Collaboratory 1!


With gratitude to the Arts and Humanities Research Council, we can now report that HOP has successfully had its first major meeting, or, ‘Collaboratory’! This was held July this year at the University of Aberdeen. Nineteen of us came together to make a start on a wide-ranging set of investigations all linked to the issue of how we access and understand humour across a diverse range of historical contexts. What is the nature of the similarities and differences between the different phenomena we are dealing with as historians of humour? What comparability of method might there be in our different ways of looking into historical humour? We think Collaboratory 1 has taken an important step in investigating these questions, along a path that HOP will continue to follow.

We want to thank everyone for their participation and say a little more about what happened at the Collaboratory 1 and where we are going next.

Jessica Milner Davis offered a reflection on the inter-cultural complexity of the linguistic terms for ‘humour’. This drew attention to a two-sided coin: on the one side, the difficulty of comparing disparate phenomena with different terminology arising across time and culture, and, on the other, the sense that there is actually something comparable, as our desire to use the catch-all term ‘humour’ suggests. We then heard from Graeme Ritchie and Will Noonan who critiqued some of the existing theoretical models that have been used to investigate our questions. Central among these is the General Theory of Verbal Humour (GTVH). A strong consensus emerged that, for all its strengths, the GTVH offers historians basically what most ‘incongruity’ theories do: a structuralist means of confirming a sense (derived from elsewhere) that humour exists in a historical context. Beyond this, what often needs to be addressed in historical cases are issues that the GTVH was never designed to address: for example, the question of humour’s function, its ideological import and emotional significance, the question of what a comic character, or a comic butt is within a particular cultural situation, and so on.

Participants had the opportunity to share case studies with one another and explain the nature of their particular research questions within their field of study. There was a considerable range of projects represented overall, from ancient Greek comedy and comic vase painting, ancient Chinese jokes, Norse riddling, comic medieval manuscript illumination, Shakespearean foolery, 19th century Japanese comics, and many more. HOP is seeking to encourage a much wider sharing of research questions and methodologies used in across comparable areas of historical enquiry.

In addition, with talks by Delia Chiaro, Aubrey Mellor, Alexandre Mitchell, and Christie Davies, we began to address four areas of investigation that will be developed as the HOP network expands beyond its academic circle. These are issues that bring historical humour into the present:

  1. How do we translate historical humours?
  2. How do we perform them on contemporary stages?
  3. How do we understand historical visual humour and curate it for contemporary visitors to exhibitions?
  4. How do we understand the history of particular comic stereotypes? What role do they continue to play in social conflicts and potentially in policy responses to those conflicts?

If you are interested in any of these questions, whether you’re an academic, an actor, director, curator, translator, or work in a different industry entirely, we welcome your input, and invite you to get in touch. Just use the contact page here on the website. HOP’s next major event will be held in Durham next (Northern Hemisphere) summer. More details and a cfp will be made public soon. Anyone with an interest in these questions will be very welcome to attend.

Daniel Derrin (Durham University)

Hannah Burrows (University of Aberdeen)





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