Funny Times – a Look at Renaissance Humour


Conference at the University of Leicester on 18 July brings together scholars who are highly eminent in the field of Renaissance literary study, gathered for the first time to discuss the topic in detail.

When Sir Thomas More stood on the scaffold in 1535, about to be executed for his religious convictions, on King Henry VIII’s orders, he continued to crack jokes. This raises some interesting questions about what is funny, how humour works at such moments, and when it is ‘appropriate’ to rely on a sense of humour.

Renaissance humour (1500-1700) comes under scrutiny at a conference at the University of Leicester on Friday 18th July, where some of the country’s experts in the literature of the period will gather for the first time to discuss Renaissance humour in some detail.

Sessions will include: Humour in Elizabethan and Jacobean Comedy; Later Renaissance Humour; Restoration Humour; and Earlier Tudor Humour. Speakers are: Michael Davies (University of Liverpool;), Dave Postles, Kate Loveman and Sarah Knight (University of Leicester), Matthew Steggle (Sheffield Hallam), Andrew Hiscock (Bangor), Helen Pierce (York), Peter Smith (Nottingham Trent), Greg Walker (Edinburgh) and Sophie Murray (Merton College, Oxford).

Sarah Knight, co-organiser of the conference, which has been sponsored by the University of Leicester Early Modern Seminar Series, the English Department and the Society for Renaissance Studies, explained the reason for the conference: “The Renaissance (which, for the purposes of our conference, we are defining as c.1500-c.1700) witnessed a lively, diverse flourishing of comedy and satire which was without precedent in English literary history.

“New technologies such as the invention of moveable type at the end of the fifteenth century made cheap print possible, so ballads, broadsides and plays could be inexpensively purchased by anyone literate, and for the first time everyone had access to ‘news’, often presented, then as now, in a satirical vein.

“As well as the spread of cheap print, the increasingly sophisticated profession of publishing and the growth of textual editorship made available the works of ancient comic and satirical writers, such as Juvenal, Lucian and Aristophanes, in reliable scholarly editions, for the first time.

“Famously, the commercial theatre was founded in England towards the end of the sixteenth century, and anyone who could afford to buy a ticket at the public or private theatres could see the newest comedies by ambitious, witty young writers like Shakespeare, Middleton, Jonson and Marston, who used comedy to critique the culture and society they inhabited.

“Older comic traditions developed alongside newer forms: anarchic, caricature-based ancient Roman comedies were ‘rediscovered’ in the sixteenth century, while vernacular ‘medieval’ modes of carnivalesque humour continued to grow, and this combination made for a uniquely potent and diverse comic culture.

“In his Rabelais and His World (1965), the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin coined the term ‘carnivalesque’ to refer to the impulse within Renaissance cultures to overthrow the established order, question authority, fixate on the grotesque, bizarre and taboo. Bakhtin’s ideas have been enormously influential in defining the category of ‘Renaissance humour.’

“During these years, humour became more democratic and wide-spread than it had previously been in England. Plays by Plautus and Terence were staged to great acclaim in both Universities and inn-yards, while comic shepherd plays could entertain aristocratic audiences in York and Chester, and the Archbishop of Canterbury could sit down to watch a bout of comic jousting, ‘fart-pricke-in-cule’ after – or possibly during – dinner at Lambeth Palace.

“As the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wore on, the comic theatre and drama more generally became a site of social debate. The rise of the Puritan faction and the fading of the Stuart regime led to the closing of the theatres in 1642, and the suppressing of comedy until 1660, when the artistic tastes of King Charles II led to the revival of English drama and the establishment of ‘Restoration comedy’ as well as the growth of news networks, the establishment of political parties, and as a consequence, of vicious partisan satire both visual and verbal.”

A flavour of humour of what the conference might have to offer can be found in Ben Jonson’s Volpone (1607), in which Jonson’s anti-hero, the miser and swindler Volpone, feels such contempt for the medical profession that he twists the English language into a glorious new direction, referring to a money-grabbing quack doctor as a ‘a turdy-facy, nasty-paty, lousy-fartical rogue.’

For more details of the conference, Renaissance Humour, which takes place on 18th July 2008, see the website:

Details of speakers follow. For more information on the conference please contact Dr Sarah Knight, Lecturer in Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature, Department of English, University of Leicester, tel 0116 252 2631, email [email protected]

The conference brings together a group of scholars who are highly eminent in the field of Renaissance literary study, gathered for the first time to discuss the topic in detail.

* Greg Walker (Edinburgh) is one of the world’s leading authorities on late medieval and early Tudor drama: his Writing Under Tyranny: English Literature and the Henrician Reformation was published in 2005, and his The Politics of Performance in Early Renaissance Drama appeared in 1998.

* Michael Davies (Liverpool) published his groundbreaking study of John Bunyan in 2002, and his study of Hamlet has just been published;

* Matthew Steggle’s (Sheffield Hallam) book Laughing and Weeping in Early Modern Theatres was published in 2007, his study Richard Brome: Place and Politics on the Caroline Stage appeared in 2004, and he has edited Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels with Eric Rasmussen for the new Cambridge Works of Ben Jonson.

* Peter Smith (Nottingham Trent) has published extensively on Renaissance drama, including his books Social Shakespeare (1995) and his co-edited Hamlet: Theory in Practice (1996); he has also edited Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Edward II as well as Dekker’s The Shoemakers’ Holiday.

* Sophie Murray (Merton College, Oxford) is writing her PhD on Reformation history, focusing in particular on the use of humour in sixteenth-century texts and satirical woodcuts.

* Helen Pierce (York) has published numerous articles on graphic satire in the seventeenth century, in periodicals such as The British Art Journal and The Historical Journal.

* Andrew Hiscock (Bangor) has written and edited several books on early modern literary topics, including Authority and Desire: Crises of Interpretation in Shakespeare and Racine (1996) and The Uses of this World: Thinking Space in Shakespeare, Marlowe, Cary and Jonson (2004).

Both Greg Walker and Michael Davies formerly taught in the English department at Leicester, and three of the conference speakers are currently English department staff.

* Dave Postles has recently published two books that relate to the literature and society of early modern England, Social Geographies in England, 1200-1650 (2007)and Social Proprieties. Social Relations in Early-modern England, (c.1500-1680) (2006).

* Sarah Knight has translated and edited the Italian polymath Leon Battista Alberti’s Latin satire Momus (2003) and is currently working on an edition of Milton’s college speeches, the Prolusions, for the Oxford Complete Works of John Milton;

* Kate Loveman is an expert on Samuel Pepys, and her Reading Fictions, 1660-1740: Deception in English Literary and Political Culture has just been published.