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Humour in Anglo-Saxon Literature

Humour in Anglo-Saxon Literature

EDITED BY Jonathan Wilcox
Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    Humour in Anglo-Saxon Literature
    Book Description:

    Humour is rarely seen to raise its indecorous head in the surviving corpus of Old English literature, yet the value of reading that literature with an eye to humour proves considerable when the right questions are asked. 'Humour in Anglo-Saxon Literature' provides the first book-length treatment of the subject. In all new essays, eight scholars employ different approaches to explore humor in such works as 'Beowulf' and 'The Battle of Maldon', the riddles of the Exeter Book, and Old English saints' lives. An introductory essay provides a survey of the field, while individual essays push towards a distinctive theory of Anglo-Saxon humour. Through its unusual focus, this collection will provide an appealing introduction to both famous and lesser-known works for those new to Old English literature, while those familiar with the usual contours of Old English literary criticism will find here the value of a fresh approach. Contributors: JOHN D. NILES, T.A. SHIPPEY, RAYMOND P. TRIPP JR, E.L. RISDEN, D.K. SMITH, NINA RULON-MILLER, SHARI HORNER, HUGH MAGENNIS. JONATHAN WILCOX is Associate Professor of English at the University of Iowa and editor of the 'Old English Newsletter'.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-002-9
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
    (pp. vi-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Jonathan Wilcox
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Many consider Anglo-Saxon literature to be as moisture-sappingly dry as the mouse in Lewis Carroll’s story thought Anglo-Saxon history. As the ever-popular Norton Anthology puts it, ‘The world of Old English poetry is predominantly harsh.’¹ The reasons for such an assessment are obvious. Modern desire privileges the tiny corpus of Old English heroic literature, characterized by its obsession with loyalty in a world of violence, where there seems to be little scope for humor. (Real men don’t laugh!) The far larger corpus of monastic material receives less attention but this, too, seems unpromising as a vein for much humor. (Real...

  6. Byrhtnoth’s Laughter and the Poetics of Gesture
    (pp. 11-32)

    If the past is a foreign country, then those who seek it out take on the role of explorers in a half-known realm. We may approach that realm with the maps and compasses that previous explorers have devised and have bequeathed us, but we will do well to keep in mind that Greenwich meridian longitude may have no meaning to the people dwelling there. Those people may reckon the months by the position of the stars; they may count distances in terms of days on the road and may draw their own maps in the dust; they may measure land...

  7. ‘Grim Wordplay’: Folly and Wisdom in Anglo-Saxon Humor
    (pp. 33-48)

    ‘We are not amused’, said Queen Victoria, and the remark has become canonical (however apocryphal its origins) as an example of stuffiness, pomposity, failure to see a joke – all serious offences against the conventions of modern culture. As Derek Brewer has pointed out, GSOH (Good Sense Of Humor) is a sine qua non in the coded language of contemporary ‘Personal Columns’, and few will admit to lacking it.¹ Yet at the same time, as has been pointed out recently from another quarter, no disapproving remark makes a modern American intellectual more neurotic than ‘I don’t think that’s very funny’ – the...

  8. Humor, Wordplay, and Semantic Resonance in Beowulf
    (pp. 49-70)

    It is unlikely that even the most diplomatically trenchant preamble can avoid repetition or, for that matter, elevate the pros and cons surrounding the subject of humor much above the Rubáiyát level.

    Myself when young did eagerly frequent

    Doctor and saint, and heard great Argument

    About it and about: but evermore

    Came out by the same Door as in I went.¹

    Arguments ‘about it and about’, when it is humor, are ineluctably ad hominem and are, therefore, as likely to offend as to persuade. The inherent polysemy of natural language is the starting point of the following essay, which approaches...

  9. Heroic Humor in Beowulf
    (pp. 71-78)

    Several years ago in a lecture called ‘How the Heroes Talk’, T.A. Shippey enumerated tacit or understood speech patterns that determined whether exchanges between Germanic heroes should lead to peace or battle. In subsequent published essays he has elaborated on these patterns based on Paul Grice’s rules of conversational logic.¹ These discussions may also help explain how the heroes (and their poets) joke, as exhibited particularly in Beowulf. In the medieval Germanic world formal exchanges between heroes (or among gods) may use ostensible humor as a way of establishing dominance, and while such ‘wars of words’ may lead to violence,...

  10. Humor in Hiding: Laughter Between the Sheets in the Exeter Book Riddles
    (pp. 79-98)
    D.K. SMITH

    In many ways the Exeter Book riddles are an extended exercise in uncertainty. As riddles they are designed to leave us guessing, and as cultural artifacts they raise at least as many questions as they answer. The manuscript in which the riddles are preserved can be dated to the second half of the tenth century, and its script and its inclusion in the Exeter Cathedral library identify it clearly as a product of a monastic culture. But just as clearly, the collection contains poems which are undeniably lewd, plainly bawdy, implicitly sexual, and, even now, quite surprisingly funny. And therein...

  11. Sexual Humor and Fettered Desire in Exeter Book Riddle 12
    (pp. 99-126)

    What’s so funny about female masturbation? Most readers today would be hard-put to find anything amusing in the exposure of a woman’s private sexual act. Indeed, it seems that the author of Riddle 12 did not find his topic funny either: although almost one half of the riddle is devoted to the detailed narration, veiled in double entendre, of a wonfeax wale’s (dark-haired female Welsh slave’s)² auto-erotic activity, rather than laughter, or even a smile, Riddle 12 elicits its narrator’s sneer. However, as humor theorist Lawrence La Fave observes, ‘humor and laughter are not synonymous’.³ In this essay I will...

  12. ‘Why do you speak so much foolishness?’ Gender, Humor, and Discourse in Ælfric’s Lives of Saints
    (pp. 127-136)

    The humorless reputation of Anglo-Saxon England is well-known: it is generally perceived to have been a gloomy place, its literature often seen as grim, bloody, and above all somber in its treatment of Germanic warriors or Christian heroes. For students first encountering Old English literature in undergraduate survey courses, this reputation is solidified by the editorial introduction in the Norton Anthology of English Literature:

    The world of Old English poetry is predominantly harsh. Men are said to be cheerful in the mead hall, but even there they think of struggle in war, of possible triumph but more possible failure. ....

  13. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Heaven: Humorous Incongruity in Old English Saints’ Lives
    (pp. 137-158)

    The importance of incongruity as a defining quality of humor is widely recognized by theorists and has been referred to already in this book.¹ In incongruity, which may be purely intellectual, as in punning and verbal irony, or may also involve some kind of human interest, as in farce or comedies of errors, experience contradicts expectation; a lack of fit is perceived between elements which are surprisingly brought together.

    Incongruity is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak,² and so one of the problems of studying humor from a distant period, such as that of Anglo-Saxon England, is...

  14. INDEX
    (pp. 159-162)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 163-163)