No Laughing Matter? Humour and History

‘Laughing Fool’ by Werner van den Valckert (Netherlands, 1585–1627. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By Robin Macdonald, CHE Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Western Australia

As I sit down to write this April Fools’ Day blog post, I wonder how many readers have – perhaps this very morning – fallen victim to a ‘hilarious’ April Fools’ Day prank. Did you laugh? Or did it make you angry? Did one of your children perhaps place glad-wrap over the toilet bowl and insist that this was very funny, even when it ended in disaster for one of their siblings? Did one of your colleagues recount the tale of last year’s office prank (think stapler in jelly), only to be met with a stony, unamused silence? Because, apparently, ‘you had to be there’.

The saying, ‘you had to be there’, historian Guy Halsall argues in the introduction to Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, ‘is never more appropriate than in the study of humour in history’. Humour, the argument goes, is historically specific; it depends on context. But, as Halsall points out, not everyone finds the same jokes funny, and this is equally true for past societies.[1]

The study of humour in history is therefore fraught with difficulties. How, for instance, can scholars judge what people in the past found funny? What made people laugh? These questions have preoccupied a number of historians. But the signifiers that are often taken as evidence of humour – laughter being a prime example – are not always easy to interpret.

laugh pice
Buste d’homme riant, vu de trois-quarts, tourné vers la droite, dit, par tradition, Autoportrait de Watteau], by Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), engraving by Benoît Audran (1698–1772).

When studying laughter in history, I think that more productive questions can be asked. What emotions, for instance, can the act of laughing indicate? As Quentin Skinner has argued, early modern theorists of laughter – a phenomenon which saw an explosion of interest in early sixteenth-century philosophical treatises, most famously Laurent Joubert’s 1579 Traité du ris [Treaty on Laughter] – were predominantly interested in what emotions prompted it.[2] Lexographer Antoine Furetière’s 1690 Dictionnaire Universel, for example, defined laughter as, ‘An outward expression of joy, caused by a pleasant object’ (‘un témoignage extérieur de joye causée par un objet plaisant’). Other significations were considerably less pleasant: derision, cruelty, fear…[3]

Thinking of laughter as an ‘emotional practice’ – to borrow a term developed by historical anthropologist Monique Scheer – is useful here. Building on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, Scheer argues that emotions not only emerge from people’s actions, but are themselves ‘a form of practice’; they are ‘an action of a mindful body’. Feelings, she contends, emerge ‘in the doing of an emotion’ (my emphasis), not before the emotion becomes manifest. Moreover, to speak of ‘emotional practices’ implies the body as ‘a locus for innate and learned capacities deeply shaped by habitual practices’.[4]

More interesting still, are the effects that laughter could have on people, cultures and societies.[5] If emotions, as Scheer suggests, were – and are – shaped by a person’s habitual practices in their environment, these practices could – and can – in turn shape socio-cultural environments.[6] Laughter, therefore, could be prompted by actions in the world, but what – reciprocally speaking – could it do to people and things? Thought of in this way, acts of laughter not only signify a whole host of emotions, but can prompt a myriad of diverse feelings and ‘act’ – or have an effect – on people and society, prompting individual actions and affecting cultural changes.[7]

In my current research on laughter in seventeenth-century North American colonial encounters, I have come across numerous examples of laughter. But aside from one or two local studies, laughter in colonial encounters has been largely underexplored.[8] Furthermore, most of the written source material relating to seventeenth-century North America was penned by Europeans, and thus reflects their misconceptions and stereotypes. Much of the ‘humour’ in these accounts can be unpalatable and offensive: European colonisers, for instance, are shown laughing at Indigenous peoples, at their manners and customs. Marie de l’Incarnation, an Ursuline nun who travelled to Quebec in 1639 to found a convent and school, for example, joked that the Wendat women who taught her their language, ‘do not smell as good as those Ladies of France!’[9]

In discussing laughter in colonial contexts, then, it is important not to simply reproduce – unchallenged – colonial stereotypes. It is important, as Gilles Havard’s article ‘Le rire des jésuites’ has demonstrated, to reflect on who is laughing at whom and why. Havard’s discussion of an incident that occurred in 1670, when two Jesuit missionaries arrived in a village at Green Bay, provides a useful reminder that European accounts should not be taken at face value. When the missionaries arrived at the village they were greeted by a group of Potawatomi men who were dressed as French soldiers. They were, one of the missionaries recounted, ‘striking the most astonishing attitudes’, and ‘making themselves the more ridiculous, the more they tried to comport themselves seriously’. ‘We had difficulty’, he continued, ‘in refraining from laughter’. ‘Although’ he added seriously, ‘we were treating of only the most important matters, — namely, the Mysteries of our Religion, and what must be done in order not to burn forever in Hell’.[10] It is the apparent incongruousness of the situation that readers are supposed to find funny here.[11] But who – Havard prompts us to ask in his discussion of the incident – is laughing at whom? Are the Potawatomi warriors actually mocking the French?[12]

Sometimes histories of laughter just aren’t funny at all – Marie de l’Incarnation’s above-mentioned description of her Wendat teachers come to mind. But that doesn’t mean that studying laughter as an emotional practice can’t tell historians about the past. Indeed, as I embark on my project about laughter in early modern colonial encounters, I am struck by the seriousness of laughter as a topic of study. As Philip D. Morgan has argued, the ability to laugh at another could indicate where power lay in colonial encounters.[13] The question scholars should be asking, then, is not ‘what was funny?’ – though this is nonetheless important – but rather ‘who had the power to laugh at whom?’ And ‘when and how was this challenged?’

Robin Macdonald is a CHE Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The University of Western Australia. Her research examines the multifaceted role of laughter in North American colonial encounters.


[1] Guy Halsall, ‘Introduction: “Don’t worry, I’ve got the key”’, in Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 7.

[2] See Quentin Skinner, ‘Why Laughing Mattered in the Renaissance: The Second Henry Tudor Memorial Lecture (Delivered 10 March 2000, University of Durham)’, History of Political Thought 22 (2001), esp. 418 and 420.

[3] For a useful discussion of laughter as derision, see Quentin Skinner, ‘Hobbes and the Classical Theory of Laughter’, in Visions of Politics, Volume 3: Hobbes and Civil Science, ed. Quentin Skinner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), esp. pp. 146–47.

[4] On emotions as practice, see Monique Scheer, ‘Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (and is That What Makes Them Have a History?): A Bourdieuian Approach to Understanding Emotion’, History and Theory 51 (2012): 193–220 (at 220).

[5] In his ground-breaking essay on humour in the Middles Ages, Jacques Le Goff argued that laughter was a social and cultural phenomenon. See Jacques Le Goff, ‘Rire au Moyen Age,’ Les Cahiers du Centre de Recherches Historiques 3 (1989), DOI: 10.4000/ccrh.2918 [accessed 26 January 2016].

[6] William Reddy, for instance, coined the term ‘emotives’ to convey the notion that emotions are ‘performative utterances’ that ‘do things to the world’, whilst at the same time being influenced by it. See William Reddy, ‘Against Constructionism: The Historical Ethnography of Emotions’, Current Anthropology 38 (1997), 331.

[7] William Reddy, Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), highlights the ways in which emotions could shape revolutions. See esp. ch. 6, ‘Sentimentalism and the Making of the French Revolution in France’.

[8] One notable exception for early Canada is Marie-Christine Pioffet’s excellent article, ‘Le rire de Paul Le Jeune: Du rire jaune à l’humour noir’, Nouvelles Études Francophones 22 (2007): 122–34.

[9] Marie de l’Incarnation to Mother Marie-Gillette Roland, Religious of the Visitation of Tours, 4 September 1640, in Marie de l’Incarnation (1599–1672): Correspondence, ed. Guy-Marie Oury (Solesmes: Abbaye Saint-Pierre, 1971), p. 108. My translation. This episode is discussed in more depth in my forthcoming article, Robin Macdonald, ‘Sensing Sacred Missives: Birch Bark Letters from Seventeenth-Century Missionaries in New France’, in Sensing the Sacred: Religion and the Senses in Medieval and Early Modern Culture, ed. Robin Macdonald, Emilie K. M. Murphy and Elizabeth L. Swann (Farnham: Ashgate, forthcoming).

[10] See Gilles Havard, ‘Le rire des jésuites : Une archéologie du mimétisme dans la rencontre franco-amérindienne (XVIIe–XVIIIe siècle)’, Annales. Histoire. Sciences Sociales (2007): 539–73. Since Havard’s article quotes this incident in French, I have, for ease, quoted the English translation found in Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents : Travels and Explorations of Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791 : The Original French, Latin, and Italian Texts, with English Translations and Notes ; Illustrated by Portraits, Maps, and Facsimiles, 73 vols (Cleveland : Burrows Brothers, 1896-1901), 55: p. 189.

[11] On humour and incongruity, see Halsall, ‘Introduction: “Don’t worry I’ve got the key”’, p. 10.

[12] See Havard, ‘Le rire des jésuites’, p. 540.

[13] Philip D. Morgan, ‘Encounters Between British and “Indigenous” Peoples, c.1500–c.1800’, in Empire and Others: British Encounters with Indigenous Peoples, 1600–1850, ed. Martin Daunton and Rick Halpern (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), p. 54.

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