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

By Guy Halsall | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
'He never even allowed his white teeth to be
bared in laughter': the politics of humour
in the Carolingian renaissance
Matthew Innes

Humour is scarcely a topic that looms large in Carolingian history. The overriding seriousness of a dynasty that saw its mission as the creation of a Christian society dominated not only contemporary discourse, but also that of modern interpreters. In a political culture wherein argument was prosecuted wheneverpossible with pen ratherthan sword, written texts were used to elevate personal and factional interests to the moral high ground.1 In this cultural context–or at least in recent work upon it–there has often seemed little space for humour: a good vehicle for ridiculing rivals but apoor one for appropriating rectitude in past, present and future.

The period's modern students may have accentuated the humourlessness of Carolingian political discourse. Pamphlet wars make for plentiful sources, and allow modern historians to apply, consciously and unconsciously, criteria for the evaluation and selection of those sources. Given a–by early medieval standards–superabundance of material, writers who used humourto drive home theirpoint have tended to sufferat the hands of modern critics and find themselves largely excluded from the approved canon of 'reliable' sources. Thus Notker of St-Gall, condemned as a worthless gossip earlier in the twentieth century, has only slowly been rehabilitated, and then primarily as a source for socio-cultural history.2

____________________
1
See J. L. Nelson, 'Public histories and private history in the work of Nithard', Speculum 60 (1985), pp. 251 –93; also her 'History-writing at the courts of Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald', in Historiographie im fr¨uhen Mittelalter (Ver¨offentlichungen des Instituts f¨ur Osterreichische Geschichtsforschung 32), ed. A. Scharerand G. Scheibelreiter (Vienna, 1994), pp. 435–42; M. Innes and R. McKitterick, 'The writing of history', in Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation, ed. R. McKitterick (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 193–220.
2
The highpoint in denigration of Notker as useless in positivistic terms came with L. Halphen, 'Etudes critiques sur l'histoire de Charlemagne IV: le moine de St. Gall', Revue Historique 128 (1918), pp. 26–98, reprinted in L. Halphen, Etudes critiques sur l'histoire de Charlemagne (Paris, 1921); rehabilitation came first through the study of Notker's political ideas, by scholars such as T. Siegrist, Herrscher und Weltsicht bei Notker Balbulus: Untersuchungen zu den Gesta Karoli (Zurich, 1963), and of his social and cultural world, by Hans-Werner Goetz, Strukturen der sp¨atkarolingischen Epoche im Spiegel der Vorstellungen eines zeitgen¨ossischen M¨onchs: Eine Interpretation der Gesta Karoli Notkers von Sankt Gallen (Bonn, 1981); only most recently has his political relevance been reassessed by S. MacLean, 'The reign of Charles the Fat (876–888)' (unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, University of London, 2000), drawing on the insights of H. L¨owe, 'Das Karlsbuch Notkers von St-Gallen und sein zeitges chichtli cher Hinter grund', Schweizerische Zeitschrift f¨ur Geschichte 20 (1970), pp. 269–302.

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