Saturday 11 January 2020

Humour throughout History

Finlay Tyson
BA Modern and Contemporary History
Fig. 1: The Wipers Times
(c. @National Army Museum,
‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ is an infamous quote by writer and historian L. P. Hartley. It is a quote championed by many in the field of history and displays the differences between the present and the past. However, there can sometimes be a blind allegiance to the view that the past is so different that the ways in which we have stayed the same get ignored.
People and their attitudes have, obviously and undeniably, changed over the thousands of years of human civilisation. But there are some characteristics that have been shown repeatably throughout history to have some sense of continuity, and one, more than any, which has withstood the test of time is humour. For a good modern historical example of this you need look no further than the gallows humour of the two world wars of the twentieth-century. In fact, the very term ‘gallows humour’ fits in with this idea of a humour continuum. Originating from the First World War there are a series of examples, but one of the best preserved and well-known is the Wipers Times. The Wipers Times was a satirical newspaper produced by soldiers to mock traditional newspapers and the war in general (Fig. 1). It was started when the 12th battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, stationed in Ypres, chanced upon a printing press that had been abandoned when its civilian owner had fled. A sergeant, who had been a printer in peacetime, salvaged the press and started printing.

The humour of the paper’s title is derived from of the British soldiers pronouncing ‘Ypres’ as ‘Wipers’ which then became its colloquial name. The battalion would print issues when it could and then send them out to the trenches for a bit of light relief amongst the men. While the first issue was relatively sparse, later versions included traditional newspaper contents: adverts for food-stuffs and leisure activities, poems, overarching serial stories, ‘write to the editor’ sections, prize competitions, job adverts and special correspondent articles. However, none of them are quite as they first seem. The adverts at the head and tail of every issue would normally be a thinly veiled joke about trench life put in the style of an advert. Using trench slang for the different shells such as ‘Bouncing Bertha’ or ‘Minnies’, they’d joke about the bombing as providing ‘newly well-ventilated buildings’. There would be targeted adverts against their rival part-newspaper, part-landscaping company ‘Bosche and co.’ They also advertised openings of the ‘Munque art gallery’. The term ‘Munque’ was trench slang for the lewd female images many took to the trenches with them. The short stories and special correspondent articles also mocked those from back home. Their first story was following the exploits of ‘Herlock Shomes’ and ‘Dr Hotsam’ and, in the same vein, the articles were written by men such as ‘Teech Bomas’ and ‘Belary Helloc’. Not to be confused, and obviously bearing no relation, to Daily Mail pundits ‘Beach Thomas’ and ‘Hilaire Belloc’. The whole paper, in fact, is a brilliant example of humour during the worst time imaginable. Humour that is just as funny to the modern person in the right context.
But World War One was only a mere century ago: humour stretches far further into the past. In 79 AD the Roman city of Pompeii suffered a volcanic eruption that blanketed the region in ash. Pompeii is famously known for showing the frozen figures and homes of the Roman people who were preserved by the effects of the ash. But archaeologists have also found well-conserved graffiti from the time. This is firstly of interest because it is an excellent showcase of ‘Vulgar Latin’, which was the language spoken by common Roman people. Secondly, it is sometimes hard to believe these individuals are separated from us by a period of almost 2,000 years. The graffiti comes in a wide and colourful variety of different sorts. Firstly, there are statements written in anger, like ‘I hope your haemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than they ever have before’, ‘Samius to Cornelius: go hang yourself’. These are things that wouldn’t look out of place on a present-day internet forum. Then there are the public announcements which would be quite at home scrawled on a wall in the middle of a city centre, like ‘Satura was here on September 3rd’, ‘Aufidius was here’, and the slightly more mundane ‘On April 19th, I made bread’. These statements show a peculiar similarity between the ancient Romans and the modern person. But of course, people aren’t wholly comprised of anger and a desire to notify others of their passage. A big component of the human psyche is the ability to love, and in some cases, lust. It seemed that, lacking the ability to post status updates on their social media accounts, many of these people took to imparting their news onto the walls around the city. These range from the sweet ‘If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should gaze upon my girlfriend’ and ‘Figulus loves Idaia’, to the big-headed ‘Floronius of the 7th legion was here. The women did not know of his presence. Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion’. It even expanded all the way to the downright poetic ‘Weep you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wonderous femininity.’
And this isn’t an isolated case of graffiti either: another group of peoples who were fond of their graffiti were the Vikings. Their numerous and extensive travels around the world has led to their runic inscriptions being found all over the place, and like those in Pompeii, they have a curiously modern form. In the Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, archaeologists found some runes carved up above a door which, when translated, conveyed ‘NN carved these runes’. Similarly, when a Stone Age chamber was excavated in the Orkney Islands, they found that a group of Viking explorers had chanced upon it first and at the back of the cave had written ‘Tholfir Kolbeinsson carved these runes high up’. In fact, there are even earlier examples of the continuity of human humour. One of the oldest systems of writing, Cuneiform, was developed in the 31st century BC by the ancient Sumerians in Mesopotamia. Like hieroglyphics, it was mostly a pictograph-based style of script. Due to their writing being done on clay tablets and etched into stones rather than written on parchment or paper, we are inundated with specimens of Cuneiform to study.
One such tablet, dated from 1750 BC, is the oldest customer complaint in the world. The writing on it details how a man was apparently given poor quality copper ingots and demanding his money be returned to him. The man also wrote that he no longer trusts the copper supplier and will tell his friends and check all ingots thoroughly in future. Demanding a refund and threatening a bad review, I can’t think of anything a modern person could relate to more.

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