Article Title

Laughter in Medieval English Drama: A Critique of Modernizing and Historical Analyses


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Laughing, like weeping, is a spontaneous, involuntary expression of our emotions.1 It is a “window” through which we can look inside our fellow humans and without which we would probably not be viable as social beings. What we observe through this window is a fascinating sight, especially when the people we observe have lived many centuries before us. We must, however, be able to interpret what we see. This is particularly important for the laughter of the past. It would be desirable if historical research could always distinguish between situations in which somebody had to laugh and situations in which everybody was meant to laugh.2 I am not aware of a study of medieval laughter that makes, let alone problematizes, this distinction. The frequent references by Mikhail Bakhtin and his followers to the “medieval culture of laughter” suggest that everybody was meant to laugh, but in the records of medieval drama the instances in which somebody had to laugh are far more frequent. Nevertheless, we must also assume that there were numerous scenes at which the audience was meant to laugh, even though we are unlikely to find cogent proof of this in the records. To discover such occasions we must interpret the dramatic texts themselves, and there we are always in danger of believing that our ancestors had the same prejudices as we.


1An earlier version of this article was published in German as “Lachen im geistlichen Schauspiel des englischen Mittelalters” in Komische Gegenwelten und Literatur in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit, ed. Werner Röcke and Helga Neumann (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1999), 175–97. A shortened version of the present article was read at a meeting of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences (Polska Akademia Umiejęności) in Cracow in April 2001. The present version is indebted to Clifford Davidson for stimulating observations and suggestions.

2The double nature of laughter is noted by Peter L. Berger: “The comic can also be deliberately constructed, as in the telling of a joke or the staging of a comedy, but very often it simply happens to or befalls the individual” (Redeeming Laughter. The Comic Dimensions of Human Experience [Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1997], 14)

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