; ; 1 Mar 2017

The Humour of Misfortune

Early Modern Jest Books by Ellie Wadman

Coffee House Jests, Refined and Enlarged

‘A maid once was making black puddings, and her Dame told her that the stuff looked dry, that there was not blood enough in it: Truly Dame, says she, I think there is blood enough for my nose has bled this half hour, and all dropped into the bowl’.

As the somewhat gruesome example above demonstrates, bewilderment and a possible queasy stomach are not unexpected outcomes of modern eyes to seventeenth and eighteenth century jest books. The publications include hundreds of jokes and witty anecdotes, answering questions of the taste and manner of comedy that were popular with their contemporaries.

The grisly is assembled regularly next to the humour of sexual innuendo and bodily functions, but the publications have another edge of cruelty and remarkable callousness. All the books contain a vein of countless stock characters that are mocked for existing inflictions or misfortunes played upon them; the elderly, disabled, hunchbacked, poor and raped are their vulnerable victims. One joke narrates a woman scorching her husband with a bedpan for drunkenness thus making him limp; others lead the blind into walls or traps; and some describe the apparently amusing affliction of noselessness:

‘A fellow that never had a nose, a roguish beggar begged of him an alms, and still he begged, and he prayed for his eyesight. He asked him what he meant by that, he told him that he hoped his eyesight would never fail. For if it does, says he, you are in the most miserable condition; for there was no place to fix a pair of spectacles’.

As laughter can be read as a deflection of fears or anxiety some of this distaste may be forgiven. However, the books cannot be classed as objects of low culture despite feasible assumption from their objectionable subject matter. Many were aimed at the middle and upper class, and priced beyond the accessibility of a wider audience. This deviance of ‘polite’ society is perhaps explained in many of the books self-titled placements in taverns, for use at banquets and their inclusions of drinking songs. Thus their witticism and heavy drinking is likely to have gone hand in hand in bonding social circles.

An Antidote Against Melancholy by Richard Amyas

Many of the books are not just jokes but advertise to include jibes and taunts, encouraging the use of wit as means to establish social identity, intellect and status over peers. Likewise, instructions of how to carry out practical jokes can be found in other publications including, ‘The Antidote Against Melancholy’ by Richard Amyas. The book contains a variety of tips including; a device to make a chamber to appear to be full of snakes, whose direction begins with killing a dozen adders and snakes; another instructs to cut an apple in half and place a black beetle inside of it, allowing to move across the table as a great spectacle; alternatively for when you grow tired of your company it encourages the host to place pepper on hot coals causing your guests to spew, fart and sneeze until they leave.

Laughter is as convincingly a topic for Design History as any other. The subjects of jokes, the privilege of who is allowed to laugh at who, the acceptable levels of cruelty, and the spectacle of practical jokes shed light on social status and behaviour in everyday communal settings. The artefacts of humour are manifestations of their wider culture; the books contents reveal societal tensions and shared markings of their users and targets of their punch lines, as well as the described alternative functions for the objects and environments used by hopeful tricksters.

Scholars may be wary though, as even they cannot escape being the butt end of the joke! –

A cleanly woman in Cambridgeshire had made a good store of butter, and whilst she went a little way out in the town about some earnest occasion a neighbour’s dog came in the meantime and ate up half the butter. Being home her maid told her what the dog had done, and that she had locked him up in the dairy house. So she took the dog and hanged him up by the heels till she had squeezed all the butter out of his throat again which she took and put into the rest of the butter, and made it up for Cambridge market. But her maid told her she was ashamed to see such a nasty trick done: Hold your peace, you fool, says she, ‘tis good enough for scholars, away to market!’


Amyas, Richard. An Antidote Against Melancholy (London 1659)
A Banquet of Jests or Change of Cheare (London 1630)
Coffee House Jests (London 1677)
Dickie, Simon, ‘Hilarity and Pitilessness in the Mid Eighteenth Century: English Jest Book Humor’, Eighteenth Century Studies Journal, vol37, no.1 (Fall 2003) pp1 – 22
Munro, Ian & Prescot, Anne. Jest Books, in English Prose 1500 – 1640, ed. By Andrew Hadfield (Oxford University Press, 2013) pp.344 – 359
Reinke-Williams, Tim. ‘Misogyny, Jest Books and Male Youth Culture in Seventeenth Century England’, Gender and History, vol.21, no.2 (August 2009) pp324 – 339

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