Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Tricksters and Pranksters: Roguery in French and German Literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Tricksters and Pranksters: Roguery in French and German Literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Article excerpt

Alison Williams, Tricksters and Pranksters: Roguery in French and German Literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Internationale Forschungen zur allgemeinen und vergleichenden Literaturwissenschaft 49 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000). 236 pp. ISBN 90-420-1512-8. euro46.00.

Alison Williams's monograph makes an informative and entertaining contribution to the study of French and German comic literature of the medieval and early modern periods. Its close textual analysis of a considerable body of primary material is based on a number of theoretical suppositions taken from a variety of disciplines. In the first instance ethnological and anthropological scholarship is used to define the ambivalent figure of the trickster (polymorphous; a representative of disorder; transgressing boundaries and occupying a position of 'central marginality'; acting as an intermediary and exercising a normative function); the prankster shares these characteristics but is more interested in spectacle and performance than material gain or psychological victory. The actions of both tricksters and pranksters test boundaries, and this would seem to lend itself to a Bakhtinian reading in terms of the 'carnivalesque'. Williams, however, resists the temptation to adopt such an approach on any fundamental methodological level; instead she is content to offer a brief overview of late-medieval rituals of inversion and humiliation as a way of fleshing out her introductory discussion of whether the transgressive behaviour of tricksters should in principle be regarded as complicit with or subversive of a society's traditional 'official' norms and values. The conclusions she draws are conservative (excessive and illicit behaviour is almost invariably licensed) as is her view of the general functioning of comedy and laughter in these earlier periods. Her primary interest here is to suggest that the texts in question are informed by a humour of cruelty, which she formulates with reference to the renowned (modern) theories of laughter and joking of Bergson and Freud. …

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