The Demands Joyous

: Popular Rhymes And Nursery Tales

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 r
suscitation 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


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


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!'"