On the eve of the World Gurning Championships, contested next Saturday at the Egremont Crab Fair in Cumbria, this week’s picture is an early sixteenth-century Flemish painting of a man pulling a silly face. The identity of the artist responsible is unknown. So too is that of his subject, the red-capped, red-eyed gentleman with pink protruding tongue and features twisted into a jeering grimace. He is perhaps no one in particular but, rather, the generic image of the fool, whose function it is to mock men out of their pomposity and to bring them, laughing, back down to earth.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary “gurn” or “girn” was originally a dialect variant of the word “grin” which subsequently acquired the meanings “to snarl as a dog” and “to grimace or pull a face” (the Elizabethan playwright John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge contains the powerfully suggestive line, “When thou dost girn thy rusty face doth look like a roasted rabbit”). The current President of the Egremont Crab Fair, Mr Alan Clements, tells me that competitive gurning has a long history in Cumbria. “The Crab Fair itself goes back to 1267, when the Lord of the Manor received a royal charter to hold a three-day harvest festival. There used to be a great market and part of the celebration became the mockery of a village idiot. They used to make a fool of him and he would growl like a dog and make funny faces. It’s said that the idea of a gurning competition grew out of that. Whether it’s really true I couldn’t say.”
There is certainly an ancient tradition of festival tomfoolery which may help to throw light both on Cumbrian gurning and on the picture reproduced on this page. In ancient Rome the feast day of Saturn was celebrated with all sorts of officially sanctioned excess and role reversal. Slaves were served by their masters while a mock-king was placed upon the imperial throne. During the Middle Ages elements of the Saturnalia were incorporated into the more unruly Christian festivals. The period just before the Lenten fast, known as Carnival – from the Latin for “farewell to meat” – was one such time of rowdy misrule and abandon. So too, potentially, was harvest festival time, while on the Feast of Fools the lowlier members of the clergy were allowed to turn their world on its head. “Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the Hours of Office,” wrote a scandalised eyewitness. “They dance in the choir dressed as women. They sing wanton songs. They eat black puddings at the altar while the celebrant is saying mass.”
Man Pulling Face may also have been intended as some kind of mock-religious gesture. The way in which it is reproduced on this page is slightly misleading, since the image is actually just one part of an ingenious diptych. In its closed state, this parody altarpiece shows only a smiling figure pointing to a Dutch inscription that may roughly be translated as “Do not open”. When opened (who could resist?) it presents two further images: on the left, above a scroll reading “You can’t say I didn’t warn you”, the image of a man’s naked, spotty bottom with two thorny thistles resting, just below it, on the sagging curve of his dingy pulled-down underpants; on the right, above a scroll reading “I made you jump out of the window”, the image of a man pulling a face shown here.
Tim Hyman, artist, writer and curator of the Arts Council touring exhibition “Carnivalesque” – in which Satirical Diptych may be seen in its entirety – notes “the exceptionally fine execution” of the painting and places it “in the category of high or at least expensive art”. Like so much other “carnivalesque” imagery – the babooneries and assorted misshapen monsters that prowl the margins of medieval illuminated manuscripts, for example – the picture would seem to be a case of low, popular humour designed for the amusement of a an upper-class individual, its role somewhat analagous to that of a court jester. Philip II of Spain is known to have kept a similar diptych in the Escorial. Hyman describes the Satirical Diptych as “a kind of portable joke-mechanism, akin to a jack-in-the box.”
But what, exactly, isthe joke? Is it just the shocking apparition of a man’s naked bottom paired with his gurning face – simple slapstick – or might there be some deeper meaning to it? On Hyman’s advice I consulted Johann Verberckmoes, Historian of Laughter at the University of Leuven, who may be considered something of a world expert in this area (he recently gave a lecture at the Warburg Institute entitled “Baring Bottoms in Early Modern Europe”). He told me that it is almost impossible to know if we have ever “got” a medieval joke and said that all he could offer were speculations. He thought it possible that given its date and parodic resemblance to a devotional altarpiece the picture might be related to the Reformation: a Protestant joke at the expense of Catholics; a bum and tongue stuck out, so to speak, at all those who go seeking God and the saints in mere “graven images”. Alternatively, it could be a play on the Roman author Cicero’s description of a donkey eating thistles as the emblem of stupidity: the fool making funny faces in the picture would then become a human version of the silly ass, who has sat on thistles rather than eaten them. It is important to remember, Verberckmoes added, that the lives of even the rich then were precarious and fragile. Laughter at gurning idiots and pimply bottoms was often accompanied by a renewed awareness of one’s own fallen, mortal condition. “Ideas of death and bodily decay are never far away in carnivalesque humour”.
Incidentally, anyone choosing to make faces in the manner of the man in the red cap will be disqualified next Saturday, since according to the rules of Cumbrian gurning the use of hands to distort the features is not permitted. “People make funny enough faces all the same,” says Alan Clements. He adds that styles have changed since his youth. “You used to see a lot of Popeye-type gurning. But now the gurners can’t do the sort of face where you swallow your nose. It’s because they’re younger and they’ve got all their teeth.”