Medieval breakthrough: Historian unveils Monks’ ‘dirty poetry and rude jokes’

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The Middle Ages are often portrayed as a period of stagnation; a point in which humans were seemingly stuck in the mud. A term that has become synonymous with the period, much to the annoyance of historians, is the “Dark Ages”. Yet, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Middle Ages were a period marked by cultural, social and scientific progress.

Many of the things we use today were devised and created during the period spanning the fifth to 15th century

For example, the mechanical clock, first invented in Europe at the start of the 1300s.

Alongside the assumption that the period was a dark age is that the Middle Ages were boring and mundane; entirely devoted to piety and faith.

And while those living in the era did not have the technology we use to entertain ourselves today, Dr Seb Falk of the University of Cambridge explained there were other forms of amusement in wide circulation.

Just like modern people, those in the Middle Ages would have created their own fun: code was a particular source of intellectual stimulation, in which monks would set each other the task of deciphering varying levels of text.

Slightly less pious was the dirty poetry or jokes these religious figures or scholars would tell each other to pass the time, Dr Falk said.

He explained: “We always think because they don’t have what we have, because they don’t have the ways of having fun that we have, that they can’t possibly have had fun – but of course they had fun, and they had fun in their own ways.

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“You see it all hewn into the manuscripts that I look at.

“Not only are they doing things like making up codes, they’re also writing dirty poetry, saying rude things about drinking too much.

“These are things that we today can identify with, these intellectual games and jokes, these people lived their lives in a very learned space – making clever little things like this is how nerds have fun.

“I think when we focus almost entirely on battles, wars, kings, people dying and plague, we lose sight of the fact that actually, there’s a huge amount of scientific interest, intellectual interest, artist interest, really positive achievements in the Middle Ages.”


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Monks, tasked with the job of duplicating manuscripts, scientific and literary texts, would have spent hours painstakingly copying out word for word each script.

Inevitably, this would have led to moments of boredom.

Countless manuscripts that have survived the ages bear the watermarks of those monks who so meticulously copied out each word, and were perhaps often plagued by moments of procrastination.

Some of the surviving texts are accompanied by doodles.

Fish, elephants, foxes, warrior snails and murderous rabbits can be found in the margins – spaces that became areas for monks with a crude sense of humour. 

Dr Falk attempted to bring these people to life, and added: “Simply, these are humans we are talking about – they were living their best lives and trying to make their way in the world, all while trying to enjoy themselves while they could.”

Seb Falk’s new book ‘The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey of Discovery’ is published by Allen Lane and out now.

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