On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages
New York, NY, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, ISBN: 978-0-312-23493-5; 251pp.; Price: £23.99
University of Illinois
Date accessed: 30 May, 2023
When one is sent such an item to review one inevitably speculates why. Is one a known purveyor of hot air? Or just vulgar and unshockable?(1) Is one being set up for Max Reger’s response to a music critic? 'Ich sitze in dem kleinsten Zimmer in meinem Hause. Ich habe ihre Kritik vor mir. Im nächsten Augenblick wird sie hinter mir sein.' (‘I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. I have your review in front of me. In a moment it will be behind me.') This should be a gas (2), for Valerie Allen has let rip a meditation on farting in the Middle Ages. The book (subtitled ‘Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages’) is divided into three parts: ‘The Beginning’ (pp. 7–105), ‘In Between,’ (pp. 113–60), and ‘Die Afterwissenschaft’ (pp. 161–79). There is a ring-composition at work, for we begin with Roland the Farter’s annual Christmas fee of a jump, a whistle, and a fart (p. 12) and conclude with more of Roland’s ‘fartprints’ (pp. 161-177).(3) ‘The Beginning’ is primarily literary and theological, ‘In Between’ is linguistic and philosophical, and ‘Afterwissenschaft’ tangles with history.
This reviewer amused herself by hopping about on one leg trying to envisage some systematisation worthy of the Teuton in the old joke about the international conference on the elephant.(4) Could one have written the kind of work that would have begun with etymologies and attestations, and with a properly anal partitio?(5) Un pet à quatres volumes traduit du prussien? Fart Greek, Fart Roman, Fart in the Early Middle Ages, Fart in the Central Middle Ages, Fart in the Later Middle Ages, The Fart in Latin Literature, The Fart in the National Literatures. Farts in Hagiography, Historiography, Drama, Satire, Apocalyptic, Philosophy, Medical and Dietetic Literature . . . Farts at Court, Professional Farters, Monastic Farts, Hot Air as Abuse, the Gendered Fart, the Queered Fart, the Nun’s Fart, The Wolf’s Fart, Out with a Fart, Famous Last Farts(6) ...(7)
But this is no systematic and encyclopedic work on the medieval fart. Taking its lead from the fecal product itself, unorganised, undifferentiated, Allen presents the fart in an anecdotal stream of consciousness, punctuated into fits and farts. The fart is representative of the arsy-versy world of scholarship, ‘where you never know what is coming next.’ Although Chaucer could joke about the division of a fart in his Summoner’s Tale (a favorite text of Allen’s), to draw any strict line between the solid product (of which the fart is the odoriferous harbinger) and the fart itself is difficult. This book thus celebrates not just the fart, but also shit, and (while we are talking wind) belching, burping, and the organs and orifices that produce said afflatus.(8) It will take its place (GT2840 A45 2006 ‘Flatulence: Social aspects, History, in literature,’) at the right hand of the repulsively tactile black velvet microfiber-bound D. G. Laporte, History of Shit. (Cambridge, Mass., 2000) (GT2835 L3613 2000 ‘Feces-Miscellanea’).
While Allen acknowledges differences between now and the Middle Ages (pp. 11-2), she does not really outline any developments or befores and afters (as opposed to Afters).(9) But she does expound and anatomize many a medieval fart to us. I say ‘anatomize,’ for her one-woman-on-a-Bummel leisure reminds one of Burton’s project, where a whole universe is tied to a single word. Kitchen-sink digressions (10) and medieval set pieces are incessant.(11) Allen clearly hasn’t seen a pun she didn’t like.(12)Her writing is quaint, witty, naughty, learned, and playful. She refuses to make her ripe and odorous subject arid and dull. The language is a delight.(13) Only ‘osphresiolagniac’ (p. 51) initially and ‘tirret’ (p. 57) definitively baffled.
This book fits into the New Middle Ages (Stephen Jaeger’s ‘diminutive Middle Ages’), not the old (now obsolete) one that argued aetherially about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. 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!’ The project reflects a postmodern interest in the low, abject, and marginal, ‘hodiernal trivia,’ and takes very literally the allegedly Virgilian concept of seeking gold in dung.(14) Allen recently moderated a session ‘Bodily Functions in Late Medieval Literature and Art’ at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds, and her book attracted an interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education.(15) This unafraid scholarship takes on something small, despised, and embarrassing. The fart poses special challenges because of its (happy) evanescence and invisibility. It also involves another fashionable form of history, namely of the senses. Smell was a member of one of those important canonicals sets that medievals loved to think with. It is the mediating sense (not haptic like touch and taste), but also not capable of leaping great distances or physical barriers like its higher brethren, sight and sound.
Allen’s book may shock some (perhaps philosophers with its disquisition on the meditatio mortis and the fart (p. 70) and Judaeo-Christian believers who might prefer less information about God’s posteriora (p. 78), Sinai ‘reeking’ (p. 96), the ‘mighty wind’ of Pentecost (p. 96), or ‘a time to fart and a time to clench’ (p. 125)). It is obviously a transgressive snook-cock (or should it be ‘cock-snook’?). We’ve long used the word ‘f***’ in academic prose so now, as for five-year-olds, fundamental terms are the final frontier.
We begin with the paradoxical silence around the fart (16), the shame surrounding its emission, the silent-but-deadly fart (‘vesse’ Trust the Gallo-Romans to have a word for it!(17)), the Middle Ages’ ‘high comfort level’ with the fart, Roland the Farter’s feudal payment of one fart, medieval lack of privacy, proverbs about shit and defecation, the compulsion to use the scatological in elementary Latin grammatical education, the logic of the fart (how to divide one), the musical bum (both Boschian demons and proto-Pujolic pétomanes [already in Augustine]), farts elicited by movement, carminatives (18) charms to induce farting, its ‘audible violence,’ smell as the mediating sense (non-haptic), the stench of sin, sexual sedition in the privy, internal and external winds, breaths, spirits, and exhalations, microcosm and macrocosm, erections raised by air (not blood), farts as barometers of virility,(19) the death fart (crepitus mortis), the testamentary fart, the fart as Pentecostal spirit, the fart omen of Baby Hermes, death in the privy, Dante’s hell as intestinal, insect trials (p. 87), ubiquity of demons, anal death throes, exsufflatio at baptism, connections between gold and shit and alchemy, and ‘Duck-Rabbit, Face-Bottom’ (pp. 104–5), which comes out of nowhere and concludes the section primarily concerned with ‘laughter.’
But there is also the ‘language’ side of the book. Laporte saw François I’s ordinances about the French language and about urban waste of 1539 as portentously linked, a moment when the mud-town of the Parisii ‘emerged from the muck.’(20) And Allen’s ‘In Between’ is largely about etymology and language. But what medievalist needs to be told about the unscientific nature of medieval etymology or what modern linguistic theories about the regularity of sound change entail? Also puzzling is the flippant tone discernible in some of the comments about sound laws (p. 131). Is Allen tilting at a windmill or creating straw men? It all sounds like a defensive build-up to the multi-lingual pun she discerns in Chaucer’s ‘ars-metrike’ (p. 139 and p. 143). But it has been known for a long time (21), and few would question its legitimacy.
While there is much that is intriguing, learned, enlightening, clever, and – in flashes – profound in the book (22) there is also a fair amount of balderdash, both the portentous-pretentious type (23) and the fun-but-frivolous.(24) Caveat lector! While fine readings and insights are many (e.g. pp. 83–4, pp. 94–5), some material is presented that cannot stand up as any sort of rational literary or historical argument. And this reviewer missed exegetic sources.(25) And while systematization of this sort of subject is an easy target for derision, it should be possible to write a less persistently jocular scholarly cultural history of the medieval fart.(26)
Some connections seem based on false premises, e.g. the section on alchemy (pp. 95ff). It is hard to pin down the entry point for the discussion, beyond the image of the Dukatenscheisser shitting ducats (‘world upside-down’ seen as an image of alchemy). At p. 101 ‘metallic fodder gets putrefied into shit’ in the earth ‘en route to becoming gold.’ This seems to presuppose a misunderstanding about the range of meaning of faex.(27) Or perhaps the treatment was encouraged by the dread Laporte’s obsession with ‘lustral gold’ and theories about alchemy?(28) One might read the Dukatenscheisser as a miser punished, since in a Roman comedy a miser is fantastically imagined as a man so stingy that he stops his nether mouth too when he sleeps so as not to lose any wind.(29) A comic hellish torment – or alternatively as a surrealist fantasy of plenty.
The section on ‘Bastard Laughter,’ (pp. 144ff.) deals with anagnorisis in tragedy, specifically with Oedipus. Allen sees Oedipus as a ‘great farter’ on the basis of a cockamamie interpretation of OT 1074 where evils (kaka) breaking forth are interpreted as if they meant ‘shit’ (caca) (p. 146). She then moves on to Freud’s joke about Serenissimus’ paternity (which, by the way, must ultimately go back to Macrobius, Sat. 2.4.20 (of the Emperor Augustus), whence it was picked up by John of Salisbury, Pol. 3.14, l. 151). If even Oedipus’ tragic anagnorisis is a fart (for realization brings a smile), and anagnorisis ‘goose us in the ass,’ think what results comic anagnorisis could produce! Allen then moves on to Judas Iscarioth (30), whose legend was contaminated with Oedipus’. Two versions of Judas’ death are transmitted (Mt. 27.3-8 for hanging and Acts 1.18-19, where he bursts open, and his bowels gush forth), which Allen identifies as ‘pooped or popped.’ Judas’ anagnorisis of his betrayal of Christ ‘brings a massive expenditure of bodily product’ (p. 150). And naturally tragic katharsis is laxative and enematic (p. 151). Aristotle must have talked about cathartic laughter in the lost second book of the Poetics.(31) Aristotelian pity, teary and wet, is linked to the opening of the Biblical ‘bowels of compassion’ (p. 152).(32)Words fail me: where to begin? ‘Mind and bowel, dilating and contracting, together register the bursting forth of knowledge’ (p. 153).
Allen’s breadth of learning is considerable. Few of us write books that give us the opportunity to get it wrong in so many different languages and areas. But under the hood there are problems, of which a sample.(33) To one coming to this (as this reviewer does) from behind, from antiquity, the medieval material seems more plentiful and more explicit, with access to higher literary genres (Dante, for example), but not substantially different. From the wall of a tavern at Ostia the Seven Sages seated gave advice about fecal matters: ‘Thales advices those who shit with difficulty to strain.’ and ‘sneaky Chilon taught how to fart (vissire, cf. ‘vesse’ above) soundlessly.’(34) A Plautine comedy preserves for us the Latin sound that represented a fart (prox!).(35) There is a long ancient history of the thunderous fart (papapappax!) from Aristophanes’ Clouds 390-91 to Suetonius’ Life of Lucan, where with a fart the poet recited a half-line of Nero’s in a public latrine: ‘one would have thought that it thundered beneath the earth.’(36) The Emperor Claudius’s soul suffered a vocal anal egress (Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 4.3), not irrelevant to death on the can. Gold in shit had long been associated in an anecdote about Vergil and Ennius.(37) There is competitive farting in Petronius Sat. 117.12-13. There is plenty of material on farting in the late antique world too, particularly in relation to demonic activity. Demons consume rotting meat in peoples’ bodies, thereby causing them to fart.(38) The heresiarch Arius died in a latrine.(39) Anal exorcisms are common.(40) A young student of Augustine’s, reprimanded by his mother Monica for singing a psalm (79:8 Deus converte nos et ostende faciem tuam et salvi erimus) in a privy, jokingly countered, 'As if God would not be able to hear my voice, if an enemy shut me in!' (41) No idle worry, for devils had a habit of appearing in latrines or to those in secessu.(42) But a royal female saint could retreat there too for prayer.(43) Yet almost none of this material appears in the book.
Quis leget haec? While this reviewer enjoyed Allen’s book very much, doubts remain about the project as straight academic scholarship (rather than as ludic essayistic journalism to tickle ignorant or jaded palates).(44) A distinguished medieval historian once joked that, although he did not expect the same reimbursement as Michael Jackson, he wanted his dean to understand that what he did in his lecture courses belonged on the same pay-scale—as entertainment. This book raises a similar question. One wishes to be fair to it by taking a lead from Collingwood, who emphasized the need correctly to identify the question to which a given proposition was the answer. What questions did Allen set herself? And here one encounters difficulties. The book features farts in many different contexts, particularly in OF fabliaux and ME literature. It certainly reminds us of the multiple contexts in which the fart makes its presence known in medieval literature. It contains many intriguing literary and cultural aperçus. But reading it is like watching a PowerPoint presentation whose slides could be presented in any order. There is pleasure in watching or reading the components, but no central arguments emerge, and beginners will find it hard to test Allen’s assertions. A hypostasized dehistoricized Middle Ages is explored through the fart. Masses of detail are laid on, but not explored critically with regard to register, audience, or context. And many of its propositions are neither verifiable nor falsifiable, but the kind of thing one tries out in class or in a lecture or conversation—to see what the market can bear, or who salutes.
Neither pure literature, nor history, but cultural studies, there is nonetheless something oddly antiquarian about the project: a collection of appealing farts with meditations thereon. In the end one is left with a nagging worry that this, like other work from the new Medieval Studies, is a bit desperate to épater les bourgeois, to show administrators and colleagues in various modern cultures that we are ‘with it’ too, to combat the accusations that we are irrelevant, hidebound, archaic old fogeys (or farts), by somewhat exhibitionist farting in the face of academe. Isn’t this shit cool? One would hate to feel that the only way to attract positive attention for Medieval Studies is to publish on paraphilias, defecation, venereal disease, mooning, menstrual blood, burps, farts, etc.(45) And on occasion one worries that too much engagement in topics such as this without sufficient scholarly preparation in more canonical studies may leave us with an excessively frivolous Middle Ages – of which we may rapidly begin to tire.
- Alas, I am not Derek Pearsall, whom I once heard give a wonderful postprandial talk on this very subject.Back to (1)
- See Eric S. Rabkin and Eugene M. Silverman, It's a Gas: a Study of Flatulence (Riverside, CA., 1991). Also Jim Dawson, Who Cut the Cheese? A Cultural History of the Fart (Berkeley, Calif., 1999).Back to (2)
- There is another similar serjeanty (Egidius [Gilles] de Wachesham xxx acras in Wachesham, et est ista seriantia faciendi unum saltum, siffletum, et pettum) in Henry Churchill Maxwell Lyte et al., Liber feodorum: The book of Fees, Commonly Called Testa de Nevill, (3 vols., London, 1920–31), p. 1151. Were such people minstrels and acrobats, or jesters? Were they professionals or sufferers? Or the descendants of either of the above? See Dave Postles, Naming the People of England, c. 1100–1350 (Newcastle, 2006), pp. 91–111 on the problems of bynames and pp. 112–24 for a hilarious conspectus of nickname bynames.Back to (3)
- For a recent version, see Alan Dundes at <Back to (4)
- There is an amusing synoptic scientific table of farts in Bibliotheca Scatologica, (Paris: Giraudet et Jouast, 1849), 44.Back to (5)
- Yes, there is a [hideously inadequate] chapter on this topic in Johannes Ravisius, "Todesursachen und Todesarten: In latrinis occisi . . . In latrinis mortui," in Officinae epitome (Lyon, 1593), 93.Back to (6)
- Bringing out one’s inner Erica Jong (Erica Jong, Fear of Flying: A Novel (New York, 1973), pp. 24–5).Back to (7)
- Same connections and coverage in the Bibliotheca Scatologica.Back to (8)
- Some hints, such as how scatological humour in fabliaux takes off and coincides with institutions of the self such as confession or wills (p. 16) or at p. 165 about late medieval/early modern ‘fart discourse’ vs. its earlier medieval version: the former exposes scholastic logic as hot air, the latter is concerned with acrobatics and is more anti-ecclesiastical.Back to (9)
- E.g. pp. 38–39 on air, auras, and haloes.Back to (10)
- E.g. on the sense of smell at pp. 40–43.Back to (11)
- E.g. ‘got wind’ (p. 9); ‘fundamentals of the toilet’ (p. 18), ‘tongues in turds, books in burps’ (p. 18), ‘the nose knows’ (pp. 40 and 101), ‘extimate relations’ (p. 50), the ‘hermeneutic of the fart’ (p. 76), ‘booty indeed’ (p. 89) ‘metrical arsis’ (p. 117), ‘ran out of steam’ (p. 174).Back to (12)
- Clearly Allen has different editors and copyeditors from other mortals!Back to (13)
- Cass. Inst. 1 de octoteucho, p. 540 Vergilius dum Ennium legeret a quodam quid faceret inquisitus respondit, 'aurum in stercore quaero.'Back to (14)
- Evan R. Goldstein, ‘The language of farting," Chronicle of Higher Education, 53 (July 2007), B2.Back to (15)
- Like time present’s its existence is hard to capture (Aug. Conf. 11.15.18).Back to (16)
- Latin vissinare, vissio, and vissire (REW 9380-82) were likewise soundless. Other Romance languages also have reflexes.Back to (17)
- One thinks of poor Denis the young writer who belatedly discovers that ‘carminative’ means ‘Windtreibend’ in Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow (New York, 1922), 212–4.Back to (18)
- Hence the vernal ‘bucke verteth. Murie sing! cuccu.’Back to (19)
- Dominique-Gilbert Laporte, History of Shit (Cambridge, Mass, 2000), 7 and 11.Back to (20)
- Paull F. Baum, ‘Chaucer's puns’, PMLA (1946), 231.Back to (21)
- Let readers decide which of the following obiter dicta is which: The fart pokes fun at reason; ‘Personal space’ is an area of ‘smell exchange’ (p. 46); ‘Smell extends the self beyond the perimeters of the flesh’ (p. 47); ‘Permanently open for business they (the nostrils) are how we receive the world’ (p. 50); ‘It has become our fate as a species to be aroused and corrupted in the same breath;’ Women fart by accident (p. 55) and are ‘figures of incontinence;’ The crowding in hell (p. 83).Back to (22)
- A few samples: The anus represents emergent capitalism (Laporte) (p. 13); medieval grotesque bodies vs. closed early modern subjects (p. 14); Early moderns were anal retentive, the Lutheran bowel ‘costive;’ fart as meontological mark ‘sign of not-being itself’ (p. 19); The musical bum ‘defamiliarizes the ordinary’ (p. 32); ‘Creaturely in itself, the air rearranges subject/object relations as a continuum, and causes our selfhood to expand and contract with the elements.’(p. 37); ‘Prostitutes also inhabit a threshold within the social body, as does a fart within the body physical’ (p. 168).Back to (23)
- Turds are a baby’s first act of creation (p. 46); the body in throes of a pneumatic seizure (p. 30) is played by a higher power; ‘Like chocolate, shit is full of nutrients and dark promise’ (p. 93); ‘The butt … does not wink or look shifty: it just wobbles and clenches.’Back to (24)
- How was Judas’ death interpreted, to take one example? What about sounds and winds?Back to (25)
- Works such as J. N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (London, 1982) show ways to handle sexual material without giggling or gurning.Back to (26)
- Faex and its plural faeces mean ‘dregs’ (what remains behind when liquids are poured) and do not have to have fecal connotations pace Allen p. 96.Back to (27)
- Laporte pp. 18–9, 38–9, 76–7.Back to (28)
- Plautus, Aulularia 304 Etiamne obturat inferiorem gutturem/ne quid animai forte amittat dormiens?Back to (29)
- Here Paull F. Baum, ‘The medieval legend of Judas Iscariot,’ PMLA 31,3 (1916), 381-462 should be cited.Back to (30)
- The Tractatus Coislinianus edited by Richard Janko, Aristotle on Comedy: Towards a Reconstruction of Poetics II (Berkeley, CA, 1984), pp. 24-25 speaks of katharsis through pleasure and laughter.Back to (31)
- 1 Joh.3.17. The term splangchna ‘entrails,’ ‘viscera,’ is not explored.Back to (32)
- On the Jew of Tewkesbury see Martha Bayless, ‘The story of the fallen Jew and the iconography of Jewish unbelief,’ Viator 34 (2003),142–56; 18 Heraclitus’s ipnos in Arist. Part. An. 645a is highly unlikely to be a dunghill. After all his action of warming himself at it (theromenon pros to ipno) works best with an oven (which is what the word means); p. 30 (and also p. 129) Ps. 44.2: Latin eructare does mean ‘to belch,’ but is a special Christian Latin neutral usage derived from difficulties with the Hebrew verbs used (‘to bubble or gush’ or ‘to be excited, to speak, express’ and the LXX’s translation as ‘to belch.’ See Hermann Rönsch, Itala und Vulgata (München, 1965), p. 363. This is over-reading; ‘Μiniscule’ (pp. 48 and 87) should be ‘minuscule;’ ‘Grenouille’ (p. 52) is a frog, not a toad (‘crapaud’); p. 56 ‘Sentir ‘ meaning ‘to embrace’ seems forced; p. 64 ‘Sepentrio’ should be ‘Septentrio;’ p. 85 On the baby who defecates in the font, n. 365 could cite Constantine Copronymus Theophanes, Chronographia 9 a.m. 6211 and also Ethelred the Unready in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum 2.164; p. 115 The correct reference is not James 5.12, but Matthew 5.37; p. 119 ‘Mugitus’ means ‘bellowing’ or ‘mooing,’ not ‘crying;’ p. 120 For ‘stidor’ read ‘stridor;’ p. 122 J. Ziolkowski, Alan of Lille's Grammar of Sex: the Meaning of Grammar to a Twelfth-Century Intellectual, Vol. 10, Speculum Anniversary Monographs. (Cambridge, Mass., 1985) could be cited; p. 128 On being ‘in a pet,’ Spitzer, L. 'On the etymology of pet', Language 26, 4 (1950), 533–8 is relevant; p. 128 Looking for the derivation of petulans and petulantia not in *petulo, but in pedo is incorrect. Likewise the step further where peto is suggested as an etymon, and petere is translated as ‘letting fly’ (rather than ‘going for’, as in ‘letting fly a fart/dart.’ All of this is confused game-playing, which will not convince any philologist. Quantity does matter; p. 129 The etymology of perdix is unknown according to D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, A Glossary of Greek Birds (New ed., London, 1936), p. 234, but at p. 235 he mentions Anth. Lat. 733 Riese, which puns on the sound the bird makes (kakkabizo) and caco (also vissire). Pierre Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque: histoire des mots, vol. 3 (Paris, 1968), 885 cites perdomai. Better, however, to cite scholarship than Rabkin and Silverman, It's a Gas: a Study of Flatulence, p. 27 on this matter; p. 143 ‘Captio’ should be ‘Capito;’ p. 159 consultation of the LLT would have shown that flatus vocis = ‘voice fart’ is highly unlikely. The iunctura common describes the production of sounds in grammatical works. The equation of immo and imo is likewise wrong; for ‘nonisi’ read ‘nonnisi;’ p. 217 Bernardus Silvestris (not ‘of Silvestris’).Back to (33)
- See Guido Calza, ‘Die Taberna der sieben Weisen in Ostia,’ Die Antike 15 (1939), 99–115: Durum cacantes monuit ut nitant Thales and Vissire tacite Chilon docuit subdolus. The origin of the ‘vesse.’ More recently John R. Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans: Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy 100 B.C. –A.D. 315 (Berkeley-Los Angeles-London, 2003), pp. 170–80.Back to (34)
- Pseud. 1279 itaque dum enitor, prox, iam paene inquinavi pallium.Back to (35)
- p. 51.3.Back to (36)
- Above n. 000.Back to (37)
- See Porphyry, De philosophia ex oraculis in Eusebius, PE 4.23-174-75.Back to (38)
- His follower with a fart. Greg. Tur. GM 80.Back to (39)
- E.g. Sulp. Sev. VMartini 17.7; Greg. Tur. GC 9.Back to (40)
- Aug. De ord. 1.8.22. The subsequent post mortem merits closer attention.Back to (41)
- E.g. Greg. Tur. VPatrum 17.3. Martha Bayless has interesting unpublished work on the devil in the latrine.Back to (42)
- Fortunatus, VRadegundis 5.Back to (43)
- The endnotes are maddening for serious readers, though this defect can hardly be laid at Allen’s door. Those intending to track down references in the footnotes may have difficulties, for Allen does not always cite in canonical fashion. Augustine’s City of God should be cited by book, chapter, and paragraph (or book and paragraph), but she cites by page in a given translation (e.g. p. 185, n. 49).Back to (44)
- In the interest of disclosure this reviewer confesses to having spoken about crepitus ventris during academic lectures.Back to (45)
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.
- See pp. 144 (Eucharist and deer); 42–3 (on perfume and sacrifice, on sacred and profane); 17 (Innocent III).Back to (1)
- 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)
- 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)
- Jane Gallop, ‘The ethics of reading: close encounters’, Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 16 (2000), 7–17, 11.Back to (4)
- 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)
- See pp. 18–20 (on proverbs); 3–4 and 179 (on aesthetics of waste).Back to (6)
- Richard Klein, Eat Fat (New York, 1996), pp. xiii–xiv.Back to (7)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- Thank you in particular to the reviewer for pointing out the additional serjeanty in the Liber Feodorum.Back to (12)