On this blog we tend to wax lyrical about the more prevalent myths concerning the Middle Ages; the lack of technological development, the flat earth, the ‘age before reason’ etc etc.. One of the less well known ones is that our Medieval forebears lacked a sense of humour, or as the historian Michael W George puts it in his debunking essay in ‘Misconceptions about the Middle Ages’, that the Medieval period was ‘an austere age without laughter’. Of course we moderns have no right to talk given some of the supposedly funny rubbish I have sat through on U.S and U.K TV, atrocities such as ‘Two Pints of Lager and a packet of crisps’, ‘Traffic Light ‘ and ‘Glee’ (a show the female members of my household appear to love but which forces me to bolt from the couch and leave the room in digust whenever it appears on the box).
Michael George points out that in the Middle Ages, no subject appears to have been immune from humour. Most of the cycle plays from England for example have episodes dealing with Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s pregnancy and show him convinced he has been a cuckold and demanding to know the name of the baby’s father. In these he is presented as an old man who – it is inferred – is impotent since he knows he is physically incapable of impregnating his wife. Another prominent festival, the ‘Feast of Fools’ parodied religious ceremonies with, for example, the censing performed with sausages.
In a separate essay ‘Medieval Monks, funnier than you thought’, Liam Ethan Felsen shows that humour existed amongst the clergy – many of whom argued against laughter. He draws attention to the ‘drinkers masses’, which are riotous parodies that turn the liturgies into tavern centred ceremonies administered by Bacchus the God of Wine. The Confitemini Dolio reads for example:
Pater Bacche qui es in schyphis, sanctifi cetur bonum vinum. Adveniat damnum tuum. Fiat tempestas tua sicut in schypho sic etiam in taberna.Potum nostrum da hobis hodie. Et dimitte nobis pocula nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus compotatoribus nostris. Et sic nos inducas inebrietatem, sed ne libera nos a vino.
(Father Bacchus who art in cups, hallowed be good wine. Thy ruination come. Thy turmoil be done in the cup as it is in the tavern. Give us this day our daily drink. And send forth our cups to us as we send forth to our fellow drinkers. And lead us not into drunkenness, but do not deliver us from wine.)
Another Mass – the Missa potatorum repeats this liturgy but replaces ‘do not deliver us from wine’ with ‘but deliver us from vomit’. Another example, Quondam fuit factus, describes how one solitary, sober monk witnesses his colleagues getting steadily more plastered.
Abbas vomit et Prioris;
Vomis cadit super fl oris;
Ego pauper steti foris,
Et non sum laetitia.
The abbot vomited and the prior;
The vomit fell on the floor
I, a poor man, stood outside,
and I was not happy.
…the next morning
Abbas mingit suum stratum,
Prior merdans ad cellatum
Cocus vomit in ollatum
De turpis material.
The abbot wets his bed,
The prior craps his cell
The cook vomits in the pot
A nasty substance
In a similar vein – the 'Arch poet’s confession' reads Meum est propositum in taberna mori (It is my intention to die in the tavern).
Such examples may not represent the pinnacle of humour but they do go some way to showing the Middle Ages were perhaps not as miserable as some historians have made out.
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