Something to Laugh About

Laughing at experts is nothing new. Kate Davison explores our long history of puncturing the powerful with satire and humour – to keep them in line and just for the fun of it.  

Read the original piece  at
Read the original piece at

Perhaps it is the hours spent in archives or sipping tea at conferences, but there can be few who value old jokes as much as historians do. The first efforts to recover the humour of the past were made in the 1970s with the early stirrings of cultural history and, since then, it has become a well-trodden path to explore past mentalities. Laughter is a fundamental human characteristic – the very thing that separates us from animals, if you follow Aristotle – but the subjects we see fit to laugh at change over time. The theory is simple: if you can ‘get’ the jokes of the past, you can understand the interests and sensibilities of the people who inhabited it.

Penelope Corfield set out to do just this in her 1997 article, ‘Laughing at the Learned’. Taking readers on a romp through 18th- and 19th-century jokes about lawyers, medical experts and clergymen, Corfield exposed the degree of anxiety felt at the increasing power of the ‘learned professions’. They occupied a privileged position by virtue of their specialist knowledge and were thus well placed to take the laity for a ride, should they be so inclined. Jokes, argued Corfield, were a means both to voice discontent and to fight back. By serving up a barrage of ‘hostile wit’, ordinary people could exercise ‘informal moral controls’.

Would the people telling the jokes have agreed with this assessment? As research has developed, the field has broadened to consider not just what was funny in the past, but also what people thought about their jokes. It has become clear that, between the 16th and 18th centuries, laughter was subjected to a degree of fascination and scrutiny seldom matched before or since. It occupied some of the finest minds of the period, from Thomas More to Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jonathan Swift: all penned their thoughts on our risible faculty. Amid the theories, we find some strong support for Corfield’s thesis. The notion that satire generated a species of laughter that was corrective in impulse had been established in antiquity and was upheld in renaissance England, so that by the 18th century it was commonplace. Yet this alone does not explain the rampant popularity of jokes at the expense of the powerful.Along with the learned professions, politicians were (as ever) easy targets: those deemed unprincipled or self-interested might find themselves likened to a weathercock that turns its backside upon every wind, or a Thames waterman who looks one way but rows another. There were jokes about elites and their fashions: strutting fops so doused in orange-flower perfume that they had to keep up a swift pace for fear of suffocation. And jestbooks contained countless tales of plucky underdogs outwitting a social superior.

The frequency of such jokes was not lost on contemporaries and it prompted deep consideration of laughter’s causes. One of the key theories was that we laugh when we perceive ill-suited pairings of ideas, images or situations. In particular, the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson believed that there was something comical in juxtaposing an object, person or event of great seriousness with one that was not. Thus, he observed, ‘any little accident befalling a person of great gravity’ would do the trick every time. The ‘dirtying of a decent dress’ would fit the bill, but so too would seeing the great and good humbled, indeed one newspaper article in 1741 conceded that ‘nothing is so exquisite an intellectual tickling’. Laughing at the powerful was not just a ‘pointed weapon’; it was also supremely enjoyable.

Perhaps this also explains why – as Corfield noted – our tendency to laugh at experts lives on, even if the particular experts bearing the satirical brunt vary from one news cycle to the next. When Corfield was writing in 1997 it was the nation’s teachers; 20 years later they are off the hook, but a wave of ‘anti-establishment’ sentiment, stoked by an EU referendum at home and elections abroad, has brought many others into the firing line. It will be up to historians of the future to make sense of our times, but our jokes will provide them with a good starting point. There will be no shortage of material.

Kate Davison is Lecturer in Early Modern History at Merton College, Oxford.




The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email