What were bad words in the Middle Ages? In her book, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, Melissa Mohr takes a look at curse words from the ancient Romans to the modern day. Like with many aspects of medieval society, the way they swore was much different than ours.
Focusing on medieval England, Mohr immediately recognizes that people back then did not have much of an issue with describing bodily functions in ways that we might find less appropriate. Going into a city you might find a street called ‘Shitwell Way’ or ‘Pissing Alley’. Open a school textbook for teaching children how to read and you might find the words arse, shit or fart. If you saw ants crawling around you would most likely call them ‘pisse-mires’. Even some names, like Rogerus Prikeproud or Thomas Turd, seem to have acceptable to medieval men and women. Mohr explains, “generally, people of medieval England did not share our modern concept of obscenity, in which words for taboo functions possess a power in excess of their literal meaning and must be fenced off from polite conversation…Medieval people were, to us, strikingly unconcerned with the Shit.”
Here are a couple of examples of words that we might not use when chatting with our parents, but seem to have been okay in a medieval setting
Sard – before the word fuck existed (it started to be used by the 15th century), sard was the word people in medieval England used to describe having sex. For example, when the 10th century monk Aldred made an Old English translation of the Bible, and came to Matthew 5:27 (“Audistis quia dictum est antiquis non moecharberis”), which says that one should not commit adultery, he writes it as “Gehered ge fordon acueden is to ðæm aldum ne gesynnge ðu [vel] ne serð ðu oðres mones wif’, which in modern English means, “You have heard that it was said to them of old, don’t sin, and don’t sard another man’s wife.”
Cunt – Mohr notes that during the Middle Ages, this was the word typically used to describe a woman’s vagina, even appearing in medical texts. If you were in town looking for a prostitute, you might get directed to Gropecuntelane. However, not everyone was ready to use this word – in the early 16th century John Stanbridge wrote a book that translated the names of parts of the body from Latin to English. While he did write about arse hole, piss and “a man’s yard (penis)” when it came to the term locus ubi puer concipitur, he writes it as “the place where a boy is conceived.”
While medieval people may have seen these words as somewhat impolite, they rarely found them obscene. Instead, they took it much more important when people swore oaths. Mohr explains, “these words were offensive for two reasons. Partly because from how sincere oaths were supposed to work, so when you swear sincerely what people in the Middle Ages believed they were doing was asking God to look down from heaven and guarantee that your were true and according to covenants he made with the people of the Bible he actually is almost required to do that.”
Therefore, if you swore false oaths, you were making God out to be a liar!
The second reason was that swearing was so important was that people believed if you would swear by God’s bones, or by Christ’s fingernails, you were actually affecting their bodies up in Heaven. Mohr notes, “to us it doesn’t make any sense.. but in makes sense as a sort of Catholic Eucharist, where a priest said some words and makes God’s physical body which he then breaks and eats, and shares among the congregation. And in swearing anybody could say these magic words that could tear Christ’s body part. So this was a kind of terrifying language that people were tremendously worried about, and so if you wanted to you insult someone or express joy or you stubbed your toe and wanted to relieve the pain, those were the words that you were going to use because they had this tremendous power.”
To learn more, see this video of Melissa Mohr talking about her book Holy Sh*t: