Comedic history found in sobering tale of medieval scribe’s private library
(CN) — If you take Richard Heege at his word, then the reason so few minstrel tales survived the ages is because everyone else was too drunk to remember them, much less write them down.
James Wade, an associate professor of English at Cambridge University, started to believe Richard’s account after realizing the stories written in his medieval manuscript were quite unlike anything else known from the time.
Richard Heege, from the Heage village in Derbyshire, England, worked as a tutor and household cleric for the Sherbrooke family during the 15th century. An amateur scribe, Heege copied out several books and built up his own personal library of medieval comedy. Most of the stories in Heege’s collection riff on other popular tales from the time, but one booklet is something completely different.
The first booklet of Heege’s Manuscript contains three distinctly low-brow tales from the crypt that Wade argues, in a paper published in the Review of English Studies on Tuesday, were likely copied from the repertoire of a medieval minstrel.
Centuries ago, traveling performers spread news and entertainment across Britain. Such wandering minstrels were immortalized in paintings with their wages carefully budgeted out in household ledgers, but their actual spoken works remain largely absent from the literary canon. Some historians believe oral storytellers even saw the written word as competition.
“What place is there for the storyteller when prosthetic technologies of the archive encroach on their terrain?” Wade muses in the journal article. “How can a jongleur keep the cup passing round when private houses could have their own minstrels with nothing more than a book and a single literate individual?”
The rise of the novel, made possible by the Guttenberg printing press, shifted the literary experience from one of communal entertainment “to the solitude of private reading.”
One set of minstrel stories may have survived, however, as inscribed by the suspiciously sober scribe Heege more than 500 years ago.
Wade made the discovery by taking Heege seriously when he signed the manuscript, “by me, Richard Heege, because I was at that feast and did not have a drink.”
The booklet’s three stories contain nods to an imaginary audience, vague settings easily adapted to various locales, and calls for a cup — which performers were amenable to being filled with either coins or alcohol.
It’s also telling what the book lacks. The first Heege booklet is distinct from early British literary legends Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve. Other tales of the era often built ethos by echoing Greco-Roman or continental European traditions, but not this one.
While Heege certainly wrote them out, Wade doesn't think he was the author.
“Richard Heege was a medieval priest and scribe,” Wade said in an email. “The majority of texts that survive in his handwriting are known to come from other authors, so it is more plausible to think of Heege as a collector of entertainments and folklore, rather than an author.”
He believes Richard either transcribed the stories from a travelling minstrel, or copied them from a minstrel’s coveted notes.
“The Hunting of the Hare” is the first of the strange tales, written with tail-rhymes in the style of a burlesque romance and recounts how a rabbit tore an entire village apart.
"Jack Wade was never so sad / As when the hare trod on his head / In case she would have ripped out his throat,” Heege wrote.
Reminiscent of later psychedelic British comedians, the rabbit’s bout of pointless violence concludes with the villagers’ wives carting off the dead in wheelbarrows.
After the bad bunny, Heege recorded a mock sermon warning against royal gluttony that contains the earliest recorded use of "red herring" to mean a diversion — a popular mystery device used centuries later by Heege's fellow Brits Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. The nonsense verse, “the Battle of Brackonwet,” is set in a village populated by anthropomorphic animals, like a dark draft of Disney’s animated Robin Hood.
The most challenging part of studying Heege’s records, Wade confessed, was deciphering his handwriting. The discipline of studying old manuscripts is called paleography.
“It is all the more difficult because each medieval scribe, like each modern writer, is unique, especially at the more amateurish level,” Wade explained.
If Heege indeed enjoyed retelling jokes he heard at the pub, his passion for sharing century-old cult classic comedy lives on as Wade continues his work reconstructing the punchlines to long-lost jokes.
“There are other scribes from the Middle Ages who were interested in folklore, comedy, and live entertainment,” Wade wrote in the email. “I think their stories are worth telling.”
The 15th century Heege Manuscript is archived at the National Library of Scotland.