Ribald rhetoric from Rotterdam: what kept Medieval Dutch folk laughing

Posted by mjs76 at Mar 28, 2012 02:05 PM |
New anthology of early comic drama from the Netherlands.

The period from the mid 15th century to the late 16th century was one of political and religious turmoil in the Low Countries. The Dutch-speaking territories of Northern Europe were united under the Duke of Burgundy in 1433, spent a century or so establishing their national identity – increased trade, Protestant reformation etc. – as part of the Habsburg Empire and eventually revolted against Philip II of Spain in 1566.

And it was during this period that comedy flourished like never before, with performances that were bawdy, ribald and satirical. However, without a working knowledge of Medieval Dutch language it is difficult to appreciate these works and what they tell us about the society that created them.

A new book co-edited by Ben Parsons from our School of English sets out to resolve this situation by bringing together the texts of five farces and five comic monologues in both the original Dutch and a modern English translation. Ben has collaborated with Bas Jongenelen, a teacher of Dutch Literature at Fontys Lerarenopleiding in Tilburg, to produce Comic Drama in the Low Countries, c.1450-1560: A Critical Anthology, published this month by Boydell and Brewer.

The source of their material was the rederijkerskamers or ‘chambers of rhetoric’ which were private clubs for urban, middle class professionals. Every town had at least one rederijkerskamer where the rederijkers would entertain each other with comic farces and monologues, and also create comic dramas for the citizens to enjoy at festivals and celebrations. This being the Middle Ages, it should come as no surprise that some of these plays were far from subtle in their humour.

At least 79 such farces are known to survive, with more than a hundred other comic Dutch plays from this period and a large number of monologues, so Ben and Bas had plenty to choose from. Each piece appears twice in the book: the original Dutch text on one page and a new English translation opposite it. The works often had complex rhyming structures which the editors have not attempted to replicate because: “our main concern in translating these pieces has been to make them as accessible and fluent as possible; clarity has been our guiding concern throughout.”

The book, which is available from the University bookshop, also includes an introductory essay and annotations to explain some of the more esoteric references. (You can read the introduction and one of the monologues using this publisher's widget.) The contents of the book range from the sophisticated Farce of the Fisherman, with its sly undermining of audience expectation, to the grim gallows humour of The Farce of the Beggar, and the hearty scatology of the piece below:

'Feast of Fools' by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Oath of Master Pawnbroker

This extract is from a comic monologue written by Jan Colyns for a zottenfeest (Feast of Fools) in Brussels in 1551. It is a lampoon of a coronation oath, recited in front of a newly elected King of Fools, and gives a good idea of what tickled 16th century Dutch funny bones:

Now listen, King, spread your fingers out,
Say this after me, and swear it on this key:
‘This I swear by the piss–pot and by the privy,
And by the seat with the open hole
And as truly as the strainer who sat upon it
Who drank and ate so tremendously much,
Just as it is written in the foul book
That he befouled himself behind and before,
So I shall undermine the aforementioned with all faith
According to my abilities, from top to bottom,
And will help to strengthen and increase it’[…]
Hear now, you subjects, you must also swear fealty
To the King, and help him in his consuming
And always stand by him, night and day.