The ageless fun of riddles
A book from the past reveals our shared sense of humour
1 November 2016
There is a tendency to think of people from the past as quite different from us, with problems, attitudes and a society far removed from our own. However there is one fundamental characteristic that links us all. Everyone loves a laugh, and riddles and jokes were just as popular with our medieval ancestors as they are now. While some of the topics may be a little dated to our eyes, it’s amazing to see how some of the earliest “question and response” riddles have a marked similarity to those of today – including the taste for a bit of bawdy humour and those lame jokes that make you groan.
Their popularity may be demonstrated by the fact that the earliest riddle book printed in England dates from 1511, The demaundes joyous. This book even includes a version of the famous “Which came first, the chicken or the egg” riddle. It was produced by one of the most renowned English printers of the period Wynkyn de Worde, and given the cost and scarcity of printed books at the time he obviously thought there was a market for such a work of humour. The literate were not just reading serious “improving” tracts, or works of history or geography, they had a sense of fun and loved a laugh too!
Wynkyn de Worde was an apprentice or associate of William Caxton’s and although the printing press was brought to England by Caxton, Wynkyn de Worde deserves recognition for ensuring its success. His name suggests he was born in a place called Wörth, or Woerth in the region of Alsace, in north-eastern France. He probably accompanied Caxton to England in about 1476. When Caxton died in 1491 Wynkyn took over his print shop.
Wynkyn improved the quality of Caxton’s products, recognised the possibility of appealing to a broad reading public, and provided easy access to books. Grammar books, popular religious writings and contemporary literature such as poetry, as well as entertaining works such as The demaundes joyous were part of the new materials he made available in print. His books were often illustrated with fine woodcuts, although it must be said that the standard could be somewhat variable.
Wynkyn moved his firm from Caxton’s location in Westminster to London in 1500. He was the first printer to set up a site on Fleet Street, which eventually became the printing hub of London. He is also credited with being the first to build a book stall in St. Paul’s Churchyard, which became a centre of the book trade in London, the first to use English-made paper, the first to print musical notes with movable type in his 1495 edition of the Polychronicon, as well as the first to use an italic font in England in his 1528 edition of Wakefield’s Oratio de laude trium linguarum.
Printers’ marks or devices were widely used during the 15th-17th centuries as a trade mark and to help guard against pirate or forged editions of works, and Wynkyn had at least nine marks. One of them appears in his edition of The demaundes joyous. It is known as his “Sagittarius” mark and consists of three sections. The upper has the sun and stars, the centre has Caxton’s device with the initials W and C and his cypher, the lower section has a scroll or ribbon with Wynkyn’s name, a dog on one side and Sagittarius the archer on the other.
The demaundes joyous is a very small work, only a few pages in length. The work is especially precious because only one copy is known to survive in Cambridge University Library. There are 54 riddles and it appears that around 29 of these are “borrowed” from an earlier French work called Demaundes joyeuses en maniere de quolibets. Unlike modern riddles, the Questions & Answers or “Demaundes & Response” in The demaundes joyous run consecutively together instead of being displayed on separate lines.
The Library holds a facsimile edition produced by Gordon Fraser Gallery in 1971 which includes a detailed introduction and a transcription of the riddles into more modern language, together with an explanation of some of the more obscure references. It’s fun to read the original text and try to puzzle out the medieval spellings and references, and then check the modern English transcriptions. While some of the more religiously oriented riddles, or those that refer to particular medieval trades, may be difficult for a modern reader to understand, many are quite similar to those you would find in a current riddle book. Reading them highlights our shared sense of humour!
Some of my favourites are:
Demaunde. Whiche is the brodest water and leest Jeoperdye to pass ouer (Which is the broadest water and least jeopardy to pass over)
—R. The dewe (The dew)
Demaunde. what thynge is it that hathe none ende (What thing is it that hath no end)
—R. A bowle (A bowl)
And for something a little saucier:
Demaunde. What beest is it that hath her tayle bytwene her eyen (What beast is it that has her tail between her eyes)
—R. It is a catte when she lycketh her arse (It is a cat when she licks her arse)
And of course the classic:
Demaunde. whiche was fyrst ye henne or ye egge (Which was first, the hen or the egg)
—R. The henne wha god made her (The hen when God made her)