'Mad and offensive' medieval scripts show audiences enjoyed Monty Python-style comedy

Credit: University of Cambridge

University of Cambridge's Dr James Wade. A record of medieval live comedy performance has been identified in a 15th-Century manuscript, the Heege Manuscript, giving the "rarest glimpse of a medieval world rich in oral storytelling and popular entertainments".  Monty Python
The medieval era manuscripts were discovered by University of Cambridge's Dr James Wade. Credit: University of Cambridge

Newly-discovered stand-up comedy scripts from the medieval era show audiences have been enjoying 'Monty Python'-style sketches as far back as the 15th century, say experts.

The scripts are unique because many surviving manuscripts record "relics of high art", but these texts show a different side to society.

Discovered by a University of Cambridge researcher, the scripts are described as "mad and offensive" and "poke fun at everyone, high and low" - including kings, priests, and peasants.

They encourage audiences to get drunk, and contain a scene similar to Monty Python's Killler Rabbit of Caerbannog.

The medieval era manuscripts contain a scene similar to Monty Python's Killler Rabbit of Caerbannog. Credit: Python (Monty) Pictures

In that scene, which features a peasant called Jack Wade, the text reads: “Jack Wade was never so sad / As when the hare trod on his head / In case she would have ripped out his throat.”

University of Cambridge Dr James Wade, who noticed the texts while researching in the National Library of Scotland, said: “Stand-up comedy has always involved taking risks and these texts are risky, they poke fun at everyone, high and low.”

The texts are humorous and designed for live performance – with the narrator telling his audience to pay attention and pass him a drink.

They also feature in-jokes to appeal to local audiences.

The Heege Manuscript, which is a rare record of medieval live comedy performance. Credit: University of Cambridge

And they are said to contain the earliest recorded use of “red herring” in English.

It is believed the manuscripts originated from an unknown minstrel.

Minstrels often had day jobs, including as ploughmen, and went gigging at night and weekends.

“Here we have a self-made entertainer with very little education creating really original, ironic material," said Dr Wade.

It is thought household cleric Richard Heege copied out the manuscript from an unknown minstrel, who performed near the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border, in about 1480.

At the time, the Wars of the Roses were still being fought and life was hard for most people in England.

Dr Wade said: “These texts remind us that festive entertainment was flourishing at a time of growing social mobility.

“People back then partied a lot more than we do today, so minstrels had plenty of opportunities to perform."

He added: “These texts give us a snapshot of medieval life being lived well.”

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