MA Texts and Contexts Week 12

The topic for strand B this week was medieval humour, particularly in Chaucer’s “The Summoner’s Tale” and the Anglo-Irish poem The Land of Cokaygne. Both texts adopt a crude type of satirical humour, which at times seems to border on childishness. However, the context of the texts suggests an attempt to portray a dark message about the seriousness of vice. The profanity of The Land of Cokaygne is intrinsically linked to the piety of the texts beside it in Harley MS 913 . Likewise there is a juxtaposition of profanity and piety in The Canterbury Tales. The Land of Cokaygne takes the seven deadly sins and applies them to a paradisaical fantasy land in which the clergy operate under the controls of Vice. While some critics try to pinpoint the Irish monastery at the centre of the ridicule, it may also be suggested that the poem is more representative of every cleric than of an individual. Chaucer similarly ridicules the vice of the greedy friar in  “The Summoner’s Tale”. “The Summoner’s Tale” follows a structure similar to that of the French fabliaux – a climaxical trick followed by poetic justice (Finlayson 457). It is part of the goliardic tradition of satire, originated by clerical students who were dissatisfied with the contradictions within the Church.

Humorous literature did not originate in the middle ages. Jonathan Wilcox suggests that “Old Norse literature is full of it [humour]” (2). However, humour is more difficult to find in Anglo-Saxon literature, at a time when Benedictine rule forbade “violent laughter”. Wilcox also notes the similarity between the word for laughter, (h)leahtor, and that for sin, (h)leather (2). As with Middle English, humour in Anglo-Saxon texts often appears in unexpected forms such as the maginalia and illustrations of religious texts. It is possible that humour was employed as a pedagogic strategy, which would explain its position within such pious texts. The examination of medieval humour can reveal a lot about the society in which it was produced.

Works Cited

Finlayson, John. “Chaucer’s “Summoner’s Tale”: Flatulence, Blasphemy, and the Emperor’s Clothes.” Studies in Philology 104.4 (2007): 455-7

Wilcox, Jonathan, ed. Humour in Anglo-Saxon Literature. Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 2000. Print.

Image source:

http://www.thecelerymuseum.com/2010/10/signifying-monk.html

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