Early modern jokes and curiosities have a way of making us feel like insiders and outsiders at the same time. We’ll encounter jokes such as “A mad man is as stronge as two / Because he is a man besides himselfe” and think, Hey, I get it, early modern folks are just like us, and if I were eight years old I would think this was hilarious! Or how about this one? “Wo[o]ll is soe warme / Because it is all double. / w, oo, ll.” You might need to say it out loud for the punchline to hit—double u, double o, double ll—but it’s a joke that still works today. 1
We’ll read brain teasers such as “Mrs Honiwood of Kent had 13 score & odd that came out of her loynes, & did aske her blessinge” or “In Kent, A Knight his Lady & 2 Children all theire ages together, made but 31. yeares” and marvel at the universal and timeless fascination with the bizarre while trying to figure out the math. While the answer to the mystery of this particular knight’s household may have been lost, the story of Mrs Honiwood has not. A now demolished church, St. Margaret in Marks Hall, Essex, had a marble monument to Mary (Waters) Honeywood of Kent (1527-1620) which explained that she “had at her decease lawfully descended from her 367 children” (16 children, 114 grandchildren, 228 great-grandchildren, and 9 great-great grandchildren). 2
But then we’ll come across curiosities such as “To cut off the nose & eares of a man at one blow with a quarter staff” or “A tinker with a Kettle on his head” or “Sargeant Harvy reported that in Dunstable a Market Towne, there is neither hay nor butter made within the Parish” and wonder what we are missing.
It’s not surprising that we’re missing a lot, given the intervening centuries. Sometimes some cultural knowledge helps us find the humor. Both then and now, flatulence is always good for a laugh, but the seventeenth-century route to the joke is not one we’d take now: “Cheese eating, keepes Theeues from the house. Ould age from a man. Dogges from the fire.” This one is not particularly funny until we understand that in Renaissance England, burglary was a constant source of concern and flatulence was an indication of vitality in old men. But sometimes cultural knowledge doesn’t extend quite far enough: can anyone explain the dogs from the fire part?
Manuscripts such as the one these jokes and phenomena are taken from provide a unique window into the strange and often unfamiliar world of Renaissance humor and curiosity. I was reminded of this last week because I used two pages of this manuscript in the class I’m currently teaching at the Huntington Library, the Mellon Summer Institute in English Paleography. Folger MS E.a.6 is a fairly typical mid-seventeenth-century commonplace book, with prose, verse, epigrams, epitaphs, anagrams, and political satire arranged under headings. Many of the verse entries are from Owen’s Epigrams, while some of the prose extracts are from Francis Bacon’s Essays (you can browse the list of 129 poems that appear in it by searching “E.a.6” in the Union First Line Index). But the last opening is something entirely different. On leaf 84v is a list of “strange accidentes” and on the facing page, a list of “strange reportes.”
Our heads were spinning after transcribing them, as we then tried to fathom and explain the arrangement and selection of phenomena: a mutant barley corn, a Latin grammar verse with 20,000 variations, ancient Morris dancers (average age: 118 years old), a very young family, a woman with 260 children. Were these strange “accidents” and “reports” gathered from a combination of printed sources, hearsay, and direct knowledge? What does the collection of curiosities tell us about the anonymous compiler?
Below is a list of the remaining entries, a combination of proverbs, adages, and phenomena (I’ve normalized them slightly to make them more readable). I’ve noted where some of these have echoes in contemporary writing, but the fact that the compiler’s versions differ suggests he’s getting his information from other sources. Do let us know if you can track down other examples of them in early modern English print or manuscript sources!
To catch a woodcock a fox, & a salmon, in the same net: The Fox came from the seaside, with the salmon in his mouth.
An ould man: Sees more, takes more paines, weighs heavier.
The gentle mind, by gentle deedes, is shown / And gentle bloud, by gentle manners known 3
Rules for a Carver: Obserue order. Carue faire. Keepe a good piece for thy selfe.
For a Travailer must keepe his thoughtes close, his countenance loose. 4
Ould fish. Young flesh. 5
Mr Wilcox of Horton in Northamptonshire had (as he saith) of one Barly Corne set alone by it selfe in his garden 224 Eares. Whereof the greatest part had 20, & some 30 graines in each Eare. 6
Mr More SchooleMaister of Thurloe, saith, that this verse Mos, flos, Ros, et Tros, Mus, Dens, Mons, Pons, simul et Fons, Is to be varied twenty thowsand times. 7
In the West about Lemstar [Leominster] there was a Morris of tenn men & a maid marrion, whose ages together made 13 hundred yeares. 8
- The oddity of early modern variable spelling does put some distance between us and the joke: the writer spells wool “woll” but then needs to write out the spelling fully “w, oo, ll” in order to make sure it’s clear.
- Mrs. Honeywood appears in Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies (London, 1662), sig. Mm3 (p. 54).
- A variation of lines in Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (VI, iii, 1 and 2).
- See Henry Wotton, Reliquiae Wottonianae (London, 1651), p. 435, Wotton’s letter to Milton in which Wotton translates Italian advice given him by Alberto Scipioni, to keep his thoughts close and his countenance loose.
- To paraphrase, Men prefer old fish at the table and young flesh in bed.
- Kenelm Digby, Discourse concerning the vegetation of plants (London, 1661), p. 63, reports a similar story about a barley plant in Paris with 249 stalks and 18,000 grains.
- This string of one syllable nouns appears in Lily’s Grammar.
- See Old Meg of Hereford-shire … or Twelve Morris-Dancers in Hereford-shire of twelue hundred years (London, 1609) for an account of this event.