Medieval sense of humour



The passions of a violent society spill over into the sense of humour you will encounter. Yes, there is humour, lots of it, amid the violence and sexism. But whether you will find it funny is a quite a different matter. For example, here is a medieval joke. One merchant asks another, ‘Are you married?’ ‘I had three wives,’ the second merchant responds, ‘but all three hanged themselves from a tree in my garden.’ The first merchant retorts, ‘Pray, give me a cutting from this miraculous tree.’

Sarcasm might be commonly referred to as the lowest form of wit in our own time but in the 14th century it is just about the highest. It is arguably the only form which does not require the humiliation of a victim. One of the most famous humorous letters of the century is written by the young Edward II to Louis d’Evreux, in which he promises to send him a present of ‘some misshapen greyhounds from Wales, which can well catch a hare if they find it asleep, and running dogs which can follow at an amble, for well we know how you love lazy dogs’. Similarly, if you visit court in late 1328 you might be amused by Roger Mortimer’s sarcastic reply to a letter from earl of Lancaster, his avowed enemy. Having been accused to impoverishing the Crown, Mortimer denies everything vehemently and then adds ‘but if any man knows how to make the king richer, he is most welcome at court’.

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Practical jokes are perhaps the nost common form of humour. Men and women are often amused when other people injure themselves. Take hocking, for example: at one levelthis is the Hocktide custom of capturing men and women and holding them prisoner and releasing them for a fee, in order to raise money for the parish. On Mondays men are captured by women, and vice versa on Tuesdays. But sometimes it gets out of hand. A group of lads lay a noose on the ground and wait for an unsuspecting passer-by to step into it. Then they hoist him up, suddenly, by his ankles, often bashing his head on the ground in the process. Watch out at dusk, when it is difficult to see the rope against the mud of the street. otherwise you will be kept hanging by one leg until you have paid a ransom. Those who see the spectacle will laugh heartily at your embarrassment.

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In a violent society even the humour is violent. One day King Edward II is riding along the road behind one of his kitchen staff, called Morris, who falls off his horse. Something is wrong with Morris for he is unable to keep his balance and falls off again. Does the king ride up and offer him a helping hand? Or send a servant to enquire after the man’s health? Nothing of the sort. Instead, he laughs and laughs and laughs. Wiping away a tear, he gives the man the equivalent of a year’s salary as a present, not to help him get better but for making him laugh so much. Sometimes such violent ribaldry is enshrined in annual games, such as the Haxey Hood game, which permits the man playing the Fool to kiss any girl or married woman he meets. At the end of the celebrations he will be cut down from the bough of a tree above a fire, and burnt badly for his amatory indulgences.

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There is a fine line between this brutal sense of humour and plain trickery, which is not so funny. You will be surprised how many people laugh at the idea of a man persuading a woman to sleep with him after promising to marry her, with his sole guarantee of good intentions being a ring made of wound rushes – which soon falls apart, like his promise of marriage. The idea of a young woman cuckolding her old husband with a handsome young man is one which constantly entertains and delights people. Chaucer uses it to brilliant effect in discussing the relations between men and women in his Canterbury Tales. Of course, in Chaucer’s hands, even plain trickery can be hilariously funny. The end of the Miller’s Tale, where the carpenter cuts the rope holding his washtub in the rafters and falls to the floor, is slapstick at its very finest. But for every Chaucer there are ten thousand less-witty tricksters. In 1351 the mayor of London has to pass a bye-law prohibiting boys from playing practical jokes on the Members of Parliament. Among other things, they had been running up behind them and stealing their hoods.

from Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England

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