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


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.

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  1. (last accessed on March 18, 2016).

  2. Sarcasm, however, is not yet a category or rhetorical register employed here. This applies to virtually all other major studies or edited volumes dedicated to humor in the pre-modern world.

  3. Kernan (1973) remarks, however, which is very fitting, “All writers of satire, whatever their particular bias, ultimately fear and attack, and by attacking seek to exorcise the fragmentation, disorder, isolation, and meaninglessness which have historically been sensed by the Western mind as the great threats to the continuity of society and the welfare of the individual” (216). As we will see, sarcasm proves to be quite a different rhetorical phenomenon. For an excellent overview of the history of literary satire, see Brummack (1977); for the Middle Ages, see ibid., 605–607. He also uses the term “höhnende[] Ironie” (Brummack 1977, 606; scoffing irony), which seems, however, to come rather close to the phenomenon of sarcasm.

  4. Gwara (2008, 17, 26, 117, 205), et passim. He resorts to the term “mild sarcasm” with respect to Wulfgar’s laconic statement (Beowulf, ll. 338a-9b), but he does not discuss sarcasm specifically, though he speculates that flyting could be a form of sarcastic engagement.

  5. See the online dictionary (last accessed March 19, 2016).

  6. I have discussed this situation and other parallel ones in the introduction to Classen (2010); see also Longsworth (1991).

  7. The English translation from 1876 is freely available online at (last accessed on March 19, 2016); here I have drawn from Miller (1979). For a little dated, but still solid introduction to Erasmus’s work and life, see Smith (1932; 1962); see also the contributions to Weiland (1988); cf. also Christ-von Wedel (2016).

  8. It has been a common approach to read Erasmus’s text as a satire only; see, for instance, Kaminski (1994). There are good reasons for that, but we miss the deeper level of his message if we are content with calling the Praise only a satire.


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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.

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Correspondence to Albrecht Classen.

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Classen, A. The Bitter and Biting Humor of Sarcasm in Medieval and Early Modern Literature. Neophilologus 101, 417–437 (2017).

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