A Stand-Up Comedy Routine Discovered in a Medieval Manuscript: Monty Python Before Monty Python (1480)

A fun­ny thing hap­pened on the way to the 15th cen­tu­ry…

Dr. James Wade, a spe­cial­ist in ear­ly Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge, was doing research at the Nation­al Library of Scot­land when he noticed some­thing extra­or­di­nary about the first of the nine mis­cel­la­neous book­lets com­pris­ing the Heege Man­u­script.

Most sur­viv­ing medieval man­u­scripts are the stuff of high art. The first part of the Heege Man­u­script is fun­ny.

The usu­al tales of romance and hero­ism, allu­sions to ancient Rome, lofty poet­ry and dra­mat­ic inter­ludes… even the dash­ing adven­tures of Robin Hood are con­spic­u­ous­ly absent.

Instead it’s awash with the sta­ples of con­tem­po­rary stand up com­e­dy — top­i­cal obser­va­tions, humor­ous over­shar­ing, roast­ing emi­nent pub­lic fig­ures, razz­ing the audi­ence, flat­ter­ing the audi­ence by bust­ing on the denizens of near­by com­mu­ni­ties, shag­gy dog tales, absur­di­ties and non-sequiturs.

Repeat­ed ref­er­ences to pass­ing the cup con­jure an open mic type sce­nario.

The man­u­script was cre­at­ed by cler­ic Richard Heege and entered into the col­lec­tion of his employ­ers, the wealthy Sher­brooke fam­i­ly.

Oth­er schol­ars have con­cen­trat­ed on the man­u­scrip­t’s phys­i­cal con­struc­tion, most­ly refrain­ing from com­ment on the nature of its con­tents.

Dr. Wade sus­pects that the first book­let is the result of Heege hav­ing paid close atten­tion to an anony­mous trav­el­ing minstrel’s per­for­mance, per­haps going so far as to con­sult the performer’s own notes.

Heege quipped that he was the author owing to the fact that he “was at that feast and did not have a drink” — mean­ing he was the only one sober enough to retain the min­strel’s jokes and inven­tive plot­lines.

Dr. Wade describes how the com­ic por­tion of the Heege Man­u­script is bro­ken down into three parts, the first of which is sure to grat­i­fy fans of Mon­ty Python and the Holy Grail:

…it’s a nar­ra­tive account of a bunch of peas­ants who try to hunt a hare, and it all ends dis­as­trous­ly, where they beat each oth­er up and the wives have to come with wheel­bar­rows and hold them home. 

That hare turns out to be one fierce bad rab­bit, so much so that the tale’s pro­le­tar­i­an hero, the pro­saical­ly named Jack Wade, wor­ries she could rip out his throat.

Dr. Wade learned that Sir Wal­ter Scott, author of Ivan­hoe, was aware of The Hunt­ing of the Hare, view­ing it as a stur­dy spoof of high mind­ed romance, “stu­dious­ly filled with grotesque, absurd, and extrav­a­gant char­ac­ters.”

The killer bun­ny yarn is fol­lowed by a mock ser­mon  - If thou have a great black bowl in thy hand and it be full of good ale and thou leave any­thing there­in, thou puttest thy soul into greater pain —  and a non­sense poem about a feast where every­one gets ham­mered and chaos ensues.

Crowd-pleas­ing mate­r­i­al in 1480.

With a few 21st-cen­tu­ry tweaks, an enter­pris­ing young come­di­an might wring laughs from it yet.

(Pag­ing Tyler Gun­ther, of Greedy Peas­ant fame…)

As to the true author of these rou­tines, Dr. Wade spec­u­lates that he may have been a “pro­fes­sion­al trav­el­ing min­strel or a local ama­teur per­former.” Pos­si­bly even both:

A ‘pro­fes­sion­al’ min­strel might have a day job and go gig­ging at night, and so be, in a sense, semi-pro­fes­sion­al, just as a ‘trav­el­ling’ min­strel may well be also ‘local’, work­ing a beat of near­by vil­lages and gen­er­al­ly known in the area. On bal­ance, the texts in this book­let sug­gest a min­strel of this vari­ety: some­one whose mate­r­i­al includes sev­er­al local place-names, but also whose mate­r­i­al is made to trav­el, with the lack of deter­mi­na­cy designed to com­i­cal­ly engage audi­ences regard­less of spe­cif­ic locale.

Learn more about the Heege Man­u­script in  Dr. Wade’s arti­cle, Enter­tain­ments from a Medieval Minstrel’s Reper­toire Book in The Review of Eng­lish Stud­ies.

Leaf through a dig­i­tal fac­sim­i­le of the Heege Man­u­script here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Killer Rab­bits in Medieval Man­u­scripts: Why So Many Draw­ings in the Mar­gins Depict Bun­nies Going Bad

A List of 1,065 Medieval Dog Names: Nose­wise, Gar­lik, Have­g­ood­day & More

Why Knights Fought Snails in Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Terry Walsh says:

    ” If thou have a great black bowl in thy hand and it be full of good ale and thou leave any­thing there­in, thou puttest thy soul into greater pain”

    If this be tran­scribed cor­rect­ly, it shows the dif­fer­ence between the sub­junc­tive used after ‘thou’ (have/leave) and the indica­tive (puttest). The sub­junc­tive is used because ‘If..’ sets up a pos­si­bil­i­ty, rather than a fact.

    In mod­ern Eng­lish the sub­junc­tive is almost extinct, except in a cou­ple of set phras­es (e.g. ‘if I were you.…’).

  • JP B says:

    “..And the Lord did grin, and the peo­ple did feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orang­utans and break­fast cere­als and fruit bats and large chu–”

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