Medieval Minstrel Beats Monty Python to ‘Killer Rabbit’ Sketch by 500 Years

In late-medieval England, itinerant minstrels wandered from high halls to seedy taverns to make a buck entertaining nobility and common folk alike. As is always the danger with oral traditions, much of their art wasn’t written down. As a result, historians have little idea what these performances entailed.

But a recent discovery in the National Library of Scotland has opened a window onto the songs, verses, and poems plied by those plucky performers. While researching in the library, Dr. James Wade, a professor at the University of Cambridge, stumbled upon a booklet known as the Heege Manuscript.

The pages were written around 1480 by a cleric and tutor named Richard Heege. Heege apparently copied the notes of a minstrel who performed nearby, according to a statement from the university. As a result, we have a rare peek at the material that the unnamed minstrel was performing. It was every bit as risque, absurd, and ribald as you’d hope.

Early stand-up comedy

“Manuscripts often preserve relics of high art,” Wade said in the statement. “This is something else. It’s mad and offensive, but just as valuable. Standup comedy has always involved taking risks and these texts are risky! They poke fun at everyone, high and low.”

The material comprises an absurdist poem called The Hunting of the Hare, a mock sermon encouraging drunkenness, and an “alliterative nonsense verse” called The Battle of Brackonwet, The Guardian wrote.

A standout moment in The Hunting of the Hare is a scene where a lad named Jack Wade runs afoul of a rabbit with a tendency for throat-ripping. Sound familiar?


Also notable is a phrase in the mock sermon: It is the first recorded use of “red herring” in the English language. In our modern parlance, the phrase refers to an intentionally misleading clue, and that seems to be the case here as well, though it takes some explaining.

In the sermon, three kings eat so much food that oxen burst out of their bellies and subsequently chop each other up into “red herrings.”

“The images are bizarre but the minstrel must have known people would get this red herring reference. Kings are reduced to mere distractions. What are kings good for? Gluttony. And what is the result of gluttony? Absurd pageantry creating distractions, ‘red herrings,'” Wade explained in the university statement.

A memory aid

In his paper, Wade speculates that the minstrel must have created notes as a memory aid owing to his verses’ complicated nature. You try remembering something like “in a slommuryng of slepe, for-slokond with ale,” without writing it down.

Somehow Heege got access to the notes and copied them. And the rest is, quite literally, history.

And to clarify, Cambridge Univeristy notes that “for-slokond” here has a double meaning of both “quenched” and “drenched,” — a word I think you’ll agree is fairly useful in a drinking context. Maybe we should bring it back.

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
You can find more of his work at, @andrewmarshallimages on Instagram and Facebook, and @pawn_andrew on Twitter (for as long as that lasts).