On the Lighter Side: Looking to History for Laughter

2020 is just over halfway through, and already we’ve seen global pandemic, widespread activism, and steadily eroding principles of democracy. There have also been reports of bubonic plague among squirrels in Colorado. Do with that what you will. In these trying times, history has been near at hand as we look for reasons, answers, solutions, and general inspiration. One thing I haven’t seen much, of however, is using history for laughter.

As I recently read through Jonathan Phillips’ outstanding biography of the sultan Salah al-Din (reviewed here on Concerning History), I encountered a passage that made me giggle out loud uncontrollably, and immediately share it verbatim with Heather, Francis, my dad, my brother, and anyone I could think of. It was legitimately the funniest historical episode I’ve ever read, and I share it with you now. As Saladin doles out the treasures of the recently-deceased Fatimid caliph…

“Less alluring perhaps was a drum used to treat the caliph’s colic, an instrument notorious for triggering an immediate fart from anyone who beat it. Ambushed by this percussive experience, a Kurdish warrior smashed the drum, not realising its potentially restorative powers.”

Apocryphal? Quite possibly. Was I immature for laughing at what amounts to an 800-year-old potty joke? Absolutely. But the fact that this story had been recorded in multiple medieval Islamic sources that have survived those 800 years, to be studied, analyzed, and passed forward by an historian with such a gift for delivery, encapsulates so much of why history doesn’t just inform but brings joy. Those we study, those gone by, whether a decade or a millennium ago, were human, and so share certain innate qualities with us, however much they may be buried or modified by their own cultural milieu. I imagine that I might have the same reaction as that Kurdish warrior if faced with a similar ambush!

So again, in these trying times, we should still keep history close to hand. But even as we use it for its never-ending relevance, I implore you all to never lose sight of the joy of discovering the past and all the weird, stupid, ridiculous things our forebears have done. We certainly can use all we can get right now.

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