Jonathan Schofield talks to Paul Booth on the curious story behind the discovery of a 1310 obscenity

PAUL BOOTH was doing some background work in Chetham’s Library. This put him on the trail of a North West first.

Chetham’s is the perhaps the most precious of Manchester buildings going back to 1421 on a much older site. The Library dates from the 1650s and is a marvel. Nobody leaves unimpressed and most leave bewitched by the place. The atmosphere of antiquity, the ghosts of prominent people such as Dickens, Defoe, Marx and Engels populate the place, and the books are rare and valuable.

Paul Booth, a historian, regularly researches there. His work led him to the fourteenth-century Chester county court plea rolls, currently on holiday from the National Archives at Kew, and stored for safety in an ex-salt mine in Winsford Cheshire.

He couldn’t fucking believe what he found.

He found the earliest written use of the word ‘fuck’. Better the story mingles farce with criminality.

This is how Booth describes the discovery.

“In the course of research into the plea rolls of the reign of Edward II, who ruled Cheshire as earl of Chester from 1301–1307, and as king-earl from 1307 until 1327, a very unusual name appeared, not once but seven times.

“This was of a man called ‘Roger Fuckebythenavele’.

It suggests he is a man who is so stupid he thinks this is the right way to copulate

F Word Chethams
So where do I put it?

“The sergeants of the peace had been ordered to arrest Roger and produce him at the county court on the 3 November 1310, where they reported that they had failed to find him. This was for a serious criminal offence, without doubt, but it is impossible to know what it was as he must have been referred from a lower court.

“On his failure to attend he was ‘exacted’ or ‘placed in exigent’, which meant he was summoned solemnly three times that day to ‘come in to the peace’, once at the bench of the county court, once at the door of the shire hall, and once at the gate of Chester castle. After numerous summonses he was outlawed on May 25. This meant he was liable to be executed without trial.”

So that’s where Booth found the f-word and why Roger Fuckebythenavele comes into the official record and has his daft name written down. He's an outlaw like Robin Hood but probably not in the dashing, heroic mould of the famous man in Lincoln Green with his bow and arrows. Roger’s surname also suggests his sexual techniques might not have been to Maid Marion’s pleasure either.

Chethams Marx Seat
The Karl Marx seat in Chetham's

Booth continues with suggestions for the reasons behind the name.

“The two most likely meanings are ‘fuck through the navel’ or ‘fuck next to the navel’. The first, and most injurious to Roger’s reputation, suggests he is either a man who has tried to have sexual intercourse through his partner’s navel, rather than in the usual way, or is so stupid he thinks this is the right way to copulate.

“The second meaning could refer to an act of frottage, in which Roger rubbed his penis against his partner’s belly button, possibly in order to avoid conception, which would at least have exonerated him from the charges of naivety or idiocy.

“I feel there can be no doubt the word ‘fuck’ as employed in this name, written seven times with some minor differences in spelling, has a sexual connotation. If this is indeed the case, then it is the earliest instance of the word with this usage so far found.”

The first of Booth's suggestions for the name seems painful for the lady on the receiving end so let's hope the second is the real reason. But given the North Western English accents are such powerful vehicles for the delivery of truly excellent invective then it seems apt that, as far as we know, the North West has the earliest written down use of the word fuck. Good on us.