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Response to Review no. 733

The reviewer asks insightful questions, offers valuable information for further research, and is generous without withholding criticism. In this response I shall discuss the book’s content, its form, and its intention. Finally I’ll address the issue of dehistoricization that is raised.


In response to the question of the book’s central argument, I’ll track here two main interconnected ideas, albeit thoroughly dispersed across the book’s parts (see below on Form): brokenness; and material embodiment.

The recurring theme of the division of the fart in the book, especially with reference to Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, teases out the connections between desecration and division of bodies into parts. In medieval terms farts, speech, and laughter (along with all sound) break air by striking it forcibly. We can think of breaking in terms of violence, which is involved in acts of desecration, most obviously in iconoclasm, but also in any making unholy, which is what desecration means. Holiness implies wholeness (OE hãl, ‘whole’, ‘free from injury’), desecration fragmentation.

Brokenness also occurs in sacrifice, as in the Eucharistic breaking of Christ’s body, in the hunt’s breaking of the deer, in perfume, or in any division of a body to release its goodness. Thought theologically, breaking makes transcendence immanent; when the sacred is violently broken open it becomes real. The sacred and the profane relate to each other less as juxtaposed contraries than as domains that entail each other. It follows then that in medieval dirt should lie purity, or pace Mary Douglas, that purity is dirty matter in its place. The heightened rhetoric of Innocent III illustrates just how fascinating the repulsive could be, how it could occasion edification, how much at home excrement and farts are in the medieval symbolic order.(1)

The book’s middle part breaks apart words to release their inner truth and is primarily concerned with medieval etymology. Certainly medievalists already know that its derivations are wrong, but consequently it is rarely taken seriously as a discursive practice. In an effort to do so, I bracket the truth-value of the derivations and ask what word genealogies look like to medieval etymologists. Upon examination, they look increasingly like rhetorical device and grammatical division, exegesis, word play—like puns both serious and playful, in which the universe is indeed tied to one word, puns momentarily making visible the ligatures. They are happy faults, rich examples of analogical thinking that posit correspondences between dissimilars without recourse to historical chronology or system. It is understandable that a dictionary such as the OED, in mapping meanings and derivations, should keep its distance from such word play. If it did not, what systematic principles could guide its method? Any poking of fun at its sometimes blurred lines of demarcation between legitimate meanings and those born out of wedlock is done not to overturn its procedures but to ponder the meaningfulness of the ludic.(2)

Another underlying idea is that of material embodiment, for all breaking presupposes a body to be broken. To that extent breakability and materiality are co-terminous. Farts, speech, and laughter break open bodies. The discussions of anagnoresis and laughter suggest that acts of the mind can themselves be ‘broken’ down into bodily acts: intention to stretching, inspiration to breathing in, ideation to seeing. What I value in Dante’s Inferno, aside from its scatological poetics, is how he gives words bodies and breaks them apart on the rack. Dante, Isidore, Priscian – all believe in the human being as a grammatical animal, in the material presence of words, and in the ethical obligation to use them rightly. We generally assume that medieval philosophy of language represents words as labels stuck onto prior realia. The recent ‘linguistic turn’ – where we speak of language making reality – is not ordinarily considered a medieval turn. In the discussion of flatus vocis and extreme nominalism, I suggest a medieval linguistic turn that posits concepts as inextricable from the bubbles of air in which they arrive, of content that has no being outside of its form.(3)


I make a nonchalant argument at the beginning that because the fart is formless in shape so then should be the book. Taken seriously, it suggests that we bring content into a more meaningful connection with form. As academics, Jane Gallop observes, ‘We have been trained to read a book globally: that is, to think of the book as a whole, identify its main idea, and understand all of its parts as fitting together to make up that whole.’(4) We write in the same way, using a certain scholarly form, labeling arguments (his, hers, Mine) (5)and placing similarly colored ideas in the same drawer. What happens when you take a scholarly argument and break it apart, scattering it across the book? What happens when, as with proverbs, the ideas are irremissibly embodied in the verbal bubbles in which they arrived? By breaking the argument thus into pieces, scattered as it were on the waste heap, readers are left to fish out what they want to claim in salvage as their own.(6)

Taking that step means stepping away from the critical mode, in the direction of the creative, and hovering – even foundering – between them. The reviewer refers to the book as ‘essayistic journalism’ and while I don’t know whether that is the right term for it her intuitions are correct insofar as the book is not straight academic scholarship. Richard Klein speaks of the occasional need in reading to suspend ‘your need to know in advance where you’re going’ and of a book being shaped like a mandala, frustrating any forward progress of linear reading.(7) The shape of my book is, as noted, recursive. Logical arguments generally assume a characteristic pattern of beginning, middle, and end, but here the line of progress is bent back upon itself in a ring, each of the three parts standing on its own but presupposing the others. The book’s form is an exercise in questioning the readiness with which we academics so rigorously distinguish between substance and style, diminishing the latter to a desirable but not required extra.


Complex ideas can often be accessible to everyone, albeit at different levels of engagement. The reader I imagined was not a medievalist, maybe not even an academic (hence the translations and ‘set pieces’ as no prior knowledge of medieval thought was assumed). Was the book designed ‘to tickle ignorant or jaded palates’? Well, yes, although I am reluctant to describe a non-specialist reader thus. Through the arcana the reader was asked to endure comes the proposal that combinations of words really do matter, that even a dactyl is ethical. If it is the case that apprehensions – particularly the ones that make us laugh – are truly embodied then deep thinking ought to make us sit up a little straighter and put our words more carefully in their place. Such is part of leading the examined life.

Épater les bourgeois had its own historical moment in calling for self-awareness. To that extent I would not distance myself entirely from the phrase. By it however, the reviewer means something less intellectually challenging, namely, ‘Isn’t this shit cool?’ Authorial intention has no monopoly on meaning so if she took this as the book’s message then in some sense that is what it is. I work on the assumption that the shockable bourgeois would know from the title to stay away. The hope is that a non-specialist would read the book and be delighted with the Middle Ages; that academics would think harder about how and for whom they write they way they do; that medievalists would do the same.

The book does not call for abandonment of the rules of academic engagement. There is much affectionate parodying of them, with a view to making us more aware of them. Being tongue-in-cheek is one thing, but misleading is another, and this review (along with others), in pointing out where I got it wrong, has done valuable service.(8) I was aware that some claims were tendentious, and in hindsight I should have better signposted and qualified them so the reader could better distinguish between the true, the possible, and the highly unlikely.(9) I am mortified about the book’s mistakes.(10) Every time I think of them I want to get underneath the floorboards and stay there. It is a salutary lesson in paying attention to what I actually wrote rather than what I thought I wrote.

Finally, let me address what I think the most acute of the reviewer’s observations, namely, that the book delivers a Middle Ages hypostacized and dehistoricized. I was aware of that tendency, at least in much of the long, first part, although there are a number of sequences in which the argument thickens historically speaking.(11) In particular, the case study of Roland the Farter aims to give balance, although it no more than sticks a toe into the water as far as inquiring into his significance for a history of court entertainment and feudal service.(12) I understand the reviewer’s (read, the medievalist’s) frustration at the lack of contextual detail. The tendency toward micro-history and in literary study toward close reading of one-text-at-a-time pulled me back into a critical mode I wished to avoid. One reason for so resisting was to break momentarily the specialist habits of micro-historicizing and close reading that largely define our scholarly practice to such an extent that there is scarcely a totalization of the past that is not deemed oversimplification or misrepresentation or elitist exclusion of the marginal. A historicized study of medieval farts would have narrated a different kind of story. My main reason however for resisting that kind of story-telling was that it did not seem to be the one to best engage the non-specialist, presentist reader, for whom, I think, the medieval flatulent past may be less interesting for being medieval as it may be for not being the present.


  1. See pp. 144 (Eucharist and deer); 42–3 (on perfume and sacrifice, on sacred and profane); 17 (Innocent III).Back to (1)
  2. See pp. 121–44. R. Howard Bloch, Etymologies and Genealogies: A Literary Anthropology of the French Middle Ages (Chicago and London, 1983) is a notable exception to the assertion that medieval etymology is rarely taken on its own terms.Back to (2)
  3. See pp. 70–2 and 177–9 (on embodied thought); 116–21 (on grammar). On the discussion of anagnoresis (pp. 144–50) I agree that the interpretations of Oedipus’s kaka and of Judas’s spilled bowels (although hanging does induce involuntary emission) were disputable to say the least, though I thought that the general discussion and specific context (‘Bastard Laughter’) by then would have alerted the reader to the half-seriousness of the tone. These observations on how knowledge leaves its mark on the body occur in the larger framing discussion of philosophical dehiscence. However, inclusion in the footnotes of Baum on Judas and Janko on non-intestinal katharsis, both of whom I had read, would have left the reader freer to disagree. On flatus vocis and extreme nominalism, see pp. 157–60. I do explicitly note that ‘voice-fart’ as a translation of the term was unlikely (p. 158), but do argue that ‘breath of the voice’ is too bland, given the derogatoriness of Anselm’s reference and the allusions to exsufflation.Back to (3)
  4. Jane Gallop, ‘The ethics of reading: close encounters’, Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 16 (2000), 7–17, 11.Back to (4)
  5. On pp. 13–17 (and, less explicitly, 43–6), I discuss the possibility of medieval privacy even while in public, and qualify the ‘dread’ Laporte’s claim for the birth of the early modern subject from the domesticization of excrement, pointing out first that there is medieval privacy as much as there is (early) modern privacy; and second that medieval and early modern privacy are not equivalent concepts, that what changed around the early modern period was not the emergence of the private subject but the understanding of privacy itself. The points are clearly enough made though not emphatically labeled as polarized points of view (his, hers, Mine). Consequently I appear to have argued for uniform medieval publicness; to have agreed wholesale with Laporte; and to have argued for a medieval privacy synonymous with modern privacy. Along with this review (footnote 23) see Susan Signe Morrison, Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics (New York, 2008), p. 215 (n. 35); and review by C. M. Woolgar, Journal of British Studies, 47 (2008), 397-8, 398.Back to (5)
  6. See pp. 18–20 (on proverbs); 3–4 and 179 (on aesthetics of waste).Back to (6)
  7. Richard Klein, Eat Fat (New York, 1996), pp. xiii–xiv.Back to (7)
  8. Also Russell Ganim and Jeff Persels, Cahiers Élizabéthains, 72 (2007), 87–8 for comments on laughter; and Woolgar, p. 398 for comments on perfume. Re the reviewer’s comments on the ‘false premises’ of the alchemy section, there are explicit references by medieval writers to the use of dung in experiments (p. 96); the allusion to excrement is ‘implied’ not primary when I cite Richard Russell’s translation of Geber, by which time English faeces had acquired both meanings of ‘sediment’ and ‘excrement’. The alchemical and digestive processes are analogous, as evidenced by the correspondences between Chaucer’s Canon Yeoman’s and Summoner’s Tales. Most of all, alchemy breaks down and degrades a body to recreate it as something nobler.Back to (8)
  9. The reviewer is quite right that the ipnos of Herakleitos is more likely to be a stove than a dunghill (p. 18). And see footnote 3 above.Back to (9)
  10. See reviewer’s footnote 33, although I would query some of the corrections. For example, I don’t really see how translating eructare in Psalm 44:2 as ‘to belch’ constitutes an over-reading when St. Bernard (just to cite one instance) so clearly exploits that meaning (p. 30). Also, some rebalancing of the reviewer’s comments: It is the arsy-versy world of garbage, not of scholarship, in which one never knows what is coming next (p. 4). ‘It has become our fate as a species to be aroused and disgusted [not corrupted] in the same breath’ (p. 51). I do not know what corresponds in my book to the following characterization: ‘People were short, stank, had bad hair, and worse teeth, and farted incessantly. Throughout we are reminded of just how bad the age smelled. “My dear, the noise, the smell, the people!”’ For my alleged claim for medieval lack of privacy see footnote 5 above. Lastly, at footnote 44, the ‘uncanonical’ citation of Augustine’s City of God refers to one instance in quoting City where my eye skipped the book and chapter citation. The other references to City do so cite.Back to (10)
  11. As in the discussion of bombard/bombulum (pp. 26, 37, 166–7); of Roscelin on flatus vocis (pp. 157–60); of the shift of meaning in smell (and essence) in the early modern period (pp. 49–50); of farts and late medieval marriage (pp. 58–9); of medieval vs. modern privacy (13–17).Back to (11)
  12. Thank you in particular to the reviewer for pointing out the additional serjeanty in the Liber Feodorum.Back to (12)