The first book-length study of the rhetorical discourse on jesting
Mirth Making examines the complex and often contradictory ways in which writers of rhetoric and courtesy manuals during the English Renaissance counseled their readers on the powers and hazards of jesting. Chris Holcomb finds that rhetorical manuals of the early modern period reflect a reverence for Ciceronian humor and offer abundant guidance regarding the handling of wit and laughter. Shedding light on a subject largely neglected by contemporary scholars, Holcomb's pathbreaking study demonstrates how such humor-related advice points to and participates in broader cultural phenomena—most notably the era's increase in social and geographic mobility and the contest between authority and subversion.
Describing the English Renaissance as a brief but crucial phase in the history of jesting discourse, Holcomb differentiates humor-related counsel of the period from that of classical and medieval sources by its focus on communication between people of different stations—preachers and lay congregations, masters and servants, nobles and tradesmen, courtiers and kings—rather than between equals. Holcomb shows that, in a changing society, handbook writers presented jesting as a socially conservative force, one that preserves distinctions and gradations in jeopardy of being blurred by upward or downward mobility. Such distinctions suggest that with a well-placed jest or quip, an orator might enhance his status and persuasive power or shame and ridicule those beneath him.
Holcomb also recognizes, however, that rhetoricians confronted significant challenges as they sought to capture, explain, and teach a strategy both powerful and chaotic, elusive and ubiquitous, highly economical in form and potentially unpredictable in effect. At the same time that the manuals offered recuperative strategies to regulate jesting and preserve social relations, they warned of the dangers associated with a discourse reliant on ambiguity, contradiction, and duplicity. Holcomb concludes that because of the disruptive energies inherent in jesting, rhetoricians of the English Renaissance could not escape the fact that jesting is always a flirtation with disaster.
Chris Holcomb is an assistant professor of English at Texas A&M University in College Station. He holds a Ph.D. and an M.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. He lives in Bryan, Texas.
"The feudal system of the Middle Ages collapsed. Culture in England and Europe was unstable. Aristocrats and baseborn were thrown together. Courtesy manuals and jest books defined the qualities of aristocracy, and now people could be judged by ability, not birthright. Holcomb's Mirth Making thereby explains the Renaissance."—Don L. F. Nilsen, Arizona State University
"The Janus-faced jest—what Chris Holcomb calls a 'flirtation with disorder'—was a central part of rhetoric. Classic authorities such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian define it, Renaissance humanists like More, Erasmus, and Castiglione make use of it, yet what for Puttenham was a fundamental way to manipulate language has been largely neglected by historians of rhetoric and critics of Renaissance writing. By showing how the art of jesting evades attempts to control its energies while handbooks display anxiety over losing such control, Holcomb demonstrates how the jest became a central means of dramatizing encounters of divergent social classes and occupations. This is a provocative, stimulating, and seminal work that renews our awareness of how deeply foundational rhetoric was to Renaissance culture."—Arthur F. Kinney, Professor of English, University of Massachusetts Amherst
"Like a good jest, this revisionary and suggestive study is snappy, clever, and perceptive about human relations. Exploring what was new and paradoxical in Renaissance thinking about the social uses of wit, Holcomb, himself a talented joke teller, adroitly shows why Renaissance joking deserves attention even from serious literary scholars."—Anne Lake Prescott, author of Imagining Rabelais in Renaissance England