Wise lessons from historical toilet humour

Case

Wise lessons from historical toilet humour

Scatological jokes about poop and piss have a long history. Bas Jongenelen found enough examples of these in literary texts from the year 1561 to do his PhD research. To his surprise, he discovered no signs whatsoever of the societal unrest at that time.

Bas JongenelenBas Jongenelen (photo: Fontys)

Not all of the texts that have survived from 1561 were per se highbrow literature, but they were informative. People laughed about sex – and about sexual shortcomings– and an awful lot of alcohol was consumed. The texts describe highly convivial scenes and partying was popular. A man notices after hours of boozing in a cafe that he has gone through his money. Does that mean that the party is over? Definitely not because then you can go to “naer myn oomken” (to my uncle), as Eduard de Dene writes in his ‘Liedeken Vander Benauthe’ (Dittie for Difficult Times). In this poem, “my uncle” stands for the pawnbroker who you could sell your possessions to so that you could carry on drinking. ‘What could be more fun? Because, of course, at the pawnbroker, you came across far more drunkards who did exactly the same’, explains Bas Jongenelen (1968). ‘With the money, you could merrily drink even more beer until you had nothing left.’

For the lecturer in Dutch at Fontys University of Applied Sciences, a whole world opened up when he delved into the surviving texts from the mid-sixteenth century. Singing the praises of despicable behaviour, as in the example above, is a peculiar, but nevertheless striking theme. The intention was clearly to provide insight into unwise behaviour. Because sometimes a couplet was added with a moral warning: avoid doing something like this.
 

Toilet humour was also an inexhaustible source of entertainment for people in the sixteenth century. A man comes home so drunk that he crawls into bed upside down from his wife. Instead of kissing her breasts, he starts with her buttocks. ‘It just so happens that she's got diarrhoea’, recounts Jongenelen. ‘You know what's coming next. After an enormous fart, his entire face is covered in poop.’

Did you know? people back then preferred to make jokes about "safe subjects" with which they could not offend anybody. Especially not the spiritual leaders.

Which wise lesson can we learn from this? If nothing else, that people back then preferred to make jokes about "safe subjects" with which they could not offend anybody. Especially not the spiritual leaders, because they were not married. ‘A year later, at the Brussels festival of songs, that was a different story. Open public criticism of King Philip II and the church could be heard there.’

Literary festivals

Jongenelen, who received a Doctoral Grant for Teachers from NWO, had two main reasons for choosing the year 1561. First of all, there is a wealth of usable texts that have survived from that year. Eduard de Dene published his “collected works”. Furthermore, two literary festivals took place, and the texts from these were later published. The major poetry festival of the “Antwerpse Landjuweel” (Antwerp Theatre Festival) was a spectacle with literature, music, fireworks and a sort of carnival possession. The freely accessible poetry festival of Rotterdam had a more modest approach –a sort of Poetry International ahead of its time. However, this festival also attracted a large number of people from the entire County of Holland. Both the wealthy and the workers saw it as a superb day out in the open air.

Clearly, the pressure was not yet high enough in 1561, but a year later it was.
- Bas Jongenelen

The second reason is that 1561 occurs just before the start of the Eighty Year War. Just five years later, iconoclasm would be the fuse that lit the powder keg. Therefore something must have been brewing earlier. Could clues to that be found in the surviving texts? Much to Jongenelen's surprise, the answer – after six years of research - was nothing whatsoever. No sneering comments about the Spaniards, the Inquisition, nobility or the Catholic Church. ‘The texts exude an atmosphere of “everything is absolutely fine, and we're quite happy just drinking beer”. Of course, if you emphasise that so strongly, then there is definitely something going on’, he thinks. ‘Clearly, the pressure was not yet high enough in 1561, but a year later it was.’

“The flag is already at full mast”

In the texts that he studied, he came across examples of the opposite of criticism, namely (self-) censure. He came across a “chastened” version of an original French text in one of the books from the County of Holland. The original version ridiculed two members of the mighty order of the Franciscan monks. During a ferry crossing, they made sexual allusions towards the ferrywoman. “The flag is already at full mast.” The woman knows how to handle that. She does “not want two mates on one boat” so it's better to organise two private encounters instead. She therefore sails past two small islands and drops a monk off on each of them. Instead of ferrying back to the monks, the woman paddles to the village to pick up a group of burly men. They give the monks a jolly good beating. Jongenelen: ‘In the Dutch text, exactly the same story is told, but the “monks” are exchanged for “men”. Therefore the author did not dare to ridicule representatives of the Roman Catholic Church.’ Was the author perhaps a catholic? No, writer Johan Fruytiers from Leiden would later flee as a protestant to Emden. To clarify: back then heresy was a crime for which you could end up being burned at the stake.

Kamagurka

Was it all just clowning around at those 16th-century festivals? Certainly not. The vast majority of the plays and poems dealt with serious, religious and tragic subjects. Nevertheless, Jongenelen focuses solely on the literary humour. Why exactly? ‘Because absurd humour from people like Kamagurka, Wim T. Schippers and Monty Python has always given me that special feeling that I was the only one who could understand it’, says Jongenelen. ‘In the sixteenth-century texts, I sometimes come across the strangest of things. People who appreciated that kind of humour back then probably also discovered that there were others who understood it too. The “us against them” feeling that you then get also existed centuries ago, of course.’

He is therefore flabbergasted  that nobody previously thought of the idea of snatching these humoristic jewels from oblivion and studying them further. ‘Yet having said that, it might well take another five hundred years before somebody devotes a thesis to André van Duin.’

Bas Jongenelen defended his doctoral thesis on 12 November 2019 at Radboud University in Nijmegen. His thesis (in Dutch) can be obtained via: https://www.deslegte.nl/humor-in-1561-2170888/

Text: Edo Beerda