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HomeUKNot-so-fishy origins of 'red herring' revealed - thanks to a medieval comedy...

Not-so-fishy origins of ‘red herring’ revealed – thanks to a medieval comedy show


Dr. Wade concluded that around 1480 Heege copied the text of the unknown minstrel, who performed near the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

The lyrics are said to feature the earliest recorded use of “red herring” in English as the performer delivered a mock sermon ridiculing the aristocracy.

In one story, included in the nine different booklets that make up the Heege manuscript, three kings eat so much that 24 oxen burst from their bellies during sword fighting.

The story goes that the oxen then chop each other so that they are reduced to three red herrings.

The gag, said Dr Wade, is bizarre, but uses red herring as a distraction and was used in such a way that the “minstrel must have known people were going to get this red herring reference”.

“Kings are reduced to mere distractions. What are kings good for? Gluttony. And what is the result of gluttony? Absurd pageantry that creates distraction, ‘red herrings’,’ Dr Wade added.

This is the first recorded evidence of the phrase being used in English. But the fact that it was well known enough to appear on a comedy show indicates that it was part of English oral history for much longer.

Heege was a writer working for the Sherbrooke family, who were part of the Derbyshire gentry and initially owned his booklets.

The events are said to have taken place on the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Several places are mentioned in the manuscript, including present-day Duffield, Brackenfield, Holbrook, Heage, and Tibshelf.

Other skits used by the wandering minstrel include mocking kings, priests and peasants, encouraging the audience to get drunk, and a scene reminiscent of Monty Python’s Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog.

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