This may seem like surprising material. Indeed, this article started out as a bit of silliness based on a few farty fragments, but soon became a serious study when I uncovered the surprising historical meanings behind flatulence in the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods. A 17th century music society sang gleefully about it (for which there is a music video in this article); Thomas D’Urfey published several songs about it; and a buck does it in the earliest surviving piece of English secular polyphony. Plus there’s Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Edward de Vere’s bottom burp in front of Queen Elizabeth, and farting musical marginalia. So rest your cheeks, wind down, and let rip with a brief history of farting.
Behaving like an arse
Perhaps the very idea of this article seems vulgar and offensive, hot air that is best kept in. The fart is unpredictable, wild, impossible to fully tame, withhold or to keep in time: in the end, this force of nature must win out. So in order to mentally and linguistically cast the fart out, since it is beyond the bounds of the civilised, the socially acceptable, the manageable, we associate the locus of its activity with insults: an uncivilised person has a cheek, or is a bum, they behave like an arse or fart around. To be wasteful, talentless, worthless in the arts is to be arty-farty. We have associated physical incontinence with moral or social incontinence. Being called something associated with the fart is an insult; even worse to be called the solid substance the fart implies. And there have been baroque period songs about that, too, but even an article on farting has limits.
As we will see, farting has been used historically in visual art, literature and music as light-hearted humour, as a vehicle for misogyny, as a weapon of protest, as an illustration of untameable nature, and as a visual musical joke based on Latin vocabulary.
Farting as humour
Our first musical example comes from the period between 1641 and 1660 when the increasing influence of the Puritans was devastating English musical life. In 1649 the Puritans won the English Civil War, beheaded Charles I and thus achieved their dominance of English politics and religion. They did not ban all music and dancing – their target was largely the public rather than the private sphere in this regard – but they may as well have done for the impact they had. They closed many inns, shut all theatres, disbanded cathedral choirs, destroyed beautiful church organs, sent foreign court musicians fleeing to their native homes in fear, and banned mixed dancing in public.
In 1649, the year of the Puritans’ victory, John Playford set up a catch club, one of many in English cities. John Playford (1623–1686/7) was a giant on the English social dance and music scene of the 17th century. A London bookseller, publisher, amateur musician, dance enthusiast, minor composer, and member of the Stationers’ Company, he is best remembered today as compiler and publisher of The (English) Dancing Master, in multiple volumes and editions from 1651, giving dance instructions accompanied by the popular tunes of the day.
The catch of John Playford’s catch club is a musical term signifying the same vocal line sung by several people with staggered entries. This is either a round or a canon, the difference being that in a round the second, third, etc. person begins at the start of a previous singer’s musical phrase, whereas in a canon subsequent singers begin partway through another’s phrase. Playford’s catch club met to sing in a private home, with an admission price so they could raise funds for musicians put out of work by the Puritans. In this sense, meeting to make music together with an entry charge was both a means of survival and a political act of transgression.
The male-only singing and drinking catch clubs gave rise to one of John Playford’s prints, Catch that Catch can, or A Choice Collection of CATCHES, ROVNDS, & CAN̄ONS for 3 or 4 Voyces Collected & Published by John Hilton … printed for John Benson & John Playford … 1652. It was republished with large additions by John Playford in 1658, then again in 1667 under the title, The Musical Companion. Diarist Samuel Pepys made several references to John Playford, often visiting his shop. It must have been the 1667 edition of the book he bought on Monday 15 April 1667, from his “new bookseller’s, and there bought … Playford’s new Catch-book, that hath a great many new fooleries in it.”
Pepys’ description of “fooleries” was the very point: the catches were fun, something the Puritans tried to outlaw as being ungodly. It is notable that most contributors to the printed collection were church and court musicians, and that of the 138 catches, 37 were devotional, a few in Latin. The authors were simply working musicians who could no longer earn their living due to the laws of religious extremists. The remaining 101 secular pieces are mild-mannered, good humoured, with two themes recurring: love of drink and love of music, the latter theme making digs at those who put them out of work.
Catch club meetings, which were essentially informal house concerts, were presided over by composer and former royal lutenist, John Wilson (1595–1674). The house host was William Ellis (fl. 1630-1660), composer and organist in 1639 of St. John’s College, Oxford. It is one of Ellis’ compositions in Catch that Catch can that really stands out for its musical inventiveness and gaseous humour: My Lady and her Mayd.
Farting as misogyny
The musical inventiveness shown by William Ellis is not always what we’d associate with the controversial Thomas Durfey (1653-1723), who became D’Urfey in 1683 to link to his French ancestry. His songs were infamous for the words being an ill fit for the tunes, his songs and plays for their bawdiness and poor taste, and he for his flamboyance and living beyond his means. He is most well-known today as editor and contributor to the song anthology series he took over from Henry Playford (son of John Playford), Wit and Mirth: Or Pills to Purge Melancholy, published in 6 volumes between 1698 and 1720. Much of it cannot be sung in polite company.
Women in the songs D’Urfey wrote and published do not fare well. Following the established gender pigeonhole, women are almost universally depicted either as love objects on pedestals for their looks or as objects of casual sexual desire or activity for their looks. Women escape from either stereotype only as farters – in D’Urfey’s work it is only women who fart. In his day, one of Durfey’s most well-known compositions was The Fart, Famous for its Satyrical Humour in the Reign of Queen Anne, in Songs, compleat, pleasant and divertive, set to musick, 1719. It is 37 verses of tedious doggerel about trying to find out who farted in the presence of the queen and prince, entirely lacking in the humour and inventiveness of William Ellis and really, readers, none of it is worth citing here.
The fact that his songs and books were so very successful caused D’Urfey to remark, “The Town may da-da-damn me for a poet, but they si-si-sing my Songs for all that.” He was right. D’Urfey entertained 5 monarchs, wrote 32 plays and composed 500 songs. Alexander Pope, 18th century poet, compared D’Urfey’s work to a “fart, at once nasty and diverting.” Seeing D’Urfey’s popularity, Pope penned a frustrated passage in a letter in 1710, exclaiming, “Dares any Man speak against him who has given so many Men to eat? So may it be said of Mr. Durfey to his Detractors: What? Dares any one despise him, who has made so many Men drink? Alas, Sir! This is a Glory which neither you nor I must ever pretend to.” 17th–18th century satirist Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, summed up D’Urfey’s work in one word: “excrement”.
D’Urfey can be compared to the British newspaper, The Sun: widely criticised for its focus on salacious sensation and sex, for its vulgarity and one-dimensional sexualised view of women, while also being Britain’s best-selling newspaper. D’Urfey in the 18th century and The Sun today testify that what may appear to be a transgression of common taste and decency is actually, statistically, perhaps more like the norm.
Though Jonathan Swift derided Thomas D’Urfey’s work as “excrement” for his low humour, Swift’s taste in fart jokes and misogyny was no different. Swift’s The Benefit of Farting Explain’d, a pamphlet published in 1722, was in its title a parody of The Benefit of Fasting, a chapter in The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, 1650, by Bishop of Down and Connor, Jeremy Taylor. Swift wrote his pamphlet under the pseudonym, “Don Fartinando Puff-Indorst, Professor of Bumbast in the University of Crackow”, crack being 18th century slang for a fart. Like D’Urfey, Swift associated farting with women and fell back on gender stereotypes. The longer version of the title on the cover declares its subject to be “The Fundament-All Cause of the Distempers incident to the Fair-Sex, enquired into. Proving á Posteriori most of the Dis-ordures In tail’d upon them, are owing to Flatulen-cies not seasonably vented.” In other words, women talk too much and the substance of their speech is flatulence.
Thus in D’Urfey and Swift there is a dark side to the fart joke. While William Ellis’ My Lady and her Mayd appears to be just a silly reference to breaking wind, to breaking norms, the delight and frisson that comes from a little transgression; in D’Urfey and Swift the fart joke is associated with stereotyping and thereby dismissing women as women, rendering their thoughts, utterances and personalities to be as one and of no worth except as sex-fodder and joke-fodder. For D’Urfey, and presumably for the public who enjoyed his work enough to keep coming back for more, women are solely sexual and physical: they are desired by the male writer for their physicality and defined by it, idealised objects of physical desire, representing context-free, relationship-free sex in a social vacuum without consequence, where the woman never receives the distinction of becoming a person with her own wishes and desires, sexual or otherwise. And because, in D’Urfey’s work, only women represent physicality’s sensual lure and its unpredictable frailty, it is the woman alone who farts. Similarly for Swift, in whose work the speech and views of all women are dismissed as having the same value as flatulent wind.
Farting as a weapon
There have been times when farting – and the act of excreting – has been used as social or political comment.
Farting serves an anti-clerical rhetorical purpose in The Summoner’s Tale, one of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400). It begins, in its prologue, with a vision of hell in which a friar, guided by an angel, sees no fellow friars condemned to damnation. He wonders aloud about this, and the angel replies that there are millions of friars in hell. The angel shows the friar some of them by giving an instruction to Satan (Chaucer’s English followed by modern English):
‘Shewe forth thyn ers, and lat the frere se
Where is the nest of freres in this place!’
And er that half a furlong wey of space,
Right so as bees out swarmen from an hyve,
Out of the develes ers ther gonne dryve
Twenty thousand freres on a route,
And thurghout helle swarmed al aboute,
And comen agayn as faste as they may gon,
And in his ers they crepten everychon.
He clapte his tayl agayn and lay ful stille.
‘Show forth your arse, and let the friar see
Where is the nest of friars in this place!’
And before half a furlong way of time (a few minutes),
Just as bees swarm out from a hive,
Out of the devil’s arse there began to rush
Twenty thousand friars in a crowd,
And throughout hell swarmed all about,
And came back again as fast as they may go,
And in his arse they crept every one.
He clapped his tail again and lay completely still.
The message about friars’ anal dwelling place in the afterlife hardly needs explanation. The Summoner’s Tale that follows is replete with examples of one representative friar’s hypocrisy, gluttony, avarice, simony (the sin of using the offices of the church for personal gain), laziness, lust and lying. Old man Thomas in the story is wronged many times over by friar John. Near the end of the story, the friar asks Thomas for a financial contribution with more elaborate lies that friars are poor and, without such help, they would have to sell their books and stop preaching, and thus the world would go to destruction and hell would retain its captives. Thomas is so incensed that he wishes the friar were on fire, and so he does indeed have a contribution for him, to be given only on the grounds that the friar promises to divide it evenly among the monks. When the friar swears that it will be so, Thomas gives him instructions as to how to reach his gift (Chaucer’s English followed by modern English):
‘Now thanne, put in thyn hand doun by my bak,’
Seyde this man, ‘and grope wel bihynde.
Bynethe my buttok there shaltow fynde
A thyng that I have hyd in pryvetee.’
‘A!’ thoghte this frere, ‘That shal go with me!’
And doun his hand he launcheth to the clifte
In hope for to fynde there a yifte.
And whan this sike man felte this frere
Aboute his tuwel grope there and heere,
Amydde his hand he leet the frere a fart;
Ther nys no capul, drawynge in a cart,
That myghte have lete a fart of swich a soun.
‘Now then, put in thy hand down by my back,’
Said this man, ‘and grope well behind.
Beneath my buttock where you shall find
A thing that I have hidden in privacy.’
‘Ah!’ thought this friar, ‘I will have it!’
And down his hand he thrusts to the cleft
In hope for to find there a gift.
And when this sick man felt this friar
About his anus grope there and here,
Amid his hand he gave the friar a fart;
There is no horse, drawing on a cart,
That could have let forth a fart of such a sound.
The friar swears revenge and goes to the hall of the local lord and lady to seek the means of obtaining it, raging:
‘This false blasphemour that charged me
To parte that wol nat departed be
To every man yliche, with meschaunce!’
‘This false blasphemer who charged me
To divide that which will not divided be
To every man alike – bad luck to him!’
Amid the friar’s ranting, the lord’s squire picks up on these words and gives the friar a solution. Since thirteen men make a community of monks, bring a cartwheel with twelve spokes into the hall. Twelve friars should kneel down, each with his nose at a spoke’s end, with friar John the complainant in the centre of the wheel. Friar John should then let out a fart so that each friar can share equally in the sound and the smell but John, “By cause he is a man of greet honour, Shal have the firste fruyt”.
With the excommunication of German Catholic reformer, Martin Luther, in 1521, such criticism of the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church became a separate protestant movement. Luther commissioned artists to create illustrative woodcuts in support of the values of the reformation for a series called The True Depiction of the Papacy. One such artist was Lucas Cranach the elder who, in 1534, made The Birth and Origin of the Pope, showing a female demon excreting a pontiff; and in 1545 he created The Papal Belvedere (Belvedere, literally ‘beautiful view’, also a building in the Vatican), depicting Pope Paul III holding a papal bull (an edict from the pope), complete with hellfire emanating from it, and two German peasants farting at it and him, their comment upon its contents and worth.
So farting can be an offensive weapon against one’s enemies. Similarly, in the medieval bestiary, farting can be found as a defensive weapon in nature. The bonacon or bonnacon, with the mane of a horse but otherwise resembling a bull, was thought to have lived in the mountains of Paeonia, present-day Macedonia. Its horns, according to Pliny the Elder, writing in the 1st century (Natural History, Book 8, 16), “curve back so they are useless for fighting”, so instead it fired acidic dung over large distances to keep predators away. According to the image below in a cycle of romances about Alexander the Great (now MS Bodley 264), illustrated by Jehan de Grise and completed in Flanders in 1344, the bonacon also had powerful, fiery farts which even the bonacon itself didn’t much care for.
The bonacon may have been a complete fabrication, or a fantasised version of a bison. The bonacon isn’t the only farter in nature whose existence is doubted. The second oldest surviving secular English song, Sumer is icumen in, c. 1250, has the words, “Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ”, usually translated “Bullock leaps, buck farts”. The buck is uncontroversially a stag or billy-goat. What “uerteþ” (verteth) means is debated, since there were no definite words for fart in English until the late 14th century and “uerteþ” has no known correlates in Middle English until we get to the 15th century. The usual alternative meaning given is derived from the Latin vertere, meaning to turn or overturn, but this also has no contemporaneous correlates and is entirely conjectural. The jury is out until further definite evidence is unearthed and I remain convinced by the fart. You can read more about the debate and other issues about the song here.
Farting from the Bard
From bonacons and bucks to a dog named Crab. In William Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, c. 1593, Proteus is besotted with Silvia. He gives her a dog named Crab as a gift, which seems sweet except that Crab is a very windy dog. As the servant Launce explains (Act 4, Scene 4):
“I was sent to deliver [the dog] as a present to Mistress Silvia from my master . . . [the dog went] under the Duke’s table; he had not been there, bless the mark, a pissing while but all the chamber smelt him [i.e. the dog farted]. ‘Out with the dog’ says one; ‘What cur is that?’ says another; ‘Whip him out’ says the third; ‘Hang him up’ says the Duke. I, having been acquainted with the smell before, knew it was Crab, and goes me to the fellow that whips the dogs. ‘Friend,’ quoth I ‘you mean to whip the dog.’ ‘Ay, marry do I’ quoth he. ‘You do him the more wrong,’ quoth I; “twas I did the thing you wot of.’ He makes me no more ado, but whips me out of the chamber.”
This is not the only fart reference by Shakespeare. In Henry IV, Part I (Act 3, Scene 1), Owen Glendower is trying to make himself out to be a god-like hero, such that heaven and Earth responded to his birth. In response, Harry Hotspur says, in the most poetic way possible, ‘Yes, when you were born the Earth was ill and farted.’
I say the earth did shake when I was born …
The heavens were all on fire, the earth did tremble.
O, then the earth shook to see the heavens on fire
And not in fear of your nativity.
Diseased nature oftentimes breaks forth
In strange eruptions. Oft the teeming earth
Is with a kind of colic pinched and vexed
By the imprisoning of unruly wind
Within her womb, which for enlargement striving
Shakes the old beldam earth and topples down
Steeples and moss-grown towers. At your birth
Our grandma earth, having this distemperature,
In passion shook.
A shameful aristocratic fart
Polymath John Aubrey (1626–1697) was an English writer, antiquarian, natural philosopher and folklorist. He was also hopelessly disorganised, and this shows in the manuscript he is best remembered for, Brief Lives. This idiosyncratic collection of short biographical sketches of the famed people of his day was never completed, its manuscripts now distributed among 5 institutions in 66 volumes. His segment about Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550–1604), is an excellent example of Aubrey’s lack of organisational skills: only the first two sentences are about de Vere; the second and third paragraphs are about Nicholas Hill; the fourth paragraph about some noble families in general; and the last about “Gwin, the Earle of Oxford’s Secretary.” The only two sentences about the subject matter of the heading read: “This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomes him home, and sayd, My Lord, I had forgott the Fart.”
It’s an entertaining story, to be sure, but is it true? Aubrey wasn’t always able to discern between the interesting and the verifiable, and tended towards credulousness. His Brief Lives account of William Shakespeare, for example, states that his “father was a Butcher, and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours, that when he was a boy he exercised his father’s Trade, but when he kill’d a Calfe he would doe it in a high style, and make a Speech.” William’s father, John, was not a butcher, but a glover and leather worker who also dealt in hides and wool, so not only is this boyhood story clearly false, but it has all the hallmarks of a fanciful tale fabricated retrospectively from knowing the man. Clearly Aubrey really knew nothing of Edward de Vere and, like Brief Lives in general, it has all the veracity of a story told down the pub or a mischievous claim circulating on the internet, repeated by the gullible. If Aubrey wrote Brief Lives today, the researchers of the myth-busting website Snopes would be wetting themselves with delight.
The bottom of the page: marginalia
The margins of medieval manuscripts yield a world of surreal delight: hybrid monsters, animals behaving like humans, and a wealth of bum-related humour.
Monasteries produced most manuscripts until the 12th century for their own libraries or on commission from a patron. By the 14th century, manuscript production was almost entirely commercial. Creating a manuscript before the advent of mass-production industrial printing and processing was an expensive, time-consuming and highly-skilled task. It required turning an animal skin into paper; scraping the hide to the required thickness; cutting it into sheets; then smoothing the surface with a pumice stone to make it receptive to ink. Then the margins were pricked with an awl at measured spaces and straight guidelines drawn between the points, to then be able to neatly and uniformly write the text by hand, with any errors rubbed out by scraping the surface. Spaces were left for painted decorations, which would first be sketched in charcoal before being inked in. Gesso, a compound of plaster, white lead, sugar and glue, was added as a ground for gold to be added. Gold leaf was then applied to illuminated letters, burnished with an agate stone or dog’s tooth, and incisions added to decorate the gold leaf. Lighter colours were then added to illuminations and illustrations; then darker colours; then outlines, drapery, and finer features such as faces. Folded folios were then added together in order to form a quire; then bound by being sewn together and enclosed within wooden boards, which were themselves covered with leather, silk or velvet, and possibly decorated with precious stones.
Since producing a decorated manuscript meant going to all that effort and huge expense – all materials had to be bought and workers’ wages paid – manuscript commissioners expected their books to be beautiful, pleasing to the eye, and carefully crafted. So as well as the beauty of the lettering and the decorative illuminations, we have marginalia, the pictures around the edge of the script that are not there to illustrate any point in the text: they are neither relevant or erudite, but are simply there to entertain.
There can be a tendency today to imagine that all the religious people of history were sombre, serious and humourless. The (f)artefacts of marginalia gives the lie to this catch-all assumption. A few examples can give a whiff of what is available: there are many, many more.
The bum note
The creators of these beautifully-produced manuscripts were well-versed in Latin and its scatalogical possibilities. Medieval and renaissance grammar schools were so-called because the attending boys learned Latin grammar. As anyone who has ever learned another language while young will remember, there are always those in the class who want to know the rude words in the language they’re learning. As surviving renaissance workbooks show, rude words were then compulsory learning:
donge hylle [dung hill] … sterquilinium
I am almost beshytten [I am about to shit myself] … sum in articulo purgandi viscera
tourde in thy tethe [turd in your teeth] … merda dentibus inheret
fart … bombus or trulla
A misplayed note in music is known as a bum note: it is wrong, it shouldn’t be there, it is as musical as a fart. The Latin lexicon reveals an etymological connection between intestinal wind and lung wind, and this accounts for the idea behind the marginalia (shown above) that depicts musicians literally playing bum notes, an idea we also see in the work of Hieronymous Bosch (below).
During the 14th century, larger shawms acquired the name bombard or bumbard, related to the Latin for fart, bombus, and for buzz, bombinare. The Latin flatus, the root of the word flatulence, was used regularly in musical treatises as a term for the air breathed into a wind instrument, a word now used exclusively for intestinal gas. The Latin fistula, meaning a pipe or flute, is now the term for an abscess of the anus. The association between music from the mouth-wind-pipe and sounds from the anal-wind-pipe is further demonstrated by the devils of Dante Alighieri’s 14th century Inferno, who make del cul fatto trombetta, make ‘trumpets of their arses’ (xxi.139). And the hell panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1500, shows the association again, using bum notes as torture for sinners.
The bottom line
We have seen William Ellis’ farting for fun in the time of the joyless Puritans; Thomas D’Urfey and Jonathan Swift’s fart as misogynistic rhetoric; the fart as Geoffrey Chaucer’s and Martin Luther’s comment on religious corruption; as the natural weapon of the bonacon and the buck’s summery smell; Shakespeare’s depiction of kindness in taking responsibility for a dog’s fart, and the Bard’s fart language used for cutting a boaster down to size; John Aubrey’s credulous story of a farting faux pas; the outlandish fun farts of the illuminators; and the fart as the musical wind.
We could examine the history of any subject – medicine, fashion, geography, cartography, language, etc. – and we would find that the subject is never simply the-thing-in-itself. The subject will always be a window onto our past, throwing a comparative light onto our present selves, revealing our own values and view of the world.
The history of the fart is no different. There is no farting-in-itself: its depiction always serves a purpose as humour, as misogyny, or as protest. The fart is not just passing wind, it is passing comment.