Rare 15th-century comedy skit manuscripts discovered in Scotland

A researcher from Cambridge University has found a treasure trove of 15th-century documents written by a medieval minstrel.
Christopher McFadden
The documents are a real comedy treat.


A University of Cambridge researcher has uncovered some 15th-century manuscripts that appear to record examples of medieval stand-up comedy. Containing outrageous content that wouldn't be too out of place today, the documents reveal that Britain's unique sense of humor has deep roots. It also provides an exciting insight into the life and times of minstrels of the day.

The documents contain records of comedy skits that mock the monarchy, clergy, and audience and encourage people to drink and be merry. They also include what appears to be the first-ever recorded use of the phrase "red herring." In short, the manuscripts provide an unprecedented insight into how people entertained themselves at the time. The researcher who found the documents even goes as far as to suggest they may change the way we think about famous English comics from times like Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Dr. James Wade, from Cambridge University’s English Faculty and Girton College, accidentally came across the texts while researching in the National Library of Scotland. Dr. Wade had a “moment of epiphany” when he noticed the scribe had written: ‘By me, Richard Heege, because I was at that feast and did not have a drink.’“

"It was an intriguing display of humor, and it’s rare for medieval scribes to share that much of their character,” Wade says. The study by Wade, recently published in The Review of English Studies, delves into the first nine booklets in the so-called "Heege Manuscript." This booklet consists of three texts, which Wade believes were copied by Heege from a long-lost memory aid written by an unknown minstrel who performed near the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border around 1480. The three texts include a burlesque romance called "Hunting of the Hare," a mock sermon in prose, and "The Battle of Brackonwet," an alliterative nonsense verse.

“Most medieval poetry, song, and storytelling has been lost,” Wade says. “Manuscripts often preserve relics of high art. This is something else. It’s mad and offensive but just as valuable. Stand-up comedy has always involved taking risks, and these texts are risky! They poke fun at everyone, high and low,” he added.

Wade believes that the minstrel must have written down some parts of his acts because of the numerous nonsensical sequences that would have been too challenging to remember. “He didn’t give himself the kind of repetition or story trajectory which would have made things simpler to remember,” Wade says.

“Here we have a self-made entertainer with little education creating original, ironic material. To get an insight into someone like that from this period is incredibly rare and exciting,” Wade explains. It is believed that numerous minstrels had day jobs, such as plowmen and peddlers, and performed at night and on weekends (much like standup comedians who start their careers today).

Some may have traveled extensively, while others may have limited themselves to a local circuit, as Wade speculates about this minstrel. “You can find echoes of this minstrel’s humor in shows like 'Mock the Week,' situational comedies, and slapstick. The self-irony and making audiences the butt of the joke are still very characteristic of British stand-up comedy,” Wade said.

“These texts are far more comedic, and they serve up everything from the satirical, ironic, and nonsensical to the topical, interactive, and meta-comedic. It’s a comedy feast,” Wade added.

You can review the study in the journal The Review of English Studies.

Study abstract:


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