Medieval Manuscript Reveals 15th-Century Comedy Routine

Written to be performed live, a medieval minstrel’s jokes poked fun at the powerful

Book photo
In the Heege manuscript, an English tutor may have copied the text of a medieval minstrel’s repertoire book. National Library of Scotland

If you’ve ever played the video game “Skyrim” or watched a Monty Python sketch, you’ve probably encountered medieval minstrels, performers who entertained audiences with stories, songs and stunts. 

But despite how often such characters appear in fiction, scholars know very little about what the average minstrel actually joked about. 

Now, a medieval comedy routine has been found in the pages of the Heege manuscript, a 15th-century text housed in the National Library of Scotland.  

“It gives us a glimpse into live comedy and entertainment in the Middle Ages that would otherwise be lost,” says James Wade, a literary scholar at the University of Cambridge, to the Washington Post’s Leo Sands .

Wade is the author of a new study on the text published in The Review of English Studies. While the manuscript has been studied before, previous research focused primarily on its physical characteristics and significance as an artifact.

The manuscript contains a wide range of comedic acts. One takes the form of a satirical sermon from a preacher, extolling the virtues of heavy drinking. Another is an “alliterative nonsense verse” titled “The Battle of Brackonwet.” The text also features the first known use of the term “red herring” in English. 

“A surprising conclusion is that medieval minstrels were offering comic performances, rather than the kinds of material we usually associate with medieval minstrelsy, such as Robin Hood ballads, tales of chivalry and accounts of great battles,” Wade tells Salon’s Matthew Rozsa.

He was also impressed by the quality of the writing. “This minstrel is not only very funny, but also capable of performing good poetry and crafting clever and rhetorically sophisticated stories,” he adds.

This 15th-century French painting from an unknown artist depicts a minstrel performing for a king. National Library of France via Wikimedia Commons

This discovery is quite rare, in part because such comedic acts were usually passed down through oral tradition. Wade writes that minstrels were often illiterate, and they might not have seen any financial benefit from preserving their acts in writing. 

Wade theorizes that this particular minstrel wrote down his act because it would have been especially difficult to recite by heart. “He didn’t give himself the kind of repetition or story trajectory which would have made things simpler to remember,” he says in a statement

The Heege manuscript, however, is not an original. Richard Heege was a tutor to a family in Derbyshire, and Wage says that he may have copied the text from a minstrel’s repertoire book.

Many questions remain about the minstrel himself: Did he roam from town to town? Did he hold a day job? Was he a professional, an amateur or something in between? Wade writes that the text suggests “someone whose material includes several local place-names, but also whose material is made to travel, with the lack of determinacy designed to comically engage audiences regardless of specific locale.”

Poems about killer rabbits and jousting bears may not seem especially profound, but such tales were often used as a vehicle to challenge power dynamics and stir up deeper questions for their audiences. 

“Manuscripts often preserve relics of high art,” says Wade in the statement. “This is something else. It’s mad and offensive, but just as valuable.” 

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