Insults, oaths, and curses in the Middle Ages

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"By God’s Bones: Medieval Swear Words"

What were bad words in the Middle Ages? Cursing or swearing in medieval England was really different from today’s world.

May, 2023

The post begins:

Some historians have looked into the topic, such as Melissa Mohr, the author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing. In her chapter on medieval England, Mohr explains that people back then did not have much of an issue with describing bodily functions in ways that we might find less appropriate. Going into a city you might find a street called ‘Shitwell Way’ or ‘Pissing Alley’. Open a medieval textbook to teach reading to children and you might find the words arse, shit or fart. If you saw ants crawling around you would most likely call them ‘pisse-mires’.

Additional passages:

Even the word ‘fuck’ first appears in medieval England as a name. Records from the year 1310 refer to a man named Roger Fuckebythenavele who lived in Chester – see The earliest use of the F-word

Here are a couple of examples of words that we might not use when chatting with our parents, but seem to have been okay in a medieval setting:

Sard – Before the word fuck existed, sard was the word people in medieval England used to describe having sex. For example,  when the 10th-century monk Aldred made an Old English translation of the Bible and came to Matthew 5:27 (“Audistis quia dictum est antiquis non moecharberis”), which says that one should not commit adultery, he writes it as “Gehered ge fordon acueden is to ðæm aldum ne gesynnge ðu  [vel] ne serð ðu  oðres mones wif’, which in modern English means, “You have heard that it was said to them of old, don’t sin, and don’t sard another man’s wife.”

Cunt – Mohr notes that during the Middle Ages, this was the word typically used to describe a woman’s vagina, even appearing in medical texts. If you were in town looking for a prostitute, you might get directed to Gropecuntelane. Perhaps it was only when the word vagina came into use – the earliest reference to the word only dates back to the year 1612 – that the medieval word becomes viewed as obscene.

Pintel, tarse, and ʒerde – Mohr notes that there were several words in medieval England for penis, some of which date back at least to the turn of the 11th century. Slang and nicknames for penis seem to have been very common throughout the medieval world – for example, a 15th-century Arabic book called The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight offers over thirty such nicknames, including The Spitter, The One-Eyed, and The Flabby One.

Some general observations on why people were more upset about swearing false oaths than about the above sort of impolite expressions:

Mohr explains:

these words were offensive for two reasons. Partly because of how sincere oaths were supposed to work, so when you swear sincerely what people in the Middle Ages believed they were doing was asking God to look down from heaven and guarantee that you were true and according to covenants he made with the people of the Bible he actually is almost required to do that.

Therefore, if you swore false oaths, you were making God out to be a liar!

The second reason that swearing was so important was that people believed if you would swear by God’s bones, or by Christ’s fingernails, you were actually affecting their bodies up in Heaven. Mohr notes:

to us it doesn’t make any sense… but in makes sense as a sort of Catholic Eucharist, where a priest said some words and makes God’s physical body which he then breaks and eats, and shares among the congregation. And in swearing anybody could say these magic words that could tear Christ’s body part. So this was a kind of terrifying language that people were tremendously worried about, and so if you wanted to you [sic] insult someone or express joy or you stubbed your toe and wanted to relieve the pain, those were the words that you were going to use because they had this tremendous power.

Watch your tongue!


Selected readings



  1. DaveK said,

    May 26, 2023 @ 7:47 am

    I can’t help thinking that poor Roger Fuckebythenaveale was really named Roger Smith or Johnson or something and he had just run afoul of the town clerk

  2. Dick Margulis said,

    May 26, 2023 @ 7:49 am

    John McWhorter's Nine Nasty Words is an entertaining book-length treatment of the subject.

  3. Cervantes said,

    May 26, 2023 @ 8:39 am

    If I remember correctly, Chaucer spells it "queynt."

    Also, in nautical language a "pintel" is one of the upward facing spikes that attaches the rudder to the hull via the "gudgeon," a ring that fits over it. The resemblance is obvious.

  4. martin schwartz said,

    May 26, 2023 @ 4:39 pm

    I wonder if sard did not come to merge with sod < sodomize
    as in the British-Irish "sod it" and "sod him".
    Mohr's 3rd word for 'penis' is found in obsolete English as yard,
    orig. 'branch', whence also the measurement.
    Somewhere the Roman poet Martial uses 'one-eyed' to describe a penis.

  5. martin schwartz said,

    May 26, 2023 @ 4:45 pm

    For fans of Latin, here's the verse punchline I had in mind:
    Cur non basio te, Philæni? LUSCUS es.
    Hæc qui basiat, o Philæni, fellat.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    May 26, 2023 @ 8:35 pm

    I was deeply enamored of Chaucer already by high school, and in college, as an English major, I wrote my senior honors thesis on Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. The first time I read his Canterbury Tales, I was bemused by theses lines from "The Miller's Tale":

    Now, sire, and eft, sire, so bifel the cas,
    That on a day this hende Nicholas
    165 Fil with this yonge wyf to rage and pleye,
    Whil that her housbonde was at Oseneye,
    As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte;
    And prively he caughte hire by the queynte,*
    And seyde, "Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
    170 For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille."
    And heeld hire harde by the haunchebones,
    And seyde, "Lemman, love me al atones,
    Or I wol dyen, also God me save!"

    *emphasis VHM

    Now, sir, and then, sir, so befell the case,
    That on a day this clever Nicholas
    165 Fell in with this young wife to toy and play,
    The while her husband was down Osney way,
    Clerks being as crafty as the best of us;
    And unperceived he caught her by the puss,
    Saying: "Indeed, unless I have my will,
    170 For secret love of you, sweetheart, I'll spill."
    And held her hard about the hips, and how!
    And said: "O darling, love me, love me now,
    Or I shall die, and pray you God may save!"


  7. Taylor, Philip said,

    May 27, 2023 @ 5:29 am

    From which, presumably, our modern "quaint", tho' not used (AFAIK) to refer to the female genitals.

  8. Cervantes said,

    May 27, 2023 @ 7:16 am

    Ah yes, I slightly misspelled it. But the point is it wasn't a taboo word as the modern equivalent is. In Puerto Rico, and I believe elsewhere in Latin America, the cognate "conyo" is actually a relatively mild oath.

  9. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 28, 2023 @ 12:59 am

    More on how swearing changed:

    “ I stumbled upon this question as a historical consultant for a new drama set in the 16th century, when I needed to assess whether certain curse words in the script would have been familiar to the Tudors. The revelation – given away in the title of Melissa Mohr’s wonderful book Holy Sh*t – is that all swear words concern what is sacred or what is scatological. In the Middle Ages, the worst words had been about what was holy; by the 18th century they were about bodily functions. The 16th century was a period when what was considered obscene was in flux.”

    … “ But the scatological was starting to become obscene. Sard, swive and fuck were all slightly rude words for sexual intercourse. An early recorded use of the f-word was a piece of marginalia by an anonymous monk writing in 1528 in a manuscript copy of Cicero’s De officiis (a treatise on moral philosophy). The inscription reads: ‘O d fuckin Abbot’. Given that the use of the f-word as an intensifier didn’t catch on for another three centuries, this is likely a punchy comment on the abbot’s immoral behaviour.”

  10. CuConnacht said,

    May 28, 2023 @ 1:07 am

    Cervantes,, "cunt", which is found all over the Germanic languages, and coño, from Latin cunnus, are probably not related. Grimm's Law would have made an IE/Latin initial k into an h, as in canis/hound or centum/hund(red).

  11. Cervantes said,

    May 28, 2023 @ 12:14 pm

    Err, there is no "h" sound in Spanish.

  12. Thomas Rees said,

    May 28, 2023 @ 5:20 pm

    Yes, “cunt” and “cunnus” aren’t related, but English speakers think they are. That’s why “coney” doesn’t rhyme with “honey” and “money”, and indeed has mostly been replaced by “rabbit”. All three words have been confused.

  13. maidhc said,

    May 30, 2023 @ 3:19 am

    Irish has coinín for "rabbit" and German has Kaninchen. I thought that they were related, or, at least, English coney is related to the German and the Irish is a loan-word. And Latin has cuniculus.

    So Irish, Latin and German all have diminutive endings?

    And just to confuse things more, in English "pussy" used to be used to refer to various kinds of small furry animals, not just cats, but including rabbits:

    And when we arrived they were all standing there
    So we took to the green fields to search for the hare
    We had not gone far when someone gave a cheer
    Over high hills and valleys the wee puss did steer
    With our dogs all abreast and that big mountain hare
    And the sweet singing music it rang through the air

    ("The Granemore Hare", folk song from northern Ireland)

    There's another folksong, which I can't find right now, where a man offers to pay a young woman £50 for the pussy under her skirt. She agrees, and then reaches up to pull out a rabbit. (The plot is a bit contrived.) He complains that she's defrauded him, but she takes him to court and he has to pay up.

    But that aside, aren't all the words for "rabbit" related?

  14. maidhc said,

    May 30, 2023 @ 3:45 am

    Cervantes: "Pintle" appears in some poems by Robert Burns. (Collected in "The Merry Muses of Caledonia", all his dirty poems in one volume.) Examples:

    Meg had a muff and it was rough,
    Twas black without and red within,
    An' Duncan, case he got the cauld,
    He stole his highland pintle in.

    (Duncan Davidson)

    But for a koontrie cunt like mine,
    In sooth, we're nae sae gentle;
    We'll take tway thumb-bread to the nine,
    And tha's a sonsy pintle;

    (Nine inch will please a lady)

  15. Philip Anderson said,

    May 31, 2023 @ 7:07 am

    According to Wiktionary, English coney comes from the Latin via Anglo-Norman (as does the Irish word), but the Latin word isn’t a diminutive:ín
    N.B. Wiktionary also mentions an Old French variant ‘connin’ (although the hyperlink is broken), as well as ‘connil’.
    It suggests the German came from French via Dutch.

  16. Walter Underwood said,

    June 1, 2023 @ 5:23 pm

    Medieval History for Fun and Profit was a really fun podcast. This episode goes into great detail about swearing and its social function.

  17. Michael Watts said,

    June 3, 2023 @ 4:38 am

    Err, there is no "h" sound in Spanish.

    Well, from an English perspective there is, it's just spelled "J".

    But you missed the point. For "cunt" to be related to "coño", the English word would have to start with /h/. It doesn't; it starts with /k/. The Indo-European initial /k/, preserved into Spanish, was not preserved into Germanic, hence the initial sounds in "hound" and "hundred".

  18. Michael Watts said,

    June 3, 2023 @ 4:45 am

    The Latin cuniculum may not have originated as a diminutive, but it sure looks like one and I assume it would have felt like one to essentially all Latin speakers. Something similar is going on with the English coney, which ends in the English diminutive suffix /-i/.

    Rabbits are small; it's plausible that they naturally tend to attract diminutive terms.

    Speaking of diminutive /-i/, it is a pet theory of mine that Americans spontaneously seek to distinguish the adjective-forming suffix /-i/ from the diminutive suffix /-i/ by spelling the first with "-y" and the second with the cuter "-ie". But I can't really support that and I have seen counterexamples.

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