Exeter Book

Exploration of Anglo-Saxon Humour within the Exeter Book College

The notion that the middle ages were accommodating to the rude, bawdy or obscene is one that is rarely used to characterise Anglo-Saxon literature. While the major canonical text of the later medieval period (Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales) is often considered a comedic masterpiece, such evaluations of Anglo-Saxon texts are rare. The “famed restriction of Christian doctrine” that Nicola McDonald describes, stifles much critical discussion. Despite attempts from a few scholars (particularly Jonathan Wilcox) to challenge this presumption, the view that the Anglo Saxons were, in the words of Herbert Grierson, “a loyal, dauntless folk, serious and naturally devout, but heavy and humourless”, lingers throughout critical discourse.

Nonetheless, subtle hints that Anglo-Saxon literature was not devoid of humour are evident within the physical texts themselves – copies of the Rule of St Benedict are filled with medieval graffiti: faces of monks poking out from behind letters in a book that is otherwise sombre in tone. Perhaps the most obvious example of bawdiness in the pre-Conquest canon is exhibited in the Riddles of The Exeter Book, of which a significant minority evoke blatant sexual and scatological humour. Through appealing to...

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