farting: men’s pervasive burden of performance

Man's spectacular skateboard performance

The massive market for “erectile dysfunction” drugs indicates the crushing burden of performance that keeps men down. While diligently securing affirmative consent at each level and appropriate time interval of romantic engagement, men fear that if they can’t perform like a virile donkey they will be ridiculed as a feeble ass. Of course, donkeys don’t have to worry about bizarre prosecutions for rape. But that’s not the only way that men are put in a worse position than donkeys. Even for basic bodily functions such as farting, men are pressured to perform.[1]

Consider the case of Roland the Farter. He lived in early twelfth-century England. In exchange for the right to hold roughly a hundred acres of land, Roland the Farter had to perform for the king.[2] A record of feudal landholding in Suffolk in 1250 states:

The serjeanty, which formerly was held of Roland the Farter in Hemingston in the country of Suffolk, for which he was obliged to perform every year on the birthday of our Lord {Christmas} before his master the king, one jump, a whistle, and one fart, was alienated in accordance with these specific requirements. [3]

Imagine facing eviction if you couldn’t produce a fart at a specific time and place. That’s even more dire than disappointing a lover. The pressure of performance that Roland the Farter felt must have been enormous.

Medieval literature offered men conflicting wisdom on farting performance. In the highly learned, politically transgressive Latin work Solomon and Marcolf, Marcolf states:

Relax the asshole to fart, and it will shake itself!
{Laxa culum pedere, et ipse concuciet se!} [4]

A medieval French text, in contrast, warns:

One shits when one holds too tightly.
{Trop estraindre fet chiier.} [5]

The meaning of the latter aphorism echoes the wisdom “Clutching a thing too tightly makes you drop it.”[6] What is a man to do when his land tenure depends on dropping a fart? One could easily make a stinking mess of the situation.

Men’s natural bodily functions depend on their mental and emotional states. While men have similarities with dogs, most men are more mentally and emotionally complex than dogs. Subtle and sometimes even unconscious fears and anxieties can thwart men’s bodily performances. Demanding performance at a specific time and with specific requirements creates a burden of performance. Those who seek to enjoy men’s wonderful physical capabilities should offer broad latitude for performance with ongoing consent and receptivity.

fear of performance: between rocks

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[1] Of course women as well as men fart. Doubly transgressing gynocentric norms of discourse, Marcolf observed:

A fat and large woman is more lavish in producing farts.
{Mulier pinguis et grossa est largior in dando iussa.}

Solomon and Marcolf 14b, from Latin trans Ziolkowski (2008) pp. 56-7. The burden of performance, however, is characteristically much greater for men than women.

[2] Roland the Farter appears in the Latin manuscripts as Rollandus, le Pettus, Rollandus le Pettour, and Rollandus le Pettur. Those variants include a mixture of Latin, French, and Anglicized word forms. The English Calendar of the Close Rolls records for 1234 Walterus Fartere (Walter the Farter). The Leicestershire Lay Subsidy Roll records for 1327 Johannes le Fartere (John the Farter). Those names similarly mix forms across languages. Allen (2007) pp. 129, 178-9.

Men have performed as farters for millennia. Early in the fifth century GC, Augustine of Hippo noted:

Some have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at pleasure, so as to produce the effect of singing.

Augustine, City of God 14.24. An eighth-century Irish document refers to remuneration for professional farters. A Japanese scroll from the Kamakura period (1185-1333) depicts professional farters. Documents from sixteenth-century Europe also refer to men skilled in fart performance. Allen (2007) pp. 163-5. In late nineteenth-century France, Joseph Pujol (“Le Pétomane”) rose to national prominence for farting. Purjol performed farting at the newly established Moulin Rouge theatre in Paris in the early 1890s.

[3] Liber Feodorum (“Book of Fees”) 2:1174, from Latin trans. Allen (2007) p. 18 (similarly p. 171, with one minor mistake). The Latin for “one jump, a whistle, and one fart” is unum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum. The performance context suggests that all three acts were probably required to be performed simultaneously.

The word bumbulum for farting is unusual but probably not new. Bumbulum referred to a musical instrument in pseudo-Jerome, Epistle 23 (to the prefect Dardanus), entitled De Diversis generibus musicorum (available in Patrologia Latina 30:214A-B). That text is from the early ninth century. A medieval manuscript written before the fourteenth century has an illustration of a bumbulum. See Bavarian State Library MS shelfmark Clm 14523, image 109. Solomon  and Marcolf 31b has bombi for farts. Some manuscripts of that work deploy bumbisare for fart as a verb at l. 116b. Ziolkowski (2008) pp. 58, 139, 178-9. In describing Roland the Farter’s performance, Liber Feodorum also uses the more common word pettum for fart (unum saltum, siffletum, et pettum). Allen (2007) p. 171.

[4] Solomon and Marcolf 90b, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2008) pp. 66-7. The Latin word used for fart is pedere:

Although recorded only once in the fart-filled S&M {Solomon and Marcolf}, it was the principal word for expressing farting in Classical Latin and endured in Romance languages

Id. p. 167. This unusual farting diction within Solomon and Marcolf suggests a linguistic allusion in l. 90b for “shake itself”: crepitus ventris (“shaking of the bowels”). In medieval Latin, ventre can be translated as “stomach,” “bowels,” or “intestines.” Id. p. 147. In classical Latin texts, crepitus ventris is attested as a phrase for farting:

He is even said to have thought of an edict allowing the privilege of breaking wind quietly or noisily at table, having learned of a man who ran some risk by restraining himself through modesty.

dicitur etiam meditatus edictum, quo veniam daret flatum crepitumque ventris in convivio emittendi, cum periclitatum quendam prae pudore ex continentia repperisset.

Suetonius, Life of Claudius 32, trans. J.C. Rolfe, via a learned and instructive presentation at Laudator Temporis Acti.

[5] Rutebeuf, Le Pet au Vilain (The Peasant’s Fart) l. 50, from Old French trans. Dubin (2013) p. 465, where for chiiet I’ve replaced “lets loose” with “shit.” That’s the translation given in id. p. 964 (note).

[6] The fifteenth-century French poet François Villon recorded the proverb Tant embrasse on que chiet la prise (“Clutching a thing too tightly makes you drop it.”) Villon, Ballade de Proverbs, 23, text and trans. from Dubin (2013) pp. 963-4 (note), citing NRCF. A related Middle French proverb is Qui plus haut monte qu’il ne doit, de plus haut chet qu’il ne voidroit (“He who rises higher than he should, will fall farther than he would like.” Hassell (1982) p. 167, M176 (English translation is mine).

A medieval Latin proverb highlights the challenge of performance in farting. Qui pedit dum vult, pedit dum pedere non vult (“He who farts when he wishes, farts when he does not wish to fart.”) Ziolkowski (2008) p. 165, citing to Walther 4:235, no. 24465 and noting that this proverb is “a heavily spondaic (and presumably therefore comically onomatopoeic) hexameter.”

[images] (1) Skateboard stunt at Venice Beach and Boardwalk, Los Angeles, US. Cropped version of photo by Matteo Paganelli. (2) Man looking out between rocks at Matterhorn, Zermatt, Switzerland. Cropped version of photo by Joshua Earle. Both available via Creative Commons Zero license at unsplash.com


Allen, Valerie. 2007. On farting: language and laughter in the Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. (Danuta Shanzer’s review)

Dubin, Nathaniel. 2013. The fabliaux. New York: Liveright.

Hassell, James Woodrow. 1982. Middle French proverbs, sentences and proverbial phrases. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

15 thoughts on “farting: men’s pervasive burden of performance”

  1. Throughout recorded history a fart was “never not funny.”
    Quote from Pamela Anderson on the Howard Stern show sometime in 2006.

  2. You [or other readers] might like to see a review of ‘Solomon & Marcolf’ by myself published in ‘B.C. Folklore’ a couple of years ago.

    By Jan M. Ziolkowski. Cambridge MA: Harvard U. P., 2008. xvii, 451 pp. ISBN 978-0-674-02841-8 and 978-0-674-02842-5.
    This is an edition of the Latin text of the mediaeval jestbook featuring king Solomon and the clever trickster Marcolf, with an en-face translation and full scholarly apparatus: commentary, textual notes, appendices, bibliography, and indices (of Latin Words and Phrases, Scriptural References, Tale Types, Motifs, and Proverbs, and Subjects). The Appendices are: Alternative Beginning and Ending; Sources, Analogues, and Testimonia; A Welsh Solomon and Marcolf (translated by Diana Luft); and Sequence of Questions and Answers.
    There have been editions in the past, but absolutely nothing comes close to this excellent edition. Ziolkowski has been at pains to cater to the most demanding reader and nit-picking critic. In particular I suppose I should point out, with commendation, the inclusion of tale types and motifs, appurtenances that are always useful but frequently ignored.
    As to the content: the book is about the confrontation of the wise king Solomon with the smart-aleck Marcolf, a common rude (in more ways than one) rascal and boor. First we have a long series of questions and answers, a straightforward dialogue or duel of wits, and then a series of anecdotes about the pair of them. It should be said at once that the droll ‘fool’ generally comes off best in these exchanges. All that is contained in 50 pages of text and translation; then bountifully supplied with a host of fascinating annotation and explanation. I should perhaps give some examples of all this.
    At the start of Part 2, Solomon and his entourage come to Marcolf’s mean hut and the king on his horse sticks his head under the lintel and asks who is inside. Marcolf, sitting there watching over some beans he’s cooking, answers “Here inside is a man, and half a man, and the head of a horse, and however much more they rise up, by that much more they sink down.” The king is nonplussed, but the fool explains he is the man, the king is the half man, sitting outside and looking in; the horse’s head is that of the king, and the things rising up and sinking down are the beans boiling in the pot. This is motif H583.1. That whole section (H583) is “Clever youth (maiden) answers king’s inquiry in riddles”, referred to H561.4, “King and clever youth. King asks questions; youth returns riddling answers.” This is Type 921, “The King and the Farmer’s Son.” Ziolkowski has a good note on this (p. 195 ff.) noting that the man and a half and a horse’s head figure in a proverbial saying meaning “a very small audience”, in present-day Dutch, finding expression in the early sixteenth-century Tijl Uilenspiegel; and “The motif and the proverb in Uilenspiegel are clearly indebted to the one in S&M.”
    Solomon goes on to ask the whereabouts of Marcolf’s father, mother, brother and sister, to which the boor replies “My father is making two losses out of one loss. My mother indeed is doing for her neighbour what she will do no more for her. Moreover my brother, sitting outside the house, is killing whatever he finds. Finally my sister, sitting in her room, is weeping over her laughter of the previous year.” The perplexed king ask his meaning, and is told “My father is in his field and, wishing to block the path of passers-by, puts thorns on the path; and the people coming make two routes, and thus he makes two losses out of one loss. Indeed my mother is closing the eyes of her dying neighbour, which she—the neighbour—will do no more for her. Moreover my brother, sitting outside the house in the sun and holding his clothes in front of him, is killing all the lice he finds. Finally, my sister in bygone times loved a certain young man, and now pregnant, she weeps over what she then laughed about, among frolics, soft touches, and corrupt kisses.” After some more cleverness Solomon asks Marcolf to get his mother to send him a pot full of milk from the best cow, and to cover it [with something] from the same cow. His mother does this, using “a white pat from the same milk” as a lid. Her mischievous son however en route eats the pat [which could mean clotted cream, or curds, or more likely a flan smeared with milk] and covers the pot with a “cow pie” [as the translation goes] he finds. I call these flat bovine excrements “pats”, which is a bit confusing. Ziolkowski helpfully explains the Latin bosa (modern French bouse) as referring especially to cow dung. The king is not pleased, but cheeky Marcolf points out that it fulfils the letter of his order.
    The riddling answers feature in ATU 875, “The Clever Farmgirl” and 921, “The King and the Farmer’s Son”, as said above, corresponding to motif H561.3, “Solomon and Marcolf” and H561.4, “King and Clever Youth”. These are real internationally found motifs, occurring (as I keep comparing) in the Russian mediaeval tale of Peter and Fevronia of Murom, where it is introduced as a means of showing the sagacity of the heroine; the prince is looking for a cure for his ailment (caused by the blood of a serpent he has killed, cf. B11.2.13.1) and his page finds this maiden who tells him “My father and mother have gone alone to weep so as to pay their debt in advance, and my brother has gone to view death between his feet”, explained as the parents having gone to a funeral: “Once death has come to them, others will weep after them, and therefore they weep now to pay their debt in advance” [cf. the mother above]. The brother climbs trees to gather pitch, and he has gone to do this, “and when he does so, he must watch his feet so that he will not fall.” She gives other riddling answers before curing the prince and marrying him. (See Serge A. Zenkovsky, Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales [N.Y.: Dutton, 1963], 240.)
    The end of the story [98 ff.] has the cheeky peasant angering the king and being told “Depart from me, and watch out that I see you no more between the eyes!” He ponders what to do; during the night there’s a fall of snow, and in the morning he takes a sieve in one hand and a bear’s foot in the other, puts on his shoes crosswise [Lat. transverse, most likely intending “backwards”; cf. motif K534], and goes through the town, winding up at an oven. He goes in; his trail is found by the king’s retinue, who report a marvellous beast. Solomon arrives at the oven and looks in.
    Indeed Marcolf was lying bent over with his head downward, and had pulled down his breeches, and his buttocks, asshole, penis [gurgulio], and testicles were revealed. Seeing him, King Solomon said, “Who is it who is lying there?” Marcolf: “It is I, Marcolf.” Solomon said, “How is it that you are lying in this manner?” Marcolf: “You instructed me that you would not see me any more between the eyes. But now, if you do not wish to see me between the eyes, you may see me between the buttocks [in medio culo].”
    There’s a good pun here, with Marcolf deliberately juxtaposing in medio oculo and in medio culo. The word gurgulio is classical curculio, “weevil, corn-worm”, in Virgil’s Georgics, but meaning “prick/cock etc.” in Persius’s Satires. I do feel that here as elsewhere Ziolkowski could have been a bit more colloquial.
    Solomon tells his men to hang him, and the boor asks to choose the tree himself. Solomon couldn’t care less; but of course no matter how far they take him, no tree suits him, so he’s let go.
    Part One, which is really a separate story, features the fool turning Solomon’s sententious pronouncements on their head, into ridiculous or sardonic or obscene observations. I must admit that when one sees these in the fine and sober attire of Latin, they possess a certain dignity. In plain English [or American] they have a rude boisterousness to them. The “decent obscurity of a learned language” does give them, at this remove at least, the sanctity of age and venerability.
    Marcolf’s responses vary from sardonic truisms—
    Solomon: “To everyone who has, it shall be given, and he shall abound.” [= Matthew 25:29]
    Marcolf: “Woe to him who has bread and does not have teeth!”
    to pert scatology:
    Solomon: “The mouth speaks from the abundance of the heart.” [Matthew 12:34]
    Marcolf: “The asshole trumpets a triumph from the fullness of the stomach.”
    There is also shameless anatomy:
    Solomon: “Between two mountains you will find a valley.”
    Marcolf: “Between two large thighs a vulva often lies hidden.”
    Incidentally, that’s the word that the anon author uses for the pudendum muliebre, and not the perhaps expected cunnus, which had a better fate in the Romance languages. I’m not sure why Ziolkowski translated it thus, given that modern Anglo-American familiar language would be likely to say “cunt”. The other word that occurs often is culus, the ancestor of French cul, etc., and it’s translated, as I might have expected, as “ass”, which I never tire of telling people is ugly and ambiguous. I should be glad that vulva isn’t rendered as “pussy”, I suppose, which is too modern; presumably lent to France (whence chat, chatte) in the course of World War I.
    Ziolkowski notes that the story acquired a lot of its fame in recent years by being mentioned with approval by the Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin, in his excellent and enlightening structural study Tvorčestva Fransua Rable (Moscow: Xudožestvennaja literatura, 1965), translated nicely by Helene Iswolsky as Rabelais and His World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968). There he draws attention to the comic dialogues of Solomon with Morolf (one of the boor’s names – they vary from version to version) and compares them to the earthy conversations of Don Quixote and Sancho. “One of the main attributes of the medieval clown was precisely the transfer of every high ceremonial gesture or ritual to the material sphere” (p. 20). In like manner the first five objects Gargantua uses to wipe his bum are all originally apparel for the head, a degradation of their use, connecting with the frequency of the expression Baise-mon-cul (Kiss my arse) and similar. The deliberate display of the buttocks is, Bakhtin notes, “one of the most common uncrowning gestures throughout the world. It appears in the oldest description of the fourteenth-century charivari in the Roman du Fauvel; this charivari contains a song about the baise-cul and the various participants display their bottoms” (p. 373). He goes on to describe the display of Marcolf described above, indicating its place in the comic tradition. It might also be pointed out that the action is often apotropaic in intent, a ritual to chase the demonic, as here to disconcert the establishment.
    Ziolkowski’s annotation is impeccable and seemingly exhaustive, and even exhausting. It suits a pedant like me, who relishes the sort of erudition satirised in Hyacinthe Cordonnier’s Le Chef-d’oeuvre d’un inconnu, as long, that is, as the information is pertinent; and it can be said that our editor is ready to give us a note on anything we might find inscrutable or curious. The result is an amazing plethora of background facts on the language and the literature, the history and sociology, the morality and diversions of the middle ages. I cannot recommend this volume enough. It’s a great version of a fascinating work.

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