My goal in writing this blog is to demonstrate that, wherever and whenever they live, people are weird, but they’re weird in understandable ways. I think that humour is a great example of that. In fact, the world’s oldest recorded joke is a short Sumerian text that claims no young woman has ever farted on her husband. I don’t get it, but I suspect that the mere mention of a fart is enough for some people. In the case study I’m writing about today, a fart is nearly enough to earn a living on.
During the reign of Henry II in the late 12th century, a man named Roland le Pettour, Roland the Farter, held 30 acres of land in Suffolk. The way he paid for the land was to visit the king every Christmas Day and entertain the court with “unum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum” – one jump and whistle, and one fart. This unusual tenancy agreement is recorded in 1302 in the Liber Feodorum, the Book of Fees, that recorded hundreds of years of feudal landholdings. Later, the 30 acres was transferred to someone else, possibly Roland’s son – who presumably had to fart too – but Henry III didn’t approve of the “indecent” performance, and had the land rented out with money instead of humour (Allen 2007).
Professional farters have existed for a long time. In the early 5th century, Saint Augustine wrote about performers who could sing from their bottoms. John of Salisbury, an author who lived at the same time as Roland, described “buffoons” who “are not thrown out even when the uproar of their bottoms befouls the air with repeated noise”, and a 15th century writer described a character performing an identical fart, leap, and whistle (Allen 2007). Irish flatulists or braigetoir shocked English travellers in the 16th century, along with crossan, men who could do tricks with their genitalia. The most famous flatulist is the late 19th century performer Le Pétomane – something like “The Fartomaniac” – who farted tunes at the Moulin Rouge. Outside of the Western world, Japanese heppiri otoko, farting men, were popular during the 17th century onwards and a humorous story describes a man trying to use a laxative medicine to impersonate a professional court farter – with predictable results. The 21st century descendant of the historical fartist is Mr Methane, and I think that toilet-humour-focused media like South Park and Captain Underpants also plays the same role.
There are three major theories about why we find something funny. The superiority theory claims we’re amused when we feel superior, the incongruity theory says things are funny because they don’t make sense, and the relief theory says we laugh to relieve tension when something makes us anxious. A person who farts could invoke all of these feelings, especially if they’re farting in front of royalty in court. That explains why someone could be paid to pass wind, but does it explain why someone would be given enough land for a small farm for a brief performance once a year?
The story of Roland the Farter might tell us more about the peculiarities of medieval society than about fart jokes. Roland isn’t the only person recorded as paying a weird seasonal performance for his land; there’s also people who were charged a rose at Christmas and a snowball at Midsummer. Other tenants were charged yearly gifts of food or small acts of service. This was called serjeanty, and the value of tenurial serjeants was their loyalty, not their money. In a pre-industrial society, power is exercised directly through people instead of indirectly through money and technology. Land was a key way of networking, it was considered to belong to the monarch and granted, in exchange for loyal service, to their followers – who would then grant it to their own followers in turn. A token service or gift was a ritual that reinforced loyalty, and impossible or humiliating tasks like providing unseasonal goods or foolish acts may have had symbolic purposes. My guess is that Roland was an entertainer who Henry II wanted to keep around, and his festive fart is only a small part of his story.