The Medieval Review 11.09.04

Classen, Albrecht. Laughter in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times: Epistemology of a Fundamental Human Behavior, Its Meaning, and Consequences. Fundamentals of Medieval and Early Modern Culture. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, 2010. Pp. 853. $182. ISBN 978-3-11-024547-9. . .

Reviewed by:

Valerie Allen
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

Unsure how to map this small continent of words that began as an interdisciplinary conference on medieval and early modern laughter as epistemology, I supply here twenty-nine rather long sentences comprising one-sentence-summaries of all the featured essays, which follow a loosely chronological sequence from the late antique world to the eighteenth century. I follow with Classen's introduction and some general comment. Here goes then.

1) Judith Hagen opens the collection by reflecting upon the late antique world, with "Laughter in Procopius's Wars" (141-64), where laughter connotes the superiority of the Romans over the moral, cerebral, and military inferiority of their enemies. 2) Livnat Holtzman asks, "'Does God Really Laugh?'--Appropriate and Inappropriate Descriptions of God in Islamic Traditionalist Theology" (165-200), and finds Islamic theologians to be deeply exercised over the implied anthropomorphism of divine risus. 3) Daniel F. Pigg, in "Laughter in Beowulf: Ambiguity, Ambivalence, and Group Identity Formation" (201-13), asserts the ambivalence of laughter in a community on the threshold of change and loss. 4) Mark Burde analyses the evolution of "The Parodia sacra Problem and Medieval Comic Studies" (215-42), and seeks to correct a tendency among Bahktinian readings to overemphasize the oppositional nature of the encounter of sacred and profane and to underemphasize its continued presence in post-medieval culture. 5) Olga V. Trokhimenko examines "Women's Laughter and Gender Politics in Medieval Conduct Discourse" (243-64), in particular, in the thirteenth-century Frauenbuch by Ulrich von Liechtenstein, which exemplifies the general and paradoxical assumption that women are best obeyed when they themselves are obedient. 6) "Pushing Decorum: Uneasy Laughter in Heinrich von dem Türlîn's Diu Crône" (265-79), by Madelon Köhler-Busch, shows how the laughter evinced by two mock trials from this late Middle High German romance, in which the virtue of the ladies of Arthur's court is assayed and found wanting, takes carnival to its limit by pressing the joke too far, thereby causing the moral code to reassert itself. 7) Connie L. Scarborough turns to thirteenth-century Alfonsine Spain as she considers "Laughter and the Comedic in a Religious Text: The Example of the Cantigas de Santa Maria" (281-94), finding laughter within a space of free play that inhabits the sacred without perceived contradiction. 8) Where Köhler-Busch observes the transgression of boundaries, John Sewell examines their preservation in "The Son Rebelled and So the Father Made Man Alone: Ridicule and Boundary Maintenance in the Nizzahon Vetus" (295-324) by showing how ridicule of Christianity in Jewish polemic functions as a social corrective to deter Iberian Jews from converting. 9) Birgit Wiedl looks at laughter from the other side of culture, in "Laughing at the Beast: The Judensau: Anti-Jewish Propaganda and Humor from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period" (325-64), and points out that these obscene Jew-sow images developed in German-speaking regions initially as a warning to Christians not to be empty bearers of the law like the Jews (who hypocritically desire what they forbid themselves from touching) and subsequently as generalized anti-Semitism, with the Jew-sow images occurring in public, secular places. 10) In "Yes...but was it funny? Cecco Angiolieri, Rustico Filippi and Giovanni Boccaccio" (365-82), Fabian Alfie comments on the absence of laughter from medieval theoretical understandings of comedy (at least as given by Vinsauf and Dante) and on its presence in oral performance; and concludes that laughter occurs as a social, performative act when the poetry of these Italian poets is read aloud communally rather than privately.

11) Filippi receives further attention in Nicolino Applauso's "Curses and Laughter in Medieval Italian Comic Poetry: The Ethics of Humor in Rustico Filippi's Invectives" (383-412), where the poet's political invective emerges less as flyting, which arouses hostility through laughter, than as diplomatic mediation in sonnet form, which defuses hostility through laughter. 12) In "Tromdhámh Guaire: a Context for Laughter and Audience in Early Modern Ireland" (413-27), Feargal ó'Béarra looks at poetic invective (possibly by clerics) through the other end of the telescope when the object of ridicule is the bardic order itself, whose poets commit the mortal social sin of abusing hospitality. 13) Jean E. Jost turns to French literature with "Humorous Transgression in the Non-Conformist fabliaux Genre: A Bakhtinian Analysis of Three Comic Tales" (429-55), arguing that the fabliaux fulfill a Bakhtinian principle of (temporary) social equalization by their joyously abandoned subversion of hierarchy and inversion of authority. 14) Looking beyond the most likely candidate for comic potential in Chaucer's oeuvre, namely, the Canterbury Tales, Gretchen Mieszkowski studies scenes from Chaucer's Trojan romance as a different kind of "Chaucerian Comedy: Troilus and Criseyde" (457-80), and argues that their comic elements complicate the genre of romance. 15) "Laughing in and Laughing at the Old French Fabliaux" (481-97), says author Sarah Gordon, signify as much as do any words, for "laugh tracks" not only symptomatically indicate incongruity or derision or release but also give closure to narrative by pointing diegetically to the punch line. 16) In "Laughter and Medieval Stalls" (499-514), Christine Bousquet-Labouérie examines misericords in French choir stalls, notes the different kinds of humor they exhibit, remarks on their ability both to deflate clerical pretension and to dispel fear, and ponders on the riskiness of placing such invitations to laughter at the very center of ecclesiastical identity. 17) "Vox populi e voce professionis: Processus juris joco-serius. Esoteric Humor and the Incommensurability of Laughter" (515-30) is an essay by Scott L. Taylor on fictional trials that enact important points about procedural and substantive law; one "grotesque" rather than comic Processus in particular, where the Virgin and the devil plead against each other before Christ as judge for the prize of humanity, shows how initial dominance of legal focus over theological and devotional content gives way in subsequent, more popular versions to a preferring of devotion over legal procedure and even to anti-legal satire. 18) In "'So I thought as I Stood, To Mirth Us Among': The Function of Laughter in The Second Shepherds' Play" (531-45), Jean N. Goodrich considers the social meaning of the play's "laugh act" (as distinct from the speech act) and concludes that inclusion and reconciliation rather than transgression motivate the comic ending and benign punishment of Mak the thief. 19) Albrecht Classen has his own essay in the collection--"Laughing in Late-Medieval Verse (mæren) and Prose (Schwänke) Narratives: Epistemological Strategies and Hermeneutic Explorations (547-85)--in which he shows how laughter in selected German verse narratives (mæren) and jest narratives (Schwänke) expose the hidden inner structure of social relations and surface events, thereby offering the possibility of greater insight and self-understanding. 20) In a close reading of a famous incident in Rabelais--"The Workings of Desire: Panurge and the Dogs" (587-601)--Rosa Alvarez Perez correlates the lady's desecrated body and Corpus Christi and reads the situational comedy as an indication of crisis in both Catholic faith and masculinity.

21) In "Laughing Out Loud in the Heptaméron: A Reassessment of Marguerite de Navarre's Ambivalent Humor" (603-19), Elizabeth Chesney Zegura examines how the noise of a wife's laughter at her husband's philandering (Novella 54) solves a problem, in this case of possible marital breakdown; and also more generally how laughter, in its capacity to signify wordlessly and reveal the hidden, tracks the boundary between seeming and being, shadows and reality. 22) "You had to be there: The Elusive Humor of the Sottie" (621-50), by Lia B. Ross, argues for the comic importance of Pythonesque, surreal zaniness in a genre--the sottie--that is both fleeting (flourishing in French-speaking countries from mid-fifteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries) and hard to differentiate from its partner genres of farce and morality. 23) Kyle DiRoberto finds "Sacred Parody in Robert Greene's Groatsworth of Wit (1592)" (651-65), and argues that the deathbed conversion, far from being a genuine repentance, is a farce, which deflates Puritan anti-theatricality and mercenary piety. 24) Martha Moffitt Peacock argues for the comic as well as morally corrective value of the iconographic representations of bullying wives in "The Comedy of the Shrew: Theorizing Humor in Early Modern Netherlandish Art" (667-713), where she points to historical evidence for the advanced freedom of wives in the Dutch republic relative to its neighbors, suggesting that the comic art offered an outlet for both vulnerable masculine and liberated feminine egos. 25) In "The Comic Personas of Milton's Prolusion VI: Negotiating Masculine Identity Through Self-Directed Humor" (715-34), Jessica Tvordi explores Milton's Cambridge performance as "Father" or compère to a college "salting"--that is, a public entertainment as a rite of passage marking an undergraduate's transition to senior status--in which the young sobersides poet wittily defends himself from accusation of effeminate scholasticism by turning the tables on his grammar-bungling audience. 26) In "Ridentum dicere verum (Using Laughter to Speak the Truth): Laughter and the Language of the Early Modern Clown 'Pickelhering' in German Literature of the Late Seventeenth Century (1675-1700)" (735-66), Robert J. Alexander considers the wide-ranging satiric potential of the fool/clown figure in the early modern German stage, who amuses with his transgressive behavior, pranks, and dancing. 27) With "Andreae's ludibrium: Menippean Satire in the Chymische Hochzeit" (767-89), Thomas Willard discusses how the Rosicrucian text's narrator, Christian Rosencreutz, encounters laughter both as comic and satiric medium and as the means to self-knowledge and spiritual union. 28) Considering "The Comic Power of Illusion-Allusion: Laughter, La Devineresse, and the Scandal of a Glorious Century" (791-801), Diane Rudall finds the line between laughter and horror fine indeed in a seventeenth-century box-office hit play by Thomas Corneille and Jean Donneau de Visé about the exposure of the scandalously rampant inheritance-by-poisoning that was practiced by French nobility. 29) Allison P. Coudert rounds off the collection and keeps epistemology to the fore by "Laughing at Credulity and Superstition in the Long Eighteenth Century" (803-29), in which she finds laughter a central device in a period she characterizes as preoccupied with detecting and recognizing forgery, hoax, and, by consequence, originality and genuineness, although the task of establishing criteria for determining reality remained deeply problematic.

That whistle-stop tour demonstrates the diversity of the submissions, and diversity is both the strength and the weakness of the collection. Classen's 140-page introduction, a short book in itself, does a good job in supplying detailed summaries of each essay that in their heft go some way to adding connective tissue between discussions of disparate genres and of authors from disparate eras, regions and cultures who wrote in disparate languages (84-138). Indeed, Classen keeps the focus single-mindedly on laughter in a way that not all of the essays do, which, however interesting in their own right, can threaten by their absorption in their topic to make laughter secondary (Sewell's submission springs to mind). Before these summaries, Classen inventories various kinds of laughter (motivated generally by incongruity or derision or need for release) and various notable instances of (in particular) medieval laughter that are not discussed by the contributors. The plethora of terms shows the many directions in which discussions about laughter have turned in these diverse contexts: the Aristotelean virtue of eutrapelia; sacred and profane; earnest and game; gaudium spirituale, risus moderatus, laetitia saecularis; carnival; satire; farce; parodia sacra. Not to mention the theorists in this formidably wide field: Michael Screech, Jacques le Goff, Quentin Skinner, Mary Douglas, Mikhail Bakhtin, Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson, Thomas Hobbes, Laurent Joubert, Aristotle, though not all are referenced in the volume.

One conventional assumption about a scholarly collection is that it should be cohesive and if not cohesive at least exhaustive. This book reads better if one abandons that assumption and accepts the ad hoc coverage, taking what one wants from its offerings. Anyone working in the field will want to consult this book, but probably in a library, for it is unlikely that every essay would be relevant, and its price puts it out of the range of most individual purchasers. Certainly, there are internal connections in the volume: Classen's introduction, as noted, draws the essays into a single discussion; cross-references to each other's essays and recurrent theorists (e.g. Bakhtin, Bergson) retain the vestige of a conference community and place the voices in dialogue, although there is no editorial attempt to total the thoughts about any particular theorist or theme (Burde's essay however aims at a more general statement about Bakhtin and theories of medieval comedy). Overall the length of the volume makes the gaps between the topics seem wider: few can know about most let alone all of the subjects covered; and the meaning of laughter is so equivocal and context-dependent that it changes dramatically and without overarching synthesis from essay to essay. Would then the collection have been the better for being shorter or more targeted upon one era or culture? Possibly so, yet the bagginess somehow appeals, for it hints at a resistance in laughter to systematization, a resistance that can be belied by repeated invocation of the same theoretical authorities and overly neat reduction of the risus drive to feelings of superiority, recognition of incongruity, or the ventilation of pent-up feelings (such as aggression or anxiety) that threaten homeostatic equilibrium. As is suggested by some contributors (e.g. Alfie), there is a pragmatic, performative aspect to laughter that is lost by representation and systematization. Apart from many rich insights occurring throughout the collection (a personal favorite is Holtzman's consideration of the theology of God's revelation of his uvula when laughing), one of the main impressions left by the book is that laughter is as local as a dialect, and, indeed, often hinges on dialect or some other material idiosyncrasy of voice and body. As Ross argues, you had to be there.

Typographic cohesiveness is also hard to maintain in a collection of this length, and some casualties were sustained; for example, in discrepancies between essay titles in the table of contents and in the title page (Köhler-Busch, Scarborough, Jost, Gordon); the heaviest injuries are evident in Bousquet-Labouérie's submission, in which are embedded throughout so many editorial directives that the text reads like a first rather than final draft.

Issues epistemological received less sustained consideration by individual contributors than the editor probably had hoped for, but Coudert's essay as conclusion, painted in appropriately broad strokes to match the size of canvas, returns us to the importance of the book's subtitle. Polysemous yet resistant to semantic reduction, laughter marks the human in the act of being aware, and that quality places it on a par with other cognitive acts conventionally deemed of greater philosophical weight--wonder, revelation, anagnoresis. Classen is to be commended for making that connection between laughter and knowledge so explicit.