Skip to main content

Unit information: Laughter in Medieval and Renaissance Italy in 2020/21

Unit name Laughter in Medieval and Renaissance Italy
Unit code ITAL20043
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Rayfield
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of Italian
Faculty Faculty of Arts


What did it mean to laugh in medieval and Renaissance Italy? What made comedy laughable? Could comedy be useful as well as pleasurable – and why was laughter itself thought to be so dangerous? In this unit we will investigate a range of medieval and early modern approaches to humour, drawing on materials such as satires, poetic manuals and short stories to determine why and how people laughed. We will also assess comedy and laughter from a medical perspective, looking at the advice (and some severe warnings) provided by a number of eminent doctors across the centuries. Visual comedy was extremely prominent, and one session will be spent examining comic materials in Special Collections/the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery; there will also be the option to watch a performance of Machiavelli’s notorious comedy La Mandragola. This unit will engage with modern theories of humour — such as Freud’s theory of relief — and we will ask how and which theories assumed to be ‘modern’ have actually been circulating for almost a millennium. We will also determine how comedy was employed specifically to political ends, whether to convey a controversial message, to unite parties, or to rebuild communities.

Students will develop an understanding of the defining aspects of medieval and Renaissance Italian literature and culture, and will also gain a nuanced insight into the cultural history of humour. Through engagement with artwork, medicine and theatre — as well as with a number of non-Italian texts — they will be able to refine their interdisciplinary and comparative approach to Italian studies. Through a hands-on session in Special Collections, students will also be able to broaden their appreciation of material culture. Additionally, they will be able to enhance their presentation and interpersonal skills through an in-class presentation and the recording of a podcast (NB., the podcasting assignment will not test technological/editing skills). The essay assignment will allow students to evaluate, analyse and synthesise relevant source material, and to develop independent research skills.

Intended learning outcomes

By the end of the unit, successful students will be able to:

  1. Demonstrate a nuanced understanding of the historical and cultural periods in question, as well as the cultural history of humour
  2. Choose and apply skills of close reading and textual analysis
  3. Synthesise and analyse relevant source material by exercising independent judgement and research at a high level of complexity
  4. Illustrate and enhance communication skills in academic writing and oral presentation at a standard appropriate to level I/5
  5. Develop interpersonal skills and the ability to work in a team towards an objective

Teaching details

Teaching will be delivered through a combination of synchronous sessions and asynchronous activities, including seminars, lectures, and collaborative as well as self-directed learning opportunities supported by tutor consultation

Assessment Details

1 x podcast (25%) (ILOs 1-5 and 7-8)

1 x 2000-word essay (75%) (ILOs 1-8)

Reading and References

Most primary texts (as well as other shorter extracts) will be included in the course pack. Though the vast majority of material will be in Italian, any non-Italian materials (Latin/French/Spanish) will be provided as translations.

Pietro Aretino, Il Marescalco

Baldassare Castiglione, II Cortegio (extracts)

Giovanni Della Casa, Galateo (extracts)

Erasmus, The Praise of Folly

Girolamo Fracastoro, De sympathia & antipathia rerum (On the Sympathy and Antipathy of Laughter)

Laurent Joubert, Traité du Ris (Treatise on Laughter)

Niccolò Machiavelli, (selected extracts from several works)

Celso Mancini, De risu, ac ridiculis (On Laughter, and the Laughable)

Thomas More, Epigrams