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12 Scholarly Takes on Whether or Not the 13th Century Song "Sumer is Icumen in" Is About Deer Farts

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Scholars argue about the darndest things. Some debate big, thorny questions: the ethics of human gene editing, the mind-body problem, God. Others rock the boat by probing more esoteric subjects, like the meaning of medieval song lyrics. Especially lyrics that may reference deer farts.

“Sumer is Icumen in,” or the “Cuckoo Song,” is one of the oldest songs in the English language. Composed around the 1260s, the piece joyously rings in the arrival of warmer weather. It’s been popular in England for centuries: It is the first entry in Richard Thompson’s album 1000 Years of Popular Music; it has been the subject of countless parodies (including a doozy by Ezra Pound); and it was sung by hundreds of performers during the opening ceremonies of the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Its staying power is no mystery. Just listen! It’s a jaunty earworm that burrows into your brain.

Sumer is icumen in (Summer has come in)
Lhude sing cuccu (Loudly sing, cuckoo!)
Groweþ sed (Seeds are growing)
And blowe med (The meadow is blooming)
And springþ þe wde nu (And wood growth is new)
Sing cuccu (Sing cuckoo!)
Awe bleteþ after lomb (The ewe bleats after her lamb)
Ihouþ after calue cu (The cow lows after her calf)
Bulluc sterteþ (The bull leaps)
Bucke uerteþ (The buck farts (?)/cavorts (?))
Murie sing cuccu (Merrily sing cuckoo)
Cuccu cuccu (cuckoo, cuckoo)
Wel singes þu cuccu (Well sing you, cuckoo!)
Ne swik þu nauer nu (Never stop now)
Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu (Sing, cuckoo, now. Sing, cuckoo)
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu (Sing, cuckoo. Sing cuckoo)

The trouble with Middle English poems is that a morass of archaic spellings and defunct words makes understanding each line difficult. For over 100 years, multiple scholars fired shots over the meaning of “Sumer is Icumen in,” and one controversy came to the fore: Does the "summer anthem" of 1260 contain a lyric about a deer ... farting? (We should also point out that another controversy is whether the “Bucke” mentioned is a deer or a goat, but the current consensus seems to tend toward deer.)

We dug up the academic papers, flipped through a few old reference books, and kept score on the debate. And while the debate may seem a bit silly, it’s a delightful example of the difficulties involved with translating Middle English—and a testament to the lengths to which scholars will go to get things right.

1. GREGORY H. ROSCOW // SCHOLAR OF OLD AND MIDDLE ENGLISH LITERATURE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF KEELE

“What more is there to say? The only crux is the word uertep … [I]s it 'farts' or something less earthy?”

(Points to both for uncertainty.) Team Farts: 1; Team Cavorts: 1  

2. THEODORE SILVERSTEIN // SCHOLAR OF MEDIEVAL LITERATURE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO

“The one crux in the text is the meaning of 'uerteth' in line 10, which all current editors gloss as ‘breaks wind.’ Such joy! … It is tempting, however, in the absence of contrary evidence, to ask whether this is not an early example of ‘vert’ meaning ‘to paw up’ or ‘to twist’ or ‘turn’ ... With respect then, may we not suggest ‘bullock leaps, buck cavorts.’”

Team Farts: 1; Team Cavorts: 2.

3. CARLETON F. BROWN // PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH LITERATURE AT BRYN MAWR COLLEGE

In his book English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century, Brown defines “uerten” as “break wind.”

Team Farts: 2; Team Cavorts: 2.

4. THE OXFORD ANTHOLOGY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE

Verteth means either “‘jumps, twists,’ from the Latin vertere, to turn, or ‘breaks wind, farts’; probably the former.”

Team Farts: 2; Team Cavorts: 3.

5. THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY

The OED cites “The Cuckoo Song” as the first example of the verb “to fart” in the English language.

Team Farts: 3; Team Cavorts: 3.

6. THEODORE HOEPFNER // SCHOLAR OF MIDDLE ENGLISH AT ALABAMA POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE (NOW AUBURN UNIVERSITY)

“It is easy to play sheep and follow the big ram over the cliff, letting the poor shepherd grieve and cry 'No!' afar off, and scholars do this in their explications of the phrase 'bucke verteth' in ‘Sumer is Icumen in.’ … [T]he word 'verteth' is derived not from the [Oxford English Dictionary’s] Old English 'feortan,' but from the Latin 'vertere,' to turn … frisks, cavorts, and prances ... I do not doubt that ‘verteth’ could be a south-of-England variant of 'farteth,' so far as its spelling is concerned, but not even the [Oxford English Dictionary], much less the array of anthologists, proves that this is true.”

Team Farts: 3; Team Cavorts: 4.

7. HUNTINGTON BROWN // SCHOLAR OF OLD ENGLISH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA

“Has [Hoepfner] never seen an ass or a colt in a pasture kick up his heels and heard him at the same time discharge a resounding salute from the fundamental orifice? Is it improbable that a stag in a deer park should manifest his well being in the same fashion? The explosion of energy in the combination of kick and crepitation is common enough among the larger four-footed beasts both in life and in literature.”

Team Farts: 4; Team Cavorts: 4.

8. ARTHUR K. MOORE // PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY

“The older anthologists sometimes made ludicrous attempts to gloss 'buck uerteth' in a way tolerable to Victorian sensibilities. Most recent editors have recognized what every farm boy knows—that quadrupeds disport themselves in the spring precisely as the poet has said. To the fourteenth century, the idea was probably inoffensive.”

Team Farts: 5; Team Cavorts: 4.

9. ESTON EVERETT ERICSON // SCHOLAR OF MIDDLE ENGLISH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA CHAPEL HILL

“Editorial prudishness has kept that fine little Middle English poem, the Cuckoo Song, out of many a school-book, all because the old poet was familiar with English barn-yards and meadows and in his poem recalled those sights and sounds. He knew that bullocks and bucks feel so good in the springtime that they can hardly contain themselves.”

Team Farts: 6; Team Cavorts: 4.

10. JOHN S. KENYON // PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AT HIRAM COLLEGE

“I venture to add corroboratory word to Mr. Ericson’s able and sane comments on ‘verteth’ in the ‘Cuckoo Song.’”

Team Farts: 7; Team Cavorts: 4.

11. JOHN TYREE FAIN // PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA

“[C]ommentators ... are building up a little literature around the flatulent buck of the old spring song…”

Team Farts: 8; Team Cavorts: 4.

12. HANS PLATZER // SCHOLAR OF ENGLISH HISTORICAL LINGUISTICS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF VIENNA

In 1995, Platzer wrote a 21-page paper called “On the Disputed Reading of ‘Uerteth’ in the ‘Cuckoo Song’” in the journal Neuphilologische Mitteilungen. It’s impossible to distill Platzer’s masterpiece to a single quote. But take our word for it: It’s a passionately detailed argument that surveys the etymological, phonological, and semantic history of words nobody has used in centuries—all in an effort to prove Team Farts wrong. We’re going to arbitrarily award Team Cavorts three points because it’s such an impressive Hail Mary pass.

FINAL SCORE

Team Farts: 8; Team Cavorts: 7.

Aye, the farts appear to have it. Literature, after all, is ripe with references to the intestine’s southerly winds. Chaucer’s "The Miller’s Tale" pokes fun at a man who’s “squaimous [squeamish] of fartng.” The dramatist John Heyward wrote, quite poetically, “What wind can there blow that doth not some man please? A fart in the blowing doth the blower ease.” Even Ben Johnson joined the fun. The second line of Act I in The Alchemist is: “I fart at thee.”

But to see where a living expert stood on the debate, I asked Rosemary Greentree, an expert in Middle English who has written on the fart-cavort controversy, where she stood. She leans toward Team Cavorts. “Verteth does seem to be a verb of motion,” she wrote in an email. “Certainly all the creatures mentioned are bounding about in warm spring sunshine and generally enjoying the new season.”

Yet, Greentree admits the word does raise eyebrows. “The idea of ‘farteth’ cannot be unthought,” she said. Rather, it’s possible that both sides have a point—perhaps the usage is a double entendre? “I still think that we are meant to think of all the meanings and laugh at all of them,” she said.

There you have it. Tie ballgame. If there are any Middle English experts, musicologists, or medieval lyric lovers who smell something fishy and would like to chime in, we’d be happy to update the score.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
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Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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