Medieval Stand-Up Comedy Routine Found In 500-Year-Old Manuscript

Something is fascinating and unique to be found in medieval manuscripts. These rich records of history and culture include everything from a list of herbs or religious prayers to innovative dog names and cute kitten photos. These books, which are time-consuming to produce, expensive to acquire, and precious to pass on, have a certain charm today.

The new find suggests they might even be able to provide insight into the history of the comedy. Before Monty Python, there was Richard Hige. A rare recording of real-life stand-up comedy from the 15th century, his manuscript contains the first documented use of the term “red herring” in the modern sense. 

The comedic value of this manuscript, held in the National Library of Scotland, was recently confirmed by Dr. James Wade, a Cambridge scholar, in the Review of English Studies. “We should not assume that famous artists are incapable of poetic achievement.”

It was a minstrel,” explains Dr. Calf. Around 1480, Hige handwrote three texts in one volume. He was probably copying the storylines from a memo for minstrels. These itinerant entertainers made a living, entertaining crowds across England. Much of its humor could be considered farce by today’s standards.”

The texts include a parody novel called ‘Hare Hunt,’ ‘a playful prose sermon,’ and ‘The Battle of Braconuet,’ a nonsensical verse. The Hunt for the Hare is about killer rabbits, an image often found in medieval literature and found in Monty Python’s The Beast of Kerbannog, “Jack Wade has never felt so sad / As if a rabbit stepped on his head / Just in case he’d torn his way loose” down her throat. The hunted become hunters.

The next part, “Sermon,” encourages drinking and references popular ballads about drunkenness. The author criticizes the nobility of the time and describes what happened as a “distraction” or diversionary maneuver. This is the first known mention of the phrase in this sense. Finally, The Battle of Braconwet evokes the famous Robin Hood among a host of odd characters, like the competing bears that would be right at home in a Disney film. “Hige gives us a rare glimpse into the medieval world, rich in oral tradition and popular entertainment,” says Wade.

At the end of the 15th century, society changed. Hige, a mentor to a wealthy family, captured this change in a rare glimpse into a vanished culture. “These lyrics remind us that holiday entertainment thrived in an era of increased social mobility. People had a lot more fun then than we do now, so the minstrels had a lot of opportunities to perform. They were important figures in people’s lives throughout the social hierarchy.

These give us a picture of how medieval life was well lived.