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

By Guy Halsall | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
'Don't worry, I've got the key'
Guy Halsall

A man is walking down the street when a neighbour runs up to him and says, 'Hey, your house is on fire!' 'Don't worry, ' replies the man, 'I've got the key. '

This joke, possibly the best in this collection of essays (certainly that which got the biggest laugh at the conference where these papers were originally presented1), is to be found in John Haldon's treatment of 'Humour and the everyday in Byzantium',2 and makes a useful focus forthis introduction. Identifying the humorous in late antique and early medieval writing is very often a question of locating the key.

That, however, presupposes the willingness to look for the key in the first place, and this seems to have been conspicuously absent in previous generations of scholarship. At several points in the following chapters, we shall encounter footnotes pointing out how previous researchers have eithernot noticed that a work was intended to be funny, orhave rejected interpretations of late antique or early medieval works which see them as anything otherthan entirely earnest.3 Even a genre as overtly intended to amuse as riddle collections has, in its continental manifestations, been neglected.4 Recently, historians have looked increasingly at humourand its uses;5 the ancient world6 and Anglo-Saxon England,

____________________
1
With the possible exception of the occasion when Matt Innes tripped over the overhead projector's extension lead.
2
Below, p. 64.
3
Forexample, below, p. 86, n. 60; p. 102, n. 55
4
Bayless, below, p. 157.
5
See, forexample, Humour and History, ed. K. Cameron (Oxford, 1993); A Cultural History of Humour, ed. J. Bremmer and H. Roodenberg (London, 1997), with bibliography at pp. 242–52.
6
In addition to works on Roman humour found in the footnotes of the essays in this collection, see: D. Arnould, Le Rire et les larmes dans la littérature grecque d'Homère à Platon (Paris, 1990); Le Rire des anciens: actes du Colloque Internationale, Université de Rouen, Ecole Normale Supérieure, 11 –13 janvier 1995, ed. M. Trédé, P. Hoffmann and C. Auvray-Assayas (Paris, 1998); Laughter Down the Centuries, vol. III, ed. S. J¨akel, A. Timonen and V.-M. Rissanen (Turku, 1997).

-1-

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