, Volume 101, Issue 3, pp 417–437 | Cite as

The Bitter and Biting Humor of Sarcasm in Medieval and Early Modern Literature

  • Albrecht Classen


Even though the phenomenon of ‘sarcasm’ seems not yet to have existed in the pre-modern world, a careful selection of relevant texts from medieval and early modern German, Anglo-Norman, Middle English, and Latin texts amply proves the opposite. Sarcasm is possibly the worst form of comedy or humor, being biting, angry, and reflecting a sense of desperation. While previous scholarship has extensively worked on irony, satire, and parody, the existence of sarcasm at that early time also deserves to be taken into account, since it often appears to undermine harshly the idyllic impressions of courtly life and threatens to destroy the last shreds of social harmony and to remove any hope for the reconstruction of a happier form of cohabitation and collaboration.


Sarcasm Marie de France Wernher der Gartenaere Hartmann von Aue Gottfried von Straßburg Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Erasmus of Rotterdam 



I would like to express my gratitude to my colleague Ann Marie Scott, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, for her critical reading of a draft version of this paper, and to an anonymous reader for helpful suggestions and comments. The first version of this paper was written while I enjoyed a research stay at the Western University of Australia, Perth, in March of 2016, thanks to an ACMRS/CHE Collaborative Research Grant. I am very grateful for this opportunity.


  1. Althoff, G., & Meier, Ch. (2011). Ironie im Mittelalter: Hermeneutik - Dichtung – Politik. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.Google Scholar
  2. Anderson, J. J. (Ed.). (1996). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Cleanness, Patience. London: Everyman.Google Scholar
  3. Barron, W. R. J. (Ed. and Trans.). (1998). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, rev. edn. Manchester: Manchester University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bjork, R. E. (Ed.). (2010). Oxford dictionary of the Middle Ages (Vol. 4). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Brewer, D., & Gibson, J. (Eds.). (1997). A companion to the Gawain-poet. Arthurian studies. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.Google Scholar
  6. Brummack, J. (1977). Satire. In W. Kohlschmidt & W. Mohr (Eds.), Reallexikon der deutschen Literaturgeschichte. 2nd ed. (Vol. 3, pp. 601–614). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  7. Burgess, G. S., & Busby, K. (Eds.). (1999). The Lais of Marie de France. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  8. Christ-von Wedel, Ch. (2016). Erasmus von Rotterdam: ein Porträt. Schwabe reflexe 45. Basel: Schwabe.Google Scholar
  9. Classen, A. (1988). Keie in Wolframs von Eschenbach Parzival: Agent Provocateur oder Angeber. Journal of English and Germanic Philologie, 87(3), 382–405.Google Scholar
  10. Classen, A. (2001/2002). Humor in German medieval literature: Revisiting a critical issue with special emphasis on the grotesque in Tristan als Mönch and Heinrich von dem Türlin’s Diu Crône. Tristania, 21, 59–92.Google Scholar
  11. Classen, A. (Ed.). (2010). Laughter in the Middle Ages and early modern times: Epistemology of a fundamental human behavior, its meaning, and consequences. Fundamentals of medieval and early modern culture 5. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  12. Classen, A. (2012). Crime and violence in the Middle Ages: The case of Heinrich der Glichezare’s Reinhart Fuchs and Wernher der Gartenære’s Helmbrecht. In A. Classen & C. Scarborough (Eds.), Crime and punishment in the Middle Ages and early modern age: Mental-historical investigations of basic human problems and social responses. Fundamentals of medieval and early modern culture 11 (pp. 131–158). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Classen, A. (Ed.). (2015). Handbook of medieval culture: Fundamental aspects and conditions of the European Middle Ages (3 vols.). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  14. Classen, A. (forthcoming-a). Outsiders, challengers, and rebels in medieval courtly literature: The problem with the courts in courtly romances. Arthuriana.Google Scholar
  15. Classen, A. (forthcoming-b). Sarcasm in medieval German literature: From the Hildebrandslied to Fortunatus. The dark side of human behavior. In A. Baragona & E. L. Rambo (Eds.), Cornering the snarket: Sarcasm and snark in medieval literature and cultures. An anthology of essays (title still subject to change).Google Scholar
  16. Cormeau, Ch. (1981). Hartmann von Aue. In K. Ruh et al. (Eds.), Die deutsche Literatur des Mittelalters: Verfasserlexikon. 2nd completely rev. ed. (Vol. 3, cols. 500–520). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  17. Goldschmidt Kunzer, R. (1973). The Tristan of Gottfried von Strassburg: An ironic perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  18. Göttert, K.-H. (Ed. and Trans.). (2012). Wernher der Gärtner, Helmbrecht. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam.Google Scholar
  19. Green, D. H. (1979). Irony in the medieval romance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Gwara, S. (2008). Heroic identity in the world of Beowulf. Medieval and renaissance authors and texts 2. Leiden: Brill.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Haiman, J. (1998). Talk is cheap: Sarcasm, alienation, and the evolution of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Hatto, A. T. (Trans.). (1960; 1967). Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan. With the surviving fragments of the Tristran of Thomas. Harmondsworth: Penguin.Google Scholar
  23. James, M. R. (Ed. and Trans.). (1983/2002). Walter map: De nugis curialum: Courtier’s trifles. Rpt. Oxford medieval texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  24. Kaminski, N. (1994). Stultitia als Sophistin: Satire ohne Norm im Lob der Torheit des Erasmus von Rotterdam. Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, 68, 22–44.Google Scholar
  25. Kernan, A. B. (1973). Satire. In Ph P Wiener (Ed.), Dictionary of the history of ideas: Studies of selected pivotal ideas (Vol. IV, pp. 211–217). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.Google Scholar
  26. Kirsch, M. A. (2010). “Das er in spottes wise hette entpfangen”: Einblicke in die literarische Darstellung von Spott und Ironie im Mittelalter. Frühmittelalterliche Studien, 44, 395–418.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Knox, D. (1989). Ironia: Medieval and renaissance ideas of irony. Columbia studies of the classical tradition 16. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
  28. Krohn, R. (Ed.). (1980). Gottfried von Straßburg, Tristan. Nach dem Text von F. Ranke neu herausgegeben, ins Neuhochdeutsche übersetzt, mit einem Stellenkommentar und einem Nachwort. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam.Google Scholar
  29. Lange, G. (2009). Zeitkritik im “Helmbrecht” von Wernher dem Gärtner und ihre sozialgeschichtlichen Hintergründe. Baltmannsweiler: Schneider-Verlag Hohengehren.Google Scholar
  30. Lexikon des Mittelalters (1995). Planudes bis Stadt (Rus’) (Vol. VII). Munich: Lexma Verlag. Google Scholar
  31. Longsworth, R. M. (1991). Interpretive laughter in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Philological Quarterly, 70, 141–147.Google Scholar
  32. Mackensen, L. (1984). Die Nibelungen: Sage, Geschichte, ihr Lied und sein Dichter. Stuttgart: Dr. Ernst Hauswedell.Google Scholar
  33. Menke, P. (1993). Recht und Ordo-Gedanke im Helmbrecht. Germanistische Arbeiten zu Sprache und Kulturgeschichte (Vol. 24). Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  34. Merwin, W. S. (Trans.). (2010). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Alfred A Knopf.Google Scholar
  35. Meyer-Sickendiek, B. (2006). Eine kleine Kulturgeschichte des Sarcasmus. In K. Ehlich (Ed.), Germanistik in und für Europa: Faszination - Wissen. Texte des Münchener Germanistentages 2004 (pp. 277–292). Bielefeld: Aisthesis-Verlag.Google Scholar
  36. Meyer-Sickendiek, B. (2009). Was ist literarischer Sarkasmus? Ein Beitrag zur deutsch-jüdischen Moderne. Munich: Fink Verlag.Google Scholar
  37. Miller, C. H. (Ed. and Trans.). (1979). Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Neil, Th. (2010). “What kind of fool am I?”: The tragi-comedy of the love potion in the Thomas/Gottfried Branch of the Tristan legend. In L. Perry & A. Schwarz (Eds.), Behaving like fools: Voice, gesture, and laughter in texts, manuscripts and early books. International medieval research 17 (pp. 259–276). Turnhout: Brepols.Google Scholar
  39. Neumann, F. (Ed.). (1981). Hartmann von Aue, Gregorius der gute Sünder. Übertragung von B. Kippenberg, Nachwort von H. Kuhn. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam.Google Scholar
  40. Nolte, T., & Schneider, T. (Eds.). (2001). Wernher der Gärtner: “Helmbrecht”: die Beiträge des Helmbrecht-Symposions in Burghausen 2001. Stuttgart: Hirzel.Google Scholar
  41. Panzer, F. (Ed.). (1974). Wernher der Gartenære, Helmbrecht. 9th, newly rev. ed. by Kurt Ruh. Altdeutsche Textbibliothek 11. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.Google Scholar
  42. Pratt, J. H. (2000). Chaucer and war. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.Google Scholar
  43. Smith, P. (1932; 1962). Erasmus: A study of his life, ideals, and place in history. New York: Frederick Ungar.Google Scholar
  44. Smith, W. S. (Ed.). (2005). Satiric advice on women and marriage: From Plautus to Chaucer. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  45. Tobin, F., Vivian, K., & Lawson, R. H. (Ed. and Trans.). (2001). The complete works of Hartmann von Aue. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Weiland, J. S. (Ed.). (1988). Erasmus of Rotterdam: The man and the scholar. Proceedings of the symposium held at the Erasmus University, Rotterdam, 9–11 November 1986. Leiden and Boston: Brill.Google Scholar
  47. Ziolkowski, J. (2004). Satire. In W. Ch. Jordan (Ed.), Dictionary of the Middle Ages (Supplement 1) (pp. 554–557). New York: Thomson Gale.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of ArizonaTucsonUSA

Personalised recommendations