The Ridiculous and Sometimes Deadly History of Farting in England

By Joseph Hayes on at

In 1784 Charles James Fox, the inaugural foreign secretary and political celebrity who somehow had his own band of groupies, wrote a strange piece of work. This was not to be on political treatises or statesmanship but instead bore the title The Benefit of Farting. As strange as that sounds, it was somewhat fitting given that Fox’s rival, Prime Minister William Pitt, was often mocked in sketches featuring farting.

This oddity was part of a long history of flatulence whose stink still hangs over us today. As historian Sir Keith Thomas reflects in the collected essay Bodily Control and Social Unease: The Fart in Seventeenth-Century England, farting is a more taboo matter for historians than even “the sex life of the past”. Yet while farting might be considered inappropriate today, it captivated the political movers and shakers of the past.

Step forward the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, an icon of the 17th century who, when he wasn’t getting hammered and womanising, was in charge of the navy and consequently Britain’s future given the country’s status as a major naval power at the time.

Pepys was also obsessed with farting.

He excessively indulged in it and even got agitated when he didn’t do it enough. Using books Pepys even mastered the art of how to force others to fart involuntarily and recorded his own flatulence in detail.

Yet, the farting drama was not confined to a few notable people, a search of the Early English Books Online database shows over 568 records relating to the word “fart”. One bizarre source on farting from 1639 is a report by a London spy gathered for the Scottish authorities. The intelligence gathering details how in “Somerset-Shire [sic]”, they seemed to specialise in farting.

The report put this down to “notable windy fellowes” whom because of their diet of “Beane-Bread [sic]” have mastered a very unpleasant tactic where they “fart in your faces”. The author advises that one looks out for these scoundrels by hearing the “Beanes [sic] rattling in their bellies”.

It wasn’t just farting itself that fixated the popular mindset, but also the causes of excessive flatulence. The report by the London spy is far from alone in focusing on the foods most thought likely to cause farting. Sir Keith Thomas notes one particular source on farting foods the 1632, Dyets [sic] Dry Dinner written appropriately by a “Henry Buttes” which lists all the foods the author thinks can cause farting.

One of the foods that were “notorious fart-producers” were carrots, which Buttes claimed were “very windie [sic]”. The book seems almost like a fart-producing scale, with the pros and cons of each food listed off against each other. Thomas reflected that buttered peas were another fart favourite, but on a more positive side Buttes claims they can “cure the cought [sic]” .

History also featured guides to prevent farting outbursts, with one recipe involving a mixture of seeds and then beer. Obviously it won’t cure your farting, but it will at least get you tipsy.  Theory or quackery is quite a different thing to practice, however. Just like now farting was thought to be extremely impolite, and according to 17th century etiquette guides it was something was supposed to be kept hidden.

Farting wouldn’t stay confined though. Towards the 18th century, when a certain complacency began in warning against it, flatulence burst out like, well, a fart into society. There were organisations dedicated to farting and even scientific demonstrations were thought to mimic farting and the stink that they created. In an inverse of who ‘smelt it dealt it’, the farter in the 18th century was thought to enjoy their own flatulence but certainly no one else would.

Now farting was a serious business, one thing it required was a proper terminology. In the centuries before it had just been referred to vaguely as ‘wind’. Farting was now officially defined Thomas highlights by the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson as “wind from behind”.  Johnson also included the action of farting as to  “break wind from behind”.

Farting definitions became the avenue for grudge matches in the 18th century. Johnson, a real life troll who enjoyed farting in people’s direction, unsurprisingly managed to annoy other dictionary compilers. One of these, one Marchant, refers to Johnson as having an infantile grasp on the English language in a rambling diatribe. Marchant then tried to get his own back on Johnson offered his own understanding of farting as “a crack of wind from the posteriors”.

Farting was also mentioned in some of the guides to the lexis of the underworld with “your prat whids Romely [sic]” being used to describe enthusiastic farters. And thus farting’s wicked nature would become further enshrined. In fact, farting literally became at times lethal with one particularly unpleasant murderer William Coe, actually killing his wife by the unlikely method of “farting in her mouth” causing her to choke to death on her own vomit.

The sad fall of farting would happen soon after. Farting was becoming censored more and more in the dictionaries, and elsewhere, as a result of the Victorians. Thomas notes that the Victorian period would see the censorship of mentions of farting in texts.  Yet, farting as a practice would obviously remain with Kathryn Hughes highlighting that none other than Charles Darwin was a persistent farter.

What characterised the Victorian period then was the typical hypocrisy of doing something but not talking about it. Farting had been open discourse previously but was becoming censored all around.  However, farting did remain in a form now being discussed scientifically as “flatulence”.

The Victorian period saw Medical texts abound on the topic of flatulence. One example is the London Lancet from 1848. Although the Lancet is regarded as a premier medical publication, its arguments from 1848 may make one question how far medical knowledge on farting had changed since Dyets [sic] Dry Dinner back in 1632.

Not only does the Lancet name some of the same foods (such as apples) as causing problems for the patient as Dyets [sic] Dry Dinner did, it actually makes even more exaggerated claims regarding flatulence.  Dyets [sic] Dry Dinner claimed that apples “Annoy weake stomacks [sic]” doesn’t outright link this to flatulence.

However in 1848 The Lancet actually claims that apples contain enormous quantities of “gas” and so will cause massive flatulence, meaning an apple a day may well keep a doctor away. Just not for the reasons you might have thought. The author  Robert Dick then recounts the amusing case of a continually farting clergyman who, unsurprisingly, still continued to fart despite Dick’s care.

What the popular history then records is that farting started to reappear during the irreverence of the 20th century. However, this requires a differentiation between wider society, with more freedom to discuss farting, and the intellectual domain where Sir Keith Thomas highlights it remained for the longest time taboo.

It took a while but in certain areas, not just discussing flatulence but outright mentioning “farting” was coming back to the intellectual world.

An 1987 Oxford Symposium On Food & Cookery essay written about “indigestion” by Stephen Mennell is not only useful to the history of English farting in suggesting that up to “at least the 1930’s”, English society had a pathological fear of flatulence, but the essay also openly uses the word “fart”. This is only utilised the once but it perhaps illustrates that by the late 1980’s the intellectual silence about farting had been broken.

The history of farting has been unstable but it seems that after the long winded years of the 19th  and early 20th centuries farting has finally returned to dictionaries with ‘to fart’ rightly back in its place with the definition “let out wind from the anus”.

Image: Aqua Mechanical/Flickr