Medieval Humor and Renaissance Jokes

Medieval Humor and Renaissance Jokes

Every April 1st, people across the world celebrate April Fool’s Day. This is a day of jokes, pranks, and a general sense of humor. But what sense of humor did medieval and Renaissance people have? What did they find funny, and what kind of value did they put on funny people? In this post, we take a quick look at medieval humor and Renaissance jokes.

The Fool or the Jester

We will begin with the role of the jester, aka the fool. This job title is perhaps one of the most recognizable symbols of medieval humor. However, the actual job description was more than just being funny. The jester had to be multi-talented to be hired by a courtier, let alone the king. You had to be able to make jokes and music, juggle, tell stories, and be generally entertaining.

In addition, you had the slightly dubious benefit of a form of freedom of speech. You had the power to say pretty much what you wanted to a certain extent. You were to use this to mock and joke about the members of the court, including the king. In fact, you were supposed to keep the king in check a bit, but keep in mind that if you lost the kings favor, you were out of luck.

Also, if you happened to be a part of a court at war, you could find yourself being used as a messenger for surrenders and hostage negotiations, which sometimes didn’t end well for the jester. Another part of your wartime duties would have been to taunt the enemy into making mistakes and raising the morale of your side.

If you succeeded in gaining the kings favor as a jester, you could find yourself making a fortune. Tom le Fol was paid the equivalent of 240 days of a skilled laborer’s wages by performing at the wedding of Edward I’s daughter. He was paid 50 shillings when a skilled thatcher could make 2.5 pence a day.

Literary Humor

Of course, medieval and Renaissance humor wasn’t just limited to jesters. There were writers who incorporated it into their works. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and another one named Bracciolini were a few.

For Chaucer, medieval humor revolved around the dirty joke or the fart joke. In fact, one of his famous Canterbury Tales is almost entirely based around farts. This story was the Summoner’s Tale and discussed how to share a fart with multiple people. Yes, Chaucer is often considered a pillar of English literature, and he wrote about farts in his best-known work. Medieval humor was filled with this sense of humor. And it didn’t stop in the Renaissance.

Renaissance Jokes

The first printed joke book was the Facetiae by Poggio Bracciolini in 1470. This book continues the medieval tradition of low-brow humor. Much of the jokes compiled in this book focus on topics such as adultery and similar adult topics as well as fat jokes. In addition, there are six fart jokes and six defecation jokes. No, humans have not really changed since then in their sense of humor. Dirty jokes abounded in the Renaissance as did puns and jokes about wordplay. One of the kings of wordplay and humorous turns of phrase was Shakespeare.

Shakespeare loved to use plays on words, jokes, and one-liners. Some of them are very much along the lines of modern-day dad jokes. In Othello Act 3 Scene 1, he gives the following exchange between two characters:

Cassio: Dost thou hear, my honest friend?

Clown: No, I hear not your honest friend, I hear you.

In another one of his plays, the Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare wrote:

Petruchio: Knock, I say.

Gumio: Knock, sir? Whom should I knock?

In case you don’t understand the second play on words, Gumio is asking about who they should fight with, and Petruchio is just wanting them to knock on a door. This is basically the Renaissance equivalent of using the words foul and fowl in the same sentence. If you just facepalmed, you’re not alone in that. Yes, Shakespeare, another literary pillar and often considered to be high-brow literature, loved dad-jokes. His plays often include dirty jokes as well, you just have to find them. Again, people really haven’t changed that much when it comes to what they find funny.


In this post, we looked at medieval humor and Renaissance jokes. From the jester at court to Shakespeare’s plays, there are multiple ways to look at what people once found funny. Even today, many people still find the same things funny even if they are expressed slightly differently.


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