Protestant Potty Talk

January 10, 2010

Early Protestants had no reluctance in employing scatological references. The devout Martin Luther himself wrote that he came to his fundamental conviction that faith was enough (sola fide) en cloaca (on the privy). He conceived of excretion as the concrete indication of humanity’s corrupt nature. But the concrete often hardened before it could be expelled: Luther was a chronic sufferer of constipation. He construed this malady as an attack from Satan. Such evil was not to be passed over in silence—to the contrary, he fought abomination with its like. Reasoning that the devil was driven by pride, he sought to humiliate him with coarse language: “Almost every night when I wake up, the devil is there …I instantly chase him away with a fart.” And elsewhere: “But if that is not enough for you, you Devil, I have also shit and pissed; wipe your mouth on that and take a hearty bite.” Nor did he spare his mortal adversaries: “No sooner do I shit than they smell it at Rome.” And: “I see plainly whence the Pope came; he is the vomit of the lazy, idle Lords and Princes.” And also: “When the slanderer whispers: Look how he has shit on himself, the best answer is: You go eat it….”
Perhaps Luther’s vulgarity was a reflection of his peasant origins. Or, perhaps it was the symptom of a personality caught in the anal stage of psychic development. But most probably, he used such language because it effectively conveyed his message to his audience—people who still retained regard for carnivalesque grotesquerie.
Luther was not alone. Even the more authoritarian Calvinists used scatological rhetoric abundantly. One example is a tract that savagely satirized Catholic belief in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. It told the story of a poxy old monk who, immediately after taking Communion, fell ill and vomited, leaving his brethren at a quandary as to how to dispose of what they had been taught to believe was the Body and Blood of their Lord and Savior. As no friar could be convinced to accept the honor of re-ingesting the hallowed remains, it was ultimately decided that they be incinerated and the ashes preserved in a reliquary. Scholar Jeff Persels, who cited this as a representative example, wrote: “…vulgarization of difficult doctrinal is-sues [was] considered vital to the salvation of the faithful and to the reform of contemporary religious institutions…[they exercised] that most Christian and Pauline of paradoxes, putting the low to high purpose, turning scatology into rhetoric, excrement into eloquence….” (Persels, 2004:40)


A Ribald Restoration Poet

December 3, 2009

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester

After the severe Puritan restrictions of the English Protectorate were overthrown, the figure of the libertine began to take shape: usually of noble rank, sometimes philosophical, but usually more committed to contrivance of refined witticism and extravagant debaucheries. Such were the “Merry Gang” that grew up around King Charles II after the Restoration of the monarchy. Among this coterie was John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647–1680), a man so charismatic that his contemporaries lauded him in verse and modeled dramatic characters after him. He himself produced much satirical and ribald poetry, but chose to publish very little. The Romantic critic William Hazlitt remarked “his contempt for everything that others respect almost amounts to sublimity.” His disarming combination of high eloquence with utter candor can be seen in this excerpt from The Imperfect Enjoyment:

… whilst her busy hand would guide that part
Which should convey my soul up to her heart,
In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er,
Melt into sperm and, and spend at every pore.
A touch from any part of her had done’t:
Her hand, her foot, her very look’s a cunt.
Smiling, she chides in a kind murmuring noise,
And from her body wipes the clammy joys,
When, with a thousand kisses wandering o’er
My panting bosom, “Is there then no more?”
She cries. “All this to love and rapture’s due
Must we not pay a debt to pleasure too?”
But I, the most forlorn, lost man alive,
To show my wished obedience vainly strive
I sigh, alas! and kiss, but cannot swive [fuck].…

Some stanzas later, he ends his lament with a harsh curse on his indolent member and a wish of ample recompense for his unfulfilled paramour:

May’st thou to ravenous chancres be a prey,
Or in consuming weepings waste away
May strangury and stone thy days attend
May’st thou ne’er piss, who did refuse to spend
When all my joys did on false thee depend.
And may ten thousand abler pricks agree
To do the wronged Corinna right for thee.

While Rochester pretends to disown his penis, dualism is not systematic in this work; he includes his organ as a constituent part of himself when he says “I dissolve” and “I…cannot swive.” Moreover, he reverses the Cartesian power hierarchy: He cannot master his corporeal self in this instance, and overall, the chief principle that drove his life and work was the perusal of physical gratification. In distinction to Hobbes’ pessimistic appraisal of human impulse, Rochester was not selfish in this principle. In this poem he is not disturbed by hurt pride, but instead, by his failure to satisfy his lover. He portrays her as at least his equal; an active agent with proclivities similar to his own, restrained only a little by a kindly manner. Another interesting feature of this poem is its elevation and empowerment of female genitals, which misogynists had long cast into the worst repute. Rochester’s egalitarian sentiments, however, didn’t extend beyond his class; in another rhyme he callously admitted: “…missing my whore, I bugger my page.”

Rochester’s curse on himself was more than fulfilled when he perished at the young age of 33, in all probability from some combination of venereal and alcohol-related maladies. His mother put out word of a deathbed conversion and tried to repress his unpublished works.

(An excerpt from an ongoing essay that will not be in the stage show)

One of Carracci's plates from I modi

In 1527, the first work was published that might be labeled “pornography” in modern sense of the word, in that it was mass produced, sexually explicit and intended to stimulate arousal.

I modi (or The Ways) consisted of sixteen engravings of couples modeling various positions for copulation, each picture accompanied by a sexually explicit sonnet. The project had its origin in erotic frescos that Guilio Romano created for Frederico II’s Palazzo del Te in Mantua. Marcantonio Raimondi based the prints on these, and hawked them to elite clients in Rome.

However, when the Vatican caught wind of this venture, Raimondi was jailed. Romano claimed ignorance of the enterprise and escaped punishment; interestingly, his corresponding paintings were not considered transgressive because they were not intended for public distribution.

Then, Pietro Aretino, a writer who had won high connections by producing biting satires of Church corruption, took an interest in the case. He prevailed on his friends to secure Raimondi’s release, and then, he had the audacity to compose the verses that accompanied a second edition of the work. In the preface he wrote:
“…let the hypocrites take a flying leap; I’m sick of their thieving justice and their filthy traditions that forbid the eyes to see what most delights them. What harm is there in seeing a man mounted atop a woman? Must beasts be more free than we are?…”

The Pope ordered this edition destroyed. Only a few fragments of it remain in the British Museum, although Aretino’s text survives and Agostino Carracci illustrated a later edition. Marianna Beck recently wrote that this work evoked “an earthly utopia—a world of limitless sex and possibility, in which women expressed their desires as vociferously as men. His work is a paean to sex, a celebration of eros, and reflects a powerful reaction against centuries of Church repression.” Since pornography is a surrogate for repressed needs, it has frequently accompanied anti-authoritarian impulses in literature…

Christian Phallic Worship

December 2, 2009

(An excerpt from an ongoing essay that will  be adapted in the stage show)

The indoctrination of Europe with the strict mores of early Christianity was difficult and never completely successful. The ancient practice of phallic worship continued throughout the early Middle Ages (as described in exhaustive detail by Thomas Wright’s treatise The Worship of Generative Powers of 1865, see

Illustration from The Worship of Generative Powers

Persistent veneration of the pagan fertility god Priapus was concealed under the guises of various saints. One of these, St. Foutin, was represented with a large wooden penis—shavings from this protuberance were made into a tea that was thought to cure barren women and have an aphrodisiac effect on their husbands. (As the length this peg diminished, it was periodically restored by priests who surreptitiously hammered it outward from behind.) Women were also reported to kiss or sit on such objects. There is speculation that, in a holdover of an ancient pagan custom, some new brides would give their maidenhood to the saint.

At Varailles in Provence, the ceiling of a chapel dedicated to this saint was covered with wax facsimile of genitalia of both sexes. An eyewitness account relates that when the wind blew they produced a disturbing effect. In the southern Italian town of Trani, a statue endowed with a huge phallus, called “the Membro saint,” was carried in religious processions.

Maypole dances, of course, were a relic of phallic worship. In a Swedish custom that survives to this day, a long wooden pole is made to penetrate through the opposite windows of the bedrooms of newlywed couples, presumably to work a sympathetic influence on the proceedings within.

For more reading, see: