Parody and Obsession: Confusing on the Internet and in the mid-18th Century
Samuel Rolleston was a clergyman in southeastern England
from the 1730s until 1766.
But today he's best known for his surprisingly strong and detailed
opinions about defecating and urinating in public.
Rolleston's best-known writing is a two-part short book published in 1751,
"A philosophical dialogue concerning decency".
It's a fictional dialogue between the narrator, standing in for the
author, and two friends of philosophical mindsets.
They discuss, in detail, how most people want privacy for
the natural and necessary acts of urinating and, especially, defecating.
That sets him up for the second part,
"A critical and historical dissertation on places of retirement
for necessary occasions, Together With an Account of the Vessels and Utensils
in use amongst the Ancients, being a Lecture read before a
Society of Learned Antiquaries".
Internet culture credits Nathan Poe with Poe's Law,
stating that it is impossible to create a parody of extreme views
so obviously exaggerated that some readers won't mistake it
for a sincere expression of the views being parodied.
Poe is credited for writing that in 2005,
but the USENET posting
"Emily Post for Usenet"
had, in 1983, already described the need to clearly mark online
sarcasm or parody to avoid confusion.
on Toilet Paper
François Rabelais was writing satire on a wide variety of topics
in the 1500s.
But this was Rabelais, he was well known as a satirist.
He didn't have to include smiley faces or otherwise warn that a
piece was satire or parody.
Samuel Rolleston's analyses of toilet habits aren't clearly marked as
either serious or satire.
But they're so detailed, and kooky in places, that you suspect that they
very well may be satire or some other form of intentional absurdity.
Rolleston was a Canon of Salisbury Cathedral
in southeastern England.
He served as Archdeacon of Sarum from 12 July 1732 until his death in 1766.
His profession doesn't help us straighten this out.
He's a clergyman, so it must be a serious (if rather odd)
He's a clergyman, so it must be satire because otherwise
it's a strange fixation!
The main body of Salisbury cathedral was built between 1220 and 1258.
Since 1549 its 123-meter spire has been the tallest in the UK.
It has the largest cloister and cathedral close in Britain,
one of the oldest working clocks in the world,
and the best of the four original copies of the Magna Carta.
Salisbury is the modern town, but it's long-established.
The old settlement was Sarum.
There was a Norman cathedral there from 1092 to 1220,
established after William the Conqueror defeated the English forces
in 1066 and became the new ruler.
Old Sarum, later renamed Salisbury, was enclosed by a sturdy wall.
Long ago it expanded outside that wall, to the point that Old Sarum is
now on the north edge of town, on the way to Stonehenge.
The Bishop of Sarum and the military garrison did not get along,
and the Bishop obtained royal permission to move his seat about two
kilometers south to his estate at Merryfield.
The settlement that immediately began growing there
came to be called New Sarum.
They started disassembling the old cathedral and hauling the stones
to New Sarum, today's Salisbury, in 1220.
Far older, the Neolithic site of Stonehenge
is only 11 kilometers northwest of Sarum.
Neolithic people started building monuments there around 3100 BCE,
but four and possibly five large postholes dating back to 8000 BCE
in the Mesolithic have recently been found there.
A Philosophical Dialogue Concerning Decency
Read it online
Let's take a look at what Rolleston had to say.
First, from his
"A philosophical dialogue concerning decency".
There are copies at some libraries, the
shows six, all in the midwestern United States:
at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
Indiana University in Bloomington,
the University of Chicago Library and Newberry Library in Chicago,
and Andrews University and Hillsdale College, both in Michigan.
Two gentlemen, Philoprepon and Eutrapelus, are visiting their friend,
a doctor of divinity, at his home in the country.
They are returning from a long hike, on a public road along an
open field, when the gripes or an urgent need to void his bowels
comes over him.
Philoprepon and Eutrapelus, two Gentlemen of very
good sense and a great deal of learning came last May
to my house in the country to spend ten or twelve days
with me. One evening we went for a walk to pass a
way a couple of hours before Supper. As we were returning,
and about two miles from my house I was violently seiz'd upon
an open down, where there is a publick road, with the gripes
attended with a necessity of going to stool. Oh these horrid
gripes! (said I) they plague me every day of my life. I wish I
was now at home; that I might ease myself in the neat apartment
I have lately made in my garden; for I hate to do such
things in publick, and I think, Philoprepon, I have heard you
say that you cannot even make water if you think any one looks
upon you — Very modest indeed! (says Eutrapelus) surely.
Le grippe is the French term for influenza,
it has been used some in English writing.
The gripes, however,
is an outdated term for
intermittent severe bowel pain.
Here's the result of asking the Google Books
to plot the use of the terms gripes and diarrhea
in the 2012 British English corpus over the years 1600 through 2000.
Google Book ngrams viewer comparing use of the gripes versus
diarrhea in British English books over the period 1600-2000.
Rolleston was writing this around 1750, as the use of the gripes
was starting its climb to a peak around 1780.
US CDC on pandemic influenza
Wikipedia: List of epidemics
There was a significant influenza pandemic in 1729-1730 and 1732-1733,
maybe two very close together or maybe one with a long-delayed recurrance.
That one was first detected in Russia and spread west and south into
The next started in the Americas in 1761 and spread from there to Europe
and then on around the world in 1762.
This one arrived in the middle of the Enlightenment, and was the first
to be studied by multiple observers who communicated with each other
in learned societies and through medical journals and books.
Then one started in 1780 in Southeast Asia, and spread to Russia
and on west into Europe through 1782.
It had extremely high attack rates but negligible mortality;
it's thought that the slight bump in excess deaths was due to
overly enthusiastic blood-letting by physicians.
The terminology had shifted
by the time of the 1918-1919 world-wide H1N1 pandemic,
and diarrhea had replaced the gripes.
As for the larger diarrhea peak around 1980,
I have no idea.
Back to Rolleston's tale.
contrasting our attitudes about our need to eat and drink
with our attitudes about our need to excrete.
Gentlemen, the necessities of nature must be attended to; and nature
requires us to empty, as well as it does to fill. And therefore I
do not see why we should give ourselves any uneasiness, when
we are seen to do one, more than when we are seen to do the
other, especially if the necessity is urgent.
Our narrator is interested, but can't stay and talk.
Well (said I)
Gentlemen, I cannot hold out — or rather I should say,
hold in any
longer. If you will walk gently on, I shall soon overtake you.
My business will soon be done, for, as they say in the schools,
nihil violentum est diuturnum.
Our narrator has finished his business and catches up to his friends,
and they continue walking and talking.
Philoprepon thanks him, although "almost" is not the appropriate word:
By this time I was just got up to them, and Philoprepon
immediately said to me — your accident. Sir, has almost
led Eutrapelus and me into a philosophical dispute. He and I seem to
differ about the foundation of modesty; or decency or more
properly shame; which I think is truly founded in nature.
Eutrapelus is a relativist.
He is inspired by the classic Greek philosopher Diogenes, who famously
contended that anything that can be done lawfully,
can be done lawfully in public.
Diogenes and his followers notoriously defecated in the theatre and
masturbated in the marketplace, which is a real commitment to a philosophy.
Eutrapelus then cites some examples of peculiar non-English people:
I have read in some or other of the ancient
Geographers of a people call'd (if I remember the name right)
Mossynians somewhere in Asia, who were us'd to copulate in
the publick streets without any manner of ceremony. And
they were not the only nation in the world, who did the same,
tho' I cannot at present recollect the names of any other.
Well, he cites without really citing.
An advantage of this style of writing is that you can state whatever
you want as absolute fact, and blame the complete lack of support
on the faulty memory of a character.
And, of course, there's bawdy Greek public activity:
And you know there was a considerable sect of philosophers, very
shrewd ones too, who ridicul'd all this kind of modesty and
shamefacedness, which you stand up for. Crates, who was
one of them, and Hipparchia his wife consummated their nuptials
in a public portico at Athens, who were both of them remarkable
for their good sense and understanding.
And the Adamites, whoever they were:
I have read somewhere of a sect of Christians,
call'd Adamites, who were so far from thinking nakedness indecent,
or being asham'd of it, that they thought, that, whenever
they approach'd the divine being, they ought to pull off every
rag of their clothes, men and women together, and appear stark
naked. Whether they endeavour'd to prove this to be right
from scripture or no, I cannot say, nor do I know in what author
I have read of them.
Stonehenge, 11 kilometers northwest of Sarum.
And, the Dutch:
I have known an old woman in Holland set herself on the next
hole to a Gentleman, and civilly offer him her mussel shell by
way of scraper after she had done with it herself. Thus you
know it is no indecency for a man in the streets, and even
before women, to turn his face against the wall, and do what it
would be reckon'd very immodest in any Lady to do, how loaded
and uneasy soever she might be. Now if this shame or modesty
be founded in nature, why should not a man be asham'd
of such a thing as well as a woman.
Philoprepon, on the other hand, is on the side of propriety.
He says that our natural modesty regarding excretion comes
from a universal taboo on public sex.
(And pay no attention to Crates and Hipparchia in the public portico at Athens)
Philoprepon spins this in a positive light as "a love of decency",
but of course he explains this through speculations on indecency.
Men by seeing women, and women by seeing men in those circumstances
and in such a situation would have their passions rais'd and might
sometimes by suddenly hurry'd by the violence of their lust,
thus set on fire, to break the laws of nature, and to do what in
cooler thoughts they would judge iniquitous and wicked. In short,
without the decency I am speaking of there would be an end of all
continence and chastity; rapes, fornication, adultery, and all
uncleanness would appear at noon day, and be common in our publick
streets. I think there can be no dispute that nature dictates to
us, that we prevent these things if possible, and therefore the
giving encouragement to them is contrary to nature.
On it goes, disparaging the dirty foreigners:
... This was the reason why the Jews were order'd, when
in camp, if they wanted to ease themselves, to go out of the
camp and dig a hole for that purpose and then cover it. The
great legislator did all he could to keep that nasty people clean. ...
The Mossinians mention'd by Eutrapelus were a filthy,
illbred people, and dispis'd by all others; ...
On the other side are some barbarous, rude nations,
or some contemptible, impudent, unmannerly philosophers.
Our narrator wraps up this discussion, generally siding with
the moralistic Philoprepon but delaying any presentation of
his reasoning until his lecture to the Society of Learned Antiquaries.
We all agree in this (I'm persuaded) that decency with respect to
the points treated of is in itself quite reasonable and therefore
agreeable to nature; that the contrary is unreasonable and would be
productive of very bad and mischievous effects — I am sure that
I am greatly oblig'd to you both for my entertainment; and I would at any
time bear a fit of the gripes if I thought it would end so well.
The subject has been more diverting to me than you can imagine,
and your discourse will be of more use to me than you
You know that I belong to a club of Antiquarians at which
by turns we read lectures once a fortnight upon some point of
Antiquity — I have had some time by me a dissertation
upon the antiquity of boghouses, closestools, and other
vessels used for the reception of human excrements — this
I design'd to read at our
next meeting. Now I hope I shall be able to recollect what you
two have said; and if you will but tell me what was said while
I staid behind, I will put it all together, which will compleat the
dialogue; and I will add some passages from ancient authors for
the illustration of what is said. This will serve very well as an
introduction to my dissertation.
A Critical and Historical Dissertation &c.
The lecture is the slightly longer section of the book, some 23 more pages.
He begins by expressing astonishment at the lack of
earlier explorations of the topic.
I cannot find, by the list of all the learned lectures which have
been read before this ingenious society, that this subject has been
ever handled, which I very much wonder at.
And I must say that I have not in the whole
course of my studies met with any dissertation written upon this
subject, which is as worthy of our consideration as any point of
Well, I certainly understand his point.
There isn't much written on toilets, or "places of retirement for necessary
options, vessels, and utensils" as he puts it.
But it is a topic that belongs in anthropology, archaeology,
history, and so on.
Or just weird web sites like this one.
Woodhenge is a henge and timber circle monument 3.2 km north-east of
The timber monument was built before the earthworks,
which were built around 2470-2000 BCE, about the same time or slightly
later than the stone circle at Stonehenge.
It is on the southern side of Durrington Walls, a large Neolithic settlement
that may have been the largest settlement in northern Europe for a while
within about 2800-2100 BCE.
Power and Privacy
On he goes, explaining how he has found a reference to
"a place set apart for this purpose" in the book of Judges
in the Jewish Bible.
Power and Privacy
page on this site explains the toilet-borne assassination of the
Moabite King Eglon, some time soon after 1380 BCE.
Defiling Ba'al's Shrine
He continues, with a great many Biblical and Classical references,
from the theorized necessary houses of the book of Genesis,
to Ehud's assassination,
to Jewish hygienic law,
to the desecration of Ba'al's altar,
to the supposed derivation of bog house from the Hebrew,
and then a jump to the Greeks and Romans.
He claims that Constantinople, especially near the mosques, has
"a great number of necessary houses which in their language they
call adepkana or the house of shame.
that would be utanç evi or similar.
Maybe this was Persian adep khane or similar from before the
Turkish language reform
of the 1900s.
Then he jumps back in time to Herodotus, and his mention of what he
believes to be chamber pots for urine.
And from there, deeper and deeper into the etymology of toilet terminology.
Fact or fiction?
Satire or obsession?
Good luck figuring it out.
Samuel Rolleston's second-best-known book is his
A dissertation concerning the origin and antiquity of barley wine.
It might be a little easier to understand.