Parliamentary farts: some historical perspective on Canadian politics

There have been heated exchanges in the Canadian parliament this week over farts: indeed over usage of the mere word ‘fart’. How much – or little – has changed?

In seventeenth century England, one fart in the House of Commons achieved rare fame. This was the one emitted on 4 March 1607 by Sir Henry Ludlow, MP for the constituency of Wiltshire. The event was documented in one of the best loved poems of the entire century, ‘The Parliament Fart’. It begins:

Downe came grave auntient Sir John Crooke
And redd his message in his booke.
Fearie well, Quoth Sir William Morris, Soe:
But Henry Ludlowes Tayle cry’d Noe.

In couplet after witty couplet, ‘The Parliament Fart’ purports to record the reactions of members of parliament, in the process giving the reader a rich appreciation of this important site of community.

‘The Parliament Fart’ was not printed at the time it was written. It was considered as a ‘libel‘: a poem so directly and satirically engaged with contemporary characters and controversies as to be unprintable. But it was circulated very widely in the period’s vibrant culture of manuscript verse circulation, and it was eventually committed to the press in the latter half of the century, long after the poem’s subjects had died.

On the whole ‘The Parliament Fart’ is a gentle kind of libel. It was probably composed by a group of authors, centred on the outspoken parliamentarian Sir John Hoskyns and possibly also including John Donne. It most likely took shape as a tavern game, growing not only in the process of composition but also in that of circulation. Many of the men satirized in some versions of the poem were not even MPs in 1607.

But sensitive readers of the poem have also demonstrated satiric intent in its seemingly benign wit. Part of the poem’s purpose was to define the contours of the parliamentary community. That had its purely comic dimensions, such as in the recollection that Henry Ludlow’s family already held a place in the history of English flatulence, since ‘his Father farted the Session before’. The fart, retorts another MP, was therefore ‘entail’d from father to sonne’.

Other vignettes are more pointed. It was surely not insignificant that Ludlow’s fart interrupted a debate over a policy that the King held more dear than any – that of his proposed union of the kingdoms of Scotland and England – yet one that was loathed by many MPs. Moreover, at a time when freedom of speech in parliament was a hugely controversial issue, and MPs risked imprisonment in speaking out against the policies of King James, the fart became symbolic of ‘liberty’. Interestingly, Sir George More, Donne’s father-in-law, is positioned as a voice of conservatism:

Quoth Sir George Moore I thincke it be fitt
That wee this fart to the Serjant Committ.
Not soe quoth the Serjant lowe on his knees
Farts will breake prison but never pay fees.

The authors of the poem – including Hoskyns, who would suffer harsh imprisonment after the ‘Addled Parliament’ of 1614 – had good reason to envy the uncontainable expression of Henry Ludlow.

Michelle Rempel, the Canadian MP castigated for merely using the ‘f’ word, might well take comfort in the fact that parliamentary freedoms are now more assured in Western democracies. But these were hard-won, and the parliamentarians and satirists of the seventeenth century did much to win that battle. Maybe even Henry Ludlow participated, in his own particular way.