Monty Python’s white rabbit sketch has entered the annals of comedy history, but they may have been beaten to the punchline by a few hundred years.
A 15th-century minstrel had already put smiles on the faces of audiences with skits about a murderous rodent, according to a recently unearthed manuscript.
Dr James Wade, of Cambridge University, has uncovered one of the earliest records of a live comedy performance in the UK in a 15th-century manuscript which recounts the act of a medieval minstrel.
He noticed the texts while researching in the National Library of Scotland and said they “poke fun at everyone”.
They mock kings, priests and peasants, encourage audiences to get drunk and contain a scene reminiscent of the murderous rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Dr Wade believes that household cleric Richard Heege, who wrote the manuscript, copied out the text after witnessing the performance of an unknown minstrel near the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border in around 1480.
The academic said he 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 humour and it’s rare for medieval scribes to share that much of their character,” said Dr Wade.
The texts are said to contain the earliest recorded use of “red herring” in English.
“Heege gives us the rarest glimpse of a medieval world rich in oral storytelling and popular entertainments,” said Dr Wade.
When the unknown minstrel was performing, the Wars of the Roses were still being fought and life was hard for most people in England.
But Dr Wade said: “These texts remind us that festive entertainment was flourishing at a time of growing social mobility.
“People back then partied a lot more than we do today, so minstrels had plenty of opportunities to perform.
“They were really important figures in people’s lives right across the social hierarchy. These texts give us a snapshot of medieval life being lived well.”
The texts all feature in-jokes to appeal to local audiences and show a playful awareness of the kind of diverse, celebrating audiences that we know minstrels performed to.
Dr Wade thinks the minstrel wrote part of his act down because its many nonsense sequences would have been extremely difficult to recall.
“He didn’t give himself the kind of repetition or story trajectory which would have made things simpler to remember,” said Dr Wade.
“Here we have a self-made entertainer with very little education creating really original, ironic material.
“To get an insight into someone like that from this period is incredibly rare and exciting.”
Many minstrels are thought to have had day jobs, including as ploughmen, but went gigging at night and weekends.
Some may have travelled across the country, while others stuck to a circuit of local venues as Dr Wade thinks this one did.
Dr Wade’s study, published on Wednesday in the journal The Review of English Studies, focuses on the first of nine miscellaneous booklets in the Heege Manuscript.
This booklet contains three texts, a tail-rhyme burlesque romance entitled “The 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,” said Dr Wade. “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.”