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Medieval Visual Humor

  • By: Janetta Rebold Benton
  • In: Encyclopedia of Humor Studies
  • Edited by: Salvatore Attardo
  • Subject:General Media, Communication & Cultural Studies, Sociology of Culture

Because the visual arts were largely in the service of the Christian Church during the Middle Ages in Western Europe, levity may be unexpected. However, medieval artists participated in the long history of witty, clever, even overtly humorous imagery. Although no two examples are identical, certain categories of medieval mischief may be noted.

Clever in Context

The humor of an image may depend on its location— if placed in different surroundings, the joke would be lost. The meaning of these visual puns is readily understood and equally accessible to everyone, no matter one’s origin, language, or level of education. The viewer needs only to look in order to appreciate the artist’s ingenuity. For example, King Charles IV of Bohemia, accompanied by his wife and courtiers, addresses ...

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