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.  

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’.

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