Humours of the Past

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: Centre for Scandinavian Studies


Humour plays a vital role in our everyday lives. It strengthens relationships and identities and enables us to critique our political and social structures. It connects us with others and helps us cope with tragedy. Humour is an essential part of being human, but it is not the same for all humans. The attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo highlighted how connected humour is to our culturally specific view of the world.

Just as contemporary humour reveals much about our own lived experience, understanding the humour of past cultures has the potential to open up new perspectives on the social values of the societies that produced it. The Humours of the Past Network (HOP) will enhance the way we access and use the humour of historical cultures.

Exploring historical humour allows us access to an emotional history of those that take part in it as well as to evolving social attitudes that have ramifications for the shaping of our own society. Better understanding past humour can enrich our own cultural lives by providing a framework for a greater appreciation of the comic in historical texts, images and performances. Moreover, a sharper understanding of the interrelation between humour and cultural values in historical communities could help us to understand that connection better within our own communities.

But how do we hear the laughter of the past? HOP will bring academic researchers into dialogue not only with each other but also with performers, curators, translators, policy makers, and others who have a professional stake in working on better understanding the humour of the past, and its cultural contexts and ramifications. The Network is driven by the conviction that a careful comparison of the modes by which we access the cultural specificity of past humour, and a collaborative merging of those modes, will help all participants to sharpen their understanding of the historical humours relevant to their work. Many of the tools used to study contemporary humour, such as audience response studies and cognitive testing, are not available to researchers of past humour. Our understanding of humour from the past must therefore bring together the different tools of cultural analysis and the experience of a wide range of practitioners.

Such a large-scale collaborative approach to the study of humour in the past has never happened in a focused way before . The Network will run two linked forums for discussion. The first will involve a carefully focused exchange of methodological approaches to the cultural specificity of different historical humours. The second will involve the practical application of these findings, giving academic, industry and community participants the opportunity to share their projects through mutually enriching discussions. We will also run a number of events to engage with the wider community, including an experimental performance evening and a public discussion of the historical censorship of humour and its consequences for today. The Network's results will culminate in the publication of 'Approaching Humour in the Past: A Handbook', which will be a multidisciplinary guide to the field with chapters targeted towards the needs of researchers, students, teachers, performing arts professionals, academic and commercial translators, curators and others.

Planned Impact

The aims of the HOP network include developing more effective methodological approaches to the task of interpreting humour across borders of time and place, and to stimulate the wider usefulness of such clarification. In particular, the network seeks to clarify the way that cultural values and identities are tied up with historical humour, and to identify how this may help to move theory beyond the GTVH (see Case for Support). Since the network's principal focus is methodological, its strong potential for wider impact beyond academia can only be partially realized within the life of the project.

The Network's Handbook will be of benefit to several non-academic groups (as identified in the Pathways to Impact document). This is because the sequential development of methodologically self-conscious knowledge about particular past contexts of humour across the Collaboratories, Roundtables, and follow-on discussions, will culminate in the Handbook's case-studies. Particular case-studies will be of direct and indirect benefit to the following non-academic professional groups: theatrical professionals (actors and directors), translators working for trade publishers, subtitlers and dubbing professionals, museum curators, secondary school teachers and students, policy makers, and comedians. The benefit that may be derived from the case-studies is not merely that some will be directly relevant to those professional groups (such as the performance case-studies for actors), but also that reading about a method of approaching past humour in an entirely different context stimulates contrastive thinking in one's own.

Translators, subtitlers, and dubbers could benefit from the network's expanding knowledge and methodological theory because it could help in the process of communicating particular kinds of historical humour more effectively in translation. This would have further benefits, for example: it would contribute to the development of professional standards in the subtitling industry, and lead to more effective subtitles for hearing-impaired theatre-goers.

Museum curators of comics and other kinds of visual humour across past cultures could use the Network's knowledge to develop ideas for presenting cross-cultural material of this sort in exiting new ways. Not merely 'comics' themselves but comical material of all sorts has become a popular new area of curation following the British Library's exhibition 'Comics Unmasked' (2014). Enhanced ideas for the interpretation and communication of comic material from the past, could lead to an exhibition with cultural benefit for visitors and economic benefit for museums.

Several groups could benefit from the Network's various engagements with comic stereotypes, their history and persistent relevance to contemporary social and community problems. Examples are: policy makers, charities dealing with bullying and hate crimes such as Stonewall, and local councils dealing with community cohesion issues. Those groups would benefit from the Network's potential to stimulate historically informed policy papers on the role played by comic stereotypes in historical and therefore contemporary conflicts.

The Network's knowledge could also benefit comedians and comedy festival organisers because of its capacity to illuminate concerns about censorship and freedom of speech with the hindsight that historical interpretation offers. Rape jokes (see Pathways to Impact) are an example of the tensions that comedy festival organisers and comedians face between free speech and censorship. The limits of and reasons for censorship can be illuminated both by the historical trajectory of particularly sensitive kinds of jokes and the historical censorship of such jokes.

Secondary English and Drama students studying and performing Shakespeare (and their teachers) could benefit from a school-based workshop run by the Network devoted to the interpretation of Shakespeare's humour in performance.


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Title Scratch Night sketch 
Description The PI developed a short script translated and adapted from a medieval Icelandic satirical text, which was performed in a local theatre. 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact This practice-based research event generated useful audience response feedback as well as collaboration with theatre professionals. A recording of the event has since been used in undergraduate teaching, which students reported as a useful way in to the subject. Plans for further collaboration and a larger scale event are now underway as a direct result of the event's success. 
Title So You Think Vikings Are Funny Do You? 
Description In partnership with professional storyteller Andy Cannon (Redbridge Arts) and Aberdeen Performing Arts, a full-length performance of a medieval Icelandic saga (Bandamanna saga) was developed and performed at Brewdog, Aberdeen, to a sold out audience. 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact Feedback following the event was very positive. Audience members reported new interest in Old Norse literature and changed opinions of the medieval period, and indicated that they would like to attend similar events in the future. Professional practitioner Andy Cannon was able to develop his repertoire, based on historical research. The event constituted practice-based research for the PI, who later presented a conference paper on the performance and things learned from working with the text in this way. This is planned to lead to a publication. Ties with Aberdeen Performing Arts were strengthened and future collaborations are planned. 
Description We have developed research into methodologies for studying humour in the past as well as particular historical case-studies of the contexts and uses of humour in society. We have also developed techniques for adapting historical humour and conveying it to modern audiences. This research will be disseminated through publication as suggested in the application.
Exploitation Route Refined methodologies can be used by participants in the Collaboratory as well as other researchers once published. Historical case studies will be used by undergraduate and postgraduate students and researchers. The creative industries can benefit from increased awareness of translating and adapting historical humour for present-day audiences.
Sectors Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description University of Aberdeen Impact, Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation Award
Amount £6,400 (GBP)
Organisation University of Aberdeen 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2017 
End 08/2017
Description Blog and twitter feed 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact The website's blog and twitter feed attracts attention from students, researchers and professionals interested in the network's activities and findings. The network has attracted further members through its online presence. Postgraduate researchers have had the opportunity to write for the blog, giving them experience in online publication and writing for different audiences.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017
Description Collaboratory 1 (Aberdeen) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact 18 participants, including researchers from a variety of disciplines (literary studies, history, sociology, language and linguistics, classics, computing science) and professional practitioners (theatre directors, translators) came together for plenary talks and focused workshops about the study of humour in the past. Individual participants received feedback on particular research or professional questions. The event stimulated discussion from a variety of perspectives and helped sharpen the network's priorities for future events.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Collaboratory 2 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact C. 40 participants, including researchers from a variety of disciplines (literary studies, history, sociology, language and linguistics, art history, sinology) and professional practitioners (theatre directors, playwrights, translators) came together for plenary talks about the study of humour in the past. Individual participants presented particular research or professional questions. The event stimulated discussion from a variety of perspectives and will contribute to a planned major publication which several participants will contribute to.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Public Engagment talk (UoA May Festival) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The PI presented a talk on 'Viking Humour' at the University of Aberdeen's annual May Festival, which was attended by c. 80 members of the public. The talk stimulated questions and debate from the audience, many of whom expressed new or increased interest in the field.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017