SARCASM IN THE MIDDLE AGES
People in medieval times are often conceived as being a serious lot - what with the fighting, and the religion, and the chivalry. But, like us, they often had a lighter side. Certain people, and their actions, have been deliberately ironic, a bit cheeky and yes, even sarcastic. One needs to look no further than the literature of William Shakespeare and Geoffery Chaucer to find examples of this attitude. Not counting the sarcasm which seems to come to all good writers naturally, they appear to have had a certain acerbic wit which often manifested itself in the dialogue of Shakespere’s plays and in the writings of Chaucer. However, I have taken my examples from real life situations, and so I present to you, some of the middle ages’ finest sarcastic moments….
Best use of sarcasm when under pressure….
Christmas time of 1460 saw Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York and his army holed up in Sandal Castle near Wakefield. They were awaiting reinforcements in preparation to do battle with the Lancastrian army, the driving force of which was Margaret of Anjou. As his opponents were rumoured to be hidden in the area around the castle, the Duke was advised to keep his men within. To which he replied “Wouldst thou that I, for dread of a scolding woman, whose only weapons are her tongue and nails, should shut my gates?”
Best use of sarcasm during a royal ceremony….
After the Battle of St Albans in 1461, Andrew Trollope was done the great honour of being knighted by King Henry VI. As the ceremony was taking place, Trollope made a token resistance saying “My lord, I have not deserved it, for I slew but fifteen men….”
Best use of sarcasm in direct reference to your King….
It seems that King Henry VI was a veritable sarcasm magnet. After one battle, a contemporary chronicler stated that “King Henry was the best horseman of the day, for he fled the field so fast that no-one could overtake him.”
Best use of sarcasm in direct reference to someone else’s King….
A rumour which started in around 1461 was circulated. It claimed that “the Queen of England after the King abdicated in favour of his son, gave the King poison.” A Milanese ambassador reported “At least he has known how to die, if he was incapable of doing anything else.”
Best use of sarcasm to describe an execution….
When the Earl of Devon was captured and executed in August 1469, he was recorded as having been “cut shorter by the head”. (N.B. This phrase was in common use in England at around this time. Sort of a medieval ‘in-joke’.)
Best use of sarcasm in a physical sense….
“On one known occasion an envoy from the castle who had brought unacceptable peace terms was shot back into it with the rejection strapped to him.”
Best use of sarcasm when describing one’s enemies….
“Mysterious are the works of the Creator, the author of all things! When one comes to recount cases regarding the Franks, he cannot but glorify Allah (exulted is he!) and sanctify him, for he sees them as animals possessing the virtues of courage and fighting, but nothing else; just as animals have only the virtues of strength and carrying loads…” When a Frankish knight was returning home from holy pilgrimage by sea, he said to Usama ‘My brother, I am leaving for my country and I want thee to send with me thy son…to our country, where he can see the knights and learn wisdom and chivalry. When he returns, he will be like a wise man.’ “Thus there fell upon my ears words which would never come out of the head of a sensible man; for even if my son were to be taken captive, his captivity could not bring him a worse misfortune than carrying him into the lands of the Franks.”
Best use of sarcasm in reference to religion….
“The faith having been planted in the island from the time of St Patrick, so many ages ago, and propagated almost ever since, it is wonderful that this nation should remain to this day so very ignorant of the rudiments of Christianity.”
Best use of sarcasm to avoid perjury….
The Waldensian Heretics used sarcasm to avoid answering questions which could have condemned them to death. As Bernard Gui reported… “It should be known that it is exceedingly difficult to interrogate and examine the Waldensians, and to get the truth about their errors from then, because of the deception and duplicity with which they answer questions, in order not to be caught…This is the way they do it. When one of them is arrested and brought for examination, he appears undaunted, as if he were secure and conscious of no evil in himself. When he is asked if he knows why he has been arrested, he answers very sweetly and with a smile, ‘My Lord, I should be glad to learn the reason from you.’ Asked about the faith which he holds and believes, he answers, ‘I believe everything that a good Christian ought to believe’. Questioned as to whom he considers a good Christian, he replies, ‘He who believes as Holy Church teaches him to believe’. When he is asked what he means by “Holy Church”, he answers, ‘My Lord, that which you say and believe is the Holy Church.’ If you say to him ‘I believe that the Holy Church is the Roman Church, over which the lord pope rules; and under him, the prelates’, he replies ‘I believe it’, meaning that he believes that you believe it.”
Best use of sarcasm by a lady-in-waiting….
When Edward IV’s Queen was pregnant with their first child (the Princess Elizabeth), a royal physician by the name of Dominic predicted that the child would be a boy, and convinced the King that this was so. He went as far as to station himself at the door to the Queen’s privy chamber so that he could be the first to learn of the good news. Upon hearing the baby’s cry, he knocked at the chamber door and asked what the Queen had given birth to. “To whom it was answered by one of the ladies, whatsoever the queen’s grace hath here within, sure it is a fool standeth there without.”
Best use of sarcasm in an official report….
A report of a parliament which was held in 1399-1400, written by a knight, states the lack of effectiveness of the Commons…”Some members sat there like a nought in arithmetic that marks a place but had no meaning itself.”
Best use of sarcasm to win back royal favour….
Hugh of Avalon once found himself in King Henry II’s bad books after excommunicating one of Henry’s foresters. He was summoned to the royal presence, but was ignored by the sulking king. “Hugh pushed aside an earl and sat down at the King’s side; Henry, too restless to stay quiet, called for a needle and thread and began to stitch a leather finger-stall which he was wearing on his left hand. After a minute Hugh said: ‘How like you are now to your cousins of Falaise’, alluding to William the Bastard’s mother, the tanner’s daughter.” Apparently, the King “rocked with laughter”.
These exerpts of life in medieval times gives us an insight into the minds of these people. It is important to remember that our ancestors were just people like you and me, given to vices such as sarcastic comment. (My favourite vice ever.)
There are many, many more examples of sarcasm in the middle ages, however, as brevity is the soul of wit, I have not included them all here. I have one more pearl of wisdom to share, which may not technically be classed as sarcasm, but which certainly has a sardonic air. “Love is a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex…”
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