On Farting: Bodily Wind in the Middle Ages by Valerie Allen

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On Farting: Bodily Wind in the Middle Ages by Valerie Allen

Category: History
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: A successful and often accessible study of the surprisingly rich heritage of our bodily effluvia. In the process, it casts a revealing light on the workings of humour and language.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 239 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN: 978-0312234935

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From its title, I assumed this book was one of those disposable humorous compendia ripe for the Christmas market and destined, given its subject matter, for toilet reading. But no, it is a piece of serious scholarship, one of an extensive series called The New Middle Ages.

That's not to say that the author doesn't recognise the humorous potential of the humble bottom-cough - or indeed the innate risibility of discussing such 'low' subjects in elevated language. It is one of the key strands of the book; puns, jokes and riddles have revelled in our bodily functions throughout history. But beginning with the premise that a fart is conventionally seen as worthless, she also examines how, particularly from the viewpoint of the Middle Ages, our waste has a proper place in the scheme of things.

While the fart has long been a symbol of ephemerality in psychology, philosophy and literature, there are examples of its almost monetary value. The story of Roland the Farter earns itself a section of the book. Roland, it appears, was a well-documented person, living in thirteenth-century Suffolk, who paid for his modest landholding by an annual jump, whistle and fart in front of the King.

Others were not so fortunate, and the price of a fart, or for laughing at one, especially in the presence of royalty, could be banishment or death. Valerie Allen finds the Middle Ages a particularly fruitful source for such material, and unearths evidence of the place of farting in Celtic, French and Icelandic texts, as well as plentiful examples from more familiar sources such as Chaucer and Dante. Many of these will raise a laugh from modern readers as much as they entertained their medieval audience.

However, until recently, it seems that the Middle Ages were the last period when such bodily effluvia could be discussed and employed so freely. Before the concept of privacy was invented, many bodily functions were necessarily performed in public. It was also before the church suppressed or bowdlerised the mention of such matters in print.

Apart maybe from Samuel Pepys's candid diary entries about his bowel functions, bodily wind only re-entered the public domain in the late nineteenth century. First, it was a mere music hall act by the likes of Le Petomane. Then followed Freud and his discovery of the centrality of our bodily functions to our psychology. With modernist artists such as Picasso and Beckett, the outcast, the conventionally worthless and the discarded were once again fit subjects for thought, analysis and creativity. Hence the rehabilitation of the fart.

If the subject is still more often an occasion for humour than for scholarship, this book may help redress that balance. Its tone is overwhelmingly learned, with copious notes, references and a extensive bibliography. It includes lengthy discussions on linguistics and on 'excremental theology'.

But to engage a wider readership, Valerie Allen deploys a surprisingly approachable manner. She sprinkles her academic vocabulary with words such as 'poop' and even 'supercalifragalastically' although I'm not sure Mary Poppins would approve of the context. Lovers of puns will revel in her irreverent analyses of scatalogical language. Her iconoclastic attitude extends to historical 'fact' and etymology, exposing the degree of uncertainty, wishful thinking and plain error implicit in both.

Some of the scholarly purpose and vocabulary of this book would, I imagine, lose all but the most dedicated student. For both the more erudite Viz reader and the scatalogically-inclined scholar though, the book surprises and entertains enough to earn it a place outside the university library.

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Buy On Farting: Bodily Wind in the Middle Ages by Valerie Allen at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy On Farting: Bodily Wind in the Middle Ages by Valerie Allen at Amazon.com.


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