The governing elites of ancient and medieval Europe were not greatly hospitable to humor. From the earliest times, laughter seems to have been a class affair, with a firm distinction enforced between civilized amusement and vulgar cackling. Aristotle insists on the difference between the humor of well-bred and low-bred types in the Nicomachean Ethics. He assigns an exalted place to wit, ranking it alongside friendship and truthfulness as one of the three social virtues, but the style of wit in question demands refinement and education, as does the deployment of irony. Plato’s Republic sets its face sternly against holding citizens up to ridicule and is content to abandon comedy largely to slaves and aliens. Mockery can be socially disruptive, and abuse dangerously divisive. The cultivation of laughter among the Guardian class is sternly discouraged, along with images of laughing gods or heroes. St. Paul forbids jesting, or what he terms eutrapelia, in his Epistle to the Ephesians. It is likely, however, that Paul has scurrilous buffoonery in mind, rather than the vein of urbane wit of which Aristotle would have approved.
The Russian philosopher and critic Mikhail Bakhtin wrote that “laughter in the Middle Ages remained outside all official spheres of ideology and outside all official strict forms of social relations. Laughter was eliminated from religious cult, from feudal and state ceremonials, etiquette, and from all the genres of high speculation.” The oldest monastic rule we know of forbade joking, while the Rule of St. Benedict warns against the provocation of laughter, an impertinence for which St. Columbanus imposed the penalty of fasting. The medieval church’s dread of comedy leads to murder and mayhem in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose. Aquinas is typically more relaxed about the matter in his Summa Theologiae, recommending humor as a form of therapeutic play of words or deeds in which nothing is sought beyond the soul’s pleasure. It is necessary, he believes, for the solace of the spirit. Indeed, a reluctance to engage in humor counts in his eyes as a vice. For Christian theology, the pointless delight of a joke reflects the divine act of Creation, which as the original acte gratuit was performed simply for its own sake, driven by no necessity and with no functional end in mind. The world was fashioned just for the hell of it. It is more like a work of art than an industrial product.
The churlish suspicion of humor sprang from more than a fear of frivolity. More fundamentally, it reflected a terror of the prospect of a loss of control, not least on a collective scale. It is this that in Plato’s view can be the upshot of excessive laughter, a natural bodily function on a level with such equally distasteful discharges as vomiting and excreting. Cicero lays out elaborate rules for jesting and is wary of any spontaneous outburst of the stuff. The plebeian body is perpetually in danger of falling apart, in contrast to the disciplined, suavely groomed, efficiently regulated body of the hygienic patrician. There is also a dangerously democratic quality to laughter, since unlike playing the tuba or performing brain surgery, anybody can do it. One requires no specialized expertise, privileged bloodline, or scrupulously nurtured skill.
Comedy poses a threat to sovereign power not only because of its anarchic bent, but because it makes light of such momentous matters as suffering and death, hence diminishing the force of some of the judicial sanctions that governing classes tend to keep up their sleeve. It can foster a devil-may-care insouciance that loosens the grip of authority. Even Erasmus, author of the celebrated In Praise of Folly, also penned a treatise on the education of schoolchildren that warns of the perils of laughter. The work admonishes pupils to press their buttocks together when farting to avoid excessive noise, or to mask the unseemly sound with a well-timed cough.
The playwright William Congreve complains in “An Essay Concerning Humor in Comedy” of the sort of comic spectacles that force him to entertain demeaning thoughts about his own nature. He could never look very long upon a monkey, he reflects, without feeling deeply mortified. Parodies, mimicries, and aberrations remind one of the alarming fragility of one’s norms. In similar spirit, Joseph Addison claims in a piece in The Spectator that Laughter is the daughter of Folly, who married Frenzy, the son of Nonsense, whose mother was Falsehood. The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hartley rejects out of hand “low similarities, allusions, contrasts, and coincidences, applied to grave and serious subjects, that occasion the most profuse laughter in persons of light minds; and weakens reverence for sacred things.” Too much wit and mirth, he holds, frustrate the search for truth by preventing our minds from perceiving the true nature of things. In similar vein, the Victorian novelist George Meredith looks to humor for “mental richness rather than noisy enormity” and is keen to distinguish refined laughter from the kind of “brutish” comedy that “roll[s] in shouting under the divine protection of the Son of the Wine Jar.” Much comedy is low, buffoonish stuff, whereas literature is an elevated affair; so is a comic literature a contradiction in terms? Is a theory of comedy equally oxymoronic? We can measure degrees of refinement, Meredith informs us, by the “ring of the laugh.” Fishwives cackle, while statesmen chuckle.
For all his prissiness, Meredith is one of the few theorists of humor before the twentieth century to venture into the realm of gender. A good deal of comedy, he maintains, revolves on the battle of the sexes, and plays a vital role in elevating women from “pretty idiots” to admirable wits. What he sees as the lack of comedy in the East springs in his view from the low status of women in that sector of the globe. Where women have no freedom, he insists, comedy is bound to be absent. There can be no genuine civilization without sexual equality, and “there will never be comedy where civilization is not possible.” In the absence of such civility, the comic spirit is “driven to the gutters of grossness to slake its thirst.” Where women are reduced to household drudges, the form of comedy tends to be primitive; where they are tolerably independent but uncultivated, the result is melodrama; but where sexual equality thrives, the art of comedy flourishes alongside it.