Laughs are easy to find today. People can see comedians tell jokes onstage. Or they can flip on the TV to see all kinds of funny shows. But in times, minstrels were the masters of comedy. Those entertainers traveled around Europe, getting giggles.
What was funny back then?
It’s hard to know. Minstrels usually didn’t write down their shows. Jokes, songs, and stories were passed around through instead. And many of those bits are gone. A recent study is peeking at the laughs of the past though. It looks at a medieval comedy routine!
James Wade works at England’s University of Cambridge. He is the expert behind this study. He looked at an old text. A man named Richard Heege wrote the words around 1480. Heege copied down details of a minstrel’s show in England.
“Most medieval poetry, song, and storytelling has been lost,” Wade said. One reason is that these forms weren’t considered the best art. Wade called the routine “mad and , but just as valuable.”
Wade noticed some similarities between the past comedy and today’s. “Stand-up comedy has always involved taking risks, and these texts are risky!” he explained. “They poke fun at everyone, high and low.”
Leaders and kings weren’t safe from the minstrel’s jokes. Neither were poorer people. One bit is about hunters going after a rabbit. takes over and by the end, a hunter is scared of the rabbit. Another story was about three kings. They ate so much that their bellies burst open, and sword-fighting oxen came out of them.
The king story ends with nothing alive but three fish called red herrings. This is the first known use of the term “red herring.” It is used to mean a “distraction.” In stories, a “red herring” is something that misleads the audience. It takes them away from the main plot. Wade thinks the minstrel was calling kings a distraction.
Texts like Heege’s can show us what life was like in the past. “People back then partied a lot more than we do today. So minstrels had plenty of opportunities to perform,” Wade said. “They were really important figures.” Wade added, “These texts give us a snapshot of medieval life being lived well.”
Updated June 9, 2023, 5:02 P.M. (ET)
By Ashley Morgan