"I know you like to think your shit don't stink, but lean a little bit closer and your roses really smell of pooh-pooh," sings Hayseed Dixie, amplifying what cultural thinkers have been saying for decades: that we like to locate our identity in the rose garden of culture or consciousness, as far away as possible from the waste we produce. In psychoanalytic thought, Freud had uncovered not only sexual but also anal repression, and Kristeva has described the abjection of waste; anthropological work has drawn out the links between dirt and the sacred; feminists have analyzed the association between women and bodies, and men and mind; and posthuman theory has criticized the scientific conception of humans as reducible to pure information in virtual reality. The treatment of bodily emissions—of "what I permanently thrust aside in order to live," in Kristeva's words—has been shown to reveal what a culture does not want to be, and by inversion its innermost values. But academics have been slow to explore this promising approach and actually research the excrement, farts, blood, sweat, and tears that make up the underside of a life. That this is beginning to change in studies of medieval English literature must have something to do with Chaucer, who, unlike the canonical medieval authors in other languages, so relished descriptions of the nether regions of bodily functions. Medievalists are also already well used to being seen as playing in the mud, working on an allegedly smelly and unhygienic period, and so might have a higher tolerance for filthy research topics.
In the past few years, there have been numerous articles and essays on bodily waste in medieval Britain, but Valerie Allen and Susan Signe Morrison have published the first monographs on farting and excrement, respectively. They both argue for a revaluation of that which we would rather not talk about, as a way of getting a different perspective on history. And like true pioneers, they are both swept away by the wealth of material from different cultures and literatures that they uncover. In this new area of academic gold-digging, there are plenty of nuggets and not just shiny flashes in the pan.
Excrement and gold share a common logic anyway, these books argue. Modern capitalists like to confine them both to the private sphere, rather than freely distributing them or dreaming of turning shit into money, like medieval alchemists and waste collectors. That excrement and farts contributed to establishing the distinction between public and private is a major point made in both books. Allen and Morrison show that defecation was consigned to the private sphere and shielded from public view. For each individual, the regulation of her emissions also worked to separate her proper body from external matter. The wish to stay away from others' excretions or even farts (in a prebacterial culture that believed disease could be spread via smell) helped to create notions of privacy. Both Allen and Morrison also observe a close relationship between vocal and anal emissions of the body, between language and farts, linguistic taboos and obscene vocabulary. Excretion is even surprisingly often compared to pilgrimage in medieval writing, for its transformative and purging role.
Allen makes these and other stimulating attempts to understand medieval views of bodily wind in the first half of On Farting, an entertaining yomp through literary occurrences of the fart in the context of music, smell, health, hell, and money. Unlike excrement, she points out, farts are not so much a material substance as a performance. Chaucer—especially in The Miller's Tale, where Nicholas farts in Absolon's face, and in The Summoner's Tale, with its logical conundrum of how to divide a fart between twelve friars—makes repeated appearances, in the company of Dante and a rich seam of scatological jokes, but also of Aristotle and Plato, and nineteenth-century court records and freak shows. The second half features a long chapter on etymology, veering far off farting into a woolly defense of folk etymology over academic etymology, ostensibly to show that there may be a link between "farthing" and "farting." To demonstrate that there was a perceived connection between those words would...