A murderous rabbit, a jousting bear and Robin Hood enter a bar: an ancient manuscript reveals new details about the medieval comedy

Listen, listen!

A rare 15th-century manuscript offers insight into how minstrels entertained their audiences and that no matter one’s social standing at the time, no one was safe from being the butt of a joke.

A study from the University of Cambridge published last month in Review of English Studies details various booklets containing sketch comedy notes and parodies taken from a memory aid written by an unknown minstrel who performed on the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border in England.

Researcher James Wade says that the scribe, Richard Heege, who was a household clergyman and tutor, probably appreciated the comedy in transcribing the manuscript unlike other literary experts who would have regarded the content as “low level”.

“Heege gives us the rarest glimpse of a medieval world rich in oral narratives and popular entertainment,” Wade said in a Press release. “Manuscripts often preserve relics of high art. This is something else. It’s crazy and offensive, but just as valuable.”

The Heege manuscript found in the National Library of Scotland contains nine pamphlets.

The focus of the study in the first booklet details a poem featuring a killer rabbit, comparable to a scene in Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Although the poem The Hunt for the Hare only has a brief scene with a rabbit, it is a grotesque parody of how peasants trying to hunt a rabbit end up in a mass fight among themselves and their wives end up cleaning up the dead and mending. The wounded.

A nonsense verse called The Battle of Brankonwet talks about Robin Hood, fighting bears, fighting bees, and partying pigs. The poem includes references to real life towns at the time so that the audience can imagine strange happenings in their region.

One of the most remarkable discoveries is perhaps the first reference to a red herring. In a mock sermon, the minstrel told the story of gluttony among the super-rich in a sermon about three kings who eat so many oxen that their stomachs burst and the oxen cut each other into three red herrings.

“The images are strange, but the minstrel must have known that people would get this false reference,” Wade said. “Kings are reduced to mere distractions. What are kings for? Gluttony. And what is the result of gluttony? An absurd spectacle that creates distractions, ‘red herrings’”.

The manuscript also included notes made by the minstrel creating these original shows, detailing his chaotic thought process to keep up with the various characters and absurd jokes they created, Wade theorizes. As absurd and bawdy as the jokes may be, the manuscript reveals a time in history when, despite human conflicts, the minstrels of the day largely tried to let go and enjoy life.

“What we find in these texts is a vestige of vibrantly lived medieval life: the good times are as good as they ever have been, and probably will be,” the study states.

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