Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World marked a watershed in the study of early modern European popular culture in general, and folk humor in particular.1 No doubt influenced by the paradoxes of his own time and place—Soviet culture was at once both incredibly suppressive and full of humor—Bakhtin used his study of Rabelais to demonstrate that early modern carnivalesque elements, including folk festivities, common rites and cults, clowns, fools, giants, dwarfs, and jugglers, did not just function as entertaining distractions from “real life.” Rather, such elements formed part of the period’s own life principle, means by which early modern people related to each other and sites where truth and power relations were unmasked and imaginatively recreated. In their different ways, Foucault, Burke, Darnton, and, perhaps above all, Davis each adopted and critically reinterpreted Bakhtin’s fundamental insight. Early modern cultural history as we understand it today is unthinkable without it.2
Although Outram’s book about court fools in eighteenth-century Germany does not mention Bakhtin by name, it bears his influence through and through. This quick read—less than 130 printed pages in length—tells the stories of four early modern court fools in order to “understand the nature of [princely] courts through a reconceptualization of fooling, and [to put] that fooling against some of the central concerns of the Enlightenment” (1). “Laughter is not simple,” Outram writes in a passage that could have been lifted directly from Bakhtin’s Rabelais; “[t]he pleasure and dangers of laughter are also the pleasures and dangers of power” (3).
In five short chapters, Outran discusses the life stories of Jacob Paul Gundling (1673–1731) and Salomon Jacob Morgenstern (1708–1785), both court fools in the service of Prussia’s King Frederick William I; Joseph Fröhlich (1694–1757), who served as the court fool of August the Strong and his successor, August III, in Saxony-Poland; and the itinerant court fool Peter Prosch (1744–1804). The book concludes with a short discussion of the figure of the Hanswurst in late eighteenth-century German drama. Like so much else in this book, this late shift of focus from real-life figures to the literary realm has unmistakable (if, alas, unstated) Bakhtinian overtones.
Outram’s achievement in this book is twofold. First, she sheds fascinating new light on an important cultural phenomenon that has attracted far less attention from Anglo-Saxon scholars of German history than from their colleagues who study Italy or France. Even in the twenty-first century, historians of early modern Germany are usually much more preoccupied with hefty theological and philosophical topics (the Reformation or the German Enlightenment) or violence (the Thirty Years’ War or the witch craze) than with the many carnivalesque and humorous features of early modern popular culture. Outram’s intervention is welcome and indeed important. Similarly significant (if a tad less original) is the author’s insistence, through the study of court fools, that the relationship between power and Enlightenment in the eighteenth century was never a simple one. She is right to insist that at least some eighteenth-century German rulers used intellectuals when it suited them (in the realms of law and political economy, for instance) but also derided scholars and indeed scholarship as such. One of the many convincing demonstrations of this ambiguity is the book’s description of the public disputation between the Prussian court fool Jacob Morgenstern and members of the faculty of law in Frankfurt-an-der-Oder in 1737. Staged by King Frederick William I himself, the very existence of this grotesque exercise was part of its message.
This fine book is welcome new research on early modern German cultural history. It will also be of interest to scholars outside the field who take laughter seriously.
Mikhail Bakhtin (trans. Helen Iswolsky), Rabelais and His World (Bloomington, 1968: orig. pub. in Russian, Moscow, 1965).
Michel Foucault (trans. Alan Sheridan), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison (New York, 1977: orig. pub. in French, Paris, 1975), 61; Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (London, 1978), esp. 255–288 (Chapter 7, “The World of Carnival”); Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York, 1984), esp. 73–106 (Chapter 2, “Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre on the Rue Saint-Severin”); Natalie Zemon Davis, “The Reasons of Misrule: Youth-Groups and Charivaris in Sixteenth-Century France,” Past & Present, 50 (1971), 41–75.