09.09.18, Coxon, Laughter and Narrative in the Later Middle Ages

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Sophia Menache

The Medieval Review 09.09.18

Coxon, Sebastian. Laughter and Narrative in the Later Middle Ages: German Comic Tales, 1350-1525. Leeds: Legenda, 2008. Pp. 214. ISBN: 9781905981830 .

Reviewed by:
Sophia Menache
University of Haifa

Since Umberto Eco's remarkable novel, The Name of the Rose , the very legitimacy of laughter accorded to Jesus' behavior as exemplified in the Gospels and its status among the principles of the Christian faith have become a source of theological controversy. The ubiquity of laughter in medieval society, as well, received much attention, at both the popular and the research level. In a pioneer study, L'humour en chaire: Le rire dans l'Eglise mdivale (Genve: Labor et Fides, 1994), Jeannine Horowitz and Sophia Menache focused on the use of humor in Latin sermons by medieval preachers, and so paved the way for more specialized studies on both the source languages and the multifarious forms of literary expression. Sebastian Coxon thus fulfils an important and much needed task with regard to vernacular expressions of laughter in his research on Laughter and Narrative in the Later Middle Ages: German Comic Tales 1350- 1525 .

Although Coxon recognizes that German verse-couplet comic tales "belong to a broader European tradition," he emphasizes their distinctive character, which is due to both their relatively late appearance and their reliance on the exact same literary patterns. German comic functionality in short secular narratives indeed became significant only in the late Middle Ages, from the second half of the fourteenth until the first decades of the sixteenth century; throughout this period, it preserved its verse composition, thus hinting at its oral performance before public audiences of varying scope. Coxon thus defines the main aims of his research as "the cultures of laughter in the later [German] Middle Ages, and the extent to which the functionality, narrative design and thematic preoccupations of these texts may be illuminated by the goal of laughter as a recipient response" (1-2). For this purpose, the book is divided into three main parts: [1] the extent to which comic effects shaped the various elements of the narratives, the conceptualization of laughter, and the range of possible relationships between the narrative and the audience's responses (chapters 2 and 3); [2] the narrative constitution of this storytelling tradition, meaning the strategies for facilitating the eruption of laughter in the audiences (chapters 4 and 5); [3] the texts' balance between everyday experiences and imagination, in which regard the interdependency of body and society receives much attention, being two fundamental categories of meaning in the perception of the world at large (chapters 6 and 7). All these subjects are dealt with in depth through close textual analysis, accompanied by modern theoretical assumptions, such as the communication function of laughter and its psychological/sociological effects for either inclusion or exclusion. Jews and maidservants, for example, undoubtedly pertain to the last category, serving as easy, malleable objects of derision and laughter (39).

Coxon sees in the large number of overtly comic Mren a popular means of expression among urban poets, especially in the flourishing cities of southern Germany. According to this premise, the character of the sources and their main themes, such as violence, and sexual and scatological obscenity, thus reflects the main issues that affected late-medieval and early-modern German urban society: first and foremost, the conflict between the individual's (male or female) bodily needs and the strict moral demands imposed by a normative society. This premise, which at first glance seems quite reasonable, requires some historical explanation of the socio-economic, political, and cultural conditions in which the sources were written and which they actually reflect. Such an investigation would have given much more relevance to Coxon's conclusion that "the comic functionality of these tales, which for the most part seeks to foster and affirm agreement among recipients as to what constitutes 'normal' and appropriate behaviour, is epitomized by two fundamental types of laughter that are anticipated to varying degrees across all the texts: the laughter of playful license which accepts, if only temporarily, transgressive and deviant behaviour while recognizing these for what they are; and, alternatively, punitive or corrective laughter as a preeminent tool of social regulation, realized within the narrative world itself in order to be replicated, or continued, in the actual process of literary reception" (182). Moreover, "occasionally, laughter and the health of the social body are thematized explicitly in the epilogues to the tales, which affirm the validity of [deserved] collective derision as opposed to the wanton mockery of an individual, or which emphasize the value of a sense of humor (the ability to recognize that things are not always as they seem)" (183).

Readers will especially enjoy those chapters dealing with "Places and Comic Space" (93-96) and "The Physical Body," with subtitles such as "Appetites and Needs," "Nakedness," "Deficiency," etc. (132-145). Additionally, Coxon brings some interesting examples when the inferiority of certain characters is made evident by their failure to communicate, their verbal incoherence, or even the loss of their power of speech altogether (109). Several illustrations that accompany the text hint at the relationship between the written text and pictorial representations, thus providing additional insight into the main trends with regard to laughter in late medieval and early modern German society. The bibliographic appendix provides a good survey of both primary sources and up-to- date literature on the subject.

Although we have here an excellent study that undoubtedly encapsulates the newest literature on the subject, this book still poses some problems that should not be ignored. Although the book was published by the prestigious Modern Humanities Research Association , better editorial work would have been desirable to facilitate the reading of some very long and difficult sentences, probably reminiscent of German. Notwithstanding the fact that Coxon provides an English translation of his texts just below the original German, the use of endnotes instead of footnotes makes the reading difficult at times, especially when it becomes of prime importance to follow the author's argumentation vis--vis other trends in literary or philological research. Finally, the most unfortunate lacuna of this research is its lack of historical background, which at times justified or even encouraged laughter against or with regard to some social groups or individuals. The attempt to focus on the various theoretical aspects of laughter while neglecting its background in reality creates at times the sense of a too-abstract discussion. On the whole, however, we have here an excellent study that undoubtedly advances our understanding of laughter and its functions in the past.

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Author Biography

Sophia Menache

University of Haifa