The Significance of a Medieval Fart
The historic Middle Ages-story that pokes fun at flatulence in an extreme manner
The Summoner’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer is a Middle English poem which undertakes a wide range of important themes, but it is not short on undertaking more silly, light-hearted themes as well. The idea of pranks and farts becomes relevant in this work, and while it is a brief part of the story, it does have some short-term impact.
The idea of a fart is portrayed in both a positive and negative light in this story, but before that can be analyzed, a brief summary must occur. Essentially, a friar who was begging for money and attempting to manipulate Thomas, a character, into giving him money, was told to reach near Thomas’s butt, and when he did, Thomas unleashed a massive fart.
The fact that Thomas unleashed the fart upon the friar is an insult to the friar’s nature, and put an end to his soliciting of money. The fart is basically a giant middle finger to the friar and his soliciting of money, which is representative of the defiance of friars and their soliciting, which is a positive. Later in the story, the lord who sent the friar is outraged, saying:
“Nevere erst er now herde I of swich mateere. / I trowe the devel putte it in his mynde.”
Here, the lord claims that he had never heard of this method of defiance before, and that it is so evil that the devil put it in Thomas’ mind. The lord is so livid that he curses Thomas, saying,
“Who sholde make a demonstracion / That every man sholde have yliche his part / As of the soun or savour of a fart? / O nyce, proude cherl, I shrewe his face!”
He claims it is impossible that this method actually worked as no one had ever heard of it before, and even goes on to describe the literal details of a fart, about how it rumbles through the suspect’s butt and is simply reverberation of air, stating:
“The rumblynge of a fart, and every soun, / Nis but of eir reverberacioun, / And evere it wasteth litel and litel awey.”
As the fart is nothing but air, and wastes away when it is released, it should thus have no moral impact, but yet, it does, as it brought shame to both him and the friar, and he is confused by this.
The fart is thus portrayed in both a positive and negative light: positive in the way that it brought shame to the friar and made him retreat, ending his soliciting; but negative in the way that the lord portrays it as sinful, claiming it is the devil’s work, and that Thomas should be cursed.
On one hand, it is understandable that the lord feels this way since he and the friar were embarrassed by Thomas’ fart, but then again, it is simply a fart, a mere cloud of air as the lord himself said, and thus shouldn’t be taken seriously. But it is the meaning behind the fart, the defiance towards the friar, that the lord is outraged by.
It is funny how Chaucer uses the fart, a silly cliché, to portray a more deep and serious meaning, and yet, the fart is still a relevant comedic device even to this day. However, this humor was always relevant even way before Chaucer’s day; in fact, it is proven that one of the world’s first recorded jokes, if not the very first recorded joke, was an ancient Sumerian joke about farts.
At this point, it is critical to understand Chaucer’s usage of the fart and how it relays an important theme in The Summoner’s Tale, and that is the defiance of the friars, a common issue of the time, and soliciting, attempted bribery and misuse of money in general.
Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.