★ The Demands Joyous Story :
It is not generally known that many of our popular riddles are centuries old. Yet such is the fact, and those whose course of reading has made them acquainted with ancient collections are not unfrequently startled by observing a quibble of the fifteenth or sixteenth century go the round of modern newspapers as a new invention, or perhaps as an importation from America! A few months ago, an instance of this species of resuscitation took place in the publication of the question, “Which were made first, elbows or knees?” This was an enigma current in England in the time of Queen Elizabeth, and is found in a manuscript in the British Museum written before the close of the sixteenth century.
The earliest collection of riddles printed in this country came from the press of Wynkyn de Worde in the year 1511, in black letter, under the title of the “Demaundes Joyous.” Only one copy of this tract, which was “imprynted at London, in Flete Strete, at the sygne of the Sonne,” is known to exist, and it is now preserved in the public library at Cambridge. It is chiefly a compilation from an early French tract under a similar title, but which is far more remarkable for its grossness. The reader may be amused with the following specimens, and perhaps recognise some of them as old favorites:
“Demand. Who bore the best burden that ever was borne?–R. The ass on which our Lady rode when she fled with our Lord into Egypt. D. What became of that ass?–R. Adam’s mother did eat her. D. Who is Adam’s mother?–R. The earth.
Demand. What space is from the surface of the sea to its greatest depth?–R. A stone’s cast.
Demand. How many calves’ tails behoveth to reach from the earth to the sky?–R. No more but one, an’ it be long enough.
Demand. Which is the most profitable beast, and that which men eat least of?–R. Bees.
Demand. Which is the broadest water, and the least jeopardy to pass over?–R. The dew.
Demand. What thing is that which never was nor never will be?–R. A mouse making her nest in a cat’s ear.
Demand. Why doth a dog turn himself thrice round before he layeth down?–R. Because he knoweth not the bed’s head from its foot.
Demand. Why do men make an oven in the town?–R. For because they cannot make the town in the oven.
Demand. How may a man know or perceive a cow in a flock of sheep?–R. By sight.
Demand. What alms are worst bestowed that men give?–R. Alms to a blind man, for he would willingly see him hanged by the neck that gave it him.
Demand. What thing is that which hath no end?–R. A bowl.
Demand. What people be they that never go a-procession?–R. Those that ring the bells in the mean time.
Demand. What is that that freezeth never?–R. Hot water.
Demand. What thing is that that is most likest unto a horse?–R. That is a mare.
Demand. What thing is that which is more frightful the smaller it is?–R. A bridge.
Demand. Why doth an ox lie down?–R. Because he cannot sit.
Demand. How many straws go to a goose’s nest?–R. None, for lack of feet.
Demand. Who slew the fourth part of the world?–R. Cain, when he killed his brother Abel.
Demand. What man is he that getteth his living backwards?–R. A ropemaker.
The reader will please to recollect the antiquity of these, and their curiosity, before he condemns their triviality. Let the worst be said of them, they are certainly as good as some of Shakespeare’s jokes, which no doubt elicited peals of laughter from an Elizabethan audience. This may be said to be only a negative kind of recommendation, and, indeed, when we reflect on the apparent poverty of verbal humour in those days, the wonder is that it could have been so well relished. The fact must be that we often do not understand the greater part of the meaning intended to be conveyed.
To revert to the lengthened transmission of jokes, I may mention my discovery of the following in MS. Addit. 5008, in the British Museum, a journal of the time of Queen Elizabeth. The anecdote, by some means, went the round of the provincial press in 1843, as of modern composition. “On a very rainy day, a man, entering his house, was accosted by his wife in the following manner: ‘Now, my dear, while you are wet, go and fetch me a bucket of water.’ He obeyed, brought the water and threw it all over her, saying at the same time, ‘Now, my dear, while you are wet, go and fetch another!'”
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