Jennifer Howard: The Significance of 17th Century Rude Poetry

If today's politicians feel that they are too often the targets of the slings and arrows of constituents, they should be glad they didn't hold office in early-17th-century England. In that era, members of Parliament, courtiers, and even the king himself came in for abuse at the hands of anonymous commentators who expressed their sentiments in pointed, frequently rude poems known as libels.

"Never was bestowed such an art/Upon the tuning of a Fart," run the opening lines of "The Censure of the Parliament Fart," one of more than 350 Stuart-era libels now available online in Early Stuart Libels: An Edition of Poetry From Manuscript Sources ( Occasioned by an episode that took place in Parliament on March 4, 1607, when Sir John Croke, speaker of the House of Commons, attempted to read a message from the House of Lords, and Henry Ludlow passed gas loudly enough to be heard throughout the chamber, the poem goes on to describe the various reactions of notable politicians to the unfortunate emission.

"The Censure of the Parliament Fart" circulated well into the late 17th century, with successive libelers adding verses as the years passed -- a kind of running gag on the gassiness of politicians. "What we would see as analogies have almost a literal power" for Stuart-era readers and writers, says Alastair Bellany, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University at New Brunswick who edited Early Stuart Libels with Andrew McRae, a professor of Renaissance studies at the University of Exeter, in England. Libelers used descriptions of bodily functions, corporeal decay, and sexual deviance to comment on corruptions in the body politic.

"A mixture of outrage and laughter" is how Mr. Bellany describes the libelers' collective attitude. Whether punning on Sir Francis Bacon's name or engaging in graphic speculation on the Duke of Buckingham's sexual proclivities, the writers used this "dodgy genre," as Mr. Bellany puts it, as a way to comment on events and public figures who, because of censorship laws, were otherwise off limits....

In the 1970s and 80s, many historians subscribed to the idea that Stuart-era Englishmen didn't much care about politics, and that national debate focused on a few familiar points: the royal coffers, foreign policy, the union between England and Scotland. Libels preserve a depth and range of grass-roots political feeling that goes well beyond parliamentary debates. The libels offer "a completely different version of the political narrative of the early 17th century," says Mr. Bellany.

For instance, the death, in 1612, of Robert Cecil, King James I's most powerful minister and adviser, let loose a flood of scandal-mongering epitaphs that harped on his affairs with other courtiers' wives and the syphilitic condition of his genitalia: "Rotten with ruttinge like sores in September/ hee died as hee lived with a faulte in one member."

The mudslinging suggests a greater fear that the country was going to hell in a handbasket....

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