Fourteen hundred years ago a monk named Fraimer was plowing a field about a mile away from his monastery and broke the plow on a rock-hard clod of dirt. Then he accidentally cut off his thumb while he was trying to fix it. Don’t feel too bad for Fraimer: his abbot will eventually re-attach the thumb with God’s help. But before that happens, our narrator—a monk named Jonas who saw Fraimer’s thumb personally, he insists—swerves the story into a cartoonish kind of reality. Jonas tells us that when Fraimer’s thumb was severed from his hand it fell into the dirt like it had gotten its own funeral. He says that Fraimer ran the whole way back to his abbot and prostrated himself on the ground to “confess” what had happened, as if he’d done something wrong. He tells us that the abbot’s only follow-up question was “So where’s the thumb?” and that when Fraimer said he’d left it in the furrow where it fell, the abbot yelled at him for not having the sense to bring it back with him. We’re still not to the miracle yet: we’ve got to traipse back with Fraimer down the winding path, along the rushing river, around a steep mountain—in order to get his buried thumb home.
In medieval and modern library catalogs these writings are shelved away as “saints’ lives.” That’s not all they were. Sometimes they are funny. But the labels we pin on them deflate those dimensions and ensure the mood stays sober.
I think this story is hilarious. I think Jonas meant it to be funny, too. Medieval rhetoric embraced the principle of pleasure because the mind couldn’t thrive without it, and it’s easy to see how Fraimer’s antics animate a story with a serious core. But it’s tough to be sure that something was meant to be funny, especially if we think medieval humor is an oxymoron anyway. I was twelve when I first watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and in the midst of that revelation I assumed that the biggest joke was supposing that the Middle Ages were even funny in the first place. Comedy was as incongruous as the technicolored grass and sky were: this was the Dark Ages! It was hysterical to play as if it wasn’t.
At the time my “real” Middle Ages basically boiled down to what I’d seen in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but it’s a cultural commonsense that apparently continues to hold: I have met full-grown adults (some of them full-grown historians) who have informed me that jokes didn’t exist until the late nineteenth century, or maybe the sixteenth century at the earliest. My students are less inclined to make pronouncements like that, but they’re still surprised when they find that they aren’t the only ones with a sense of humor. As one of them said in a seminar once, “I never thought that medieval people laughed.” This was the same student who would later compare the classic “Violet Prank” to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s “Who Pooped the Bed?” episode. Sometimes learning is magical.
“What a strange person!” says Sir Galahad of the Frenchman: he hasn’t been the only tough crowd. Across the Channel, in the early medieval kingdom of Gaul, the “Frenchmen” were laughing even in books that were ostensibly dead serious. The most popular literature at the time was the genre in which our friend Fraimer and his abbot feature: it was hagiography, stories about people who had lived so virtuously that they were supposed to be worthy of emulation. In medieval and modern library catalogs these writings are shelved away as “saints’ lives.” That’s not all they were. They were also legal defenses, political arguments, economic proposals, elegies. They are dramatic and violent and rapturous. And sometimes they are funny. But the labels we pin on them deflate those dimensions and ensure the mood stays sober. If a medieval bit bombs, it’s half our fault.
It’s tricky too because we might half mean the “jokes” we make—or do we?—and early medieval humor could play to the same ambiguities. Venantius Fortunatus (early medieval poet, praiser of kings, bishop, foodie) was close friends with two powerful women who liked their comedy edgy. He tells us that Agnes, an abbess, “threatened” to excommunicate Radegund, an ascetic queen, unless Radegund exorcised a possessed woman within three days. Agnes also uprooted a tree and replanted it indoors, and when the tree lost all its leaves Agnes told Radegund she wouldn’t let her eat until the tree successfully took root again.
But Agnes was only kidding! we are told repeatedly, as if Fortunatus didn’t trust his readers to recognize the deadpan delivery between friends. Or maybe he was worried Agnes would seem too sarcastic to us, or too resentful of Radegund’s miraculous powers. In any case Radegund has the last laugh: she pulls off the miracles that Agnes only “jokingly” requested, no biggie.
If you’re not laughing yet, it’s my fault for surgically removing the sitcom from the situations it builds on. Let’s switch gears: here are some other kinds of laughs the hagiographers had.
Gregory of Tours: The zinger
There was a man who left his job as a deacon and starting working for the royal treasury. He was so corrupt he even illegally confiscated some sheep that were owned by the church of St. Julian: he was essentially stealing from a dead saint. (“What, does Julian eat sheep?” he cackled to the shepherds.) But one day he had a bad fall in front of Julian’s tomb and couldn’t get up again. When his servants eventually found him lying there they said “Why have you been down on the ground all this time? You don’t usually take so long to pray.”
The Martyrdom of Priscus and His Companions: The throwdown
A crowd of Christians to Alexander (a polytheist): “You’re wrong, you loser, if you still think that a drunk and depraved man is capable of granting life to anyone. Isn’t Jupiter the one who committed incest with his sister and changed into different kinds of animals to get himself off?”
Alexander: “You monsters! You’ve been taken in by the lies of some crucified guy. You’re blaspheming no less than Jove, the savior of the whole world!”
Crowd: “So you’re calling a savior the man who disguised himself as rain and burst through the roof of someone’s house just to get nasty?”
The Life of Arnulf of Metz: Slapstick
A real piece of work named Noddo over-ate and got drunk and started talking smack with his friends about the saintly bishop and courtier Arnulf of Metz. Arnulf wasn’t really devoted to God, they said; he was really into pleasure. At night the king and queen would hurry into his bedroom and seek his “counsel” if you know what we mean. When Noddo and one of his trash-talking friends went to bed that night, God made their clothes catch on fire. They shot out of bed and started screaming for water, but even once they got some water couldn’t extinguish the flames, and their nightshirts burned their butts and genitals, and they couldn’t remove their clothes by that point because they were totally blazing, so they rushed outside and hurled themselves into a pigpen, and they shrieked and rolled around in the shit while their genitals got more and more roasted. And then later Noddo ended up being executed on the king’s orders. “I think,” our narrator says, “that things turned this way because as it is written, “The man who secretly slanders his neighbor I will destroy.” (Psalm 101:5)
Not all of Gaul’s jokes will look like ours because comedy is conditional and a lot has changed since the early Middle Ages. But the ones we can recognize weren’t just accidents or detours in a literature that focused primarily on religion and government and finance: they were part of it, part of the social silhouette that the saints were said to outshine, part of the way that arguments were made, and part of the insurance that your story would be remembered and retold. Look: it’s still working.