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Sin and Filth in Medieval Culture: The Devil in the Latrine
by Martha Bayless

Reviewed by Rebecca Hardie


Published:

Published by Routledge, 2011   |   266 pages

Philipp Melanchthon (1497 – 1560), the protestant reformer, describes St. Bernard’s encounter with the devil in the latrine thus:

Dicitur de sancto Bernhardo, qui cum aliquando in latrina oraret Psalmos, venit ad eum Diabolus et obiurgavit eum dicens; Quare tu in latrina oras sanctos Psalmos? Respondit ei S. Bernhardus: Illud, quod ex ore exit, Deo offero; sed id, quod infra ex ventre eiicio, tu comedas.

(It is told of St. Bernard that once when he was praying the psalms in the latrine, the Devil came to him and reproached him, saying, “Why do you pray the holy psalms in the latrine?” St. Bernard answered him saying, “That which comes out of my mouth, I offer to God; but that which I cast down below from my belly, eat it!”)

This oft-quoted passage, Martha Bayless notes in Sin and Filth in Medieval Culture, introduces ‘the essential dichotomies that make up the medieval system of thought about purity and pollution,’ and inform the structure and argument of her monograph. It is well established that medieval culture took the full range of human experience as symbolic, and interpreted it largely via Christian theology. To the medieval mindset, cleanliness is associated with rising, the face and heaven, whereas the devil and sin are perceived in excrement, lowering, the backside and the latrine. An individual’s internal purity and righteousness were reflected in their physical cleanliness and health; corruption and sin, in scatology, were associated with disease and deformity. Purity and filth were fundamental to the period’s entire symbolic order.

It is unsurprising that excrement was such a prominent topic in medieval writings, given that dung was ubiquitous in medieval Europe. Sewers were non-existent, as was knowledge of microbes and correspondingly the modern notion of hygiene; latrines were rare, even among the highest echelons of society. Public rooms were occasionally designated for human waste, but for most people doing as nature intended meant using the great outdoors, which in cities, towns and villages often meant the street. Texts from health boards and laws from the period are rife with charged discussions of the topic, and Leonardo Da Vinci deplored the use of stairways as latrines. As we move into the later Middle Ages the situation improved, but only slightly: gutters gradually appeared in city streets, with laws guiding citizens to empty chamber pots and household waste directly into these streams.

Medieval sources suggest that the scarcity and usefulness of dung for agriculture in the countryside at times could outweigh its perceived noxiousness. It was, then as now, recognized as a valuable fertiliser and, like hay, as an effective insulator in colder weather. And there are other sporadic (and limited) cases of a more nuanced perspective on scatology. On the whole, however, the societal revulsion towards filth far outweighed any appreciation for it’s utilitarian aspects.

Although scatology is today predominantly associated with comedy – and was as early as the later medieval period – for the bulk of the Middle Ages it was most frequently and graphically depicted in homilies, sermons, conduct books and law-codes. Collectively, this material shows how, in medieval thought, the material and the moral were interconnected, and the coupling of the disgust impulse with theology functioned to identify and maintain the social organisation (both in terms of inclusion and exclusion) of society and cultures. Religious writings and social descriptions throughout the Middle Ages, utilizing the imagery of scatology, reinforce the perception of moral and social infringements as repellent by association. Death was, at the time, perceived to be the most significant consequence of the Fall and original sin (Genesis 3:17-19). The fact that ‘the body produced excrement, as if in prefigurement of the body’s ultimate decay’ came too to symbolize the Fall: ‘excrement and death are two sides of the same coin: physical reflections of moral corruption.’ Women, Jews, and the “deformed” and diseased likewise took their place in this symbolic order, viewed as corporeally corrupt and therefore immoral, to be demeaned, persecuted or segregated from society. The coupling of instinctual and moral repugnance naturalised these notions, and made prejudice difficult to shift.

Bayless’ analysis begins with an evolutionary account of the biological origin of the disgust response, likely as an extended immune response against infectious pathogens. Biologically, humans recoil from things that may transmit disease or infection, such as the bodily secretions of others, decaying food or creatures that act as vectors for viruses and parasites such as lice, maggots or worms. Interestingly, the disgust instinct in human seems to be transmitted at least partially via a cultural mechanism; children roughly three and under do not demonstrate a marked revulsion towards excrement, and only gradually adopt this sense. Indeed, beyond it’s biological, evolutionary purpose, Bayless follows a recent tendency in historical, anthropological, literary and cultural scholarship (Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger; Susan Signe Morrison’s Excrement in the Late Middle Ages; Jonathan Wyn Shofer’s Confronting Vulnerability; Emily Cockayne, Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England,1600-1770) to investigate and make explicit the cultural, symbolic functions of topics deemed filthy (and indeed often unsuitable for treatment even in the academic sphere). Among humans, revulsion towards excrement is more or less universally deployed to found existential and moral symbolic orders. Disgust is, after all, the ‘characteristic and prototypical response to violations of essential social and moral codes’.

Towards the end of this preliminary overview, the relationship of contemporary scientific scholarship to familiar but pertinent theoretical models is explored, including that of Mikhail Bakhtin (on how filth becomes fecundity), Julia Kristeva (on Otherness and abjection), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (on the embodiment of thought) and Paul Rozin (on the psychology of disgust). Bayless maps out a clear framework of reference for textual scholarship of medieval literature, thereby providing an extended case-study against critics who maintain that “science” and “theory” are irrelevant because anachronistic to a pre-humanist society in which religion was still hegemonic.

Bayless presents a broad range of source material, dating from the fifth to the early sixteenth century, drawn from Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Scandinavia. Her analysis stretches across disciplines, to include conventionally literary materials (homilies, sermons, poems), non-literary written texts (such as charters, laws, reports from health-boards), as well as research on archaeological digs and visual representation in the medieval period. Her selections privilege ‘utilitarian, devotional and exemplary literature’ as, Bayless suggests, they most accurately convey the seriousness and moral weight with which the subject was viewed during most of the medieval period (as opposed to comedy’s historically later adoption of filth). Despite the wide scope of her research, Bayless is careful not to fall into the trap of homogenising cultural responses and representations of filth across the entire medieval period. She explores how context, place, population, and technology affect peoples’ literary and theological responses to filth, but also reveals remarkable consistencies in attitude towards it across cultures and time periods.

Although the wealth of source material can at times seem a bit overwhelming, it effectively serves one of Bayless’ main objectives, which is to rectify the limited range of comparative material and analysis on scatology in the medieval (and greater historical) literature. In this way, via the application of scatological analysis, passages previously resistant to interpretation may finally yield. Detailed translations and explanations of sources facilitate this aim further, and ensure material is approachable to the modern reader. The conclusion to Bayless’ monograph thus takes four case-studies of passages or references that have recurrently vexed or been dismissed by scholars and shows how we might interpret and appreciate them anew.

Bayless is careful about differentiating her argument from others that separate the real experience and symbolic interpretation of dung; instead, she stresses that all of theology has its material referent solidly in the material world and human body. Bayless stresses, for example, that excrement was not only an emblem of sin, but in fact was perceived to be ‘the embodiment of corruption itself – as the literal manifestation of the sin continually generated by the living, corrupt and earthly body. Excrement did not just mean sin; in medieval thought, it was sin, the material embodiment of corporeal corruptibility’ [my italics]. Bayless then links this literal association of the moral with the material to the extreme acrimony (and indeed physical violence) of the conflicts of theological doctrine of their period, and indeed our own. Consider that in the tenth and eleventh centuries, worries about the relationship between divinity and corrupt materiality found voice in the stercoran heresy and controversies about the Eucharist. If Jesus was divine but also fully embodied, it was debated, did this mean that his body gave way to the defiling and corrupting actions of defecation? Further, if the Eucharist is consecrated – the actual body and blood of Jesus – then is it sacrilegious that it is digested and defecated? Such questions were fundamental to how people perceived others, their own bodies and salvation, and the greater world around them.

Bayless’ analysis, ostensibly about the medieval period, is very much germane to contemporary discussions, suffused as they still are with anxieties over scatological concerns. Through humour and seriousness, anecdote and theological discussion, Bayless presents a stimulating and valuable critique of how human society – past and present – defines civilisation, refinement and progress, and establishes their value and role through processes of inclusion and exclusion. Bayless makes a considerable advance in this field of scholarship, and demonstrates how the application of science and theory to historical texts can illuminate the politics and ethics of history and today. Far from ridiculous or disgusting, filth is a deadly serious matter, deserving of our closest scrutiny.


Rebecca Hardie did her masters in Medieval Literature at University of Oxford. She lives in London, where she is a PhD student at King’s College, London, and a part-time secondary school tutor.

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