Mischief in the Middle Ages

THE Rev. A. G. L’Estrange, in his History of Humor, remarks that in his investigations he encounters a formidable Demon of the Threshold. Any one who has studied the subject and attempted to unravel the mazes in which it is lost will understand at once what the demon is. It is one which causes almost hopeless confusion, entangles and ensnares the unwary, and inspires every student with a new definition. In a word, it is the demon which Mephistopheles represents himself to be when he says, “ Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint,” — the spirit that prompts every writer to differ with all others, and deny those conclusions which have been already arrived at. This bewildering uncertainty, which lies as a stumbling-block in the way of all researches as to the nature of humor, is as true with regard to its twin, mischief. Heretofore there has never been a monograph, much less a book, devoted solely to mischief ; yet it forms a very common subject, distinct in itself, and, when clearly defined and understood, supplies the missing link in the moral world, bridging over the gulf between the animal creation and man. For mischief runs riot in those animals most distinguished for their intelligence, — in dogs, monkeys, and parrots; it characterizes the youth and childhood of the human individual and of the human race ; it lights up with smiles the dim old mythologies of the world’s childhood ; it breaks out in the Middle Ages in the jesters and court-fools, in Pulcinello, the prototype of Punch; and it abounds and overflows in the rollicking Panurges and Eulenspiegels of literature.

Much confusion has arisen from the fact that the noun, mischief, has usually been defined as evil result, harm, or injury, and in this sense has been used by all standard English writers ; whereas the verb, to be mischievous, conveys a very different meaning. But it is this latter signification, in accordance with the definition given by C. J. Smith in his Dictionary of Synonyms, that I would here adopt. I will then define mischief (l'esprit malin) as selfish wantonness or indulgence of animal spirits; that is, the desire of action not guided by reason, or the desire to feel one’s own power, often inspired by humor, which is so common a part of enjoyment that it would almost seem as if, without it, mischief is no longer mischief. Malebranche says that the seventh condition of passion is “ a certain sweetness which generally accompanies all passions, whether excited by good or evil. It is this joy which renders all our passions agreeable.” This is the dulcedo of other writers contemporary with Malebranche. So we may say that the dulcedo, or joy which underlies the successful achievement of mischief, is a feeling which would be equally excited by good or evil, and which belongs to neither. Morally it is

Copyright, 1881, by HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & Co.

“ Half of one order, half another,
A creature of amphibious nature,
That preys on either grace or sin,
A sheep without, a wolf within.”

I sincerely trust that no one who reads these pages will consider any of the illustrations selected as simply humorous. There has hitherto been so little distinction between mischief with humor and humor per se that many who have not analytical minds will never learn the difference. As Mr. George H. Lewes found a gentleman whom he could not bring in three hours to understand the idea of substance without attribute, so I have found that there are those who cannot understand that there may be humor with or without mischief, or that the reckless or willful indulgence in fun involves something very different from fun itself. The difference is that between the will exerted with power and the instrument.

Mischief is often closely akin to pure evil. We see this in the Red Indian or South Sea Islander, who maliciously adds every conceivable torture to prolong the agonies of his victim, while the women and children, looking on, laugh with delight at each new contortion. But with the evolution of the moral sense, or the evolution of conduct, as Herbert Spencer calls it, the sympathies are gradually developed, until the connection between cruelty and the sense of humor is destroyed, and the cruel element, no longer the end desired, is merely a chance occurrence arising from the absence of reflection, though too often, unfortunately, evil in its results.

“But evil is wrought by want of thought as well as want of heart.”

With this separation, mischief becomes gay, thoughtless, and merry, or the very spirit of youth, when an exuberance of mental activity is not counterbalanced by an equal development of the reasoning powers. This is true of races as well as of individuals, and hence we find the Middle Ages, when the Western world was young, overflowing with droll mischief. It was the order of the day. Artists and nobles, peasants and serfs, high and low, all dearly loved a jest, and went laughing through life as if it were a carnival, and one’s only aim was to be jolly. There was a grotesqueness, a quaintness, a certain irresistible charm, about the mischief of those days which had never been before, and which can never be again. This was owing to two causes.

The first cause was this. When Christianity was established it had to wage war against a sensuality pervading every rank in life, and one which always marks a waning civilization. As a contradistinction to this the church went to the extreme of asceticism, and taught that all earthly pleasures are sinful. This doctrine was naturally accompanied by manifold evils. It prevented progress, for every new step forward brought with it greater attachment to the “ lusts of the flesh.” Pleasure is absolutely necessary to mental as well as physical development. Hence, the ignorance and degradation of that long period known as the Dark Ages, though originating in the incursions of barbarians, were heightened and prolonged by the promulgation of the strange doctrine of asceticism. But this could not last. Human nature will assert itself, and after the harsh and stern period there came the reaction. The scholastic philosophy, which had fettered the learned and been the limit of learning, vanished like night before the morning redness of the rising Renaissance. “ The Occidental mind was then,” says Professor Morris,1 “ like an overgrown, undisciplined boy, such as all savages are said to be. It celebrated its release from scholasticism and all its restraints by hurling at it manly anathemas, very much as the boy, when the period of his youthful schooling is over, is apt to turn his back on the scene of his scholastic discipline and on his teachers with the exclamation, Good-by, old school! you can’t rule me any longer ! ” It is no wonder that in such a state of society, when merriment burst its bands, mischief ran riot, and the lord of misrule became mighty.

The other cause for the merry roguery of the Middle Ages we find in the gradual civilization of the Northmen and their settlement over all Europe. These men, living in snow and ice, their long winter one endless night, seem from their very hardships and struggles to have evolved in a shorter time more sympathy than the Southern nations. There is a special tendency in the East and in Southern countries to associate pleasure with the exercise of cruelty. Though the Northmen were brutal enough, rough, unpolished warriors as they were, there was in them a queer, grotesque humor which softened their otherwise too rugged nature. Strong and invincible, they unconsciously influenced the people among whom they settled ; and the spirit which arose from the blending of the rich humor of the North with the refined malice of the South rapidly made itself felt through Europe. We see it peeping out from the goblins and fantastic figures of Gothic architecture ; we hear it in the merry shake of the cap and bells of the privileged fool; and we find it in the quaint literature of those days. Even Satan appears in a new light; we almost lose sight of the dignified Lucifer of the Hebrews, and in the Mephistophelian laugh which now accompanies all his exploits there is a gleam of the mischief-maker Loki. This stage of mischief served its good end. Luther and Calvin accomplished great reforms, but they might not have succeeded so readily had they been unaided by Rabelais, Ulrich von Hütten, and their brethren.

Every age is mirrored in its art and literature, and it is in them that the mischief of the Middle Ages is best studied. All Europe was nominally Christian, but more than a remnant of paganism remained, and there arose a new mythology, which embraced elements from all the old ones, producing a spirit world of demons, fairies, and goblins, and creating innumerable legends and superstitions. Many of these demons are represented, and their legends quaintly recorded, in the mediæval buildings and the illuminated manuscripts. From the walls of the old cathedrals monstrous figures look down upon us. Apes and foxes, youths and maidens with fair faces and bestial forms, hideous goblins with mouths distended in a diabolical grin, — every conceivable grotesqueness is there, until we wonder how the piety of the people could exist by the side of this seeming mockery. That it did have its effect upon their imagination is more than probable, for in some legends there is a marked confusion between the actual sculptured goblins and the weird visitants from the land of ghosts. This doubtless was the foundation of the Thuringian legend of a nun named Ursula. When alive, so the story goes, there was always something unearthly in her nature, and, while chanting matins and vespers, she continually made a howling noise like the hooting of an owl, for which reason she was nicknamed in the monastery Tûtursel, or Tooting Ursula. After death she became more deliberately mischievous. Returning to the convent chapel during the vesper hour, she would wander up to the ceiling or along the high wall, poke her head out through the carvings, and howl and wail like the wind. One day the sisters saw the goblin head peeping out from the Gothic tracery, pale and distinct against the deep tone of the background, and they ran, screaming, in a panic from the chapel. Duly exorcised, the Tûtursel was banished to the Hartz Mountains, where she associated afterward with Hakelnburg, the Wild Hunter, who had sold his soul to the devil so that he might hunt to the day of judgment. She is the Owl always depicted in the Wild Hunt.

In the symbolism of that period queer three-legged frog-goblins, brazen and impudent, occur over and over again, as in China, and the monkey is made syn onymous with the devil. In an illuminated manuscript the temptation of Adam and Eve is represented by a spiteful monkey sitting opposite to an innocent child, grasping it with one hand and holding an apple in the other. The sculptors and illuminators were especially fond of setting forth the fox as a humorous mischief-maker. In many cathedrals and manuscripts he is portrayed preaching to a flock of geese; or else in ecclesiastical garb, as in Japan, listening to priestly counsel, while from his hood peep out the heads of geese which he has captured, and with which he is making off. This conception of the fox as the type of cunning mischief reached its culminating point in the romance of Reineke Fuchs, where force overcome by craft, a favorite idea of the Middle Ages, is the moral of the tale.

In mediæval legends the scriptural Satan, no longer a spirit of pure evil or the arch-enemy of God, was transformed into a roguish demon. He was more like a droll hobgoblin playing tricks for his own amusement, and his “type” was the result of a queer combination of the pranks of the Northern Loki with the horns, tail, and cloven feet of the Southern Pan. He was easily recognized by his feet, his tail, or the strong smell of sulphur he left behind him. By no means all-powerful, he was often cheated and fooled. He was fond of bargaining for the souls of mortals, and, to seal such compacts, he required the signature of his victim written in blood. As compared with the Shemitic evil principle, or the awful demons and Northern trolls which had preceded him, he appears like a mischievous monkey. In all his representations, — and their name is legion, — there is one peculiarity which cannot possibly escape even the most inattentive : he is always depicted with a smirk of intense satisfaction at his own misdoings, joined to an inimitable expression of vulgar mischief. In one of the most popular of mediæval pictures demons are seen carrying the souls of the damned to hell ; and very jolly work they seem to find it, for their mouths are stretched from ear to ear in hideous grins, and their grotesque features are contracted into that expression of demoniac fun which was perfected by the artists of the Middle Ages. The devil possessed to a marvelous extent the power of changing his form, and appeared in every shape: now, as a hunted stag, he led the hunter to the very brink of a deep precipice; or else, as in the legend of Floris II, Count of Holland, he came as a black dog, and hindered the workmen from filling up a certain dyke. Finally, a courageous workman caught the devil dog by the throat and hurled him into the abyss, whereupon they were able to proceed in their work ; and the dam is to this day known as the Hundsdam, or the Dog’s Dam. German students still call being in good luck “ on the dam,” and in misfortune “ on the dog,” but whether the sayings are connected with the legend is not recorded.

The devil as Friar Rush is the hero of a tale which was popular all over Northern Europe. Disguised as a simple youth, he became cook in a monastery, where he rendered himself valuable by his services. He pampered the good monks in all their secret foibles, but was at the same time mindful of his own relaxation. There is a proverb stating that God sends meat and the devil sends cooks, which was verified in the story of Friar Rush ; only that, instead of cooking badly, as the proverb would lead us to infer, he dinnered them so deliciously that he led his brethren into all the sins of luxury. I do not know whether we find here a reason why the marmiton, or pot-boy, in a French kitchen is so often called le diable, but men have been called devils for less. On one occasion Friar Rush secretly supplied every brother in the monastery with a heavy wooden stick, and when they were in their chapel chanting matins, before dawn, he, with subtle cunning, engaged them in a quarrel, which grew in intensity until each monk in turn drew forth his staff, and the battle began in real earnest. When the strife was at its height, and the good brothers were belaboring each other in the most unchristian-like manner, Rush blew out the lights, and then settled himself down to pure enjoyment of the wild scene of confusion that followed. He was so sly that in all his pranks he was never suspected, and his reign was long and merry. But the time of retribution came. One night when he went to attend a meeting of the spirits of evil, he was seen by a man who had concealed himself in a hollow tree. In the old black-letter story this meeting on the heath is made very picturesque in the Northern style. The man who witnessed the whole performance, “ on the wild wold by demon light aglow,” related it promptly to the abbot. Friar Rush was plentifully sprinkled with holy water, and, through the exorcisms of the abbot, was transformed into a horse and condemned to hardships little suited to his jovial nature. This story shows the identity of the evil spirit with the mere tricksy goblin. We lose all memory of a “ Fende from Helle,” and think of him only as a Robin Goodfellow.

As distinct as the mythology of Greece or Scandinavia was the fairy mythology of mediæval Europe. It borrowed from the one grace and sensuous recklessness, from the other ruggedness and humor, and formed a whole of sprightly mischief. Fairies, imps, hobgoblins, demons, and a hundred other spirits played in a fairy-land of their own. They were neither malevolent nor benevolent; they were simply mischievous. Sometimes visible, sometimes invisible, they never tired of teasing and fooling stupid mortals. In-doors, they upset the furniture ; made strange noises; gayly flitted from one person to another, pulling their hair, pinching them, and ingeniously practicing on them every kind of minor torture. Out-of-doors, their tricks were more boisterous ; it seemed as if the fresh air intoxicated them. They misled the traveler, guiding him into morasses and brambly thickets; or, appearing in the shape of a horse, one would stand quietly grazing, the picture of gentleness, until some unlucky man was tempted to mount him, and then away he flew, over heath and bog, over fen and moor, until the rider fell off, bruised and exhausted. They haunted wine-cellars and drank up the beer and wine, and were especially fond of playing this trick on the monks, whose love of good eating and drinking was then proverbial. Their kinship to Friar Rush was made apparent, for like him they succumbed at the first touch of holy water. In a certain monastery barrel after barrel of wine was mysteriously consumed, and not all the watching in the world could bring the thief to light. Finally, in despair, the monks sprinkled the barrels with holy water. In the morning, when they went down to examine the premises, lo ! astride of one of them was a little shaggy elf, imprisoned there by the power of the sacred spell. This story frequently recurs in the literature devoted to this fairy mythology, of which the old ballad of Robin Goodfellow may be taken as a fair specimen ; for mischievous Robin was the type of all the Pucks and tricksy elves of the Elizabethan period.

The mischief of the Middle Ages is again set forth in the jongleurs and court-fools. The object of the jesters was, like that of the mimi of antiquity, to make people laugh until their sides ached, as Mümer says in his introduction to Tyll Eulenspiegel. To accomplish this end any folly was permitted. They played tricks worthy of Robin Goodfellow; they danced and tumbled, they grimaced and writhed ; and every new absurdity and far-fetched conceit was met with peals of admiring laughter. There was little real wit among them ; their fun was of the rudest, and their jests were coarse and rough. In those days one of the favorite amusements of the nobles was gabbing. This is best described in the Voyage de Charlemagne, by the trouvère, Turold. It is interesting to know that, like the gentleman in Pickwick, Charlemagne had the gift of the gab “ wery gallopin;" while we find that the expression is by no means a modern vulgarism, but one rendered memorable by a good old age and royal example. Charlemagne and his twelve peers had once been nobly entertained by King Hugo. When the feast was over, the guest party retired to their chamber, where the usual after-dinner amusement began. As the wine passed around, the mirth became more hilarious and the jests bolder. The first gab was made by Charlemagne. With vaunts more flattering to himself than to his royal host, he declared that he could with utmost ease perform deeds of valor by which Hugo and his court would be discomfited and dishonored. Oliver’s boasts were not complimentary to the king’s fair daughter; while Turpin, the archbishop, nothing daunted by his clerical dignity from enjoying a good gab, boasted that he could execute tricks far surpassing those of ordinary mountebanks and jesters. The party grew jollier, and each tried to outvie the other; but their mirth was destined to a sad result. A spy, who had concealed himself in the room and listened to their jokes, reported all that had passed to Hugo, who became wrathful; and nothing short of a miracle and a gentle maiden’s kindness would have saved them. If such was the coarse fun of the nobility, one cannot be surprised at the pranks and follies of the jesters, who had no other aim in life than to excite laughter.

One of the privileges the fool acquired with his cap and bells was perfect freedom of speech. With an air of simplicity he hurled his mischievous abuse at kings and bishops, knights and ladies, on every occasion. His boldest sallies met with less reproof than sympathetic applause. His seeming stupidity added immensely to the joke. Owing to their enormous popularity the fools were duly celebrated in poetry and prose, while their cap and bells and other insignia of folly found their place with the demons and grotesque animals of Gothic architecture, and, ornamenting the margin of manuscripts, served as a merry contrast to the weighty matter of many a ponderous tome.

Of all the fools of fiction or of reality there is not one who stands out in such bold relief, as a good-natured rogue and insatiable mischief-maker, as Tyll Eulenspiegel. He is irresistible. Whether we follow him to the bee-hive where he set the two thieves to fighting, while he made his escape, undetected ; whether we accompany him to the church spire in Magdeburg on that famous occasion when he assembled crowds around the church, only to tell them they were bigger fools than he was himself; or whether we are witnesses of his imposture upon so august a person as the Pope, we cannot resist laughing heartily with him, while we admire his amazing ingenuity. His mischief began from his earliest years. His mother boasted that he had received three baptisms ; for, as she carried him home from the baptismal font, she dropped him in the mud, and in consequence Master Tyll had his third plunge in a basin of water. Perhaps the mud counteracted the good which should have come from his Christian initiation. However that may be, from that day forward he became the scourge of every town to which he went, so that to many he could return only well disguised. His adventures were various. He assumed every profession and every character. Doctor, magistrate, missionary, cook, priest, baker, — he was all these, and many things besides. He passed through as many professions as Louis Philippe does in the caricatures of Gavarni. But his cap peeped out at the most solemn moments, and the ring of his bells revealed the jester. There is a single idea incarnate in every popular book, in which it recurs like the refrain in a ballad, and constitutes the true charm. That in Baron Münchausen is lying adventure ; that of the Seven Suabians is great stupidity allied to petty cunning, that of the Hindu Guru Simple is the same, with pretense of superior wisdom ; that of Eulenspiegel is the literal execution of every command in such a way as to defeat its object by carrying it out too literally. He obeyed to the letter, but never to the spirit.

Gifted with the wisdom of infinite impudence, nothing daunted him. He was no misshapen goblin, but, like Le Glorieux, a handsome man. Added to this he possessed enormous physical strength and coolness. When the occasion required it, he could leave his mischief, and go forth from the town to slay a wolf. Slinging its dead body over his shoulders, he was as unconcerned as Thor was when he went on his expeditions against the trolls. This denotes clearly his Northern origin. He was ready for every emergency. Where a greater man would have been lost forever, the rogue shone with increased brilliance. Tricks were played upon him which he, in his sagacious folly, turned to his own profit. True to himself, his last thoughts were devoted to mischief. Dying, he made a will, in which he left his possessions, all contained in one large box, to be divided among his friends, the council of Müllen, and the parson of that town. But when his heirs opened the box they found only stones. Over Eulenspiegel’s grave was placed a stone, on which was cut an owl, a looking-glass, and the following lines, recalling Shakespeare’s epitaph:

“Here lies Eulenspiegel buried low,
His body is in the ground ;
We warn the passenger that so
He move not this stone’s bound.”

Eulenspiegel was the true child of his age. Had we no other records of mediæval Europe, we could read its homelife in the Marvelous Adventures of Master Tyll. Wanton playfulness — mischief for the sake of mischief—is the key-note to the whole book, as it is to the wonderful centuries which separated the barbarism of the Dark Ages from the light of the Renaissance, — a period little understood by the world of the nineteenth century.

In the palmy days of jesters and fools, and of the grotesque in literature and art, the church was at its zenith. The clergy were all-powerful, but they had their weak points. Or rather their very weaknesses arose from their greatness. It was the dignity attached to the clerical character which made the priests and monks an inexhaustible subject for mischievous satire. Gluttony, personified by a fat, comfortable-looking monk, devouring in solitary enjoyment a dish of cakes, while a rakish little imp held up the dish for him, was an exquisite joke to the faithful. Equally mirth-inspiring was such a poem as one written by Nigellus Wireker in the twelfth century, in which a jackass figures as the hero. After going to Paris and plunging into every dissipation, the jackass became penitent and resolved to amend his ways. He turned his thoughts to the monastic life as the best road for repentance, and this gave him the opportunity to open the flood-gates of ridicule upon the numerous religious orders. Each in turn was severely handled, until, in despair, the hero resolved, like Rabelais’s Friar John, to found an order of his own. A monk was the victim of the crowning exploit of that fascinating good-for-nothing, Francois Villon, if we can believe the story as told by Rabelais.

But the period of careless light-heartedness, of gay insouciance, was coming to a close. Villon was a rake and a rogue, a very dare-devil in his flights of fun; but he was at the same time a melancholy man, as thoroughly convinced of the nothingness of life as are his pessimist admirers of our generation. Passing from its youth into manhood, the world was growing conscious of its ignorance. A rebound was about to follow the reaction, for such is the world’s history, — reaction succeeding reaction, and so on, ad infinitum. A flood of learning was spreading over Europe. Greece was disclosing her rich treasures of literature and art. Mighty men were rising to awaken the people from the slumber of superstition and folly, and lead them to the everlasting light of science and learning. It was time to cast off the childish state, and with it the cap and bells, and all savoring of mischief. But, as often the highest flame will flare up from the dying embers, so the old spirit of misrule, making one last effort before it perished, produced the most perfect incarnation of mischief the world had yet seen. This was Panurge. Rabelais’s other characters, Gargantua, Pantagruel, Friar John, were giants of jovial humor, but there was wisdom beneath their folly. Not so with Panurge, who thought of nothing, cared for nothing, but mischief. His tricks were always elaborate, the result of deep study and forethought. Now he is represented as lying in wait for the night-watch; as they came up a certain hill, he overturned a cart, hurling it with such force toward the poor men as to knock them over and over, — “like so many pigs,” Rabelais says. Again, he saluted them with a well-laid train of gunpowder, “ and then made himself sport to see what good grace they had in running away. . . . He commonly carried a whip under his gown, wherewith he whipped without remission the pages, whom he found carrying wine to their masters, to make them mend their pace. In his coat he had about six and twenty little fobs and pockets always full, one with some lead water and a little knife as sharp as a glover’s needle, wherewith he used to cut purses ; another with some kind of bitter stuff, which he threw into the eyes of those he met ; another with clot-burs pinned with little geese or capons’ feathers, which he cast upon the gowns and caps of honest people; . . . in another he had a good stock of needles and thread, wherewith he did a thousand little devilish pranks.” Panurge, and after him the immortal Falstaff, were the last of the jolly crew. The Renaissance and the Reformation brought with them a seriousness and thoughtfulness that made wanton playfulness for the many an impossibility. The fun that remained acquired a more dignified tone, and satire, no longer the outcome of exuberance of spirits, became an instrument for great ends.

Man has progressed steadily since the Middle Ages, and the gains have been immense, but we cannot look back upon the good old times of minstrels and troubadours without a sigh of regret. No doubt the discomforts, physical and spiritual, were enormous. There were pestilences, famines, and dirt, but over all is thrown a charm as we listen to the silken rustling of fair ladies’ robes, the twanging of troubadours’ lutes, and the merry laugh of light-hearted men and women. It is the old story. The present may be happy, there may be glorious hopes for the future,

“ Mais où sont les neiges d’autan ?”

Elizabeth Robins.

  1. British Thought and Thinkers. By Prof. G. S. Morris. Chicago. 1880.