Lately the medieval blogosphere has seemed like it was run by 10-year-old boys, with lots of references to poop and underwear. I had resisted writing about the underwear issue because I did not go to Leeds and have not read the paper in question, but it has become so ubiquitous that it seems to need a smack.
For those not aware of what I'm talking about, apparently in a paper at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, a scholar argued that the rise in literacy was helped along by the invention of underwear, since discarded underwear could be made into cheap paper. You can get more details from News for Medievalists, plus commentary from Modern Medieval, and a really thorough round-up of news reports from LLCoolCarl at Got Medieval.
Like I said, I haven't read the paper, and I suspect that in its original form, the author is probably much more careful about making such definite claims before a scholarly audience. So, let me offer the caveat here that I am criticizing the argument as it has been reported, not the scholarly paper.
This seems to me a rather backwards, like claiming that the spread of gas stations caused people to drive more, with the invention of the assembly line being of ancillary importance at best. It strikes me as far more reasonable to suggest that the printing press created a rise in literacy, which created a demand for more books, and that underwear was simply one of many sources of cheap rags for meeting this demand for books.
But enough being reasonable. This is the Unlocked Wordhoard, repository of everything absurd, so I want to suggest that the rise of underpants wearing was driven by a market in used underwear, so that the medieval person could say, "well, I'll invest in this underwear because I know I'll be able to recoup a small part of that investment later when I sell it to be made into books."
Yes, that the new meme! Increased literacy caused people to wear underpants, not visa-versa! And I already have proof: Paris Hilton, known non-underwearer, is also not a very literate person. I, on the other hand, read a great deal, and I wear underpants every day. Indeed, when my children were illiterate, they wore diapers, not underpants, but now that they are literate, they wear underpants.
Still not convinced? You are reading this, right? And you are wearing underpants, right? And you do not read blogs while showering (sans underpants), right? Aaaah, we now see that the argument can be taken even further: If you aren't wearing underwear, it is impossible to read! Oh, sure, you can sound out the directions on a shampoo bottle, but not real literacy. I can't remember the last time I read a novel and had no underwear on.
So, in conclusion: Underwear was invented by medieval readers to allow for the creation of longer works like novels. Support literacy: Wear your underwear!
Semper ubi sub ubi.