Gone with the wind

“My Lord, I had forgott the Fart.”

John Aubrey (1626-97) wrote a huge collection of biographies, a selection from which was published and widely read in the nineteenth century under the title Brief Lives. Using hearsay as one of his principal tools, he provided intimate and sometimes unreliable glimpses of the Elizabethan Age, including the following fascinating paragraph (from the Penguin Classics edition) on Edward de Vere (1550-1604):

This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home, and sayd, My Lord, I had forgott the Fart.

Although the pregnant-with-gas motif has been assigned a number (1739A*), fled-in-horror-because-he-farted does not seem to have been so fortunate. This is a shame because the only other example I can think of is such a fine one. Here is the tale of Abu Hasan from the Richard Burton edition of 1001 Nights, which for some reason I was convinced was from Voltaire’s Zadig, and upon which Aubrey’s story may be based:

They recount that in the city of Kaukaban in Yemen there was a man named Abu Hasan of the Fadhli tribe who left the Bedouin life and became a townsman and the wealthiest of merchants. His wife died while both were young, and his friends pressed him to marry again.
Weary of their pressure, Abu Hasan entered into negotiations with the old women who procure matches, and married a woman as beautiful as the moon shining over the sea. To the wedding banquet he invited kith and kin, ulema and fakirs, friends and foes, and all of his acquaintances.

The whole house was thrown open to feasting: There were five different colors of rice, and sherbets of as many more; kid goats stuffed with walnuts, almonds, and pistachios; and a young camel roasted whole. So they ate and drank and made merry.

The bride was displayed in her seven dresses — and one more — to the women, who could not take their eyes off her. At last the bridegroom was summoned to the chamber where she sat enthroned. He rose slowly and with dignity from his divan; but in do doing, for he was over full of meat and drink, he let fly a great and terrible fart.

In fear for their lives, all the guests immediately turned to their neighbors and talked aloud, pretending to have heard nothing.

Mortified, Abu Hasan turned away from the bridal chamber and as if to answer a call of nature. He went down to the courtyard, saddled his mare, and rode off, weeping bitterly through the night.

In time he reached Lahej where he found a ship ready to sail for India; so he boarded, arriving ultimately at Calicut on the Malabar coast. Here he met with many Arabs, especially from Hadramaut, who recommended him to the King. This King (who was a Kafir) trusted him and advanced him to the captaincy of his bodyguard. He remained there ten years, in peace and happiness, but finally was overcome with homesickness. His longing to behold his native land was like that of a lover pining for his beloved; and it nearly cost him his life.

Finally he sneaked away without taking leave and made his way to Makalla in Hadramaut. Here he donned the rags of a dervish. Keeping his name and circumstances a secret, he set forth on foot for Kaukaban. He endured a thousand hardships of hunger, thirst, and fatigue; and braved a thousand dangers from lions, snakes, and ghouls.

Drawing near to his old home, he looked down upon it from the hills with brimming eyes, and said to himself, “They might recognize me, so I will wander about the outskirts and listen to what people are saying. May Allah grant that they do not remember what happened.”

He listened carefully for seven nights and seven days, until it happened that, as he was sitting at the door of a hut, he heard the voice of a young girl saying, “Mother, tell me what day was I born on, for one of my companions wants to tell my fortune.”

The mother answered, “My daughter, you were born on the very night when Abu Hasan farted.”

No sooner had the listener heard these words than he rose up from the bench and fled, saying to himself, “Verily my fart has become a date! It will be remembered for ever and ever.

He continued on his way, returning finally to India, where he remained in self exile until he died. May the mercy of Allah be upon him!

I can’t think of another case of public farting in Europe contemporaneous with or prior to Aubrey that is treated as a matter for concern. Take for example the following tale of Henry IV of France:

The King of France was an eager chessplayer, and does not seem to have been greatly offended by minor breaches of etiquette. When one of his opponents, Bassompierre, rather rudely broke wind during a move, the king let him off the hook after hearing the explanation “Your majesty, my knight will not move if he does not hear the trumpet call.”

Similarly, Montaigne tells us that

Metrocles broke wind rather indiscreetly, while disputing in presence of his school, and kept his house for shame, until Crates went to see him, and, after consoling and reasoning with him, set him an example of license, urged him to a competition in wind-breaking, and so cured him of his scruples.

Neither – with the exception of Burton – can I find any record of the shamefulness of farting in Middle Eastern folklore. My most hopeful hypothesis was that, since Adam and Eve had been eating fruit without due caution, some of it might have been unripe and there would be a tale somewhere buried in the Apocrypha rationalising the Fall in terms of outrageous, uncontrollable farting fits suffered by the unhappy couple. This would explain very nicely God’s having received news of human transgression so rapidly, but unfortunately – as with many of my notions – there seems to be no evidence.

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