Tuesday, 9 June 2020

That's No Lady, That's My Leman: Translating modern jokes into SCA-speak

Master Hector of the Black Height (b. 2003)

After some research, including pre-600 C.E. Classical sources and a variety
of medieval literature and graphic art, I am comfortable in saying that
humour is period. So, it's reasonable to extrapolate that telling jokes is a
period pass-time. But what is a medieval joke?

"The Romans say that if you have a Frank for a friend, it is certain that he
is not your neighbour"
(from Cariadoc's "Miscellany", attributed to a ninth century Life of

You can borrow material from period sources, safe in the knowledge that
copyright has lapsed; Boccaccio's "Decameron" is a veritable gold-mine of
funny stories written in period (and a mother lode of smut, but that's
another essay). However, in general terms I think we can work from a basic
premise, that the modern sense of humour and the sense of humour of people
in period are pretty consistent. The vocabulary has changed; the reference
points are wildly different, but irony, cynicism, sarcasm and broad humour
remain constant.

So what?

If you feel like telling a joke and you don't know any period humour, take a
modern joke you like and translate it. You just have to keep the humour in

As I have written elsewhere, a good story has some ZING to it, a snappy
punchline that will elicit the desired response from the audience. Keep your
eyes on the prize and, whatever else you do to that favourite story,
preserve the punchline. If placing the joke in a medieval context changes
the punchline radically, it's not the same joke and may suffer in your
translation as a result. It may not suffer; just be aware that, if the joke
changes radically enough, you may have trouble telling it, that's all.

Analyse the joke. Some elements will stay the same. Others will require
embellishment to fit the period motif. Others will have to be changed
completely. Again, the more you deviate from the modern model you're
familiar with, the harder you're making this on yourself (and possibly on
your long-suffering audience).

Let's see how this works. Take the modern tale of the souvenir peddler at
Dublin Airport. He saw a wealthy Texan getting off the plane, came up to him
and said, "Sure and 'tis your lucky day. Due to dire financial straits, I am
forced to sell a prized possession held in me family for generations. Would
you be willing to pay me $500 for the skull of Brian Boru, High King of all
Ireland?" The Texan was suitably impressed and started off his vacation with
a nice new skull. The peddler walked off with $500 (in US dollars, no

A week later, the Texan was at Dublin airport to catch his plane home. He
was approached by the same peddler, obviously forgetful, who took him aside
and, due to dire financial straits, offered to sell the Texan the skull of
Brian Boru, High King of all Ireland. "Now hold on a second, pilgrim,"
snarled the Texan, "You sold me the skull of Brian Boru just a week ago.
What are you trying to pull here?"

The peddler thought for a second and replied, "Indeed, I sold you the skull
of the High King, but this is the skull of Brian Boru as a much younger

Insert rim-shot here.

How to translate this? Some elements have to stay the same. The same relic
sold twice, the second time from the younger version of the same person.
That's essential to the story and sets up the punchline. Relics are a very
period concept and interest, so this story will translate well. Indeed, the
crooked priest selling fake relics is a stock comedic character in period
(q.v. "Canterbury Tales").

Obviously the airport has to go, it's a blatant anachronism. Any medieval
travelling motif works in its place; pilgrimage, trade caravan, Viking raid,
crusade, whatever.

Some details can vary. Does our crafty peddler sell the false relic to a
pilgrim? Is a frightened monk trading his life for a holy relic to a
rampaging Viking? Will a gullible infidel crusader hand more Frankish silver
to a crafty Levantine? In all cases, the characters and situation set up the
sale of two alleged relics to the traveller. Pick a traveller to suit your
audience, pick a logical cause for that character to travel in period, add
the local peddler and set up that same, modern, punchline.

One aside; is the peddler in this story a fool, selling the same relic over
and over, or a crafty crook with a bad memory? Either way the joke works;
how you sell the character is a question of personal taste and skill as a
storyteller. Reliable material helps, but good storytelling technique is
both period and necessary.

Other genres of modern stories translate nicely. Military jokes tend to be
ironic, cynical and/or deprecating, often at the expense of somebody else,
usually superior officers or another branch of military service. If you see
the modern military as a class-conscious, hierarchical society, the
parallels with medieval feudal structures become obvious. Other jokes,
usually at the expense of a specific class or trade, work well too, both in
a medieval and an SCA context.

Q. What do you call a ship full of heralds/priests/barristers/Knights/rent
collectors foundering ten leagues off shore?
A. A good start.

Shaggy dog stories can be translated too. Just remember, a shaggy dog story
is built upon long narrative full of extraneous detail, leading eventually
to the grim, inevitable punchline. If you're not comfortable spinning out
medieval-style narrative for a live audience, stay away from shaggy dogs.

One category of stories that does not lend itself to this kind of
translation is religious stories. Many of these stories begin "There was a
priest, a minister and a rabbi." or some variation on that theme. Apart from
the SCA being non-religious by decree, to avoid offending anybody, such
modern jokes are built on a cultural foundation of religious tolerance and
even ecumenism. Neither tolerance nor ecumenism are period concepts. I
suggest most of these "jokes", in period, might well have the same
punchline, involving the two "wrong" clergy burning at the stake. That's
just not funny. I think most people today would call such jokes offensive in
the extreme.

This is not to say you can't use clergy in your jokes: you have to look at
them as supporting players (the clerk who can read) or sources of irony
(Boccaccio is riddled with references to the stock comedic character, the
randy priest, usually coupled with a bored housewife. Exactly). And gentle
commentary on religion can be acceptable, especially when the butt of the
joke isn't the religion but the religious.

Q. Why are the hills of Lebanon bare?
A. Because every Frank in Christendom has a splinter of the True Cross
(from Cariadoc's "Miscellany", otherwise unattributed).

Not all jokes will translate, and just because you can hammer that round peg
into the square hole doesn't mean it's a good idea.

Q. How many Knights does it take to change the torch in a wall sconce?
A. Two: one to unscrew the torch and the other to dress the burns.

Yes, you can create a parallel to light bulb jokes, kind of. It really
doesn't work all that well in a medieval context, though; it's a
technology-based joke and the technology really doesn't translate well. We
all understand the torch is supposed to be a light bulb, but why would you
unscrew a torch?

You can tell jokes that rely on the tension inherent between medieval
concepts and modern life. The television series "History Bites" proves this,
brilliantly, though it achieves this result by relying on costumes, settings
and effects a storyteller doesn't have available. Without props you can
extend this concept to comedic tension between the SCA and 21st century
reality, too.

Q. What does a Knight need to make a phone call?
A. A belt, chain, spurs and a quarter, but only at a touch-tone phone. The
buttons don't call "light".

Q. What does a Pelican need to make a phone call?
A. A medallion and fifty cents, because that poor person whose car broke
down on the way to the event has to call the auto league first.

Q. What does a Laurel need to make a phone call?
A. Nothing; phones aren't period. Laurels use E-mail; hypocrisy **is**

Jokes built upon the SCA's fit with the 21st century can be funny and may
well resonate with your audience. They also drag modern images, ideas and
vocabulary into the event site, which some participants may not appreciate.
Keep such jokes for post-revels or local meetings.

To get a feel for period humour read funny books from in period. Chaucer is
one source of humorous characters and situations, Boccaccio is another.
Consider reading Castiglione's "The Courtier", in part because it's simply
an unsurpassed portrait of its times. In this context, various forms of
humour, starting with irony, are used by Castiglione to illustrate points
being made in the central dialectic of that brilliant book. I think you'll
see that setting may change, social structures may change (very important in
comedy of manners) and vocabulary definitely will change, but people stay
pretty constant, both as characters to build jokes around and as an audience
looking for a laugh.

So dredge up the funny story that works around the water cooler, change its
setting, dress up its characters in garb and tell it at the feast table. And
never forget, one of the reasons the story is funny is because you're
comfortable with the material and you tell it well. Think through your
translation, tell your story with your eye always on reaching the punchline,
entertain those around you and feel good about developing your skills as a

The invaluable contributions of His Excellency Corwyn Galbraith to this
essay are acknowledged with gratitude. "Take my Baron. Please" (after
Youngman, mid 20th century).

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