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Humor is the tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement. Throughout history, it has played a crucial role in defining gender roles and identities. This collection offers an in-depth thematic examination of this relationship between humor and gender, spanning a variety of historical and cultural backdrops.



General Introduction

General Introduction

Laughter, its meaning, and propriety have occupied the minds of philosophers, moralists, and dramatists as far back as Antiquity. In a modern context, laughter is typically associated with humor and joy, but not all laughter is the fruit of the former and even less so the latter. On the contrary, laughter has been associated with ridicule, degradation, and the vulgarity of the lower classes. As such, laughter’s rebellious and disciplining impact has been both acknowledged and feared. The notion of laughter as a positive, involuntary physical reaction associated with harmless joy is, at least in the Western world, a modern construct with a short history.1 On a more theoretical level, laughter may be defined as a fundamental human behavior with a strong social aspect that is often but not necessarily related to humor. It is a particular kind of facial and vocal expression that can be inviting and repelling, inclusive and exclusive, evoke sympathy, and mobilize derision. Thus, we can both laugh at and laugh with others.2 Depending on who is laughed at and from which social position, laughter can be disciplining and rebellious, repressive and subversive, or self-ironic and self-degrading.

Jonas Liliequist, Anna Foka

Laughter, Humor, and Misogyny—Reconsiderations and New Perspectives


1. Laughing at Ourselves: Gendered Humor in Classical Greece

In this paper, I illustrate a certain strand of ancient Greek humor concerning sexuality, and more particularly, concerning adulterous wives. I suggest that, on the basis of this evidence, Greek males were not as uptight about controlling their wives as we might have expected, given their reputation, by no means undeserved, for misogyny generally and for anxiety about women’s infidelity more specifically. My conclusion is that we may need to modify in some respects—only in some—our sense of early Greece as the kind of honor culture in which men’s selfrespect was radically bound up with the comportment of their women. This claim is not entirely new—it was made forcefully by Gabriel Herman (Herman 1993)—nor are the texts I deal with unfamiliar. By bringing them together, and by offering perhaps novel ways of viewing them, I hope to provide a slightly different image of gender relations in classical Greece.

David Konstan

2. Is the Comic World a Paradise for Women? Medieval Models of Portable Utopia

Medieval comic narrative comes in many forms, but the apogee is arguably found in the fabliaux, the comic tales of trickery that appeared in many European languages and that f lowered most famously in the rhymed French versions of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Other medieval humorous genres include comic plays and lyrics, mock epics, beast fables, nonsense texts, parodies, schoolboy doggerel, riddles, and jokes both respectable and bawdy, and various other forms. Although these forms and genres are disparate, in fact the vast majority of medieval humorous texts participate in a shared world, each expressing life in the comic mode, depicting a fictive realm of appetite and abundance. This comic mode in effect establishes a mini- or pocket Utopia, a world of enjoyment that can be entered into from anywhere and by anyone, merely by indulging in the story. This essay will speak to explicate that comic realm, that portable Utopia, and in particular will engage with questions of gender as it relates to this comic realm, asking the question: is the portable Utopia a paradise for women as well as for men?

Martha Bayless

3. Taking Women’s Work Seriously: Medieval Humor and the Gendering of Labor

One of the most common visual images satirizing women in the late medieval period was a woman standing atop her husband, beating him with her distaff.1 More than any other material object, the distaff, the primary tool of women’s work with cloth, symbolized the danger entailed when women wielded power over men. Comic dramas like the popular Farce du Cuvier demonstrated that a man who did women’s work had lost his masculinity; to restore order, he must reassert control, whether by will or brute force.2 The invocation to husbands to beware the horrors of being forced to do housework by domineering wives runs throughout a variety of antimarriage treatises and narratives that present marriage as a kind of trial in which husbands are martyrs subjected to tortures such as being beaten by distaffs, submerged in wet laundry or soiled diapers, or stabbed by the sharp barbed tongues of their wives.3 Even today, a man wearing an apron and baking cookies can elicit a chuckle, depending on the context, and stereotypical jokes about nagging housewives persist. Yet laughter, as we know, can function as of a zone of exploration, of unease and questioning, even when the dominant values are well marked and understood. Thus, the distaff-wielding woman of comic literature invites us to ask what values concerning women’s work were in play during the medieval period.4

Lisa Perfetti

4. Gender Subversion and the Early Christian East: Reconstructing the Byzantine Comic Mime

Scholars of theater have mostly treated Byzantine performance arts schematically, as if they were a literary bridge between antiquity and renaissance for the Roman East.1 Indeed, within the realm of performance arts, the same artistic forms found in Roman entertainment and spectacle also appear in later Greek antiquity: the landscape of popular culture in Byzantium is largely composed of chariot racing in the Hippodrome with comic mimes and serious pantomimes providing theatrical intermissions.2 In spite of this front-stage presence, however, these performances are treated by scholars of theater only fragmentarily, mostly focusing on criticism by the Church: with very few exceptions, scholars are mostly interested in their decline rather than their existence. 3 This narrow conceptualization of the role of Byzantine theater undermines the social and cultural importance of performance in that specific historical milieu. In spite of the overall rich hypotheses, and while there is substantial evidence for the rapid decline of performances, more concrete facts about them remain enigmatic and obscure.4

Anna Foka

5. Gossips’ Mirth: Gender, Humor, and Female Spectators in Ben Jonson’s The Staple of News (1626)

The theaters in early modern London have long been considered a male bastion: not only were the playwrights who wrote for the commercial stage exclusively male, the playing companies were also all-male, with female roles performed by boys or men. An antitheatrical polemicist even warned women to keep away from the theaters as spectators, since entering a public playhouse would ruin their reputations. All the evidence, and indeed the fact that this writer felt the need to urge women to avoid the theaters, suggests that female spectators made up a considerable part of the audience in London’s commercial playhouses. This was especially the case in the seventeenth-century theater of Blackfriars, an indoor theater located in a former monastery. Several plays performed in this theater cater especially to a female audience, addressing women in their prologues and epilogues. What can a perspective on gender and humor tell us about these women’s playgoing experience? This chapter focuses on a comedy that satirizes the role of newsbooks and gossip in the early modern English public sphere, and which features four female spectators as characters within the play, who return in between the Acts to comment on the action.

Kristine Steenbergh

6. The Magic of a Joke: Humor and Gender in Islamicate Ottoman Aesthetics

The seductive stories of the 1001 Nights have entered the imagination of Europe at the beginning of the eighteenth century, when Antoine Galland first translated them into French. Galland started collecting manuscripts of the Nights in Aleppo,1 and continued his search in various places including the Ottoman capital Istanbul, where they had twice been translated into Ottoman Turkish in the seventeenth century.2

Didem Havlioğlu

Humor, Laughter, and the Rhetoric of Manhood


7. Laughter, Sex, and Violence: Constructing Gender in Early Modern English Jestbooks

Jestbooks, printed collections of jokes, were produced in cheap small formats by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century printing presses both on the European continent, and, more importantly for my essay, in England. As courtesy books suggested, the social skill of jesting was necessary even on the highest levels of society, and jestbooks provided material for those who were not quick-witted enough to fabricate jokes of their own.1 Translated from other European languages, poached from earlier publications or written down when heard from friends, jest collections represent a rich archive of themes, characters, plots, and punchlines that seem to have made early modern people laugh—and gender was clearly one of the most frequently discussed cultural categories in English humor.2

Anu Korhonen

8. Horny Priests and Their Parishioners

Foolish indeed are those who think themselves able to formulate a theory about what makes a person laugh, Julius Caesar confided in Cicero. Caesar had read all that the Greek philosophers had to say on the subject. All is argued so simplemindedly, he declared, that it just gave him a good laugh. So it is best to just avoid such theorizing.1

Olle Ferm

9. Humor, Women, and Male Anxieties in Ancient Greek Visual Culture

The paper’s general context is visual humor in ancient Greece but its main focus is on the way in which women from different backgrounds were portrayed and mocked by (mainly) male Athenian vase-paintersbetween the sixth and fourth centuries BC.1 The driving idea is that men tried to the best of their abilities to control women, and their fears are revealed in comic depictions. The artists were really artisans: they usually did not have patrons as they mass-produced their often well-designed utilitarian objects for the marketplace. Their production followed the rule of fashion and because these objects were ubiquitous in Athens, and showed every aspect of daily life and mythology, they offer us a popular vision of what troubled, fascinated, or amused most Athenians. In many respects, the main problem in studying women in classical Athens is that they have often been seen as an undifferentiated mass.

Alexandre G. Mitchell

10. Hegemony and Humor: Class and Hegemonic Masculinities in Three Premodern Chinese Humorous Texts

Scholars studying humor have been debating over whether humor is rebellious toward the social order or is reprimanding those who do not or cannot conform. Some researchers argue for the resisting potential of humor. For example, Joseph Boskin argues that because of its easy transmission the impact of rebellious humor is tremendous.1 He speculates that humor which challenged the social, racial, and political conditions in the United States exerted its effect during political repression, ethnic and gender conf licts, and collective worries over social and economic crises. In her study on a construction site in Britain, Jacqueline Watts finds that junior men and women used humor as resistance against the more powerful men.2 Humor between women served as a shelter for them in such a patriarchal environment. Furthermore, comedy that values women’s experience can act as strong criticisms toward stereotypes and objectification of women.3

Mario Liong

11. Gender, Humor, and Power in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature

Gender is one of the most fraught topics in Old Norse-Icelandic literature, and medieval authors made productive use of laughter and humor, inviting the audience to laugh with, or at, their characters, based on how good or unsuccessful they are at fulfilling ideal male or female roles.1 Sagas and eddic poetry are noted for brave heroes who die with a sarcastic remark on their lips, and formidable women who coldly laugh as they demand that someone be killed. These characters are likely to ref lect a society preoccupied by honor and the heroic ethic. In sagas inspired by romance, where women’s independence is the central theme, laughter becomes a weapon in the battle of the sexes, and instead of men laughing at other men, they join ranks to laugh at women. This article examines how the employment of laughter and humor, not only its comical but also its ludicrous and incongruous aspects, plays a fundamental role in the construction and representation of gender in Old Norse-Icelandic texts, and reinforces or interrogates existing models of masculinity and femininity.

Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir

12. Laughing at the Unmanly Man in Early Modern Sweden

The aim of this essay is to draw attention to the concept of unmanliness as a productive category in the historical analysis of gender and laughter. So far, unmanliness has most often caught the historian’s analytical attention as a laughing matter with misogynist overtones in tales about cuckoldry and henpecked husbands. I wish to broaden the perspective to include how the comic effects of unmanliness have been used as rhetorical weapons in social and political conf licts, beginning with arguments about rank and civil service among the aristocracy in seventeenth- century Sweden. It will be argued that allusions to unmanliness not only played a key role in the early modern rhetoric of male prestige but also were strategic means of changing cultural values and ideals and the meanings of masculinity.

Jonas Liliequist


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