There are times when taking nothing seriously is a perfect remedy. Useful for me, as I still find the banal so very funny. Perhaps that is why seventeenth-century literature appeals so much.
There are many kinds of humour to be found in English Civil War material. They come in fascinating shapes, forms, and stories.
Oxford’s Trinity College president, Ralph Kettell, reputedly spied on students through keyholes to see if they were studying, and labelled those he found slacking to be ‘turds’ and ‘scobberlotchers’. According to John Dougill, he ‘carried scissors in his muff’ (44).
Early newspapers of the 1640s were very quick to turn to scandalous propaganda and scatological 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.
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 farts into political speech-acts. 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 comedian David Mitchell in this week’s column about research councils.
It would not be complete without the forbidden sport. 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‘. Attempts to resist the book are futile, and he concedes to buying it ‘in plain binding’ so that he could burn it after reading to destroy the evidence.
After drinking, he succumbsto 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 caustic humour at Pepys destroying the primary evidence only to have confessed everything in a memoir: interest, motives, gratification, and plundering of the evidence. It’s interesting also that his thrills seem to 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.