Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Louise D'Arcens. Comic Medievalism: Laughing at the Middle Ages

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Louise D'Arcens. Comic Medievalism: Laughing at the Middle Ages

Article excerpt

Louise D'Arcens. Comic Medievalism: Laughing at the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Brewer, 2014. 209 pp. $95.00.

Louise D'Arcens's Comic Medievalism: Laughing at the Middle Ages is an impressive exposition of the workings of mirth, amusement, and laughter in modern and postmodern attempts to engage with the medieval past, commonly known as medievalism. It offers a welcome "intervention into the study of humor" (D'Arcens 7), for as the author skilfully shows, the three well-known theories of humour (superiority, incongruity, and relief) going back to Henri Bergson's 1900 seminal study Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic, are not quite sufficient when applied to comic medievalism (D'Arcens 182-83). To achieve her principal goal of developing a critical discourse for understanding how and why the Middle Ages have provided such a rich source of mirth for the later epochs, D'Arcens examines three paradigms for medievalist humour: laughing at, in, and with the Middle Ages. The first one pertains to the texts, conceived broadly, that laugh at the medieval past, such as Cervantes Saavedra's masterpiece Don Quixote or Mark Twain's novel Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. These works treat the Middle Ages as risible and express not a small degree of what the Germans term schadenfreude. They support a progressivist view of history that creates a breach between periods and that treats modernity as a more evolved stage, not unlike those promoted by the twentieth-century scholars Norbert Elias and Johan Huizinga. The second paradigm is represented by the texts that laugh in the Middle Ages, that "playfully collapse" temporal distinctions between the medieval and later epochs. Works of this group support the model of historical continuity and manifest, what D'Arcens calls "transhistorical sympathy with medieval people" based on "recognition of the universal humanity" that the medievals share with the modern people (12). Finally, the third approach, laughing with the Middle Ages, espouses a notion that social progress might be achieved through recovery of medieval practices, as seen, for example, in the current popular phenomenon of medieval heritage tourism.

All three models are explored in great detail across the four larger units of the book, divided into seven chapters. The first part, with its detailed analysis of Cervantes's Don Quixote sets up a critical frame for interpretation of comic representations of the Middle Ages. Don Quixote serves as a perfect example of a meta-medievalist novel, as a commentary on the process through which medieval texts "come to be disseminated and resignified in post-medieval settings" (D'Arcens 26). The conclusion of this chapter, that in order to laugh at the Middle Ages, one has to laugh in the Middle Ages (D'Arcens 31), offers a smooth transition to what is to come in the subsequent chapters. Part 2 examines the ways in which the medieval era has come to be associated with particular forms of humour for the subsequent ages. Here D'Arcens analyzes the eighteenth-century reception of Chaucer as the so-called "Joking Bard," particularly by Spenser, Pope, and Gay, and the twentieth-century Italian playwright and satirist Dario Fo's debt to medieval comic tradition and folk humour. It becomes clear that, in both cases, the postmedieval treatments of medieval material are deeply dependent on their premodern sources, which serve for them as the foundation to define their modernity. …

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