Blog Post

Cannibal comedies

The day after April Fool's day seems appropriate for pondering how to recognize a joke. I've been reading the Old English poem Andreas, and came across this passage:

Ða wæs first agan     frumrædenne
þinggemearces   butan þrim nihtum,
swa hit wælwulfas     awriten hæfdon
þæt hie banhringas     abrecan þohton,
lungre tolysan     lic and sawle,
ond þonne todælan     duguðe ond geogoðe,
werum to wiste      ond to wilþege,
fæges flæschoman.     Feorh ne bemurndan,
grædige guðrincas,  hu þæs gastes sið
æfter swyltcwale     geseted wurde.
Swa hie symble ymb þritig     þing gehedon
nihtgerimes;     wæs him neod micel
þæt hie tobrugdon     blodigum ceaflum
fira flæschoman     him to foddorþege. (147-60)

 [Then the preordained time was up, except for three nights, which the slaughter-wolves had decreed was when they intended to break the bone-rings and quickly part body and soul, and then deal out to old and young--to all the people, as feast and glad banquet, the corpse of the doomed man. They were reckless of life, the greedy warriors--of what course the spirit's journey would take after the slaughter. After thirty nights, they always held a meeting of this sort; it was urgently necessary that they tear up with bloody jaws the man's corpse as food for themselves.]

Andreas is often thought of as a poem that clumsily imposes "heroic" diction onto an inappropriate genre (the saint's life). There's certainly a lot of resonance in this passage with heroic and/or epic verse: the dealing out of 'rings' in line 150, for instance, or 154b-56, which seem to echo lines like these in The Battle of Maldon:

Ne mæg na wandian      se þe wrecan þenceð
frean on folce,     ne for feore murnan. (258-9)

[He who intends to avenge his lord among the people can never flinch, nor heed his own life]

So I doubt anyone would deny that this passage is using 'serious' heroic motifs in an incongruous setting. But that leaves us with the question: is this ineptitude, or a joke?

Personally, I think it's the latter. Jonathan Wilcox has argued for the intentional humor of other parts of Andreas, and to people who knew a good bit of Old English heroic verse--as the poet of Andreas certainly did--I could easily imagine this passage appearing not just 'grimly ironic,' but funny.

I would even go so far as to wonder whether cannibalism was a motif that was just inherently a bit funny to Anglo-Saxons (rather like toasting-forks in the nineteenth century). The fact that the man who got eaten by Grendel in Beowulf turns out to have been named Hondscioh ('hand-shoe', i.e. 'glove') always seemed suspicious: it's hard to feel the gruesome death of a man named Glove was really tragic.

I don't think a lighthearted saint's life is a contradiction in terms: quite a few have some comic elements. And of course the Christian martyrdom narrative is to a degree deliberately paradoxical--designed to show that its apparent tragic arc is in reality comic. As Wilcox has pointed out, this makes it hard to take their violence altogether seriously.

But the possibility of humor doesn't prove its existence in any particular passage, and the idea that the Andreas-poet might have considered his subject matter ludicrous is perhaps something of a problem for our ideas about religious culture in the period. Things are so much easier to reconcile if we assume the poet took St Andrew's adventures seriously.

I'm just not sure that's entirely true.


See: J. Wilcox, 'Eating People is Wrong: Funny Style in Andreas and its Analogues.' In Anglo-Saxon Styles, ed. C. E. Karkov and G. H. Brown (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003), 201-22.

Also: G. Halsall, ed., Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge: CUP, 2002), and J. Wilcox, ed., Humour in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Cambridge: Brewer, 2000).


P.S. See, Natalia, I didn't advocate anything!

Emily Thornbury's picture
I'm an Associate Professor in the English department at Yale University. My field is early medieval literature, mainly Old English and the Latin of England before the Norman Conquest: my book Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England was published by Cambridge University Press in 2014.