A 15th-century manuscript has revealed an exceptional collection of medieval live comedy performances, shedding new light on the renowned British sense of humor and the pivotal role of minstrels in medieval society. These lively texts, brimming with jests at the expense of kings, priests, and peasants, advocating for audience intoxication, and surprising with physical comedy, present rare forms of medieval literature. The discovery includes the earliest known usage of the phrase ‘red herring’ in English and even features a killer rabbit reminiscent of Monty Python. These findings reshape our understanding of English comedic culture in the transitional period between Chaucer and Shakespeare.
During the Middle Ages, minstrels traversed fairs, taverns, and noble halls, captivating audiences with their songs and stories. While fictional minstrels frequently appear in medieval literature, references to real-life performers are scarce and fleeting. Until now, we possessed little evidence of their lives or work, aside from occasional first names, payment records, instruments played, and sporadic mentions of their locations.
Dr. James Wade, from Cambridge University’s English Faculty and Girton College, stumbled upon these texts serendipitously during his research at the National Library of Scotland. A remarkable revelation occurred when he noticed the scribe’s inscription: “By me, Richard Heege, because I was at that feast and did not have a drink.”
Wade describes it as a captivating display of humor, as medieval scribes rarely shared such personal glimpses into their character. Intrigued, he delved into the circumstances surrounding Heege’s transcription of the texts, investigating how, where, and why they came to be.
Published in The Review of English Studies, Wade’s study centers on the first of nine miscellaneous booklets within the ‘Heege Manuscript.’ This particular booklet contains three texts, leading Wade to conclude that around 1480, Heege copied them from a lost memory-aid, originally authored by an anonymous minstrel performing near the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border. The three texts include a tail-rhyme burlesque romance called “The Hunting of the Hare,” a mock sermon in prose, and “The Battle of Brackonwet,” an alliterative nonsense verse.
According to Wade, most medieval poetry, songs, and storytelling have been lost over time. Manuscripts often preserve remnants of high art, but these texts stand out as something entirely different—mad and offensive, yet profoundly valuable. They take aim at everyone, from the high-born to the lowly, showcasing the daring and risk-taking inherent in stand-up comedy. These texts resonate with the spirit of British comedy, characterized by self-irony and making the audience the subject of the joke.
The significance of the booklet had remained unnoticed until now, likely overshadowed by previous studies focused solely on its production process, overlooking its comedic importance. By connecting various clues, Wade pieced together a repertoire belonging to a minstrel. All three texts exhibit humor and were designed for live performances, with the narrator actively engaging the audience and requesting a drink. The texts incorporate local in-jokes, tailored to appeal to specific audiences and revealing the minstrels’ playful understanding of the diverse and celebratory gatherings they entertained.
Wade suggests that the minstrel transcribed part of his act due to the difficulty of recalling the numerous nonsensical sequences. “He didn’t structure his material with repetition or a straightforward narrative trajectory that would have made it easier to remember,” explains Wade.
Encountering such an original and ironic performer with limited education from this period is a rarity, making this discovery exceedingly rare and thrilling.
While many minstrels held day jobs as plowmen or peddlers, they pursued their musical careers during evenings and weekends. Some traveled extensively, while others maintained a circuit of local venues, as Wade suspects this particular minstrel did.
Wade draws parallels between this minstrel’s humor and contemporary shows like Mock the Week, situational comedies, and slapstick. The ability to mock oneself and make the audience the subject of the joke remains characteristic of British stand-up comedy.
These texts expand our understanding of minstrels’ repertoire, which was previously believed to consist mainly of ballads about Robin Hood, chivalric romances, adventure stories, and songs depicting grand battles. In contrast, these newly discovered texts delve into the realm of comedy, encompassing satire, irony, nonsense, topicality, interactivity, and meta-comedy. They offer a veritable feast of comedic material.
“The Hunting of the Hare” is a poem brimming with jokes and absurd escapades, featuring fictional peasants such as Davé of the Dale and Jack Wade, archetypal medieval villagers. One scene bears a striking resemblance to Monty Python’s ‘Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog,’ showcasing the long-standing tradition of killer rabbit jokes in medieval literature, initiated by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales.
Among the texts is one of the few surviving examples of a mock sermon in Middle English, akin to Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Prologue.” This particular sermon humorously addresses the audience as “cursed creatures” and weaves fragments of drinking songs into its verses, including lines like “Drink you to me and I to you and hold your cup up high” and “God loves neither horse nor mare, but merry men that in the cup can stare.” Wade explains that the minstrel is urging the audience, regardless of social standing, to revel in drink and merriment together.
Within the mock sermon, the aristocracy becomes the target of ridicule, providing the earliest recorded use of the phrase ‘red herring’ to signify a diversion. In the sermon, three kings indulge in excessive feasting, resulting in their bellies bursting open to reveal 24 oxen engaged in sword fighting. The oxen then continue to chop each other up until they transform into three ‘red herrings.’ Wade elucidates that this imagery, albeit bizarre, serves to illustrate how kings are reduced to mere distractions. Gluttony, a characteristic of kings, creates absurd pageantry that acts as a diversion, or in this case, a ‘red herring.’
“The Battle of Brakonwet” represents an alliterative nonsense verse, an exceedingly rare form in Middle English. The poem features Robin Hood, jousting bears, battling bumblebees, and merry-making pigs. By mentioning several villages in close proximity to the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border, the minstrel invites the audience to imagine absurd incidents unfolding in their own neighborhood. The poem skillfully employs alliterative verse and clever wordplay, as exemplified by the line, “In a slommuryng of slepe, for-slokond with ale,” which can be interpreted to mean both “quenched” and “drenched.”
This discovery challenges the notion that popular entertainers of the time were incapable of achieving poetic excellence, as this minstrel clearly demonstrates otherwise.
The scribe of these texts, Richard Heege, served as a household cleric and tutor to the Sherbrooke family, who were part of the Derbyshire gentry and were the original owners of the booklets. Heege’s sense of humor and appreciation for literature led him to preserve what others may have considered lowbrow material unsuitable for
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Medieval humor
What is the significance of the 15th-century manuscript discovery?
The 15th-century manuscript discovery provides unprecedented insights into medieval humor and minstrel performances. It sheds light on the renowned British sense of humor, reveals rare forms of medieval literature, and challenges our understanding of comedic culture during the transition from Chaucer to Shakespeare.
What kind of texts were found in the manuscript?
The manuscript contains boisterous texts that include jests targeting kings, priests, and peasants. It advocates for audience inebriation and surprises them with physical comedy. The texts comprise extremely rare forms of medieval literature, featuring the earliest known usage of the phrase ‘red herring’ in English and even a killer rabbit reminiscent of Monty Python.
What do we learn about minstrels from these texts?
The texts provide valuable insights into the lives and work of minstrels during medieval times. While fictional minstrels are common in literature, references to real-life performers are rare. These texts offer glimpses into the minstrels’ repertoire, their engagement with local audiences through in-jokes, and their playful awareness of diverse celebratory gatherings. They highlight the significant role minstrels played in medieval society and their ability to entertain people across different social hierarchies.
How did the discovery of the texts come about?
Dr. James Wade stumbled upon the texts while researching at the National Library of Scotland. His accidental discovery occurred when he noticed an intriguing inscription by the scribe, Richard Heege, indicating a humorous anecdote related to a feast. This led Dr. Wade to investigate the texts further, unraveling their origin and significance.
What is the impact of these findings?
The findings challenge previous assumptions about minstrels’ repertoire, showcasing a broader range of comedic material beyond traditional ballads and adventure stories. They demonstrate that minstrels were capable of creating original, ironic, and humorous content, providing a unique perspective on medieval entertainment and oral storytelling. These discoveries contribute to our understanding of medieval life, festive entertainment, and the flourishing nature of comedic culture during that era.
More about Medieval humor
- The Review of English Studies – The scholarly publication where Dr. James Wade’s study on the medieval minstrel’s repertoire book is published.
- National Library of Scotland – The website of the National Library of Scotland, where the Heege Manuscript and other valuable historical resources are housed.
- Cambridge University English Faculty – The official website of Cambridge University’s English Faculty, where Dr. James Wade is affiliated.
- Monty Python – The official website of the iconic comedy group Monty Python, known for their irreverent and absurdist humor, including sketches featuring killer rabbits.
- Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – A collection of stories by Geoffrey Chaucer, including humorous tales and examples of medieval literature.
- British Library – The website of the British Library, which houses numerous manuscripts and historical documents related to medieval literature and culture.