As the UK falls further into chaos today over Brexit, it seemed timely to brighten Early Modern Bees with a few jokes to lighten the mood. The Demaundes Joyous is an early sixteenth-century attempt at a joke book, providing corkers such as: How may a man know or perceive a cow in a flock of sheep? Give up? Well the answer is simple: By sight!
My Dad tells better jokes. Really, he does. Well, perhaps not. As I near 40 years old and have a son of my own I’ve also begun to tell bad jokes with concerning regularity. That itself is a joke, is it not? That Dad’s tell bad jokes. The Demaundes Joyous shows us that some things never change. These could easily be ‘Dad jokes’ or perhaps Christmas cracker jokes. They are bad, but deliberately so. Or are they?
To a modern ear these seem to be rubbish jokes, but all joking aside, context is vital here. Were these jokes bad in the early sixteenth-century or quite witty? It would be unfair and wrong as an historian to argue that these are bad jokes without understanding the humour of the age. This point is made readily by a slight resurgence of interest in Demaundes Joyous in the nineteenth century.
In Joseph Armes Typographical antiquities (1810) he recorded a claim by a Mr. Cole that ‘it is a book for the vulgar, and full of jokes and humour of the time’. In 1891, P.H. Ditchfield, in his Old English Sports: Pastimes and Customs argued that ‘such feeble efforts of wit did the country folk try to beguile the long evenings’. Scholars in the nineteenth century tended to look at past writings with an ahistorical magnifying glass: their view, that this past scholarship was often alien to the standards of their own age and was therefore lesser, worthless, or nothing more than the poor ‘wit’ of country folk. But is any of that true?
Historians who study wit and jokes argue that context is everything. Jokes rely on cultural knowledge at the time that they are made. Remove that cultural knowledge and the joke falls flat. Adam Zucker, for instance, argues that what might have been hilarious at one point of time ‘come down to us as eerie fossils of rules we no longer know how to break’ (Zucker, 2011, 102).
Bees and the Demaundes Joyous
So what do we find in the Demaundes Joyous? This is a short book that provides a series of jokes line after line without a gap. Each joke begins with the word ‘Demand’ (meaning in this context ‘question’) and then R. (a shorthand for ‘response’, or in this context ‘answer’). The author is unknown, and the book was published just the once, in 1511 by Wynkyn de Worde.
Some of the jokes try to be clever. For instance,
Demand: which is the broadest water and least jeopardy to pass over? R. the Dewe.
Many, however, are naughty,
Demand: who was he that let the first fart at Rome? R. That was the arse.
Demand: what beast is it that has her tail between her eyes. R. It is a cat when she licks her arse.
The joke that refers to bees fits into the first category:
Demand: which is the most profitable beast & that men eats least of? R. That is bees.
The joke refers to the popularly understood notion that bees provide humans with profit either in terms of their ability to split into additional colonies, or in terms of their provision of honey and wax. Bees are not profitable as food in themselves, but for what they produce.
Adam Zucker, The Places of Wit in Early Modern English Comedy (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2011).