This is the last of Captain Cox’s books of “Philosophy both morall and naturall”. To complete the collection, we have yet to survey four “auncient plays”, one “Doctor Boords breviary of health”, seven “ballets (ballads) and songs”, and three “Allmanacks of antiquite”. Further up and further in…
PEDIGREE: According to both Mr. Furnivall and Mr. Hazlitt, there are pieces by this title in the Stationers’ Register records, contemporary with Laneham’s letter and Captain Cox’s library (Furnivall cites a license granted to John Sampson August 14, 1560 for a title “A Penny-worth of Wit”), but no extant copies of those printings. Hazlitt cites earlier copies in manuscript form, the most complete of which was a late 15th-century MS, CUL Ff. 2. 38 / MS Moore 690. In all the manuscripts they cite, the tale is titled “How A Merchande Did His Wife Betray”, and is also traced back to a French Fabliau, “La Bourse pleine de sens”. The English tale does contain the exact phrase “a penny-worth of wit”.
SYNOPSIS: A merchant has been keeping both a faithful wife and a…financially demanding mistress. Before he goes away on a voyage, he asks his wife what gift he might bring her (as well as asking her for the money with which to buy it!). She gives him a penny, bidding him buy her “a penny-worth of wit”. He searches high and low for such a thing, until he finds an old man who asks him if he has a wife or a lover. When the merchant tells him “Both”, the old man suggests a test: the merchant should return to both, dressed in mean apparel, and tell each of them that he has lost all his wealth, and would have from them but a night’s lodging. The merchant should then stay with the lady which treats him best. The merchant agrees that this is good advice and wit, and gives his wife’s penny to the old man.
He does as the old man suggests, and discovers that his wife would remain with him when his mistress would not, and gives up the mistress, reclaiming the goods given to the mistress, which he then bestows on his faithful wife.
AVAILABILITY: “How a Merchande Did His Wife Betray” is reprinted in two collections, Joseph Ritson’s “Pieces of Ancient Popular Poetry”, volume 2 (1791), and William Carew Hazlitt’s “Remains of Early Popular Poetry”, volume 1.
Google Books has an 1884 printing of “Pieces of Ancient Popular Poetry” here:
and a copy of “Remains of Early Popular Poetry” volume 1, here: