The History of Laughter


Human beings, we can safely say, have always laughed. But did people in the past laugh differently from us? And if so, how—and, just as important, how can we know? We have already glimpsed in chapter 1 the appeal and the frustrations of trying to understand a couple of outbursts of Roman laughter. In this chapter, I want to look harder at these issues, across a wider range of Roman material. We shall discover how scholars have ingeniously rewritten the texts of Roman jokes as they have come down to us, to make them funnier (in our terms). And we shall briefly reflect on the particularly tricky question of visual images. How can we identify visual depictions of a laughing face? (It’s not as easy as you might think.) And how can we decide which images might have caused Romans—or which Romans—to crack up?

I shall also move outside the ancient world, to more general questions of how we might historicize the chuckles and chortles, giggles and guffaws of our forebears. There is, in fact, a long history to the history of laughter. Already in 1858, Alexander Herzen observed—in what has become something of a slogan among more recent scholars—that “it would be extremely interesting to write a history of laughter.”1 Interesting it certainly would be. Yet the exact terrain of that history is hard to define. Are we dealing with a history of the theory of laughter, and its protocols and rules (whether broken or obeyed)? Or are we focusing on the much less manageable, much more elusive subject of the practice of laughter in the past? Or some inextricable combination of the two?2

And what kind of changes can we hope to track over time? Here we need to consider the work of another modern analyst of the culture of laughter, the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin. In many ways as important and innovative as Sigmund Freud in the study of laughter, Bakhtin has foisted some misleading myths onto the subject of Roman laughter, which I am afraid I must dispel. But his work also raises bigger questions about how we describe and understand long-term developments in an area such as this. What exactly is it that changes when we say that laughter changes across the centuries? I suggest that we can usefully shine the historical spotlight on laughter, that we can approach the subject historically (what else is this book attempting to do?), but that we can no more tell a linear history of laughter than we can devise a universal theory of laughter. In fact, I would argue that many so-called histories of laughter turn out to be loaded stories of human progress and refinement. When Romans reflected on the laughter of the past (and we ourselves are not so very different in this respect), part of the point was to show that their predecessors had laughed more coarsely, or more lustily, than they did—to construct a version of history in which laughter acted as a marker of increasing sophistication.

But we will start in December 1976, with a famous lecture delivered by the historian Keith Thomas on the place of laughter in Tudor and Stuart England. This lecture, though published only in a weekly magazine, was programmatic and has been extremely influential on approaches to the history of laughter, particularly in the English-speaking world.3


Thomas posed the fundamental question. “Why,” he asked his audience, “should laughter concern the historian”—rather than be of interest merely to the social anthropologist, the literary critic, or the psychologist? Because, he insisted, “to study the laughter of our ancestors, to go on reading until we can hear the people not just talking but also laughing is to gain some insight into changing human sensibilities.”

The project that Thomas sketched out was both important and impossible. I mean impossible, because, of course, however hard we read, we cannot “hear the people . . . laughing” (or talking, for that matter) in any period of history before the late nineteenth century, and it may be dangerously self-deceiving to imply, even metaphorically, that we can. But his project nonetheless remains important, for some equally obvious reasons. It almost goes without saying that we could write a better and “thicker” description of any historical society if we understood the protocols and practice of its laughter. Who laughed, at what, when? When was laughter out of order? What were the appropriate subjects or occasions for a chuckle?

Let’s take just a couple of examples from the Roman world. At least one writer of the imperial period, in his discussion of good manners at dinner, accepted that bald men or those with odd-shaped noses were fair game for a laugh but that blind people were emphatically not and that those with bad breath or dripping, snotty noses fell somewhere in between. This may not tell us much about real-life laughter, even among the elite, in the Roman Empire. Prohibitions of this sort are often perilous guides to popular practice, for, as we know from our own experience, the strongest prohibitions are sometimes aimed at the commonest features of everyday life (the modern equivalents—“No swearing!” or “Do not litter!”—are no sure indications of the prevalence, or otherwise, of foul language or of trash in the streets). But these laughter regulations are nonetheless a precious glimpse into one version of a Roman hierarchy of bodily transgression and abnormality; they hint at one way in which acceptable behavior and acceptable appearance might be calibrated—that is, measured on a spectrum from what was legitimately laugh-able to what was absolutely not.4

Likewise, the imagined “geography” of Roman laughter offers an intriguing sideways glance at ancient representations of cultural difference. Much as modern anthropologists have imagined the hysterical Pygmy, Roman writers pictured a world in which different peoples, countries, or cities could be characterized by their different styles of laughter, by the different objects of their mirth, or by the different degrees to which they themselves were laughable. On the one hand were those who repeatedly became the butt of laughter (such as the poor citizens of ancient Abdera, in northern Greece, whose supposed stupidity—as we shall discover in chapter 8—was often good for a laugh); at the other were people who simply laughed too much and were far too keen, so it was said, on the frivolous pleasures of laughing and joking.

The population of the Egyptian city of Alexandria—largely Greek by ethnic origin—was a case in point. In an extraordinary lecture to the Alexandrians, delivered at the end of the first or the beginning of the second century CE, the orator and intellectual Dio Chrysostom attacked their apparently well-known passion for jocularity. “Please be serious, just for a moment, and pay attention,” he starts. “Because you’re always so full of fun and frivolity; in fact, one might say that you’re never found wanting when it comes to fun and pleasure and laughter.” He goes on to compare the laughter of “certain barbarians” with that of the Alexandrians. These barbarians, he claims, induce in themselves apparently drunken laughter by inhaling the fumes of incense (another candidate for an ancient reference to cannabis); the Alexandrians, by contrast, reach that state without chemical assistance, just by frivolous banter and joking, “through ears and voice,” as Dio puts it. And, he berates them, “you play the fool even worse than the barbarians do, and you stagger around, as if you’d been hitting the bottle.”5

In his dissection of the culture of the Germans, the Roman historian Tacitus offers a bleaker view of ethnic differences, pointing to some significant absences of laughter among the barbarians. He notes that in Germany—unlike at Rome—“nemo . . . vitia ridet”; that is, “nobody laughs off vices,” or “nobody [merely] ridicules vices.” But it is, of course, an observation that reflects back on the morals and practices of the Romans themselves. The implication is that in their primitive state of simplicity, the Germans take vice more seriously than simply as a subject of laughter or ridicule.6

I am not for a moment trying to suggest that Roman elite culture had a fixed template of the different ways in which laughter operated across the empire and beyond or that it would be possible simply to map the varieties of laughter found among the different peoples of the Roman world. It is, however, clear that laughter was one of the coordinates—shifting and unstable as it no doubt was—that Romans used to characterize cultural difference, as well as to define (and occasionally critique) themselves.

Yet these examples of Roman “laughter thinking” tend to make the history of laughter seem an easier subject than it is. For the further you move away from the rules, protocols, and moral exhortations associated with laughter and the nearer you get to what Thomas meant by “hearing” the laughter of the past, the murkier the waters become. That is to say—as those two scenarios with which I opened this book highlight—trying to recognize the situations, jokes, emotions, or words that actually prompted (or might have prompted) laughter in the past takes us right to the heart of the classic dilemmas of all historical understanding. How familiar or foreign is the world of past time? How comprehensible is it to us? How far does the process of historical study necessarily domesticate (or refamiliarize) material that may be much stranger than we let it seem? Questions of laughter raise these issues in a particularly acute form: for if it is hard to access the day-to-day culture of laughter of our contemporary neighbors just the other side of a national or cultural boundary, how much harder must it be to access that of people separated from us by centuries?

We do not need to go back two millennia to see the problems. Anyone who has ever dipped into those diligent nineteenth-century newspaper accounts of meetings or debates that systematically record the occurrence of laughter throughout the text—“(Laughter),” “(Prolonged laughter),” “(Muffled laughter)”—will often have been baffled as to what prompted the mirth or why some things prompted more uproarious hilarity than others. It is not simply that we fail to spot the long-forgotten topical references or that we have no access to the gestures and visual effects that may have contributed to the laughter. We are also dealing with a series of strikingly alien and sometimes quite mysterious social conventions about what provoked laughter or when laughter was required.

But what makes it more complicated is that it isn’t always mysterious. If some laughter in the past is baffling, some does seem relatively easily comprehensible. As we have seen, it is not hard to empathize (correctly or not) with Dio’s half-smothered outburst in the Colosseum. Jokes too can sometimes operate across the centuries. Mark Twain nicely sent up the familiarity of very old gags in his 1889 satire A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (now itself ironically, more than a hundred years since its publication, an example of just the kind of continuity he was discussing). At one point in his stay at Camelot, Twain’s time-traveler hero, who has been transported back centuries to the Arthurian court, listens to the performance of the court wit, Sir Dinadan, and offers this judgment: “I think I never heard so many old played-out jokes strung together in my life. . . . It seemed peculiarly sad to sit here, thirteen hundred years before I was born, and listen again to poor, flat, worm-eaten jokes that had given me the dry gripes when I was a boy thirteen hundred years afterwards. It about convinced me that there isn’t such a thing as a new joke possible. Everybody laughed at these antiquities—but then they always do; I had noticed that, centuries later.”7 At the end of this book we shall reflect further on the capacity of some Roman jokes, written more than two thousand years ago, still to raise a laugh (or not). Should we imagine some universal human psychology of laughter? Or have we successfully learned to find those jokes funny—or have we inherited, no doubt unconsciously, some of the ancient rules and conventions of laughter?

One problem, then, is not whether historical laughter is familiar or strange to us (it is both) but how to distinguish the familiar elements from the strange and how to establish where the boundary between the two lies. We always run two different and opposite risks: both of exaggerating the strangeness of past laughter and of making it all too comfortably like our own.

By and large, classicists have erred on the side of familiarity, wanting so far as possible to join in the laughter of the Greeks and Romans, and they have often worked very hard to find and explain the funny points in ancient comedy and the quips, jokes, and other kinds of repartee signaled in Roman literature. Sometimes they have had to “emend”—or even effectively to rewrite—the ancient texts as they have come down to us to rescue the jokes they once contained. These desperate measures are not necessarily as illegitimate as they might appear at first sight. Inevitably there is a potentially large gap between what any ancient writer originally wrote and the version of their works, copied and recopied, that has reached the modern reader. The medieval monks who transcribed by hand so many works of classical literature could be very inaccurate, especially when they did not fully understand what they were copying or did not see its significance. Not unlike the complicated system of Roman numerals (whose details were almost invariably garbled in the scribal process), jokes were a common area for error. The errors can be glaring. One particularly dim copyist, for example, when transcribing the discussion of laughter in the second book of Cicero’s On the Orator, systematically replaced the word iocus (“joke”) with locus (“place,” in the sense of “passage in a book”). He removed the laughter at a stroke, but his mistake has been straightforward, and uncontroversial, to correct.8

Sometimes, however, more radical ingenuity has been required. In the sixth book of his Handbook on Oratory, Quintilian (writing in the second century CE) also turned to the role of laughter in the repertoire of the orator. In the text we have—an amalgam of manuscript copies and the suggestions of now centuries of academic editors—many of his examples of what might prompt laughter in a speech seem at best flat, at worst garbled or close to nonsense, hardly the witticisms that Quintilian cracked them up to be. In a notable study of these, Charles Murgia claimed to have restored some point to a series of key passages. Thanks to his clever reconstructions of Quintilian’s original Latin, several of the jokes, puns, and wordplays have apparently been brought back to life. But the nagging question is: Whose joke is it? Has Murgia really taken us back to the Roman quip, or has he actually adjusted the Latin to produce a satisfactorily modern joke?9

One snatch of repartee, quoted with approval by Quintilian, gives a good idea of the intricacy, technical complexity, and deep uncertainty of the whole process of getting and reconstructing these ancient gags. It is worth looking at in some detail. The passage in question is a courtroom exchange between an accuser and a defendant called Hispo, whose wisecrack we are supposed to admire. The text in the most recent printed edition of Quintilian goes like this: “When Hispo was being charged with pretty outrageous crimes, he said to his accuser, ‘Are you measuring me according to your own standards?’” Or in Latin: “Ut Hispo obicienti atrociora crimina accusatori, ‘me ex te metiris?’”10 This text is the product of much hard work by modern scholars “improving” what is preserved in the manuscripts. Atrociora (pretty outrageous) has replaced the next-to-meaninglessarbore (tree) of the manuscript versions. Metiris (“measure,” from the verb metiri) has been substituted for the word mentis (which looks as if it might come from the verb mentiri,with an n, meaning “to lie”—but it would be a hopelessly ungrammatical form). And me ex te (me according to your standards) has been incorporated to complete the sense.11 But even with these emendations, the exchange seems decidedly lame, hardly the kind of thing to raise much of a laugh.

Murgia intervened, partly by going back to the manuscript version and partly by going beyond it. On his reading, the prosecutor was conducting his case “in language marred by barbarisms” (obicienti barbare crimina accusatori, replacing arbore with barbarerather than atrociora). Hispo instantly defended himself, and cleverly raised a laugh, by responding, exactly as the manuscripts have it, with a glaring barbarism. “Mentis,” he said, or “You is lying,” as Murgia translates it—so trying to capture something of the jarring note sounded by the ungrammatical Latin (mentis being, as he interprets it, an intentionally awkward active form of a verb that ought have been used in the passive form, mentiris). It certainly seems to make a funnier point: Hispo replies to an accuser who is attacking him in bad and barbarous Latin with some very bad, barbarous, and ungrammatical Latin indeed.12

But is it what Quintilian wrote? It is hard entirely to banish the suspicion that Murgia may have cleverly emended the usual version of Quintilian’s text to make it funny for us. “Mentis,” or “You is lying,” does, to be sure, stick close to the manuscripts, right or wrong, but “in language marred by barbarisms” has little support beyond the fact that it contributes to a joke that sounds plausible enough to the modern ear.13 And maybe it is rather too plausible. Maybe Hispo’s joke really was feeble by our standards, even if it prompted Roman laughter for reasons we cannot now recapture. Or maybe, despite the spotlight Quintilian gives to it, it was feeble by the standards of most Romans too.

The truth is that one of the categories to which historians and theorists of laughter have paid the least attention is the “bad joke” (in Latin usually frigidus, a “cold joke”)—although, as Twain captured so nicely, in the day-to-day world of laughing and jesting, bad jokes are ubiquitous, can play an important part in defining what counts as good to laugh at, and may tell us as much about laughter’s history and culture as “good” ones.

Recently, in a wide-ranging study of the “funny words” in the Latin comedies of Plautus (the major predecessor of Terence, writing in the late third or early second century BCE), Michael Fontaine has been even more ambitious than Murgia.14 Fontaine’s project has been to rescue the puns throughout these plays, not only those that the plodding medieval monks overlooked but those that he claims had been lost in antiquity itself, almost as soon as the plays reached written form.15 He conjures up some exuberant—and indeed quite laughable—moments in Plautine comedy. To take one of the very simplest examples, in Plautus’ Rope, a character who has struggled to shore after a shipwreck declares that he “is freezing,” algeo. Fontaine here suggests a pun on the Latin word alga,or “seaweed,” as if the word meant “covered in seaweed,” and he goes on to imagine that part of the joke is that the character in question was dressed in a seaweed costume.16

Who knows? Like many of the other conjectures in the book, this is learned, ingenious, and even quite funny. But whether Fontaine is revealing (as one commentator has it) jokes that have “lain dormant . . . for centuries”17 or offering pleasing modern inventions that rescue the jokes for us is a moot point. In fact, this kind of approach should prompt us to think harder about the criteria available for figuring out exactly which lines in an ancient comedy were likely to have provoked ancient laughter. How much laughter we would have heard in the Roman comic theater, and at what particular moments in the script, is a trickier question than it might seem.


An even starker instance of the modern dilemmas in recapturing Roman laughter is found in ancient visual images. The first problem is to decide when ancient paintings or sculptures are attempting to represent laughter or smiles—or, more precisely, it is hard to decide what counts as an ancient visual representation of laughter or smiles. There is very little as straightforward as Terence’s instantly recognizable hahahae.18

To our eyes, obvious laughers seem to be few and far between in the surviving repertoire of Greco-Roman art, though why that should be is less clear. To focus just on sculpture, a recent survey of scholars in the field elicited disappointing answers to the question of why there is so little laughter captured in ancient marble or bronze: “The prime reason is one of genre. Greek sculpture is broadly religious,” ventured one; “Because laughter distorts the body” or “[It] has to do with the issue of decorum,” others suggested; “A limitation of the sculptor’s technique,” another rather desperately hazarded.19 Of course, as is well known, the facial expression of many early Greek statues (especially the so-called kouroi and korai of the seventh to early fifth centuries BCE) is regularly called the “archaic smile,” but it is far from certain that it represented a smile in our sense of the word—rather than, to take just a couple of modern suggestions, a sense of animation or of aristocratic contentment.20 And no less ambivalent are those apparently laughing Gorgons (are they really grimacing?), comic masks (are they intended to be grotesque rather than laughing?), and satyrs (who sport an uncontrolled animalistic rictus more than a laugh perhaps).21

These uncertainties are not, in fact, restricted to the art of the classical world. Surprising as it may now seem, it was only in the late nineteenth century that one of the best-known paintings of a laughing subject—Frans Hals’s seventeenth-century The Laughing Cavalier (see fig. 1)—was given that title or even referred to as an image of laughter. What prompted the new description (or why it stuck so firmly) is difficult to determine. But it is largely thanks to its now-familiar title that we treat this painting so unquestioningly as an image of a laugher rather than of a man with “a disdainful half-smile and provocative air”—or, for that matter, a man of uncertain expression with an upturned moustache.22

But if the identification of laughers in art is tricky, it is even trickier to identify the images that might have elicited laughter from a Roman viewer. In a major book, Looking at Laughter, John Clarke attempted to do just that. He assembled an extraordinary range of Roman art, from grotesques to caricatures, from parodies to the ancient equivalent of strip cartoons, and tried to use it to open up the world of popular, lusty, raucous, and sometimes rude Roman laughter. It is a hugely engaging study and, what is more, brings to our attention some intriguing—and largely forgotten—Roman images. But at the same time, it confronts us with another version of the problem I have just been pondering. How do we know that Romans, or some Romans, laughed at these images? To put it another way, who is laughing here? Is it the Romans? Or us? Or is it us trying to imagine—even impersonate—the Romans?23

Take one of Clarke’s prime examples: not in this case a forgotten image, but the famous mosaic on the floor of the entrance hall of the so-called House of the Tragic Poet, showing a ferocious dog greeting the visitor and underneath the words CAVE CANEM—“Beware of the Dog” (see fig. 2). It is one of a group of three such entranceway mosaics in Pompeii apparently depicting the domestic guard dog for the visitor to walk over (which now decorate thousands of modern tourist souvenirs, from postcards to fridge magnets). For Clarke, they all would have prompted ancient laughter, because of the double take between illusion and reality, but the example in the House of the Tragic Poet would have elicited more chuckles than the others precisely because of the associated writing. That CAVE CANEM served to draw attention to the fact that the dog in question was only an illusion, to “unmask the humor of the artifice”—and so to prompt laughter.24

I share Clarke’s view of the importance of illusion and imitation in producing Roman laughter. Less convincing is his attempt to explain the social function of the laughter that might have erupted at the entranceway to these houses—where he reaches too easily for that over-used termapotropaic. Entrances, he suggests, were dangerous liminal spaces in the Roman imagination; a peal of laughter in the hallway was good defense against the evil eye.25 But—apotropaic or not—none of this cut much ice with his fellow art historian Roger Ling. In an otherwise warm review of Clarke’s book, Ling insisted that the mosaic was not funny at all but meant in deadly earnest. It was intended to alert visitors—with both the words and the picture—to “the creature that awaited unwelcome intruders.” That is to say, “it was no joke!”26

There is no sure way that we can decide between these alternatives—between what might be, on Clarke’s part (or my own), overenthusiasm for the unearthing of laughter where it might never have occurred and down-to-earth common sense, bordering on a failure of imagination, on the part of Ling. Yet this opposition reminds us of another side to the discursive complexity of laughter, at once baffling and intriguing. Notwithstanding all those grand theories of laughter, there is nothing that, intrinsically, causes human beings to crack up; there is nothing that systematically and unfailingly guarantees laughter as a response, even within the norms and conventions of an individual culture. Incongruity, as one theory would have it, may often prompt laughter, but not all examples of incongruity do so, and not for everyone. A joke that raises chortles at a wedding will almost certainly not do so at a funeral—or as Plutarch noted (see pp. 27–28), what makes you laugh in the company of friends will not do so when you are with your father or your wife.

Over and above any psychological or evolutionary determinants, what makes words, gestures, or events seem laugh-able is that, for whatever reason, the culture in question has defined them as such (or at least as potentially such), has encouraged its members to laugh at them in certain contexts, and, by processes that I suspect are now entirely irrecoverable, has made that laughter appear “natural.” So whether CAVE CANEM provoked laughter among Roman visitors to the House of the Tragic Poet depends on how far they had learned to see, in Clarke’s terms, the unmasking of visual artifice as laugh-able or how far they saw the image, as Ling would have it, as an information notice about a dangerous dog—or how far both readings were possible, according to different circumstances, moods, or viewers.

It is for these reasons, despite all the possible perils of studying “written laughter,” that this book concentrates on those cases, more numerous than you might expect, where Roman literature makes laughter explicit—where its eruption is signaled, discussed, or debated—rather than focusing on images or texts that may (or may not) have been intended to raise a laugh. So there is less in what follows on the laughter that might have been prompted by paintings or sculpture or that might have been heard in the comic theater; there is much more on the stories that Romans told about particular occasions of laughter, of all sorts, and on their discussions of its functions, effects, and consequences.


In framing his manifesto for a history of laughter, Keith Thomas had much more in mind than the question of how to spot the joke in any particular period of the past. He was interested in tracking historical changes in the principles and practice of laughter and in thinking about how they might be explained. As he put it, in broaching this subject, he aimed “to gain some insight into changing human sensibilities.”27

So in his survey of Tudor and Stuart laughter, he pointed to a general shift over that period from the outspoken, popular, coarse, often scatological forms of laughter (including all the carnivalesque forms of inversion—“the ‘holiday humour’ which accompanied those occasions of licensed burlesque and disorder which were an annual feature of most Tudor institutions”) toward an atmosphere that was much more controlled and “policed.” The “rites of misrule” were gradually eliminated, he observed, and there was a narrowing of the subjects seen fit for ridicule: much less jesting about bodily deformity, a growing aversion to crude scatology, and a marked tempering of open ribaldry at the expense of clerics and the social hierarchy. We are not far, on Thomas’s model, from the world of antigelastic decorum notoriously summed up in Lord Chesterfield’s advice to his son in the mid-eighteenth century, much quoted in the history of laughter (and its absences): “Frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and ill manners. . . . In my mind there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter.”28

What caused the change? Thomas suggested a variety of factors. He noted, for example, a more general emphasis in this period on bodily control as a marker of a social hierarchy—of which laughter, and its associated bodily disruptions, was just one aspect.29He stressed the growing cultural importance of the middle class, for whom the old inversionary rituals of laughter (assuming as they did a binary division of English society into high and low) no longer seemed so pointed or so relevant: “Lords and servants could exchange places, but for the middle classes, who had no polar opposite, role-reversal was impossible.” He also reflected on the increasingly “precarious” position of some key institutions over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which acted to discourage, rather than to encourage, laughter. “Once the underlying security of medieval religion had gone, laughter had to be kept out of the churches. Once the social hierarchy was challenged, the laughter of carnival and festive inversion seemed a threat rather than a support. Once the aristocracy had been temporarily dethroned, during the Commonwealth, it seemed imperative to build a wall of decorum which would safeguard its position thereafter.”30

It is perhaps surprising that in the course of this, Thomas did not mention the name of Mikhail Bakhtin, a Soviet theorist and the author of Rabelais and His World—an extraordinarily influential study of François Rabelais’s controversial classic of the mid-sixteenth century, his multivolume satiric novel Gargantua and Pantagruel.31 For Thomas’s characterization of feasts of misrule and other forms of inversionary carnivalesque celebrations has much in common with Bakhtin’s account of laughter in Rabelais and His World—which has inspired, or under-pinned, many recent attempts to explore historical developments in (to translate Bakhtin literally) European “laughter culture.” In fact, after Aristotle and the three theories, Bakhtin represents the most recent shadow to hang heavily over modern discussions of laughter and its history. But unlike the theorists I considered in chapter 2, he was concerned not with the causes of laughter but with universal patterns of how laughter operates (between high and low) and, in particular, with its social and political operations within medieval and Renaissance culture—and (like Thomas) with the story of how those operations changed.

The book originated in Bakhtin’s doctoral dissertation. Written in the 1930s and defended amid controversy in the late 1940s (several of the examiners wished to fail it32), it was first published in Russian in 1965 and in English in 1968. Although—or perhaps because—Bakhtin had been consistently marginalized by the Soviet authorities, Rabelais quickly became influential among historians and critics in the West.33 In truth, the book is complicated and in places—unless the English translation, on which most Western readers have relied, is very misleading—allusive, epigrammatic, and arguably self-contradictory.34 It is also wide-ranging, making theoretical contributions to a number of very different fields. But historians have nevertheless extracted from it a powerful view of the development in the uses of laughter in the West, which forms the essential background to Bakhtin’s exploration of Rabelais’s extravagant satire and its later reception. In very broad terms, it runs along the following lines.

Bakhtin identified a clear distinction in the High Middle Ages between the popular culture of carnival—with its stress on the unbridled, all-embracing, life-giving force of laughter, often mediated through “the lower bodily stratum” (or “bums, farts and other transgressions,” as Vic Gatrell glossed it35)—and the decidedly nonlaughing, agelastic culture of the state and the church. These two spheres were brought together in Rabelais and other sixteenth-century writers when, for a brief period, high literary culture embraced vernacular, popular humor—“laughter in its most radical, universal and at the same time gay form emerged from the depths of folk culture” to take its place in the “sphere of great literature and high ideology.” From the seventeenth century on, however, the “people’s festive laughter” was diluted. Partly under the influence of early modern absolute monarchy, the true culture of carnival disintegrated, to be replaced by mere mockery, “erotic frivolity,” and an attenuated, ironic, bourgeois version of the earlier lusty festivities. It became, in other words, light entertainment, not liberation.36

These ideas have been inspirational, exercising a powerful influence on many leading critics and historians. “Bakhtin’s concepts of ‘carnivalization’ . . . ‘grotesque realism’ and the like are so frequently employed that it is difficult to remember how we managed without them.”37 Yet at the same time—in whole or in detail—they raise a series of well-known, and much-discussed, problems. His characterization of the honest, earthy, incorporating laughter of carnival has certainly appealed to the nostalgia and the dreams of many decidedly unearthy, deskbound scholars, but in its simplest form it hardly stands up to historical scrutiny. Indeed, establishment apparatchiks though they may have been, several of Bakhtin’s doctoral examiners were rightly skeptical of his hard-line views on the popular character of medieval laughter (“I am afraid that when we evaluate the popular or non-popular nature of a movement only from the perspective of laughter, then we will diminish any notion of popular character,” as one, not unreasonably, put it38).

Many later critics have had equally severe reservations about Bakhtin’s notion that carnivalesque laughter was a wholly positive and liberating force. For, of course, carnival could be a site of conflict, fear, contestation, and violence too. Or alternatively, the temporary, licensed transgression that carnival allowed could be seen as a defense of the orthodox social and political hierarchy rather than a challenge to it (the price that the people paid for a few days of inversionary fun was knowing their place for the remaining 360-something days of the year).39 There is also the question of whether the culture of church and state was quite as agelastic as Bakhtin claimed (courtiers and clerics laughed too) or whether the laughter associated with the lower bodily stratum was in general restricted to the common people. Whatever their expressions of disapproval, the elite too have often found (and still find) that farts and phalluses can prompt laughter. In the eighteenth century, for example, as Gatrell has insisted, saucy comic prints were often “unmitigatedly ‘low’ by polite standards” but nonetheless aimed at an elite audience (“Indicators of low manners in high places multiply as this book progresses,” he sharply observes).40

There are, however, two other problems with Bakhtin’s approach that are particularly relevant to my project.


The first problem is a specifically classical one: namely, Bakhtin’s reconstruction of the Roman festival of Saturnalia as an ancient ancestor of carnival, and so a key component in the “laughterhood” of ancient Rome. This rather flimsy idea is, for classicists, one of Bakhtin’s most misleading legacies and deserves more challenge than it usually receives. I need to explain why the fun, games, and laughter of the Saturnalia are not at center stage in this book.

The Roman religious festival of the god Saturn took place over a number of days in December.41 Involving both civic and domestic celebrations, it is one of the least understood but most confidently talked about of all Roman rituals—partly because of the easy assumption that it somehow represents the Roman origin of “our” Christmas (parties and presents in midwinter) and partly because it has been cast as a popular inversionary ritual, standing, conceptually at least, at the head of the whole Western tradition of carnival (a temporary topsy-turvy world, full of popular laughter and of the lower bodily stratum). This model of the festival was not entirely Bakhtin’s creation. You can find superficially similar approaches in James Frazer’s Golden Bough, as well as in Nietzsche42—and in any case, many modern specialists in ancient ritual may never have read Rabelais and His World. But the trickle-down effect has been strong, and the continuing popularity of this approach must largely be a consequence of the powerful impact (direct or indirect) of Bakhtin, who wrote of the “essence of carnival . . . most clearly expressed and experienced in the Roman Saturnalias [sic]” and of the inversionary “crowning and uncrowning of a clown” and the “tradition of freedom of laughter” during the festival—of which “faraway echoes” were still to be detected, he claimed, in later carnivalesque ceremonies.43

Indeed, classicists often present the festival itself, along with a range of associated “Saturnalian literature,” in even more strongly carnivalesque terms. It is commonly said, for example, that a whole series of hierarchical role reversals defined the Saturnalia: that slaves were waited on at dinner by their masters; that anyone (from slave to clown) could be chosen by lot to be the master of ceremonies, or “king,” of the festival; that the festal dress for the free population was the pilleus, which was the distinctive headdress of the ex-slave; and even that the slaves actually took charge of their households while the festivities lasted. What is more, the occasion is supposed to have featured the kind of “exuberant gorgings and even more excessive drinking bouts” that we associate with carnival, as well as the general license to gamble (strictly controlled for the rest of the year), to party, to speak your mind (no matter what your station in life)—and to laugh.44 Against this background have been set all kinds of well-known literary manifestations of the topsy-turvy Saturnalian spirit: from the satiric free speech of Seneca’s skit on the deification of the emperor Claudius, theApocolocyntosis (often imagined to have been written for the Saturnalia of 54 CE),45 to Horace’s clever characterization of his slave Davus (who is given a chance to expose his master’s vices in a poem explicitly set at the Saturnalia),46 not to mention the whole world of Roman comedy, where the (temporary) victories of the clever slave over the dim master, and the laughter they provoke, can seem reminiscent of the (temporarily) inversionary world of Saturnalian carnival.47

The trouble is that there is much less ancient evidence for this proto-carnival than is usually assumed. It is true that the Romans wrote up the Saturnalia in ludic terms: we certainly have evidence for its sense of play, its parade of freedom (which Horace’s Davus is imagined to exploit when he points up the failings of his master), and its suspension of normal social rules (togas off, gaming boards out).48 But some of the most distinctive features of the Bakhtinian carnival—the gross overconsumption, the emphasis on inversion, on the lower bodily stratum, and even the laughter—are much harder to document. The references we have to increased wine allowances or special food are neither restricted to the Saturnalia nor treated by Roman writers as particularly gross.49 And beyond the fantasy of the poor old emperor Claudius shitting himself in the Apocolocyntosis50(which may or may not be a strictly Saturnalian work), there is little hint of carnivalesque scatology: most Saturnalian wit comes across as rather refined, or at least verbal, and even the role of laughter is relatively subdued. In fact, the elite literary jesting that we witness in Macrobius’ late-antique literary celebration Saturnalia may not be as untypical (or as “late”) as is often imagined.51

More significant, though, the idea of role reversal, so characteristic of carnival, is a much flimsier construction than is usually allowed. There are, it is true, a couple of (late) references in ancient literature to slaves being served by their masters at the Saturnalian dinner.52 Even so, some of the apparently key passages disappear on closer examination: the notion, for example, that the slaves ruled the household at the Saturnalia is the result of some imaginative repunctuation of a sentence of the philosopher Seneca, while other passages have been no less imaginatively (mis)translated.53 And—whether the drawing of lots was rigged or not—the most famous “Saturnalian king” to have come down to us, indeed the only one we know by name, turns out to have been the emperor Nero.54

In fact, the emphasis in most ancient writing is not on reversal as such but on the social equality that apparently ruled during the festival. As Bakhtin himself acknowledged, ancient accounts stress that the Saturnalia represented not so much an overturning of social distinctions but rather a return to a primitive world in which such distinctions did not yet exist. In line with this, we find repeated emphasis on the fact that masters and slaves sat down together at dinner and that anyone was allowed to speak freely to anyone else across social boundaries. It is significant too that in their pillei,free Romans wore the costume not of slaves but of ex-slaves—a mediating category, which leveled rather than reversed social distinctions.55

Of course, the real-life Saturnalia must have come in many very different forms, and the views of the slaves and the poor (which we don’t have) were unlikely to have been the same as those of the rich (which we do). But it is hard to resist the conclusion that in casting the festival in the mold of an inversionary carnival, Bakhtin and others have misrepresented, or highly selectively presented, what was for the most part a rather prim—or at least paternalistic56—occasion as a raucous festival of belly laughs and the lower bodily stratum. For this reason, though laughter may have been one element at a good Saturnalia, I shall not put much emphasis on the festival.


The second problem with Bakhtin’s approach—also raised by Thomas’s essay—is far broader. It is the question of the very nature and status of a historical account of laughter. What kind of history are we telling when we try to tell “the history of laughter”? What is it a history of?

However we choose to contest many of the details of Bakhtin’s account, from his interpretation of an ancient festival to his reading of Rabelais, there is one underlying principle that guides his work and that he shares with—or has bequeathed to—Thomas and many other scholars: namely, the idea that it is possible, not merely that “it would be interesting,” in Herzen’s famous phrase, to write a diachronic history of laughter as a social phenomenon. There is, of course, a compelling logic here. If laughter—its practice, customs, and objects—is found in different forms, according to context, place, or period, then it follows that laughter must necessarily be capable of change. If it can change, then surely we should be able to write a developmental history that delineates and even attempts to account for the transformation.

True. But the process is much trickier, in both theory and practice, than any such simple logic makes it seem. For the attempt to write a diachronic history raises once more, and in yet more acute form, all those questions about the relationship between laughter and the cultural discourse of laughter that I have already touched on (see pp. 7–8, 24, 45–46). To put this at its simplest, what is it that changes over time? Is it the practice of laughter as it was seen and heard? Or the rules, protocols, and discursive conventions that surrounded it? Or is it partly both? In which case, how can we now distinguish between those two aspects?

We certainly cannot assume that laughter was more restrained in a period when the rules governing its occurrence were more insistent. It is perfectly conceivable that raucous chuckles might ring out pretty much as before (though perhaps in tactically changed locations) in the face of new prohibitions. One critic has recently—and aptly—described the British eighteenth century as “an impolite world that talked much about politeness.”57 And it may well have been that the behavior of the unfortunate Chesterfield son remained more or less unaffected by the strictures against “audible laughter” laid down by his obsessive father—whose advice was regarded in some quarters as maverick as soon as it was published (and certainly not as the orthodoxy that it is often presented as today).58

Likewise, Thomas in his lecture repeatedly pointed to areas of continuity even where he wished to show drastic change: the feasts of misrule, with their raucous burlesques, gradually faded over the seventeenth century (except, as he concedes, “annual occasions of burlesque and misrule lingered in many small communities until the nineteenth century”); rough forms of ridicule were tempered (albeit “among the common people these new attitudes were slower to take root. . . . Rough music and charivari continued in the villages”); jokes in general became more delicate by 1700 (though “middle-class delicacy took time to triumph. . . . Jest-books were really not cleaned up until the early nineteenth century”).59

But that is only one side of the story. For we must also assume that over time, new rules and protocols could have a major impact on where and when and at what laughter erupted. Or alternatively, we might infer that some of those new protocols were developed precisely to reflect “changing sensibilities” in the practice of laughter. After all, we don’t now laugh at cuckolds, one of Thomas’s key examples of Tudor ribaldry (or do we?).

These problems are tricky enough, but they are only the start of the intriguing methodological and heuristic dilemmas entailed in laughter’s history. We might want to argue, for example, that his father’s rules necessarily made Chesterfield Junior’s laughter different, even if it continued in outwardly the same way (laughing in the face of prohibition is never the same as laughing with approval). We might also want to suggest that the attempt to separate laughter practice from laughter discourse is unhelpful or even actively misleading: “laughter” as an object of study is an inextricable combination of bodily disruption and discursive interrogation, explanation, and protocol. Or is that combination merely a useful alibi for our inability to “hear,” as Thomas would have it, the laughter of past times and its changing registers?

The closest comparison that I know—and one that helps us appreciate the perils and rewards of the history of laughter—is the history of sex and sexuality. We can track important changes in the discursive practices surrounding sex and in the regimes of policing and control that claimed to govern sexual conduct in the past. But it remains much less clear how these related to changes in what people actually did in bed and with whom, or the pleasure they derived: restrictive talk does not necessarily correlate with restrictive behavior, though it may do. It is also well known, of course, that the history we choose to tell of the sexual conduct of our predecessors is almost always deeply loaded and ideological, often as much an implicit judgment of ourselves as a scrutiny of the past—whether a celebration of our own “tolerance” or a lament for our “prudishness.”

Much the same is true in histories of laughter, which show a repeating pattern almost no matter what period or what culture is concerned. On the one hand we find commentators and critics focusing on, and indeed ridiculing, the occasional extreme agelasts of the past or particularly agelastic moments. It is to this tendency that Lord Chesterfield owes his fame, likewise that cliché of Victorian humorlessness “We are not amused.”60 Agelasts indeed, as the Romans also found, can be very laughable. On the other hand, the overall developmental story is almost invariably similar to that told by Thomas and, with significantly different nuances, by Bakhtin—a version (as Thomas himself saw) of “the civilizing process.”

Diachronic histories of laughter regularly tell of the taming of the crude, the bawdy, the cruel and lusty. They may look back in nostalgia to a time when laughter was more honestly earthy (as Roger Chartier observed of contemporary discussions of medieval carnival, they always sited the truly carnivalesque some time in the past61). Or they may take pride in the growing refinement that has outlawed the crudity of earlier forms of laughter or spared some innocent victims of ridicule. So far as I have been able to discover, there is no culture in the world that claims to laugh more coarsely or more cruelly than its predecessors. Earthy is only ever a retrospective designation. The modern history of laughter, in other words, is always bound up with a judgment (whether good or ill) on social and cultural progress.62

Much the same was true in ancient Rome. Admittedly, there are no ancient narrative accounts of the history of Roman laughter. But the contrast between the controlled, sophisticated, or mild laughter of now and the earthy, fearless, or crude laughter of the past is a striking theme in Roman writing. The details differ from author to author, the precise argument (and moral) of some of the passages concerned is hard to follow, not to say deeply controversial, and the idea of a chronological development correlates in sometimes complicated and contradictory ways with ideas of foreign influence. But the basic message that ancient writers tried to convey is clear: if you go back far enough in Roman time, you find a culture of ribald, jocular laughter that has—for better or worse—been lost or is on the point of being so.

Cicero, for example, could write nostalgically in a letter of 46 BCE of his affection for “native witticisms,” now so overlaid by foreign traditions “that there is hardly a trace of old-style wit to be seen.” It is only in his friend Paetus (to whom the letter is flatteringly addressed) that he can now “spot any likeness of the ancient native jocularity [festivitas].”63 Both Livy and Horace refer back to the rough, caustic traditions of rustic Latin jesting and to the abusive, ribald—and frankly mysterious—“Fescennine verses,” or Fescennina licentia, much enjoyed, Horace claims, by “farmers of yore” (agricolae prisci).64 In fact, as Emily Gowers suggests, Horace’s famous “Journey to Brundisium” in Satires 1.5 can be read not simply as the travelogue of an uncomfortable trip south from Rome or a pointed commentary on the politics of the 30s BCE but as a journey into the history of Roman laughter and satire: the central episode takes us back to its deepest roots, staging a comic duel between a pair of scurrilous, grotesque, jesting clowns, Sarmentus and Messius Cicirrus. Horace’s own style of laughter is much more up-to-date and refined than that: the poet, as Ellen Oliensis rightly insists, “takes care to locate himself very definitely in the audience, far above the satiric boxing ring.”65

The idea of a native Italic tradition of jocularity—“la causticité des vieux Latins”66—has been appealing to modern scholars. It has been seen as a powerful factor in the development of the distinctive tradition of Latin satire, and the lingering traces of the “Fescennine” spirit have been sought out in all kinds of places where they sometimes do, and sometimes do not, belong.67 But whether this Roman reconstruction accurately reflects the historical reality of the shifts and developments of Roman laughter (whatever exactly we mean by the term) is as hard to disentangle as any narrative of any history of laughter anywhere or at any time. In part it presumably does; in part it cannot. But which parts?

In exploring the case studies that are the focus of the second half of this book, I shall be alert to signs of historical change and shall keep an eye out for the perspective of ancient authors themselves on the history of Roman laughter. But for what are now—I trust—obvious reasons, I shall not set out to tell a diachronic story of how laughter changed at Rome over the centuries. I have no doubt that there were all kinds of differences in the “laughterhood” of Rome between the campfire world of the small, early settlement by the Tiber in (say) the seventh century BCE and the multicultural metropolis of Augustan Rome in the first century. And again, I am sure that the culture of laughter in the “pagan” empire was different, in crucial respects, from that of its Christian successor. I am, however, far from sure how confidently we can describe (still less account for) those changes or whether we have sufficient evidence, particularly for the earlier period, to make a useful attempt. My focus in what follows is broadly, and intentionally, synchronic, concentrating for the most part on the Roman world from the second century BCE to the second century CE.68

But first we need to ask what exactly the culture of Roman laughter might mean, what its basic coordinates are, and how far it can be distinguished from Greek laughter.

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