Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer's Fecopoetics

January 15, 2009

In York's Jorvik Viking Centre, snug in the ostentation of its own display case, is a supercilious and eye-wateringly huge human turd. Nestling in its celebrity status, this magnificent stool squats amid weapons, jewellery, household implements and other artefacts dating back 1,200 years, triumphantly defying the claims of history that the past is a foreign country and things are done differently there. Susan Signe Morrison's spry and sparkling study of excrement in the late Middle Ages (while admittedly focusing on a subsequent period) could well have adopted the Viking shit as talismanic inasmuch as it symbolises her stated purpose to redress the tendency of literary theory to dematerialise the body and so rarefy the somatogenic inspiration of so much artistic endeavour.

In too many historical and literary accounts of the Middle Ages, Morrison argues, corporeal experience is deodorised and its representation euphemised: "material dirt itself demands investigation". Linguistics, feminism and especially psychoanalysis have tended to theorise physical processes out of sight (and, we should add, smell): "The recent critical debate about the history of the body has tended to avoid the topic of excrement."

Morrison's approach is thus hands-on or, more precisely, pants-down. Her book, purposefully and with elegant aplomb, rubs our noses in the midden of medieval poetry, theology and philosophy. Language, she writes, is "itself a rubbish heap or sewer"; "language makes excrement manifest"; "the meaning of a word is litter-al". The great privy of medieval literature spreads this scatological imperative across a wide variety of discourses to do with morality, gender, alchemy, medicine, race and, as Morrison most forcefully demonstrates, canonical debates around religious orthodoxy, to do with such issues as the function of purgatory (etymologically related to purge) or transubstantiation. For example, there is a fascinating discussion of the theological hair-splitting prompted by the Stercoranist heresy according to which "the ingested body of God had to be excreted".

Morrison's critical neologism, "fecopoetics", is a skit (or should that be scat?) on the fashionable literary term "ecopoetics", and her method combines humorous deftness with a seriously environmental raison d'etre. On the one hand, she is not averse to citing among her literary sources Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People or Monty Python, and she relishes, in the manner of a sniggering child, a marginal drawing in one medieval manuscript which features "a naked person with what looks like an upside-down twistie soft ice cream cone coming out of his bottom". On the other hand, she can be occasionally finger-waggingly dour about the intrinsic morality of fecopoetics: "The exploration of waste with the recognition of its necessity constitutes a mode of responsible theoretical inquiry."

There are compelling and well-illustrated accounts of the racially inflammatory medieval association of Jews with dung, as well as the misogynistic commonplace according to which a sexually autonomous woman was imaged as a saccum stercoris (or "sack of shit"), which may explain the ambiguity over Alisoun's "hol" to which Absolon puts his lips in Chaucer's The Miller's Tale (front or rear cleft?).

But it is in Morrison's insistence on the contiguities of the Middle Ages and today that she is most forthright. Rather than flush away what modernity condemns as disgusting, we must "see ourselves in that threatening, filthy alterity". In this way we ought, metaphorically anyway, to emulate the communal dumping of the Roman citizenry and so engage collectively in a popular solidification, as it were, of biological democracy. The alternative is selfish individuation and the etiolating fragmentation of the body politic. As Morrison insightfully cautions us, the "privatisation of excrement can (only) limit us and harm our planet"

Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer's Fecopoetics

By Susan Signe Morrison. Palgrave Macmillan, 288pp, £42.50. ISBN 9781403984883. Published 14 November 2008

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