9th International Symposium on Medieval and Early Modern Culture Abstracts

John Alexander (Arizona State University): Querlequitsch or dystopia as the locus risus in the early modern plays of Christian Weise.

 In the 17th-century the professional acting troupes relied heavily on linguistic humor, particularly bawdy, to induce laughter in their audience and enhance their earnings.  Christian Weise, by dint of his position as principal of the Zittau Gymnasium, was, however, forced to eschew such a form of humor as it would have alienated the largely middle-class audience which provided the main source of financial support for the school and its teachers.  Instead, based on contemporary German society, he follows the humanistic tradition in creating a dystopia replete with situational comedy which uses the lower social classes to depict human weaknesses both in the general sense as well as those with political consequences.  In selecting or creating materials for his plays Weise had to walk a very fine line.

Fabian Alfie (University of Arizona): “Yes… but was it funny?”: Cecco Angiolieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Medieval Comic Poetry

 Cecco Angiolieri (ca. 1260-1312) is perhaps the most famous author of comic poetry of Italian medieval literature.  The composer of some 111 sonnets, Angiolieri explored the range of the poetry of reprehension, expressing hatred for his father, satirizing love literature, and making seemingly autobiographical statements about poverty.  When the critical tradition on Angiolieri began in the late nineteenth century, a fierce debate ensued that centered on the following question: was Angiolieri a humorist, making outrageous statements to provoke laughter, or was he simply a disreputable individual?  Since he was the most famous of the comic poets, the conclusions drawn about Angiolieri were applied to other such authors.  In the 1950s, scholar Mario Marti drew the question to a close by analyzing medieval theories on comic literature.  Basing himself on medieval literary definitions, Marti concluded that the comic was strictly a question of style.  Dante’s masterpiece, after all, has nothing funny about it.

Most medieval literary treatises blur the definitions of comedy and satire.  Both genres were comprised, at least in part, of the derision of vice.  But etymologically speaking, “derision” (derisio) indicated laughing at or about something; the derision of vice, therefore, implied publicly holding up someone’s failings to be laughed at.  The question I wish to explore in my paper was whether laughter was an expected response to the poetics of reprehension.  In short, was laughter the intended reaction Angiolieri’s verse (and by extension, the comic poetry of the medieval Italian communes)?

One source not explored in this discussion is Giovanni Boccaccio’s masterpiece Decameron.  Boccaccio, as is well known, constructs his work around frame narrative of ten storytellers recounting their narratives over ten days.  The listeners’ responses, therefore, constitute a type of literary criticism: the author inserts the intended reader’s response into the text itself.
Two particular instances of the Decameron are particularly enlightening.  The first is a tale about Angiolieri himself, who is conned by a traveling companion.  The listeners laugh at the tale, but it is not entirely clear whether their amusement is derisive, or merely inspired by the antagonist’s astuteness.  The second is more instructive still.  After a day of storytelling, one of Boccaccio’s fictional narrators attempts to amuse the listeners by proposing bawdy songs—songs that resemble the tone and subject matter of other extant comic poems.  One such song is attested in the manuscripts, and it adheres to the misogynistic tradition of vituperatio in feminas.  The other tellers laugh in response.  Boccaccio’s text is precious precisely because it illustrates how such poetry might have been performed and how the authors expected their audiences to respond: with derisive laughter.

Rosa Alvarez Perez (Southern Utah University): The Workings of Desire: Panurge and the Dogs

This paper proposes to examine the comic parody that Rabelais offers us in chapter XXII of Pantagruel. In this episode, The “haulte dame of Paris” enters the church on the day of Corpus Christi dressed in sumptuous attire, her body prepared for the festive celebration. The office is rapidly disrupted and subverted by a mise-en-scène staged by a vengeful Panurge. The woman’s body, subjected to his malicious marking immediately attracts a multitude of dogs that will urinate all over her. In this religious setting, the grotesque farce succeeds in ridiculing the woman in front of a bemused crowd of worshipers.

Although numerous critics have emphasized the conventional misogynistic aspect of Panurge’s humiliating joke, I intend to explore Rabelais’s use of folkloric elements, sartorial practices, and the intersection of the sacred and the profane to expose the multiple facets of his humor.

Ultimately Panurge, who was encouraged by his previous sexual prowess, fails in his attempt to seduce a woman of different social status. His farce supplants failure with revenge and has recourse to a transference situation but his choice of dogs as medium to transfer his desire casts doubts on how effectively he is able to assert “masculine domination.”

Mark Burde (University of Michigan): The /Parodia Sacra/ Problem and Medieval Comic Studies

 Some of the most widely cited criticism on medieval comic textuality, especially among non-medievalists, was produced at least a half-century ago by Mikhail Bakhtin. One building block of Bakhtin’s well-known theory of carnival is his identification of a phenomenon he labels “/parodia sacra/,” treated with varying degrees of specificity in several of his best-known writings. This paper proposes a thorough investigation into the usefulness and validity of this term and the textual realities it purports to describe in both the vernacular (French, mainly) and Latin comic traditions. Many of Bakhtin’s assertions are demonstrably flawed, especially concerning the term’s critical history, and much recent recourse to the term and notion in Bakhtinian-inspired analyses is of questionable value. After surveying a sequence of alternate terms with which critics have sought to categorize instances of free imitative play with the elements of medieval Christian belief and practice, I conclude that all-encompassing definitions in this domain may be doomed to inadequacy.

Christine Bousquet-Labouérie (Université de Tours, France): Le Rire dans les stalles médiévales

Les miséricordes et les stalles en général présentent dans le cadre des abbayes et des choeurs canoniaux des programmes iconographiques variés dont certains mettent en scène des situations drolatiques ou graveleuses. Le rire ou le sourire se lisent dans les sujets évoqués mais aussi dans les postures, les rictus et les gestes accomplis. Nous étudierons donc cette palette de rires ou de situations menant au rire en essayant de comprendre pourquoi les chanoines e tles sculpteurs ont mis en scène des éléemnts en rupture avec la majesté des lieux, et la proximité du divin.

Albrecht Classen (The University of Arizona): Sixteenth-Century Jest Narratives: Forgotten and Maligned Masterpieces of Reformation Age Literature: Montanus, Kirchhof, and Lindener. The Hidden World of Seemingly Pornographic Humor

Focusing on a small selection of so called Schwänke, a huge corpus of sixteenth-century German jest narratives that richly adopted and adapted late-medieval Italian and German novellas and verse narratives (mæren), this paper will demonstrate how much laughter rings throughout the early-modern age, often based on sexual and scatological allusions. But despite their brevity, and often certainly deft tone, there are numerous examples among the Schwänke than can well be identified as literary masterpieces. The paper will focus on examples from Kirchhof, Montanus, and Lindener, who powerfully demonstrated how much, through the treatment of the human body, hence of sexuality and scatology, epistemological insights could be gained insofar as laughter rips off the mask of people’s shortcomings and failures, and teaches modesty and wisdom. On the one hand the comic that is so pervasive in these Schwänke is predicated on a wide range of constellations and conditions, but a critical examination reveals a fundamental humanistic concern in all of these tales. Laughter emerges as a crucial tool to examine critically human shortcomings, foolishness, weaknesses, and blindness. But the tone of the laughter—and there is a whole register of types of laughter—is never truly biting, as if there is a sense of understanding and tolerance, even for the worst transgressions and mistakes. Insofar as the authors invite their audiences to laugh with them they established, via the literary discourse, a significant basis for communal existence, a sense of ‘we are all in it together.’ The laughter in these Schwänke demasks errors, deception, human transgressions, but it does not destroy society.

Allison P. Coudert (University of California at Davis): Laughing at Religion in the Long Eighteenth Century

The long eighteenth century (1650-1800) has been characterized as an age of dissembling, of masks and mistaken identities, of trompe l’oeil and theatricality, in which things and, more importantly, people were quite literally seldom what they seemed. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the concerted attack on religion during the period. An awareness of the ease with which individuals assumed the false mask of piety was a stock theme in art, the theater, and literature, providing a great source of rueful wit in the unmasking of such characters as Molière’s Tartuffe and exposing the ignorance, intolerance, and downright insanity of religious “enthusiasts.” It is the purpose of this paper to analyze the cultural factors that created this humor predicated on unmasking and exposing religious hypocrisy.

Alan Drosdick (UC Berkeley): Is this supposed to be funny?: Comic Expectations in The Knight of the Burning Pestle

Perhaps the most fundamental relationship between literature and laughter can be found in the theater.  Actors and clowns offer attempts at humor, and their success or failure is judged immediately by an audience, who either laugh or remain disconcertingly silent.  What does one make, then, of a comedy that takes as its controlling premise the idea that its audience will not understand or appreciate its humor?  Can the fact that such a play spectacularly failed signal its ultimate comedic success?  Such is the case of Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607), a play that split its London audience into class-oriented divisions by anticipating what each group would find humorous.  Mocking the lowbrow literary conventions so appealing to the working class provided comic fodder for gentlemen in the audience, while poking fun at the need of supposedly sophisticated comedy to mock successful craftsmen pleased any merchants in the crowd.  This paper shall examine how The Knight of the Burning Pestle employs laughter, or the strategic lack thereof, to interrogate London’s evolving socioeconomic dynamics and their close relation to both public and private theater.

Jean Goodrich (University of Arizona): The Use of Laughter in The Wakefield Second Shepherds’ Play

The Wakefield “Second Shepherds’ Play” is one episode in the mystery play cycle that uses contemporary medieval social issues and slapstick comedy to explore the Biblical story of the nativity and the nature of Christian mercy. The play itself invites laughter from the audience in the comic discovery of the stolen sheep and the lenient punishment of the thief. While parody of religious themes is a common source of humor in medieval literature, “The Second Shepherds’ Play” elicits laughter from the audience to a different effect. This paper explores the function of humor and laughter by the play using recent sociological approaches to laughter as a theoretical lens. The laughter evoked by the action of the play serves a didactic function by modeling the nature of Christian mercy and a method of conflict management. However, laughter here also serves a socially affiliative purpose, establishing and re-affirming class and community solidarity in the face of economic difficulty.

Sarah Gordon (Utah State University, Logan): Laughing and Eating in the Fabliaux

The Fabliaux are all about laughter on many levels. Joseph Bédier’s early definition of the genre was characterized by the laughter of the audience, “contes à rire en vers.” Essentially a comic genre, target audiences may have giggled, smirked, sniggered, or chuckled at the ironic, bawdy, and scatological jokes found in much of the corpus.  Laughing “at” and laughing “with” also occur within the narratives themselves, as characters mock one another.  First, this paper provides an analysis of descriptions of laughter and the language of laughter. Though expressions of grief, disappointment, disgust, or dismay are common in the fabliaux, gestures of laughing, smiling, or crying, as well as suggestions of laughter, joking, kidding, or verbal mocking appear, particularly in fabliaux that feature food and eating.  The paper explores the semantic field of laughter and joking within several narratives. Some short bursts of what may be termed laughter may appear with one character reflecting on having duped another and act as interpretive cues or invitations to laughter for the audience.  Scenes of laughter are analyzed within the context of both the corporeality and the orality that characterize the fabliaux.

Laughing mouths appear alongside eating mouths, lying mouths, and joking mouths.  The study argues that laughter is often tied to scenes of culinary comedy, or food humor, a juxtaposition which amplifies the comic voice.  This paper revisits the fabliaux in a new light, focusing on scenes of laughter juxtaposed with scenes of consumption, showing both eating and laughing as forms of comic communication between the characters and between the narrator and audiences.

Livnat Holtzman (Bar-Ilan University, Israel): God’s Laughter and the Prophet’s Laughter: The Challenge of Islamic Traditionalism (9-14 centuries) 

The fundamental stand of the Sunnite traditionalists from the 9th century onward was a devout adherence to the sacred texts of the Quran and Hadith (traditional accounts of what the Prophet Muhammad said); notwithstanding, this stand was challenged by the concept of a transcendent God, who is different from all existing things, as stated in Quran 42:11 “Like Him there is naught”. One of the solutions of the traditionalists was to apply literal interpretations on the anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Quran and Hadith. The traditionalistic motto, as the theologian al-Shaharastani (d. 1153) put it, was: “We believe in what is written in the Quran and Sunna. We do not interpret the text.”

The cases of God’s laughter and the Prophet’s laughter reflect the complexity of the traditionalistic predicament. These were described by I. I. Goldziher (1910), J. Van Ess (1991-6), L. Ammann (1993) and Ch. Melchert (2002). God’s laughter is not mentioned in the Quran as such, however the canonical and non-canonical compilations of Hadith abound in descriptions of God’s laughter, which is intimidating on the one hand and compassionate on the other. For example, God laughs after He promises the Prophet, that He shall replace every Muslim sinner in Hell with a Jew or a Christian. He also laughs lovingly when a repentant sinner arrives in Heaven. Another set of traditions which causes uneasiness to Islamic traditionalists, altogether from different reasons, describes the Prophet laughing in various occasions.

This paper aims to determine the role of the accounts on God’s laughter and the Prophet’s laughter and to analyze the problematics of these accounts, not only from a theological point of view, while examining the writings of the traditionalists Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), Abu Khuzayma (d. 924) and Abu Bakr al-Ajurri (d. 971). A tendency to reject these accounts will be presented through the stand of Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1201). The interesting approach of the prolific Damascene theologian Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350) will be demonstrated through his remarkable work on death and the afterlife Hadi al-arwah ila bilad al-afrah (The Leader of Souls to the Land of Joys). We shall see that Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya detects the literal value of these accounts. He does not hesitate to set them in his Hadi al-arwah, thus dismissing the theological difficulties posed by these anthropmorphic accounts as irrelevant.  

Jean E. Jost (Bradley University, Peoria, IL): Humorous Transgression in the Non-Conformist Fabliaux Genre: A Bakhtinian Analysis

The Old French fabliaux insist on and delight in humorous transgression of every conceivable form, a structural feature demarcating them from other medieval genres. Simon Gaunt finds the principal preoccupation of the genre “an impulse to overturn perceived hierarchical structures of all kinds, to reveal them as artificial and susceptible to manipulation” (235). Lynette R. Muir sees the tales, remarkable for their transgressively ribald humor, as “a lusty, uninhibited enjoyment of physical reality which is the keynote of the thirteenth century” (87). Mary Jane Schenck notes that critics have frequently referred to “the ribald nature of the narratives, their verse form, and prominent themes such as adultery. Yet the thorny problem of what differentiates fabliaux as a form, from anecdotes on similar subjects has not been resolved” (Introduction, x). The reversal of power and order inevitably evokes humor and even laughter. Despite their “indefinability” and resistance to taxonomic designations, comedic counter-normative rebellion is painted into this hybrid mix-across their narratives and even styles, distinguishing them from other types and unifying them to each other. An unrestrained joy in this deviance marks them as Bakhtinian.

Within the context of social, sexual, political, gender-related, familial, clerical, dialogic, and interpersonal tensions, fableors reverse traditional dominance while flaunting joyful hilarity, or black humor. Disguises facilitate deception against a powerful antagonist; rebellion is standard. However, little discussion on Bakhtinianism or the use of literal, symbolic, and allegorical description clarifies this transgression. No traditional hero wins in a Bakhtinian topsy-turvy world of power inversion which lowers the socially prominent and thereby raises the socially disempowered, often to the joy of the latter.

 As David Murray notes, “Bakhtin sees the overturning of official unitary languages as coming from the unheard, unofficial voices generated in the less-recognized areas of society, and this life-enhancing debunking of the official he calls Carnivalization” (115-24). The fabliaux are Bakhtinian or carnivalesque insofar as they transgress the social order and applaud its life-enhancing Dionysian debunking. The joyfully sensual acceptance of the counter-normative and earthy is marked by the following characteristics: 1) role-playing, disguise, or being someone you are not; this would include parody of people or events (Noah’s flood), and might be allegorical; 2) role-reversals, especially of the vilain and the courtois, the dispossessed and the powerful, as at Mardi Gras; 3) intrigue, surprise, uncertainty, danger, adventure, or thrills; 4) deception and trickery, especially of a person of a higher social order; 5) game-playing and ritual repetition (often three instances or three times three, as in folk-tales); 6) a Dionysian sense of abandon, unrestraint or license; 7) high-spirited hilarity and fun, joyful satisfaction in upsetting the social order; 8) temporary social disruption accepted as exciting and wondrous, not cataclysmic; 9) a tension between actual and perceived reality, one source of irony, and a willing acceptance of the absurd, unlikely or impossible; 10) spite and vengeance revealing an underlying hostility and rejection of the social order; 11) acceptance of cruelty and disdain, hence a needed emotional distance; often using sex as punishment; anti-feminist and anti-politically correct; 12) use of long-held traditional/ritual “events;” 13) of the common people, their bawdy language and actions; joyfully raucous and undignified with an unbridled life-affirming energy, and celebration at being the winners; not elitist or aristocratic in sympathy; 14) a controlled perspective or point of view as the narrator poses and postures; Lacy claims that “narrative commentary and digression [may] remove our attention from the anecdote and refocus it on a point or plane outside it. We experience narrating activity rather than narrative” (143), itself subversive; 15) comic manipulation through narrative over-determination, carefully orchestrated timing, happenstance (It happened that . . . Fortuitous, if unlikely circumstances, rather like a time out of time), effective / appropriate controlled authorial pacing; 16) a return to the status quo at the end, often hastily concluded with no more fanfare than a joyful carnivalesque celebration of victory.
Through these sixteen tropes, the tales are made aggressively anti-normative, countering accepted protocol, even being revolutionary, albeit in a comic mode.

Shawn Marie Keener (University of Chicago): Laughing at Ourselves: venezianità in Late Sixteenth-Century Venetian Songs

From the 1560s on, three-voice polyphonic songs called giustiniane or veneziane were published alongside other genres, in anthologies of their own, and in madrigal comedies.

These comic, often patter-song settings of texts usually portray a love-sick old man (or a trio of them) importuning cruel, greedy lovers. By the seventeenth century, their association with the stock theatrical character of Pantalone, the Venetian Magnifico of the commedia dell’arte, was nearly complete.

Music historians have interpreted the emergence of polyphonic giustiniane in the 1560s and 1570s as a gesture of local musical pride. In this line of thinking, the publication of these dialect works not only had appeal to Venetians owing to the genealogy of the giustiniana rubric (traceable to the 15th-century Venetian poet Leonardo Giustinian), as well as to a roster of Venetian composers, but also paid homage to a vigorous musical past—a past worthy of commemoration.

This paper recognizes the importance of local appeal to pieces collected as “giustiniane” but argues from new networks of primary texts, prints, documents, and authors that the late-sixteenth-century genre represented inseparably gestures of civic pride and expressions of convivial relationships, defined through performative idioms. These networks range over the different genres of dialect literature, theater, and vernacular song, some printed and circulated as commodities in book markets and others confined to manuscript. The resulting entity was sometimes an ephemeral performance and sometimes a written score (still extant or not). In either case, it invariably represented an extension of a practice deeply embedded in a culture of conviviality that united poetry, theater, and music along with conversation, intellectual pursuits, and games.

Combining this new evidence with the results of a few recent studies, mainly literary, I cast the playful intertextuality indigenous to the late-cinquecento giustiniana in a new light. The “fellowships of discourse” established among literary men of sixteenth-century Venice were built through the exchange of dialect poetry, whose language and ribald subjects marked these men as insiders and helped them form social bonds. The play of public and private so characteristic of these fellowships is set in high relief by the anonymous publication of works by members of Domenico Venier’s academy in the dialect anthologies La caravana (1565) and Versi alla venitiana (1613). The extensive web of textual concordances I have discovered in and around the giustiniana repertoire locate it at the ephemeral edge of this long-lived tradition, where the lightest dialect verse slips easily into comic portrayals of venezianità in the guise of the Venetian Magnifico or Pantalone.

I will demonstrate how these threads converge by taking as a case study the Libro secondo delle giustiniane of 1575 by the Trevisan composer Giuseppe Policreti (c.1548-1623). Drawing on the writings of the his lifelong friend, the physician, writer, and social-climber Bartholomeo Burchelati, including correspondence between the two, I will argue that the Libro secondo betrays an interest in Venetian literary and social “fellowships of discourse” on the part of the young composer and his circle. I will contend that these giustiniane constituted inside jokes that, at the same time, functioned for a broader audience of outsiders simply as parodies of venezianità.

Gretchen Mieszkowski ( University of Houston-Clear Lake): Chaucerian Laughter

Geoffrey Chaucer is the most impressive comic writer of pre-18th-century English literature.  His poetry wins that stature even pitted against Shakespeare’s comedies.  The majority of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are so funny that even high school students laugh at them, and they are comic in such different ways that it’s as if Chaucer is creating a new genre each time he writes.  The Merchant’s and Miller’s Tales, for instance, both end in gross sex acts, but in each case the grossness of the final action resonates diabolically and differently with three or four aspects of the story.  Often Chaucer’s joke comes from the audacity of his layering.  In the Summoner’s Tale, for instance, scholastic hairsplitting is layered onto scatology as a friar is required to preside over the division of a fart into 12 equal parts.  The Canterbury Tales redound in satiric portraits:  the self-deluded old knight in the Merchant’s Tale purchases a young wife and then imagines himself a Paris of sexual prowess; the friar in the Summoner’s Tale is so full of himself that his sermonizing’s hot air matches the fart he is to divide.  Chaucer’s comic portraits can be genial as well as vicious: the Wife of Bath is one of Engish literature’s most cherished characters.  His satire can also reach beyond people to mock literary types: the Tale of Sir Thopas, for instance, mocks romance, and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale quite gloriously mocks a host of literary types at once.

Chaucer’s fame as a comic writer, however, rests nearly exclusively on the Canterbury Tales.  Instead of concentrating on the widely recognized excellence of Chaucer’s comedy in the Canterbury Tales, this paper will examine his rarely noticed uses of comedy in Troilus and Criseyde, his longest and most important completed work.  Troilus and Criseyde is more nearly a romance than a fabliau or novella, and as such has no easy access to laughter.  Nevertheless Chaucer uses comedy to develop several crucial aspects of it, and its hero’s laughter brings the poem to its much debated close. In this paper I will compare Chaucer’s comedy in the Canterbury Tales with his comedy in Troilus and Criseyde.

Feargal Ó Béarra (Galway, Ireland): A Context for Laughter and Audience in Early Modern Ireland

Hospitality and honor were mutually dependent concepts in medieval Irish society. Such concepts were enforced, for example, through social and legal control of the poetic orders (whose satires, in turn, ensured conformity to expected norms). The Irish medieval text Tromdám Guaire (The poetic retinue which oppressed king Guaire), which dates to ca 1300, is a clever and witty satire on those selfsame satirists. It tells of the lengths to which king Guaire the Hospitable goes to avoid being satirized by the poet Seanchán whose unreasonable and irrational demands of hospitality have left the king at his wits’ end. This paper will examine the idea of laughter in the text, as well as the social context in which the text might have been “performed”, its intended audience and butt.

Daniel F. Pigg (The University of Tennessee at Martin): Laughter in Beowulf: Ambiguity, Ambivalence, and Group Identity Formation

The world of Old English literature is hardly one that is characterized by laughter, at least not on the surface. In fact, the emotional experiences that might evoke laughter in the canon of Old English literature are relatively few. Filtered through the native traditions of Germanic wisdom along with what must have been an implicit Christian moralizing about laughter in the context of transitory life, Old English literature contains some of what might be called a theory of laughter. Prohibitions about laughter in religious communities provide some of that theory, but it is most certainly the lived experiences of people refracted in literary texts that tell about the norms of laughter. Notions of religious laughter were certainly known throughout the medieval period, but laughter in a secular context meant something completely different.

The Old English Beowulf contains several references to laughter. Sometimes mixed with sounds which must have accompanied the merriment of Heorot, laughter becomes quite obvious at two key points that reveal the social anxieties in the Danish society. The first of these occurs at the conclusion of the flyting scene between Beowulf and Unferth where Beowulf casts light on Unferth’s murder of his own kindred. The warriors in Heorot laugh at the conclusion of this complex scene that challenges Beowulf’s abilities as a warrior and Unferth’s own personal history. The narrator’s recording of the laughter is deeply rooted in ambivalence, and only through careful untangling of the narrative can we arrive at the direction of the laughter. The second instance of laughter involves Grendel himself as he “laughs inside” while contemplating an evening of slaughter following Beowulf’s arrival in Heorot. Certainly intended as a means of humanizing Grendel’s description, the laughter is complex here too. The difference is that Grendel laughs alone, an anti-community laugh of sorts. Other instances of laughter in the poem are quite conventional in their usage.

Throughout Beowulf, laughter is the product of community. It is a human expression intended to define the boundaries of actions and the emotional characterization of those experiences. While laughter is certainly not found in great abundance in Beowulf, when it is present, laughter marks some of the most ambiguous experiences of the poem. Laughter highlights elements that simply cannot rise to the level of discussion in the community, even about their greatest taboos. Laughter functions to define that community as it checks the impulses that constitute that community. Contextualizing the laughter of Beowulf in the sphere of Germanic heroic and religious laughter suggests how defining the experience in the poem can be. Laughter tells us a great deal about moments when actions in the poem can only stand as testimonies to mystery, and it tells us about a society caught in its own chaos.

Lia Ross (University of New Mexico): You had to be there: the Elusive Humor of the sottie

Among medieval comic genres the sottie is perhaps the most misunderstood and least known, to the point that its very status as separate dramatic form has been challenged. Unlike the farce, with its longer life-span and wider geographical circulation, the sottie flourished only in late-medieval France and from within a specific milieu of young bachelors (students and law clerks). Based as it was on political satire, by the early sixteenth century it had been forced from the stage by an increasingly heavy-handed censorship. As J.-C. Aubailly observed in his vast work on the structure of medieval French drama, the sottie was the manifestation of a “committed” theater that represented the aspirations of a rising class. But precisely for this reason, which tied it to a particular socio-economic contingency, it was destined to be an ephemeral genre.

But why, while other medieval theatrical forms like the moralité and the Biblical play have enjoyed recognition from modern scholars and even a revival of sort on stage, the sottie continues to be relegated to a dead world?  The reason is likely to be found in its peculiar humor, buried in often-obscure monologues and dialogues infused with references to contemporary issues.  Clearly, while political and social satire can be hilarious to contemporary audiences, it is too tied to events fresh in their memory to be able to cross time periods.

And yet, echoes of this genre are found in some of the best known modern comical acts, from the mock newscasts and interviews of television hosts to the now classic antics of Monty Python. This paper relies on theories of humor from literature and psychology to analyze the comic mechanism of this elusive genre, for the purpose of understanding the response that it was supposed to elicit from its original audience (whether a hearty laugh, a conspiratorial grin, or a despondent nod), and of coming to a realistic evaluation of its enduring potential.

Diane Rudall (Department of Medical Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago): Using the Entertaining Illusions and Allusions of La Devineresse to Convey the Horrendous Scandal of a Glorious Century

La Devineresse, often described as a “comedy-fantasy,” was presented by Jean Donneau de Visé and Thomas Corneille in 1680, the height of the poisons scandals involving fortunetellers. The play subtly, sometimes not so subtly, incorporates humorous references to the scandal which involved not only poisons but also trade in abortions, sacrilegious rites and child sacrifice occurring during the reign of Louis XIV.

Obsessed with his reputation for gloire, the Sun King would never have allowed the performance of a work that explicitly portrayed the blight on Paris society and his realm. Consequently, the shrewd authors of La Devineresse found ways to veil their allusions to the actual crimes committed. They succeeded, as did the sorceresses, by distracting and imparting significance through illusion. The playwrights depended on actors, props, costumes and scenery in the way that the fortunetellers they mocked used tricks and a coterie of lackeys and ladies’ maids to disguise themselves, sneak in and out of doorways, and reveal secrets about their masters and mistresses. The setting of the play, a fortuneteller’s parlor, itself became a theater filled with role-play, intriguing plots, and spectacular effects. The audience, no less than the sorceresses’ clientele, proved willing to suspend disbelief and fall prey to fantasy. The ingenuity of De Visé and Corneille, along with the timeliness of their subject matter, contributed to the play’s extreme popularity

While performances of The Fortuneteller continued to run on the Guénégaud stage, testimony on the crimes of actual fortunetellers continued to be heard in the chambre ardente, the black-curtained room where Nicolas de la Reynie and his fellow judges heard evidence on acts of blasphemy, murder, and ritual sacrifice. Drama played out in both places, and no matter how many decrees were issued by the Sun King to keep the poisons trial confidential, people spoke of little else: ‘Did you hear who was arrested?’ ‘They have begun to name people in high places.’

The prisoners insisted their activities were all very innocent.

On stage, the fortuneteller Mme Jobin (modeled after the real and notorious fortuneteller La Voisin) also explained, “It is all very innocent.”

If a woman suffers too long the inconvenience of an old husband, is it not fair game to help her achieve a marriage of the heart? And what if there are those who want to get more involved than I have described to you?

To help understand La Jobin’s phrase “more involved” the audience had the clues in the play. The tricks played by La Jobin suggest meanings beyond the literal, whether it is a devil passing through a wall, a talking head, or the detection of missing pistols. Let the audience marvel at the magic. Let them try to guess how the effect is achieved with ropes and pulleys, mirrors, or in one extraordinary effect, hidden tubing and inflatable pillows. Let them ponder what is meant when a lady arrives chez Mme Jobin with a bloated belly and leaves thin.

In Act Three of La Devineresse, Mme Jobin decides to frighten a skeptical marquis so that he will never again doubt her wizardry. What does she do? First, she produces thunder and lightning to capture his attention and scare him. Then she walks slowly toward the fireplace where a black cat and an owl, probably stuffed, are perched on the mantelpiece (we know this from illustrated 17th century texts). As she turns her gaze toward the hearth, objects begin to fall down the chimney.

Bones! One skeletal body part after another! A leg. An arm. A torso.Imagine ladies in the audience gasping or turning away. The entertaining ‘illusion’ must have been frightening to see, but not as frightening as its significance. Those in the know would understand the allusion: the reported discovery of body parts buried in La Voisin’s garden, charred, cracked bones dug up from makeshift graves, the skeletal remains of an estimated two thousand sacrificed infants. And they call the play a comedy-fantasy!

Perhaps the skits of Saturday Night Live can serve as a modern parallel. Or the 1998 film Primary Colors with John Travolta and Emma Thomson as fictional characters representing a real president whose extramarital affairs must be hidden from the public and whose ambitious wife chooses to turn a blind eye to his escapades. The skits and the film have handled sensitive and timely material with comic irony while making the audience aware of the hypocrisy or the sad consequences involved. But while these examples poke fun at foibles and weaknesses with grim underpinnings, neither startles to the extent of La Devineresse, a daring play performed under monarchical rule, and illustrating a very French ability to turn to ridicule an issue of great seriousness.

Connie Scarborough (University of Cincinnati): Laughter and the Comedic in a Religious Text:  The Example of the Cantigas de Santa Maria

Contemporary readers may be surprised to find in a medieval religious book, such as Alfonso X’s Cantigas de Santa Maria, so many tales which are humorous as well as characters which we would consider comedic. While, we, as contemporary readers are circumspect about mixing the sacred and the profane, medieval authors and their audiences did not perceive these categories as mutually exclusive. Medieval peoples were both attuned to the intervention of the divine in everyday human affairs and they also recognized the physical and spiritual benefits of recreation and amusement. They embraced the sacred as inherent in everyday existence and pursued in literature the dual aims of moral benefit and pleasure. Given Alfonso’s training in the classic idea of utile dulci, he designed his Marian collection to promote devotion to the Virgin, i.e., instruct his audience, as well as entertain those who would listen to his songs.  Hearing about the Virgin’s miraculous deeds formed part of the experience of “Christian joy,” and this pleasurable experience had edifying effects for its listeners beyond merely learning about Mary’s miracles. Pleasure, as an end unto itself, was justified in the Middle Ages on both medical and psychological grounds.

Pleasure was an acceptable goal for the experience of literature, even for sacred texts, and laughter, the comic, and humor in moderation, were considered beneficial to man’s soul. In the comic, we step back and observe people and situations with certain objectification. Humor’s relationship to the sacred is related to this act of separation. Conrad Hyers in his essay, “The Dialectic of the Sacred and the Comic,” sees humor as the great moderator for tensions that arise in our perceptions of the sacred and our experiences of the comedic profane (213-14). He observes that “The awesomeness and mystery of the holy, along with the anxiety it engenders, is temporarily suspended and relieved” when we laugh at what we generally consider sacrosanct. Hyers also claims that Freud’s analysis of humor as an aggressive and rebellious strike against authority is applicable to the relationship of the comic to the sacred: “in humor the unquestioned authority of the sacred is questioned, the superior status of the holy is bracketed, and the radical distance between the sacred and the profane is minimized. The devotee who ordinarily assumes a posture of lowly prostration before that which is holy, now in laugher asserts himself and narrows the impassable gulf presupposed by the sacred” (220).

The idea that humor occurs when we distance ourselves from a situation or person seems to contradict the idea that humor arises when we close the gap between the sacred and the profane. But, in fact, these two facets of the comic are both at play in the cantigas. These songs bring the Virgin into the realm of human activities while, at the same time, the readers/listeners as spectators view the sinners and their plights as separate from their immediate experience. In other words, the audience can feel detached and even superior to the protagonists while learning valuable spiritual lessons in an entertaining format.  This paper will deal with a number of examples from the Cantigas de Santa Maria which illustrate these concepts.

Noël Schiller (University of South Florida, School of Art and Art History) :  “The World Feeds Many Fools (De Wereld voedt veel zotten): Laughing Subjects and the Performance Pictorial Transgression”

Art historical research on laughter has tended to focus on either the oeuvres of artists such as Pieter Bruegel and Jan Steen who were known in their own day for producing humorous images, or on the poetics of comic painting—that is to say, the generic markers of pictorial subjects that were thought to be laughter-worthy in the early modern period.  In contrast to important scholarship produced in the disciplines of history and cultural studies, art history has traditionally been preoccupied by iconographic subjects, rather than laughing Subjects.  In this paper I aim to bridge this divide by investigating how images participated in and reinforced cultural attitudes towards laughter as a social behavior using two rarely discussed early-sixteenth century Flemish paintings as case studies.

In a little-known, sixteenth-century Flemish painting, two fools gaze out at the beholder and laugh (private collection, Mechelen).  Above the figures a seemingly odd collection of signs are depicted—a letter ‘D,’ a crystalline orb surmounted by a cross, a foot, and a viol.  One fool has cheerfully inserted a spoon into his open mouth, while the other raises his finger to his nose as he snickers gleefully.  The panel can be understood if we recognize that the small images above the fools form part of a rebus which is ‘performed’ by the figures below: De wereld voedt veel zotten (“The world feeds many fools”).  The beholder, instantiated before the image by the intensely animated laughing gazes of the fools, is implicated in their folly by the process of looking itself, which entails ‘reading’ the signs both visually and phonetically.

A similar kind of play with text and image occurs in another unusual Flemish image dating from the same period.  “Leave this panel closed, or else you will be angry with me” announces a figure depicted on the cover of a small diptych in the collection of the Université de Liège whose downcast eyes, open mouth, and pointing fingers seem to ‘read’ the warning inscribed on the banderole to the beholder.  The curious, intrepid viewer who opens the panel is confronted with a surprisingly naturalistic image of the man’s pimply, hairy buttocks on the left and a fool pulling a face on the right.  The author of the diptych created spatial paradoxes that violate the beholder’s own space and propriety, even as the object marks these transgressions using witty language.  The viewer is asked to resist looking within the diptych, and having opened it, to turn a blind eye to the moral implications of his or her failure to refuse the object’s challenge, to gaze and be gazed upon.

This paper will employ the Mechelen panel and the Liège diptych to explore the dialogic relationship posited by these panels’ exceptionally transgressive engagement of the beholder—viewing processes that are predicated upon physical manipulation and participatory readings.  Both paintings frame the conditions for their own visual consumption through the use of warnings and proverbial maxims, and in each case, the beholder is forced to momentarily assume the role of the fool herself.  I will offer a conceptual model for thinking about images and objects that ‘interact’ with the viewer—that of the object as joking partner, a notion borrowed from anthropologist Mary Douglas.  Whether or not the beholder laughed before such images, I argue, is dependant upon the viewer’s willingness to assume the role of the Butt of the pictorial ‘joke’ and to operate ‘outside’ the norms of language in the jesting exchange.  Ultimately, understanding the subject positions offered by the Mechelen panel and the Liège diptych requires a finely calibrated awareness of the moral-ethical meanings of laughter as a historically-situated social behavior and as a pictorial strategy.

Scott L. Taylor (Pima Community College, Tucson, AZ): Vox populi e voce professionis: Processus juris joco-serius, Esoteric Humor and the Incommensurability of Laughter

 Beginning with the dawn of the thirteenth century, two distinct literary genres dealing with the legal profession emerged. The first, purportedly the voice of the people against the abuses of practititoners of the law, can be traced at least to the anonymous Le dit des Avocas, c. 1200, through the Basochien farces and soties of the fourteenth century, and ultimately to that monument of fifteenth-century French comique theatre, La Farce de Maitre Pierre Pathelin. The second family is descended from the fictive debates between Satan and Jesus over the fate of humanity designed to illustrate theological discourse concerning the nature of redemption and Christ’s harrowing of hell, which gained popularity in the mid-twelfth century. Contemporaneous as they were with the growth of civil and canon law, by the thirteenth century, such dialogues as the Conflictus inter Deum et Diabolum and that entitled Piaito ch’ebbi Dio con l’imico, attacked those issues from a decidedly legal perspective, not occasionally with tongue in cheek, culminating in the fourteenth century with those two monuments of Processus literature, Processus sathane contra genus humanum sometimes ascribed to Bartolus de Saxoferrato, and Processus Belial of Jacobus de Theramo.

 These latter works, which continued to be published in legal collections for the next two centuries or more, were written by lawyers for lawyers, with pedagogical purpose as well as amusement in mind. Their humor represents a sort of epitome of the “inside joke.” Yet these same works would find a parallel life with a popular audience, the Processus sathane shortly being translated, sans legal citations, possibly by Jean Justice, into the low Norman poem, L’Advocacie Nostre-Dame, while the Processus Belial was translated into German by the late fifteenth century, and about 1597 was turned into a comedy, historischer Processus iuris, by the German dramatist, Jakob Ayrer.

 This paper explores why such specialized texts designed for a professional audience could retain a humorous impact for a wider public, sometimes far removed in time and space, and for largely contradictory reasons, and the epistemological implications for a hermeneutics and Rezeptionsästhetik encompassing so complex and contingent a phenomenon as laughter.

John Sewell (University of California at Davis): Hanged Between Thieves:  Humor, Irony, and Boundary Maintenance in Medieval Jewish Polemical Discussions of Jesus.

Medieval Jews did not passively accept either Christian persecution or the pressures placed upon them to convert.  Although their opportunities to respond were limited by the real imbalance of power between them and Christians, Jews did have strategies for resisting Christian influence.  One potentially risky strategy that was used at times included the composition of polemics that ridiculed elements of Christian tradition.  Toledot Yeshu, for example, was notorious as a parody of the Gospel, depicting Jesus as a criminal magician and con artist.  Nizzahon Vetus drew upon this gospel parody as well as canonical Christian sources to portray the dominant faith as incoherent.  The polemics made Christianity risible by claiming that Christian practices and discourse were rife with ironic misunderstandings of scripture and internal contradictions.  However, Jewish polemics such as these had mixed success, insofar as they also drew Christian ire.  Discovered as early as the ninth century, Christian writers exaggerated the scope and significance of these polemics and made them the basis for allegations of Jewish blasphemy against Christianity.  Martin Luther attacked them in the sixteenth century in his Vom Schem Hamforas and Christoph Wagenseil compiled them in the seventeenth in his Tela Ignea Satanae.  My paper attempts to put this small but significant tradition of Jewish polemic into perspective by examining the rhetorical strategies found in some of these polemics.  I will place particular emphasis on the way these polemics looked quizzically at Jesus, seeing him as a nonsensical figure rather than as a source of meaning, and show how the polemics could function as a means of boundary maintenance against efforts by Christians to convert Jews.

Debra Stoudt (Virginia Tech): The Absence of Laughter and the Presence of Joy in Medieval Religious Communities

The solemnity associated with religious communities in the Middle Ages and the silence that prevailed in some of them would seem to preclude the role of laughter in daily life among religious men and women.  Indeed, since Christ had never laughed, those who wished to be like him were admonished to do likewise. Yet male and female religious undoubtedly did laugh.

In the introduction to Women and Laughter in Medieval Comic Literature, Lisa Perfetti notes that in the Middle Ages a distinction was made between good laughter, a reflection of joy in God and His works, and bad laughter, the result of the abandonment of Christian humility. She also observes that according to theories of medieval medicine, women were more prone to laughter and particularly to excessive or extreme laughter.

This paper examines how good and bad laughter are represented in the writings by and for religious men and women in the Middle Ages. Who laughs and under what circumstances?  Explicit references to laughter are infrequent in the various types of religious texts prevalent at the time – sermons, autobiographies, biographies, visionary works – but behaviors such as joy, ridicule, and fear that are associated with such expression are. How are such behaviors described and what alternatives to laughter are present?

Perfetti’s second point above will be examined as well; the medical texts identified with Hildegard of Bingen will serve as a starting point into the gender bias described.

Birgit Wiedl (Institut für jüdische Geschichte Österreichs, St. Pölten, Austria): Monsters in the Making – The Judensau

 From the early 13th century onward, monks, clergy and occasional visitors who passed through the cloister of the Brandenburg Cathedral could see, and jibe at, a peculiar relief on one of the capitals: a strange creature with the body of a sow and the hands and face of a human, and at its belly, five tiny human figures suckling. Yet what must have caught their attention above all was the distinctive characterization of the humans as Jews.

 Despite the fact that this early version of a Judensau, this hybrid of animal and man, was not taken up again later on, the general idea prevailed. Unlike the more sophisticated depictions of Jews in manuscripts that utilized a wider variety of beast allegories, the equation of Jews with sows turned out to be the one that was most understandable to the broader masses. A good laugh at the pig-suckling Jews’ expense did not only supposedly brighten many a commoner’s day, it also echoed, and strengthened pre-existing anti-Jewish ideas. By the 15th century, secular authorities and private persons had jumped on the bandwagon, and Judensäue appear on both buildings of the municipal administration and private houses. With the rapidly growing circulation of pamphlets and woodcuts, the image of the Judensau experienced an even further distribution as well as diversification.

 The medieval and early modern usage of animals to evoke an amused response in the viewer is not confined to Jews, nor were sows used exclusively in combination with Jews; it is however the multiple purposes that this type(s) of depiction serve that makes it an unparalleled example of systematic defamation. Apart from confirming already prevailing prejudices by exposing them to ridicule, the Judensau also intensified anti-Jewish sentiments by pointing out what was considered ‘typical’ Jewish behavior (e.g., Jewish ‘inclination’ to carnality and sexual perversion). Obscene motifs of Jews not only suckling the sow’s teats but also its anus and/or having sexual intercourse with it provoked not only gleeful reactions but also shame, disgust, and loathing, encouraging a (further) separation of the Jews from the Christian environment.

 In addition to the intended reaction among the Christians, the Judensau served yet another purpose – not only bypassing Christians but also Jews took notice of the publicly displayed figures. The depiction along with, or even equation with, an unkosher animal and the sodomitical insinuations were meant to vilify and defile Jews in a particularly humiliating way they too would understand only too clearly. The Judensau was an incredible insult to their religious and cultural identity that went far beyond the derisive laughter and snide remarks of their fellow Christians, attacking and offending them on their own grounds.

Thomas Willard (The University of Arizona): J.V. Andreae’s ludibrium: Menippean Satire in The Chemical Wedding”

In her 1972 study The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, Frances Yates popularized the Latin noun ludibrium as a “word used of the Rosicrucian movement.” She had found the word in works by the Lutheran humanist J.V. Andreae (1587-1654), who famously used it to characterize the Rosicrucian writings of his youth and his own contribution, Chymische Hochzeit Christiani Rosencreutz (1616). Older historians had understood the word—a derivative of ludus, “game”—to mean a joke or an object mockery, as in most recorded instances of the obsolete English word ludibry. Yates realized that it had a wider range of meaning in antiquity and could as easily refer to a comedy or farce. She therefore suggested that Andreae’s ludibrium was a kind of “divine comedy”: “a dramatic presentation of a profoundly interesting religious and philosophical movement.” Her influential interpretation has not gone unchallenged, nor has her view of Rosicrucianism as a widespread intellectual movement, but a study of Andreae’s early text shows that he was a skilled satirist after the fashion of Erasmus and Boccalini. The satire, technically known as Menippean, cuts too many ways to confirm Yates’s insights or contradict them altogether. There is too much laughter by the powers that stage the chemical wedding, too much laughing at the intellectual fashions of age. Breaking off at mid-sentence, Andreae’s book leaves too many questions unanswered to fit neatly with other early writings about the Rosicrucians, whether favorable or unfavorable. Indeed, it may have found its most perceptive readers among such fantasists as Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco.

Elizabeth Chesney Zegura (The University of Arizona): Laughing Out Loud in the Heptameron: A Reassessment of Marguerite de Navarre’s Ambivalent Humor

 Given the rape, violence, adultery, and depravity that permeate Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron, few would characterize her collection of seventy-two short stories as a comic masterwork. While she describes her compilation as a “French Decameron,” a superficial reading shows little in her work to match the earthy humor and comic verve of either Boccaccio, her fourteenth-century model, or Rabelais, her contemporary and compatriot. All three authors punctuate their writings with sexual and bathroom humor, puns, anticlerical satire, and the antics of tricksters, but in Marguerite the levity at first glance appears to be intermittent, understated, and overshadowed by the recurring pathos of her narratives. As a result, many scholars tend to overlook the lighter side of her prose, focusing more often on the religious, philosophical, moral, and political implications of the Heptaméron than on her representation of laughter. Notably Bakhtin, who likens Boccaccio to Rabelais for his carnivalesque humor, relegates Marguerite to the ranks of sober-minded humanists of the “aristocratic and bourgeois Renaissance.”

On one level, the queen of Navarre encourages this serious reading of her prose. Even her most light-hearted stories end with moralizing conclusions and provide a forum for ethical, theological, and epistemological debate, prompting some scholars to compare her collection of nouvelles to both the Histoires tragiques and traditional exempla.  Moreover, her religious poetry extols the virtues of divine joy rather than earthly frivolity, informing our response to her prose masterpiece as well.  Yet at the same time, mirth also abounds in Marguerite’s short stories and frame discussions, offering a veritable compendium of Renaissance humor.  Alternately private and communal, sadistic and embarrassed, ribald and childlike, wise and foolish, laughter in the Heptameron appears in ambivalent contexts; and it is as varied and multifaceted as Marguerite’s characters themselves, who laugh at stimuli as diverse as dung-soiled garments, romantically inclined friars, and the infidelity of their own spouses.  These unexpected glimmers of merriment provide the queen’s characters and readers alike a cathartic respite from the pathos of her fiction and of life itself, reversing the masks of tragedy and comedy in Rabelaisian fashion, and suggesting alternative responses to the human condition that privilege laughter over violence and despair, and humor as both a problem-solving strategy and a means of coping with adversity.   With an eye toward elucidating Marguerite’s ambivalent laughter, this study will examine (1) the types and traditions of humor upon which the queen draws; (2) the function and implications of laughter and its sources within the fiction; and (3) the alternation of and relationship between pathos and humor throughout the nouvelles and the commentaries.