Saturday, October 14, 2006


Mempirium and Gumphus

In chap. 10 (Toilet Papers and Other Abstergents) of his magisterial Merde: Excursions in Scientific, Cultural, and Sociohistorical Coprology (New York: Random House, 1999), Ralph A. Lewin states (p. 75):
In medieval times, when paper was less abundant than it is at present, many people had to resort to whatever came to hand, such as hayballs (which Reynolds [1943] refers to as "mempiria," though I cannot find this word in any Latin dictionary) or little wooden sticks (which the Japanese called sutegi).
Reynolds is a reference to Reginald Reynolds, Cleanliness and Godliness; or, The Further Metamorphosis. A Discussion of the Problems of Sanitation Raised by Sir John Harington, together with Reflections upon Further Progress Recorded since that Excellent Knight, by his Invention of the Metamorphosed Ajax, Father of Conveniences, Revolutionised the System of Sanitation in this Country but Raised at the Same Time Fresh Problems for Posterity which are Discussed in All their Implications, with Numerous Digressions upon All Aspects of Cleanliness. Reynold's learned treatise, at once amusing and serious, has been published at least three times -- London, G. Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1943; Garden City: Doubleday, 1946; and New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976. In the 1976 edition, the word mempirium is discussed on p. 306. Reynolds refers to certain remarks of his "friend the Antiquarian":
What, he says, have you no note on the use of mempiria, those balls of hay with which our mediaeval ancestors completed their toilet? Surely you are familiar with those instructive hexameters upon this subject, where the notable line is found:
Dum paro mempirium, sub gumpho murmurat anus?
The word appears in Du Cange's Glossarium Mediae et Infimae Latinitatis, under the spelling memperium, with a reference to Glos. Lat. Gal. Bibl. Insul. E.36 (15th century), where it is glossed as Torchon de cul.

There are three works cited in R.E. Latham et al., Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (London: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 1975 ff.), s.v. memperium: John of Garland's Dictionarius; T. Wright and R.P. Wülcker, Anglo-Saxon and Old-English Vocabularies, 2 vols. (1884); and Catholicon Anglicum (1483). Latham et al. suggest that memperium is probably derived from manupiarium (itself from manus + piare + -arium). In Latham et al. s.v. gumphus, we find Reynold's verse, with a reference to Wright and Wülcker's Vocabularies. One of the glosses of gumphus, from Catholicon Anglicum, is a sege of a priuay, i.e. the chaise percée, which gives a meaning suitable for the Latin Dum paro mempirium, sub gumpho murmurat anus ("While I get the wiper ready, my arse roars beneath the privy seat").

This solves half of the mystery. The Latin word mempirium (with various spellings) does appear in medieval dictionaries. But I could find no evidence that hay is the material from which mempirium is made.

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