Shakespeare, in Twelfth Night, has made generations appreciate the fun-and-games of the eve of the Epiphany, when increased merry-making marked the end of the twelve days of Christmas. At Twelfth Night Falstaff is a hero, not an old rake to be rejected. In medieval and Renaissance palace, city, village, college, church and chapel, such merriment was even more present at Shrovetide. A temporary goodbye was about to be said to eating flesh. The fastidi-ous Erasmus loathed such periods of often coarse revelry, self-indulgence and riotous fun. He was not alone. Carnival and ‘Easter laughter’ were viewed by many as a pagan left-over, to be driven out of Christian lands. Many, on the contrary, saw Shrovetide revels as an occasion for good old Christian laughter.
Such periods of revelry were not always straightforward fun. A satirical society could use them for critical comments on Church and state. Students and budding lawyers might hone a cutting-edge on their laughter.
Attempts to clean up carnival did not always augur well for Jews or heretics. Outside a few historical centres, there were few Jews in France. In countries where Jews were numerous and where ghettos abounded, liturgical revelry could easily degenerate into Jew-baiting.
‘Easter laughter’, an excuse for innocent amusement, contributed much to the very basis of the laughter in Rabelais’s Pantagruel. But Easter could give rise to sermons steeped in diasyrm. A chilling example comes from the pen of one of the most distinguished of the Reformers, the Hebrew scholar John CEcolampadius of Basle. In his short and unbending sermon entitled On Easter Laughter he condemned the practice of preachers who amuse their Easter congre-gations with joke-filled sermons. His own example of what a good Easter sermon should be is entitled On the Joy of the Resurrection.1 We are told how ‘Christ brings great joy, but not to all, not to Jews and others who by their worst of lives do all they can to crucify Christ anew.’ Responsibility for all the blood of the righteous shed since Abel the Just still falls rightly on those infidels. And on Pontius Pilate, too. And on his Emperor, and on all unfaithful kingdoms.
Easter laughter can be riddled with righteous hatred. It need not be, and rarely was, it seems, in France. Hatred and diasyrm are not of its essence.
Excerpt from Laughter at the Foot of the Cross by Michael A. Screech, 2015