When Sir Thomas More stood on the scaffold in 1535 he continued to make jokes. We don't often associate humor with executions by berserk kings over religious convictions but that is why humor has always fascinated us and it leads to questions about what is funny, how humor works at such moments, and when it is 'appropriate' to rely on a sense of humor.

Renaissance humor (1500-1700) comes under scrutiny at a conference at the University of Leicester on Friday 18th July, where experts in the literature of the period will gather for the first time to discuss Renaissance humor in some detail.

A flavor of humor of what the conference might have to offer can be found in Ben Jonson's Volpone (1607), in which Jonson's anti-hero, the miser and swindler Volpone, feels such contempt for the medical profession that he twists the English language into a glorious new direction, referring to a money-grabbing quack doctor as 'a turdy-facy, nasty-paty, lousy-fartical rogue.'

That's edgey stuff!

Sarah Knight, co-organiser of the conference, which has been sponsored by the University of Leicester Early Modern Seminar Series, the English Department and the Society for Renaissance Studies, explained the reason for the conference: “The Renaissance (which, for the purposes of our conference, we are defining as c.1500-c.1700) witnessed a lively, diverse flourishing of comedy and satire which was without precedent in English literary history.

“New technologies such as the invention of moveable type at the end of the fifteenth century made cheap print possible, so ballads, broadsides and plays could be inexpensively purchased by anyone literate, and for the first time everyone had access to 'news', often presented, then as now, in a satirical vein.

“As well as the spread of cheap print, the increasingly sophisticated profession of publishing and the growth of textual editorship made available the works of ancient comic and satirical writers, such as Juvenal, Lucian and Aristophanes, in reliable scholarly editions, for the first time.

“Famously, the commercial theatre was founded in England towards the end of the sixteenth century, and anyone who could afford to buy a ticket at the public or private theatres could see the newest comedies by ambitious, witty young writers like Shakespeare, Middleton, Jonson and Marston, who used comedy to critique the culture and society they inhabited.

“Older comic traditions developed alongside newer forms: anarchic, caricature-based ancient Roman comedies were 'rediscovered' in the sixteenth century, while vernacular 'medieval' modes of carnivalesque humor continued to grow, and this combination made for a uniquely potent and diverse comic culture.

“In his Rabelais and His World (1965), the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin coined the term 'carnivalesque' to refer to the impulse within Renaissance cultures to overthrow the established order, question authority, fixate on the grotesque, bizarre and taboo. Bakhtin's ideas have been enormously influential in defining the category of 'Renaissance humor.'

“During these years, humor became more democratic and wide-spread than it had previously been in England. Plays by Plautus and Terence were staged to great acclaim in both Universities and inn-yards, while comic shepherd plays could entertain aristocratic audiences in York and Chester, and the Archbishop of Canterbury could sit down to watch a bout of comic jousting, 'fart-pricke-in-cule' after - or possibly during - dinner at Lambeth Palace.

“As the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wore on, the comic theatre and drama more generally became a site of social debate. The rise of the Puritan faction and the fading of the Stuart regime led to the closing of the theatres in 1642, and the suppressing of comedy until 1660, when the artistic tastes of King Charles II led to the revival of English drama and the establishment of 'Restoration comedy' as well as the growth of news networks, the establishment of political parties, and as a consequence, of vicious partisan satire both visual and verbal.”

Sessions will include: humor in Elizabethan and Jacobean Comedy; Later Renaissance humor; Restoration humor; and Earlier Tudor humor. Speakers are: Michael Davies (University of Liverpool;), Dave Postles, Kate Loveman and Sarah Knight (University of Leicester), Matthew Steggle (Sheffield Hallam), Andrew Hiscock (Bangor), Helen Pierce (York), Peter Smith (Nottingham Trent), Greg Walker (Edinburgh) and Sophie Murray (Merton College, Oxford).