Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



The Power of Laughter and Satire in Early Modern Britain

Political and Religious Culture, 1500-1820


Edited by Mark Knights and Adam Morton


Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2017

Hardcover. xi+242 p. ISBN 978-1783272037. £65


Reviewed by James Baker

University of Sussex




'For all Hone's laughter at corruption', Mark Knights writes, 'the freedom to publish satire and parody was a serious business' [210]. Whether by accident or design, these remarks, words that conclude Knights and Morton's fascinating edited collection, capture the tenor of the volume rather well: the focus on the individual, the tensions between expression and pragmatism, the complex interplay between laughter, satire, and parody, the early modern fixation on corruption. Moreover, publishing satire was a serious business, this volume argues, because satire did things. And the volume, the product of a conference at the University of Warwick in 2014, demonstrates how this doing happened in early modern England through a series of chronologically arranged case studies.

Sophie Murray examines satire during the reign of Henry VIII, with a focus on the dissolution of the monasteries. She argues that understanding the context within which these satires were produced is more significant than their content. By the 1530s, she writes 'anticlerical jests about monks, nuns and friars could no longer be enjoyed innocently, for they had become politically and religiously charged by the government's assault on monastic life' [31]. Cathy Shrank moves us from jests to dialogues, from the consequences of laughter to how 'laughter operated in practice' [65]. Drawing on Hobbes and his ilk, Shrank's insight is that early modern 'theories of laughter [...] and actual practices of laughter do not always accord' [61], not least because laughter is a corporeal act whose function was imbricated with early modern ideas of the body. In the following chapter, Andrew McRae shifts attention to a single bodily function – the fart. 'On 4 March 1607', he writes, 'Sir Henry Ludlow, sitting in the English House of Commons representing the constituency of Wiltshire, farted' [67]. Using this incident as a point of focus, McRae works outward to get at English notions of decorum and parliamentary life in the seventeenth century. Delicious scatology aside – from 1604, 'with a grunt like a Hogge, he let out a beastly loude fart' [71] – there is serious analysis here, not least contemporary pondering on how the liberty to fart contrasted with lack of liberty of expression parliamentarians otherwise faced. Fiona McCall finds humour in less expected places: here the correspondence of loyalist clergy during the interregnum. By reading between the lines of men aggrieved at puritans who had made little succes of 'the uneasy transition from a material trade to a spiritual profession requiring rather different aptitudes' [90], McCall excavates the power of laughter in an age when personal slights mattered. That this power was not easy to control, however cautiously satire was expressed, is the major finding of McCall's work. She writes that loyalist satire 'was a deal with the devil: by making the interregnum church and its ministers look ridiculous, loyalists provided ammunition for negative attitudes towards all religion amongst contemporaries less inclined to discriminate by type, while the internecine strife with dissenters continued' [106]. Here then making people laugh could backfire, and as Adam Morton explores in his chapter on laughter as a polemical act, this was a common trait created by the ambiguity of laughter, its 'discomforting capacity to elicit anxiety' [121], and the frisson of danger it worked on audiences. As with Shrank, theories of laughter – Hobbes et al – are invoked, and once again a gap between theory and its actualisation in real life is found, here in how laughter's corrosive intent was rejected by religious precepts and stoicism. Even in its rejection, however, laughter is found to have done things and this thread carries into Robert Phiddian's chapter on John Gay's anti-Walpole ballad operas The Beggar's Opera [1728] and Polly [1729]. The latter, Phiddian argues, is little known to scholars because of its contemporary rejection – unlike its hugely successful predecessor, it was banned on stage until 1777 – and the appearance of the two operas in vastly different forms, one night after night on stage, the other constrained into print, leads Phiddian to ask what emotional work the form of laughter does and whether 'the interesting questions in the analysis of satirical texts concern what spectators make of them, and how they react not whether they get them “right” ' [135].

The lack of power laughter could exert in certain forms – something Walpole, Phiddian argues, seemed well aware of in his regulation of the theatre – reverberates through Andrew Benjamin Bricker's chapter on the limits of satire in agitations for reform. Focusing on the eighteenth century, Bricker contests that there is a serious analytical folly in drawing straight lines between satirists who encourage censure of vice and their readers acting to censure vice. The question then becomes what did satire do if not reform. Drawing on recent psychological research, Bricker notes that satire is not capable of instructing if it induces laughter, however if it unsettles its audience, creates discomfort – 'cognitive dissonance' [171] – then it has a chance of instructing by provoking reflection. Work by Jonathan Swift managed the latter because, Bricker writes, 'Swiftian works of satire discomfit readers, they force them to confront not only the work itself but also how that work challenges their own beliefs and assumptions' [172]. Swiftian themes – typically the many travails of Lemuel Gulliver – resonate wordlessly through Mark Philp's analysis of printed images published during the invasion scares of 1797-1798 and 1803-1805. Why, he asks, did prints exist that seemed to make light of imminent and real danger? Nervous laughter, Philp contests, is not the answer as it largely, he argues, is a feature of the British character with no place in early modern life. Instead, by working between representational and satirical prints of Napoleonic rafts, ships, and flotillas supposed (or imagined) to constitute the French invasion fleet, and by closely examining their publication histories, Philp shows how during both scares publishers – after initial flurries of speculative publishing – moved away from depictions of invasion that might raise anxieties at home, self-censure that yoked their satire to commentaries on Whig political ambition, mindful that nervous laughter was hardly saleable. William Hone, the subject of Mark Knights' concluding chapter, was a man who made a career out of publishing – by contrast – on the most saleable topic of all: corruption. For Knights, Hone knew that the attributes of corruption and the functions of satire overlapped: corruption often focused on the individual and 'satire leant itself to [..] personalised form[s] of attack' [195]; corruption sat at the same 'juncture' [196] between public and private that satire – in its 'aim to reform personal vices that infected society' [195] – occupied. Much has been written on Hone, and Knights' intervention is to detail the extensive collection of printed material that Hone possessed on historical corruption: parodies of state and religious actors 'steeped' [205] in dissenting voice.

Knights and Morton preface these case studies with extensive reflections on the role of satire in making and unmaking communities boundaries in early modern Britain. They argue that looking at satire as a mode rather than a genre breaks scholarship away from canons and invites less literary viewpoints and a more historical perspective on the problem of what laughter could do. The composition and scope of the volume reflect these values, though literary analysis does still dominate. So too does the history of ideas, something this reader found overbearing on occasions, with theories of laughter erected – and re-erected – only to be shown at odds with reality. Of course contemporary writing on the problem of laughter did abound – as these invocations of theory attest – and was wrapped up with a central question that this volume also seeks to answer: what did satire do? As Knight, Morton, and their contributors demonstrate, proof of satire's efficacy – whatever you think that may be – cannot be determined by reference to its existence alone. Instead, by shifting from meaning to response, this delightful volume articulates a significant facet of satire that can be read across the early modern period: that it created a space for criticism. This – as Hone knew – was why satire was a serious business.



Cercles © 2018

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.