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Rewriting Laughter in Early Modern Europe


This chapter unites sets of historically distant thoughts about laughter and humour, focusing on rhetoricians, doctors and comic writers in France, Italy and England during the sixteenth century. Although sixteenth-century writers of and about humour used classical work as a model for inspiration, their bid to understand the nature and function of laughter took a number of unprecedented directions, many of which anticipate our modern humour theories. This chapter uses the three modern categories of superiority, incongruity and relief as a framework for surveying the early modern intervention to the critical re-assessment of humour, providing a paradigm case study of a history of humour ‘theory’. It considers discussions of poetics, analyses medical writings by physicians and provides a wide range of examples of early modern humour in practice, for instance in drama, poetry and sermons. Bringing out the historical distinctness of sixteenth-century European thinking about laughter, the chapter also unwrites the tendency of current scholarship to group comic thinking from Aristotle to Hobbes under the label of ‘superiority theory’.

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  1. 1.

    Rabelais, Gargantua, 53. All translations in this chapter are my own, unless otherwise indicated.

  2. 2.

    Erasmus (1466–1536), for example, wrote that words and not laughter were a marker of the human, since laughter was also common to dogs and apes: ‘It is ridiculous that what is attributed to man as his own seems to be shared with dogs and apes’. Erasmus, De ratione concionandi, 5:922, 650. Translation by Butrica.

  3. 3.

    This particular statement is from Spingarn, History of Literary Criticism, 101.

  4. 4.

    In short, the notion that when we laugh, it is always because we experience a sense of superiority over something or someone else.

  5. 5.

    Aristotle, Poetics, 5:45. Translation by Halliwell.

  6. 6.

    Marvin Herrick discusses the influence of Aristotle’s commentators throughout his French Comic Theory.

  7. 7.

    ‘When we laugh at the ridiculous aspects of our friends, the admixture of pleasure in our malice produces a mixture of pleasure and distress’. Plato, Philebus, 51. Translation by Gosling.

  8. 8.

    ‘The seat, the region, so to speak, of the humorous—for this is the next question—lies in a certain dishonorableness and ugliness’. Cicero, De Oratore, 2:187. Translation by May and Wisse.

  9. 9.

    ‘Laughter is not far from derision’. Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 6:3, 67. Translation by Russell.

  10. 10.

    ‘Wee laugh at deformed creatures, wherein certainly wee cannot delight’. Sidney, Defence of Poesie, in Prose Works, 40.

  11. 11.

    Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 4.

  12. 12.

    Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 218. Also cited in Skinner, ‘Why Laughing Mattered’, 418.

  13. 13.

    Joubert, Traité du Ris, 1:1, 16. In the sixteenth century, the various forms of ‘ridicule’ (‘ridiculous’, ‘ridicolo’) indicated ‘laughable’ in its etymological sense, rather than today’s sense of the word as meaning foolish or outlandish.

  14. 14.

    Machiavelli, La vita di Castruccio Castracani da Lucca, in Opere complete, 175.

  15. 15.

    Castiglione, II Cortegiano, 2:46, 153.

  16. 16.

    ‘Any avaricious man is deformed, and turned into a monster’. Mancini, De risu, ac ridiculis, 145.

  17. 17.

    Wiles discusses this culture in his excellent chapter centring on Richard Tarlton. Cf. Shakespeare’s Clown, 11–23.

  18. 18.

    Lotte Hellinga discusses the laughter caused by this jestbook in chapter six of her Texts in Transit, 168–200.

  19. 19.

    Cited in Burke, ‘Frontiers of the Comic’, 64. These, and many more examples, can also be found throughout Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature, especially 240, 243, 411.

  20. 20.

    This incident is recounted in full in Robertson, Il Gran Cardinale, 128. Cited in Burke, ‘Frontiers of the Comic’, 64.

  21. 21.

    More, Epigrammata, ‘In anglum gallicae linguae affectatorem’ (On an Englishman Affecting the French Language). 45–47. McCutcheon assesses this epigram in her ‘Laughter and Humanism’, 230.

  22. 22.

    Burke, ‘Frontiers of the Comic’, 63.

  23. 23.

    These comments are reproduced in Ann Marie Borys’s Vincenzo Scamozzi and the Chorography of Early Modern Architecture, 2–4.

  24. 24.

    This anecdote is examined in further detail throughout Minamino, Fabricated Laughter.

  25. 25.

    Rousse, ‘Le pouvoir royal et le théâtre des farces’, 183–84.

  26. 26.

    Giraldi Cinzio, Discorsi intorno, 35r. Cited in Burke, ‘Frontiers of the Comic’, 69.

  27. 27.

    Castiglione, Il Cortegiano, 2:89, 201–2.

  28. 28.

    Wilson, Arte of rhetorique, 275. Wilson’s treatise is discussed in further detail in Lake Prescott, ‘Humour and satire in the Renaissance’, 285.

  29. 29.

    More, The Answer to a Poisoned Book, 8. Cited in Lake Prescott, ‘Humour and satire in the Renaissance’, 287.

  30. 30.

    Burke, ‘Frontiers of the Comic’, 68.

  31. 31.

    Della Casa, Galateo, 31–32.

  32. 32.

    Cicero, De Oratore, 2:155. Translation by May and Wisse.

  33. 33.

    Ibid., 2:187.

  34. 34.

    Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 6:3, 65. Translation by Russell.

  35. 35.

    This satire was a collaborative effort by Nicolas Rapin, Florent Chrestien, Jean Passerat and Pierre Pithou. Martial Martin’s 2010 edition of the Satyre is the most up to date.

  36. 36.

    As Indira Ghose has detailed, in the Nicomachean Ethics (4:8, 247) Aristotle points out that ‘the jesting of a gentleman differs from that of a person of servile nature, as does that of an educated from that of an uneducated man’. Ghose, Shakespeare and Laughter, 60. Translation of Aristotle by Rackham.

  37. 37.

    Castiglione, Il Cortegiano, 2:41, 147.

  38. 38.

    Castiglione, Il Cortegiano, 2:20, 118–19.

  39. 39.

    The poet Jean-Baptiste de Santeuil (1630–1697) first used this term when describing the commedia dell’arte character Arlecchino.

  40. 40.

    Peletier, L’Art poétique, 70v.

  41. 41.

    Minturno, De Poeta, 280.

  42. 42.

    Trissino, Della Poetica, 2:30v. Cited in Herrick, French Comic Theory, 83–84.

  43. 43.

    Dryden, Absalom and Achitophel (1681), preface.

  44. 44.

    Henri Bergson, as John Parkin has neatly summarised, has more recently sought to show that ‘laughter must be derisive and corrective in its function, scorning and punishing the aberrant comic figure’. Parkin, French Humour, Introduction, 6.

  45. 45.

    Terence, Eunuchus, 4:4, 87v.

  46. 46.

    Maggi, De Ridiculis, 304–5.

  47. 47.

    More, Latin Poems, 233.

  48. 48.

    This possibility is explored in McCutcheon, ‘Laughter and Humanism’, 229.

  49. 49.

    Cortesi, ‘De cardinalatu’, in his Ad Episcopum, 2:9. Cited in Bowen, ‘Rire est le propre de l’homme’, 186.

  50. 50.

    Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, 18. Translation by Wilson.

  51. 51.

    Castiglione, Il Cortegiano, 2:45, 152.

  52. 52.

    Ghose, Shakespeare and Laughter, 106.

  53. 53.

    This idea is assessed in detail in Derrin, ‘Self-Referring Deformities’, 265.

  54. 54.

    Hindley, ‘Pierre Gringore, Satire and Carnival’, 188. Mikhail Bakhtin has of course assessed the community-building function of the carnival in his Rabelais and his World , although a number of scholars have instead shown the early modern carnival to be a form of oppression, with lower classes exchanging temporary freedom for obedience at all other times. See for example Beard, Laughter in Ancient Rome, 39.

  55. 55.

    Critchley, On Humour, 67–68.

  56. 56.

    See for example Machiavelli’s La Mandragola, 1:1.

  57. 57.

    Castelvetro, Poetica d’Aristotele vulgarizzata, 92–98. Cited in Herrick, French Comic Theory, 53.

  58. 58.

    Valleriola, Enarrationum medicinalium libri sex, 218. Cited in Ménager, La Renaissance et le Rire, 32.

  59. 59.

    Roy, Une culture de l’équivoque.

  60. 60.

    Trissino, Della Poetica, 2:39v. Cited in Herrick, French Comic Theory, 41.

  61. 61.

    Maggi, De Ridiculis, 306.

  62. 62.

    Ibid., 305. Cited in Herrick, French Comic Theory, 45.

  63. 63.

    Castiglione, Il Cortegiano, 2:47, 153.

  64. 64.

    Fracastoro, De sympathia, fol. 23v. Also cited in Skinner, ‘Why Laughing Mattered’, 442.

  65. 65.

    Peacham, Garden of Eloquence, 34. Also cited in Skinner, ‘Why Laughing Mattered’, 442.

  66. 66.

    Joubert, Traité du Ris, 1:3, 33. Joubert’s examination of the pun is discussed at greater length in De Rocher, Rabelais’s Laughters and Joubert’s Traité du Ris, 13.

  67. 67.

    Manningham, Diary, 40.

  68. 68.

    Ficino, Letters, 4:66, 67. Translation by London School. Cited in O’Rourke Boyle, ‘Gracious Laughter’, 712.

  69. 69.

    Fracastoro, De sympathia, fol. 23v. Also cited in Skinner, ‘Why Laughing Mattered’, 421 and 435.

  70. 70.

    These etymologies are discussed in further detail in Critchley, On Humour, 108.

  71. 71.

    Perkins, Foundation of Christian Religion, A2. Also cited in Ghose, Shakespeare and Laughter, 109.

  72. 72.

    Le Goff, ‘Laughter in the Middle Ages’, 45.

  73. 73.

    Cited in Burke, ‘Popular Culture’, 202.

  74. 74.

    Wilson, Arte of Rhetorique, 75.

  75. 75.

    Cited in Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 188.

  76. 76.

    Castiglione, Il Cortegiano, 2:41, 147.

  77. 77.

    Ménager, La Renaissance et le Rire, 8.

  78. 78.

    Joubert. Traité du Ris, 3:14, 330.

  79. 79.

    Ibid., 3:14, 335.

  80. 80.

    Ménager, La Renaissance et le Rire, 8.

  81. 81.

    Nancel, Analogia microcosmi ad macrocosmum, III, ‘De risu’, 2220. Many of Nancel’s theories were also inspired by Pierre de la Ramée, who had been principal of the Collège de Presles, where Nancel undertook his training.

  82. 82.

    Mancini, De Risu, 78v.

  83. 83.

    Riccoboni, Poetica Aristotelis, 157. Cited in Herrick, French Comic Theory, 52. Translation by Herrick.

  84. 84.

    Castiglione, Il Cortegiano, 2:45, 152.

  85. 85.

    Scogan, Scoggin’s Jests, 46.

  86. 86.

    Joubert recounts the story of a patient being cured after laughing at a monkey jumping up on a table and drinking (and subsequently throwing away) the medicine that was originally intended for the patient. He describes the monkey as being an ‘animal de soy ridicule’ (a laughable animal in itself). Joubert, Traité du Ris, 3:14, 335.

  87. 87.

    See Nash, ‘Philopolites’, in Miscellanea, sig. nn 3. This anecdote is also cited in Prescott, ‘Humour and Satire’, 285.

  88. 88.

    Spencer, Essays Scientific, 200.

  89. 89.

    Erasmus, The Collected Works of Erasmus, 33:312. Translation by Mynors. Cited in O’Rourke Boyle, ‘Gracious Laughter’, 717.

  90. 90.

    Erasmus, De ratione concionandi, 5:964, 761.

  91. 91.

    Lacroix, ‘Esquisse d’une signification’, 208.

  92. 92.

    Cited in Ménager, La Renaissance et le Rire, 154.

  93. 93.

    Baïf, Les mimes, enseignements, et proverbes, 158.

  94. 94.

    Joubert, Traité du Ris, 2:4, 164.

  95. 95.

    Ibid., 1:25, 1:26, 1:27, 125–34.

  96. 96.

    Ibid., 1:27, 132.

  97. 97.

    Maggi, De Ridiculis, 304. Cited in De Rocher, Rabelais’s Laughters and Joubert’s Traité du Ris, 16.

  98. 98.

    Joubert, Traité du Ris, 1:2, 17. Many others, such as Maggi (De Ridiculis , 302) iterated that no pity must be felt for the object of laughter. Michael Screech discusses the role of pity in laughter at length in his Laughter at the Foot of the Cross, 56–60.

  99. 99.

    Bright, Treatise of Melancholie, 14.

  100. 100.

    Ibid., 14.

  101. 101.

    Ibid., 14.


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Rayfield, L. (2020). Rewriting Laughter in Early Modern Europe. In: Derrin, D., Burrows, H. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Humour, History, and Methodology. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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