09.03.08, Morrison, Excrement in the Late Middle Ages

Main Article Content

Valerie Allen

The Medieval Review baj9928.0903.008


Morrison, Susan Signe. Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer's Fecopoetics. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Pp. 271. ISBN: 9781403984883.

Reviewed by:
Valerie Allen
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

Susan Signe Morrison's book joins a growing list of meditations emerging from literary studies on the scatological and the Middle Ages. Late medieval England is the focus of her study, with Chaucer right at its center, as suggested by the book's title. "Fecopoetics" is a coinage, fashioned from "ecopoetics," exploring the fecal in its material and symbolic aspect, and showing how art recycles culture by turning waste into something precious. With art now conceived of as a kind of dunging, it is no surprise that Morrison should replace green with "brown studies." Her book explicitly places itself in the domain of waste studies, a domain of research that happily embraces the Middle Ages, which, she notes, was an era that was systematically trashed during the sixteenth century (134).

Morrison's book consists of twelve chapters, the first of which gives a brief overview of the layout. Chapters 2-12 are distributed across three parts: (I, comprising chapters 2-4) "The Medieval Body: Disciplining Material and Symbolic Excrement"; (II, comprising chapters 5-9) "Chaucerian Fecopoetics"; and (III, comprising chapters 10-12) "Looking Behind, Looking Ahead." Part I introduces the reader to main ideas that will recur throughout the book. Part II concentrates on Chaucer, and for this reviewer represents the strongest part of the study. Part III considers the transition of medieval excrement into early modern, finding the mark of modernity to be a progressive disciplining and regulation of shit (131), after which Morrison concludes her argument by situating her medieval material in the more general domain of waste studies, the main ideas of which she neatly reviews.

Three topics predominate in part I: the rhizomatic body; the filthy body; and the feminine body. Morrison takes the rhizome as a metaphor of the medieval body--an image of course that derives from Deleuze and Guattari's discussion of the rhizome as an organism growing in all directions, potentially endless, without head or center, exit or entry point. She also applies the rhizome metaphor to the linguistic body of medieval excremental terms (and in doing so draws our attention to the delightful nonce-word squiballes, meaning hard excrement [18]). Taken as a figure of the medieval body, the rhizomatic model "roughly confirms" (6), with appropriate qualification, the model of the medieval grotesque body as delineated by Bakhtin, which exists in perpetual transformation and flux. Briefly invoked at this point in the study, the idea recurs in part II, where it is the pilgrim's body, in transition between home and shrine, in quest of a decayed body-part of a saint, that most clearly bears the sign of the rhizome. Excrement is the signature of the unfinished, fragmented, porous body, leading Morrison to argue that "closure is deadening" (107), and, later, that the excremental exposes the clean, whole body as a "sham" and "fiction" (137) and ultimately brings us closer "to the 'real' of bodily human existence" (155). Granted, excrement is fundamental to the material reality of living, but a reader might wonder whether filth as a symbolic category has any more valence than its conceptual opposite, the pure; whether purity always has to be repressive; and whether the dirty, fractured body is any less a fiction than the clean, whole one. Morrison's passion for her subject seems in these assertions of dirt's privilege over the real to lead her to undermine the thesis to which she is clearly and more systematically committed, namely--and as anthropologist Mary Douglas frames it, that dirt is not intrinsically dirty but is simply matter out of place (58, 74).

Moral filth is Morrison's second topic for discussion, where she considers the largely Christian taboos surrounding excrement and the ways in which it comes to signify spiritual decay. In short, excrement occupies the space of abjection. Despite the fact that excrement is common to all humans it is far from leveling differences between gender, ethnicity, and class, for it attaches itself to some bodies more than others, and with this Morrison transitions to her third main introductory idea, the connection between the feminine and the excremental. Following Kristeva's line of thought, she associates the medieval abject body primarily with the female body, but also with the Jewish and the peasant body. With one orifice more than her male counterpart, and more humourally moist and cold than man, woman is leaky and incontinent, both morally and physically. These associations reappear in part II (chapter 5), where Morrison considers the abject in spatial and civic terms. Southwerk, the place where the Canterbury Tales begins, is the dumping ground for and alter ego of London city (69-72). A place of marshes, Southwerk is like the boggy female, an abject, dirty space, if also the site of an untamed, chaotic energy and the originary point of Chaucer's poem. Although this alignment of the abject, feminine, Jewish, and excremental is scarcely a new line of argument, Morrison uses it to good effect in her reading of Canterbury Tales.

Part II contains many insightful readings of the Canterbury Tales and of fabliaux. Particularly valuable is chapter 6, on the fecal, the sacred, and transubstantiation both theological and intestinal. Morrison weaves stercoranist debate (on whether or not the body of Christ in the form of the Eucharistic host was digested and excreted) with transubstantiatory allusion throughout the Tales, arguing that--despite few explicit references made by Chaucer--anxiety and humor about the Eucharist permeate his work. She makes a cheekily persuasive case for Eucharistic allusion in the scurrilous fabliau "The Peeking Priest" (80), and her argument culminates in the possibility that excrement can actually bring us closer to God (89).

Central to her study in part II is her discussion of urban excrement, and considerable space is devoted to noting various civic ordinances and disputes involving illicit dumping of human waste to the detriment of public comfort and health. The basic thesis is that as cities grow in size, urban excrement becomes increasingly a matter for regulation (and concomitantly for the exercise of power over bodily regimens); increasingly regarded as filthy and useless, both physically and morally (67); and, most importantly, increasingly contrasted with agrarian excrementdung--which is useful and sensitive to nuance by distinguishing between one kind of manure for one crop and another kind for another.

About Morrison's claim for the increase in recorded public sanitation law in the later medieval English towns there is little dispute. Managing waste was critical to communal living and good civic behavior, and as cities got bigger the task increasingly required institutionalization. It is only plausible that such regulation should affect, even fashion, one's sense of self. It is also true that excrement has more cultural prestige in the country than in the town, at least in connection with hunting, a topic not discussed by Morrison. Hunting treatises such as the Master of Game offer a wide array of terms that both expand the Middle English droppings lexicon and remind us of the extent to which excrement is legible, that it is as true a sign of identity and environment as a hoof print and not simply formless waste. The ability to identify different animal droppings by means of a carefully calibrated vocabulary shows mastery of a noble sport. There we can find reference to lesses and croteis, to the warderobe (of a badger), the fumes (of a hart), spraintes (of the otter), and wagginge (of the fox).

But is it really the case that "in cities, excrement is increasingly superfluous, privatized, and demonized" (119)? Despite brief recognition that urban waste could itself be used for fertilizer (72, 130), and although her final chapters take a turn toward the poetics of recycling, Morrison could better balance her argument by showing how medieval urban excrement had immediate value even as it was aesthetically and hygienically undesirable. If dirt is matter out of place, the question of where excrement is "in" place in the city is critical, and is a historical question that will have different answers in different locations at different times. To take just one example: Toft Green in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century York was the only wide-open space positioned inside the city walls, in the south- west, beside Micklegate Bar. It was there that cattle-markets and weekly horse-markets were held (yielding plenty of manure), and the site also boasted a large midden for the dumping of city refuse and offal, providing fertilizer for soil and crops. [1] Toft Green is just one such of many urban spaces that mixes up human and animal, carnivorous and herbivorous, urban and rural--binaries that do not fully conform to or map onto each other. Given that Southwerk is so central to Morrison's study, it is a pity that she does not explore its topography more closely to establish if and where urban excrement might find its proper place in a sustainable environment.

The equation of urban excrement and dirt or matter out of place takes us only so far. It is perhaps time for literary studies of the scatological to merge their appreciation of the symbolic and cultural significance of excrement with the scientific findings of archaeology, chemical soil analysis, and environmental studies. The resplendent Viking human stool discovered in York's Coppergate in 1972 (a regrettable omission in Morrison's study, especially since the Jorvik Centre, which exhibits the stool, is specifically mentioned by her [59]) offers a rare chance to ask some exact questions. How might this product have been used as fertilizer? Did its owner regard it as valuable or dirty and useless? More generally, how did differing diets, in fish-rich coastal cities or in areas where either dairy or grain predominated, change the value of human excrement? What happened to the cultural value of human ordure in the face of manure shortages such as M.M. Postan identifies in the thirteenth century, brought about by reduction of pastureland for conversion to arable? [2] The more we think about such details and questions, the more we will see that excrement, like language, is infinitely various in meaning, that its material value can change dramatically according to environmental need and context. Morrison's study offers an engagingly written book that makes a convincing case for the cultural significance of the medieval fecal and that elucidates Chaucer's poetry in thoughtful ways. It arguably overstates the historical case for excrement as filth, leaving the reader still with questions about the material realities of a medieval urban existence that found a place for dirt.

--------- Notes:

1. Angelo Raine, Mediaeval York: A Topographical Survey Based on Original Sources (London: John Murray, 1955), pp. 244-5.

2. M. M. Postan, The Medieval Economy and Society: An Economic History of Britain in the Middle Ages (London: Penguin, 1972), pp. 63-7.

Article Details

Author Biography

Valerie Allen

John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY