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Medieval Fun: Joking about the Church in the Middle Ages

Were medieval people funny? Could they tell a good joke? Check out these stories from Poggio Bracciolini and see if you will laugh!

A statue of a smiling Gabriel the Archangel at Jerpoint Abbey. Photo by Marco / Flickr

In 1470 the Italian scholar Poggio Bracciolini published his work Facetiae. Poggio was an Italian scholar who spent most of his career working for the Papacy, but he also wrote about a wide number of topics and was seen as one of the brightest minds of his time. He explains that he wrote the Facetiae because “it is proper, and almost a matter of necessity commended by philosophers, that our mind, weighed down by a variety of cares and anxieties, should now and then enjoy relaxation from its constant labour, and be incited to cheerfulness and mirth by some humorous recreation.”

Here are five of his stories that poked fun at Christianity and the medieval church:

A Priest who, while preaching, made a mistake in his numbers, and instead of a thousand, said a hundred

A Priest was expounding to his congregation the passage of the Gospel wherein is recited that our Saviour fed five thousand people out of five loaves, and, by a slip of the tongue, instead of five thousand, said five hundred. His clerk, in a low whisper, called his attention to the mistake, reminding him that the Gospel mentioned five thousand.

“Hold your peace, you fool,” said the Priest; “they will find it hard enough to believe even the number I said.”

The Fat Abbot

The Abbot of Septimo, a very fat and corpulent man, on his way to Florence one evening, enquired of a peasant he met, “Do you think I shall be able to enter the gate?”

Of course, he thus meant to ask whether he was likely to reach the city before the closing of the gates. But the peasant, looking at his stoutness, replied, “To be sure, you will; a cartload of hay gets through, why should not you?”

A Reply to the Priest’s words at the Offertory

A Florentine priest, during a solemn service, was receiving, as usual, the gifts of the faithful at the Offertory, and to each he addressed the customary words, “It shall be returned you a hundred-fold, and you shall enjoy life everlasting,”

Hearing which, an old nobleman, who was giving a silver coin, said, “I shall be well satisfied if I only get back the capital, as they say.”

A Sensible Reply of the Cardinal of Avignon to the King of France

I have thought fit to recall, among these anecdotes, a tart reply of the Cardinal of Avignon, a most sensible man. When residing in Avignon, the Popes used to have, in advance of their retinue, a number of led horses, with gorgeous housings and trappings, to enhance the magnificence of their train. The King of France, one day, indignantly asked the Cardinal if the Apostles had ever resorted to such a display.

“By no means,” replied the Eminence, “but the Apostles belonged to a time when Kings also lived otherwise, being only shepherds and cowkeepers.”

A Good Joke on the Limited Number of God’s Friends

One of our fellow citizens, a very witty man, was labouring under a painful and lengthy illness, was attended by a Friar who came to comfort him, and, among other words of solace, told him that God thus especially chastens those he loves, and inflicts his visitations upon them. “No wonder then,” retorted the sick man, “that God has so few friends; if that is the way he favours them, he ought to have still less.”

You can read more of the Facetiae on Archive.org

This post was inspired by this great clip from SCTV:

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