Religious jokes and medieval cancel culture | Academic Seb Coxon on the role of humour at Easter © LightField Studios Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Religious jokes and medieval cancel culture

Academic Seb Coxon on the role of humour at Easter

Just how serious is Easter? For non-churchgoers (like myself) with a sweet tooth (guilty, again) the answer to this question is probably: not very, although the chocolate eggs are welcome. For the more devout, Easter is an incredibly serious business.

And yet, there has always been scope for joy and laughter in Easter celebrations. The early Christian tradition of risus paschalis – Easter laughter – is alive and well in congregations around the world. Historically-minded preachers hark back to the view, first offered by the Church Fathers, that Jesus’s resurrection represents the ultimate practical joke, played by God on the devil: the triumph of life over death, of good over evil.

But what interests me more, as someone who researches the cultural history of joking and laughter, is the controversial status Easter laughter once held. In late medieval Europe, priests provoked the laughter of their congregations on Easter Day by telling crude jokes, making obscene gestures and putting on slapstick comedic performances. According to one contemporary witness, preachers often spiced up these occasions by pitting husbands and wives against each other.

Ironically, the most detailed accounts of this practice survive in the writings of its staunchest critics across northern Europe. By expressing their outrage in letters and theological treatises, those who tried so desperately to cancel this popular custom preserved knowledge of it for posterity.

One such opponent was Johannes Oekolampadius, a preacher in Basel who was gently teased by fellow pastors for giving rather dull sermons. In one letter (dated 1518), Oekolampadius launches into a bitter rejection of the immorality of priests who tell jokes. He accuses them of behaving like comedians, resorting to the basest techniques to get their congregations to laugh, with a repertoire including offensive hand gestures and animal noises (such as a cow in labour).

Obviously, testimony like Oekolampadius’s is biased, but the excesses he describes did eventually lead to at least one pope trying to put a stop to this kind of entertainment taking place in church.

Cancel culture, it turns out, is not a modern phenomenon, especially when it comes to joking and laughter. Theoretical discussion as to what constitutes a good or a bad joke, what is permissible or morally reprehensible, is as old as the practice of joking in public.

Before modern times, the stakes were probably at their highest in the Christian middle ages, when the relationship between religious belief and laughter was, at best, uneasy. Deriding wickedness and laughing at the devil were, under certain circumstances, entirely acceptable. Even Martin Luther, the driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, declared as much. And moderate exuberance when reminded of Christ’s triumph over death could hardly be objected to.

But satirical jibes concerning priests and the institution of the Church were pushing it, and laughing at central tenets of the Christian faith itself was a different matter altogether. In the eyes of the serious-minded and more educated men of the day, there was always the danger that ordinary people might draw the wrong conclusions.

This is just one of the reasons why, in the Middle Ages, humorous material in written form tended to be prefaced with an apology of sorts. Joke tellers sought to preempt or minimise any offence they might cause. Readers (and audiences) were often given a warning or provided with some justification or assurance as to the honest intentions of their entertainers.

Heinrich Bebel, a prominent collector of jokes and funny anecdotes in the early 16th century, wrote in the preface of a collection of jokes: 'So far, honest reader, I have steered these "facetiae" in such a way as to avoid telling jokes that come across as too lascivious and base. I have occasionally included merrier items in this little book, and to people who know no better, these will seem to contain some obscenity. However, here too I have taken nothing that I have not heard told by serious men at banquets and, for the most part, in the presence of ladies.'

Bebel also attributes certain jests to other people, devolving responsibility, as it were. He cites a local abbot when relaying a joke about the Holy Trinity’s squabble over who should go down to earth to be crucified – God, the Holy Ghost or Jesus. They settle on Jesus, as God claims he is too old and the Holy Ghost argues that a dove on the cross would simply look ridiculous.

From the abbot who knows a good one about the crucifixion, to priests who offer their own comedy routines at Easter, the different facets of risus paschalis modify what we think we know about medieval Christian practices. They may even help us to see Easter in a new, less serious light, although obscenities in the pulpit are probably a thing of the past.

Above all else, they remind us of the enduring appeal of joke tellers and entertainers who can laugh at themselves and their own ideology – whatever that happens to be.The Conversation

• Seb Coxon is a reader in German at UCL. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Published: 18 Apr 2022

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