By God’s Bones: Medieval Swear Words

What were bad words in the Middle Ages? Cursing or swearing in medieval England was really different from today’s world.

Some historians have looked into the topic, such as Melissa Mohr, the author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing. In her chapter on medieval England, Mohr explains 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 medieval textbook to teach reading to children 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 been 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.”

Even the word ‘fuck’ first appears in medieval England as a name. Records from the year 1310 refer to a man named Roger Fuckebythenavele who lived in Chester – see The earliest use of the F-word


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, 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. Perhaps it was only when the word vagina came into use – the earliest reference to the word only dates back to the year 1612 – that the medieval word becomes viewed as obscene.

Pintel, tarse, and ʒerde – Mohr notes that there were several words in medieval England for penis, some of which date back at least to the turn of the 11th century. Slang and nicknames for penis seem to have been very common throughout the medieval world – for example, a 15th-century Arabic book called The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight offers over thirty such nicknames, including The Spitter, The One-Eyed, and The Flabby One.


Offensive words and insults in the Middle Ages

While medieval people may have seen these words as somewhat impolite, they rarely found them obscene. Instead, they to upset when people swore false oaths. Mohr explains:

these words were offensive for two reasons. Partly because of 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 you 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 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.

There were also words that were insults in medieval England – we know people got upset about them because they sued and made complaints in court against those who said them. For example, in 1496 Edward Harrison accused his neighbour Elizabeth Whyns of saying, “Thou art a false man and false harlot to me.”

In her guide, 300+ Dirty, Sexy Words for Historical Writers, Danièle Cybulskie notes several words that were used as insults in medieval England, including bitch, turd, whore and whoreson. Meanwhile, the word bastard, which referred to an illegitimate child, did not become the insult as we know it until the 17th century.


This look at bad words in medieval England does reveal much about how language has changed, and how words take on different meanings as time goes on. Medieval and modern people would have different understandings of what was obscene and wrong to say.

Top Image: British Library MS Additional 42130, f.60r