Humour, something which seems out of place in the sublime, is entirely comfortable in the grotesque. Sublime concepts are often mystical, holy, larger than life, and almost always serious and solemn; as soon as humour is introduced, the sublime is diminished to the mundane, and even the grotesque. According to Bakhtin, folk carnival humour “opposed the official and serious tone of medieval ecclesiastical and feudal culture” (4), and Carnival festivities departed from official, “monolithically serious” feast times, which were usually solemn religious events (9). Parody and satire, in particular, have the ability to reduce lofty ideas and social positions to the common and everyday. In this way, humour is a social equalizer- at least temporarily- suspending “all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions” (10). The lofty is brought down to earth, and all members of society are topics of mockery- even the normally untouchable Church. Grotesque realism, the bodily grotesque, infiltrate even this sacred stratum.
Some of the most interesting examples of the bodily grotesque in an ecclesiastical context appear in marginalia of medieval manuscripts. Created by monks, these images include people, animals and strange, hybrid beasts, and range from the humourous to the obscene to the purely baffling.
These grotesque images include “the material bodily principle, that is, images of the human body with its food, drink, defecation, and sexual life” (18). Much like carnival culture exists side-by-side with official culture, the images exist in the margins, beyond the boundaries of the official, usually sacred, text.
Materials for these manuscripts were undeniably expensive, and many of the images are highly ornate despite the subject matter- they do not seem to be mere incidental doodlings. Whatever the purpose of these images- satire, subversion, political commentary- they are certainly entertaining to the modern eye, and serve as a reminder of the humanity of the clergy who created them. The members of this most sacred section of society fart and shit, and clearly enjoy the humour of the body- human or otherwise.
To satisfy any further interest, check out more manuscripts: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/