15th-century comedic manuscript sheds new light on British humor - study

Published date02 June 2023
The peer-reviewed analysis, published in The Review of English Studies, inspected the first of nine booklets in the "Heege Manuscript."

The booklet contains three texts: The Hunting of the Hare, a mock sermon in prose, and The Battle of Brackonwet.

The significance of medieval comedy

The texts had been stumbled across by Dr. James Wade, from the English Faculty at the University of Cambridge and Girton College. While the manuscript had undergone previous analysis, the other researchers had primarily focused on the physical construction of the booklet and hadn't appreciated it for its literary value.

Wade realized the uniqueness of the text when he read the note, written by a scribe, "By me, Richard Heege, because I was at that feast and did not have a drink."

"It was an intriguing display of humor and it's rare for medieval scribes to share that much of their character," Wade explained in a press release.

While manuscripts from the period are already considered to be rare, the daring nature of the texts makes the find something of particular interest, Wade clarified.

"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. Stand-up comedy has always involved taking risks and these texts are risky! They poke fun at everyone, high and low."

"These texts are far more comedic and they serve up everything from the satirical, ironic, and nonsensical to the topical, interactive and meta-comedic. It's a comedy feast," Wade added.

Culture of comedy in Britain

The texts were likely made for a live performance, Wade explained. The narrative voice, a minstrel, breaks down the fourth wall, asking his audience for a drink and to pay attention.

A minstrel was a type of medieval entertainer, sometimes a musician, who sang or recited lyric or heroic poetry for the purpose of entertainment. Minstrels often engaged in other work during the day and performed in their free time.

The minstrel's comedic legacy continues to permeate in British society, Wade stated. "You can find echoes of this minstrel's humor in shows like Mock the Week, situational comedies and slapstick. The self-irony and making audiences the butt of the joke are still very characteristic of British stand-up comedy."

"Here we have a self-made entertainer with very little education creating really original, ironic material. To get an insight into someone like that from this...

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