The Bumbulum, A Medieval Musical Instrument That Made Fart Sounds

By | January 12, 2022

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Saint Jerome Writing, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1607, at St John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta. (Heritage Malta/Wikimedia Commons)

People in the Middle Ages contended with horrors ranging from plagues to war, but in between life-threatening catastrophes, they enjoyed a good laugh, including at that most universal source of humor, the fart. Fart jokes can be found in historical literature from Shakespeare to Chaucer, and medieval people may have even amused themselves with a musical instrument, called the bumbulum, that produced fart noises.

What Was The Bumbulum?

The bumbulum, obviously, was a wind instrument, but it was more like a bagpipe than a flute or trumpet, named for the Latin word for the buzz or hum of bees, bombaulios. Think of it kind of like a big whoopee cushion. It was first described in a letter from Saint Jerome, a theologian who lived from 347 to about 420, to his colleague, Claudius Postumus Dardanus. Jerome wrote that the instrument was designed to accentuate musical compositions with fart sounds and constructed with pipes and an air bladder. Another document from the 11th century describes it as having a frame on which rows of rectangular metal sheets were hung, while medieval drawings of instruments alleged to be the bumbulum vary greatly, from drum-like instruments to what could best be described as a butt tuba.

Was The Bumbulum Real?

Many experts in the history of musical instruments contend that the bumbulum never really existed. Textual references to it may have been pure fantasy or inside jokes whose meaning has been lost to us. One thing is certain: The medieval era was as much about sophomoric humor as it was about relentless terror.