Blogs > Cliopatria > On Scatology ...

Oct 25, 2004 11:05 pm

On Scatology ...

I'm usually more into eschatology than scatology, but I'm also feeling the urge on this one. Yesterday, I sent HNN's Rick Shenkman a link to this BBC story about German archaeologists having found the lavatory in which Martin Luther was said to have labored through his problems with, well, his justification and realized finally that he was justified by faith alone. I asked Rick to handle the story gently, because I do love my Luther! So, Rick kindly posted the story over on the HNN mainpage with no comment. Now one of Andrew Sullivan's readers sends him this note about the story:
Having mis-spent my youth in grad school studying late medieval and early modern European intellectual history, I can now -- 20 years after leaving academia -- shed some valuable light for you and your readers (as well as for the BBC News).
When Luther said he made his discovery 'in cloaca' (literally translated 'on the toilet'), he was using one of a long list of late medieval theological-scatological phrases that meant 'in deepest humility' or in a state of profound 'worthlessness' (i.e., like shit).
So when Luther described arriving at his big theological conclusion 'in cloaca', he (like hundreds of other theologians of the time) was not making a literal reference to his bathroom routine. If this sounds strange ... today, it shouldn't. The English language still uses lots of scat lingo (e.g., 'up shit creek without a paddle') to express extreme emotions or for emphasis. ('No shit!', you might say).
So once again, on major matters of import, the BBC News doesn't know 'shit from Shinola' or its 'ass from a hole in the ground.'"
I'm obliged to tell you that I've got a decent seminary education. I've read a number of Luther biographies, but I'm no expert on the subject. If some of our medieval or early modern European historians or church historians could convincingly show us what is"s***" and what is"S******", I'd appreciate it.
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More Comments:

Ralph E. Luker - 10/26/2004

I think that is generally agreed. The question here is how to decide in some reliable way whether Luther was speaking literally or figuratively about this issue.

Leo Edward Casey - 10/26/2004

As I remember my somewhat tangential look at rhetoric in Luther, there were a great many scatological references, and even some of the textual illustrations used scatological images. They were all directed, of course, at the Pope, the Turks, the Jews... and everyone else on Luther's S**t List.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/26/2004

Let me propose a waffly compromise: it doesn't actually matter whether he was actually sitting on it at the moment of revelation, if he was, as the various reportages claim, regularly irregular and prone to spending considerable time there. It's still a significant part of his life and lifestyle.

For what it's worth, toilet excavation has been a rich source of information on diet and architecture in early Japanese history.

I'd like some active medievalists to weigh in on this issue, though.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/26/2004

You have a point. BBC takes a hit at Sully's just about every time. Still, I think some scholars have taken Luther's words literally and I was wondering if someone could clarify matters. It does make some difference.

Adam Kotsko - 10/26/2004

In an alternate universe in which the BBC had gotten this obscure fact right, would this same Sullivanite have e-mailed him to say, "No wonder BBC can't get the present right! They're too busy parsing out the minutae of medieval Latin slang!"

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/25/2004

Last Night, Comedy channel ran the Southpark episode in which the s__ word reached an apotheosis of sorts.

After 162 repetitions, it went from funny to shocking to boring to banal to a vague amusement of how they would get it in next. All the while, the usage of the word brings down plague and at least one horseman of the apocalypse.

So what will the s word bring Cliopatria?

PS: Actually it was only 161 repetitions--after its initial usage.

PPS Does this correction mean I'm anal retentive?

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