'Foolish Speech, Frequent Joking, and Naughty Chattering': Humor in the Anglo-Saxon Monastery

Open Access
Morgan, Ian Dietrich
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Dr. Scott Thompson Smith, Thesis Supervisor
  • Lisa Ruth Sternlieb, Honors Advisor
  • Thomas Oliver Beebee, Faculty Reader
  • Anglo-Saxon
  • Literature
  • Humor
  • Ælfric Bata
  • Colloquies
  • Gnomic Poetry
  • Exeter Book
  • Monastic
  • Education
Conventional wisdom tells us that Anglo-Saxon texts are almost always somber in tone and serious in purpose. Marked by elegiac wanderers, august heroes, and severe homilies, one cannot doubt that the literate inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England had a penchant for the austere. However, recent scholarship has been concerned with recognizing and analyzing some of the lighter aspects of the literature, as well as taking a fresh look at texts typically considered non-humorous. My thesis assumes this perspective by considering the implications of the pedagogical text Colloquies by a little-known 10th century monk named Ælfric Bata. Essentially a grammar book, Colloquies was used as a text book for students of Latin; however, due to the whimsical and at times ridiculous nature of the text, it is a significant departure from other works produced during the Benedictine Reform and provides a valuable insight into the relationship between author and audience in Anglo-Saxon texts. I examine the monastic culture of the Benedictine Reform, questioning some of the long-held positions that claim humor had no place in such a setting. Using this work to establish a contemporary readership, I also analyze some of the more dubious texts from this period, particularly the Old English gnomic catalogues found in the Exeter Book. I will add my voice to this debate by arguing that these poems could have been produced for the same audience as the Colloquies, and thus may contain semblances of humor that has gone overlooked by scholars.