03.01.25, Halsall, Humour, History and Politics

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Reinhold F. Glei

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.025


Halsall, Guy, ed.. Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xiv, 208. ISBN: 0-521-81116-3.

Reviewed by:
Reinhold F. Glei

Humour is a serious thing. The problem of humour is, in a way, similar to that of time: one remembers the famous saying of St Augustine who told us that without being asked he knew what time is, but could not answer when being asked. So we all seem to know what humour is reading or hearing a funny story, but can hardly explain the specifically humorous in humour. Halsall's book does not make an attempt to solve the problem; there is no theoretical framework or even a definition of humour. The focus is, as the title indicates, on humour, history and politics (or better: on humour in history and politics), and therefore humour is considered as a social (or more generally, as a cultural) phenomenon which is to be investigated in its social or cultural context, i.e. especially in the transitional period from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages. It is of course true that our understanding of humour depends on our knowledge of its social or cultural circumstances -- lacking this knowledge we may fail even to recognize humour, never mind be able to explain it. But humour itself, i.e. the humorous in humour, seems to be something independent of any specific context; otherwise no one could ever laugh at anything outside his own cultural context. Quite the reverse is true: obviously there is something that can bridge the gap between different cultures, humour being an entirely human phenomenon: homo est animal risibile. Furthermore, humour (at least humour of a distant past) is mediated by written language and therefore a literary phenomenon, too. Historical humour, i.e. humour in history and politics, cannot be understood by historical methods exclusively, but must be also an object of textual and literary analysis.

Halsall's introduction (under the ironically confident title "Don't worry, I've got the key") deals with all these issues without trying to find definitive answers: "Historical humour is an incredibly slippery topic" (7). Of course it is, but one would have expected to get at least some solid soles. Instead, the reader is even mocked by the editor, "putting together a book with the enticing word 'humour' in the title and yet filling it with (mostly) dry discussion of largely serious medieval texts" (8 n. 40). This is quite humorous, but the yield of a book on humour should be a little bit more than a smile. The theoretical key to humour is missing, but don't worry, there are some contributions that offer serious and solid research items. The volume contains several papers read at the fifth International Medieval Congress held at the University of Leeds in 1998, along with an additional chapter (Haldon on Byzantine humour). As is usual with congress papers, they are very different in theme, scope and quality. In my review, I will restrict to some general remarks on every article and only a few examples of humour.

Part I is entitled "The fate of humourous writing" (writing! nota bene) and consists of two articles that give an overview to the Latin and the Byzantine tradition, the latter one obviously being an addition to outbalance the predominance of the western themes at the congress. Chapter 1 "Laughter and humour in the early medieval Latin west" (25-47) by Danuta Shanzer attains the goal in a very good manner. The clearly structured paper shows discontinuity, continuity and change from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages by means of examining all comic genres and subgenres that appear and disappear during that time, therefore going far beyond the limits of 'historical' humour and dealing with humourous writing as a whole. The many given examples may be worth discussing in detail (dealing, e.g., with Ausonius' obscene Epigram 87, one should add his even more famous Cento Nuptialis, an obscene parody of the 'virgin' Virgil; mocking the cult of relics, one should remember that we may laugh at curiosities like Jesus' umbilical cord or prepuce, while people in the Middle Ages surely did not), but in general the reader is well informed and richly instructed. A very impressive detail (especially for the German reviewer) is to hear about beer miracles as "updating of Cana to fit a northern insular clime" (44). Chapter 2 "Humour and the everyday in Byzantium" (48-71) by John Haldon is, in contrast, disappointing. The intention is to show that humour is a cultural phenomenon: to study Byzantine humour should tell us something about Byzantine culture. In fact, we learn very little about Byzantine humour or culture. One of the very few examples is a joke, taken from the Philogelos, on the nasty relationship between doctor and patient (57): it shows that at least this kind of humour is completely independent of a certain society or cultural milieu, for it is entirely based on the human condition itself, the incompetence of doctors being an anthropological constant. The same is true with the humorous power of alterity: Byzantine prejudices about foreigners (58f.) may be, in detail, Byzantine, but in general they are of course not Byzantine, but -- unfortunately -- human. Haldon's examples are not convincing at all; what about other parts of his article? The lengthy introduction is boring and full of loci communes: Why should we, for example, be told that, in a post-modernist approach, historical knowledge is "entirely relative and discursively constructed" (54)? As undergraduates, we heard that usque ad nauseam. All citations are given in translation, all right for the main text, but one should find the original version in the notes! Even linguistic puns are not related in Greek, the only language in which they are understandable (70: an example taken from Niketas Choniates). As a result, the article comes to the following conclusion: "It must now be fairly clear that, for the most part, the genres of Byzantine humour are not very different from those of our own culture" (71). Alas!

Part II, "Humour and the politics of difference," combines three very different papers. Chapter 3 "The lexicon of abuse: drunkenness and political illegitimacy in the late Roman world" (75-88) by Mark Humphries aims at the proof of the thesis that the characterization of an evil emperor as a heavy drinker (ebriosus) is used to undermine the legitimacy of his rule. What a surprising result! We never had even thought in our dreams of the idea that a statesman must keep always the decorum and that heavy drinking (exceeding the rules of social drinking) disqualifies the emperor's reputation. The whole article, therefore, consists of self-evident truths, not to say platitudes. The only exciting realization is that biographical or historical information about drunkenness is completely worthless, for it is an invective topic used without difference by Christians and non Christians against every Christian or non-Christian emperor: the humour of drunkenness therefore is a general human feature without any historical or social reality behind it. Chapter 4 "Funny foreigners: laughing with the barbarians in late antiquity" (89-113) by Guy Halsall is well written, interesting and humorous. Moreover, being the editor's own contribution, it is an exemplary study of what is meant by the title "Humour, history and politics": The article investigates the role of humour in political and social relationships between Romans and barbarians and offers the surprising insight that barbarians sometimes are "not merely 'good to laugh at' but 'good to laugh with'" (113). Regarding incongruity as a key to humour, Halsall first analyses what is congruous in the image of barbarians to see how incongruity works. The features of barbarian nature (as viewed by Roman writers) are to a high degree merely rhetorical and therefore often inadequate to reality; incongruity comes up when barbarians behave like Romans or complain about the barbarian nature of other barbarians, as is shown by many examples taken from Ammianus Marcellinus, Orosius, Procopius and others. Admittedly we are dealing with late antiquity, but the sources of all Roman views on barbarians were of course Caesar's digressions on Celts and Germans in the Bellum Gallicum and, especially, Tacitus' Germania. This at least should have been noted.

Chapter 5 "Liutprand of Cremona's sense of humour" (114-128) by Ross Balzaretti has a much narrower scope than its title suggests, being a case study of a short passage in Liutprand's Antapodosis (ca. AD 960). It is the story of a clever woman who pleas for her captivated husband's life and safety against castration. The woman's main argument is that the man's penis belongs to her and not to him; therefore castration would be a punishment for her, the innocent woman. Balzaretti analyses in three steps the recognition, intention and narration of humour in that passage and comes to the conclusion that Liutprand's originality consists in combining history (or better, her-story), humour and gender.

Part III "Humour, history and politics in the Carolingian world" presents, in very different ways, various more or less important Carolingian texts. Chapter 6 "'He never even allowed his white teeth to be bared in laughter': the politics of humour in the Carolingian renaissance" (131-156) by Matthew Innes is, in my view, the most brilliant article in the book. It deals with Thegan's biography of Louis the Pious (Gesta Hludowici imperatoris, about AD 836), especially with his treatment of Louis' lack of humour. In a detailed analysis of a crucial passage in Thegan (ch. 19) where Louis is described as never having laughed even at the popular festivals, Innes reveals the political and religious implications of that calculated absence of humour. He fortunately rejects the biographistical interpretation of "depressive inner anxieties" (134) in Louis and shows his deliberate turning from Charlemagne's fraternizing attitude to the holy man's self-controlled distance from the people. Between Einhard and Sulpicius, between Charlemagne and St Martin, Thegan and Louis are definitely on the latter side. Thegan's picture of Louis as a Christian king in the full sense of the word shows direct imitation of Christ who, according to a widespread belief, had never laughed (as even the modern reader knows from Umberto Eco's famous brother Jorge da Burgos).

Chapter 7, "Alcuin's Disputatio Pippini and the early medieval riddle tradition" (157-178) by Martha Bayless deals with a quite different Carolingian text and puts it into the rich tradition of riddle collections. Bayless gives an overview over the whole genre, which is useful for scholars who are working on riddles but a little bit boring for others. The original Latin text, together with an English translation and a short commentary, is printed in an appendix. As a grand expert in parodies, Bayless seems to have had much fun with those riddles that are, for the most part, more dry school exercises than items of Carolingian (or any) humour. So I cannot believe that anyone laughed at a riddle like the following (which is quite representative): "I saw a dead one sitting on a live one, and in the laughter of the dead one the live one dies" (no. 94, p. 176). The solution is a water-filled pot on the fire.

Chapter 8, "Laughter after Babel's fall: misunderstanding and miscommunication in the ninth-century west" (179-202) by Paul Kershaw sounds ambitious and promising, but is in fact too much blown up. That misunderstanding as a source of laughter reflects the human condition after Babel's fall, as Kershaw suggests, is, in a way, a pseudo-philosophical word bubble. Regarding Carolingian texts, there are three examples. The first one is an anecdote told by Andreas Agnellus in the Liber pontificalis ecclesiae Ravennatis which seems not very relevant and not very comic. The second one is Notker the Stammerer who, in his Gesta Karoli, often ridicules persons who misunderstand language, situation or facts. So in Notker, misunderstanding becomes a key instrument of satire. The third example is a Carolingian phrase-book, the so-called Paris Conversations, giving useful translations for travellers from the Romance-speaking area to Germany. Of course, such a pocket dictionnary was hardly meant to be humorous.

In sum, the articles show the heterogeneity one would expect from congress papers: many are useful, few are disappointing, very few are brilliant. At the end of the book, there is an index, but unfortunately no full bibliography. This is regrettable, especially because it would not have swollen the volume very much.

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Reinhold F. Glei