interesting even if not as dramatic.

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