“On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages” by Valerie Allen

"On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages" by Valerie Allen

"In this book Valerie Allen offers a learned, provocative, and thoroughly enjoyable investigation of the meaning/s of the fart — and more broadly, of ‘waste’ — in the Middle Ages. The book seeks to situate, in a historicist mode, medieval farting discourse — including jokes. It does this by setting up a particularly interesting contrast between premodern concepts of waste, purity and ‘moral’ filth and modern concepts of waste, hygiene and the individual subject. The stated purpose of the book is to offer an answer as to why ‘excremental bawdy was used’ (13) in the cultures of the Middles Ages.

The book is particularly learned and offers a dazzling array of connections across many areas of intellectual history from faculty psychology to cosmology, alchemy, and the Platonic realia. The idea is to illuminate the ways in which medieval writers exploited fart discourse as a topos within their reflections on the meaning and experience of death, the body, and subjectivity.

Exploiting modernity's tendency to think of the medieval as that which is thrown off by the modern as well as the old adage about the wisdom to be found in shit — i.e. in what the garbage of the social tells us about its means of self-definition — Allen starts by constructing a triangulation between the bum, the flâneur, and the scholarly book. However, this ‘bum’ is unlike Baudelaire's observing aesthete. Instead it ranges all over the place looking for the linguistic detritus left by intellectual history of wind, sound, smell and fart.

Allen has managed to situate medieval fart discourse by showing how it has meaning not so much as a function of modern subjectivity that finds horror in the-waste-that-is-not-I. Rather, she locates such discourse, usefully and successfully, as a function of the mystery of the transcendent real, as might be instantiated for instance by the theology of sacrifice. Meaningful ‘waste’ becomes an intriguing way to reformulate the divide between the ‘modern’ and ‘premodern’. However, On Farting may leave a reader wanting to know more about how the two relate to each other in these terms and whether medieval wisdom has any capacity to deconstruct some of the more taxing regimes we must live under as modern subjects."