The Demands Joyous
: NATURE SONGS
: 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
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
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!'"