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A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day.

Edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1977. xii plus 264pp.).

"We will now deal with comedy ... and see how, in inspiring the pleasure of the ridiculous, it arrives at the purification of that passion. That such passion is most worthy of consideration we have already said...."(1) In The Name of the Rose, the investigation of a series of strange deaths by Umberto Eco's fourteenth-century Sherlock Holmes, William of Baskerville, turns on these opening lines to Aristotle's famous lost book on humor, and that imagined text and Eco's vision of laughter echo through the pages of this collection of essays. For these essays are essentially a commentary on the historical and critical truth of Eco's fiction.

As the lost text of Aristotle re-imagined by Eco suggests, the theme of this book is that the history of humor is particularly illuminating for understanding a culture. How, when, where, why, in what social and cultural contexts humor has been found, the authors of these essays agree is culturally specific and an area where laughter can add serious new dimensions to historical inquiry (as well as more humorous ones). Two other critical thinkers of the twentieth century echo through these essays as well: Mikhail Bakhtin (as both model and villain) with his theories on the centrality of laughter in renaissance popular culture and the grotesque body; and Norbert Elias, with his theory of the "civilizing process" which frequently serves as a model for the periodization of humor - based upon a logical association between changes over time in manners and changes in humor and laughter.

The twelve essays plus an informatively theoretical introduction published here span Western history from ancient Greece to the modern world; although a majority concentrate on the premodern period. Most of those focus on early modern Europe with an emphasis on the Low Countries - perhaps a healthy corrective to the emphasis on early modern France, Germany, England, and Italy in recent English language scholarship. In turn, the scholars who have contributed include some of the most innovative of this generation especially in the areas of social and cultural history.

A number of the essays are quite consciously theoretical and refer to the periods that they cover primarily in a broad sweep, preferring to concentrate on conceptual issues and questions that studies of humor in their particular period might tackle. A good example of this is Le Goff's essay "Laughter in the Middle Ages" which corrects the too simplistic notion that laughter was rejected by the medieval Christian world and in the process suggests a host of ways of rethinking the topic in a medieval context. This study, however, seems curiously truncated, almost as if chunks of its historical discussion had been cut to make it fit the short essay format of this volume - the average entry is well under twenty pages. Aaron Gurevich's piece also emphasizes theory, featuring an attack on Bakhtin's pioneering ideas on laughter which reduces them to essentially a critique on Stalinism disguised as literary criticism and history. Other theoretical essays that are particularly interesting include the introductory essay by the editors of the volume and the final cleverly humorous and thoughtful essay by Henk Driessen on the role of humor in anthropology both as a subject of study and as a condition of field work.

Other essays in this volume tend to focus on one or two figures or a genre of humor in a specific period as exempla to draw out deeper cultural contexts for humor. Jan Bremmer uses Xenophon's Symposium as an entry to a brief (thirteen pages) but suggestive essay on dinner parties in ancient Athens, discussing the humor of such gatherings as a measure of Athenian attitudes towards humor. Fritz Graf in a similar way uses the essays of Cicero on humor and the plays of Plautus to draw a contrast between the less political and more restrained ideals of upper-class Roman humor and the more politically and socially engaged humor of ancient Athens. In the essay that probably blends theory and the history of the period being discussed most successfully, Peter Burke tackles the tightening of the boundaries of the comic in Italy across the period 1350-1750. Demonstrating the mastery of the essay form that has made him widely cited and read, in a mere fifteen pages he lays out a discerning account of the flowering and closing down of humor both popular and high in his period that draws on a subtler vision of Bakhtin and Elias as well as on his own work.

The volume then shifts to its Low Country essays with Johan Verberckmoes considering similar themes to Burke and coming to somewhat different conclusions for the Netherlands. A short excursion is taken to early modern England with Derek Brewer's article on Jest Books, the first strongly genre oriented article of the volume. Herman Roodenburg then returns the jest book theme to Holland and ties it more closely to the art of conversation and Elias's vision of civility. Art history and its potential for humor get an interesting and well illustrated introduction in Mariet Westermann's study of the seventeenth century Dutch painter Jan Steen - another particularly perceptive essay.

Antoine de Baecque examines the development of a political dimension to humor in the French Constitutional Assembly of 1789-91 and Mary Lee Townsend continues in the political vein with a richly suggestive piece on the use of the lower class comic character, Eckensteher Nante, to speak through the repressive censorship of the time in different ways to different (and developing) social classes in nineteenth century Prussia - a particularly attractive example of the new cultural and social history. Townsend's Eckensteher Nante, however, may remind the reader of a lower class world and its laughter which is largely absent in these essays; in fact, many of these essays argue that certain types of humor labelled as popular really were aimed at and served higher social levels. And while those arguments are often convincing, even the sources used in these essays (primarily literary and artistic) seem ripe for a critical reading more like Burke's which tackles the issue of addressing humor across a broader social range.

Perhaps the words used most frequently in this review are "brief" and "suggestive" and that sums up the volume well. For many it may well be too much of both, but it opens up a fascinating subject, shows its potential, and brings one back to Eco's Franciscan monk, William of Baskerville. William pulls many of the themes of Eco's book together when he speaks of the fears that Saint Francis evoked with his own interest in laughter and his rejection of the overly serious scholastic scholarship of his age: "Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind [like Francis] is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth."(2) That might serve as a metaphor for what this volume at its best does and perhaps also as a useful suggestion for current debates about the new cultural and social history.

Guido Ruggiero The Pennsylvania State University


1. Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, Trans. William Weaver (New York, 1984) p. 569.

2. Ibid. p. 598. The italics are Eco's.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Ruggiero, Guido
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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