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Said in jest: Who’s laughing at the Middle Ages (and when)?

Said in jest: Who’s laughing at the Middle Ages (and when)?

By David Matthews

postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, No.5 (2014)

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Abstract: The essay begins with a negative image of a medieval scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is used to point out that the scene is a knowing parody rather than founded on a genuine belief in an unmitigatedly dark age. I argue that the humor emerges from this disjunction rather than because a depiction of shit-covered medieval peasants is innately funny. I briefly look at the lineage of the notion of a dark age, before turning to some texts in order to discuss the question of when and why the medieval period became humorous. I look first at episodes in Don Quixote, before turning to a little known humorous story, the Iest of Dane Hew of Leicester, a text printed in the later sixteenth century but usually taken as a fifteenth-century work. I argue, instead, that it is self-conscious medievalism of the Elizabethan period, and I look at the way in which humor is used in it to confirm the periodizing divide between the Middle Ages (a term not yet current at that time) and the printer’s present moment.

Introduction: The second scene of the classic 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail depicts a plague-ridden village, its people crawling around in the mud and a cart going from door to door to collect the dead (and even, as the scene unfolds, those not so dead). At its conclusion, King Arthur and a few attendants ride by, prompting the following exchange:

Man [John Cleese]: Who’s that then?
Body-collector [Eric Idle]: I don’t know; must be a king.
Man: Why?
Body-collector: He hasn’t got shit all over him.

In this example of a text of medievalism, the Middle Ages is reduced to absolute fundamentals: the common people were starving and ate dirt; most of the population had the plague; indeed, almost everyone was covered in shit. There are thousands of medievalist jokes, but this one goes a long way to reducing the trope of a dark age to the barest essentials. Monty Python’s shit-covered peasants are the distant progeny of the humanist/Reformation construction of a dark age, and this depiction of the period is the logical outcome of centuries of denigration of the Middle Ages.

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