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An Austere Age without Laughter
Michael George

A common misconception about the Middle Ages is that our medieval forefathers lacked a sense of humor. Such an attitude has arisen due perhaps to scholarly and classroom interest in more serious matters; medieval humor is neither studied nor taught nearly as much as more serious topics--religion, philosophy, warfare, high literature.<1> And, "Scholars of medieval literature have long followed a tendency to separate comic from serious genres, so that comic elements in a 'serious' work are seen either as an aesthetic flaw incompatible with the work's overall purpose, or as a mere sugar coating covering the work's kernel of meaning" (Perfetti 38). Medieval people did, indeed, have a sense of humor. They told jokes, engaged in horseplay, and participated in a variety of recreational activities.<2> And scholarship is beginning to recognize comedy and laughter as meaningful.

While the vast majority of scholars focus on the serious side of the Middle Ages, a number have ventured into the arena of humor and laughter. Johan Huizinga, for instance, sees laughter, wit, jest, joke, and the comic, as related to the subject of his book--play.<3> Mikhail Bakhtin goes further. For Bakhtin medieval and Renaissance society consisted of two ideologies. <4>  The official ideology was completely serious.  An unofficial, subversive ideology also existed, and this ideology contained within it subversive folk elements that through their humor ran contrary to official culture. In Bakhtin's view, medieval society was the battleground for these two competing ideologies. Though many scholars would caution using Bakhtin's ideas too readily, Rabelais and His World was a highly influential book, opening up entirely new avenues into cultural studies, avenues paved with humor.

To medieval thinkers, laughter was a complex subject, perhaps more complex than it is to most of us. It was considered to be a fundamental part of human nature, as the words of Notker Labeo, a monk of St. Gall who died in 1022, indicate: "homo est animal rationale, mortale, risus capax" ("Man is a rational, moral animal, capable of laughter") (Kolve 127). But this principle only complicated the matter rather than simplifying it. The question remained: is laughter good or evil, and for whom is laughter appropriate? Whether or not clerics should jest occupied thinkers such as Walter of Châtillon (Curtius 422). Conduct books and religious rules commented on laughter.  Conduct books like Ratis Raving and Pecock's Reule of Crysten Religioun stressed that laughter in moderation was acceptable (Kolve 127-28).  In the end, the Middle Ages considered "its peril, its necesity, its potential usefulness" (Kolve 131) when thinking about laughter.

Regardless of scholastic thought about laughter, humorous stories were popular in the Middle Ages. The French fabliaux are, perhaps, the best-known medieval comic stories with at least 127 examples (Hines 1). Such stories are not, obviously, limited to the French language.; We find comic tales along the lines of the fabliaux in the German Schwänke, the Italian novelle (including Boccaccio), the Middle Dutch boerden, in Welsh literature, and in England, most notably in Dame Sirith and Chaucer, who seems to be particularly indebted to the French tradition. <5> Writers also wrote comic tales in Medieval Latin, as we find in the poetry of the Goliards and the parodic literature such as the Coena cypriani (Cyprian's Supper) and parodic masses.  Comic tales crossed national, social, and linguistic boundaries <6>. Exempla collections, which provided preachers with useful stories to use as illustrations in their sermons, often included humorous stories. Robert of Basevorn's Ars Predicandi (The Art of Preaching) instructs that it is proper to use "opportune humor . . . when we add something jocular which will give pleasure when the listeners are bored, whether it will be about something which will provoke laughter, or some story or anecdote" (212).<7> 

By the late-Middle Ages, humor seems to have found a home in most genres of writing. From the subtle witticisms in Geoffrey of Vinsauf's Poetria Nova to the stage antics of vices in morality plays, we find writers attempting to evoke a chuckle from audiences. Even when dealing with the most serious and noble topics, medieval writers took the opportunity to propose humorous situations. Most of the cycle plays from England, for instance, have episodes dealing with Joseph's reaction to Mary's pregnancy. These episodes provide an almost farcical look at Joseph, who is convinced that he has become a cuckold. The York pageant on this subject depicts the old Joseph as one so upset that he comically considers escaping to the wilderness. Most of the interaction between Joseph and Mary in this pageant concerns Joseph's attempts to learn the name of the child's father. <8> Some humorous practices might seem exceptionally blasphemous to us. Festivals and texts that humorously mock orthodoxy arose in the Middle Ages. The Feast of Fools, for instance, contained within a parody of orthodox ceremonies (censing with sausages, for instance) and even had a parodic script associated with it. These ceremonies, unorthodox as they may seem, were evidently great fun for both participants and observers.<9>

This mixture of the serious with the comic is not unusual. The ideal story, according to both Chaucer and Gower, is one that mixes sentence and solaas, to use Chaucer's words (CT I.798), or earnest and game, as Gower asserts (CA 8.3108-9).  What we find in these works, as well as in sermons, saint's lives, romances, lyrics, plays, rhetorical artes, and a host of other writings is a mixture of serious and funny.<9> There seems not to have been a sharp distinction between serious and comic in the Middle Ages. Laughter was a part of recreation, and recreation was considered to be necessary for good health. <10>

It is important to note that no monolithic view on recreation (which included humor) existed in the Middle Ages. Glending Olson's work on the types of play indicates that attitudes differed greatly in the scholastic community. But even if one were to find that an overarching negative opinion about humor existed, such opinions were and are theoretical. The reality is that medieval people laughed and produced texts to facilitate such laughter. <11>  Though the opinion of what Mikhail Bakhtin called "official culture" may have condemned such activities as the Feast of Fools, such activities continued to exist until well beyond the Middle Ages, indicating a real desire for laughter.

The place of laughter in human existence was, indeed, a topic of debate in the Middle Ages, as we find in Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose. Medieval people laughed, liked to laugh, and incorporated humorous material into their most sacred subjects. <12> There are medieval equivalents to our Southpark, Caddyshack, and Saturday Night Live. To deny the existence and strong influence of humor and laughter in the Middle Ages is to deny medieval people an aspect of humanity that Aristotle claimed was unique to human beings: laughter.



<1>  One need only look at some of the classic scholarship on the Middle Ages.  E. R. Curtius's European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages, for instance, provides perhaps the most comprehensive coverage of medieval humor.  Yet in a book of 653 pages he devotes a mere nineteen pages to "Earnest and Jest."  Other scholars follow suit. <return>

<2>  For ideas on recreation in the Middle Ages, see Glending Olson's Literature as Recreation in the Later Middle Ages. <return>

<3>  See Homo Ludens:  A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. <return>

<4>  See Rabelais and His World.  Bakhtin's views have been challenged in recent years.  Critics like Wayne Booth, Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, Rietz-Rüdiger Moser, Heidy Greco-Kaufmann, and Aron Gurevich challenge Bakhtin's idea that humor forms a necessarily subverse element in culture.  But regardless of the criticism, Bakhtin has left a deep impression on our thinking about laughter in the Middle Ages. <return>

<5>For some sources and analogues to Chaucer's fabliaux, see Benson and Anderson. <return>

<6>  For an example of the breadth of comic literature, see Derek Brewer's Medieval Comic Tales.  Brewer has also shown evidence of medieval ethnic jokes in a paper presented at the 31st International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. <return>

<7>  See the translation in Three Medieval Rhetorical Arts, ed. James Murphy, Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1971. <return>

<8>  Each of the four extant English cycles contains an episode on Joseph's trouble about Mary's pregnancy.  Chester incorporates it into The Annunciation and the Nativity, and Towneley includes it in The Annunciation.  There is even a lyric devoted to the topic.  All of these texts present Joseph as an old man, perhaps impotent (for he knows that he is physically incapable of impregnating Mary) who is upset over the recent turn of events. <return>

<9>Bakhtin discusses the Feast of Fools and related parodic materials briefly.  For a full discussion of such festivals, see Chambers, especially Chapters XIII and XIV, which are devoted to the Feast of Fools, but also Chapters XI, XII, and XV. <return>

<10>  See Curtius's short piece on "Jest and Earnest in Medieval Literature" (417-35). <return>

<11>  On justifications of recreation, see Glending Olson's Literature as Recreation in the Later Middle Ages, especially Chapters 2 and 3.  Though Olson does not deal directly with laughter in his work, he does deal with texts that provoke laughter, especially in "Plays as Play," where he discusses attitudes on recreational forms such as drama, jests, jokes, storytelling, banter, and raillery, concluding that there was no set ethical view on the forms themselves. <return>

<12>  These materials are not limited to written texts.  Medieval art is filled with such imagery.  See, for instance, Michael Camile's Image on the Edge. <return>



Adolf, Helen.  "On Medieval Laughter." Speculum 22 (1947): 251-53.

Bakhtin, Mikhail.  Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Benson, Larry D. and Theodore M. Andersson, ed and trans. The Literary Context of Chaucer's Fabliaux: Texts and Translations. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.

Brewer, Derek, ed. Medieval Comic Tales. Suffolk: Brewer, 1996.

Camile, Michael. Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1992.

Chambers, E. K. The Mediaeval Stage. 2 vols (bound as one). Mineola, NY: Dover, 1996.

Curtius, E. R. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton, Princeton UP, 1990.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Boston: Beacon, 1967.

Kolve, V. A. The Play Called Corpus Christi. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1966.

Murphy, James J., trans. Three Medieval Rhetorical Arts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

Olson, Glending. Literature as Recreation in the Later Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986

---. "Plays as Play: A Medieval Ethical Theory of Performance and the Intellectual Context of the Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge." Viator 26 (1995): 195-221.

Perfetti, Lisa R. "Taking Laughter Seriously: The Comic and Didactic Functions of Helmbrecht," Bakhtin and Medieval Voices. Ed. Thomas J. Farrell. Gainesville:  University Press of Florida, 1995. pp. 38-60.

Tatlock, J. S. P. "Medieval Laughter." Speculum 21 (1946): 289-94.


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