Updated: May 13, 2022
"But, I answer them that I have read that our elders, men of the greatest prudence and learning, took, delight in jests, facetiæ, and fables for which they were praised rather than blamed."
Poggio Braccioloni, Facetiae
In the movie Amadeus, there is a scene near the opening in which Mozart is chasing Constanze around a room while Saleri watches surreptitiously from behind some plants. Mozart catches her despite her protestations. He convinces her that it is a day to speak backward, and he begins saying things in reverse. At first, it seems he is professing his love for her, but then he sweetly whispers a phrase with scatological references. Saleri is, of course, horrified as he observes the childish tableaux from his hiding spot. Within the context of the movie, the scene brilliantly contrasts the sublimity of Mozart's music with his vulgarity. It is a disconnect that Saleri himself has a hard time reconciling. But Mozart's vulgarity is also set against the trappings of cultured society: the fancy clothes, the gilded walls, the social protocols of court society. It is jolting, but it also makes us laugh, more so when Mozart erupts in his high-pitched, uncomfortable laugh. There is the potty humor, but the larger joke is on the hypocrisy of high society who believe they are above the baseness of humanity. In this manner, the scene fulfills the long-standing purpose of comedy and humor.
The Middle Ages as being harsh and colorless is well entrenched in the popular imagination. But some scholars are trying to alter this perception of the period. They highlight the vibrancy of colors used in textiles, the richness of regional cuisines, and the diversity and complexity of music beyond Gregorian chant. They are reviving the period as a time of enjoyment and amusement. Despite life being harsh and a struggle, especially for peasants and the working class, the people had distinct moments of joie de vivre. Not unlike today, humor and laughter helped one forget the troubles of the day. Part of the problem historians face in researching what made people laugh is that we deal in documents. Evidence is often in the form of text - the written word. We must decipher whether what was written was intended to be humorous or seems to be because of a lack of context. We are missing the inflection of the spoken word as it reveals sarcasm or stresses the punchline. We miss the physicality of much humor, the deadpan delivery, the rolling of eyes, or the wink that hints that the storyteller is not serious. We have only what people decided to be worthy enough to write down. We are missing those everyday moments of everyday people as they interact with one another. Yet it is not much of a stretch of the imagination to picture a group of stonemason apprentices taking a mealtime break and exchanging dirty jokes. Compounding this is that much humor is situational, cultural, or personal. Because of this, we may often miss the joke because we don't understand the reference. However, Chaucer, Boccaccio, and Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini offer a window into the nature of Medieval humor.
In The Decameron, Boccaccio shows himself to be a master at the juxtaposition of the profane and the sublime. The tales are filled with licentious church persons, greedy merchants, adulterers, and many gullible fools. It is often referred to as a human comedy because Boccaccio's readers of the 14th century would have recognized and related to the world of the stories. The characters are at once noble and humane but also funny and sexual. They are flawed people. In this respect, Boccaccio gives us one of the most realistic impressions of life in the late Middle Ages. He places characters in ridiculous situations of their own making. The humor is both intelligent and vulgar. The main character of the tenth story of the sixth day is a mendicant friar named Fra Cipolla. Cipolla means "onion," and in the story, Cipolla visits yearly the rural town of Certaldo. Certaldo was known for its onions during Boccaccio's time.
Boccaccio doesn't shy away from the ribald or the scatological. In fact, he revels in the baseness of human desires and needs. At the same time, he satirizes those who purport to be righteous and saintly. In the first story of the third day, a man pretends to be dumb so that he can be employed as a gardener at a convent. He plans to sleep with each of the nuns. He believes by playing dumb, the women would be more willing to cater to his needs if they thought he could not share the secret of their tryst. He doesn't count on the insatiable libido of the nuns, including the abbess. He discovers that he spends all his energy trying to keep the nuns sexually satisfied. Unable to continue in this manner, he confesses his deceit. Instead of casting him out, the abbess comes up with a compromise. The man can remain as the convent's gardener, and they set up a schedule of when he would satisfy his other duties for the nuns, much to the satisfaction of all.
Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales takes its inspiration from The Decameron. The direct source for the Knight's Tale is from a tale by Boccaccio. It is an elevated and noble-themed story that serves as a paradigm of chivalry and romantic love. The drunken Miller's sordid tale immediately breaks the mood engendered by the Knight's lofty tale of chaste longing. The Miller weaves a yarn about two rival suitors competing to cuckold an old carpenter with the help of his more than willing young wife. It is a lewd bedroom farce filled with bum kissing and plenty of farting. In the Summoner's Tale, an itinerant friar, known for his long-winded speeches and greed, visits a sickly but wealthy old man. The friar expounds at length about the need to prepare one's soul. The lengthy ramblings of the friar upset the sick man until he becomes irate. The friar suggests that the man donate his wealth to the friar's monastic order so that the brothers could pray for the man's soul. Angry, the man agrees and says he has an offering for the friar, but he tells him it is under the bed covers. The sick old man has the friar slide his hand underneath his buttocks, releasing a tremendous fart. Upset, the friar hurries to the lord of the village. The friar complains that he cannot split the fart with his twelve fellow monks. A servant of the lord suggests a solution. The friar is to stand in the middle of a large spoked wheel. The other brothers would stand at the end of each spoke. The friar should break wind and let the fart travel down the twelve spokes.
Poggio Bracciolini (1380 - 1459) was an Italian scholar and humanist who had a wide range of interests. He is noted for his rediscovering many classical works that had lay forgotten in monasteries throughout Central Europe. Though not an ordained priest, he did work in the Papal Curia under seven different popes. Among his more serious scholarly works, there is the Liber Facetiarum or the Facetiae. The Facetiae is perhaps the first printed joke book. Bracciolini gathers together a collection of witty retorts, wordplay, potty humor, and dirty jokes. These are not high literature, but the type of jokes shared at the bar with friends or by a lounge comedian during their routine. A few samples:
"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 country-man, rallying his stoutness, replied, "To be sure, you will; a cartload of hay gets through, why should not you?""
"In Florence, a young woman, somewhat of a simpleton, was on the point of delivering a baby. She had long been enduring acute pain, and the midwife, candle in hand, inspected her secret area, in order to ascertain if the child was coming. "Look also on the other side," said the poor creature, "my husband has sometimes taken that road.""
"A man, who had just purchased an expensive gown for his wife, figured that every time he lay with her it cost him at least a ducat.
Hearing his complaint, the wife replied: "It is your own fault. Why don't you lie with me so often that each time will cost you but a penny?""
One source where we can see people who didn't take Medieval life seriously is hagiography -the lives of saints. This genre of literature was very popular and was meant to be serious works modeling exemplary behavior and virtues. But embedded in many of these are more light-hearted moments. Medieval rhetoric recognized that if a story were fascinating or enjoyable, the reader or listener would be hooked and more likely to remain for the important message being communicated. (Even today, humor is an effective means of learning.) The 6th-century historian and bishop, Gregory of Tours, offers a little anecdote about a corrupt former deacon. The man went to work for the French royal treasury and was known to be illegally confiscating sheep owned by the church of St. Julian. Accused of stealing from a dead saint, the man asked if St. Julian ate mutton. One day, this former deacon fell in front of the saint's tomb. He couldn't get up and lay prostrate for a long time. His servants found him and asked, "Why have you been down on the ground all this time? You don't usually take so long to pray."
We are used to viewing our ancestors through staid, formal portraits. When we attempt to ascribe to them human emotions, we tend to see them as serious, purposeful people. Deeper into the past we go, ordinary people fade away until we have a hard time relating to them. Yet, people experienced the full range of human feelings in the past, including laughter. Humor was as much a part of their lives as it is our own. Bracciolini himself says: "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."
Dark Humor in the Dark Ages: Jamie Kreiner
Medieval Joke Poetry: Benjamen Liu
How Naughty Was The Past? The Hidden Depths of the Medieval Church: Dr. Emma Wells
Comedy in Chaucer and Boccaccio: Carol Falvo Heffernan