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.


2 thoughts on “Playful but Problematic: Medieval Humour and Contemporary Performance

  1. Dear Jamie, I really appreciate your insights here into the complicitness of laughter in comic relief. I think the phenomenon probably applies much more widely than just to the medieval mystery plays: it’s very helpful o have your report of a contemporary and real-time experience. “Black humour” (Andre Breton’s “Humour Noir”) is a vexed and complex topic and I have yet to see a good commentary about how it relates to the more structurally distinctive use of humour as “comic relief”. This is not necessarily a Humours of hte Past topic — but it is interesting to see it emerge from precisely that focus! It confirms my view that HOP raises universal topics, not just must and dust ones as many in the field of general humour studies might suppose.. Please keep up your good work and I look forward to seeing you again in Durham at the next Collaboratory in July. I am very much hoping to travel from Australia again as I find this group and its interchange invaluable and stimulating. Best wishes, Jessica Milner Davis


  2. Reblogged this on READ Research in English at Durham and commented:
    Medieval drama often featured religious themes, retelling biblical stories on stage – not material you would expect to be given a comic treatment. In this blog post for the Humours of the Post project, Jamie Beckett (part of the Records of Early English Drama North East team) describes how early drama may actually have made considerable use of humour and comedy, and explains how to reproduce the jokes of the past for a modern audience.


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