British humor has a reputation for being provocative. Its foundation lies in satirizing the nonsensical aspects of ordinary existence, with comedians fearlessly tackling even the most delicate social matters. Now, a new study has found this sharp sense of humor goes way back to medieval society, based on a 15th-century manuscript.
A team at Cambridge University unearthed descriptions of medieval live comedy, with jokes targeted at kings, priests and peasants. Some sections encourage people to get drunk. The manuscript really spares no one.
There were even elements of slapstick -- a type of comedy in which the actors behave in a silly way, such as by throwing things, falling over, etc -- which is still the domain of the British. The popular show Mr. Bean is a prime example.
The study also gives valuable insights into the role of minstrels in medieval society. Minstrels were traveling musicians and comedians in the Middle Ages, entertaining people with songs and stories at fairs and saloons. While this profession appears in literature and movies, there are practically no biographies of specific minstrels.
A surprising finding
James Wade, a scholar at Cambridge University, came across the manuscript by accident while doing research at the National Library of Scotland. He had a moment of epiphany when noticing the scribe had written: "By me, Richard Heege, because I was at that feast and did not have a drink” – an unusual thing to write for a medieval scribe.
This prompted Wade to investigate how, where, and why Heege had copied out the texts. His study focused on the first of nine booklets that are part of the Heege Manuscript. This booklet contains three texts, which Wade believes Heege likely copied from a now-lost memory aid written by an unknown minstrel performing in the East Midlands, UK.
The three texts comprise a whimsical and rhyming parody called "The Hunting of the Hare," a comical prose piece resembling a sermon, and a playful and nonsensical verse titled "The Battle of Brackonwet," featuring alliteration.
“Stand-up comedy has always involved taking risks and these texts are risky,” Wade said in a media statement.
Wade pieced together various clues that hinted at a minstrel's collection of shows. Each text has a lighthearted tone and is crafted for live presentations. The narrator actively engages with the audience, encouraging their attentiveness and even asking for a drink. The texts also incorporate inside jokes that resonate with the local crowd.
According to the researcher, it is likely that the minstrel documented a portion of his act in writing due to the intricate nature of its numerous nonsensical sequences.
"By not incorporating repetitive elements or a coherent narrative structure, the minstrel made it challenging to rely solely on memory," explains Wade in a media statement.
There could be more evidence to be found on medieval comedy but Wade believes that minstrel writing is unlikely to have survived. Instead, he suggests researchers look for other forms of evidence, such as Hegge’s texts.
“People back then partied a lot more than we do today. These texts give us a snapshot of medieval life being lived well,” he added.
The study was published in the journal Review of English Studies.