In recent years, a story about a detail in Jheronimus Bosch’s painting of 1495–1505, The Garden of Earthly Delights, has been repeatedly told: that a sinner on the hell panel of the triptych has real music painted on his bottom, only recently discovered. Periodically, articles and videos reappear on social media with a performance of the same attempt to make sense of it, created by Amelia Hamrick in 2014. Is this oft-repeated butt music credible?
To put Bosch’s painting in its historical context, a previous article, Performable music in medieval and renaissance art, examined the role of both faux music notation and playable music in medieval and renaissance art. This article explains why the paint on the sinner’s bottom does not represent real music, and why attempts to interpret the ‘music’ are based on erroneous assumptions and misunderstandings. A second article, available here, explains the rich symbolism of The Garden, including the meaning of musicians tortured by their own instruments, silenced by the demons of hell. A third and final article, available here, surveys the musical symbolism in all Bosch’s works, and asks why his depictions of music are always grotesque, associated with sin, punishment and hell.
Sumer is icumen in is the earliest surviving complete English secular song, sung in this article’s video with all six voices indicated in the manuscript, Harley 978, circa 1250. Sumer and another song, Perspice Christicola, are laid out on the page to the same melody. It seems an unlikely coupling: one about the sights and sounds of summer, with its singing cuckoo, growing seeds, bleating ewe and farting buck; the other a devotional song, with God sending Christ to destruction in order to free the captives of sin and crown them in heaven.
A later scribe returned to the page to add rhythm to the originally non-mensural (not indicating rhythm) notation and, in doing so, also changed the pitches of some notes. The changed notes are strategic, removing the musical cuckoo call, and this scribal interference suggests that the Middle English secular Sumer is icumen in and the Latin devotional Perspice Christicola made an uneasy pair. The version of Sumer recorded for this article restores the originally-written pitches, with the effect of reinstating the cascading cuckoo call, a central musical effect erased in the amended notes usually sung.
This is a revised version of an article originally published in February 2016.
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.