Medieval Humor

#7: Medieval Humor

Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University

Late in the spring semester 1984at the University of Michigan, one of the purple mimeographedoptions for our final paper topics in English 541 suggested anassessment of medieval humor. Now, amid a nasty and chaotic mid-lifecrisis requiring a thoroughgoing reevaluation of the “matere”shown to me by the Ghosts of Semester Past, Present, and Future,I’ve recently recognized yet another instance of where I wentwrong in life. Instead of strapping myself to a contraption wecalled a typewriter in what shall forever be known as “thebox” (1212 University Towers, across from the offices ofthe Middle English Dictionary and Sherman Kuhn’s unfilteredCamels) in order to craft and submit by April 25th to 2625 HavenHall a scholarly masterpiece addressing the aesthetics of MiddleEnglish poetry in the face of philological ambiguity, Robertsonianism,and reception theory within a transhistorical problematic, I guessI just thought I could repeat jokes I heard in class. Worse still,my primary “research” — that is, the humor recordedin the margins of my class notes — came from the professor.

It has been said that trying todate the composition of Havelok the Dane “is likefollowing red herrings on wild goose chases.”1The same may be said of trying to identify instances of medievalhumor. What the modern reader may take to be punning or wit oftenis nothing more than a coincidence, a phantasm spontaneously generatedin the cultural communication chasm, or the impulse towards overreadingin order to find something amusing — this last a phenomenon attendantupon the misfortune of spending one’s twenties under the Reaganregime. Fortunately, “medieval humor” need not emergesolely from authors and poets dead, lo, the better part of thismillennium. A broader definition of the term might incorporatesuch amusement as is occasioned by the texts. If we examinethe entire pedagogical milieu of the medieval literature class,we find ample examples of the risible, the ludicrous, and thejocular to overshadow the sense of pedantry traditionally associatedwith such a course devoted to rather arcane material.

The Beowulf poet, for example,may not be the mead-swilling proto-Wolverine-fan that his Anglo-Saxonaffiliation initially betokens. In fact, his dry sense of humoroccasionally runs the risk of puncturing the grandeur of the epic.After Grendel’s nocturnal, culinary attacks on those seeking reposein that beacon of civilization, the local bar, the poet assertsthat “Tha waes eathfynde the him elles hwaer / gerumlicorraeste sohte” (ll. 138-39) [“then was easily found himwho elsewhere far away sought rest”]. In other words, likeMonty Python’s Sir Robin, when danger reared its ugly head, theboast-bolstered Ring-Danes bravely turned their tails and fled.Later, on the morning following the beloved Aeschere’s death,Beowulf vacuously asks King Hrothgar “gif him waere / aefterneodlathum niht getaese” (ll. 1319-20) [“if the nightwere agreeable to him according to his desires”]. We canreasonably assume that these examples of heavyhanded irony areintentional on the part of the poet. Indeed, an instance of dark,sinister humor occurs when, after Grendel’s “earm ond eaxle”(l. 835) [“arm and shoulder”] have been torn out andthe hall, Heorot, is “gold fahne ond Grendles hond”(l. 927) [“decorated with gold and Grendel’s hand”],the Beowulf poet reports: “Tha waes haten hrethe Heort innanweard/ folmum gefraetwod” (ll. 991-92) [“Then was it commandedthat quickly the interior of Heorot be adorned with hands”].The idiomatic and superfluous phrase “with hands,” or”by hands,” functions as a grim pun in this grisly context.But investigation into further humor becomes speculative. As thetroops discover Aeschere’s head upon the cliffs above the mereand view the sea-monsters swimming through the lake, the poetoffers the following:

Flod blode weol — folc to saegon –,
hatan heolfre. Horn stundum song
fuslic fyrdleoth. Fetha eal gesaet. (ll. 1422-24)

[The flood boiled with blood — themen looked upon it — with hot gore. Again and again the hornsang its urgent war-song. The whole troop sat down.]

The anticlimax of that last linelends delightful cartoon-style slapstick to the work, but wasthis intentional?

For a surer enjoyment of the poem,the classroom context for Beowulf can potentially add tothe experience of the work an awareness of certain absurdities.For example, the genealogical tables for Beowulf demonstratethe cohesiveness of Anglo-Saxon society such that the disarminglypractical instructor might cut to the chase: “All these peoplekilled each other in one way or another.” Likewise, the traditionof ring-giving exemplified by the ritual between Hrothgar andhis thanes survives into modern history: “of course, it’sthe Queen now, and the Beatles get medals.” Even the potentiallyarid lecture on the history of the Beowulf manuscript cancapitalize on moments of compelling irony. After all, the manuscriptwas transported in the eighteenth century to AshburnhamHouse — “for safety.” In addition to the fire whichclaimed that aptly named building, one learns that Beowulfevaded the fate of many manuscripts destroyed by other fires,Vikings, mold, leaky roofs, and “ignorance: manuscripts beingused for fish and chips or whatever.” Ultimately, if Beowulfcan get some laughs, there’s hope for the medieval literatureclass.

The difficulty in identifying intentionalmedieval humor is epitomized in the notion and literature of courtlylove. A debate instigated by E. Talbot Donaldson, late mentorof noted Chaucerian, Thomas J. Garbaty, throws into question whetherAndreas Capellanus’ De Arte Honeste Amandi is an historicaldocument sincerely attempting to systematize the art of courtlylove or instead is a satire, albeit a clerical and tediously pedanticone. While the literature itself remains ambiguous, other formsof humor inevitably arise from contemporary discussion summarizingthe codified phenomenon of fin amor. Supplementary illustrationby the instructor to the high-flown ideals of the rituals involvedin the process may include an early stage in which the love texts,or “complaints,” are evoked visually as “poemstied to a rock thrown in a window.” In a subsequent stage,we learn that the lady may lean out of her window and bestow asmile on the suitor, and perhaps that “she gets another poemin the teeth.” Lastly, the lover must perform tasks in accordwith the woman’s carte blanche: she may say to him, “Getthe molars of the Sultan of Baghdad. So he has to swim the highestmountain and climb the deepest sea, and so forth.” Love isabsurd, and the Middle Ages invented it.

King Horn and Havelockthe Dane, two “Neanderthal romances,” are notedfor their unintended quaintness and ineptitude. The Hornpoet’s wit is limited to the thudding pun on the word “horn”(e.g., ll. 211f, 1117, 1129, 1153, 1166f). But a good snickercan be derived inappropriately in the inane rhyming of this maladroitpoet:

Her buth payns arived;
Well mo thane five…. (ll. 813-14)

[Here are pagans arrived;
Many more than five….]

The hectic offhandedness of Hornis similarly enjoyable. Motivation in the plot is usually lacking,but the instructor can convey the absurdity without too harshlycriticizing the poetry. As Horn returns to his own land, “Apalmere he thar mette” (l. 1035). “Thank heavens!”interrupts the instructor. “Because he knew he automaticallycould change clothes with this man!” Horn’s grand speechas he subsequently reveals his identity, surrounded by enemiesat Rymenhilde’s wedding feast (ll. 1221f), can be accurately paraphrasedthus: “We will kill them all! — My wedding gift to you!”After this bloody resolution and near the conclusion of the poem,we read:

Horn makede Arnoldin thare
King after King Aylmare.
Of all Westernesse
For his meoknesse. (ll. 1505-08)

The savvy instructor anticipatesstudent criticism: “‘But,’ you say, ‘he’s not dead yet!’But he will be, he will be.” This, of course, is no explanation,and it points out that there is no explanation to be given. Theattempted rationale is as bizarre as the poem itself. Or one mayfinally capitalize on the ludicrousness of the poetry by offeringa translation of the following lines in the conclusion:

All folk hem mighte rewe
That loveden hem so trewe.
Nu ben hi bothe dede —
Christ to hevene hem lede! (ll. 1533-36)

In other words,

They lived happily ever after —
but of course they’re dead now.

The Havelok poet does havea sense of humor but of a brand unfamiliar to the modern reader.The sensationalism of the scene of voyeurism and the slapstickdynamics of Havelok awakening to the sensation of his feet beingkissed seem rather crude to today’s sophisticated aesthetic (evidencedby our enthusiasm for Jim Carrey). The medieval mockery of cowardicein the face of violence is perhaps too culturally bound to evokelaughter these days:

He maden here backes also bloute
Als here wombes and made hem route
Als he weren cradelbarnes —
So dos the child that moder tharnes. (ll. 1910-13)

[He made their backs as pulpy
As their stomachs and made them roar
As they were babies —
So does the child who loses its mother.]

Not exactly an uproarious riot, right?Again, though, paraphrase can successfully point out absurditiesin the text. The Havelok poet will occasionally indulgein attempted description:

Havelok lifte up the dore-tree
And at a dint he slow hem three.
Was non of hem that hise hernes
Ne lay ther-ute again the sternes. (ll. 1806-09)

[Havelok lifted up the door-bar
And at a blow he slew them three.
There was none of them whose brains
Weren’t laying out there against the stones.]

“Brains lying all over the stones, out in the moonlight — yes, it’s very poetic, isn’t it?”

A paraphrase from Godard’s perspectivealso undercuts the effect of a gruesome scene.

Godard herde here wa,
Ther-offe yaf he nought a stra,
But took the maidnes bothe samen —
Also it were up-on his gamen,
Also he wolde with hem leike —
That weren for hunger grene and bleike.
Of bothen he carf on two here throtes,
And sithen hem all to grotes.
Ther was sorrwe, who-so it sawe,
Whan the children by the wawe
Layen and sprauleden in the blood. (ll. 465-74)

[Godard heard their woe,
Thereof he gave not a straw,
But took the maidens both together —
As if it were for sport,
As if he would with them play —
Who were for hunger green and pale.
Of both he carved in two their throats,
And afterwards cut them all to pieces.
There was sorrow, whoever saw it.
When the children by the wall
Lay and sprawled in the blood.]

The gratuitous goriness on the partof the poet is indirectly acknowledged by the instructor’s summary:”He’s playing with them and his knife slipped.” Of course,pedagogical humor need not always be appropriate to the text.Any light comment, particularly those pertinent to English studies,will be well-received by the weary literature-crammed studentcerebrum. For example, the imprisoned Havelok speaks to Godardon behalf of his sisters, “‘For us hungreth swithe sore,’/ Saiden he, ‘We wolden more!'” (ll. 455-56) [“For wehunger very sorely,” / Said he, “We want more!”].The instructor may take the opportunity to digress: “‘More?MORE?! — which of course Charles Dickens took from Havelokthe Dane.”

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,alliteratively dubbed “the Rolls Royce of Romances,”may be delightful enough on its own to make supplementary humorunnecessary. The Gawain poet gives examples of the standardcomedy of cowardice — a sly, dry, British type of humor seenalready in Horn and possibly Beowulf.

As al were slypped upon slepe so slaked hor lotes in hyye.
I deme hit not al for doute,
Bot sum for cortaysye;
Bot let hym that al schulde loute
Cast unto that wyye. (ll. 244-49)

[As though all fell asleep, so was their talk stilled at a word.
Not just for fear, I think,
But some for courtesy;
Letting him who all revere
To that man reply.]

Here the poet ironically excusesthe knights for allowing Arthur to accept the Green Knight’s challenge.The Gawain poet has a keen wit and also gives evidencethat punning is intentional. He provides a lengthy descriptionof the Green Knight’s decapitation, including the flow of blood,but never mentions the color of the blood.

He brayde his bluk aboute,
That ugly bodi that bledde;
Moni on of hym had doute,
Bi that his resouns were redde. (ll. 440-43)

[He turned his body about,
That ugly body that bled;
Many of him had fear,
When all his thoughts were known.]

The pairing of the b-rhyme wouldsuggest a subtle pun on the word “redde.” Even if thisis tenuous, another instance of possible punning seems undeniable.When Sir Bertilak on the second day of the “game” presentsGawain with the decapitated head of the boar, this sinister hostimmediately says, “Now, Gawayn … this gomen is your awen”(l. 1635) [“Now, Gawain … the game is yours”]. Thewildlife is indeed Gawain’s according to the rules of the dealset up by the two previously. But the “game” is alsoGawain’s in that the beheading pact began as a game. The presentationof the boar’s head at this moment indicates that a very grislypun is intended. Still, the medievalist can add to the enjoymentof Sir Gawain. While the boar-hunt is in progress, andGawain encounters Bertilak’s wife for the second time alone, theinstructor may tentatively add, “This time the woman is goingwhole-hog.”

The medieval author does not lacka sense of humor. But literature of the period offers too fewintentionally comic moments that survive the centuries (Chaucerbeing an entirely different semester). Responsibility for humorin medieval studies rests, therefore, to a large extent on theinstructor who, if he foregoes the traditional pedantry of theuniversity professor and is willing to open up the texts withcolorful explication, a modern sensibility, a degree of roguishness,and his own joy in the literature, can transform an academic “trialby ordeal” into an engaging and enjoyable experience neverto be forgotten.


1All uncited examples of pedagogical, or classroom, humor were supplied, despite these being the painful “rotary cuff” days, by Professor Thomas J. Garbaty, English 541.001 (Literatureof the Medieval Period), January to April 1984, MWF 11:00-12:00.

Works Cited

Beowulf. Ed. F. Klaeber. 3rd ed. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co., 1950.

Donaldson, E. Talbot. “The Myth of Courtly Love.” In Speaking of Chaucer. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1970.

Havelok the Dane. In Middle English Verse Romances. Ed. Donald B. Sands. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1966. 55-129.

King Horn. In Middle English Verse Romances. Ed. Donald B. Sands.NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1966. 15-54.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. A.C. Cawley and J.J. Anderson. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1962. 157-254.