- Behaving like Fools: Voice, Gesture, and Laughter in Texts, Manuscripts, and Early Books ed. by Lucy Perry and Alexander Schwarz
The first part of the title of this book, rather than the subtitle, is a clearer guide to its contents, for it comprises a collection of essays that take as their subject the medieval and early modern fool. Editors Lucy Perry and [End Page 296] Alexander Schwarz both offer papers of their own, as well as their joint Introduction, and the other contributors are: Guillemette Bolens, Susanna Niiranen, Cordula Böcking-Politis, Siegrid Schmidt, Peter Glasner, Françoise Le Saux, Rosamund Allen, Stefan Bießenecker, Tanja-Isabel Habicht, Patrizia Mazzadi, and Neil Thomas. (There are unfortunately no author biographies, often an interesting and useful inclusion in a multi-authored collection such as this). As the editors explain (p. xi), the idea for the volume arose from the 2006 International Medieval Congress at Leeds, themed 'Emotion and Gesture', and a glance at the programme for that conference reveals that several of the papers were presented in earlier form there. A couple of the contributions betray their conference-paper origins more readily than others, but on the whole the transition to book chapters (with the addition of further essays) has been successful.
The great strength of the book is its clear unifying theme. It is a fascinating exploration of fool figures of all shapes and sizes, natural and unnatural, fictional and historical, from c. 1200 to c. 1600, in a number of European countries and a range of literary texts. The particular functions of literary fools, and their adaptation over time and place, can thus be easily, and rewardingly, compared. While, of necessity, there is some repetition of theories and definitions between essays, their foci are remarkably varied, to the great benefit of the volume.
Bolens's essay is one of the more theory-based, and she examines the fool in relation to language and its interpretation. 'The fool figure', she concludes, 'is crucial in that he incarnates and performs language's power to transgress its own intrinsic limitations' (p. 46). In a lively exploration of the life and portrayal of Peire Vidal, the renowned twelfth-century Occitan troubadour and 'the only one to be described as a "fool" or "madman"' in contemporary sources (p. 47), Niiranen compares the role of fool with that of troubadour, demonstrating how Peire's successful combination of the two into an 'extended role of medieval entertainer' (p. 64) helped ensure the survival of his work. Böcking-Politis analyses the significance of Constantinople as a location in Der Pfaffe Amis, explaining that the historical context (one lost in later remodellings of the work, which therefore omit mention of the Eastern capital) provides 'a more serious subtext' (p. 66) for the foolish and humorous aspects of the text (p. 79).
Schmidt aims to read word and image together in his analysis of Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools, and the twenty-four black-and-white illustrations of its charming woodcuts - many attributed to Albrecht Dürer - are a highlight. Schmidt offers his own analysis, but perhaps his most significant revelation is his reproduction of the table of contents from the first edition of Brant's [End Page 297] work, omitted in all later editions until 2005, in which 'the titles of the poems have nothing to do with the letter under which they come' (p. 106). The work's own deliberate mocking of structure rather makes fools out of all those who have struggled to perceive one.
Schwarz sets up a 'fools' contest' (p. 109) between Till Eulenspiegel, of Germanic tradition, and Nasreddin Hodja, of Middle Eastern. Although Schwarz throws plenty of theories into the ring, his quirky structure works best where he lets the texts speak for themselves: I thoroughly enjoyed his adaptations of various anecdotes about each character. Glasner also looks at Schwänke or collections of anecdotes, this time...