By Michael George
Misconceptions about the Middle Ages (2003)
Introduction: A common misconception about the Middle Ages is that our medieval forefathers lacked a sense of humor. Such an attitude has arisen due perhaps to scholarly and classroom interest in more serious matters; medieval humor is neither studied nor taught nearly as much as more serious topics–religion, philosophy, warfare, high literature. And, “Scholars of medieval literature have long followed a tendency to separate comic from serious genres, so that comic elements in a ‘serious’ work are seen either as an aesthetic flaw incompatible with the work’s overall purpose, or as a mere sugar coating covering the work’s kernel of meaning”. Medieval people did, indeed, have a sense of humor. They told jokes, engaged in horseplay, and participated in a variety of recreational activities. And scholarship is beginning to recognize comedy and laughter as meaningful.
While the vast majority of scholars focus on the serious side of the Middle Ages, a number have ventured into the arena of humor and laughter. Johan Huizinga, for instance, sees laughter, wit, jest, joke, and the comic, as related to the subject of his book–play. Mikhail Bakhtin goes further. For Bakhtin medieval and Renaissance society consisted of two ideologies. The official ideology was completely serious. An unofficial, subversive ideology also existed, and this ideology contained within it subversive folk elements that through their humor ran contrary to official culture. In Bakhtin’s view, medieval society was the battleground for these two competing ideologies. Though many scholars would caution using Bakhtin’s ideas too readily, Rabelais and His World was a highly influential book, opening up entirely new avenues into cultural studies, avenues paved with humor.
To medieval thinkers, laughter was a complex subject, perhaps more complex than it is to most of us. It was considered to be a fundamental part of human nature, as the words of Notker Labeo, a monk of St. Gall who died in 1022, indicate: “homo est animal rationale, mortale, risus capax” (“Man is a rational, moral animal, capable of laughter”). But this principle only complicated the matter rather than simplifying it. The question remained: is laughter good or evil, and for whom is laughter appropriate? Whether or not clerics should jest occupied thinkers such as Walter of Châtillon. Conduct books and religious rules commented on laughter. Conduct books like Ratis Raving and Pecock’s Reule of Crysten Religioun stressed that laughter in moderation was acceptable. In the end, the Middle Ages considered “its peril, its necesity, its potential usefulness” when thinking about laughter.