Home  »  The World’s Wit and Humor  »  Satire in the Middle Ages

The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Karl Julius Weber (1767–1832)

Satire in the Middle Ages

From “Demokritos”

THE MIDDLE AGES brought forth a great quantity of satirical writings in Latin, which have sunk into dead obscurity. Generous matter was afforded by the canting, puffed-up clerics, waddling behind their fat paunches, blunt to all human sympathy and open to every vice; after them, the courts and courtiers, the pedants, and the women were taken in turn. Satire was then as rough as the language of a day when, instead of saying, “Pray, pardon me,” or “With your kind permission,” you boxed a man’s ears—in compliance with those good old German maxims: “An et cetera calls for a slap in the face,” and “A slap in the face calls for a dagger.” Freedom and rudeness are always faithful cousins; ribaldry and filth count for wit in unpolished times, as is proved even by Boccaccio, Rabelais, and Luther—a shining example of the Middle Ages.

A learned jurist made an inquiry into the subject of face-slapping, employing the precise classification of slaps complete and incomplete, faint and resounding, jocular and severe, punitive and praising. He set up the questions: Can a hand without fingers administer a box on the ear? May a father box the ears of a son older than twelve, or a husband his wife’s, without incurring a suit for divorce? (This last he answers in the affirmative, on the ground that the biblical “one flesh” is only meant figuratively.) Is it allowed to box people’s ears by prearrangement, or to follow out the popular saying, “A slap in the face for a lie”? If a girl declines to dance at a ball when challenged by the master of ceremonies, or if a man refuses to answer a pledge in drinking, may a box on the ear be applied? When a right worshipful magistrate imposes a fine of ten Thaler for boxing a man’s ears, is one, by paying ten Thaler more, entitled to the privilege of boxing his Worship’s own ears?

In those dark ages Emperor Frederick II, a liberal-minded monarch, who was above the superstitious follies of his day and laughed at them, was banished to the infernal regions by Dante as a heretic, for saying, “God cannot have known Naples, or He would not have chosen the miserable Palestine for the heritage of His people.” King John of England was hated by the clergy, not because he was a bad man, but because he had exclaimed, on seeing a fine, well-fed stag, “How sleek and fat, and never goes to Mass!” Luther pursued the clerical quarry routed out by Brother Philip Melanchthon—who was less steeped in monkish prejudice—in a wild, furious spirit; Erasmus was subtle and smiling; Hutten was mordantly satirical. But Luther knew nothing else than vilification, like the other polemical writers of his day. When he was abused, he returned the compliment in kind, though it must be acknowledged that his vigorous words inspired the German nation, while his leaflets flew from one frontier to another, for never had German ears heard such a plain, such an eloquent, such a German appeal.

In accordance with the manner of his time, Martin Luther simply dubbed the papal decrees and decretals “excretals”; the bull referring to the Lord’s Supper, he called the pope’s “evening mash”; and the papists, “asses”; he desired every good Christian to spit on the papal coat of arms, and to throw mud at it for the glory of God; the Pope, his cardinals, and all that tribe, were to have their tongues torn out by the roots, as punishment for their blasphemy, and to be strung to the gallows like the seals to the bulls; after which they might hold their conclaves on the gallows or among the devils in hell, as they might prefer; and he wanted the emperor to lash them all together and take them to Ostia: there was the right kind of bath for them, and, to make a good job of it, they were to be accompanied by the rock on which their Church was founded.

Such was Luther’s way of being facetious at the expense of the papists. The Duke of Brunswick, however, he termed a “clown”; by consequence, he could scarce take it amiss if such names were bestowed on himself as “Wild Hog,” “Doctor Swinish,” “Doctor Muckmarten,” etc.

And all of this was looked upon as the most exquisite satire.