How comedy became resistance

Words: Sophia Marshall

In 1591, Thomas Greene of Staffordshire was caught singing and drinking in a pub with a bard on a Sunday. He hadn’t been at church, and he was heard saying that he enjoyed the bard’s songs more than hearing the word of God. Later, he employed a comedian to pose as a visiting priest and deliver a ‘lewd’ sermon in his local church. When reprimanded for the joke, Greene claimed that he was only observing the ‘ancient custom’ of ‘misrule’ – that is, satire. We don’t know if Greene was intentionally provoking the Church, but the fact he got a write-up for it suggests that somewhere along the line he was seen to be using comedy to do something bad. 

In early medieval Europe – earlier than 1591 – laughter and anything that might cause it was associated with a lack of discipline and morality. The very nature of laughter went against the teachings of the Church. As everyone knows, laughter isn’t easy to control – and a lack of control over the body was equated with a lack of good Christian discipline. Uncontrolled bodies succumbed to temptation and broke religious rules. 

Mikhail Bakhtin realised this link between laughter and medieval morality in his study of the Renaissance comedy writer Rabelais. He coined the term ‘carnivalesque’ to describe the medieval sense of humour. The carnivalesque revolves around all things bodily: hunger, thirst, lust, and pride. These are the typical ‘driving forces’ behind the actions of all comedic characters in theatre since. 

But the carnivalesque was also what medieval Christianity sought to suppress. Bodily impulses were impure and grotesque, because they led to sin: it followed, then, that the ‘vice characters’ and devils found in the typical morality drama would be the funny ones. They get hungry, horny and angry. They’re relatable. Medieval audiences delighted in their free, sinful actions and lived vicariously through them. In fact, morality plays often featured as part of the Feast of Fools and Twelfth Night festivals: these celebrations of ‘misrule’ meant that the restrictions of class, religion, age and gender could be forgotten for the day, allowing people some fun before the disciplined fasting period of Lent. The vice characters would dance, drink, and sing dirty songs. 

Bodily impulses were impure and grotesque, because they led to sin: it followed, then, that the ‘vice characters’ and devils found in the typical morality drama would be the funny ones. They get hungry, horny and angry. They’re relatable.

In one Tudor morality play, Mankind, three vice-clowns encourage the audience to join them in their festivities by singing along to a song so offensive that some believe it broke the ‘speech laws’ of the time. In another, The World and the Child, the vice named ‘Folly’ stages an exciting fencing match, complete with 15th-century trash talk. He encourages the audience to cheer for him, bringing them on-side. 

These plays were discussions of morality, though – which meant all vices must later defend themselves against the virtues, or the Angels, always boring sticks-in-the-mud who came onstage dressed as members of the clergy and broke up the fun. This formulaic plot has since come down to us as the trope of the devil and the angel sitting on the shoulders of mankind and arguing right and wrong – or what is sensible against what is fun. Vice never wins this argument, because no medieval hero could ever side with immorality, nor could they promote anything anti-Christian. Lots of academics have read these plays as morally conservative, warning audiences about the sins of excess. In some ways, they’re the medieval equivalent of ‘please drink responsibly’ ads. 

Yet despite the supposed good intentions of the morality plays, religious authorities continued to refer to them as ‘the best examples of sin and mischief you ever did see’, and discouraged good Christians from watching them. The Tretsie of Miraclis Pleyinge, considered by scholars the first piece of English drama criticism, says it’s a disgrace to laugh at religious plays as this ‘reverses discipline, [for it is] in discipline that the voice of our master Christ is heard, [which should] seize all our wits, [and make us] tremble and quake as a child trembles on seeing the scourge of his master’. In other words, in removing discipline, laughter removed the fear of God. These were plays that took a dangerous aim at the power source of the Church institution, although never at the peaceful ethos of the religion.

A good comedian will disarm and unify their audience. Most would agree that they succeed when they get the whole room laughing. We bond in laughter, in realising that we are the same as the performer, and everyone sat beside us. The relatable vice does exactly that, but in the context of medieval belief: the vice Folly tells us about the monks and nuns he has met in brothels and taverns, confirming our suspicions that even the righteous still get ‘thirsty’. Priests, Devils and Vices were traditionally respected and feared as authoritarian deliverers of discipline, justice and punishment – but in comedy, they admit and celebrate everything messy and flawed about being a human, just like a modern stand-up. It’s not hard to see why the Church took offence when the holy are here levelled with the unholy. For the congregation, it was liberating. 

Looking at it more broadly, the tensions around comedy were significant in the late medieval period, when the advent of the printing press, the translation of the Bible and increasing literacy meant people were beginning to interpret the scriptures for themselves. They wondered if a priest really could turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, or if it was just theatre. Changes like these were fundamental to the rise of the Lutheran and Lollard sects that likewise threatened the authority of the Orthodox Church. 

Later morality plays turned their focus to politics and class. Hyck Scorner was written in 1515 for a performance at the household of Charles Brandon, the first Duke of Suffolk, and told the story of a sea captain who rounds up all kinds of sinners in his ship. Among his usual ‘thieves and whores’ are the ‘oppressors of people’ and the ‘unkind rich men’. This was a direct jab at the Duke, who, among other dealings, was a gaoler making a profit off the discomfort of his prisoners: the play showed the rich man literally placed in the same boat as those he’d arrested. 

Morality plays only make up part of the many examples of topical satire in Medieval Europe. Performances meant to show that everyone –  farmer, knight, nun or king – had their own embarrassing, laughable vices: all are lazy, hungry, horny humans driven by their bodies, and all are judged equally under God. All that follows in satirical theatre and literature since is history. You only need to open a copy of Private Eye or watch Spitting Image to see modern examples that do not fall far from medieval carnivalesque humour. Whether right- or left-wing, comedy has rarely been pro-authority – even Boris Johnson’s famous appearances on Have I Got News For You were platforms for him to ‘humanise’ himself. Comedy intrinsically reveals our similarities to each other and, in that, dissolves fear – in laughing at ourselves, we rebel. 

learn more

  • BOOK: Rabelais and His World – Mikhail Bakhtin, trans. Helen Iswolsky
  • BOOK: On the Problem of the Comic: A philosophical study of the origins of laughter – Peter Marteinson
  • SITE: Watch medieval theatre

Sophia Marshall writes about theatre, comedy, and all things medieval. She is a recent M.Phil. Medieval Literature graduate from Cambridge University. Find more of her writing here.