Oh, bugger!

Well, I was reading Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe, volume 3,(which is very much worth reading, by the way; it’s even more full of good stuff than the first few volumes, and has quite a few more dirty jokes) when I came across a discussion of the origin of the word “bugger.” Now, not many history books talk about this (it originates with the Albigensian heresy), but since Gonick doesn’t give the whole story, and since I’m avoiding work (I’m holding office hours right now, does it show?) I figured I would insert a discourse here on…

The origin of the word “bugger” is actually not only tied in with some interesting history, but it highlights early mass political movements and just why the church has been so opposed to “unnatural acts” in the past few hundred years.

The OED is beautifully vague about the meaning of the word, but it does give the correct etymology: “bugger” < MF "bougrer" < MF/LL "Bougre," a Bulgar.

Here's the story: In the 11th century or so, a heresy (the Albigensians, aka the Cathars, aka the Bulgars because of their place of origin) cropped up and started to spread across Europe like wildfire. The theological content of the heresy was that the material world was evil, a creation of the devil (and yes, this idea was recycled from the Gnostic concept of the Demiurge) and that Christ was never a material man, so his physical death on the cross was meaningless and the veneration of the symbol is idolatry.

OK, this is what theologians talked about, but the man in the street – and this was a movement of the poor, by the way – understood none of this. The politics of this was a response to the horrible economic situation, the rising gap between rich and poor (and when "rich" means "feudal lords" and "poor" means "serfs," this can get pretty extreme) combined with the increased ease of travel and communication between cities – after the peace treaties of the early 11c stopped most of the internal wars in Europe for a while, and everyone got together to fight Crusades against the Muslims, it was suddenly possible to move around in Europe, and a bunch of serfs were wondering just why they were chained down to their estates.

So the meaning of the heresy was this: First of all, the physical world is evil – not a surprising thing to think if you're an 11th-century serf, but it was in direct contradiction to what the Church was telling everyone, that this is exactly the way things are supposed to be, and that the current political setup is an Earthly mirror of a divine plan of rulership. Second, Christ was not physical – thus his death on the cross was not real – thus his investiture of Peter was meaningless as well, and so priests should have no authority over the souls of men.

Basically, this turned into a mass popular movement in which serfs and peasants of various sorts formed into giant groups and travelled across the countryside, acknowledging no authority of lords or priests, living essentially as mendicants (since they had no real employment) and generally screwing with the medieval economy. The Church obviously really didn’t like this, and they got wiped out in a particularly bloody manner. This was really the first major heresy war. (I should say that the Cathars turned very, very nuts towards the end, and got amazingly bloodthirsty themselves – nobody was very sorry to see them go by the end of this)

So anal sex mixes in to this because of another belief of the Cathars: Since the physical world is evil, to bring more things into the physical world is wrong. Phrased another way, the Cathars believed in birth control, something which the Church was fervently opposed to at the time because they needed people to do things like fight on the front lines against Vikings and Muslims and so on. Unlike some other heretical sects, who practiced abstinence, the Cathar doctrine suggested that nothing you do physically could be sinful – they preached free love and birth control, which in those days (pre-pill, pre-condoms of any useful sort) meant you just had to find another orifice.

Which is why the Cathars – or Bulgars – got associated with anal sex, and so the word “bougrer” entered the vernacular. So the next time you’re involved in anal sex, whether giving or receiving, just think back for a moment and remember that what you’re doing is one of the most radical acts of political protest against the power of the medieval church.

(Incidentally: I think that this may be the origin of the Church’s opposition to “unnatural acts.” Can anyone back or refute this statement?)

Published in: on October 13, 2002 at 11:19  Comments (21)  
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  1. Oh, my. What a wonderful, but entirely too surreal, history lesson for the morning. My goodness, Yony. You have seriously twisted sense of humor to be sharing such information and suggestions with innocents like me. 🙂

  2. Watch out for him, and be careful when walking by the Plug Place on Castro St., he tends to get strange ideas from there.

  3. I don’t know whether or not I should be intrigued and encourage it or to be terrified and to run for the hills.
    Hmmmm… been a lot time since I’ve been to Stormy Leathers…

  4. I should note that (I think) she’s referring to the used bookstore on the Castro St in Mountain View, which has a collection of somethings unidentifiable that look like glass butt-plugs in the window, and not the Castro St in the City, which I’m sure also has plug shops. 🙂

  5. Yeah, sorry for the confusion. Isn’t there a rule someplace that says you have to have a certain amount of distance between streets of the same name?
    Although, I think I’d be afraid walking past sex toy shops in SF C.St. with him . . . you’ve been warned! 😉

  6. Apparently, those little glass doohickeys used to be mounted on the tops of power lines – or possibly telephone poles. I’m not sure which – wait, they use the same poles don’t they? So, yeah, those things.
    Also, CHU v. 3? And here it only took him like ten years.
    They’re great books, although now that I know a little bit about the period, I have my doubts about some of his interpretations… and it’s a little too “kings and battles” for me.

  7. Office Hours
    When are your office hours, btw? I might drop in sometime.

  8. Eight years, I think. And yes, he does tend to focus a lot on kings and battles… he also skips a good deal. But considering the space constraints of the book, it’s a good job, and I have yet to catch him out on a historical error…

  9. Re: Office Hours
    2-3 Wednesday and 11-12 Sunday. Why, do you have physics questions? 🙂

  10. Ah-ha! I’m going to have to look for those do-hickey thingies next time I’m on Castro Street in Palo Alto. *grin*

  11. Oh, those things. Yeah, they’re high-voltage power line insulators.

  12. Ahh, yes. This is how we became friends in the first place – you with the most amusing tales of some of the most esoteric shit out there….

  13. Couple of points:
    1) according to most accounts, the Cathars did in fact preach abstinence. They just recognized that it wasn’t likely, and required it only for perfecti – not quite priests, but slightly more holy than Joe or Jane Cathar. So you could have sex, have kids, as long as you quit it if you felt like making the move up to perfectus. Most Cathar “believers” had families and children.
    2) the Albigensian heresy is also part of the decline of the power of the southern French nobility – at the time, the Languedoc (or Langue d’Oc, from their word for “yes”) region was culturally significantly different from northern France (the “Langue d’oil”). In the days before nationalism, religious schisms filled that niche. So, while ideas like “Armenia for the Armenians” weren’t commonly expressed, you could say things like “get these filthy Greek Orthodox heretics out of Armenia!”
    The southern French cathari were not exactly a working-class movement. The count of Foix’s wife was a cathar; Raymond VI got excommunicated twice for working with them. Some lords got involved because the Albigensian Crusade was clearly out of hand (Pedro II of Aragon is a good example of this), but others were probably Cathars, like the lord who commanded Terme. Cathars were no more all poor and un-materialist than Catholics are all meek and peaceful.
    Like most religious differences, this is only one aspect of a political and social conflict. Note that another lot of famous heretics, the Knights Templar, were controlled by knights from this part of the world.
    3) the Cathars and the mendicant movements of the high middle ages aren’t quite the same. While they may have been inspired by some of the same thinking, the Cathars appear to have been largely urbanites, not the destitute type. A roll call of the cities attacked by the Crusaders during the Albigensian crusades – cities sufficiently Cathar or Cathar-sympathetic to resist the Pope and the King of France – should serve to highlight this. Many Cathars were quite wealthy. Most plundering and craziness by mendicant groups like the Fraticelli took place in the late 13th or 14th century. Among the insults the church slung at these guys was certainly that they were Cathars or Cathar-like, but they weren’t suppressed with anything like the effort or the brutality that went into rooting out the Cathari. This is probably because they were so poor; they had nothing for Simon de Montfort to bootjack.
    4) Whether the Cathars were really all about the butt-sex is another tough one; it’s entirely possible that their association with it comes from the church trying to discredit them by suggesting that they were homosexuals – which strikes me as the pot calling the kettle black a little bit. As to where the church’s opposition to homosexuality comes from, it’s a good question. The church, of course, used to be opposed to sex in general, and has always held that sex is about procreation, which would naturally tend to rule out many forms of intercourse. I’ve heard it said that the church’s prohibitions against homosexuality are relatively recent, but equally I’ve never heard of it being tolerated in anything other than isolated areas for short periods.

  14. Well, he makes tons of errors, like treating the Bible as if its events actually took place, but he acknowledges them, which is cool enough.
    The thing that particularly gravelled me was his account of the “fall of the status of women” in book 1. It’s, um, highly speculative.

  15. But what are they doing in the window of a used-bookstore then? And why are they pretty colors? And why are they ridged for his/her pleasure?

  16. Dear, you’re a little pervert, and I love you! *smooch* Keep posting kewl etymologies! (I’ll do the entomologies, okay?)_

  17. It should be noted that when the Templars were in the process of being discredited, they were also accused of sodomy… I think it’s like the church’s favorite trump card when trying to stamp out people they don’t like. But there is the long standing biblical prohibition against sodomy (as well as bestiality, and cooking meat with milk), the church just appears to have liked that one well enough to keep it.

  18. Yeah… I noticed that too, and sort of filtered it out. Ever since the 70’s there’s just been a thread of that sort of thinking in anthropology that I’ve tried to mostly ignore… but once he gets into areas for which there is significant textual backing, he’s quite good.
    And while he treats the Bible as factual, as you said he notes clearly the issues with that, and treats it critically; and after all, he does the same for the Illiad…

  19. This is all very true, and I should know better than to post and gloss over points like this. 🙂
    OK, more carefully: The Cathars definitely were a large-scale phenomenon with some very powerful political backing, ultimately those people who would profit from a decline in the power of the various lords and so on which the mobs opposed. But ultimately they did attract large populist followings, in the sense that many of the large mobs that went across the countryside identified themselves as Catharist; what the theologians would have thought of this was another matter. It’s these mobs who ultimately led to the word bugger, rather than the nobles. (AFAIK)
    The “perfecti” were a popular notion among the Cathars, and to me it sounds like Donatism revisited; perfect priests who by virtue of their spiritual level were entitled to grant absolution etc in ways which ordinary priests (by Catharist ideology) couldn’t. But of course the bulk of the populace wanted nothing to do with this, and to the mobs freed from the constraints of their ordinary lives (what one of my profs would call a “liminal environment”) celibacy certainly wasn’t going to be sold…
    But the extent to which they actually practiced buggery is, in fact, a mystery. They were certainly accused of it often enough, and general sexual libertinism seems to have been the word of the day among the mobs, but their association to a particular orifice is difficult to document.
    On the subject of Church opposition to homosexuality, though, I can suggest a source: The “Book of Paradise” (I can dig up the editor etc somewhere) is a handbook of how to be a good ascetic monk, written in chunks from the 4th through the 10th centuries, and is basically two volumes of stories of various great ascetics. Since most of the text is concerned with their temptations and avoidances of sin, it seems like a good place to check what sorts of sins are most forbidden. So one day I got very bored and went through the text and surveyed for this… homosexual and heterosexual intercourse are railed against with more or less equal frequency, and interestingly in more or less identical language. No particular tropes of condemnation emerged which were unique to either. I think this is good evidence that the people who were writing this text (who represented both the most extreme ascetics in Christianity, for the 4th-century writers, up to much more moderate monastics for the 10th-century texts) didn’t see much of a difference.
    (Actually, the big temptation that got the most text space – by something like a factor of two – was monks being tempted by food. I guess that’s not so surprising for people who are living in caves and eating grass or what-not. Some of those early ascetics were nucking futs.)

  20. The “perfecti” were a popular notion among the Cathars, and to me it sounds like Donatism revisited; perfect priests who by virtue of their spiritual level were entitled to grant absolution etc in ways which ordinary priests (by Catharist ideology) couldn’t. But of course the bulk of the populace wanted nothing to do with this, and to the mobs freed from the constraints of their ordinary lives (what one of my profs would call a “liminal environment”) celibacy certainly wasn’t going to be sold…
    This is, of course, almost-but-not-quite what Catholicism has: an elite group of holy men and women who don’t succumb to the temptations of the flesh. Now it used to be (as late as the 11th c., and I suspect later) that the official Church view was that the life of a monk was the desirable thing, and that the laity were weaklings and sinners and so forth for not having the resolve to not have sex. Again, this was the church thinkers talking, and probably didn’t affect the way parish priests and so on acted. It wasn’t really until the late 11th c. that the church really hit upon a good way for lay people to participate in the life of the church. This was, of course, by participating in the First Crusade, and it’s a mark of how much a need for this was felt that you then get these so-called “People’s Crusades” (which probably contained a lot of knights, actually, but I’m on a roll here)which are, in a lot of ways, very similar to the marauding bands of peasants and so on you get in Italy in the 14th c.
    All of which is by the way, of course; the big difference between the Cathar perfecti and Catholic priests (I don’t think the perfecti conducted services, but they were clearly seen as being the “spiritual leaders”) is that the perfecti rely on their personal holiness, while of course priests rely on their ordination. A priest can be the worst sinner in the world, but still give sacraments, because his personality doesn’t affect his juju. This is another common feature between the Cathari and the wandering-mob types: one of the “errors” of the heretical groups who arose from the Spiritual Franciscans was to claim that priests who were in a state of sin could not effectively give sacraments.
    I think this is good evidence that the people who were writing this text (who represented both the most extreme ascetics in Christianity, for the 4th-century writers, up to much more moderate monastics for the 10th-century texts) didn’t see much of a difference.
    Yeah, for monks. For lay people? Even “moderate monastics” don’t think that monks are supposed to have sex.
    ultimately those people who would profit from a decline in the power of the various lords and so on which the mobs opposed.
    I don’t know about that… in many cases, these are the immediate temporal lords of the Cathar population. I really don’t think southern French Catharism was the kind of populist movement you describe. It seems to have been very strong among the urban middle class, and to have included a lot of lords (mind you, everybody’s always willing to believe that they’re poor and oppressed, no matter how wealthy they are – and the rich probably hated getting their money jacked by the Pope as much as the poor). The lines weren’t always fixed, either: Raymond VI (all counts of Toulouse are called Raymond) started out with the Crusade, then switched sides, Pedro II started out trying to mediate, then jumped in. I don’t doubt that there were elements of populism and anti-clericalism, but I think that the Albigensian heresy is more complex than that, involving among other things the search for a distinctive religious expression of the cultural identity of Languedoc.

  21. the thing is, of course…
    that the history of Catharism and its associated heresies are long and varied. Like any religious movement, it was a lot of different things to a lot of different people. So you can say “Catharism was a popular movement related to changes in the conditions of the rural poor” and I can say “Catharism was a result of the search for an alternative to the Catholic church which satisfied a southern French desire for cultural autonomy,” and both of these things can be true, but neither of them tells the whole story.
    Jesus. Replying to my own posts.

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