Fecal Fridays: Martin Luther on the Toilet

“Love has pitched his mansion in/The place of excrement”
—W.B. Yeats

“the anus produces life, waste is fecund, from death new landscapes emerge.”
—Leo Bersani

“Devil, I have just shit in my trousers. Have you smelled it?”
—Martin Luther

Martin Luther was often constipated. While this is certainly not the most important fact about the father of the Reformation, it shouldn’t be excused as merely incidental either. Much in history has hinged on less than a proper and satisfying bowl movement. Generations of Protestant triumphalist historiography have subconsciously described the Reformation in language that does nothing so much as evoke a satisfying, too-long-in-coming, defecation. Or, at the very least, the Reformation is configured as an act of simplification, of cleaning up, of tidying, of freshening; while by contrast medieval Catholicism is impugned with the rhetoric of filth. Historian Owen Chadwick, mostly passed over now by revisionist scholars though his introduction remains excellent, wrote in 1964 that medieval Christianity “had been like a church where the furniture is cluttered, the altar obscured, and the corners undusted.” And in the years before Luther at Wittenberg, “everyone that mattered in the Western Church was crying out for reformation” like a traveler in search of a bathroom. The period before reform is sometimes described in language that evokes the straining, tense, uncomfortable holding onto matter better dispelled. And when evacuation finally arrives there can be a fresh, new, purified, cleansing renewal. Don’t take my word for it, it was Luther himself who apparently said “I’m like a ripe stool and the world is like a gigantic anus.”

There will be many considerations of Luther as we recognize the 500th anniversary of his nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral Church. Essays which consider his historical significance, his influence on Christianity and modernity, his conflicted legacy and his contradictory biography. Articles which do justice to the founder of Protestantism. I’ve written a few of those myself. This will not be one of those pieces. As my motivating task, rather, I hope to provide some thoughts regarding the psychologist David B. Meyer’s pertinent question concerning Luther: “What is one to do when a religious leader refers so persistently to the anus?” Folklorist Malcolm Jones claims that as concerns scatology, “Academically, as far as this particular topic is concerned, we are still toddlers, merely dabbling with it,” but dabble in it we must. To that end, what I want to do is give Luther credit for something often obscured with our awkward laugher, but which I suspect is not without theological import. Luther produced thousands of pages of vibrant, visceral, vernacular German prose which explored faith, grace, and ritual, but he also developed a profound rhetoric of shit. In an era where metropolitan eras exploded in sheer human numbers, and where human waste became very much an aspect of everyday life (and a public health concern) Luther would, as others did, have a preoccupation with feces. And from that rich manure would come good trees, and as the reformer reminds us, good trees bare good fruit. And with no snark or irony I attest to the freshness of Luther’s shit theology. Please, do not read the second to last word in the previous sentence as an adjective, but as a noun. In that I mean to say that Luther took waste seriously, used it to great rhetorical effect, and took part in intellectual disputations which utilized sublime examples of what literary critic Susan S. Morrison calls “fecopoetics;” that is Luther was engaged with adversaries from Ulrich Zwingili and Thomas More that could best be described as shit-fests. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson writes that revelation is always associated with “a cleansing, a kicking away; and it would be entirely in accord with Luther’s great freedom in such matters if he were to experience and to report this repudiation in frankly physical terms.” Morison explains that this language of “Fecopoetics explains how the excremental is used as a vital element in poetic and cultural enterprises,” and as such Luther is no exception. In fact, he is a representative example.

Don’t misinterpret my intent as to slur Luther, rather I am acknowledging the scatological genius of his bawdy prose, the German peasant boy who couldn’t help but have some familiarity with crap during his lifetime. His rhetoric paradoxically reached the height of excremental apologetics, a veritable Ninety-Five Feces. If such discussion about the great man seems unbecoming on this exalted anniversary, recall that in his 1545 pamphlet Against The Roman Papacy an Institution of the Devil he makes reference to “pope fart-ass” and refers to Christ’s vicar on Earth who sits on Peter’s throne as the “assgod in Rome.” In that same work Luther writes of the Catholic condemnations of his movement that “such a great horrid fart did the papal ass let go here! He certainly pressed with great might to let out such a thunderous fart—it is a wonder that it did not tear his hole and belly apart!” If flatulence is a bit too PG for you, what about the many references to shit and anuses from his Table Talk, the posthumous collection of notable conversations with Luther compiled posthumously, from which the quote that I ended the first paragraph finds its origin? Or when he claims that the papacy’s rituals figuratively stink “worse than the devil’s excrement?” Or when during a contemplative dinner he marveled “that man hasn’t long since defecated the whole world full, up to the sky?” And lest you think that I’ve cherry-picked these selections, I refer you to an analysis of his close to four hundred letters, almost 40% of which had some sort of reference to either butts, shitting, shit, and anuses, in that order of descending popularity. Scholars Joseph Schmidt and Mary Simon (no relation) write that Luther “provided the scatological with a fervor never read nor heard before” and historian Danielle Meade Skjelver concurs that “clearly Luther’s scatology went beyond the rules of decorum even for his own era” while drily noting that “it seemed to work for him.” Luther, who believed he could chase away both pope and the Devil with but a fart, had a little bit of a preoccupation it would seem.

An important preoccupation, for it was precisely while on the shitter that Luther supposedly had his epiphany that it was faith alone which merited salvation, having written that this realization occurred to him while he was contemplating Romans 1:17 “in the sewer,” that is while he was pooping. He writes that the foundational cornerstone of the Reformation, of sola Fide, was “given to me by the Holy Spirit on this Cloaca in the tower,” with “cloaca” a Latin euphemism for toilet. He writes that following that successful evacuation of his bowls along with the remnants of his Romish superstition that he “felt totally newborn, and through open gates I entered paradise.” There has been some debate as to whether we should read Luther’s account of his bathroom revelation as literal or merely figurative, but as Heiko Overman (who did more than any scholar to connect Luther back to the Rabelaisian world of late medieval theology) helpfully explains, it might not matter, because “behind Luther’s statement there is a firm medieval tradition in which concepts like cloaca, latrina, faeces or stercus were used simultaneously in the physical and in the metaphysical way.” As helpful as that analysis is, tracing as it does Luther’s reliance on an allegorical scatology which was popular in the late medieval world which was the reformer’s intellectual birth-right, it can’t help but be a disappointing to those who wish to see the actual toilet. That desire smacks a bit of the very obsession with material faith which Luther and his descendants so deplored, for the Reformation of course impugned the superstitious trade in relics and the venturing of pilgrims, but for those for whom a bit of the old faith still clings like a pungent odor in the atmosphere – fear not. A relic of Luther’s intestinal theophany was apparently discovered by archeologists in 2004, to which a BBC article breathlessly informs us that “Luther’s lavatory thrills experts.” At Wittenberg’s Lutherhaus Museum researchers found in an annex what was presumably Luther’s toilet, the very one on which one of his pivotal five solas was first conceived. Director of the Luther Memorial Foundation, Stefan Rhein, matter-of-factly said of the 30cm stone seat with a hole in the center that “This is where the birth of the Reformation took place.” Before anyone accuse me of irreverence or libel against Luther, I ask them to defer to Mead Skjelver, who writes that though the reformer’s central insight “hit him in the latrine” that this was an event which should serve to remind us that “God would go anywhere to reach His children,” to which I agree.

All of that straining, spiritual and otherwise, marked Luther in the eyes of some critics and subsequent historians as an aberrant personality. A pathological head-case obsessed with shitting. That fellow founder of a new Teutonic inflected faith, Sigmund Freud, described the anal stage as the second in five stages of psychosexual development into which one might get “stuck.” He explains that there are “few neurotics who have not their special scatologic customs,” and when we consider the young obsessively scrupulous Augustinian monk who had his lifelong fixation with feces, it’s hard not to think that there may be some merit in Herr Doktor Freud’s theory as concerns Herr Doktor Reverend Luther. Freud helpfully writes that “In later neurotic diseases they exert a definite influence on the symptomatic expression of the neurosis, placing at its disposal the whole sum of intestinal disturbances… one should not laugh at the hemorrhoidal influence to which the old medical literature attached so much weight in the explanation of neurotic states.” In Freud’s theory concerning psychosexual development, a personality which becomes psychosexually “stuck” in the anal stage will become fixated on the anus as a site of both pleasure and punishment, with the anal expulsive type being one who is not only filth obsessed and who derives pleasure from the act of defecation, but is also prone to willfully obstinate rebellion. Sound familiar?

Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson certainly thought so in his contested 1958 classic Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, in which he mines the rich fecopoetic aesthetic threaded throughout the reformer’s writings, so as to derive a theory concerning the anal expulsivness inherent in the founder of Protestantism’s rhetoric. Erikson, most famous as the originator of the concept of the “identity crisis,” finds in Luther a convenient confirmation of his theory. Luther, the nervous boy terrified by a thunder-clap in 1505 who turned his soul over to the protection of St. Anne, and as a result of her assistance turned his life over to ordination? Luther, who so resented the exacting ritualized dictates of Rome, which manifested in his obsessive scrupulosity, that he confided to his confessor Johann von Staupitz that he feared he secretly hated God (and Freud tells us that “God is nothing more than an exalted father”). Luther, for whom even when his soul was calmed upon his discovery of the means to salvation couldn’t help but project his rancor onto that other father, il papa, the pontiff, the pope, that “assgod.” For the armchair Freudian who wishes to parse the biography of Luther, there is more than just the reformer’s anal fixation, there is also his latent oedipal complex: the son of an economically upwardly mobile copper miner who refused his father’s admonishing to practice law, rather preferring to become an Augustinian monk. Erikson writes that the young anal expulsive Luther rebelled “first against his father, to join the monastery; then against the Church, to found his own church – at which point he succumbed to many of his father’s original values.” For Erikson, Luther’s “anal defiance” was born of his “neurotic suffering,” the result of “active remnants of childhood repressions,” specifically related to his father’s profession which he refused to enter. Hans Luder made a comfortable living from the hazardous labor of copper mining, yet according to Erikson it was his journey into the subterranean, intestinal “fickle and dangerous bowels” of the earth which so traumatized young man Luther that he couldn’t help but develop the anal fixation which so defined his vulgar rhetoric.

Freudian interpretations are less vogue now, with the good doctor’s reputation slowly chipped away by Popperian philosophy, feminist criticism, and the empirical dictates of neuropsychology which has no place for the quasi-mystical ghost in the machine that is the Id, Ego, and Superego. Oberman, neither a Popperian philosopher, a feminist critic, or a neuropsychologist used simple historiography to refute Erikson’s arguments, generously writing that his biography is “both a brilliant analysis and a garbled distortion – because it is unhistorical.” Freudianism, like any totalizing theory, is in some ways equally satisfying and simultaneously deficient – satisfying because it seems to cross all the t’s and dot all the I’s in explaining every conceivable situation, behavior, personality, and event; deficient because all of the fascinating nuance and subtly becomes the collateral damage enacted by the universalizing violence of the theory itself. Oberman’s point about the medieval tradition of vulgar critique, of archetypal scatological tricksters, or the rhetoric of filth as an aesthetic mode in its own right and not just something that results from hemorrhoids, is a point well taken. Freudian analysis, as helpful as it may be in some contexts, can have the effect of reducing the sublimity of fecopoetics, by making it mere symptom of a neurotic condition. Better to consult Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis in his groundbreaking work on the carnivalesque as a subversive medieval mode, part of which hinges on the parodic possibilities of the abstracted grotesque body. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin writes that to “degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body” and that it “therefore relates to acts of defecation.” He continues by explaining that the subversive art of vulgar medieval polemic is one where “Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one… Grotesque realism knows no other level; it is the fruitful earth and the womb. It is always conceiving” (think of Luther’s comparison of himself to a turd about to be expunged, a type of fecal birth in its imagery). Suddenly Erikson’s interpretations of Luther’s theology as only being the result of childhood trauma seems incredibly limiting, the better to embrace a Bakhtinian approach which considers shit in all of its multifaceted, mythic, splendid possibility. An analysis of Luther’s pathological coprophilia which reduces the phenomenon to only his individual peccadillos is also lacking, because unlike Oberman and Bakhtin’s survey of the period and its continuities to the ribald, bawdy, earthy medieval past, it brackets out just how common Luther’s rhetoric was in the wider realm of religious disputation. Luther happened to be a particularly adept enthusiast of the fecopoetic arts, but he was simply a master surrounded by the middling. His language was hardly unique in early modern Europe, as a Freudian analysis might imply, rather he was part of an ongoing tradition, for this was an era awash in shit.

The rhetoric of Reformation wasn’t just one that had a centrally focused fecopoetic, the visual culture embraced a similar aesthetic. Protestant aesthetics is often conceptualized entirely in terms of iconoclasm – the white-washed walls of the chapel, the smashed statuary, stripped altars, and relics consigned to the bonfire, replaced in the households that once featured them with the secular masterworks of the Northern Renaissance. But Reformation aesthetics also borrowed heavily from a certain medieval earthiness, content to muck around in the profane and fallen world of human waste so as to score points in the volleys that went back and forth in the argumentative war of pamphlets that marked the early sixteenth-century and that prefigured the shortly coming actual wars of religion. No artist was as pivotal in the paramount development of a new Protestant visual code that needed to fill the void left from the coming iconoclastic fury (though note that Luther himself was not particularly averse to religious images) than Lucas Cranach the Elder. If Luther was the great mass-media juggernaut of his day, taking full advantage of the printing press’ power to disseminate information quickly and widely, than Cranach was his partner in fusing word with image, creating a visual idiom that called to mind nothing so much as comics, and which often had at its core a scurrilous, hilarious, scatological base. For example, his illustration which accompanied Luther’s 1545 pamphlet Depiction of the Papacy, which illustrates the Pope holding a literally flaming anti-Protestant encyclical, whose fires are being tamed by the winds of farting German peasants, whose asses are directed at the throne of St. Peter and its current occupant. A stoically faced attendant (a cardinal perhaps) stands next to Paul III.

In that same pamphlet, Cranach plays even bluer, when he presents an image of Landsknecht mercenaries electing to challenge the Pope with a “weapon other than the sword,” in the coy words of Mead Skjelver, or indeed with a weapon other than a printing press as well. Rather one determined fellow is poised crouching over a positively massive papal tiara, taking a dump into its cavernous, bee-hive like interior.

Both of these illustrations depict flatulence, shitting, and all of their attendant physical phenomenon as an instrument of justice against a corrupt Church, a means of levelling the falsely prideful and inflated institution of man with the very detritus of that which man produces. A profane reminder that all men are born between piss and shit, the Pope included.

But if excrement is a potent means of resistance against injustice and corruption, than it was also useful to Cranach and other Protestant propagandists as a convenient slur to mark their enemies as themselves being a type of waste. In Depiction of the Papacy Cranach conceptualizes feces as not just a way to diminish, mock, and blaspheme the Church, but indeed he sees the Church and her princes as excremental in their own right. Consider the image which presents the Pope’s birth, emerging not from the vaginal canal of a human woman, but rather from the quivering, prolapsed rectum of a hideous she-devil, the papacy reduced to a fecal still-birth passed through the ulcerated sphincter of a sulfurous demon.

Not an anomalous image, for Cranach and those who worked in the tradition he inaugurated produced a preponderance of images which associated the Pope, and his very existence and origin, with the expulsion of excrement. In the tradition which conceptualizes of the Pope in the language of the turd, Luther, Cranach, and indeed all speakers of Germanic languages had a fortuitous coincidence in the false cognate between the words “Pope” and “poop.” No etymological relation between the words of course – the first was from the Vulgar Latin “papa” for “father,” and the later either from Middle English “poupen” or the Low German “pupen,” both meaning, well, what they mean. But for Cranach and Luther, that “Pope” and “poop” were but one mispronounced phoneme away from each other perhaps couldn’t help but to be evidence of German’s special genius at being able to strip reality bare to the basic truth, a scatological version of the poet George Herbert’s contention that English was specially blessed because “sun” and “Son” were homophones (albeit a baser typological philology). Incidentally, waste wasn’t only a rhetorical trope, sometimes it was a literal weapon as well. Jones writes of a “1528 pamphlet [that] told how Luther had been sent a copy of a work attacking [him]… in scurrilous terms which was taken off to the privy by several of Luther’s supporters in Wittenberg, used as toilet paper, and then sent back to its authors in Leipzig.” When considering both the image and actions of Cranach and others, as well as the general iconoclastic fecal-aesthetics of the Reformation, it helps to remember that though the chapel walls may have been white-washed, they sometimes were also figuratively coated in a thick crust of human excrement as well.

Protestants weren’t the only ones willing to smear their rhetorical dung upon the pamphlets of their enemies. It speaks to the limitations of any interpretation which reduces Luther’s scatological theology to merely personal neurosis that this sort of language was so common during the era, but not just common among advocates for Reform, indeed the very princes of the Church had no compunctions about flinging a little bit of caca back at their detractors. Anti-Lutheran invective could be just as rich in fecopoetic imagery as was that by Luther himself, with many instances of Catholic polemicists turning over the figurative outhouse just as zestfully as Protestants did. Such ribaldry had its origins in the working class humor of medieval Europe, as indeed Luther’s language did, and which of course was also part of the cultural inheritance of the Catholic Church itself. We need not view late medieval and early modern peasantry as exclusively being the earthy and stinky denizens of a Breughel painting proffering smoked hams and quaffing weak ale as they dance on a feast day to some hurdy-gurdy player, and yet such a tableau has some veracity to recommend in itself. Jones reminds us that “the Reformation era was not the first time such scatological imagery was employed to satirize the clergy,” and indeed it’s important to remember that both Luther and Church were the inheritors of that Chaucerian and Rabelaisian aesthetic of base things profoundly wrought and profound things profanely depicted. That was the exact attitude engaged by a popular song in Poland (which we often forget was once a site of major sectarian difference) disseminated some seven years after that fateful first Reformation Day: “Since Luther considers everyone shit compared with him, /And in his filthy mouth has nothing but shit, /I ask you, wouldn’t you say that he’s a shitty prophet? /Such as a man’s words are, so is the man himself.” Admittedly lacking a bit of poetry in translation, the broadsheet reverses Luther’s own transgressive pose and projects it back onto him, evidencing that Jones’ contention that “Scatology is an important weapon in the armory of trickster figures” is appropriately enough a tricky one – since who is performing the prank and who the prank is being performed on can be ambiguous. When we’re covered in shit it can be hard to properly identify anyone, which, it might seem, is one of the possible readings of the song.

But the Counter-Fecopoetics of the Magisterium wasn’t just limited to Boschian peasants with their Polish drinking song. More exulted personages than that prolific author Anonymous also took a bit of the piss out of Luther. One particular unlikely master of the shit-drenched insult quip was none other than the great Utopian himself, Saint Thomas More, who was more than willing to utilize all of the most appropriate words in his Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. The future martyr described Luther as a “buffoon” and compared the mouth which uttered such schismatic heresies to “cesspools, sewers, latrines, shit and dung.” If that seems a bit tame in comparison to some of Luther’s saucier statements, More rises to the level of master insult comic playing the dozens when he describes his German adversary, in admirable Anglo-Saxon alliteration and with a sense of biblical parallelism, as “A mad friarlet and privy-minded rascal with his raging and raving, with his filth and dung, shitting and beshitting. Luther has written that he has the right to besmatter and besmirch the royal crown with shit…to lick the posterior of a pissing she-mule.” If Protestants could accuse the Pope as being the turd of Satan, than Catholics could accuse Luther of being an enthusiast of bestial anilingus. If we’re to believe More in some of his other writings, part of what troubled him so as concerns Luther wasn’t just that he had conceived of “the very worst and most harmful heresy that ever was thought up; and, on top of that, the most insane,” but also that such theological error forced him into the latrine with Luther himself. More would have us believe that it pained him to be lowered to Luther’s level, to have to engage with the sick rhetoric of fecopoetics. Rather, the Utopian would have us think of him riding on horseback with Erasmus discussing Latin declensions in the Vulgate or tutoring his young daughters in the finer subtleties of Greek conjugation. But something about More’s shit-talking comes a little too naturally and seems a bit too much fun for me to totally trust More when he claims that he wasn’t enjoying his own language on some level. No neophyte would be able to easily pen of Luther that he should “throw back into your paternity’s shitty mouth, truly the shit-pool of all shit, all the much and shit which your dammnable rottenness has vomited up, and to empty out all the sewers and privies onto your crown.”

If Freud remains an inadequate explanation for the anal expulsions of an entire epoch, than what accounts for the veritable coprophilia of that age? When both More and Luther could dwell in the sewers, peasants could sing of the reformer’s shit-filled mouth, and wealthy German burghers could wipe their ass with papal polemic? Freud and his student Erikson built one totalizing theory, but yet another Teutonic prophet might provide another. I’m speaking of Marx of course, or at least a variety of Marxian materialist consideration. For it’s all good and easy to talk about feces as a transcendent abstraction, but excrement is not just a symbol. Shit is very much real. The material considerations of shit as waste – its color, its odor, its texture and the process by which it is produced – are precisely what make it such a potent object in both Reformation and Counter-Reformation rhetoric. Shit by any other name would smell just as foul. But when we talk about early modern Europe as being awash in shit, it’s helpful to remember that this refers not just to its representations, but its reality as well. Furthermore, when hypothesizing as to why there is such scatomania during the era, one might consider that the reality is precisely what led to the rhetoric. Economic, technological, and medical concerns are prime in understanding the manner in which an increasingly urbanized culture had to grapple with waste, both yours and others, in an unprecedented way. Hygiene (and its inadequacy) as well as plumbing (and its inadequacy as well) must have impacted the perseveration on excrement which is smeared across the historical record. After all, this was a century in which the English poet Ben Jonson, writing his mock heroic “On the Famous Voyage,” could sarcastically ponder that great urban thoroughfare of the Thames as a type of modern Styx and which the urban population explosion in London had turned into a massive toilet, a place of “filth, stench, and noise” were “Arses were heard to croak, instead of frogs” and where the floating, monstrous turds required “the unused valor of a nose.” Representations of waste as mediated through culture are one thing, but as the reality on the ground reminds us, actual shit very much happens.

So that then may explain some of Luther’s language of the latrine, that the whole world was his and everybody else’s toilet. Social historian Emily Cockayne explains that rather than being able to use the convenience of naturally running water, many early modern urban toilets had to often be “located above cesspits that needed to be emptied periodically,” making excrement something that people had to physically deal with rather than enjoy the convenience of simply flushing, for these “Cesspits were not watertight, enabling liquid waste to leak away.” With a lot more people in that world, Europe proverbially had gone to the shitter. Partially this was a direct result of the massive boom in population in the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries, as Europe rebounded from both plague and famine, and the development of nascent capitalism encouraged the massive transfer of people from the commons of the countryside into the chaotic world of the city. London, for example, had a population of only about 25,000 people in 1350 (making it a little under half the current size of booming Bethlehem, Pennsylvania). By 1546, the year Luther died, London had around 120,000 souls (and thus was closer in size to Allentown, Pennsylvania). By the end of the sixteenth-century, London’s population had risen to 200,000, and by the years of civil war she had half-a-million inhabitants. Wittenberg never reached such heights of population, today only 50,000 people call her home, and she had a reputation for a certain sleepiness even when Luther made that veritable backwater his base of operations. And yet even for the relative small size of such communities when compared to the megacities of today, their growth represented a veritable population explosion which was unprecedented, the biggest gathering of human bodies in European cities since the fall of the Roman Empire. But where there are people there are asses, and where there are asses there must be crap. And what to do with this crap becomes an issue of sanitation, hygiene, medicine, and plumbing, and where there are deficiencies in those endeavors it will by necessity be reflected in the language of the era, where shitty base must beget shitty superstructure.

There are so many theories we can formulate as to the origin of Luther’s strange obsession, with explanatory overtures to the psychoanalytical, the carnivalesque, and the materialist. But one perhaps obvious explanatory system has so far gone unremarked upon – the theological. After all, with his head in the heavens but with his ass on the toilet, how could the possibly theological disposition to his fecal obsession not be conjectured toward? When Luther’s scatological interests are mentioned – and I am but a single singer in a massive choir of those who’ve remarked upon it – it’s normally in the spirit of a type of jocular, bemused, perhaps slightly embarrassed commentary on the peccadillos of the great man. Luther’s bawdy prose is the stuff of the internet “Lutheran Insult Generator,” or of saucy memes shared by that one evangelical friend you have who likes craft-beer a little too much. Language that is taken as a given coming from a grosser, stinkier, more viscerally earthy time than our own. Rarely is Luther’s rhetoric of scatomania taken seriously on its own terms; to my knowledge never taken theologically seriously beyond the discourse analysis of its rhetorical efficacy in popularizing the Reformation amongst a bawdy peasantry.

But what is the theological significance of shit? It’s a question that Luther himself might not have quite thought to phrase, even if it pulses throughout his letters and pamphlets. Such a question might seem intemperate or lacking in seriousness, but though I don’t ask it without a bit of the spirit of toilet humor, I also ask it genuinely and honestly. After all, the scandal of Christianity has always been that Christ was incarnated as man, and died the indignant death of man. In between nativity and crucifixion He inevitably must have shit as well. To be offended by that reality is to be offended by Christianity, but to acknowledge that the living God is one who has to have shat is to embrace the living God. Christianity, in its Nicene form (and thus including both Catholicism and Protestantism) is a faith which grapples with the paradoxically ineffable corporeality of God, which must include acknowledgement of the basest of all things, a religion of “the least of these.” Peter Stallybrass and Allon White in their classic The Politics and Poetics of Transgression explain that “cultural categories of high and low, social and aesthetic… are never entirely separate.” And certainly cultural studies makes that abundantly clear, the entire tradition of the carnivalesque as vulgar pressure valve releasing social tensions and ensuring a type of order says as much. But cultural studies must always be the poor handmaiden to theology, for one could say that Christianity by its very incarnational logic ensures that the “high and low… are never entirely separate.” Writing about fecopoetics, critic Eileen Joy argues that “the excremental body is the body each one of us possesses,” which I would unironically argue must also be an observation of Christian universalism as well. Joy continues by claiming that “Part of our civilizing process is to recognize the value of that which we deem uncivilized and to see ourselves in that threatening, filthy alterity.” Conservative critics may scoff, but the critical work of fecopoetics has allowed for that “civilizing process” in the reading of literary texts, but where does theology ever do anything equivalent? Where is the corollary to fecopoetics, where is corpotheology? To pass over Luther’s fecal utterances in embarrassed laughter is to abandon one part of his inheritance, his gestures to an emerging but never quite delivered corpotheology. An early modern English saying had it that “he who wrestles with a turd is sure to be beshit,” an apt description of Luther’s career, but also not one that is intended to be an insult. Shitting, it should go without saying, is a rather central aspect of the human condition. If theology is that which simultaneously deals with the most profound of questions as they intersect with the human condition, to ignore shitting is gross negligence. A squeamishness Luther did not have, for salvation which doesn’t grapple with shit is no salvation at all. The rest of us it seems have found that where we are too embarrassed to speak, we have rather decided to pass over with a silent fart.

Ed Simon is the associate editor at The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, he holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University. He can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

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