On 4 March 1607, Sir Henry Ludlow, sitting in the English House of Commons representing the constituency of Wiltshire, farted. Since there is no formal record of parliamentary proceedings in early Stuart England, we are dependent for our knowledge of this interjection upon a poem. This poem, ‘The Censure of the Parliament Fart’, or, more simply, ‘The Parliament Fart’, consists of rhyming tetrameter couplets, most of which centre upon the imagined reactions of particular members of the House to Ludlow's fart. While extant manuscript versions vary considerably in length, and it seems that some collectors were adding couplets many years after the event, some of the more reliable copies run to just over two hundred lines. Despite this length, which is unusual in the culture of manuscript circulation of the seventeenth century, it was very widely circulated, both at its time of composition and in subsequent decades. Michelle O'Callaghan, who has edited the most authoritative version, has identified forty extant manuscripts, as well as two Restoration printed versions. ‘The Parliament Fart’ demands recognition, on the basis of these remarkable statistics, as one of the best-known and best-loved poems of the seventeenth century.
‘The Parliament Fart’ is an urbane exercise in wit, yet it is also keenly aware of its invocation of popular traditions. While most existing commentary on this poem has focused on its subtle characterisations and political reflections, I lean more heavily here on the function of the popular. Given that the poem generates much of its comic energy from a demotic breach of decorum, I consider how a study of popular humour might help us to appreciate not only this poem but also the political culture within which it was situated. While popular and elite strains of humour are notoriously difficult to distinguish at any time, there was perhaps no period of early modern history when their relation was more fraught than in the decades from the 1590s to the 1620s. These years encompassed an extraordinary outpouring of prose and verse satire, and subsequently the great era of early Stuart libelling. In a political arena, they were years in which the authority of the House of Commons, with its claims to represent the people, was subject to intense scrutiny. Several early Stuart parliaments collapsed acrimoniously; after 1629, Charles I resolved to rule without recourse to this troublesome body.