Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Sin and Filth in Medieval Culture: The Devil in the Latrine

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Sin and Filth in Medieval Culture: The Devil in the Latrine

Article excerpt

Martha Bayless, Sin and Filth in Medieval Culture: The Devil in the Latrine, Routledge Studies in Medieval Literature and Culture 2 (New York and London: Roudedge, 2012). xxi + 243 pp. ISBN 978-0-415-89780-8 (hard covers); 9780-203-13807-6 (ebk). $128.00/^85.00.

This book's tide foregrounds sin and filth, but the principal focus is clearly on filth, and excrement in particular: sin is discussed here only to the extent that it offers a means of understanding how medieval writers made filth meaningful. Martha Bayless determinedly resists the assumption that medieval references to such matters are merely 'inexplicable vulgarities' (p. 28). Indeed, she says, 'far from serving as testimony to the crudeness of medieval taste', treatments of filth in medieval culture 'show the ways in which medieval writers and storytellers were alive to the significance of what they regarded as the shameful aspects of existence and used the full range of human experience as a subject for continued meditation' (p. 8). As this formulation suggests, it is the modern world that Bayless thinks is guilty of silly squeamishness, making excrement 'so taboo ... that it is still considered virtually unspeakable in modern scholarship' (p. xvii). This state of affairs occasionally moves her to adopt a tone of righteous indignation, as, for example, when she complains that many people 'regard the field as valueless, at best comical; this includes not only audiences but conference organizers as well as journal and book reviewers and editors' (p. 164). This may be true, but she hardly helps her case by overstating it, as I think she sometimes does: as, for example, when asserting that 'filth and excrement were the foundation of the [medieval] understanding of human history' (p. xviii). Moreover, although it would be difficult to disagree with the idea that filth could serve as an emblem of sin, Bayless's insistence on it seems at times unnecessarily limiting. …

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