The comedian Kumail Nanjiani performs a skit about a birthday party he went to as a child in Karachi, which he prefaces by saying that “at most birthdays in Pakistan, a monkey shows up.” Should his (American) audience laugh here, or shouldn’t they? If they don’t, Nanjiani says – because it makes sense to them that monkeys and parties mix in Pakistan – “that’s kind of racist.” But Pakistani children really do have monkeys show at their birthday parties, and laughing at that is probably also kind of racist. Laugh, don’t laugh: either way, it’s half right and half wrong.
The Middle Ages had its own version of this ‘joke about joking’. It didn’t turn on a tension specific to modern liberalism (that accepting difference is sometimes a form of condescension), but the medieval punchline did amount to a dilemma: did you just hear a joke, or didn’t you? The only truly appropriate reaction, in these cases, was not to choose between laughing or not laughing. The ethical thing to do was to remain a little bit conflicted…
1) Western Persian Empire (joke dating from c500 AD)
The Babylonian Talmud relates that when Moses ascended to heaven, God gave him a glimpse into the future, to watch a prolific legal scholar named Akiva at work. Akiva, God tells Moses, can derive “hills and hills of halakhot [laws]” from even a single serif on a single letter! Moses watches this rabbi and his students for a while, and he feels overwhelmed: he doesn’t understand anything they’re saying. He goes back to God and asks him: “Why did you give the Torah to me when you’ve someone like Akiva?” God told him, “Be silent! That is what has transpired in my thought.”
Within the Talmudic compilation, this story immediately follows a sober legal discussion about how important it is to use absolutely precise calligraphy when writing out passages of the Torah. And the Talmud’s whole goal was to draw all Jewish law into the domain of rabbinic interpretation. So of course we’re going to laugh when Moses figures that a rabbi he can’t understand, a rabbi who reads into everything, should have been the guy standing on Sinai to receive the laws from God. How accurate and productive can the work of the rabbis be, if it confuses Moses himself and makes him feel like a middleman? The Talmud is laughing with us, but it’s also not dismantling itself. The joke sides both with Moses and with Akiva: there are limits to what a human can know, but we rabbis need to keep trying to make sense of things anyway.
For more jokes like this, see Daniel Boyarin’s Socrates and the Fat Rabbis.
2) Rhône Valley (AD 510s)
The later fifth century was a time of political flux. The Roman emperors no longer governed their western provinces. The new honchos – soldiers, commanders, bureaucrats, and other assorted agents – were not total outsiders, but were they legit? A Christian monk named Lupicinus started a fight about this question at the court of a king named Chilperic, whose realm lay along the river Rhône.
Lupicinus comes to accuse a courtier of reducing some locals to a state of servitude. But the courtier gets the jump on him. He accuses Lupicinus of being ‘un-Roman’ for saying a decade ago that the new royal regime would destroy the re-gion: look how wrong you are now! Lupicinus won’t have it, retorting to the effect: “Are you blind? The crown has unjustly overtaxed its subjects! How would you like to have your laws applied to you? The imperial purple totters under a judge dressed in animal pelts! ”
That last dig insinuates that the king is a barbarian, the very opposite of a Roman. But the ethnic slur undercuts itself instantly because Lupicinus is also a judge in pelts: besides all the verdicts he’s volunteering, he also habitually wore a patchy fur coat. That joke also kicks backward to unsettle all the earlier jabs.
We can’t agree about what legit leadership looks like because we don’t even know who the barbarians are and whether that even matters!
But as ridiculous as it is to hunt for legal precedent in an obviously unprecedented situation, ditching the whole concept of precedent is just as nuts. Laughing keeps government from becoming totally laughable.
For more jokes like this, see Guy Halsall’s Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.
3) Baghdad (c800 AD)
In the Abbāsid court at Baghdad, poet-musicians could be big celebrities. Among them was Ulayya bint Mahdī (aka Ulayya bint al-Mahdī), who managed to become fairly famous even though men sometimes ripped off her work. Many members of the court drank alcohol, except for the strictest Muslims among them, but Ulayya insisted that she drank wine only when she was on her period – because menstruating women couldn’t participate in prayers. “God,” she was quoted as saying, “does not forbid anything without giving some way of making it permissible in exchange.”
For more jokes like this, see Hugh Kennedy’s When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty.
4) England (c1200 AD)
According to medieval bestiaries, if a male beaver is being hunted he will bite off his own testicles and throw them at the hunter so that the hunter can have the glands he’s after while the beaver can save his life. Hence why a beaver is called Castor – it castrates itself. That’s how humans should deal with the devil, or so the texts advise: cut your desires from yourself, and he can’t pursue you.
Woodcut from Hortus Sanitatis, (Garden of Health), printed by Johann Pruss in Strasbourg in 1497. Hortus Sanitatis served as an encyclopaedia of knowledge and folklore on plants, animals and minerals. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
We’re supposed to snigger at the metaphor because it helps us remember the moral. But we’re also supposed to believe in the beaver. The medieval bestiaries were based on the idea that the natural world encodes divine lessons within it, and as a part of creation beavers and their testicles revealed truths about the creator.
This ‘factoid’ about the beaver was as old as antiquity: Romans used beaver testicles medicinally, but they had to import them and were happy to mythologise their origins.
For more jokes like this, go to the Aberdeen Bestiary.
5) Iceland (1220s)
In a saga set around 1050, an Icelander named Audun strikes an escalating series of deals with Harald Hardrada of Norway and Svein Ulfsson of Denmark – kings and competitors. At the end of the saga Harald wants to see how he measures up, so asks Audun to recap what happened with Svein.
Svein has been enormously generous: he accepted a polar bear as a great gift from Audun and, in return, he financed Audun’s pilgrimage to Rome. Harald says he would have done the same. Svein also fed and clothed Audun when he re-turned, poor and sick, from his pilgrimage. That’s no big deal; I would have done that, too, says Harald. Svein also asked Audun to be his cupbearer and gave him a merchant ship full of top-grade goods. Wow, says Harald, but I would have done the same. Maybe that’s it, though? No: Svein also gave Audun a big bag of silver. I wouldn’t have done that, Harald admits. “Did he finally stop repaying you?”
Harald didn’t have to say that he would have accepted the bear. He had asked Audun to give it to him earlier in the saga, but Audun had refused. So Harald’s striking a bargain he’d already lost. And we keep laughing because it’s so easy for him to say that he would have given Audun all that other stuff, too: hypothetical gestures were free. Actually the only real favour he’s done for Audun up to this point in the story is having let Audun bring his bear to Denmark, even though Harald and Svein were at war.
But, in a way, Harald had been as generous as Svein. Audun wouldn’t have received any treasures if Harald hadn’t waved him on to Svein. The bag of silver doubles the joke. Harald wasn’t even going to make fake offers that spectacular. But by admitting that, he was paying Svein the spontaneous gift of a costly com-pliment.
For more jokes like this, see William Ian Miller’s Audun and the Polar Bear: Luck, Law, and Largesse in a Medieval Tale of Risky Business.
6) Castile (mid-1200s)
King Alfonso X (the Wise) of Castile wrote a poem set on Good Friday, the annual commemoration of Jesus’s execution:
The other day I went to lay a hand on a courtesan’s c***. She said to me: Take that away, thief!... So then I said – God, my Lord, I suffer this passion for love of you, for the passion you underwent for me.
The dirty joke has a sense of propriety. Thinking about prostitution during the Passion (or thinking about the narrator thinking about it) would have caused embarrassment and discomfort, which were entirely appropriate emotions for the sacred solemnity of the Crucifixion, especially compared to feeling nothing at all. The analogy of sex to sacrifice also offered a sense of scale: medieval Christians’ own difficult resistance to the things they liked helped them to measure the greatness of God’s gesture.
But it’s also funny, Alfonso suggests, that a word such as ‘suffering’ could apply to sex or salvation, and that the meanings could be confused. If we don’t laugh when a narrator takes advantage of that ambiguity and conflates his sexual suffering with the suffering of Jesus, then we’re pretending that language is clearer than it really is. Language doesn’t always lead straight to the truth. Words will only get you so far. Jokes may get you a little farther – they admit that meanings are fuzzy.
For more jokes like this, see Benjamin Liu’s Medieval Joke Poetry: The Cantigas d’Escarnho e de Mal Dizier.
7) German-speaking Europe (c1400)
Heinz der Kellner’s 15th-century-poem Konni is built on an old stereotype: Konni is a peasant who is clever but crude. He’s the only person in the kingdom who can outwit its haughty princess – but he does it with a toilet joke. Konni has been besting the princess in a verbal duel, and in her frustration she claims his material isn’t good enough. Actually, she calls it “utter shit”. Konni lifts up his hat to prove that the princess was – literally – right: “This is shit [on my head]; I shat that,” he says. That seals it: Konni wins, and the princess has to marry him.
Deep down we agree with the princess – these gags really aren’t princely material. But is laughing at the peasant any different than laughing with him? The distinction blurs, especially because the poem finishes with this flourish: making fun of other people opens you up to the same treatment. Heinz himself is a joke, and so are we for playing along.
For more jokes like this, see Sebastian Coxon’s Laughter and Narrative in the Later Middle Ages: German Comic Tales 1350–1525.
Jamie Kreiner is a historian of the early Middle Ages at the University of Georgia and the author of The Social Life of Hagiography in the Merovingi-an Kingdom, a study of early medieval storytelling.