LAUGHTER AND POWER IN THE TWELFTH CENTURY — A NEW BOOK BY PETER JONES

SAS professor Peter Jones has just published his monograph, Laughter and Power in the Twelfth Century, with Oxford University Press. The book offers a new angle on the contested “twelfth-century renaissance,” arguing that techniques of humour helped to steer governments through the major cultural, political, and legal changes of c.1100-1200.

Powerful and miraculous images of laughter began to appear in Europe in the later 1100s. Chronicles told stories of dead children resurrected while laughing, histories showed men being struck dumb for making bad jokes, and hagiographies described saints laughing while performing miracles. Nowhere was laughter more powerful than in England, where contemporaries celebrated the humour of King Henry II (r.1154-89) and his martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Thomas Becket (d.1170).

Laughter and Power in the Twelfth Century traces the emergence, articulation, and politics of these powerful laughing figures. Surveying a breadth of philosophical and literary texts, and bringing a range of unedited manuscript material to light, the book offers a new genealogy of medieval debates about the value of humour. Although focused on England, the argument reveals laughter's pivotal role in wider continental discussions about the nature and practice of power. As the book suggests, humour became an essential mechanism in the formation of modern governments. Ultimately, laughing kings and saints enacted a shadow politics. Countering the emergence of bureaucracy and legal codes in twelfth-century Europe, images of laughing saints and kings were able to offer an alternative form of authority — one that was as difficult to challenge as it was to resist.

Peter Jones is a cultural historian, specializing in the religious, political, and intellectual life of medieval Europe (c.500–1500). After studying for a BA and MA in Britain, Peter received his PhD in History from New York University in 2014. From 2014–16 he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute, University of Toronto, and from 2016–17 he worked as a visiting scholar at the Pembroke Center, Brown University. He has also been a Frances A. Yates Long Term Fellow at the Warburg Institute in London, and a teaching fellow at University College London. He has been a professor at SAS since 2017.