Mini-lecture on ‘Viking’ humour

In this mini-lecture, Dr Hannah Burrows, director of the University of Aberdeen’s Centre for Scandinavian Studies, discusses some of the difficulties of accessing humour from the Viking Age and some ways in which later medieval humour about the Viking Age might have shaped our sense of that period today.


Project publication

Our project’s major publication is now in print. Please see below a list of contents and description. Many thanks to all our wonderful contributors, to our editors at Palgrave, and to the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council for its generous funding.


Foreword by Jessica Milner Davis

  1. Introduction (Daniel Derrin)
  2. The Study of Past Humour: Historicity and the Limits of Method (Conal Condren)
  3. No Sense of Humour? ‘Humour’ Words in Old Norse (Hannah Burrows)
  4. Rewriting Laughter in Early Modern Europe (Lucy Rayfield)
  5. The Humour of Humours: Comedy Theory and Eighteenth-Century Histories of Emotions (Rebecca Tierney-Hynes)
  6. Bergson’s Theory of the Comic and Its Applicability to Sixteenth-Century Japanese Comedy (Jessica Milner Davis)
  7. Comic Character and Counter-Violation: Critiquing Benign Violation Theory (Daniel Derrin)
  8. Humour and Religion: New Directions? (Richard A. Gardner)
  9. Visual Humour on Greek Vases (550–350 BC): Three Approaches to the Ambivalence of Ugliness in Popular Culture (Alexandre G. Mitchell)
  10. Approaching Jokes and Jestbooks in Premodern China (Giulia Baccini)
  11. Testing the Limits of Pirandello’s Umorismo: A Case Study Based on Xiaolin Guangji (Antonio Leggieri)
  12. The Monsters That Laugh Back: Humour as a Rhetorical Apophasis in Medieval Monstrology
    (Rafał Borysławski)
  13. Medieval Jokes in Serious Contexts: Speaking Humour to Power (Martha Bayless)
  14. ‘Lightness and Maistrye’: Herod, Humour, and Temptation in Early English Drama (Jamie Beckett)
  15. Embodied Laughter: Rabelais and the Medical Humanities (Alison Williams)
  16. Naïve Parody in Rabelais (John Parkin)
  17. ‘By God’s Arse’: Genre, Humour and Religion in William Wager’s Moral Interludes (Lieke Stelling)
  18. Romantic Irony: Problems of Interpretation in Schlegel and Carlyle (Giles Whiteley)
  19. Unlocking Verbal-Visual Puns in Late-Nineteenth-Century Japanese Cartoons (Ronald Stewart)
  20. Popular Humour in Nordic Jesting Songs of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Danish Recordings of Oral Song Tradition (Lene Halskov Hansen)
  21. Spanish Flu: The First Modern Case of Viral Humour? (Nikita Lobanov)
  22. Translating Humour in The Song of Roland (John DuVal)
  23. Intercultural and Interartistic Transfers of Shandean Humour in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries (Yen-Mai Tran-Gervat)
  24. The Scholars, Chronique indiscrète or Neoficial’naja istorija? The Challenge of Translating Eighteenth-Century Chinese Irony and Grotesque for Contemporary Western Audiences (Anna Di Toro)
  25. Putting Humour on Display (Laurence Grove)
  26. Building The Old Joke Archive (Bob Nicholson and Mark Hall)

Description: This handbook addresses the methodological problems and theoretical challenges that arise in attempting to understand and represent humour in specific historical contexts across cultural history. It explores problems involved in applying modern theories of humour to historically-distant contexts of humour and points to the importance of recognising the divergent assumptions made by different academic disciplines when approaching the topic. It explores problems of terminology, identification, classification, subjectivity of viewpoint, and the coherence of the object of study. It addresses specific theories, together with the needs of specific historical case-studies, as well as some of the challenges of presenting historical humour to contemporary audiences through translation and curation. In this way, the handbook aims to encourage a fresh exploration of methodological problems involved in studying the various significances both of the history of humour and of humour in history. 

For access click here

Call for Papers

The Sacred and The…Profanity

An Online Symposium

8th September 2020


Building on the recent growth of scholarship in the field of humour and religion, this interdisciplinary online symposium aims to bring together scholars from a wide range of fields to explore the multifaceted relationship between humour, obscenity, and religion, and to consider what happens when these worlds collide.

There are many examples that seem to support the view that religion and humour have a tense relationship; whether it be ‘comic’ representations of religious figures in the media, jokes about God, or films and television which focus on religion and morality that are considered blasphemous or offensive. These occurrences are often enthusiastically cast as a conflict between religious freedom and the right to dignity in belief, on the one hand, and freedom of expression and the right to offend, on the other. However, the intersection of humour, obscenity, and religion is much more complex than this, and this symposium invites participants to work through various aspects of this relationship. Of particular interest is the place of humour and the obscene in religion, the positive functions it can serve and ultimately its value. We want to ask: what role can humour play in the sphere of religion, and how comfortably? Even if joking might be allowed, can it ever truly fit in? Who decides on the value of humour for religion?

We welcome submissions which consider these, and other, questions in relation to a number of topics including, but not limited to:

  • Historical or contemporary examples of humour or obscenity in religion
  • Gendered experiences of laughter, humour, and joke-telling
  • Ritual
  • Joke-telling
  • Satire
  • The Media
  • Blasphemy
  • The usefulness of humour and the obscene
  • Limits of humour
  • The policing of humour

We welcome papers that address one of these themes in a 15-minute talk. All papers will be presented remotely and observed online. Each talk will be followed by a discussion. To submit a proposal, please send an abstract of approximately 200 words to Dr Paul Martin: and Nicole Graham: by 15th July 2020. The organisers will review all submissions anonymously.

In addition to the panel of papers, the symposium will include a roundtable entitled: “Exploring Religion and Ritual in Humour and the Obscene”. Confirmed speakers for this roundtable are: Professor Bernard Schweizer (Co-Founder of the Humour and Religion Network), Dr Emily Selove (Senior Lecturer of Medieval Arabic Language and Literature), Dr Lieke Stelling (Assistant Professor in English Literature), and Dr Simon Weaver (Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications).

Call for papers

Humour and Religion in the Early Modern World
Universiteit Utrecht 15-16 January 2021

In recent decades, early modern conceptions of both humour and religion have received
much scholarly attention. Humour has been studied as a rhetorical instrument, as an
important aspect of theatrical and political culture, and for its role in shaping notions of
class, race, gender and other social identities. Similarly, the renewed interest in religion that is part of the ‘turn to religion’ in early modern cultural history has yielded new insights into sensory, emotive, affective, and various other aspects of religious experience. At the same time, however, the mutual relationships between humour and religion as equally complex and pervasive features of early modern society have received significantly less attention. This workshop, which is intended to be informal and explorative in nature, aims to investigate the variety of ways in which humour and religion interacted with each other in the early modern period.

It has often been argued that during the Protestant Reformation, the mixing of humour and faith was suppressed in the form of strictures and injunctions, leading to the conclusion that the Reformation caused a de facto separation between the two. Yet the
abundant presence of religious themes in jest books and comedic drama and of satire in religious polemic shows the persistent correlation between humour and religion. Likewise, contemporary condemnations of the use of humour in sermons suggest that this practice had not disappeared. In addition, early moderns were acutely aware of humour as a doubleedged sword. Jesting, wit and comedy could relieve tensions, ease melancholy and create a sense of community, but also antagonize, hurt and exclude others. Bearing this in mind, this workshop seeks to explore early modern reflections on and concrete examples of the use of wit in religious contexts and of sacred themes in comedic genres. In so doing, we aim to reach a clearer understanding of the way in which the Reformation affected the appreciation of humour and how humour was used to address questions of religion and belief. The workshop will bring literary scholars, historians, and art historians into dialogue with each other in the hope that an interdisciplinary approach will expand and enhance our understanding of the topic.

Participants are asked to prepare 20-minute papers on topics that include (but are not
limited to):

  • Religious satire
  • Laughter and religious polemic
  • Anti-clerical, anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant humour
  • Wit and humour in sermons
  • Sacred parody
  • Humour as a coping mechanism for religious anxiety
  • Religious themes in comedy
  • Humour, gender and religion
  • Reformation discourse on laughter and mirth
  • Humour and death
  • Humour and non-Christian religions
  • Humanist perspectives on the relationship between humour and religion
  • Humour and Puritanism

The workshop will likely take the form of five panels of two or three papers, each allowing substantial time for discussion, and a closing discussion.

Deadline for abstracts: 15 June 2020
Please send your abstract to:

Organizing committee: Dr Lieke Stelling (Universiteit Utrecht), Dr Sonja Kleij (Universiteit Utrecht), Professor Johan Verberckmoes (KU Leuven)

Call for papers on humorous writings in 19th c. Italy

Università degli Studi di Udine – Progetto PRIN Nievo e la cultura letteraria del Risorgimento

Con la collaborazione di Interactions Culturelles et Discursives-ICD , université de Tours

Convegno internazionale di studi

Tra «effetto Sterne» e «récit excentrique»:

le scritture umoristiche nell’Ottocento italiano (paradigmi, contesti e riscritture)

(Udine, aprile 2020)

Comitato scientifico

Giancarlo Alfano (Università Federico II di Napoli), François Bouchard (Université de Tours), Silvia Contarini  (Università degli Studi di Udine), Daniel Sangsue (Université de Neuchâtel)

Nell’Italia della Restaurazione, le scritture umoristiche sembrano ispirarsi al modello fintamente odeporico del Voyage autour de ma chambre di Xavier de Maistre (1795), nonché dell’anonimo Voyage dans mes poches (1798), con una produzione narrativa diversificata di generi e stili che testimonia a più riprese la diffusa ricezione e la riscrittura del Sentimental Journey di Laurence Sterne. Dal Viaggio e maravigliose avventure d’un veneziano ch’esce la prima volta delle lagune (1818) di Francesco Contarini, ai romanzi dei conciliatoristi (Borsieri, Di Breme, Pellico) al Viaggio di tre giorni di Luigi Ciampolini (1832), questa vena narrativa si protrae con risultati alterni e diversificati fino al Viaggio di un ignorante di Giovanni Rajberti (1857) fino a giungere alla rivisitazione ironica del Corto viaggio sentimentale di Italo Svevo (1928). Ma nella produzione letteraria del secondo Ottocento si evidenziano anche altre linee di ricerca, che tralasciano il modello odeporico per cimentarsi con soluzioni narrative più radicali, caratterizzate dalla volontaria elusione dei confini tra i generi letterari. Dalle scritture umoristiche di Nievo (l’inedito Antiafrodisiaco per l’amor platonico, 1851, La storia filosofica de’ secoli futuri, 1859, e Il Barone di Nicastro, 1860) a La Scapigliatura e il 6 febbraio di Cletto Arrighi (1862), fino a alla Merope IV. Sogni e fantasie di Quattr’Asterischi di Imbriani (1867), tali forme di sperimentazione linguistica e stilistica attingono puntualmente ai modelli dell’eccentricità narrativa settecentesca (Diderot, lo Sterne rivisitato del Tristram Shandy) per rilanciare un’idea di scrittura che attraverso l’ironia, la reticenza e l’allusività si confronta con la realtà storica e politica contemporanea, come prima già Carlo Bini nell’inedito Manoscritto di un prigioniero (1833).

Attraverso una serie di case studies (romanzi, racconti, novelle, dialoghi e récits de voyage veri o fittizi), il convegno intende indagare le modalità attraverso le quali le diverse tipologie di scrittura umoristica nascono, si sviluppano e vengono recepite in Italia tra la fine del Settecento e l’età del Risorgimento, con particolare attenzione ai contesti di produzione e di ricezione, alle loro finalità esplicite o implicite e alle possibili coordinate ideologiche.

Modalità d’invio delle proposte:

L’abstract della proposta di 1000 battute max in italiano, francese o inglese, accompagnato da un breve profilo biobibliografico dell’autore, andrà inviato entro il 30 settembre 2019 congiuntamente a e a


Università degli Studi di Udine – Progetto PRIN Nievo e la cultura letteraria del Risorgimento

Avec la collaboration d’Interactions Culturelles et Discursives-ICD , université de Tours

Colloque international

Entre « effetto Sterne » et « récit excentrique » :

les écritures humoristiques au XIXe siècle en Italie (paradigmes, contextes et réécritures)

(Udine, avril 2020)

Comité scientifique

Giancarlo Alfano (Università Federico II di Napoli), François Bouchard (université de Tours), Silvia Contarini  (Università degli Studi di Udine), Daniel Sangsue (université de Neuchâtel)

Dans l’Italie de la Restauration, les écritures humoristiques semblent s’inspirer du modèle faussement hodéporique du Voyage autour de ma chambre de Xavier de Maistre (1795), ainsi que de l’anonyme Voyage dans mes poches (1798), et elles se traduisent par une production narrative diversifiée en genre et en style qui trahit une réception diffuse du Sentimental Journey de Sterne et sa réécriture. Depuis le Viaggio e maravigliose avventure d’un veneziano ch’esce la prima volta delle lagune (1818) di Francesco Contarini, les romans des collaborateurs du Conciliatore (Borsieri, Di Breme, Pellico) et le Viaggio di tre giorni di Luigi Ciampolini (1832), ce filon narratif se prolonge avec des résultats variés et inégaux jusqu’au Viaggio di un ignorante de Giovanni Rajberti (1857), pour aboutir à la réinterprétation ironique qu’en fait Italo Svevo dans Corto viaggio sentimentale (1928). Mais cette ligne s’infléchit au mitan du XIXe siècle; elle tourne alors le dos à la référence hodéporique pour s’engager vers des solutions narratives plus radicales, lesquelles tendent à escamoter les frontières entre genres littéraires. Depuis les écritures humoristiques de Nievo (l’inédit Antiafrodisiaco per l’amor platonico, 1851, La storia filosofica de’ secoli futuri, 1859, et Il Barone di Nicastro, 1860) jusqu’à La Scapigliatura e il 6 febbraio de Cletto Arrighi (1862), et Merope IV. Sogni e fantasie di Quattr’Asterischi d’Imbriani (1867), ces formes d’expérimentation linguistique et stylistique ont ponctuellement recours aux modèles de l’excentricité narrative du XVIIIe siècle (Diderot, le Sterne de Tristram Shandy) pour relancer une écriture qui se mesure à la réalité historique et politique contemporaine par l’ironie, la réticence et l’allusivité, ainsi que l’avait déjà tenté Carlo Bini dans son inédit Manoscritto di un prigioniero (1833).

À travers une série d’études de cas (romans, contes, nouvelles, dialogues et récits de voyage véritables ou fictifs), ce colloque souhaite analyser les modalités avec lesquelles naissent, se développent et sont reçues en Italie les différentes typologies de l’écriture humoristique entre la fin du XVIIIe siècle et la période du Risorgimento; il prêtera une attention particulière aux contextes où s’opèrent leur production et leur réception, à leurs finalités explicites ou implicites et aux possibles repères idéologiques qui ont présidé à leur conception.

Modalités d’envoi des propositions:

Les propositions auront un maximum de 1000 signes, espaces comprises, et seront rédigées en italien, français ou anglais. Accompagnées d’un bref profil biobibliographique de leur auteur, elles seront envoyées conjointement, d’ici le 30 septembre 2019, à et

Call for papers: Sacred Comedy in Medieval Culture

Sacred Comedy in Medieval Culture: A Roundtable Discussion

Call for Papers, Kalamazoo IMC, 2019

Organised by: Maggie Solberg (Bowdoin) and Sarah Brazil (Geneva)

In 1955, the drama critic F.M Salter made the point, ‘In the Middle Ages, God himself had a sense of humor’ (Medieval Drama in Chester, 103-4). Salter, however, was a critical rarity, with both contemporaries and subsequent generations refusing the position that religious figures might have some dramatic, iconographical, or literary connection to humor and/or comedy. The difficulties critics have faced in trying to theorize and categorize the comic (as opposed to the tragic) points to the fact that this is an area of medieval scholarship that is still in need of attention. This roundtable aims to bring scholars together who are interested in how we might understand the humor of the past, to find and trace laughter and funniness in medieval texts and artifacts, and to strategize what to do when we no longer have access to the joke. This roundtable is looking for new ways to approach these questions. We’re looking for alternatives to Bakhtin’s model of carnival and suppression. We’re looking beyond Kolve’s limitations on religious laughter—the assumption that the audience never laughs at Mary, Jesus, or God the Father. We’re looking beyond Chambers’s (and everyone’s) association of paganism with fun and Christianity with seriousness. We are interested in a broad range of material and approaches, although we are narrowing our temporal focus to the late-medieval period. While drama is a key interest, it is not an exclusive one. We encourage submissions for this roundtable from any researcher working on humor/comedy from all aspects of medieval studies and languages.

Please send any queries, as well as abstracts and completed PIF forms to by September 8th, 2018.

Conference Announcement: Humour and Obscenity

Call for Papers

Humour and Obscenity in the Medieval and Early Modern World
MEMSA Conference, Durham University, 9-10 July 2018

Humour and obscenity cross disciplinary boundaries, incorporating historical, archaeological, literary, musical, theological, philosophical, and art historical perspectives on the medieval and early modern world. This interdisciplinary conference invites postgraduates and early career researchers from any discipline to present research on any aspect of humour and obscenity in the medieval and early modern world. Building on the new academic interest in the history of emotions, this conference provides a forum in which to develop interdisciplinary research on the cultural and societal place of humour and obscenity.

Themes and topics for discussion could include, but are not limited to:

  • The archaeology of obscenity and excess; archaeology and scatology
  • Obscene or comic dress
  • Representations of nudity
  • Comic or obscene objects
  • The humorous and/or obscene body
  • Marginalia in manuscripts and printed books
  • Humour in historical and legal documents
  • Scandal, libel, insults, and feuds
  • Humour and obscenity as a literary or rhetorical device
  • Representing sexualities
  • Humiliation and scorn
  • The politics and ethics of humour
  • Dissent and heresy
  • Censorship and punishment
  • Theoretical views of humour and obscenity
  • Curating medieval and early modern humour and obscenity
  • Humorous representations of the medieval and early modern world today

As well as panel sessions, the conference will include two keynote lectures, from Dr Daron Burrows (French, Oxford) and Dr Daniel Derrin (English, Durham). In addition, we are delighted to be hosting a performance of ‘Unruly Women’ by Dr Daisy Black (Wolverhampton). There will also be an opportunity to visit Durham Cathedral and Castle, and a conference dinner will be held on 9th July.

Papers should be 15-20 minutes long, and will be followed by time for questions and discussion. Please send abstracts of 200-300 words to the conference organisers at  Abstracts should be submitted by Monday 16th April 2018. Please let us know if you have any accessibility needs or other requirements.

For a pdf version of the CFP, click here:

Collaboratory 2!

[Thanks to Giulia Baccini, Hannah Burrows, Niamh Kehoe, Rafał Borysławski, and Aubrey Mellor for the photos!]

Daniel Derrin, Durham University

HOP hosted its second collaboratory at Durham University, 26-28 July, thanks again to the generous funding of the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. Thank you to all who were a part of it, travelling from all over the globe to make it the wonderfully stimulating event it was.

We heard presentations on attempts to investigate ‘humour’ in many different historical contexts and across several media. For example, we heard about investigations of humour in: Old English saints’ lives, medieval writing about monsters, medieval romance poetry, cross-media translations of Tristram Shandy, jestbooks from ancient China and from post-Tridentine Italy, early modern comedy including Shakespeare, early modern religious writing and handbooks of ‘courtesy’, fools in Restoration comedy, seventeenth and eighteenth-century productions of Ben Jonson’s comedies, the archives of twentieth (and twenty-first) century British standup comedy performance, medieval pageants featuring the character of Herod, North Korean children’s films, Japanese and Chinese satirical cartoons from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, representations of tickling in paintings, and comic stereotypes of Italians across twentieth century popular media. We also heard critical accounts of translation theory and of ‘benign-violation’ theory, as they pertain to humour in history. In addition, we heard discussions of humour in performance, including: contemporary productions of Shakespeare, a current adaptation of Plautus called Vice Versa, and a contemporary dramatic adaptation of an Old Norse satirical saga The Saga of the Conspirators.

A particular concern of the conference was identifying where existing ideas about ‘humour’ are problematic or limited with respect to such historical contexts and forms of translation. In line with that, the conference began with the crucial recognition that all historical studies of ‘humour’ must address: historiographically speaking, ‘humour’ is a recent (and often clearly Anglophone) category, an umbrella term which brings together many different historical phenomena. This is both a problem and an opportunity. At one level, we need to acknowledge an illusoriness within the very idea of historical ‘humour’. A clever pun in a medieval text might have little in common with a comic stage character or a satirical cartoon. Yet, at another level, we can see and feel patterns across material disparate in time and kind. This invites theorization about the nature of particular common grounds: similar objects? similar rhetorical functions? similar historical or social situation? perhaps there are others? Trying to abandon naïve assumptions about historical ‘humour’ does not erase the need to arrive at new ways of identifying historical patterns.

At a certain point in our conference, one of our number made the suggestion that humour studies, especially where it is oriented toward history and historical phenomena, is desperately in need of new ideas. This is most evident at the points when one feels the limits of that unhappy triad: ‘superiority’, ‘incongruity’, and ‘relief’. Anyone who has ever encountered humour studies will have come across these ubiquitous terms. Speaking personally, I think they should be unequivocally abandoned.

I want to suggest below some of the broad areas that I felt emerged across our discussion, in which there might be ample space for new ideas. If others occur to you, please do share them in the ‘leave a reply’ section below. Each is an area in which more clarification (and distinct ideas) could be developed by researchers.

(Of course, several of these areas were confronted by our speakers and I don’t mean to suggest that they have never been, or aren’t being addressed. The way I’ve phrased things below is my own and other members of our circle might put the questions differently).

  • Historiographical purpose: thinking across the spectrum of historical study from historicism (elucidating context for its own sake) on the one hand, to presentism (writing history to address contemporary needs) on the other.  Where does the study of ‘humour patterns’ fit within this? In fact, do our very conceptions of the object of historical study – ‘humour’ – change according to our historiographical orientation along this spectrum? One might also think about this in relation to humour translation across time: how do translations of historical ‘humour’ that ‘foreignize’ (prioritize meanings in source culture) differ from those that ‘domesticate’ (prioritize meanings in the target culture)? Is the ‘humour’ being thought about different, depending on the translator’s purpose? And what about when ‘translating’ within (or across) different media: for instance, verbal translation as against performance adaptation?
  • Intermedial translation: thinking through ‘humour’ when it moves from one media form to another: poetry to stage performance, or novel to film. Take this scenario: when a sense of the satirical purpose of the original comes across in the media-specific forms of the translation, despite the differences of time, culture and form. In this case, has the ‘humour’ been translated or not? That is, should we think of humour as rhetoric or form, content or function?
  • Rhetorical purpose: one of the research contexts that makes studying historical humour different from studying contemporary humour is the greater degree of difficulty in understanding its rhetorical purpose, because of the gap of time and culture. How can we understand humorous intentionality in more distant historical contexts? Is it possible/necessary to develop a ‘rhetoric of humour’, or are established concepts within the history of rhetoric enough?
  • Ethics and politics: there are strong reasons for thinking that jests which render things ridiculous are ‘structured’ by implicit beliefs about how things in the world ought to be. That is the basic recognition of ‘benign violation’ theory (McGraw and Warren). The phrase ‘ethics of humour’ is usually taken to refer to questions about whether it is ethically right, or not, to laugh at particular things but is it not sometimes necessary to think of the ‘politics’ of humour as an ‘ethics’? One way to put the question might be this: when should we think of the politics of humour as ‘ideological’ and when should we think of it as ‘ethical’? Are there better terms that could be developed?
  • Social function: putting humour ‘content’ aside and thinking about particular historical examples of humour and larger socio-historical patterns that shape it: for example, cultures of courtesy and politeness. Others?
  • Seriousness/non-seriousness: thinking more about the problems of that binary. It isn’t just a contemporary distinction. It’s an historically attested one too. We only have to think of the difference assumed between ‘jest’ and ‘earnest’ in English literary history. And it is still a means of controlling the politics of humour, for instance: when people say ‘I was only joking, don’t take it so seriously’. Nevertheless, working with historical examples of humour very often requires us to focus things in such a way that the binary seems useless. This is not just because we take our own historical enterprise seriously, but also because what we are trying to do is to understand things that are less accessible in this research context than they can be in the context of contemporary and near-contemporary examples of humour, such as rhetorical intentionality and ideological context, implicitly things to be ‘taken seriously’. Historical focus asks us to break down the seriousness/non-seriousness binary. Is there, then, some way of sharpening ideas about how particular humours of the past (and the present) fit along a seriousness spectrum instead?

Daniel Derrin is co-investigator of the HOP project and co-organiser of collaboratory 2.

Playful but Problematic: Medieval Humour and Contemporary Performance

Jamie Beckett, Durham University

Aside from the slightly tired yet somehow satisfying adage, ‘humour studies is no laughing matter’, I had little idea what to expect when I first heard about the first HOP Collaboratory, hosted at the University of Aberdeen. As a PhD candidate at Durham University, I explore the relevance and function of humour and laughter within late medieval drama, specifically those performances of biblical or devotional drama which were staged in the North East of England in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Yet whether it’s discussing obscene portrayals of biblical patriarchs, or the riotous laughter of unruly townspeople, I’m often the only humour scholar at the party.

I’m fairly used to the responses I get from most people when I’ve told them what I do. ‘That sounds like fun’, which it is – some of the time. ‘How interesting’, which it is – most of the time. Or even ‘tell us your best joke then’. People know humour, understand it to be an essential part of modern life, and even of the so-called ‘human condition’. But to study humour, especially in the context of a past which appears so stubbornly distant and alien in social terms, is a different kettle of fish entirely.

But this is what made Collaboratory 1, run as part of the Humours of the Past network, so interesting: the meeting brought together a group of scholars from all stages of their academic careers, united not by period or theme, but rather the consideration of historical humour as a scholarly study. The purpose of the Collaboratory was to bring together scholars of humour to discuss, question, and argue over the theoretical approaches in the context of our individual studies, and how the methodological issues we face compare to those faced by others whose materials differed widely from our own.

Throughout the Collaboratory, an issue that especially caught my attention was the contemporary prism through which we, as scholars, necessarily view humours of the past. Can the types of humour which we enjoy in the present ever be viewed as analogous to that which was enjoyed in the past, or must we – as members of the contemporary world – always submit to the idea that this past humour can never be fully understood? Must we always approach humours of the past through the obscuring lens of the present? The issue is essentially one of equivalence and translatability – both linguistic and temporal.

On the one hand, we may be tempted to treat humours of the past as entirely imminent, pertinent, and knowable: the same jokes, just packaged in a different way.  This argument, often utilised as a way for modern audiences to be taught to appreciate humorous material from the past, reinforces the idea that we are dealing with universalized comic forms, merely shrouded in unfamiliar language, just waiting to be cracked open and re-appreciated. But in trying to ‘re-find’ the joke, and make historicized humour funny again ­– whether through the re-printing of visual media, re-vocalization of sometimes unpalatable verbal humour, or the restaging of early drama – we risk partisan selection, misrepresentation, and ultimately a misunderstanding of the past. Humorous material is either sanitized to remove any element of the past which we may now find repugnant or offensive, or reduced to a basic level which is unrepresentative of its former self.

These issues are felt keenly in my own field by scholars of early drama. Re-staging an historic performance, or early drama for which only a script survives, is often utilised as an important part of study, revealing facets of dialogue, staging, or production hitherto obscured. Yet performance is the relationship of audience and production, and understanding historic humour can prove elusive in this context. When we re-stage dramas of the fourteenth, fifteenth, or even sixteenth centuries, even the most faithful dramatic representation can be hampered by the reception it receives from modern audiences –  with spectators whose field of reference is entirely different from their medieval or early modern counterparts, who laugh at different things, and don’t laugh at others.

In producing late medieval drama on the modern stage, for the most part we have only scripted lines on a manuscript page (and sometimes stage directions) to rely upon. Humour in a performance is constantly re-molded by the response of the audience – even in modern plays, comedic material can raise laughs on certain nights, but not others: those speaking the lines must adapt to their circumstances, and find out what works with certain spectators, but not others.  As audience response is rarely recorded for early drama, we can only speculate on how early spectators would have would have reacted differently from us, laughed differently from us. It is difficult to know what value and meaning humour held for them, and whether it was at all similar to our own appreciation.

As modern readers or spectators, it is tempting to look down on humours of the past as something more primitive, less refined than our own. But the prejudices brought by a modern audience do not denote greater liberality, or sophistication, but merely difference in understanding. I primarily research the so-called ‘Mystery Plays’ – works of early drama popular in England before the Reformation. The Mystery Plays staged scenes from the biblical history of the world, often for huge audiences on the streets of late medieval towns and cities. When we consider these performances, it is easy to think we understand all that they were – religious plays, celebrating and representing communal devotion.

Here we see examples of humour: something which to some may be surprising in itself, as contemporary perceptions of religion seem often to be far from comic. Still, in some of these pageants, the humour feels familiar, and easy to understand. In the popular pageant concerning the great Flood, for example, even if we are not aware of the late medieval convention which saw Noah’s wife played as a quarrelsome woman, refusing to board the ark through mistrust of her righteous husband, the bawdy knock-about humour on marriage feels entirely familiar. Think only of the ‘old married couple’ stereotype: from the bickering of Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, to the flirtatious squabbles of Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart’s characters in 1951 film The African Queen, or even the petty squabbles of Pam and Mick (Alison Steadman and Larry Lamb) in British sit-com ‘Gavin and Stacey’.

But if this humorous situation is easy for modern audiences to laugh at, other biblical pageants contain comic elements far more estranged from our understanding. In another medieval pageant ‘Joseph’s Troubles About Mary’, originally staged in the City of York, a different marital dynamic is played out when the elderly carpenter accuses his young bride of sexual infidelity. With ever-rising anger, the increasingly exasperated Joseph questions his youthful wife ‘Whose is the childe thou arte withall?’, to which she replies, quite meekly, ‘Youres, sir, and the kyngis of blisse’. All is settled eventually when an angel descends to explain that this child is the son of God. But the humour of the piece plays on Joseph’s status as a mistrustful old man, suspicious of his beautiful young wife – a familiar trope, but one here made funnier by the audience’s implicit faith that the latter figure was, indeed, a virgin after all – the Virgin, in fact.

Modern audiences might shy away from aspects of ‘Josephs Troubles’: the comic relationship of an old man and his very-young wife; the placement of Joseph and Mary, the parents of Christ, into these roles; even the suggestion – however ridiculous – that the Virgin Mary was not so much of a virgin after all. Modern re-staging of the play must take all of these things into account if they still wish to rouse a laugh. But it is possible to change the nature of the play to better suit modern tastes, whilst still being true to the comedic elements within a scene inspired by medieval tastes.

This is best shown in a recent re-staging of the York ‘Crucifixion’ – a performance which modern audiences can hardly be expected to regard as a barrel of laughs. In the original late medieval staging of this pageant, it has been suggested that Christ’s executioners were staged as comic figures, ultimately attempting to distract the audience from the centrally poignant iconography at the centre of the performance. In this modern version, performed to a large audience in the shadow of Durham Cathedral as part of the city’s Theatrum Mundi festival of early drama, producers were inspired by the tricks used on medieval audiences – using laughter as a tool to conceal the sacred image of Christ’s tortured body, before a dramatic revelation at the end of the play.

After a comic exchange of punning and alliterative dialogue, presenting the soldiers as loutish chancers drinking and arguing over the task in hand, the modern spectators were made to think that the actors playing these figures were themselves unable to work the stage mechanics to hoist up the bulk of the crucifix. The inability of these figures to raise the cross brought tension and laughter to the situation, before several members of the audience were roped in to help. It was only when a deprecating cheer had gone up, after the job had been done, that the audience looked again at the body of Christ on the cross, and realized that they – and their laughter – had been complicit in his execution. As in the medieval context, humour was used as a tool to explore the uneasy relationship between the sacred and the profane, or even mundane – understanding laughter both as a marker of sinfulness, and a tool of devotion.

Nevertheless, sometimes we must resign ourselves to the fact that a modern audience can never be a medieval one. Re-working the humour to fit a new context inevitably changes it. And if producers are always attempting to find new meaning in old texts, and bringing new contexts to provoke new-found relevance, what does that mean for the study of humour in the past?

If we accept that we can never fully recreate or understand humours of the past, we do run the risk of us disassociating ourselves from the laughter entirely, and treating it as a distant and incomprehensible artefact. L. P. Hartley said that “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. Must we study humours of the past as foreign forces, entirely distinct from our own conception, regardless of whether we still find an old joke funny, still laugh at an ancient parody or antique rhyme? We may appreciate humour in a different way to our ancestors, but we can often still appreciate it – something which raises the multi-layered nature of humour, and the different levels on which examples can be understood, across time as well as between members of the same audience.

There is sometimes an anxiety that as modern readers or scholars we cannot fully discern whether something was intentionally funny, especially if it is not framed in a humorous context, or whether it just appears so because of its distance from us in terms of oddity, abruptness, or apparent incongruousness. We may find a representation which appears to us to be humorous, but may just be a quirk of time: a text or figure doing something silly, surprising, or even downright odd; a scurrilous image on a cheaply-made amphora; or even comic marginalia in a richly-decorated devotional aid. But we must always assume that humour was as much part of the past as it is the present and the future.

As scholars, we bring with us a certain cache of biases, contexts, and perspectives; as in any other discipline, these frames of analysis have to be acknowledged if we are to further our understanding of humour in the past. Our knowledge is limited by the context, knowledge, and evaluative frameworks which represent the past –  essentially the lived experience central to the understanding of any joke. Yet we can still approach humour of the past by trying to better understand this lived experience; awareness that our view of humour is filtered through the lens of the present can be useful.

It was heartening, in the HOP Collaboratory, to see other scholars wrangling with similar issues, despite the difference in contexts, frameworks, and time periods which they covered. To see how others approached humour in their own projects demonstrated the huge diversity within the field, but also the questions which brought us together – of how humour could be understood, and how inherently linked it was to a certain place, time, or culture. Not always fun and games, but plenty of laughs. A funny sort of research, I suppose.