Joy WiltenburgJul 18, 2022
From the Renaissance Man to the Woman of Wit
Joy Wiltenburg's book Laughing Histories: From the Renaissance Man to the Woman of Wit (Routledge, 2022) breaks new ground by exploring moments of laughter in early modern Europe, showing how laughter was inflected by gender and social power.
"I dearly love a laugh," declared Jane Austen's heroine Elizabeth Bennet, and her wit won the heart of the aristocratic Mr. Darcy. Yet the widely read Earl of Chesterfield asserted that only "the mob" would laugh out loud; the gentleman should merely smile. This literary contrast raises important historical questions: how did social rules constrain laughter? Did the highest elites really laugh less than others? How did laughter play out in relations between the sexes? Through fascinating case studies of individuals such as the Renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini, the French aristocrat Madame de Sévigné, and the rising civil servant and diarist Samuel Pepys, Laughing Histories reveals the multiple meanings of laughter, from the court to the tavern and street, in a complex history that paved the way for modern laughter.
With its study of laughter in relation to power, aggression, gender, sex, class, and social bonding, Laughing Histories is perfect for readers interested in the history of emotions, cultural history, gender history, and literature.
Elspeth Currie is a PhD student in the Department of History at Boston College where she studies women’s intellectual history in early modern Europe.