Tuesday 28 February 2012

Sin and Filth

Dr Debby Banham writes:

Congratulations to ASNC alumna Martha Bayless on the publication of her book, Sin and Filth in Medieval Culture: The Devil in the Latrine. This book represents the culmination of a major research project into concepts of bodily corruption in the middle ages, which has taken Prof. Bayless into some of the most obscure recesses of medieval culture. Among many anecdotes collected in the course of the project, probably the incident most dear to ASNC hearts will be the man possessed by the Devil, who farted at the relics of Aldhelm. Why else would anyone do that? In fact, this is an instance of a fairly common motif of people farting at the relics of saints, and needless to say, it did them no good. To find out more, buy the book!

The relevance of the book's subtitle is brought home by an incident in Ekkehard of St Gall's Casus Sancti Galli. Ekkehart relates how Ruodman, the abbot of the nearby monastery of Reichenau (972-986), attempted to catch the monks of St. Gall in the commission of sin by sneaking in the monastery late at night and hiding in the latrines. One of the monks heard him and woke others, and they processed to the latrine and scornfully offered him a lantern and a twist of straw - the two items necessary for legitimate use of the latrine. Anecdotes like these are set in the context of medieval thinking about dirt, contamination and decay, both physical and spiritual.

Here is what the publishers say about the book:
This important new contribution to the history of the body analyzes the role of filth as the material counterpart of sin in medieval thought. Using a wide range of texts, including theology, historical documents, and literature from Augustine to Chaucer, the book shows how filth was regarded as fundamental to an understanding of human history. This theological significance explains the prominence of filth and dung in all genres of medieval writing: there is more dung in theology than there is in Chaucer. The author also demonstrates the ways in which the religious understanding of filth and sin influenced the secular world, from town planning to the execution of traitors. As part of this investigation the book looks at the symbolic order of the body and the ways in which the different aspects of the body were assigned moral meanings. The book also lays out the realities of medieval sanitation, providing the first comprehensive view of real- life attempts to cope with filth. This book will be essential reading for those interested in medieval religious thought, literature, amd social history. Filled with a wealth of entertaining examples, it will also appeal to those who simply want to glimpse the medieval world as it really was.

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