15th-Century Monty Python-Esque Comedy Scripts Discovered, Complete with Jousting Bears and Party Pigs
Raunchy jokes and stories about prodigious drinking didn’t originate with Bert Kreischer. In medieval times, wandering minstrels were essentially 15th-century stand-up comics, without the virtue of a Netflix special or Tiktok clip to save their raucous routines for posterity. Up until now, historians thought ye olde comedy routines were lost forever since they didn’t appear to have been recorded. But now a Cambridge University professor has discovered a manuscript that proves some tropes of British humor have been tossed around for centuries.
The ancient manuscript was apparently copied by a cleric of the time, who jotted down the text of an unidentified minstrel who performed around 1480. The minstrel’s “routine” included mocking kings, priests and peasants while encouraging the audience to get plastered. Sound familiar? Don’t forget to tip your wenches!
“People back then partied a lot more than we do today, so minstrels had plenty of opportunities to perform,” explains James Wade of Cambridge’s English faculty and Girton College. “They were really important figures in people’s lives right across the social hierarchy.”
Wade compares the minstrels to today’s stand-up comics. "Stand-up comedy has always involved taking risks,” he says. “These texts are risky, they poke fun at everyone, high and low.”
British comedy tropes show up in the early manuscripts. Local references — interchangeable depending on where the touring comic is performing — are woven into funny stories about Robin Hood, jousting bears and pigs that party. Monty Python’s Killer Rabbit gag from Holy Grail has its predecessor in the mocking poem, “The Hunting of the Hare.” “You can find echoes of this minstrel’s humor in shows like Mock the Week, situational comedies and slapstick,” continues Wade. “The self-irony and making audiences the butt of the joke are still very characteristic of British stand-up comedy.”
Wade believes the “intriguing display of humor” was concealed in the old manuscript all along, apparently ignored due to a focus on how the ancient documents were constructed. Now Wade hopes to discover more where that came from. “I have a few other manuscripts I want to study with this in mind, and no doubt there are many other such manuscripts I don't yet know about — and that's exciting!”
A medieval version of The Office has probably been hiding there, with a 1480s Ricky Gervais still waiting for his residuals.