Medieval Humor



lthough my jokes may reference medieval themes, like the melodies for many of the songs that I play, they are not particularly true to the period. If they were, their humor might fall even flatter on your ear.

I personally find this rather serious wood cut print to be hilarious. No doubt it was meant to terrify, but the complete lack of emotion makes me laugh.

One difficulty with comedy is that our collective sense of humor is shaped by our environment. So, what was considered hilarious during a previous decade may seem stale, corny, or just not funny to our present sensibilities. Medieval and Renaissance humor is not exempt from this phenomenon. While laughter may be timeless, comedy is not.

To our modern perceptions, some medieval humor may seem beyond sophomoric. That does not mean that it was never cerebral, but the more complex the joke, the more one needs to explain the society to which it was considered funny in order to understand what made it humorous. The old adage applies: if you have to explain the joke, it is not funny any more. Sometimes, however, the explanation can be more amusing than the joke.

Some Typical medieval riddle jokes (in modern English c. 15th century)

  • How many calves' tails does it take to reach from the earth to the sky?
    Just one that is long enough.
  • How can a man find a cow in a flock of sheep?
    By seeing it.
  • What is it that never freezes?
    Hot water.
Situational Humor is also typical of the time
  • A certain jealous husband followed his wife to confession; whom when the priest should lead behind the alter to be displied [disciplined by beating], the husband, perceiving it, and doubting the worst, cried unto him, saying, "hear ye, master parson, I pray you let me be displied for her." And kneeling down before the priest, "I pray you," quod the wife to the priest, "strike him hard, for I am a great sinner." (c. 1583)
  • [Triar mannach dorath diultadh don tsaoghal. Tiagait a fasach do athghaira a pecadh fri Dia Bhadar cin labhradh fri araile co ceann bliaghna. Is ann isbeart fear dibh fri aroile dia bliaghna ‘Maith atámm,’ ol se, ‘amen’ co cionn bliaghnai. ‘Is maith ón,’ ar in dara fear. Batar ann ier suidhe co ceann bliaghna. ‘Toingim nam abith (sic),’ ar in treas fear, ‘mine lecthi ciunnus damh co n-imgeb in fasach uile dibh.’ Finis.]
  • (As translated by Dennis King:) Three penitents resolved to quit the world for the ascetic life, and so sought the wilderness. After exactly a year’s silence the first one said: "tis a good life we lead." At the next year’s end the second answered: "it is so." Another year being run out, the third exclaimed: "if I cannot have peace and quiet here I’ll go back to the world."

And so, if you find any of my jokes to be funny, be assured that they are not truly medieval.



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