Sin and Filth

The Spiritus Sanctus imparted this creation to me on this cloaca…

Martin Luther told the story much later in the 1530’s at one of his small after-dinner conversations with friends. According to the Reformer, his great revelation – that justification is not something you may earn, but something which God grants freely and as a gift of love – came to him while he was sitting on a latrine.

The saying later inspired Catholics to endless scorn: what were the new teachings if not pure shit and filth, akin to any sin on earth, which man could dream up in this miserable world? Demonstratively the point of Martin Luther was totally missed. He obviously meant that even in the latrine – a place well known as the site par excellence, where devils would seek a week person out during night in order to seduce him or her – were a place where God would follow! Hence man was never alone and abandoned; not even in the most filthy, despicable place on earth.

The story is absent from the recently published book by Martha Bayless; obviously not because she does not know of it – she is indeed very widely read – but simply because her intention is different. She explicitly says she only wants to know exactly why and how the medieval catholic mind came to think of the latrine as such a despicable place. Other researcher are thus invited to follow her points into the history of Early Modern Europe, while she has concentrated on the role of sin, dung and filth in the mentality of medieval people and the corresponding theology of the church.

Bodelian Library Douce 49

Not an easy subject! The reader very quickly gets the feeling that the author has had to fight a lot of silly prejudices from organisers of conferences and colleagues on the in-fight for funding. In view of this it is pure joy that she has stood the distance and delivered the results of her research.

In the book we get all sorts of fascinating details: How the devil lived in the latrine, how disgust was inculcated, how monks were supposed not only to eat at specific times but also shit in a controlled manner, how corruption was equal to sin – hence the incorruptible and sweet-smelling bodies of saints – and how medieval people pondered the exact status of the Eucharist since it ended up on the dung-heap with all the rest. But we also hear about the exact way in which people tried to live with their dung, finding ways to get rid of it in the brooks and ditches or alternatively carefully collecting it as manure.

Filth and dung was definitely a serious matter of moral peril, but also a precious matter carefully tended as when people collected urine in order to sell it to dyers, which used it for the fabrication of diverse colours.

The book concludes with a couple of charming vignettes, one of which is about St. Francis who was depicted in the Saint-Omer Psalter in the Bodleian Library (MS. Douce 49, folio LXIII v). In an illuminated initial the Saint is shown preaching to birds. Down below – on the hook of the “Q” – a small dog is sitting, concentrating on defecating, while obviously disregarding the word of God. The pictorial world of Medieval people was obviously filled with this moral “figure”, where bodies were lustful sites for sin, while minds might be lifted up like birds to the Heaven.

A pity, that Routledge, which charges a hefty price on the hardbacks of their publications, do not deliver decent illustrations in color for such a good read; especially as it costs next to nothing these days and would have made the book even more enticing. But then again: apparently the devil does not lie in the detail, but delves in the latrine.

Sin and Filth in medieval Culture. The Devil in the Latrine. Routledge Studies in Medieval Literature and Culture Vol 2. Routledge 2012