A brief round up of humour in history (plus a hint of Lord Byron in Malta)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
This article describes in brief the why and how humour thrived during the thousands of years that man (and women) civilised themselves. The article treats humour as was seen in Biblical times, during Greek and Roman times; in the writings of Shakespeare and Dickens. There is even a hint of humour as treated in Lord Byron's poem: Farewell to Malta.

Submitted: August 23, 2015

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Submitted: August 23, 2015





(with a touch of sardonic humour by Lord Byron himself on Malta)


Laughter has been around for as much as babies have burped, children have poked tongues at each other, young lovers have brushed feet purposely against each other under the dining table and senile senior citizens have farted out loud during church services. Laughter has been shared for thousands of years, amongst children, adults, family members as well as between complete strangers.

The culture of entertainment and the humour that comes with it, may be traced back not only in history books, but even to archaeological sites that go back to thousands of years. Since ancient times, texts recount particular occasions where entertainment was  organised purposely, for the enjoyment of the community. Therefore, entertainment and humour are not only a spontaneous result of a situation that turns funny, but has also been intentionally organised as an event, either by individuals or by groups for a paying audiences.

During the span of a lifetime, there are occasions such as the birth of a child, a wedding ceremony and other family gatherings that involve a whole extended family or community to rejoice together. When such an occasion arises, one tries his best to liven up the spirit of the occasion, mostly by feasting, drinking, pageantry, playing music, organising games or else by adding a dose of humorous entertainment.

It was by such celebrations that the members of a community looked forward to partaking in a festive gathering. The success of this event often turned into a habitual and recurring occasion. Even seasonal occurences in the agricultural cycles, such as the solstices and the harvesting of crops, became opportunities whereby communities gathered for devout rituals which often developed into festive rejoicing and merriment.  

The frescoes in the Palace at Knossos, on the island of Crete, that date back to some 3,200 years ago, depict numerous young athletes leaping over a bull. At face value, this image might be interpreted as being a recording of a ritualistic dance or ceremony, meant to appease the sacred but menacing Minotaur, (the famous bull of the cult of Minos). Yet by all accounts, it is evident that the athletic figures that are depicted, tell us that these young athletes, through their ritualistic game, were also amusing themselves and others as they showed off their athletic prowess. Agonistic games both in Greece and elsewhere might have well started in such manner.


Bible humour 

If you were to search for a dogmatic reason as to why people have always taken comic situations to heart, one might just as well start by referring to one of the oldest historic documents that have come down to us. The Bible, which in some ways may be also regarded as an account of the history of the Jewish people before the time of Christ.  The text of the Bible is replete with passages where humour and laughter are specifically pointed out as such. However, much of the humour recorded in the Bible has a purpose: it demonstrates that evil is wrong and even ludicrous, at times. The humour mentioned is not intended to make the reader laugh. On the contrary, humour is mentioned to show that in certain situations, to laugh is considered to be outlandish. Humour is also mentioned at times as an expression of joy or else a way to mock someone for his wrong-doings. Here are some quotes from the Bible that refer to humour and laughter in various ways:

·'A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.'  Ecclesiastes 3:4.

  • Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” Psalm 126:2
  • He will yet fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouting. Job 8:21
  • A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed. Proverbs 15:13
  • And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” Genesis 21:6
  • Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. Ephesians 5:4 


Greek humour

 When studying the culture of ancient Greece, one comes across the well-known theatrical tragedies, satire and comedies. By our standards, the term comedy is a misnomer. Greek comedies did not actually bear much humour. They were labelled as 'comedy' because the plot of the play was written in a lighter vein and thus had a happy ending. Otherwise nothing much was meant to make the audience laugh. Similarly in the Middle Ages, Dante's work La Divina Commedia, was called so because it was a story told in verses and had a happy ending.

In the  Greek drama, there were only a few actors who performed during a play. Thus, they wore face masks so that each of the actors would be able to appear on stage many times over, to interpret up to some 30 different characters. There were masks with a drooping face that referred to a sad character, whilst others represented a bright and smiling mien that represented a happy character and so on and so forth.

Aristophanes (446 - 386 BC), wrote some thirty comedies. His plays used satire profusely and he told political jokes often aimed at those politicians watching him from amongst the audience.  So his humour was meant to criticise and tantalise those in power. Once he was even tried for slander.

In ancient Greece, there were groups of people who went about, recounting and trading jokes with one another. There were various types of jokes in circulation. For example, there were 'idiot' jokes, wherein the main character of the joke would be doing or saying something incredibly stupid or funny. Another type of jokes had other characters as their main butt of the joke. There were sexist jokes that poked fun at women, others at eunuchs and many jokes in which the fall guys were doctors.  

One of the more famous Greek jokers was Philogelos, who, whose name in Greek means simply 'Laughter-lover'.  Philogelos recounted jokes and even collected some 250 of them in his writings. These are two examples of his jokes that made the rounds in ancient Greece.

  • An Abderite saw a eunuch and asked him how many kids he had. When that guy said that he didn't have the balls, so as to be able to have children, the Abderite asked when he was going to get the balls.
  • A man, just back from a trip abroad, went to a fortune-teller. He asked about his family, and the fortune-teller replied: "Everyone is fine, especially your father." When the man objected that his father had been dead for ten years, the reply came: "You have no clue who your real father is.


Something happened on the way to the forum

The Romans had their fair share of sense of humour too. Sure enough there were satirical jokes aimed at the power-holders of Rome. The Apocolocyntosis, otherwise known as the “Pumpkinification of the Emperor Claudius”, is a piece of Latin literature that gives us an insight into the humour that went on in ancient Rome. This work is sometimes attributed to Seneca who skits the Emperor Claudius by portraying him, making his way to heaven to become a god.  

Professor Mary Beard is the discoverer of some 260 jokes told in ancient Rome. One of them ran as follows:

  • A Roman senator bought a slave. This slave died just a couple of weeks after moving in into his house. So the senator went back to the slave-trader and protested, demanding his money back. He said, 'My slave was not a good quality one because he just died simply after I had taken him in. 'Well' said the witty slave-trader 'I do not know what you did to him but when I had him under my care he certainly did not die !'


Shakespearean humour

The late sixteenth century saw the theatre come of age. That great playwright, William Shakespeare, in his 38 plays, all written between 1582 and 1613, has revealed a lot about the quality of humour that existed in his time. Of these plays, thirteen were comedies. Even here the term refers to those plays that had a happy ending rather than a stage performance that was meant to make people laugh. Yet humour there was and Shakespeare's witty remarks reflect the humour that made the audience smile or laugh!

In many of his plays, Shakespeare used humour that ranges from the slapstick, puns, dry, earthy, witty banter, national or ethnic jokes. Some experts on the works of Shakespeare suspect that some of the jokes that pass by as innocent jokes were intended to be appreciated in truth as dirty jokes, but which were well coated in poetic English. Shakespeare made use especially of a lot of puns. In the Merchant of Venice he uses such puns in great quantity - not less than 50 per scene. This fact reveals that back then, English audiences enjoyed puns to a great degree and that these kind of jokes were easy to comprehend.

Shakespeare uses also stock characters such as professional jesters. He also makes comparisons and pokes fun at the size and shape of certain characters. One of these comic characters is Falstaff who appears in not one but three plays: The two 'Henry IV' and in 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'. Falstaff is depicted as being fat, vain, boisterous and has a cowardly character. He uses self-effacing jokes when he compares himself to his page as 'a sow that has devoured her small ones except one'.


What the Dickens

When speaking about humour in the 19th century one has to bear in mind the structures of societies that kept one subjected to poverty, illiterallism, wars, and social class distinction. This squalid picture is recounted best by none other than that great writer-observer Charles Dickens, who wrote so eloquently about his contemporary society.Dickens published his fifteen novels between 1834 and 1870. His first novel was The Pickwick Papers a rather humorous novel.

Through the thousands of personae Dickens created, he defined a myriad of characters with a great variety of temperament, sobriety and humour that co-existed during his time. In Great Expectations, he introduces Pip, a simple and foolish man, in order to infuse a sense of humour in his novel. In spite of his original intention, the story turns out to be a very melanchonic one. 

All the above is meant to show that humour and the will to entertain and be entertained has come down through the centuries and across cultures, in various forms. Philosophers have shown their wit in cynical or humorous remarks as they observed the behaviour of the society in which they lived. On the other hand, one must admit that comedians too have often expressed their humorous observations about human behaviour in quite a philosophical way. 

The qualities of humour throughout the centuries must be revaluated from time to time, through the ages. This, because humour is dictated by the social ethics and norms of the time. Nevertheless, humour shall best be judged by the dcomedian's contemporaries, especially the audience which is the direct receiver of his comic comments. They would know best what makes them ticklish. The modern reader of ancient humour will therefore, have to dig deep into the psyche of the society where such humour was expressed.  


Lord Byron and Malta

Poets are philosophers of the best kind. They are the once who most able to express their feelings, arguments, observations and moods in the most articulate and sophisticated way. Many a time they are expressing their bitterness, their romantic feelings as well as other emotions to the themselves and their readers. Some of them would also have a humerous vein which flows out of their pen by writing in verses.

To end this essay somewhat closer to home, here is a poem which the famous Lord Byron wrote about his experience when in Malta in 1811, on his journey back to England from Greece. It seems that the club-footed Lord Byron was not at all pleased during his stay in Valletta. What with his having to trudge along the steep stairways of the capital; his contraction and suffering from Brucellosis, known also back then as Mediterrean or Maltese Fever. Neither did he have any praise for his own countrymen living on the island. Indeed there seems to have developed great animosity and he gained a level of notoriety by his flirting with engaged English ladies residing on the island.

His parting words from Malta are full of sarcasm, which may be another term for bitter humour. He was able to show his contempt he had towards the society and the environs that he came across on the rocky Mediterranean military outpost of Great Britain, in the poem below.



Adieu, ye joys of La Valette!
Adieu, sirocco, sun, and sweat!
Adieu, thou palace rarely enter'd!
Adieu, ye mansions where I've ventured!
Adieu, ye cursed streets of stairs!
(How surely he who mounts you swears!)
Adieu, ye merchants often failing!
Adieu, thou mob for ever railing!
Adieu, ye packets without letters!
Adieu, ye fools who ape your betters!
Adieu, thou damned'st quarantine, 
That gave me fever, and the spleen!
Adieu, that stage which makes us yawn, Sirs,
Adieu, his Excellency's dancers!
Adieu to Peter
- whom no fault's in, 
But could not teach a colonel waltzing;
Adieu, ye females fraught with graces!
Adieu, red coats, and redder faces!
Adieu, the supercilious air
Of all that strut 'en militaire'!
I go--but God knows when, or why,
To smoky towns and cloudy sky,
To things (the honest truth to say)
As bad--but in a different way.

Farewell to these, but not adieu, 
Triumphant sons of truest blue!
While either Adriatic shore,
And fallen chiefs, and fleets no more,
And nightly smiles, and daily dinners,
Proclaim you war and woman's winners.
Pardon my Muse, who apt to prate is,
And take my rhyme--because 'tis 'gratis.'

And now I've got to Mrs. Fraser,
Perhaps you think I mean to praise her­
And were I vain enough to think 
My praise was worth this drop of ink,
A line
- or two - were no hard matter,
As here, indeed, I need not flatter:
But she must be content to shine
In better praises than in mine,
With lively air, and open heart,
And fashion's ease, without its art;
Her hours can gaily glide along,
Nor ask the aid of idle song.

And now, O Malta! since thou'st got us,
Thou little military hothouse!
I'll not offend with words uncivil,
And wish thee rudely at the Devil,
But only stare from out my casement,
And ask, for what is such a place meant?
Then, in my solitary nook, 
Return to scribbling, or a book,
Or take my physic while I'm able
(Two spoonfuls hourly by the label),
Prefer my nightcap to my beaver,
And bless the gods I've got a fever.

Lord George Byron May 26, 1811

Sources consulted:


Scott Michael, An Ancient Greek Sense of Humour. December 14, 2010. reprinted from Neos

Mary Beard, Laughter in Ancient Rome: OnJoking, Tickling and Cracking UP, Telegraph Bookshop, 2014.

Lawson William A., Shakespeare's Wit and Humour, George W. Jacobson, & Co. Philadelphia USA  1912

Christianen Rupert, Dickens' Great Expectations. Gutenberg Ebook, 2008.





Martin Morana

August 2015  ©


© Copyright 2020 Martin Morana. All rights reserved.

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