Class Notes: “Get Your Wit Out Of The Hundred Merry Tales”

:::::Runs damp duster over blog:::::

It has been too long since I posted over here  8)

This is a class I have taught at the SCA’s Pennsic War and other events for several years, will likely teach again in the future.

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GET YOUR WIT OUT OF THE HUNDRED MERRY TALES

“I would wish you no greater or better pleasure…considering that mirth and melody cutteth off care, unburdeneth the mind of sorrow, healeth the grieved heart, and filleth both soul and body with inestimable comfort.” — “The Mirror of Mirth”, 1583 translation

“That I was disdainful, and that I had my good wit out of the Hundred Merry Tales:–well, this was Signior Benedick that said so.” —Beatrice, “Much Ado About Nothing”

One type of content which survives from the early centuries of the printing press is the jestbook, or collection of funny / odd stories and jokes of varying lengths.  Often these collections were printed as chapbooks (or ‘cheap books’), analogous to modern paperbacks.    Before finding the SCA, I had always gravitated towards funny books, collections of anecdotes and trade paperbacks from comic strips.    The discovery of stories from within the SCA’s historical scope, the humor of which was readily accessible to my modern comprehension, made me nearly giddy with joy.   Since first finding these collections, I have learned and performed a number of these stories for audiences, and I highly recommend these sources to other storytellers in search of  (mostly) short, funny tales.

FINDING YOUR TALE

CAVEAT–THE PRIMARY SOURCES WERE WRITTEN FOR ADULTS AND ARE UNCENSORED. SOME OF THEM DISCUSS AND DEPICT SEXUAL SITUATIONS. SOME INVOLVE USING POOP AS A COMEDY (OR “PUNK’D”-STYLE PRANKING) PROP. SOME TALES DISPLAY OVERT AND COVERT MISOGYNY OR “ETHNIC-JOKE” STYLE PREJUDICES. THE STORIES CONTAIN LANGUAGE RELATED TO THE ABOVE SITUATIONS.

Having said that, many of the shorter tales involve snappy / snarky comebacks, a la Groucho Marx or W.C. Fields. Many of the tales make fun of doctors (alleged or actual quackery), clergy (sinning and receiving comeuppance), and husbands and wives (controlling one another {or trying to}). Some collections repeat stories (actually or purportedly) dating back to Rome or Greece, including a couple of Aesop’s fables.

16TH-CENTURY ENGLISH PRIMARY SOURCES OF SHORT, AMUSING STORIES AND JESTS:

–A Hundred (sometimes abbreviated “C.”) Merry Tales, 1526, printed by John Rastell, Sir Thomas More’s brother-in-law.   Some of the ones I like the best are:
18)  Of the Miller Who Stole The Nuts   (or, as I’ve sometimes called it, “Nut ‘n’ Mutton.”
26)  Of the Gentleman Who Bore The Siege Board (toilet seat) About His Neck
66)  Of the New Husband Who Would Have The Soup Pot Set Where He Would Have It

–Dom Hugh of Leicester, circa 1560-1584. This retells a story about a man being killed / body discovered / body moved multiple times, like the Dead Jester story from the Arabian Nights. In this version, instead of being a beloved character connected to a Sultan, the dead man is a wicked, lecherous monk whom, it is universally agreed, got what was coming to him. The tale was printed by itself (written in rhyming couplets) as a chapbook.

–Howleglas, circa 1528-30, printed by William Copeland. English translation of the German Til Eulenspiegel. 47 tales purportedly telling stories of his birth, childhood, adult life, illness, and after death. When Howleglas was not using poop as a comedy prop, he often tried different trades, with the comprehension and success rate of an Amelia Bedelia (“…but you TOLD me to dress the chickens…”).   I enjoyed tale # 21, which contains a lengthy “misunderstanding” revolving around the sentence “At my table, men do eat for money…”

–Merry Jests of the Widow Edyth, 1525. Attributed to John Rastell. “Twelve merry jests of one called Edyth, the lying widow which still lyeth.” Edyth is…a con artist. The twelve jests are longer tales rather than jokes in the modern sense.

–Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham, 1567 (this edition is at Early English Books Online / eebo.com ). Attributed to “A.B. Physick, doctor”. 20 or 21 “dumb-guy” stories, all set in the English town of Gotham, Nottinghamshire. The tone is similar to old Jewish stories about the Wise Men of Chelm, although the townsmen talk to inanimate objects and animals in a way I haven’t seen in other tales (or other places outside Shakespeare’s “Lie thou there…”). My favorites are:
7)  An eel eats up all the stored fish and must be punished
8)  To send their rent to their lord, the men attach the money bag to a hare and give him directions (byI have to say it…Coney Express?)  
10)  The twelve fisherman who fear one of them is drowned
17)  The priest (“Repeat after me…”) and the bridegroom (“After me…”)  (I can’t recall whether I first saw Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton do this gag, or if it was Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble…)

–Merry Tales Made By Master Skelton, 1567, printed by Thomas Colwell. This is one of a number of jest books which attribute stories to a notable real-life figure such as Richard Tarleton or “Old Hobson the merry Londoner”, in this case a 16th-century Poet Laureate of England. In a number of cases, the real connection to the person named is…dubious. 15 tales. Skelton is depicted as a prankster similar to Howleglas.

–The Mirror of Mirth, 1583 (printed by Roger Ward) and 1592. Translated by Thomas Deloney, from a French book written by Bonaventure Des Periers (d.1544). Stories in this collection are rather longer and less “punchy” (think Garrison Keillor rather than Groucho Marx).

–(Merry) Tales and Quick Answers, circa 1535, also printed in 1567. As the title might indicate, this is (frequently) a collection of insults / snarky comebacks.  A few favorites are:
27)  A Ploughman who cannot finish his pater noster  (because of ADD?)
81)  A new husband who plays dead to see what his wife will do
90)  A painter whose children are (considered) ugly

SECONDARY JESTBOOK AND JEST COLLECTIONS

–A HUNDRED MERRY TALES AND OTHER JESTBOOKS OF THE FIFTEENTH AND SIXTEENTH CENTURIES, 1963, Edited by P.M. Zall

Zall’s introduction alludes to collected jests in ancient Greek and Roman writings, including the following story from Quintilian:

“The Roman Cato was struck in the street by a ladder, carried by a laborer:
Laborer: Take care, sir!
Cato: Why? Do you carry anything else?”  (I can practically hear the voice of Groucho Marx uttering this retort)    **Note**: I have, to date, been unable to find a translation of Quintilian which contains this joke.   If you find the citation, I will owe you a beverage, anything from Pennsic Chocolate Milk to reasonably good Scotch  8)

Contains: Alphonce and Poge (Caxton printing, 1484), A Hundred (or C.) Merry Tales, Howleglas, (Merry) Tales and Quick Answers, Merry Tales…Made by Master Skelton, extracts from “The Mirror of Mirth”

–SHAKESPEARE’S JEST BOOKS, 1864, edited / compiled by William Carew Hazlitt. As indicated below, this out-of-print collection is in the Internet Archive’s Canadian Collection, courtesy of (I think) the University of Toronto. Three volumes:

Volume I :
A C. (Hundred) Mery Talys, circa 1525
Mery Talys and Quick Answers, 1567
http://www.archive.org/details/shakespearejestb01hazluoft

Volume II:
Merie Tales of Master Skelton, Jests of Scogin (1626), A Sackfull of Newes (1673), Tarleton’s Jests (1611), Merie Conceited Jests of George Peel (1607), Jacke of Dover (1604)
http://www.archive.org/details/shakespearejestb02hazluoft

Volume III:
Merie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham, Merry Jests of the Widow Edyth, Pasquil’s Jests and Mother Bunch’s Merriments (1607), Pleasant Conceits of Old Hobson the Merry Londoner (1607), Certayne Conceyts and Jests (1609), Taylor’s Wit and Mirth (1630), Conceits, Clinches, Flashes and Whimzies (1639)
http://www.archive.org/details/shakespearejestb03hazluoft

Some of the 17th-century books in Hazlitt’s collection (particularly many of the works in Volume II) are sole-surviving copies of jestbooks licensed for printing during the 16th century (According to Hazlitt, the licensing records survived, at least until he saw them in the 1860’s). Researchers’ opinions may vary as to whether books like these fall within the SCA’s stated historical scope.

–MEDIEVAL COMIC TALES, 1973, Edited by Derek Brewer
A collection of jests and longer stories in French (13th century), Spanish (12th-15th centuries), English (13th-16th centuries), Italian (14th century), German (13th-16th centuries), Dutch (14th-15th centuries) and Latin (11th-15th centuries). The bibliography is detailed, and contains the history related above, of “Dom Hugh of Leicester”.

–ONE HUNDRED RENAISSANCE JOKES, 1988, Edited by Barbara C. Bowen

A real goldmine of jokes from diverse primary sources. Jokes appear in the original Italian / German / Latin, then in modern English. English jokes are reprinted with the original (non-standardized) spelling. This is a small-press, out-of-print (alas) book which, according to the WorldCat library website, is in a number of academic libraries but fewer public ones. Interlibrary Loan may be able to obtain a copy for perusal.

Because this book is so hard to find, I am including here a list of the sixteenth-century primary sources Ms. Bowen used, from which she culled the last sixty jokes in her collection. Some of the German and Italian scholars wrote these books in Latin:

–“De Sermone”, Giovanni Pontano, 1502, Italy
–“Facetiae”, Heinrich Bebel, 1508-1512, Germany
–“Facetiae” (again), Johann Adelphus Muling, 1508, Germany  (contains a description of “a gentleman”)
–“De Cardinalatu”, Cortesi, 1510, Italy
–“Schimpf und Ernst”, Pauli, 1522, Germany   (contains the short tale of a greedy priest hiding money)
–“Convivium Fabulosum”, Erasmus, 1524
–“Loci ac Sales Miri Festivi”, Luscinius, 1524    (contains a “there’s a fly in my soup wine” joke)
–“Iocorum veterum ac recentium duae centuriae”, Adrian von Barland (Barlandus), 1524, Belgium/Flanders.
–“A Hundred Merry Tales”
–“Book of the Courtier”, Castiglione, 1528, Italy
–“Tales and Quick Answers”
–“Convivalium Sermonum liber”, Johann Gast, 1541, Germany
–“Facetie et Motti Argutti di alcuni eccellentissimi ingegni, et nobilissini signori”, Domenichi, 1548, Italy        (contains a tale about thieves who try to rob a jester)
–“Arte of Rhetorique”, Thomas Wilson, 1553, England (contains snarky exchanges about  1) A poor orator and 2) an offended doctor)
–“Rollwagenbuchlein”, Wickram, 1555, Germany (contains a joke about bad wine, called “God Save Us!” wine because of everyone’s reaction to its taste.    Reminiscent of Cosby’s “My brother Russell thought his name was “Dammit!”)
–“Facecius et Motz Subtilz”, 1559, Germany   (contains a tale, not so much a joke, about someone betting “a pound of flesh’ that predates “The Merchant of Venice” and contains a similar resolution)

A Final thought about sources:     Humor is very subjective.    I included specific jokes and punchlines in my listings to demonstrate the accessibility of the humor as well as to arbitrarily cherry-pick my favorites.    I encourage the reader to check out the primaries for yourself because you may pick up on some very funny material that I might have missed or passed up.

PERFORMING YOUR TALE

Physicality / Spacework–larger-than-life gestures and movements. This is the essence of stage movement. It may feel “phoney” if you’re not used to it, but a certain amount of exaggeration is necessary to make sure your audience can see and hear what you’re doing. Physicality probably doesn’t need to be quite as exaggerated around a campfire as in a feast hall, but keep your speech, movements and gestures clearly defined.

Multiple Characters– assign broad, contrasting poses or speech patterns to different characters, especially when two characters are having a conversation.

ENDING YOUR TALE

A problem I’ve encountered first-hand is that the written versions of these tales either peter out (as in, “And I heard say, such a foolish prank was played at Kingston of late days.”) or just stop when they stop (as in, “‘God’s blessing on your heart’, said all the company, ‘for you have found our neighbor.'”.)

Methods of ending a performed story:

Simple: “And THAT (my friends,) is the tale (about the miller who stole the nuts).” This is a method I’ve often heard experienced tale-tellers use in relaxed settings around the campfire.

Moral: The phrasing often used in the jestbooks is, “By this you may see (or “Here you may see”) that (insert moral here).”

Extrapolate a punchline: This is the method which often packs the strongest ‘punch’ in front of a large audience. It is, alas, the method for which I have found the least direct historical support in the books themselves. When possible, the punchline I’ll use contains references based upon knowledge of my intended audience. This practice was documented in records of Italian Commedia performances–someone from the troupe would run ahead to their destination and absorb local news, gossip, etc., so that the commedia performance could be peppered with appropriate local references.

REHEARSAL — MIND-NUMBING REPETITION

The most important thing about telling a tale or a joke is that you want everyone in the room to feel relaxed, including you. Starting out saying “I’m not sure I remember all of this” means you are not relaxed and your audience will pick up on your stress. You want your story to live in the same zone in your brain as How You Put On Your Pants. The number of repetitions necessary to develop this “muscle memory” may vary (I’ve heard professionals throw around numbers from fifty to two hundred to two thousand). It’s not as much as it first sounds — two repetitions a day for thirty days = sixty repetitions. I know kids who can tell a joke sixty times before the end of one week 8) Start with more reps than you think you need and, over time, that number may drop.

In closing, I’d like to wish the reader the best of luck finding funny stories and encouraging them to proliferate.      I’m pleased when someone tells me they enjoy this class, but when I see and hear a student performing a funny story in a feast hall or around a campfire, I feel honored and humbled, and reminded anew that while humor may be subjective, laughter is timeless.

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