Playful but Problematic: Medieval Humour and Contemporary Performance

Laughing jester

Stockholm Court Jester, by Anonymous, Netherlands [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Medieval drama often featured religious themes, retelling biblical stories on stage – not material you would expect to be given a comic treatment. In this blog post for the Humours of the Post project, Jamie Beckett (part of the Records of Early English Drama North East team) describes how early drama may actually have made considerable use of humour and comedy, and explains how to reproduce the jokes of the past for a modern audience.


Humours of the Past

Jamie Beckett, Durham University

Aside from the slightly tired yet somehow satisfying adage, ‘humour studies is no laughing matter’, I had little idea what to expect when I first heard about the first HOP Collaboratory, hosted at the University of Aberdeen. As a PhD candidate at Durham University, I explore the relevance and function of humour and laughter within late medieval drama, specifically those performances of biblical or devotional drama which were staged in the North East of England in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Yet whether it’s discussing obscene portrayals of biblical patriarchs, or the riotous laughter of unruly townspeople, I’m often the only humour scholar at the party.

I’m fairly used to the responses I get from most people when I’ve told them what I do. ‘That sounds like fun’, which it is – some of the time. ‘How interesting’, which it is – most of the…

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