Libraries are full of unique and missing oddities from long lost letters to famous forgeries. A newly discovered record of live comedy performance in medieval England is yet another example of how deep the roots of British theater run. In a study published May 30 in The Review of English Studies, researchers describe a 15th century manuscript with slapstick, lively text mocking everyone from kings and priests down to lower classes. If that’s not enough, the naughty narrative encourages drunkenness and features a killer rabbit.

[Related: Codebreakers have finally deciphered the lost letters of Mary, Queen of Scots.]

These new texts also contain the earliest recorded use of a ‘red herring’ in the English language, which is a misleading statement, question, or argument that is meant to redirect the conversation or text conversation away from its original subject. Additionally, it fills in some knowledge gaps regarding comic culture in England between Geoffrey Chaucer and the Renaissance’s William Shakespeare.

A page of the Heege Manuscript. The 'Red herring' appears 3 and 4 lines from the bottom of the page
A page of the Heege Manuscript. The red herring appears 3 and 4 lines from the bottom of the page. CREDIT: National Library of Scotland.

In the Middle Ages, minstrels often traveled from taverns and fairs to entertain people. Fictional minstrels such as Robin Hood’s Allan-a-Dale, are common in literature, but historical references to actual performers are more rare. When the minstrel was performing these newly found works, the Wars of the Roses were still raging. Life was very difficult for the majority of English people. However, study author James Wade, an early English literature specialist from Cambridge University, says this text shows that fun entertainment was still flourishing as social mobility increased.

Wade found the text when researching in the National Library of Scotland. Wade saw that a scribe had written: “By me, Richard Heege, because I was at that feast and did not have a drink.”

“It was an intriguing display of humor and it’s rare for medieval scribes to share that much of their character,” Wade said. This little joke encouraged him to look into why, how, and where Heege had copied these texts.

This new study focuses on the first of nine booklets that make up the larger Heege Manuscript. The booklet contains three texts that Wade concludes were copied down in 1480 from a memory-aid written by an unknown minstrel that likely performed them near the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border in central England. The three texts are a mock sermon written in prose, a tail-rhyme burlesque romance titled “The Hunting of the Hare,” and an alliterative nonsense verse called “The Battle of Brackonwet.” 

“Most medieval poetry, song and storytelling has been lost,” Wade said in a statement. “Manuscripts often preserve relics of high art. This is something else. It’s mad and offensive, but just as valuable. Stand-up comedy has always involved taking risks and these texts are risky! They poke fun at everyone, high and low.”

[Related: Medieval knights rode tiny horses into battle.]

All three texts are comedic and designed for live performance, since the narrator tells the audience to pay attention and even to pass him a drink. The texts also feature regional humor and inside jokes for a local audience.

Wade believes that this minstrel wrote part of his act down since the many nonsensical sequences would have been very difficult to recall solely by memory. 

Part of "The Hunting of the Hare" poem in the Heege Manuscript featuring the killer rabbit. The first lines read: "Jack Wade was never so sad / As when the hare trod on his head / In case she would have ripped out his throat."
Part of “The Hunting of the Hare” poem in the Heege Manuscript featuring the killer rabbit. The first lines read: “Jack Wade was never so sad / As when the hare trod on his head / In case she would have ripped out his throat.” CREDIT: National Library of Scotland.

“He didn’t give himself the kind of repetition or story trajectory which would have made things simpler to remember,” he said “Here we have a self-made entertainer with very little education creating really original, ironic material. To get an insight into someone like that from this period is incredibly rare and exciting.”

Like many present day comedians and actors, medieval minstrels are believed to have had day jobs as peddlers and plowmen, but performed their theatrical gigs at night. Some also may have even gone on tour by traveling the county, while others stuck to local venues. Wade believes the minstrel in these new texts was more of a local performer. 

“You can find echoes of this minstrel’s humor in shows like Mock the Week, situational comedies and slapstick,” said Wade.“The self-irony and making audiences the butt of the joke are still very characteristic of British stand-up comedy.