medieval parodies encompassed sacred liturgy and even women

medieval court jester

In the relatively liberal and tolerant culture of medieval Europe, learned persons produced tremendous diversity in written texts. Just as classical Arabic culture produced raucous satire, medieval European culture produced bizarre animal stories providing vitally important teaching, vigorous works of men’s sexed protest, heartwarming stories of husbands’ loving concern for their wives, and many other texts scarcely conceivable today. Benefiting from medieval freedom of speech, medieval authors further wrote outrageous parodies of sacred liturgy and even of women.

Medieval liturgical parodies centered on drinking and gambling. Celebrants in parodic liturgy honored Bacchus, the traditional Greco-Roman god of wine, and Decius and Dolium, invented gods of dice and the cask of wine, respectively. The celebrants are compulsively driven to drink and gamble to excess. As a result, they get miserably drunk, groan, and commonly lose their clothes from losing bets.

I confess to Almighty God, to blessed Mary ever Virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to you, brethren, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed: through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I beseech blessed Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and you, brethren, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

I confess to the Cask, to King Bacchus and to all his cups taken up by us, that I, a drinker, have drunk exceedingly while standing, sitting, watching, waking, gambling, and inclining toward the cup, and in losing my clothes, through my drunkenness, through my drunkenness, though my most extreme drunkenness. Therefore I beseech you, solemn drinkers and diners, to pray devotedly for me.

{ Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, beatae Mariae semper Virgini, beato Michaeli Archangelo, beato Ioanni Baptistae, sanctis Apostolis Petro et Paulo, omnibus Sanctis, et vobis, fratres: quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Ideo precor beatam Mariam semper Virginem, beatum Michaelem Archangelum, beatum Ioannem Baptistam, sanctos Apostolos Petrum et Paulum, omnes Sanctos, et vos, fratres, orare pro me ad Dominum Deum nostrum. } [1]

{ Confiteor Dolio, regi Baccho et omnibus schyphis eius a nobis acceptis, quia ego potator potavi nimis instando, sedendo, videndo, vigilando, ludendo, et ad schyphum inclinando, vestimentaque mea perdendo: mea crapula, mea crapula, mea maxima crapula. Ideo precor vos, solemnes potatores et manducatores, devote orare pro me. } [2]

In the parodies, liturgy is transformed to be consistent with excessive drinking and gambling. In the parodic penitential act (confession), the phrase “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault {mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa}” becomes “through my drunkenness, through my drunkenness, though my most extreme drunkenness {mea crapula, mea crapula, mea maxima crapula}.” Many other liturgical expressions are similarly transformed:

the most common exchange of the Mass Dominus vobiscum / Et cum spiritu tuo (The Lord by with you / And with your spirit) becomes Dolus vobiscum / Et cum gemitur tuo (Fraud be with you / And with your groan). The prompt to prayer Oremus (Let us pray) becomes Potemus (Let us drink) or Ploremus (Let us cry). Laus tibi Christe (Praise to you, Christ), a response pronounced after the Gospel, becomes the anti-peasant quip Fraus tibi, rustice (Fraud to you, peasant). The words of the preface Dignum et iustum est (It is fitting and right) become either Vinum et mustum est (There is wine and must) or Merum et mustum est (There is unmixed wine and must). Amen becomes stramen (straw); Alleluia becomes allecia (herring); and certain transitional words are subtly altered — ideo (thus) becomes rideo (I laugh). The titles of liturgical books are also changed, turning the Letter of Paul to the Hebraeos (Hebrews) into the letter to the Ebrios (drunkards). … The introduction to the Pater noster, Audemus dicere (We dare to say) becomes Audemus bibere (We dare to drink), and the first line is changed from Pater noster, qui es in caelis (Our Father, who is in Heaven) to Potus noster, qui est in cyphy (Our drink, which is in the cup). [3]

The biblical phrase “through all the ages of the ages {per omnia saecula saeculorum}” becomes “though all the cups of the cups {per omnia pocula poculorum}.” Ingenious authors also coined neologism: the invented Latin word allernebria combined alleluia {an expression of praise} and inebria {you are drunk}.

At now the sun’s dawning ray,
to God as suppliants we pray.
Through all the day shall see,
may He from harms keep us free.

At now the sun’s dawning ray,
we must drink without delay.
Let’s now drink till it’s all gone,
and today drink again later on.

{ Iam lucis orto sidere,
Deum precemur supplices,
ut in diurnis actibus
nos servet a nocentibus. } [4]

{ Iam lucis orto sidere,
statim oportet bibere:
bibamus nunc egregie
et rebibabus hodie. } [5]

One of the most prevalent parodies turned a sequence praising the Virgin Mary into a sequence praising wine. This parody probably dates to the thirteenth century. By the fifteenth century, it was incorporated into an extensive Drinker’s Mass {Missa potatorum}. Medieval hymns and sequences praising the Virgin Mary frequently include earthy, fleshy representations. Mary wonderfully becoming pregnant is thus linked to figures of harbor, bush, and rod. The parody in turn praises the physical qualities of the wine and its bodily passage across lips and tongue, down into the stomach. Both the original and the parody express medieval culture’s profound appreciation for human bodily experience.

Good and sweet word
let us exclaim — that “Hail”
by which virgin-mother-daughter
was made Christ’s dwelling-place.

By that “Hail” greeted,
the virgin, born in David’s line,
soon became pregnant —
a lily among thorns.

Hail, true Solomon’s
mother, fleece of Gideon,
whom the wise men with three gifts
praise in child-bearing.

Hail, you who birthed the sun,
hail, you who brought forth child,
upon the fallen world you have conferred
life and dominion.

Hail, mother of Word most high,
harbor in the sea, sign of the bush,
rod of aromatic fumes,
queen of angels.

We pray: mend us,
and when mended commend us
to your son to have
eternal joys.

Good wine with savor
the abbot drinks with the prior,
and lowly monks from wine inferior drink with sadness.

Hail, happy creation,
produced from a vine so pure;
with you all minds rest secure,
being in a cup of wine.

O how happy in color!
O how pleasing in the mouth’s center!
What sweetness to savor,
sweetly chained across the tongue.

Happy stomach that you nourish,
happy tongue that you wash,
and blessed Sloshing —
O Bacchus, O your lips!

We pray: be here abundant.
May all the crowd be exuberant.
We with voices being exultant,
let us proclaim joys.

Of monks, the devoted band,
every cleric, rarely minus a man,
drink cups to equal standing,
now and through the ages.

{ Verbum bonum et suave
Personemus, illud Ave
Per quod Christi fit conclave
Virgo, mater, filia.

Per quod Ave salutata
Mox concepit fecundata
Virgo, David stirpe nata,
Inter spinas lilia.

Ave, veri Salomonis
Mater, vellus Gedeonis,
Cujus magi tribus donis
Laudant puerperium.

Ave, solem genuisti,
Ave, prolem protulisti,
Mundo lapso contulisti
Vitam et imperium.

Ave, mater verbi summi,
Maris portus, signum dumi,
Aromatum virga fumi,
Angelorum domina.

Supplicamus, nos emenda,
Emendatos nos commenda
Tuo natu ad habenda
Sempiterna gaudia. } [6]

{ Vinum bonum cum sapore
Bibit abbas cum priore
Et conventus de peiore
Bibit cum tristicia.

Ave felix creatura
Quam produxit vitis pura.
Omnis mens pro te secura
Stat in vini poculo.

O quam felix in colore!
O quam placens es in ore!
Dulce quoque in sapore,
Dulce lingue vinculum.

Felix venter quem nutrabis,
Felix lingua quam lavabis
Et beata Madefala
O te Bache labia.

Supplicamus: hic abunda;
Omnis turba sit fecunda.
Sit cum voce nos iucunda
Personemus gaudia.

Monachorum grex devotus,
Cleris omnis, raro totus,
Bibunt ad aequatos potus
Et nunc et in secula. } [7]

The most audacious of all medieval poetry challenged gyno-idolatry and gynocentrism. Writing in Latin in twelfth-century northern France, Guibert of Nogent added further piquancy to Lucretius’s vigorous dispelling of gyno-idolatrous delusions. Matheus of Boulogne in the thirteenth century drew upon liturgical and theological themes to protest men’s suffering in marriage. The medieval men who wrote satires against gyno-idolatry and gynocentrism didn’t hate women any more than those who wrote liturgical parodies hated the dominant religion of Christianity. Their marginalized writings are the sigh of oppressed men, the heart of a heartless world toward men, and the soul of the soulless conditions of gynocentrism.

When the cold breeze blows
from your land,
it seems to me that I feel
a wind from Paradise
by love of the noble one
toward whom I incline,
on whom I’ve set my mind
and my heart as well;
I’ve let all others go
because she charms me so!

When the fart blows from the ass
by which my lady shits and expels gas,
it seems to me that I smell
an odor of piss
from an old bleeder
who always scorns me,
who is richer in farts
than in gold coins,
and when she lies in her piss,
she stinks more than any other serpent.

{ Can la frej’aura venta
deves vostre pais,
vejaire m’es qu’eu senta
un ven de paradis
per amor de la genta
vas cui eu sui aclis,
on ai meza m’ententa
e mo coratg’assis;
car de totas partis
per leis, tan m’atalenta! } [8]

{ Quan lo petz del cul venta
Dont Midònz caga e vis,
Vejaire m’es qu’eu senta
Una pudor de pis
D’una velha sangnenta
Que tot jorn m’escarnís,
Qu’es mais de petz manenta
Que de marabodís,
E quan jatz sus son pis,
Plus put d’autra serpenta. } [9]

Although their writing has largely been trivialized, men trobairitz (troubadours) writing in thirteenth-century southern France produced extraordinary works of men’s sexed protest. Dominant voices celebrated men’s suffering under sexual feudalism. Some men trobairitz in response advocated for MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way). Others, understandably angry and bitter at the injustices of gynocentrism, disparaged all women. Idealistic medieval men dreamed of a more humane and compassionate world for men. Others looked for renewal through parodies focusing on the lower stratum of flesh-and-blood bodies. The grotesque stupidity of men’s self-abasing servitude toward women they refigured as women farting at men.

May god protect you, sovereign lady of high merit,
and grant to you joy, and let you have health,
and let me do such according to your pleasure
that you love me to the extent of my desire.
Thus you can render to my heart perfect reward,
and if ever I do wrong, make me pay well.

May god protect you, lady sovereign over farts,
and grant to you during the week to make two such
that are heard by all who come to see you;
and when the next evening comes,
may one such descend from you to your bottom
that it makes you clench and tear your ass.

{ Dieus vos sal, de prètz sobeirana,
E vos don gaug e vos lais estar sana
E mi lais far tan de vòstre plazer
Que’m tengatz car segon lo mieu voler.
Aissí’m podètz del còr guizardon rendre
E, s’anc fis tòrt, ben me’l podètz car vendre. } [10]

{ Dieus vos sal, dels petz sobeirana,
E vos don far dui tals sobre setmana
Qu’audan tuit cil que vos vendràn vezer;
E quan vendrà lo sendeman al ser,
Ve’n posca un tal pel còrs aval descendre
Que’us faça’l cul e sarrar e ‘scoissendre. } [11]

With sound and smell, farting has long served as an insistent sign of human presence. In the face of gross devaluation of men’s lives, meninism is the radical notion that men are human beings. Men fart. Women also fart. I scream, you should scream, we all should scream for gender equality for men. Such was possible in the Middle Ages. That must remain possible if we are to have a humane and sane world.

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[1] Medieval Confession {Confiteor}, Latin text and English translation from the Tridentine Mass (via Sancta Missa). The Confiteor is first quoted as a part of the Mass in the Micrologus of Bernold of Constance, who died about 1100. The Third Council of Ravenna in 1314 adopted the Confiteor in the exact form of that of the Tridentine Mass. Since its general liturgical use from about a millennium ago, forms of the Confiteor have varied. For additional history, see New Advent; on variants, see Psallite Sapienter.

[2] Confiteor from Drunkard’s Mass {Missa potatorum}, Latin text and English translation from Bayless (1996) pp. 338-45. Another drinker’s Mass, We Confess to the Cask {Confitemini dolio}, has the priest make a similar confession. That parody Mass dates from no later than 1535. Ed. and trans. in id. pp. 346-53. For manuscript citations to twenty-one liturgical parodies, Romano (2009), App. 1. Here’s online Latin texts of drinkers’ Masses.

The Drunkard’s Mass beginning “I will go in to the altar of Bacchus {Introibo ad altare Bacchi}” dates from no later than the thirteenth century. A gambler’s Mass, “Lugeamus omnes in Decio {Let us all weep over Decius},” appears as Carmina Burana 215. It was probably copied about 1230. Liturgical parodies, which weren’t authoritative, vary considerably across copies. Many were probably highly informal, never disseminated, and lost over time. Bayless (1999) pp. 79, 87, 139, 170. Liturgical parodies surely were not merely late-medieval phenomena.

In classical Arabic literature, poems in praise of wine (khamriyyāt) are a major group. Some Islamic authorities regard wine as forbidden for Muslims. In ninth-century Baghdad, the great classical Arabic writer al-Jahiz profoundly and humorously addressed the issue of drinking wine.

In medieval Europe, sacred Latin verse, parodic Latin verse, and Occitan lyric were interacting no later than the thirteenth century. In a liturgical parody, Peire Cardenal with an Occitan estribot ironically attacked clerics:

And in place of the matins they have composed an order:
that they should lie with whores until the sun has risen,
and sing baladas and travestied prosae instead.

{ E en loc de matinas an us ordes trobatz
Que jazon ab putanas tro.l solelhs es levatz,
Enans canton baladas e prozels trasgitatz. }

Peire Cardenal, “I shall compose an estribot, which will be very learned {Un estribot farai, que er mot maïstratz}” vv. 19-21, Occitan text and English translation from Léglu (2000) p. 7. A balada is a specific poetic form associated with dancing. A prosa is a short prose work inserted into the liturgy of the Mass.

The clerical affirmation of men’s strong, independent sexuality parallels an Occitan lyric. In the Carmina Burana, written about 1230, immediately following a gambler’s Mass ( “Let us all weep over Decius {Lugeamus omnes in Decio}”) is a parodic prayer:

Almighty, everlasting God, who has sowed great discord between the unschooled and the clerics, grant, we pray, that we may live off their labors, take advantage of their wives, and in the deaths of the aforesaid forever rejoice.

{ Omnipotens sempiterne deus, qui inter rusticos et clericos magnam discordiam seminasti, presta, quesumus, de laboribus eorum vivere, de mulieribus ipsorum uti et de morte dictorum semper gaudere. }

Carmina Burana 215a, Latin text and English translation from Traill (2018) v. 2, pp. 352-3. The closing prayer to the parodic Mass We Confess to the Cask {Confitemini dolio} is similar. For Latin text and English translation, Bayless (1996) p. 116. An Occitan lyric more vigorously affirms men’s sexuality:

Now sing praises! Praised, praised
be the commandment of the abbot.
Lovely girl, if you were
a nun of our house,
to the benefit of all the monks
you would receive tribute.
But you wouldn’t be there, lovely girl,
unless every day you were on your back,
so says the abbot.

{ Ara lausatz, lausat, lausat,
Li comandament l’abat.
Bela, si vos eravatz
Monja de nostra maison,
A profiech de totz los monges
Vos prendiatz liurason.
Mas vos non estaretc, Bela,
Si totzjorns enversa non
ço ditz l’abat. }

Old Occitan text and English translation (with my modifications) from Léglu (2000) p. 9. On the interaction between sacred Latin verse and Old Occitan lyric more generally, id. Ch. 1.

[3] Romano (2009) p. 288. Similarly, Bayless (1996) p. 102. On allernebria, Romano (2009) p. 300.

[4] “At now the sun’s dawning ray {Iam lucis orto sidere}” st. 1, Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 112, my English translation, benefiting from those of id., Alan G. McDougall, and Bella Millett. This sixth-century hymn became set for the Prime hour in the liturgical Daily Office. It consists of four Ambrosian quatrains.

[5] “At now the sun’s dawning ray {Iam lucis orto sidere}” (drinking parody) st. 1, Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 225, my English translation, benefiting from those of id. and Bergquist (2002) p. xviii-xix. Here’s the complete Latin text with reading notes. Brittain (1962), pp. xxxi-ii, lists this parody as from the twelfth century.

[6] “Good and sweet word {Verbum bonum et suave},” Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 225, my English translation, benefiting from those of id. and Edward Tambling & John Kelly. This sequence dates to no later than the twelfth century. Here’s an online Latin text and associated musical notation. Here’s a recording of this sequence.

[7] “Good wine with savor {Vinum bonum cum sapore},” Latin text (modified slightly) from Bayless (1996) p. 339, my English translation, benefiting from that of id., pp. 342-3, and Brittain (1962) p. 224. Here a Latin text from an English songsheet c. 1480 (via Thomas Wright (1847)) and a Latin text from an unattributed 15th-century manuscript (probably via Lehmann (1923)).

For verses 5.3-4, Bayless’s Latin text is (with my English translation) “With voices being not exultant / let us proclaim joys {Sit cum voce non iucunda / Personemus gaudia}.” That’s inconsistent with other manuscripts and not plausible in context. I’ve emended “non iucunda” to “nos iucunda,” consistent with the text from Brittain (1962). That gives in my translation “We with voices being exultant / let us proclaim joys.”

Versus 6.2-3 are difficult and exist in significant variants. Bayless’s text seems to me sensible and quite interesting. It implies clerics “rarely” (but at times) did not participate in the drunken play. It further suggests status tension between participants and non-participants (all have “equal standing”).

Bayless didn’t translate Madafala. That’s apparently the name of a blessed woman. I’ve interpreted it in context as the constructed saint Sloshed based on the Latin word madefacio. That’s consistent with the personifications Cask {Dolium} and Dice {Decius}.

“Vinum bonum cum sapore” and other parodies of “Verbum bonum et suave” were “the single most popular parody composed in the Middle Ages.” Bayless (1996) p. 109. “Vinum bonum cum sapore” dates to the twelfth century. Brittain (1962) p. xxxi. Or perhaps the thirteenth century. Brittain (1937) p. 139.

[8] Bernart de Ventadorn, “When the cold breeze blows {Can la frej’aura venta},” st. 1, Old Occitan text from Serra-Baldó (1934) via Corpus des Troubadours, English translation (with my modifications) from Paden & Paden (2007) p. 76. Bernart de Ventadorn lived in twelfth-century southern France. His name (ventus in Latin means “wind”; similar terms exist in Old French and Old Occitan) made him a particular humorous focus for songs concerning wind and farting.

[9] “When the fart blows from the ass {Quan lo petz del cul venta},” Old Occitan text from Bec (1984) pp. 174-5, my English translation, benefiting from the French translation of id. and the English translation of Poe (2000) p. 86. This song survives in two manuscripts. Verse 5 in manuscript G has “From a horrible bleeder {D’una orrida sangnenta},” while manuscript J has “From a shit-covered old woman {D’una velha merdolenta}.” Above I’ve used Bec’s suggested source for the two versions. Id. p. 175, note to v. 5.

Another troubador parody similarly from the lower stratum satires men’s subservience to women in love.

From her wrong I’ll make amends,
she who banished me from her side,
for I still desire to return to her,
if it pleases her, my songs and myself,
without hope of any other reward;
only may she suffer my soliciting her love
while expecting negligible good.

From my head I’ll shoot at her lice eggs,
if it pleases her, and lice breasts,
given that she doesn’t tear
her ass, which is white and smooth,
and I’ll bring her some hay
when she goes to her task
so that her dress doesn’t freeze.

{ Del sieu tòrt farai esmenda
Lieis que’m fetz partir de se,
Qu’enquèr ai talan que’l renda,
Si’l platz, mas chançons e me
Ses respiech d’autra mercé;
Sol suefra qu’en lieis m’entenda
E que’l bèlh nïen n’atenda. }

{ Del cap li trarai la landa,
Si’lh platz, e’lh pïolh del sen,
Però que non s’escoissenda
Lo còrn, qui es blanc e len
E portarai li del fen,
Quant irà far sa fazenda,
Que la camisa no’s prenda. }

The target of the parody is the first stanza of a song by Peirol of Auvergne. The Old Occitan text is from Bec (1984) p. 176, my English translation benefiting from the French translation of id. and Aston (1953) p. 84. Here’s Aston’s text online and La Camera Della Lacrime’s recording of this song. The Old Occitan text of the parody is from Bec (1984) p. 177 (alternate source), with my English translation benefiting from the French translation of id.

[10] Cobla, Old Occitan text from Bec (1984) pp. 105-6, my English translation, benefiting from the French translation of id. This cobla is preserved in four manuscripts.

[11] Cobla, Old Occitan text from Bec (1984) p. 106, my English translation, benefiting from the French translation of id. Both this parody and its source occur together in Manuscript G.

[image] Portrait of the Ferrara Court Jester Pietro Gonella (excerpt). Painting by Jean Fouquet about the year 1445. Preserved as accession # GG_1840 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Vienna, Austria). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Aston, Stanley Collin, ed. and trans. 1953. Peirol, Troubadour of Auvergne. Cambridge: University Press.

Bayless, Martha. 1996. Parody in the Middle Ages: the Latin tradition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Bec, Pierre. 1984. Burlesque et Obscénité chez les Troubadours: pour une approche du contre-texte médiéval. Paris: Stock.

Bergquist, Peter, ed. 2002. The Complete Motets. 3, Motets for four to eight voices from Thesaurus musicus (Nuremberg, 1564). Middleton, Wisconsin: A-R Editions.

Brittain, Frederick. 1937. The Mediaeval Latin and Romance Lyric to A.D. 1300. University Press: Cambridge.

Brittain, Frederick. 1962. The Penguin Book of Latin Verse: with plain prose translations of each poem. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books.

Léglu, Catherine. 2000. Between Sequence and Sirventes: aspects of parody in the troubadour lyric. Oxford: University of Oxford.

Paden, William D., and Frances Freeman Paden, trans. 2007. Troubadour Poems from the South of France. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.

Poe, Elizabeth W. 2000. “‘Cobleiarai, car mi platz’: The Role of the Cobla in the Occitan Lyric Tradition.” Ch. 2 (pp. 68-94) in Paden, William D., ed. Medieval Lyric: genres in historical context. Urbana, IL: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Romano, John F. 2009. “Ite potus est: Liturgical parody and views of late-medieval worship.” Sacris Erudiri. 48: 275-309.