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Looking back across the centuries, the Middle Ages doesn’t appear to have been a particularly hilarious time to be alive. From feudalism and the Black Death to the Wars of the Roses, things seem to have been downright bleak. Yet it appears that even the medieval peasants at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy enjoyed being entertained by traveling performers known as minstrels – and what they found funny isn’t all that different from a modern sense of humor.
Dr James Wade, a researcher at Cambridge University, has concluded that the 15th-century text known as the Heege manuscript contains what is essentially a comedy script, offering an incredibly rare look at the repertoire of medieval English minstrels. It was written around 1480 by Richard Heege, a cleric and tutor for a wealthy Derbyshire family. Heege copied down the routine of an unnamed minstrel who performed near the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border.
So what did this minstrel sing about? Just like today’s comedy, there are elements of slapstick, toilet humor, self-deprecation, and poking fun at all levels of society, from lowly peasants to lords and kings, who were often mocked for greedy or thoughtless behavior.
It’s not surprising that although the existence of minstrels is thoroughly documented, we have never had a taste of what their performances were really like. Performing in alehouses, mainly to an audience of peasants, minstrels were part of the oral tradition. Many were illiterate and would not have written down their songs and tales, though due to the complexity of the routine, Dr Wade thinks the Heege manuscript was based on a written memory-aid used by the performer.
Now that's classic comedy:
- Animals provide much of the humor in anecdotes such as one about fish attending a church service and another involving a fiddle-playing fox hosting a feast. And just as in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (a movie from 1975, so not exactly medieval literature!), the prospect of killer rabbits is mentioned.
- More controversially, the minstrel poked fun at the Eucharist in a mock sermon and lampooned gluttonous kings who ate so much that they burst. On the other hand, he encouraged his audience to drink more and warned against the sin of wasting good ale.
- Examples of humor in medieval literature certainly existed before the Heege manuscript (there are certainly some funny moments in The Canterbury Tales, if you know where to look), but this study is unique for uncovering a rare example of someone transcribing songs performed by minstrels that would almost never have been written down.