Black Comedy in the Dark Ages?

Blog 5 Plague Doc

A few brave souls (meaning Monty Python) found a way to make light of everyone’s favorite Dark Ages malady, the Bubonic Plague (also known as the Black Death).

Let’s face it, a lot of people must have been pretty ticked off at Rome for falling apart and taking away life’s little extras … like organized government … the building of roads … irrigation … And, though the Visigoths were broodingly cool and amazingly fair as far as conquerors are concerned, they lacked Rome’s flair for spectacle and were probably about as funny as the Germans they became. On top of that, a mysterious illness attacked populations across Europe, bringing agonizing death and completely upsetting societal structures. How the heck to you smile in the face of that?

Blog 5 Jester

In Britain (and elsewhere), they were fortunate to have wonderful fools, also called buffoons or jesters, who entertained through acrobatics, juggling, storytelling, song and comedy. I like to imagine them standing in front of a nobleman’s banquet a la Jerry Seinfeld, making observations of the world around them:

“What’s the deal with all these serfs?”

“What’s up with plague doctors’ masks? If you want to avoid breathing in deadly miasmas, shouldn’t you make your nose smaller?”

Okay, they didn’t perform stand-up. Sigh. In truth, there were two types of jesters in Medieval England: itinerant entertainers who traveled town to town attending fairs and markets, entertaining for whatever they could get from the audience they drew and those fortunate enough to live in the houses of noblemen. The latter had the better life, for sure, though it was far from perfect. Yes, they had a position of privilege within the household, but it was the type of position given to a special pet, not to a person.

Court jesters were assured decent clothing  though. The usual garb was made of a colorful weave called motley. Their hats might look like a donkey’s head or could have one or multiple points and was frequently adorned with jingling bells.

The comedy both amused and criticized the nobleman, his family and his guests. Stories and jokes were usually colored with current events and household gossip. Though fools could be whipped if their barbs went to far, their behavior was usually excused because it was thought that fools were divinely inspired.

For those who kept humanity smiling as they buried 50% of the population, we doff our pointy hats.

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About Doc Davis's Baggy Pants

Doc Davis is a college professor and author of books on Burlesque and Baggy Pants Comedy. He appears regularly as half of the Doc & Stumpy comedy duo. His latest book, "The Delicate Art of Pie Throwing" is nearing completion.
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