How did you please a medieval English comedy crowd? Going by an extraordinary new discovery, you gave them killer hares, jousting bears, social subversion and toilet jokes — then insulted them and urged them to get drunk.
According to a study, the Heege Manuscript in the National Library of Scotland contains a trove of poems and prose copied from the written repertoire of a 15th-century minstrel in England’s North-East Midlands.
The new identification makes them the only texts that can be linked to a minstrel in medieval England as a composer or performer, and an unprecedented glimpse at the era’s live comedy. It also reveals remarkable similarities to modern British humour.
Dr James Wade, of the University of Cambridge’s English Faculty, said his discovery changes the way we should think of English comic culture between Chaucer and Shakespeare. “Most medieval poetry, song and storytelling has been lost. 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.”
During the Middle Ages, minstrels travelled between fairs, taverns and the halls of gentry and nobles to entertain with songs and stories. Wade said fictional minstrels were common in medieval literature but references to real-life performers were rare and fleeting, providing virtually no evidence of their lives or work. He added: “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 period is incredibly rare and exciting.”
The Heege Manuscript is a compilation of texts copied by Richard Heege, a priest and probable tutor in the household of the landowning Sherbrooke family. Its content ranges from ghost stories to devotional texts and guides to good manners. Wade said: “One of the most interesting things about the manuscript is that it does not preserve texts that we consider works of high art, or works that tie into traditions that have endured. The Arthurian tradition is not present and there’s nothing from classical antiquity… It’s thought of as a collection of lowbrow writings.”
His study focuses on the first of nine booklets in the manuscript. This contains three texts that Wade concludes were copied by Heege around 1480 from a now lost memory-aid written by a minstrel. The three texts comprise a tail-rhyme burlesque romance, The Hunting of the Hare; a mock sermon in prose; and an alliterative nonsense verse, The Battle of Brackonwet.
As Wade explains in his paper, in The Review of English Studies, the hunt poem contains very little hunting. Rather, “a bunch of peasants try to course a hare but end up in a massive tangled brawl with each other and with their mongrel dogs, and in the end the wives show up to cart off the dead and wounded in wheelbarrows.”
In one scene reminiscent of Monty Python’s killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, the bumpkin “Jack Wade was never so sad / As when the hare trod on his head / In case she would have ripped out his throat.”
The poem offers crude bodily humour too, such as: “Thus someone hit him on the back / That ever after his arse said, “Quack!”.
And, in a gentle dig at the audience, the narrator says he dare not state the location of this village of idiots.
Meanwhile, the mock sermon — presumably performed by the minstrel in the guise of a priest — ridicules the ruling classes and includes the earliest recorded use of “red herring” to mean a diversion. It describes three kings eating so much that 24 oxen-knights burst from their bellies, fighting with swords. The oxen chop each other up until only three red herrings are left alive. In Wade’s analysis, the “bizarre” images conjure kings reduced to mere distractions.
In addition, the sermon features fragments of drinking songs exhorting its audience to get drunk. For instance: “God loves neither horse nor mare, but merry men that in the cup can stare.”
Jousting bears, battling bumblebees and partying pigs all figure in The Battle of Brakonwet. The poem also has a clever demonstration of alliterative verse and double entendre in the line: “In a slommuryng of slepe, for-slokond with ale”. Here, “for-slokond” could mean both “quenched” and “drenched”.
Wade said: “We shouldn’t assume that popular entertainers weren’t capable of poetic achievement. This minstrel clearly was.”
For Wade, the humour of the texts evokes that of modern British comedy from Python to the BBC’s Mock the Week and countless live performances. “It struck me how similar it is to contemporary comedy that I’m familiar with… The self-irony and making audiences the butt of the joke are still very characteristic of British stand-up comedy.
“One of the things that I found myself laughing at most was instances where the minstrel is directly mocking the audience. ‘All you drunkards were locked up in a dungeon…’ [the word “sotte” in the original meaning “drunkard” or “fool”]. So that assumes that the audience is drunk and either idiots or drunk enough to be considered idiots.”
He added: “Contemporary stand-up is interested in poking fun at those in authority or celebrities or those higher up in our culture’s esteem. Taking the high and bringing it low is a trope of contemporary comedy that we find in the Heege Manuscript. Situational or slapstick humour, humour that relies on crude bodily functions or low-brow registers or discourses are typical of contemporary comedy. And we find those also.”
He came across the texts while researching in Scotland. His “moment of epiphany” was when he noticed that, after a nonsense poem describing a gargantuan feast cooked and served by animals, Heege had written: “By me, Richard Heege, because I was at that feast and did not have a drink.”
He believes there are two plausible scenarios. Either Heege was making a joke by imagining himself as the poem’s narrator attending the absurd feast and managing to stay sober enough to remember it. Or, he was referring to his relative sobriety during an actual feast at which the poem was performed by a minstrel. Either way, he said: “It was an intriguing display of humour and it’s rare for medieval scribes to share that much of their character.”
This inspired Wade to investigate the texts’ origin. Various clues then led him to identify them as being copied by Heege from a minstrel’s repertoire. All three are wholly original and not broadly derived from other known sources. They are humorous and intended for interactive live performances to audiences of mixed social classes who are assumed to be merry-making. And they make play with local settings, such as referring to villages close to the Sherbrookes’ estate and Heege’s ancestral village of Heague.
It is thought that many minstrels had day jobs, such as ploughmen or pedlars, but went gigging at evenings and weekends. Some may have travelled across the country, while others traipsed a circuit of local venues as Wade believes this one did.
He suspects that the minstrel wrote part of his act down because its many nonsense sequences would have been very difficult to recall. “He didn’t give himself the kind of repetition or story trajectory which would have made things simpler to remember.”
According to Wade, the booklet’s secrets were hidden in plain sight because previous study focused on how the Heege Manuscript was made and overlooked its comedic significance.
He said his findings transform our understanding of the sheer creative range of minstrels. “One of the most surprising outcomes of identifying these texts as coming from the minstrel is that they don’t conform with our hitherto standard interpretation of what minstrels were performing — such as romances, tales of chivalry, Robin Hood ballads, tales of great battles and poetic versions of historical narratives. These are the things we most often associate with minstrelsy because that’s what is represented in other fiction. Here we have no Robin Hood ballads, no tales of chivalry and no accounts of great battles.
“What we have is something much more playful and much more ironic. It is meta-comedic, it is situational. It imagines that there is an audience in a particular kind of festive context and it is really engaged in that situation.”
Wade said there was abundant evidence for minstrels having performed in front of socially diverse audiences. Household accounts of the 15th century indicate that landowners paid minstrels to perform for large audiences of labourers and tenants as well as for distinguished visitors.
That may explain how Heague came to be acquainted with the unnamed minstrel whose works he immortalised. Wade said: “One of the things that emerges from these texts is a sense of all categories of society, high and low, the learned and the lewd, the rich and the poor, the aristocratic and the peasantry, mixing together at these festive or saturnalian occasions. So it seems entirely plausible that a priest who was also a scribe would be mixing with a minstrel who was used to being in the taverns and alehouses.”
In his paper, he concludes: “What we find in these texts is a vestige of medieval life lived vibrantly: the good times being as good as they ever have been, and probably ever will.”
The top image is a Victorian depiction of medieval minstrels and jugglers performing at a royal court. Credit: Alamy