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15th century manuscript offers insight into medieval live comedy show

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's hear a snippet from a 15th-century comedy act.

JAMES WADE: If thou have a great black bowl in thy hand and it be full of good ale and thou leave anything therein, thou puttest thy soul into greater pain (ph).

INSKEEP: James Wade of Cambridge University is there reading a mock religious sermon to thee. In case thou wondered, that mock sermon was part of an actual performance in the 1400s by a traveling entertainer known as a minstrel.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We know this because someone in the audience took notes, and Wade, who studies medieval literature, found them in an old manuscript.

WADE: What really struck me was a signature line that said, by me, Richard Heege, because I was at that feast and did not have a drink, the joke being that he was at a feast the night before. Everyone else was drunk. He was the only one sober enough to remember it, and therefore, he could write it down.

INSKEEP: Wade recently published a study of the "Heege Manuscript" and says it's the closest thing we have to a minstrel's own notes. Now we know some of the topics that one of them used in a set.

WADE: There are three texts. One is what we now call a burlesque romance. So it's a narrative account of a bunch of peasants who try to hunt a hare, and it all ends disastrously, where they beat each other up and the wives have to come with wheelbarrows and hold them home. The second text is a mock sermon, and then, finally, a nonsense poem which imagines a feast in which various absurdities happen, and everyone gets too drunk, and it all ends badly.

MARTIN: Wade finds the similarities with comedy today striking.

WADE: A common way to make people laugh is you take people in authority - politicians, celebrities, in this case priests - and you make them seem ridiculous. Another way to make people laugh is you take things that should be private and you make them public. So typically, we're talking about things that happen either in the bedroom or the bathroom. So we see these kind of techniques that apparently have a very long history.

INSKEEP: The "Heege Manuscript" also shows us another old trope used by the minstrel - tales of a killer rabbit.

WADE: The premise is that it turns the world upside down. Rather than having humans and dogs hunting rabbits, you have rabbits hunting humans. That's the joke.

MARTIN: So we knew that the '70s movie "Monty Python And The Holy Grail" is a classic, but we didn't know how classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL")

GRAHAM CHAPMAN: (As King Arthur) You silly sod.

JOHN CLEESE: (As Tim the Enchanter) What?

CHAPMAN: (As King Arthur) You got us all worked up.

CLEESE: (As Tim the Enchanter) Well, that's no ordinary rabbit. That's the most foul, cruel and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on.

MARTIN: Still works, kind of.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HENRICIAN CONSORT'S "MONTARD BRAWLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.