Laughter and humour in the early
medieval Latin west
Few humorous writings from the period 500–800 spring to mind. The familiarbiblical and liturgical parodies, comic lyrics and sequences such as adorn the Cambridge Songs, satires, Goliardic poetry, plays such as Hrotswitha's Dulcitius, animal fables, and innumerable items written in various vernaculars are all the products of a later period. Even Hucbald's Ecloga de calvis belongs to the tenth century. This study will in part reinforce prejudices about (lack of) early medieval humour by emphasising discontinuity with the rich humorous traditions of antiquity. But it will also discuss some examples of an unsympathetic type of early medieval humourthat shows considerable continuity with the classical world, and analyse some little-known passages where a new type of humour may have been developing.
Studies that cut broad swathes must look for change. How much continuity is there between later Roman and early medieval humour, and how does one chart it? Where is it? Genre provides one convenient handle. 'Humour' (and its posher relative, 'wit') are messy, because they are often passing 'moments' that occur in many genres and literary forms where one expects them (forexample in comedy, parody, satire, invective and epigram), as well as in genres where their presence is not a sine qua non of, or proper to, the genre. History, epistolography, biography and hagiography provide good examples.
There is indeed less humour in its standard homes in the early Middle Ages. Representatives of the comic genres either never existed or failed to survive: no early medieval comedy (unless one happens to find the Querolus amusing), few secular epigrams (Fortunatus, for example), no verse satire, no comic novels, few lampoons, no declamatory or comic invective.