A new study by a Cambridge English professor explores comedic texts believed to have been written by an unknown medieval minstrel.
When did Britain get its sense of humour? New evidence suggests that Britons were game for a gag as early as medieval times.
A manuscript from the 15th century, decrypted by University of Cambridge professor Dr. James Wade, offers an exceedingly rare look at medieval comedy, including the first recorded use of the term “red herring” in English.
The raucous text spares no one, mocking kings, priests and peasants alike, encouraging audiences to get drunk. It also gives precious insight into the role of minstrels in medieval society.
“(Author Richard) Heege gives us the rarest glimpse of a medieval world rich in oral storytelling and popular entertainments,” Wade said.
An accidental discovery
Wade discovered the manuscript by accident, while he was doing research in the National Library of Scotland.
He was amused by the way the author, Richard Heege, had chosen to sign off: “By me, Richard Heege, because I was at that feast and did not have a drink.”
“It was an intriguing display of humour and it’s rare for medieval scribes to share that much of their character,” Wade told the University of Cambridge.
That set him on a journey to uncover how and when Heege produced the texts. He lays it all out in a study called “Entertainments from a Medieval Minstrel’s Repertoire Book,” which was published on Wednesday in The Review of English Studies.
Wade’s study focuses on the first of nine booklets in what’s been dubbed the “Heege manuscript,” comprised of three texts including a tail-rhyme burlesque romance called The Hunting of the Hare, a mock sermon in prose and an alliterative nonsense verse called The Battle of Brackonwet.
The secret lives of minstrels
Wade concluded that Richard Heege had copied the texts around the year 1480 from a sort of cheat sheet written by an unknown minstrel who was performing near the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border.
Minstrels, the era’s legendary entertainers, travelled from fairs to taverns to baronial halls to perform songs and stories before people from all walks of life. While they’re often depicted in fiction films and novels, real-life accounts of what minstrels were actually like are few and far between.
“Most medieval poetry, song and storytelling has been lost”, Wade said. “Manuscripts often preserve relics of high art. This is something else. It’s mad and offensive, but just as valuable.”
He determined the texts were part of a minstrel’s repertoire because of the humour but also the references to a live audience – at various points, the narrator tells the audience to pay attention and pass him a drink.
Wade believes the minstrel wrote part of his act on paper because its elaborate nonsensical passages would have been difficult to learn by heart.
Killer rabbits, red herrings and jousting bears
Some of the scenes in the Heege manuscript have the same sardonic humour found in modern British culture. One passage in the poem The Hunting of the Hare could be pulled straight from Monty Python:
Jack Wade was never so sad / As when the hare trod on his head / In case she would have ripped out his throat.
The rest of the poem is filled with more of the absurd high jinks and jokes of two fictional peasants.
The mock sermon takes on the upper classes, using “red herring” for the first time in recorded history as a way to describe a “diversion.”
The sermon tells the tale of three kings who eat so much that two dozen oxen come bursting out of their bellies and begin sword fighting. After a fierce battle, the chopped up oxen are reduced to three “red herrings.”
“The images are bizarre but the minstrel must have known people would get this red herring reference,” Wade said. “Kings are reduced to mere distractions. What are kings good for? Gluttony. And what is the result of gluttony? Absurd pageantry creating distractions, ‘red herrings’.”
The Battle of Brackonwet features both Robin Hood and jousting bears, in a joyful alliterative poem that offers absurdist glimpses of folk custom and folk fantasy in the region.
“You can find echoes of this minstrel’s humour in shows like Mock the Week, situational comedies and slapstick,” Wade said. “The self-irony and making audiences the butt of the joke are still very characteristic of British stand-up comedy.”