Soundings of Laughter in Early Modern England: Women, Men, and Everyday Uses of Humor
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Soundings of Laughter in Early Modern England:
Women, Men, and Everyday Uses of Humor

It is difficult to recapture the laughter of the past. Scholars have long recognized that laughter has a history, and that we are missing something when we cannot get the joke. From the carnival laughter studied by Mikhail Bakhtin to the ritualized mockery of Robert Darnton’s cat massacre, laughter has revealed its connection with relations of power.1 Knowing who laughs — why, with whom, and at whom — can give us a revealing window into social dynamics. As with so many aspects of everyday social interactions, however, laughter usually escaped recording. Comic literature gives a sense of what people thought was funny; but laughter in “real life” can be elusive.

Literary laughter is especially rife in the realm of relations between the sexes. Much of the misogyny of medieval and early modern European culture was expressed in the form of humor — often leaving historians in some doubt about how seriously to take it. Even the notorious Hammer of Witches, the witch-hunting handbook so deadly to many in the trials that followed it, used jokes to illustrate the witchiness of women.2 Violent taming of shrews was a comic staple. Authors of misogynistic screeds had an easy excuse in the claim that [End Page 22] they meant only “to jest with the feminye.”3 On the other hand, the domineering wives of English popular literature were said to laugh their husbands to scorn for inadequate sexual performance. Rules of decorum attempted to set limits to laughter, particularly the laughter of women, with its suspiciously sexual aura. Even Shakespeare’s famous affirmation that “wives may be merry, and yet honest too” hints at doubt about this combination.4 Humor could be subversive, symbolically dethroning the powerful. But it could also serve the purposes of patriarchal hierarchy.

This essay approaches everyday laughter and gender in early modern England from two contrasting directions. It is not possible, of course, to do a comprehensive survey here. The aim, rather, is to explore uses of laughter that suggest its multivalent role in gendered social dynamics. So, to the contrasts: on the one hand, some records preserve traces of troublesome laughter, the type that should have been suppressed, at least in the view of record-keeping authorities, as well as the injured parties who brought suit. Defamation cases can reveal such policing of certain kinds of humor. On the other hand, personal writings such as diaries, correspondence, and memoirs offer voluntary self-reporting of private humor. These give more space to positive uses of laughter — in building solidarity and negotiating social place. Both sets of uses, of course, are embedded in interpersonal relationships and charged with dynamics of power. While the laughers in transgressive jests might be hauled into court, the writers of “ego-documents” might safely revel in their own wit. In some ways, individuals in both can be seen as claiming a space of free play in which laughter allowed the jester to reframe meanings; yet also, in both types of sources, laughter could appear as a fearful weapon one must defend against — by filing suit, by avoiding behavior that would elicit it, or by countering it with even better wit.

Keith Thomas first proposed the study of laughter as a significant historical phenomenon for early modern English history in 1977. Thomas sketched out cultural changes in laughter that were closely linked with class relations, politics, and religion. In large part, later studies have confirmed the picture he drew. Building on the work of Norbert Elias on the “civilizing process,” he traced a [End Page 23] growing attempt among elites to curb audible or uncontrolled laughter, which was increasingly perceived as a vulgarity of the mob. 5 In a Europe-wide development that Peter Burke has called the “triumph of Lent,” religious moralists and government authorities sought to crack down on rowdy jocular customs from maypole dancing to Christmas revels.6 Ronald Hutton has documented the resultant fading of old “merry England” across the early modern centuries.7 The campaigns to curb disorder were not only about civilized manners, but also about political control, as formerly tolerated...