Tom Hodgkinson wonders what happened to all the funny Christians
Did the Reformation kill off the humour in Christianity? Even the most cursory glance at medieval culture in Europe shows that being funny and being a believer were by no means at odds with one another. Cathedrals are packed with in-jokes and rude carvings of men and women displaying their bums or their genitals. Mystery plays were silly and Chaucer, Boccaccio and Rabelais are packed with silliness and jokes. The paintings of Brueghel are playful and fun and one of the key medieval words was “merry”. Merriment was thought to be a good thing because it bonded communities. Historian Ronald Hutton says that while the early church fathers had been austere fellows, the religious leaders in the period roughly between 1100 and 1535 enjoyed a jape and a jest, as the figure of the fool in motley tends to prove.
Then came the Reformation and the rise of the Puritans, whose gloomy philosophy is embodied by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night in the character of Malvolio. His name means literally “I wish evil” and he’s a priggish, fun-hating, mirth-free zone who is tricked by the medieval roustabouts Sir Toby Belch and Maria into wearing ridiculous yellow cross-gartered stockings in order to please Olivia, who he reckons he’s in love with.
Some of this medieval attitude – and their love of bum jokes – lingered even in the reforming figure of Martin Luther, who is supposed to have said in a sermon, “But I resist the devil, and it is with a fart that I chase him away.” Now we know that farts are not only amusing in themselves but have a decided practical purpose, too. In future I will say to my family, “Just chasing the devil away,” should they hear me inadvertently break wind at the table.
The Puritans like Malvolio were not only notoriously humourless but they also cracked down on humour in other people, closing theatres and banning maypoles. In the sixteenth century, life became a serious business. To get a glimpse of the Puritan mindset, think about the unsmiling figures of Gordon Brown and Alex Ferguson.
You could argue that something of the merry spirit of medieval Christianity lingers, however, in the Catholic church. When Victoria and I had our bookshop, GK Chesterton’s biographer, Father Ian Ker, a Catholic priest in Burford, Oxfordshire, gave a talk on “Chesterton and Humour”. It was a good talk, though I don’t remember laughing very much. The point was that Chesterton – a Catholic – believed humour to be an essential element of Christianity. Chesterton said, “Whenever you have got hold of a vulgar joke, you may be certain that you have got hold of a subtle and spiritual idea.”