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World's earliest recorded stand-up comedy sketch discovered in 15th-century manuscript

A collection of aged papers has been identified as potentially the world's oldest recorded stand-up comedy sketch.

World's earliest recorded stand-up comedy sketch discovered in 15th-century manuscript
Cover Image Source: National Library of Scotland

Though seemingly unremarkable at first glance, these aged sheets of paper hold a significant historical value. Scholars have identified them as potentially the world's earliest recorded stand-up comedy sketch, reports Good News Network. The papers are from the year 1480 when a man named Richard Heege, a household cleric and tutor went to a feast where a minstrel was performing a three-part act. Heege recorded parts of the act as much as he could remember. He opened it by writing, “By me, Richard Heege because I was at that feast and did not have a drink.”

Image Source: National Library of Scotland
Image Source: National Library of Scotland

This performance serves as a symbolic representation of the trajectory the story takes from that point onward. It captures the essence of the High Middle Ages, characterized by artistic freedom, social mobility, vibrant nightlife, and a lively sense of humor. Such elements resonate with present-day British society, making it a delightful experience that would still be cherished today.

The booklet is said to contain three texts obtained from the jester's material: a Hunting of the Hare story, which includes a killer rabbit, a mock sermon in prose in which three kings eat so much that 24 bulls explode out of their stomachs and start sword fighting and alliterative nonsense verse called, "The Battle of Brackonwet."



 

The text was reportedly found in the National Library of Scotland by Dr. James Wade, the University of Cambridge’s English Faculty. He recently wrote a paper on why it is rare and doesn't only give a glimpse into England's medieval middle class but also highlights the skill and appreciation for minstrels.

Wade said, "It was an intriguing display of humor and it’s rare for medieval scribes to share that much of their character." The study was published in "The Review of English Studies," according to the University of Cambridge. He explained why this is a crucial piece of work, “Manuscripts often preserve relics of high art. This is something else. It’s mad and offensive, but just as valuable.”



 

According to Wade, the minstrel wrote part of his act because of its many nonsense sequences, which would be extremely difficult to remember. “He didn’t give himself the kind of repetition or story trajectory which would have made things simpler to remember,” he added. Also, he connected it to the present-day comedy scene. “You can find echoes of this minstrel’s humor in shows like Mock the Week, situational comedies, and slapstick. The self-irony and making audiences the butt of the joke are still very characteristic of British stand-up comedy.”



 

Wade also gives a gist of what the three texts are about. "The Hunting of the Hare" is a poem that is filled with jokes and absurd high jinks. It has two fictional peasants called Dave of the Dale and Jack Wade, who could be from any medieval village.

Dr. Wade said, “Killer rabbit jokes have a long tradition in medieval literature. Chaucer did this a century earlier in the Canterbury Tales.” He added that the text is one of the few surviving examples of a mock sermon in Middle English. It comically addresses its audiences as "cursed creatures" and includes fragments of drinking songs.



 

"The Battle of Brakonwet" features Robin Hood and jousting bears, battling bumblebees, and partying pigs. The poem includes several villages close to the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border and so encourages audiences to imagine absurd incidents happening in their neighborhood, according to Wade. “Heege gives us the rarest glimpse of a medieval world rich in oral storytelling and popular entertainments,” he said.

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