A fart, although insubstantial, has an undeniable presence: ethereal, earthy, and evanescent. Stage effects associated with vicious characters could literally be explosive, and the word itself could denote violent horseplay and mockery, often with obscene overtones. Perhaps the commonest usage of the actual word on the medieval stage is as an expression of contempt, to describe someone or something as ‘not worth a fart’. This phrase, however, brings us back to the fart’s paradoxical nature, because articulating this proverb bestows value on the person or object. In short, my paper will examine the multiple meanings of the onstage fart.
Andrieu de la Vigne’s Mystère de Saint Martin, staged in the Burgundian town of Seurre in 1496, features a five-hundred-line scatological farce, Le Meunier de qui le diable emporte l’âme en enfer. Strategically placed as comic cautionary tale, the farce comments on or somehow contributes to the altior sensus of the immediate, surrounding mystery as well as, perhaps, of an immanent, divine mystery. This paper seeks to take advantage of this privileged integration to re-examine the role of the scatological in common late-medieval notions of the sacred, particularly with regard to the representation of Hell.
While recent publications such as Jeff Persels and Russell Ganim’s Fecal Matters (2004) and Valerie Allen’s On Farting (2007) constitute a contemporary movement (pun fully intended) to describe the representation of scatology in literature, culture or the arts, they remain, to date, rare examples of a preparedness to discuss such material. This paper will consider the history of bowlderlisation of Chaucer’s fabliaux and reflect upon the current state of play. While its being part of a conference session on ‘Bodily Functions’ may appear to testify to the arrival of scatology as an academic subject, this paper will assert that it remains if not outside, then at least at the margins of traditional scholarly discussion.