Thursday, 25 August 2016

Five Fascinating Facts about Farting in the Fourteenth Century - give or take a century or three

  Next time you are in the Great Hall of a castle you might like to ponder on the type of entertainment that created merriment before kings.

1) Roland le Pettour
   King Henry II (probably he, though some say earlier kings) had a favourite minstrel called Roland who was rewarded handsomely for his ability to perform "unum saltum et siffletum et unum bombulum" [one leap and whistle and one fart] as part of the Christmas entertainment. It seems he managed to achieve these three requirements in one act called a "tripudium" and for this valued talent he was given a serjeanty, a land-holding of 30 acres. It has been stated that the land passed down the generations provided that the heirs could earn it in the time-honoured fashion of this particular hat-trick.
  The salary of land was later transmuted into a monetary payment by King Henry III (possibly), because of the indecency, when cash was cheaper than land. One feels that such a brief exhibition by Roland must have been heralded by a massive build up of excitement in the court. Yet some records state that he could also play tunes in this manner to prolong the fun. (William Camden, however, in 1610, identifies this minstrel as Baldwin and comments, "Such was the plaine and jolly mirth of those times"). Roland seems then to have disappeared into obscurity: perhaps he broke a leg or maybe he ran out of steam - as it were.

2) Etymology
  You will have cleverly deduced that the word "bombulum" means "fart" and it derives from the Latin for "to buzz", "bombinare". The native English word "fart", Middle English "ferte" (Anglo-Saxon "feorting") and the French "pet", from which Roland's name is taken, co-existed for some time in the 13th to 15th centuries but, once English had re-established itself as the official language, the French term died out. Yet you may want to pause before sipping your glass of "p√©tillant" wine.
  Chaucer's Summoner's Tale has a play on the word "ferthing" meaning both "farthing" and "farting" with the ultimate puzzle of how a fart can be divided into 12 equal parts. The Miller's Tale also hinges on this explosive deed.  It was not wholly a rude word: a Portuguese fart was a kind of pastry puff and there was a puffball which "pete en se crevant", dispensing a fine and smelly dust as it burst.

3) Queen Elizabeth I
    Moving outside our wide period there is a story too good to miss. Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, (1550-1604) accidentally broke wind whilst bowing to the queen and was so ashamed that he went abroad for seven years. When he returned, Elizabeth was delighted to see him and greeted him with the warm and friendly (though not wholly convincing) reassurance: "My Lord, I had forgott the Fart."

4) Gender Difference etc
   In the literature of the Middle Ages, involuntary passing of wind was regarded as a woman's flaw and this was connected with the anti-feminist belief that women were incontinent, incapable of chastity and of low status. This was in consequence of Eve's lack of restraint in the Garden of Eden. In men the controlled fart was a sign of potent virility. Perhaps this is the reason for its intrusion into the innocent song "Sumer is icomen in" where we have the delightfully cheery: the "buck verteth" in which I believe you can note a Germanic consonantal shift from "f" to "v". In the Medieval theatre devils were notorious for their ability to expel air from their lower quarters and frequently did so raspingly on leaving the stage. In revenge it was believed that if one returned the compliment, the devil would flee.

5) Medicines

   Not, as you might imagine, to cure flatulence but to provoke it, there were substances recommended in the popular Book of Secrets, though these do have the air of a practical joke. You could pluck a hair from near an ass's private parts and give it to your victim in wine or crush ants' eggs in water and administer them likewise. A more complicated method was to wrap the dried blood of a snail in a linen cloth so that it made a wick and ask someone to light it, thus producing an unstoppable attack. As Camden said: "jolly mirth" would have ensued.

[I am indebted to Valerie Allen's scholarly work On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages for most of this reliably sourced information.] Great Halls to stimulate your imagination can be visited at Chepstow Castle, Raglan Castle and Caldicot Castle. Castle lovers should hang in here as my next post will be about Goodrich Castle where I am sure Countess Joan was in full control.

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