Monday, January 13, 2014

Cursing in the Renaissance: Martin Luther Shows the Way

Martin Luther: master of Cursing in the Renaissance

When I think about the Renaissance, I think of beautiful art, the Age of Discovery, of Leonardo da Vinci and the Sistine Chapel. I did not know that it was a great era for swearing. Actually, I still don't know that for sure, but I do know that at least some people could curse up a storm, including the great reformer, Martin Luther. I know this because I'm still reading The History of Christianity by Paul Johnson. This is another post about the book, in what looks to be a series of them, because it is completely fascinating.

Anyway, Johnson is describing the period just before the Reformation, when scholars were still arguing about what should be reformed and how, and it turns out that they had some pretty nasty things to say to each other, which are also, in my mind, pretty funny. Thus, when Erasmus was attacked by the (later) Archbishop of York, Edward Lee, this was his supporters' rebuttal:
"You filth, if you do not beg forgiveness of Erasmus, I shall throw your name, like a piece of shit, across the frontiers of posterity, that people may remember your stench forever".
Now that, to me, is a great string of profanity. As Johnson puts it "This sort of exchange was the kind in which Luther and his opponents were now freely indulging: Luther invited Christendom to 'wash your hands in the blood of these cardinals and popes and other dregs of the Roman Sodom', while the Papists called for the execution of "that pestilential fart of Satan, whose stench reaches the heavens.'" Luther quickly feuded also with Erasmus (a wonderful man, who preached moderation and peace and will get a separate post), and called  him, "a snake", "a piece of shit", "insane destroyer of the church", and "inflamer of the base passions of young boys". Luther also claimed that he had seen Erasmus walking "arm in arm with the devil in Rome".

Actually, and upon further (internet) investigation, it seems that Luther was quite the potty-mouth. A site with Martin Luther quotes (many of them rabidly antisemitic), has him saying this about reason (from Martin Luther, Erlangen Edition v. 16, pp. 142-148):
Reason is the Devil's greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil's appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom ... Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is and she ought to be drowned in baptism... She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets.
Another site present excerpts from a book about Luther, claiming that:
The cesspool seems to have been the garden that furnished his choicest flowers of rhetoric. To be plainer still, "It is a fact," Fr. Johnston says, "that Luther's usual talk took its imagery most often from the privy. In this connection, perhaps, it is significant that Luther admitted that it was precisely in the privy of the monastery that he received from God the revelation of his famous doctrine about justification by faith alone. 'By the grace of God, while thinking on one occasion in this tower over those words, "The just man lives by faith alone," the Holy Ghost revealed the Scriptures to me in this tower.' Protestant biographers have naively attempted to show that this place was not the monastery toilet; but there is no reasonable doubt."
And finally, there is a hilarious site where someone took the trouble to compile dozens of Luther's worst curses so that the masochistic surfer can now press a button to "insult yourself". This is what it looks like:


If you feel like self-abusing or you're at a loss for dirty words, then check it out here.

In conclusion, I have no idea why people think that history is boring. We can learn many important lessons from the past, not the least of which is how to curse eloquently.

About the author
Joab Cohen is the author of the psychological thriller The Jewminator and
the vegan action hero novel Captain Tofu and the Green Team (coming soon!)

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