19 January 2010

Humor: Ribaldry in the Middle Ages

By Lisa Yarde

Ribaldry, or risqué humor has always existed, but some of the best examples of it originated in medieval times. Can you guess what's being referred to in these medieval riddles? It's not what you’re thinking.

1. I'm told a certain something grows in its pouch, swells and stands up, lifts its covering. A proud bride grasped that boneless wonder; the daughter of a king covered that swollen thing with clothing.

2. A strange thing hangs by a man's thigh, hidden by a garment. It has a hole in its head. It is stiff and strong and its firm bearing reaps a reward. When the man hitches his clothing high above his knee, he wants the head of that hanging thing to poke the old hole (of fitting length) it has often filled before.

3. I am a wondrous creature, a joy to women, useful to neighbors; not any citizens do I injure, except my slayer. Very high is my foundation. I stand in a bed, hair underneath somewhere. Sometimes ventures a fully beautiful churl's daughter, licentious maid, that she grabs onto me, rushes me to the redness, ravages my head, fixes me in confinement. She soon feels my meeting, she who forced me in, the curly-haired woman. Wet is her eye.

4. The young man came over to the corner where he knew she stood. He stepped up. Eager and agile, lifted his tunic. With hard hands, thrust through her girdle. Something stiff, worked on the standing. One his will. Both swayed and shook. The young man hurried, was sometimes useful, served well, but always tired sooner than she, weary of the work. Under her girdle began to grow. A hero's reward for laying on dough.

These examples of ribaldry, or risqué humor, date from the tenth century Exeter Book, during the Anglo-Saxon period. Monks in the service of Bishop Leofric of Exeter copied them. In the Middle Ages, humorists often used sex as a metaphor, implying sexual situations where none existed, particularly in the form of riddles like the examples above. We often think medieval people had no sense of humor, in part because of the supremacy of the Church in their lives, but humor has always been a part of medieval traditions. The Church couldn't have frowned too much on it, particularly if monks were transcribing salacious riddles.

And, the answers to the riddles above:

• Bread dough
• A key
• An onion
• Churning

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