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When we look back on another age, we tend to skip to the highlights. That goes double for things like art, sports, literature, and music. But in our own time, we recognize that by divine fiat 90% of all cultural production will be trash ... and a smaller percentage of that trash may be all the more enjoyable for it. In other words, I'm talking about guilty pleasures. The kind of plebeian, oddball entertainment that gets you looked down on by your peers. It might be relaxing or titillating, but never edifying.

Did the high middle ages (approx 1066-1300) have anything like that?


Now I'd like to make two caveats.

First, I don't just mean pornography. This question is only a bit about the illicit. What I'm really after is the childish, the weird, the base, or the just plain stupid; the kind of thing we know medievals looked down upon, but still liked anyway. So the pornographic certainly isn't excluded from the question, but it's not really the main point.

Second, I'm not just asking about class differences in cultural consumption, unless those differences are seen in a very dim light by one party (edit: or rather, if it's generally considered in bad taste). So a peasant ballgame or tavern song doesn't count on its own unless the higher classes look down on it, even if some are also secretly into it, despite a strong informal taboo. (As in Prince Hal carousing with Falstaff and his riff-raff.)

So to sum up, sex and class are an important part of this, but not the determining factor.

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    The elite and the clergy spoke Latin; everybody else spoke the local vulgar tongue. How much more low-brow can you get than vulgar? In English, the old one syllable words like f@@@ and s@@@ and c@@@ are the vulgar equivalents of intercourse and excrement and vagina. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 12 '17 at 2:04
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    @PieterGeerkens: Nice point, but that's not really what I meant. To take a really extreme example, a Snakes on a Plane or a Fifty Shades of Gray isn't lowbrow because there's cussing, they're lowbrow because they have the right mix of the illicit, oddball, mindless, outsider, and dumb; while still managing to attract widespread attention and dismay. – Era Dec 12 '17 at 2:34
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    @Era Do fart jokes and sex comedy count, then? They're in poor taste compared to high art, but the upper class still enjoyed them, which would seem to fail your "unless those differences are seen in a very dim light by one party" criteria. – Semaphore Dec 12 '17 at 9:06
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    I read your question aloud and my professional historian girlfriend almost did a spit take, then started offering examples faster than I could transcribe. – Mark C. Wallace Dec 12 '17 at 9:21
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    My first thought was Punch and Judy – T.E.D. Dec 12 '17 at 18:04
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Lowbrow culture have always existed in human society, they're just not necessarily that well preserved in the historical record, or in modern popular consciousness. Jokes about sex, farts, penises, and bodily functions in general were particularly common.

A mainstay of medieval entertainment was fart jokes, which seem to be popular throughout human history. One was even recorded on a Sumerian tablet and may claim to be the oldest recorded joke. In 12th century England, a man by the name of Roland the Farter famously held a serjeanty in Suffolk, in exchange for performing, "every year on the birthday of our Lord before his master the King, one jump, and a whistle, and a one fart."

That farting is normally considered offensive is self-evident - Emperor Claudius is even said to have passed an edict declaring farting permissible. Roland and his kind provided humour by acting as boorish fools, a target for mockery. Hence despite their apparent acceptance as entertainment even among the upper class, Medieval elites nonetheless looked down upon the act. For instance John of Salisbury angrily ranted that:

The error has so taken hold that they are not barred from he residences of illustrious men, those indeed who heap up unsightliness with their bodies' shameful members in front of everyone, so that even a cynic blushes to see it. Still more unbelievable, the buffoons are not thrown out even when the uproar of their bottoms befouls the air with repeated noise, more shameful emitting what is shamefully held in.

Allen, Valerie. On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages. Springer, 2010.


Jokes about sex or genitals were also extremely popular. One of the most famous example is The Miller's Tale by Chaucer. Essentially a sex comedy, it is replete with tales of a sordid affair and even anilingus. No doubt the clergy, with the ideals of chastity as espoused by the Christian church, was not supposed to approve of such lewd stories.

Moreover, see this scene where Nicholas grabbed Alison by her genitals:

As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte;
And prively he caughte hire by the queynte,

This double entendre is particularly notable because the word "cunt" was, by Chaucer's time, passing out of polite company. Evidently it was looked down upon by the upper class.


More generally, Chaucer helped re-established English as the language of government in England. After the Conquest, French had become the high class language of administration and court in the kingdom while English was relegated to a vulgar role. Even though much of the Anglo-Norman nobility went native within a generation, the linguistic distinction remained (and persists to this day - see poultry vs chicken, beef vs cow, venison vs deer, etc). So one could argue native English was a lowbrow culture looked down upon by the ruling elite, from 1066 until its definitive revival under Henry IV and Henry V.

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    Sadly, I believe the definitive treatise on the history of fart jokes has yet to be written. It would have a place of honor on my bookshelf. – T.E.D. Dec 12 '17 at 18:19
  • "Lowbrow culture have always existed in human society" - neither did, nor does. And the very idea that intelligence belong to class is disgustful. – Gangnus Dec 13 '17 at 8:42
  • @Gangnus Any source or evidence for your claims, then? And the very idea that "lowbrow culture" is defined by lack of intelligence is idiotic. – Semaphore Dec 13 '17 at 9:00
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    @Gangnus Your arrogance is as unwarranted as your derision for "low brow" culture. Had you bothered to actually read my answer, you would have realised that I gave examples of entertainment for royal consumption - hardly "lower classes". There's clearly no productive conversation to be had here. – Semaphore Dec 13 '17 at 10:02
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    @Gangnus low-brow culture for him IS the culture for low classes Except Era explicitly said "I'm not just asking about class differences" and "class [is] not the determining factor". You seem determined to feel offended by things you haven't bothered reading.. – Semaphore Dec 13 '17 at 12:26
8

It's hard to find something that is truly lowbrow from the Middle Ages. That's because recording things in writing was expensive and done by the clergy or people financed by the elite, who would presumably much rather spend their money on the high arts.

Despite that, I know of something that I think kind of meets your criteria and has been recorded: in the literary tradition of Galician-Portuguese troubadours, there is a genre known as cantigas de escárnio e maldizer (literally "songs of mockery and badmouthing", with some authors making a distinction between cantigas de escárnio and cantigas de maldizer). These existed alongside cantigas de louvor (religious), cantigas de amigo (romantic love from a woman's perspective) and cantigas de amor (romantic love from a man's perspective).

Here's a snippet of a cantiga de escárnio e maldizer by XIII century troubadour Joan Garcia de Guilhade, with my rough translation:

Ai dona fea! foste-vos queixar / que vos nunca louv'en meu trobar; / mais ora quero fazer un cantar / en que vos loarei toda via; / e vedes como vos quero loar: / dona fea, velha e sandia!

Oh, ugly lady, you complained / that I never praise you in my singing; / but now I want to write a song / in which I will constantly praise you; / and see how I want to praise you: / ugly old crazy lady!

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    +1. When I looked into acting and minstrel shows, all records seems to mysteriously start around the time the printing press became ubiquitous (mid 1500's, just before Shakespeare, if you want to consider that a coincidence). I suppose its possible the press caused the invention of lowbrow theater, but it seems far more likely it was just considered too trivial to devote valuable scribe time to copying works about. – T.E.D. Dec 12 '17 at 18:23
7

My professional historian girlfriend says,

Canterbury Tales – c.1395

Decameron – completed by 1353, Florence (though I’m fuzzy on the stories, it doesn’t have the reputation that say, the Wife Of Bath story in Canterbury Tales does)

Snowball fights, just google “medieval snowball fight” for images, largely late 14th and early 15th century

Farts and butts are not uncommon in marginalia, just as one will see cats, rabbit demons, and other things that might surprise a modern viewer (as with gargoyles, though I’m less clear when silly ones came about)

The madrigal with the chickens I mentioned last night is mid-1500s.

There is a trend here of things picking up in the mid-late 14th century, which is later than the 1300 that the OP described. Part of this has to do with the surviving material culture. But consider that Chaucer is known to have “borrowed” his tales, simply putting his stamp on the framework and stories common at the time – some known to have been told for generations. Nuns and priests as (often comically) raunchy individuals is an especially common theme, and perhaps inevitable any time you have a “chaste” class.

Might look into the European (particularly Italian and French, but also English) custom of charivari. Basically a public mob display of disapproval, not humorous per se, but sometimes using coarse humor to drive home claims of cuckoldry and such. There’s a variation that’s basically a wedding march, with the crowd “escorting” the couple home and ensuring they end up in bed with each other, then partying outside. I’m sure that wasn’t exactly a model of propriety.

Google search on “medieval pratfall” got me this intriguing bit, seems to be a whole chapter on physical comedy:

Subsequent discussion led us to consider comedia del arte - note " A special characteristic of commedia dell'arte are the lazzi. A lazzo is a joke or "something foolish" or "witty".[10][9]". Although comedia del arte is later than OP's period, note that:

Although commedia dell'arte flourished in Italy during the Mannerist period, there has been a long-standing tradition of trying to establish historical antecedents in antiquity. While we can detect formal similarities between the commedia dell'arte and earlier theatrical traditions, there is no way to establish certainty of origin.[15] Some date the origins to the period of the Roman Republic (Plautine types) or the Empire (Atellan Farces). The Atellan Farces of the Roman Empire featured crude "types" wearing masks with grossly exaggerated features and an improvised plot.[16]

We'd both be willing to be that there is an (undocumented) continuous tradition from Rome to the height of Comedia - which means that it would be present in OP's period, and providing lowbrow lazzo.

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  1. The question has sense for certain culture only. Islamic civilization or Chinese one were different. We are speaking only about Christian European culture, from Rus at the East to Ireland in the West and Islamic Cordoba/Granada excluded.

  2. The aristocracy was not better educated these days, save military education. Only clergy had better education and looked upon traditions of other population as sinful and primitive ones. Or, in the case of higher culture of somebody of Islamic culture, it was declared for bad, foreign, non-christian or blasphemous. But you are interested in aristocracy-peasantry difference, don't you?

  3. Different cultures on different social levels happen in places where two cultures met, but haven't mixed, due to the limited time or principal differences.

Such places were:

Southern France - mixed Islamic and Christian culture has already appeared as Albigense culture. It covered all layers of society.

England - there the cultures of Norman aristocracy and gentry and Saxon peasantry was different and many times described by well known writers. These cultures were not so much different, and Normans were from the same source, but they had got additional traditions in France, and automatically started to despise games of their ancestors as such of low level. It was just during the set time interval.

Eastern and Northern Europe - there the culture of higher classes was more Christian and lower classes - more pagan. And as a result, every difference was declared as pagan and prosecuted. (most often it really WAS pagan)

AFAIK, the other areas were rather monolithic in the sense of culture.

  • While that's an interesting point to ponder, and well thought out, I don't think it answers the question. – KorvinStarmast Dec 13 '17 at 1:42
  • @KorvinStarmast I have tried to explain the situation about the theme, as i see it. The question as such, on my opinion, has wrong premise about some special low-brow culture and thus is about nothing. Of course, there are artifacts that demand higher intelligence for understanding more information hidden in it. But intelligence does not belong to "patricians" or "plebs". And Shakespeare was looked and understood by wide public, not by aristocracy. – Gangnus Dec 13 '17 at 8:40
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    Ah, would you say that this was a challenge to the frame of the question? I am not sure how the lead in about other cultures is on topic, as the question did ask specifically about Europe (though I do appreciate your point). Just FWIW, I am pretty sure Shakespeare was indeed understood by the aristocracy, but I agree with your point on his wide appeal. On point 2, some support would be helpful. On point 3, not sure it adds value. On the summary below that, a little supporting / sourcing would help. (No DV from me) – KorvinStarmast Dec 13 '17 at 12:52

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