After a day like today, recent goblin reminiscence and all, the search for “taking nothing seriously” (relating to this post) rounds itself here. I’m still a boy at heart who finds the childish banal so very funny. Perhaps that is why seventeenth-century literature appeals so much.
There are many precedents to this kind of humour in English Civil War material. They come in fascinating shapes, forms, and stories. Oxford’s Trinity College president, Ralph Kettell, kept to hardened traditions by reputedly spying on students through keyholes to see if they were studying, and labelled those he found slacking to be ‘turds’ and ‘scobberlotchers’. I’m not so sure what to make of John Dougill’s description that he ‘carried scissors in his muff’ (44).
Early newspapers of the 1640s were very quick to turn to scandalous propaganda and scatalogical humour in their attempts to undermine the opposition. One particularly memorable story involves Thomas Atkins, crudely nicknamed ‘Tony Turd’, who had reputedly shat himself in shock over gunfire in the Civil War, and then again over hearing schoolboys regurgitating the tale, requiring him to return home and empty his breeches (86). Video 3, I imagine(!)
Such splenetic libel had come earlier in the century, during the reign of James I. The ‘Censure of the Parliament Fart‘ (1607) lands with wry affliction on the nose of the iconic ‘bodie-politique’, with an unbeatable observation from Hungerford on following-through. This ode transforms farting into a speech-act, and therefore political statement. To talk out of one’s arse, figuratively speaking, may have been an epithet set in place long ago. The very literal was, for our amusement, hinted at by David Mitchell in his excellent column this week about research councils.
The circle would not be complete without the forbidden sport. A friend teaching in this area shared a reference with particularly interesting overtones to the grand theme of privacy. In the 1650s, Samuel Pepys comes across several pornographic volumes. His attention is particularly drawn to L’Ecole des Filles, despite it being ‘rather worse than Puttana Errante‘, another he is familiar with. Attempts to resist the book are futile, and he concedes to buying it ‘in plain binding’ so that he could burn it once read to destroy the evidence. After drinking, he succombs to the book’s charms and keeps a hand free from the pages (“una vez to decharger“). The fascinating duel between shame and excitement, pleasure before pragmatism, creates the need to voyeuristically document the experience. There is a caustic humour at Pepys destroying the primary evidence only to have confessed everything: his interest, his motives, his ‘gratification’, and his plundering of the evidence. Interesting then, insofar as his thrills come from the secret memory of erotic stimulation rather than the material itself.
There are witty and creative ways to keep bodily functions a pleasingly fresh source of humour, but we owe medieval and early modern predecessors a debt for circumventing decorum, censorship, and rigidity. Who knows? Keeping a sense of humour alive 350 years ago might have allowed us to today.