Monika Otter

title.none: Bayless, Parody in the Middle Ages (Otter)

identifier.other: baj9928.9802.014 98.02.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Monika Otter, Dartmouth College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Bayless, Martha. Parody in the Middle Ages: The Latin Tradition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. Pp. xii, 425. $52.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-472-10649-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.02.14

Bayless, Martha. Parody in the Middle Ages: The Latin Tradition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. Pp. xii, 425. $52.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-472-10649-X.

Reviewed by:

Monika Otter
Dartmouth College

First of all, I will confess to an admittedly puerile delight in many of the texts themselves and in Bayless's understated, sensitive and (very largely) accurate translations. I first leafed through the book during a long late-afternoon faculty meeting (it had just arrived in the mail); and I found myself suppressing giggles over such liturgical exchanges as

Sac[erdos]: Frequentia falsati evangelii secundum MarcolfumDiac[onus]: Horreo vobis rustici. . . .Sac: . . . . per omnia pocula poculorum.Diac: Stramen.Sac.: Ploremus,

ably translated as:

Priest: The frequency of the false gospel according to Marcolph.Deacon: I tremble at you, peasants. . . .Priest: . . . cups without end.Deacon: Straw.Priest: Let us wail. (351-52)

Or a sermon like this -- composed entirely, mind you, of bona fide biblical material:

Fratres, Scriptura dixit: "Si videris fratrem tuum necessitatem habentem, erue sibi oculum dextrum, et si perseveraverit pulsans, aufer ei et sinistrum."

Brothers, Scripture saith: "If you see thy brother in need, pluck out his right eye, and if the knocking continues, take the left from him also." (394/397).

Not all texts are innocent fun; some are mean-spirited enough to be chilling rather than funny. Predictably, there is some vicious antisemitism, as well as, in late texts, some unpleasant anti-Hussite and anti-Lutheran sentiment. Many (or most) of the parodies are inane, but some rise above a thin or non-existing intellectual content by verbal wit and sheer exuberance. The following litany, for instance, is really no more sophisticated than any other example of student humor about dining-hall food; but I find it irresistible as a piece of inspired nonsense:

Holy withered she-goat, pray for us.Holy most scrawny she-goat, pray for us.Holy she-goat, dead of starvation, pray for us.Holy ancient she-goat, pray for us. . . . Holy ox, most attenuated, pray for us. Holy ox, dead in the yoke, pray for us.Holy cow, most ancient one, pray for us.Holy cow, most dismal and tough of flesh, pray for us. All holy flesh of cows and cattle, most ancient and most tough, pray for us. (122)

I deliberately quote the translation here, which is every bit as good as the original. Despite or because of their literalness, Bayless's renderings perfectly capture the tone of the originals. What she apologetically calls "flat-footed" in the prefatory pages of the book (xii) comes across as precisely the dry humor these pieces need.

Having thus revealed my simple tastes, I hasten to say that I do realize that the humor of most of these examples is very modest indeed. And that brings us to the first problem of this corpus, a problem of which Bayless is well aware: one has to overcome a nagging suspicion that these texts may neither need nor support much scholarly theorizing. The "Nemo," for instance, a widely disseminated parody extant in several versions, is a fake saint's life created by assembling Biblical quotations that contain the word "nemo," and pretending that "Nemo" is a name rather than a pronoun meaning "nobody" (as in "Nobody serves two masters usefully" or "Nobody was able to open the book"). When I explained the "Nemo" to a non- medievalist friend, she sighed and said, "looks like people always had time for that sort of thing." Indeed. And maybe that is all that can or needs to be said about the Nemo?

But of course there is plenty to be said about medieval Latin parodies. Bayless makes a good case for that, and she says many intriguing, provocative, and useful things. Actually, in the end I very much wished she had said more. What seems to hold her back is, generally, a problem of organization. The book's two ambitious goals are not easily reconciled. Bayless wants to present a complete overview of the extant material -- no mean achievement in itself. (There is a useful handlist at the end of the book, and a generous appendix of texts with translations.) She also wants to offer a scholarly discussion of its literary characteristics and its social context, and even a theory of medieval humor. But in the end, Bayless the surveyor and editor seems to win out over Bayless the theorist and interpreter. Bayless rightly criticizes her major predecessor in this field, Paul Lehmann, not only for sloppy textual scholarship but also for his failure to bring much of a conceptual grid to the material. Yet she does not go much beyond his broad classification of humorous vs. satirical parodies; in fact, her classification of "textual parody" and "social parody" more or less parallels his.

And just like Lehmann, whom she takes to task for "fail[ing] to distinguish in practice between parody and satire" (16), Bayless risks obscuring even this simple taxonomy by her desultory discussion of one text after another. As she takes us through parody after parody, paraphrasing and annotating, her larger argument and her many fine points are almost lost. For instance, I wonder whether her purpose is best served by grouping the texts by general types ("mock saints' lives," "humorous centos," and so on), disregarding chronology and mixing texts of vastly different social contexts and satirical goals. Thus the anti-Hussite texts are discussed side by side with other, much earlier and far less pointed "liturgical parodies" (122-23), and they are barely distinguished from the earlier texts. I became quite curious about possible authors, objectives, audiences, and settings. But for Bayless, formal considerations prevail, and little is said about the distinctive social and political contexts of these particular polemics. Likewise, it is hard to understand why the important discussions of the last chapter do not come much sooner, or why she withholds the wonderful Burchardus of Bellevaux, a twelfth- century theorist of parody and humor, almost until the very end. Both within individual chapters and in the book as a whole, she tends to lay out all her material first, postponing her analysis until the end. While her forbearance may be commendable, a tighter structure, an earlier and stronger sense of direction, a more assertive critical voice would have helped us structure the rich material and keep track of the argument.

Bayless's readings of the individual parodies are sensible and perceptive, but even there I was often more conscious of a wealth of material being covered than of a point being made or an argument being developed. Bayless is right to resist simplification or overreading, but her laudable caution sometimes leads her to stop short of making a point she is strongly implying or at least steering towards. The "Nemo" is a case in point. As Bayless shows, the text, far from being simple-minded, plays with a number of clever scholastic maneuvers and astonishing "theological" statements. Simply by virtue of his textual origins and his grammatical properties, St. Nemo "has powers to rival those of God" (77) and is even "equated with Christ" (79); for "by definition, if a thing is impossible, Nemo can do it" (80), as witnessed by such scriptures as "Greater love Nobody hath" or "What God closes, Nobody opens, and what God opens, Nobody closes." Being born entirely of the text, Bayless observes, "St. Nemo . . . is the literal result of a Word made flesh" (79). This is certainly intriguing stuff. But surely more can be said about the linguistic playfulness, not to mention the irreverence and audacity of these examples. Bayless teases us with an explanation, but then lets it drop. With similar caution and inconclusiveness, Bayless discusses contemporary critiques of the Nemo, which confusingly call its bluff yet also appear to be taking it completely seriously. (Or are they? Maybe we modern readers are missing the joke here?) One senses that there is an important clue to medieval understandings of parody here, but I came away with less enlightenment than I had hoped for.

The final chapter -- which, as I said, should in my opinion have come much earlier in the book -- attempts to systematize the discussion parodic humor and its place in medieval society. Again, overview almost wins out over analysis. I am grateful for Bayless's able guidance through the prior scholarship on the subject, especially Bakhtin and later modifications and reactions to his theories; I find some of her distinctions convincing and useful; but I wish she had concentrated on making her own points on her own terms. The argument is promising but appears unfinished and timid.

Despite these shortcomings, Bayless's book is useful and enjoyable for its thorough presentation of its intriguing material. It convincingly disposes of some blind alleys and unhelpful inquiries into medieval parody, and it points in the direction of more fruitful approaches. (The discussion of "nonsense centos" as examples of pure textual play [160-67] is particularly fine.) If nothing else, she has made texts available to future scholars and has outlined the interpretive tasks they might want to tackle. She has opened up a field that deserves more attention.