The things that medieval elites considered amusing can act as a window on their interpersonal relations: humour created a form of group solidarity and a clear distinction between friends and foes, thus revealing the power and value of entertainment, according to Beate Albrigtsen Pedersen at the Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History at the University of Oslo.
Pedersen seeks to explore what entertainment and comedy meant to Norwegian and Icelandic society and politics in the 13th century.
– Humour has always been a part of our lives, and we have always had the ability to laugh at things, but there has been little research into the role of humour in medieval Norse society and how the forms of humour changed over time.
The historian believes that knowledge about the jesting and spite favoured by the aristocracy can help us better understand the society and people of the 13th century.
– Humour is often regarded as a flippant research topic, but the ability to be amused and laugh is an important part of life and may thus provide us with an alternative perspective on the Middle Ages. Our relationship to the saga literature is steeped in national romanticism, and I believe that reading it as entertainment literature will bring out new aspects. The sagas were also intended to amuse people, she says.
And the aristocrats knew well how to have a good time, according to Pedersen.
– The elite used humour very deliberately – most often to ridicule others. Humour established a form of group affiliation and a clearer distinction between friends and foes.
Sarcastic comments and put-downs are elements of our contemporary humour as well, but the essential matter is how it was perceived. Self-irony is a key element in Pedersen’s analysis of medieval humour, or more precisely: the absence of self-irony. With no redeeming self-irony, this form of humour was often used to defeat political opponents, or to assert oneself and shame others.
– Modern humour is largely based on self-irony, permitting us to laugh at ourselves and others, without any repercussions.
Clearer norms of laughter
New courtly ideals were introduced in the late 13th century as the old society of rival chieftains was replaced by the ideal of the king as the sole ruler, chosen by God. Pedersen is studying what happened to humour during this transition and how the elite culture changed.
– As the 13th century draws to an end, we can see clearer norms for what were permitted as objects of ridicule. The courtly ideals forced the elite to behave with more decorum, resulting in less ribaldry. At the same time, we can see that self-irony is becoming more common as the 14th century approaches. Sarcastic comments by members of the elite no longer entailed the same grave consequences. They took the ridicule differently – by holding their heads high.
Written by and for a social elite
The humour researcher has reviewed a series of sagas, with sources ranging from the sagas of Icelanders and tales of kings and knights to ideological writings.
– I search for humorous features that recur in the sagas, such as ordinary jokes, insults, imagery and metaphors that evoke laughter in different scenes. If I come across similar situations, although laughter is not mentioned explicitly, I may assume that they were intended to be humorous as well.
Pedersen uses the term humour, although this concept did not exist in medieval times.
– My research refers to our concept of humour. Humour remains a difficult concept to define. I study the things that they found comical, both what was intentionally comical and what was perceived as such, by the numerous characters in the sagas as well as by potential listeners in the 13th century.
Admittedly, all sources are concentrated at the upper echelons of society.
– The sagas were written by and for an elite, so it’s difficult to draw any conclusions about the common people. Politics and everyday life went hand in hand for the aristocracy. It is essential to bear in mind that it is the sources’ portrayal of life – and how they wanted to describe the past and future – that emerges, Pedersen explains.
Kicking the little guy
In politics, humour was used to add fuel to rivalry and create conflicts – by laughing or remaining silent, the aristocrats took sides in the conflict.
– A prime example is in the story of the wedding at Reikholt in the early 12th century in Þorgils saga ok Hafliða, when a great feast was held, Pedersen says.
An elderly chieftain is suffering from indigestion. He has heartburn, is burping and feeling quite uncomfortable. The jokes would often be delivered in verse form, and another chieftain stands up and improvises a spiteful verse. A verbal battle ensues between several of the men, and the entire company is laughing at the smelly chieftain. The insolent comments keep coming, and the foul-smelling man finally picks up his things and leaves.
– Scenes like this are quite common; the humour is condescending, people are kicking the little guy, most often deliberately wanting to cause insult. We only very rarely see situations in which everybody is laughing together, in a friendly atmosphere. Most often, the joke is at somebody’s expense.
Black humour also had a natural place in medieval life.
– The typical form this takes is a final punchline before someone dies. A concrete example is provided by Njáls Saga, in which there is a description of a swordfight that ends when one of the fighters cuts off the other man’s leg. Kol, the man with the severed leg, looks in alarm at the stump, and his adversary remarks: ‘There’s no need to look, it’s just like it seems, the leg is off.’ We may regard such final quotes as a dry form of humour, and I believe they were meant to be so at the time of writing as well.
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This question has led Aberystwyth University researchers to drill day and night to great depths in a dried up lake in east Africa.
The Chew Bahir Drilling Project, in a remote part of south Ethiopia, will provide a sedimentary record of changes in rainfall, temperature and vegetation, spanning the last 500,000 years of human evolution.
Chew Bahir, is one of a chain of lake basins in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, close to the sites of the earliest known fossils of our species, modern human Homo sapiens.
Speaking of the importance of the project, Professor Henry Lamb, of Aberystwyth University’s Department of Geography and Earth Sciences, said: “Ideas about how climatic change may have influenced the emergence and dispersal of modern humans have remained largely speculative.
We are now going to be able to place the fossil and archaeological data against a detailed record of climatic variation. This will allow us to make more rigorous tests of these hypotheses.”
Coring was recently completed by an international team, reaching a final depth of 278m, in two adjacent drill holes.
Based on earlier pilot drilling, these cores should provide a sedimentary record of at least the last half million years. Work had to stop after the breakage and loss of 32 drilling rods, including the crucial drill bits.
Conditions on the mudflats of the ancient lake were arduous. The team of scientists and drillers, from Germany, Ethiopia, USA and the UK, had to contend with mosquitoes, trucks stuck in the mud, heat, rain and dust storms, together with all the logistical difficulties of operating in a remote and challenging environment.
The cores are now being logged at LacCore, the US National Lacustrine Core Facility at the University of Minnesota.
The team will reconvene in April to study the cores and distribute samples for specialist analysis and dating at labs in the UK and Germany.
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Cambridge conservation scientist Spike Bucklow uncovered the knock-down cost of the 1260 AD ‘Westminter Retable’ while researching his latest book ‘Riddle of the Image’, which delves into the materials used in medieval works of art.
Commissioned by Henry III during the construction of Westminster Abbey, the altarpiece’s use of fake gemstones is already well documented. However, what has not been known until now is just how little the king would have paid for the Retable, the oldest known panel painting in England.
Using centuries-old records of accounts from Westminster Abbey, Bucklow was able to determine prices for the amount of wood used, the area of glass needed, each pigment of paint, and the wages the carpenters and painters were paid. This information was combined with practice-based research into the Retable whilst it was being restored at the Hamilton Kerr Institute.
“This is bargain basement stuff, it was all dirt cheap,” he said. “While some of the other objects in Riddle of the Image would have been cost the same as a farm or country home, the Westminster Abbey altarpiece would have cost no more than eight cows or about £5 in 13th century money.
“Historians have often thought that a financially constrained Henry was cutting corners, but you don’t spend as much as he did on the rest of the Abbey and then cut corners on the most visual and most important area for the crowning of monarchs.”
Rather than penny-pinching to preserve pounds, crowns and shillings, Bucklow believes that Henry III deliberately chose cheap materials and fake gemstones to accentuate one of the key themes of the altarpiece – miraculous transformations.
“It is no coincidence that all three surviving painted scenes show Christ involved in a transformation. Transformation is key to the whole Retable. It was the backdrop for transformations in a very real sense. In front of it, once in a generation, someone was turned into a monarch, while much more often, bread and wine were transformed into the body and blood of Christ.
“To make a fake gem you take sand and ash and transform something ordinary into something beautiful. Henry is telling us that art is above gold. We know how engaged he was with artists of the day. I really believe that he was dedicating human ingenuity and skill to God. He’s making a statement.”
As well as determining the cost of the Westminster Retable, The Riddle of the Image is an attempt to look at medieval works of art through the eyes of those who commissioned and made them. Bucklow believes that our modern-day appreciation of cultural artefacts – such as mobile phones – is completely divorced from our understanding of the materials that go into their making.
In medieval times, however, there was a widespread knowledge of artists’ materials that contributed deeper meaning to objects such as the Metz Pontifical (c.1316) and the Macclesfield Psalter (c.1330), both beautiful illuminated manuscripts now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, as well as the Thornham Parva Retable, which was also restored at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, and the Wilton Diptych, Richard II’s iconic portable altarpiece.
Bucklow believes this is because many of the pigments and materials used in the pre-modern world for artistic purposes also had common, everyday uses such as cochineal and lapis lazuli being used in make-up and medicine. (Red dyes were used in heart tonics and the blue stone was used to ‘dispel melancholy’ and lower fevers.) As such, artists’ materials were readily available from apothecaries of the day.
By examining the science of the materials, as well as the techniques of medieval artists, Bucklow hopes to further the reader and art-world’s understanding and appreciation of the paintings, and medieval art in general.
Each chapter in the book is devoted to one of five objects and each builds on the cultural relevance of materials, exploring the connections between artists’ materials and their everyday life; showing how materials could be used philosophically and playfully.
For example, in one of the book’s featured artworks, two blues, one of which cost ten times as much as the other, were used side by side, even though they could not be told apart with the naked eye. In another manuscript, the strange choice of materials matched the bizarre contorted hybrid figures seen swarming across the page margins.
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The Subartu Cultural Association, in collaboration with the Tell Mozan / Urkesh Archaeological Project, has organized an exhibit showcasing the results of 30 years of excavations at the site.
Amouda lies in the Hassake province of NE Syria, perilously located between the conflict areas of Raqqa and Sinjar.
The exhibit will be shown in the ‘Newroz Center for Revival of Civil Society’ in Amouda, a community center which focuses on culture and education.
When war threatens the history and cultural identity of the populations under its control, people are fighting in every way they can. Some take up arms, while others strengthen and defend their cultural heritage.
Despite the danger around them, the Subartu Cultural Association has prepared an exhibit on the results of the past 30 years of excavation at Tell Mozan, ancient Urkesh, underlining the community’s commitment as custodians of the past.
Urkesh was a city-state of the Hurrians within the Mesopotamian cultural sphere; the Hurrians were a population which controlled portions of both the plains and mountainous hinterland in what is today portions of Syria, Iraq and Turkey. While the Hurrian population died out thousands of years ago, the modern inhabitants of the area are the proud custodians of this ancient past.
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