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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

V. The Progress of Social Literature in Tudor Times

§ 9. Jest-books

But the shrewd, ironical spirit of the sixteenth century required something more than unchivalrous satire. The love of learning was growing apace, but with the enthusiasm for scholarship came depression from over-study. The melancholy which was conspicuous in Elizabethan and Jacobean times was already beginning to puzzle thoughtful men, and it was not without specific earnestness that physicians recommended gaiety as a tonic for an exhausted body. Scholars found the surest relaxation then, as now, in conversation. And their conversation took the form we should expect from men in sympathy with Plutarch, Plautus and Cicero: that is to say, of jokes, witticisms, repartees and clinches. Thus, a large number of Latin Facetiae appeared in print from the pens of fifteenth and sixteenth century scholars. The style of narrative is strikingly similar to the collections of Exempla, with which the Latinists, thanks to their semi-ecclesiastical education, would be familiar. These bons-mots and anecdotes diverted the student and the controversialist by touches of common life or, at the most, by flashes of classical wit. Their triviality ensured relaxation, but the scholar’s attention was held by an appeal to his sense of paradox and epigram.

This interest in witticisms and anecdotes soon spread to the middle classes, whose habit of mind had for centuries been formed by story-telling. The jongleurs and trouvères had preserved “those popular tales, which from time immemorial had circulated among nations of Indo-European descent” and which continued to find a place in all subsequent miscellanies down to the eighteenth century. Ever since the Franciscans and Dominicans had used apologues to enforce their exhortations, collections of Exempla had been compiled from such sources as Vitae Patrum and the Legends of the Saints. Gesta Romanorum had supplied tales, mostly romantic, from obsolete Latin chronicles and German legends. The sixteenth century still encouraged the medieval love of the marvellous and heroic, but it also gave great impulse to the half cynical, half amused indulgence which had always greeted the triumphs of the knave, the blunders of the fool, the flashes of the quickwitted and the innumerable touches of often undignified nature which make the whole world kin. This increased interest in the vagaries of one’s neighbour was partly due to the spread of education, which brought into clearer relief the different grades of intelligence and stupidity. It also arose from the growth of the city population, where legal maladministration often reduced daily intercourse to a trial of wits. Moreover, the townsman felt, though in a less degree than the scholar, the need for the relaxation of social intercourse. The minstrel and jester made a livelihood and sometimes rose to fame by gratifying this unromantic curiosity in life; but the publication of Latin Facetiae had shown how their place could be taken by jest-books printed in the native tongue.

These jest-books, in Italy, France, England and Germany, drew largely on each other and even more on the inexhaustible stores of the past, eschewing romantic and religious sentiment and reproducing only wit, ribaldry, satire and realism. The earliest English jest-book, previous to most of the German miscellanies, was in print by about 1526 under the title of A C. Mery Talys. This miscellany covers practically the same ground as the Fabliaux, treating of the profligacy of married women, the meanness and voluptuousness of the priesthood, the superstition and crassitude of the peasant, the standing jokes against feminine loquacity and obstinacy, the resources of untutored ingenuity and the comedy of the fool outwitted by the knave. All the tales are narrated with a pointedness and simplicity which show how well English narrative prose had learnt its lesson from Latin. Some of the anecdotes, to modern taste, are merely silly or obscene. But a certain number, following in the footsteps of the Latin Facetiae, harbour a sense of wit and subtlety beneath apparent crudity. A more pronounced leaning towards the new humanism is seen in Mery Tales and Quicke Answeres (1535). The compiler draws less on medieval stories and puts some of Poggio’s facetiae and the tales of Erasmus’s Convivium Fabulosum and a selection from his Apophthegmata within reach of English readers. Latin quotations illustrate some of the anecdotes, and the reflections, with which “jests” are frequently concluded (probably in imitation of Exempla), are, in some cases, more discursive. The twenty-eighth story ends with a disquisition on dreams which already anticipates the essay.

Anecdotes and repartees, closely related to conversation and practical jokes, tended to be associated with a personality. Joci et Sales … ab Ottomaro Luscinio had appeared in 1529, and Facetie et motti arguti di alcuni eccellentissimi ingegni et nobilissimi signori, collected by Lodovico Dominichi, was published in 1548. Following the example of the continent, English compilers soon found it advantageous to put their jests and cranks on the market associated with some character famous for humour or knavery. Thus, we have the Merie Tales of Master Skelton, in which a collection of extravagant anecdotes, associated with the laureate’s personality and his rectorship of Diss, is used to introduce clerical burlesque such as the people loved. But the most perfect type of biographical jest-book was registered in 1565–6, under the title The Geystes of Skoggan. The kind of exploit which the Fabliaux attributed to the “clerc” is now attributed to the household jester. Amazing tales of dishonesty, insolence, and knavery are collected from native and foreign sources, including two from the Markolf legend and one (in later editions) from Brantôme. Several had already appeared in Mery Tales and Quicke Answeres. These are skilfully woven into a continuous narrative, marking definite progress in the scamp’s career from his student days at Oxford to a position at the courts of two monarchs, and thence to his death. These licentious antics were probably not acceptable, even in the rude and profligate court of Edward IV, in whose reign the historic Scogan lived. But the jest-book was becoming more democratic under German influence and pictured the priesthood and the nobility only as accessories to the buffoonery of low life. So welcome was this coarser, more plebeian humour that German jest-books were put on the market in English translations. Der Pfarrer von Kalenberg was translated and adapted to English ideas about 1510 and Eulenspiegel was translated from an abridged Antwerp edition by William Copland under the title of Howleglass, while the same printer produced an English version of the old Danish tale of Rausch as Friar Rush. Such tales as Skoggan’s and Howleglass are a link between the jester and the adventurer whose career was becoming a part of the people’s reading. Contempt for the routine of daily life is unmistakable. Howleglass’s biographer goes so far as to say: “Men let alone and take no hede of cunning men yt dwel bi them; but prefer them a litle or nought for ther labour nor be beloved: but rural persones and vacabundes have all their desyre.” In such a sentiment, the levelling tendency of democracy has already grown into sympathy with the picaro. But these gestes have no literary kinship with Lazarillo de Tormes. Neither Howleglass, The Parson of Kalenborowe, Skoggan or Skelton have the individuality which suggests the novel. Moreover, they still move in the distorted world of caricature, where the stupid are incredibly stupid, and the lucky unnaturally lucky. In France, the jest-book became a vehicle for all the wisdom and satire at Rabelais’s command. But in England, the fermentation of the age found expression through other channels, and the jest-books only helped to prepare the way for the detached literature of the seventeenth century by appealing to a sense of humour, wit and verbal subtlety.

This sense found its fullest scope in criticism and ridicule. Again, the literature of the sixteenth century, not yet conscious of itself, had recourse to the past. Satires against certain localities are among the features of the Middle Ages, when decentralisation gave counties and even towns the isolation of a separate country. A monk of Peterborough in the twelfth or thirteenth century satirised the inhabitants of Norfolk; while satires are also found concerning the people of Stockton and Rochester, and, at a later period, on the inhabitants of Pevensey. “Merry tales” were composed or compiled on these lines for readers sufficiently intellectual to laugh at folly. Germany set the example by producing, in the sixteenth century, a collection of witticisms on Schildburg: the inhabitants of this famous town are represented as experiencing so much inconvenience from their far-famed wisdom that they determine to establish a reputation for folly, a reputation which still lives. A similar method of unifying anecdotes of stupidity was adopted by the English in the reign of Henry VIII, when Merie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotam appeared. The same type of humour took a slightly different form in The Sack-Full of News, a collection, mostly of bucolic ineptitudes, compiled for city readers in an age when Barclay could say to the countryman: “even the townsmen shall laugh you to scorn.”

Jest-books did not efface a kindred form of miscellany—books of riddles. Wynkyn de Worde printed Demaundes joyous, which was chiefly an abridgment of Les demandes joyeuses; and the Booke of Merry Riddles probably appeared before the earliest known edition of 1600. These questions and answers enjoyed no mean consideration as a mental training, and, undoubtedly, helped to form the standard of wit and conceit in later Elizabethan and Jacobean times. The riddle books are full of such questions as: “What is that that shineth bright of day and at night is raked up in its own dirt?”—“The fire;” “What is it that getteth his living backward?”—“The ropemaker;” “Of what faculty be they that every night turn the skins of dead beasts?”—“The friars.” In the character writers, we meet with the same type of wit, only, in them, it is reversed. Thus, in the Overbury collection, we read that a serving man is a creature who, though he be not drunk, yet is not his own man, and that the daily labour of a waterman teaches him the art of dissembling because he goes not the way he looks. In Micrologia, “a player … is much like a counter in arithmetic and may stand one while for a king, another while a beggar, many times as a mute or cipher.” In Butler, “a melancholy man is one that keeps the worst company in the world, that is, his own.”

The primary object of these anecdotes, facetiae and riddles was to occupy idle hours. The English miscellanies are always “merry”; and the foreign jest-books have even more suggestive titles. This natural inclination for amusement, in which even elderly students took refuge from over-work, had come down to the sixteenth century with a love of singing and dancing. By 1510, Erasmus declared that Britanni, praeter alia, formam, musicam et lautas mensas, proprie sibi vindicent. Miles Coverdale, in 1538, testifies that the taste for singing was universal among carters, ploughmen and women “at the rockes” and spinning-wheel. Words in metre were composed to give a fuller zest to music and dancing, but the conditions of their production were quite different from those which evolved the folk-lore ballad. The change was inevitable from the time the minstrel left the baronial hall for the city square. The transformation became complete so soon as the invention of printing made it more profitable to sell ballads than to sing them. These fly-leaves and broadsides, specially produced for the occasion and sold for a penny, have nearly all perished. Popular ones were pasted on the wall and the less valued were devoted to more ephemeral purposes. Both destinies led to annihilation, but the demand for them must have grown rapidly, for, in the second decade of the sixteenth century, the author of the Interlude of the Nature of the Four Elements complains of “the toys and trifles” printed in his time; so that, while in English there were scarcely “any works of connynge,” the most “pregnant wits” were employed in compiling “ballads and other matters not worth a mite.” Henry VIII encouraged such productions in the early part of his reign but suppressed them wholesale when any part of his policy was attacked. In 1533, a proclamation was issued to suppress “fond books, ballads, rimes and other lewd treatises in the English tongue.” In 1543, an act of parliament was passed to put a stop to the circulation of “printed ballads, plays, rimes, songs and other fantasies.” At the beginning of Mary’s reign, an edict was made against “books, ballads, rimes and treatises” which had been “set out by printers and stationers, of an evil zeal for lucre and covetous of vile gain.” These suppressions, added to the perishable nature of the product, have destroyed all but about fifty-six ballads of the reigns from Henry VIII to Elizabeth. But, by 1556, the Stationers’ company was incorporated and the development and nature of this primitive journalism is more easily traceable. From about 1560 to 1570, about forty ballad-printers are registered, but, here again, the bulk of their output has perished. The vast number of broadsides that have come down to us belong to later periods, and owe their existence to the labours of private collectors such as Selden, Harley, Bagford and Pepys. Some of those still extant, which date from the first two decades of Elizabeth’s reign, continue the spirit of the jest-books or reflect the sentiment of the “botes” and “fraternityes,” but the greater number are akin to the new spirit of Elizabethan and Jacobean times.