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.
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).
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?
Heather Wolfe at the Folger Shakespeare Library looks into the strange and often unfamiliar world of Renaissance humor and curiosity.