My foray into fart science is a bit timid. The mere inclusion of the topic threatens to lower my intellectual tone. A confluence of circumstances forced the subject on me. While recording laughter for an earlier study, one of my subjects laughed so hard that he farted. Since I already had it on tape and was in a sound lab, why not check out the acoustics of farting? This was a defining moment. Would I lose resolve, as did Galileo when he was “shown the instruments” by his inquisitors? With tenure safely in hand, I forged ahead. What started as a playful acoustic analysis led to the quite serious consideration of why we speak through the mouth instead of the rectum. Along the way, I discovered a quirky and amusing literature that may elevate the status of the lowly fart as a topic in scientific discourse.
Throughout the ages, farting (flatulation) has generated jokes, folklore, etiquette, and a few legal sanctions, but little research. The legendary Hippocrates (460–377 BCE) considered the medical affliction of too much gas in The Winds, advising, “It is better to let it pass with noise than to be intercepted and accumulated internally” (1.24–25). The topic has been treated more often in popular fare, including the humorous writings of Geoffrey Chaucer, Benjamin Franklin, and Mark Twain. Fart jokes earn a place in the opening scene of Aristophanes’ The Clouds and the memorable closing scene of “The Miller’s Tale” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Although passing gas is usually considered ill-mannered, it’s usually laughed off as a minor offense. But this has not always been the case. The Roman Empire once had laws against farting in public places, a sanction that must have caused a lot of fanning and finger-pointing in the Forum. The law was lifted during the reign of Claudius, one of the most flatulent of emperors.
Consider the sad fate of Pu Sao of the Tikopia in Polynesia, who was so overcome with shame after farting in the presence of the chief that he committed suicide by climbing a palm tree and impaling himself through the rectum with a sharply pointed branch. Sanctions are less severe among the Chagga of Tanzania, but feminists have a lot of work to do there. If a husband breaks wind, the wife must pretend that it was really she who discharged, and she must submit to scolding about it. Failure to accept responsibility can cost the negligent wife three barrels of beer.
Robert R. Provine, Author, Curious Behavior. Via Salon, Passing gas is an art and science
FJP: I don’t post just because I’m puerile, but because this is actually a fascinating read about farts throughout the ages, from a famed French performer who dominated the stage with gassy butt tricks, to the thoughts of St. Augustine, Hippocrates, Aristophanes, Mark Twain and Chaucer, to the science of flatulence, human and otherwise. Well worth the read. — Michael