mordicai caeli (mordicai) wrote,
mordicai caeli
mordicai

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Fecalpolitik. (25)

Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer's Fecopoetics by Susan Signe Morrison.

In Purgatory,
Chaucer languishes, laughing:
"Nicholas farted!"

First off, yes. Hell yes Susan Signe Morrison just dropped the F-bomb. Fecopoetics. When a co-worker first suggested this book to me, I was like "meh, books about poop aren't really risque...but then I saw the word "fecopoetics" & it was on. I rather liked this book. I'm not particularly focused on the discussion of excrement, but I find the subject curious-- I once charmed my favorite professor, Olaf Prufer, by stating that the landmark from barbarism to civilization ought to be plumbing. Besides that, I'm always curious how any given culture wipes their behinds-- the Roman trough of water & sponge on a stick system being particularly ingenious. What I really wish was that I'd known about this book back when I'd run my first full Oubliette campaign. Sewage, dualism & transformation were all intertwined subjects at the heart of the "enemy" cult. Heck, the dragons of Hell both vomiting & defecating souls, I can totally use that in my overall cosmology (29!) That goes in the idea bank, & along with it goes the discussion of dung merchant's wages-- three times the average wages, & then with the major perk of reselling the feces to farmers (60, 72). That sort of factoid is always interesting to me, in a Dirty Jobs sort of way. Along with integrated human-animal living quarters-- something only briefly touched upon, but it makes me think of Viking settlements in Greenland, which have been on my mind again since I read Magnetic North (65).

Susan Signe Morrison's frequently used term in Excrement in the Late Miggle Ages is "rhizomal," which she contrasts to "arborescent"-- sprawling & networked compared to rigid & hierarchical (15). This isn't to be confused with the notion of the "vegetable body," which should rather be contrasted with the computer-brain of the modern day, the machine-man of the industrial revolution, & the architectural mind of Cicero's day (18-19). I won't talk about the bulk of the book-- which is as you'd expect, an interesting discussion of the role of excrement in the literature of the Middle Ages, with a special focus on Chaucer. It is full of lots of Middle English, for that matter-- a skill I rarely get to brush up on, so hooray! Instead, I'll just talk about a few of the side notes that I enjoyed. I really found the discussion of the etymology behind "feces, dung & shit" to be interesting-- the Latin root of feces being the most "proper," followed by the serviceable Norse dung & the offensive German shit. Morrison spices things up with a liberal use of textual references-- Ezekiel 4:12-15 being a favorite of mine. In it, Ezekiel is starting a fire & God suggests he use his feces. Ezekiel is appalled, & persuades God that he should use cow dung-- I just like the alien God, blind to human taboo (27). In a more humorous vein, there French farce that charmed me-- a farmer is eating dinner with his wife, when a priest storms in & says he caught them "fucking." The farmer insists they were only eating dinner, so the priest has him go outside & peek in the keyhole. The farmer obliges, & meanwhile the priest begins to have sex with the farmer's wife. Outside, the farmer exclaims that it really does look like people fucking when they eat dinner (80).

There is a section of Excrement... devoted entirely to alchemy & marginalia-- as you can well assume, it was my favorite (103). There isn't that much devoted to alchemy, all told, but a few interesting points. The discussion of metallic versus organic alchemy, & the latter's association with filth & purification was particularly enlightening (111). The transubstantiation of the Pilgrim, transformed from profane to holy-- I hadn't considered that. The Pilgrim as counterpoint to the Alchemist; I like that. Speaking of transubstantiation-- what happens to the body of Christ when you poop out the wafer (80)? If the whole of Jesus Christ is in every crumb of the Host... well, what happens? & do you need to defecate in heaven (43)? If not, what is your anus & intestine for? I mean, if God made a perfect creation. & what about Jesus' poop-- were baby Jesus' diaper holy (92)? All very real theological questions, & the heart of dozens of heresies. There are a few further notes-- in particular, a bit of talk about Lévi-Strauss' discussion of cooked food, always a temporary spot between raw & rotten (123). Really reminded me of how much I liked Catching Fire. The book ends with a descent (ascent?) in manifesto-- Susan Signe Morrison invokes Kuhn & Lacan in the vein of "The Cyborg Manifesto" (155). "I shit, therefore I think" (156). The one thing missing from the book? The word "secretion." The division between secretion & excretion seems to be germane to the subject. I don't know the history of the term, however, & perhaps it has no place in a discussion about the medieval. c'est la vie. The book ends in a glorious explosion of notes, a bibliography & an index-- the comforting hallmarks of well supported academia. Hooray.
Tags: books, haiku, morrison, sacred filth
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