Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

By Guy Halsall | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
Laughter after Babel's fall: misunderstanding
and miscommunication in the ninth-century west
Paul Kershaw

'How many languages are there? Seventy-two. ' Thus ran the pithy treatment of the diversity of human tongues present in several eighth- and ninth-century collections of Ioca monachorum, 'Monkish jokes'.1 Like early medieval wisdom dialogues, the Ioca were written to entertain and to educate, playfully testing biblical knowledge through riddling questions. On one level they serve as a reminder that a close relationship between levity and the classroom continued to exist long after schoolboys were amused, to Jerome's annoyance, by the testament of the piglet 'Grunnius Corocotta', and long before Peter Abelard's joking syllogisms elicited the laughter of his Paris students and the comparably cool comment of Otto of Freising.2 More specifically, this particular question, 'how many languages are there?', encapsulates the themes I wish to discuss here, for the answer, 'seventy-two', originates in patristic exegesis on Genesis 10–11. This is, of course, the well-known account of the building and subsequent destruction of the Tower of Babel, the 'scattering of peoples' that followed in its wake and, with this, the creation of the 'confusion of tongues' that offered early medieval intellectuals an explanation for the multiplicity of earthly languages.3

____________________
1
W. Suchier, Das mittellateinische Gespr¨ach Adrian und Epictetus nebstverwandten Texte (Joca monachorum) (T¨ubingen, 1955) remains the standard edition. On the dialogue form, see Bayless, above, pp. 157–60; see also L. W. Daly and W. Suchier, Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti Philosophi (Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 24) (Urbana, IL, 1939). M. Bayless, 'The Collectanea and medieval dialogues and riddles', in Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae (Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 14), ed. M. Bayless and M. Lapidge (Dublin, 1998), pp. 13–24, provides a discussion of the manuscript contexts of these collections, adding to the numberof manuscripts known to Suchierand listing occurrences of this particular question at p. 232. See also Shanzer, above, pp. 26–7.
2
For 'The testament of the piglet', and Jerome's comments on it, see J. Ziolkowski, Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 750–1150 (Philadelphia, PA, 1993), pp. 38–9, citing Jerome, Adversus Rufinum (PL 23, col. 412), with a translation of the 'Testament' at cols. 299–300. On Abelard's use of humourin the classroom, and Otto's response, see M. T. Clanchy, Abelard: A Medieval Life (Oxford, 1997), pp. 132–3. See also Shanzer, above, p. 45.
3
Genesis 10–11. On the image of the Towerof Babel in patristic thought and early medieval culture, A. Borst, Das Turmbau von Babel. Geschichte der Meinungen ¨ uber Ursprung und Vielfalt der Sprachen und olker (Stuttgart, 1957–63), vol. II(1), pp. 366–581 remains the definitive study, with his treatment of the Carolingians at pp. 483–541; also H. Sauer, 'Die 72 olkerund Sprachen der Welt: ein Mittelalterliche Topos in der englischen Literatur', Anglia 101 (1982), pp. 29–48.

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