So if you're at that seventeenth-century dinner party that I mentioned in my last post, you'll want a few "merry jests, smart repartees, witty sayings, and a few notable bulls" to amuse and delight your friends (that is, if you want to transcend urine tricks and flatulence).
(Not jokes though--apparently the word joque, from the Latin iocus "jest, sport, pastime'--had only just emerged in England in the 1660s, and was only just entering the seventeenth-century vernacular.)
This particular jest-book, Humphrey Crouch's England's Jests Refin'd and Improved (1693), one of England's first such collections, offers equal opportunity digs at all manner of people: gentry, magistrates, royals, Quakers, Catholics, priests, Jews, foreigners, scholars, students, old people, young people, pregnant women, scolds, rakes, brothel-keepers, cuckolded husbands, criminals awaiting execution--you name it.
Many jests were political or religious in nature but, as you might imagine, such humor doesn't always translate easily across three centuries (and English doesn't always translate to American. HA!)
However, this one just amuses me.
"A witty young fellow was try'd for his life, since his Majesties Restoration. And being caught, they told him he must be hang'd: But he pleaded in his own defence a long time; at last desir'd the Judge, That if he must be hang'd, he might be hanged after the new way that Oliver was, three or four years after he was dead."
(The corpse of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell had been dug up and hanged posthumously two years after Charles II was restored to the English throne. Yup, as gross as it sounds.)
And, I could skip the obligatory lawyer jest but I won't.
"A certain person speaking unseemly words before a Gentlewoman, she ask'd him what profession he was of. Madam, says he, I am a civil lawyer. Alas, Sir, she replied, If Civil lawyers are such rude people, I wonder what other Lawyers are."
Mwah ha ha! Civil lawyers. (Okay, fine. Maybe not that funny)
Of course, I imagine bawdy humor will still translate best....
"Two friends meeting, one being overjoyed to see the other. Hark you Sir, said he, Between you and I, my wife's with child. Faith, cry'd the other, you're a liar, for I have not seen her this twelve months." (Awk-ward!)
"A young woman, having married a great student, who was so intent on his studies, that she thought herself too little regarded by him, and one day when they were at Dinner with some Friends, she wished herself a book, that she may have more of her Husband's company. If it must be so, says her husband, I wish thou wert an Almanack, that I might change thee for a new one once a year." (Ouch!)
the witless cuckolded husband (with horns!)
"One that had only been married but a week called her husband a 'cuckold,' which her mother hearing, reproved her: You slut, says she, do you call your husband cuckold already?And I have been married this twenty years to your father, and never darest tell him of it yet!"
(Ah, the old cuckolded husband jest).
So you tell me...how would this jest end? A cuckold, a magistrate, and a Puritan walk into a tavern...
I can't be the only one who's stared at "Dogs Playing Poker" wondering what the artist was thinking (or drinking, smoking, etc.) when he dreamed up this crazy, but fun, image.
Exhibit A: "A Friend in Need" (part of "Dogs Playing Poker" series)
Who doesn't love the bulldog passing his friend the ace? Pure unadulterated American kitch!
Or is it???! I will call this painting Exhibit A.
I ask you now to consider Exhibit B, below.
Exhibit B: Apes and cat playing poker (well, cards--there was no poker yet)
Exhibit B was created by Anonymous in London 1646.
Now, compare the two pieces carefully. Some differences...monkeys and cats, not dogs. A trumping card game, not poker. Some odd verse under the second one.
But otherwise, Exhibit A and B are exactly the same, right? Both feature animals smoking, drinking, and, well, playing cards. An ace is prominent in both. Clearly, Coolidge's twentieth century collection was inspired by the seventeenth-century piece.
No, I kid!
When I came across Anonymous' (1646) woodcut, I was just struck by the superficial similarities to the more famous paintings. Actually, as you might surmise, since these two pieces had entirely different purposes and images, that it's rather silly to compare them.
But I will anyway...
As the story goes, C.M. Coolidge was commissioned by an advertising firm, Browne and Bigelow, in 1903 to create the iconic series of oil paintings, collectively called "Dogs Playing Poker." The purpose was to sell cigars. (In Exhibit A, after the viewer takes in the ace, his or her eye will also be drawn to the smoking pipe just behind it).
On the other hand, the Thomason Tracts catalog says the woodcut in Exhibit B is "An engraving representing a monkey and a cat playing at cards; with descriptive verses denouncing card-playing." The text underneath the image reads:
"Puss my aple gainst thy mouse Ile lay
The gam's mine ifth aft n'er a trump to play.
Mister apes face tart deceived in mee
I have many trumpsters one dost see.
For a pint of wine the drawer call
I come o prittie d'ye see this squall
Apes and catts to play at cards are fitt
Men and women ought to have more witt."
Basically, Anonymous was taking a good Puritan stance against card playing; after all, Cromwell's Parliament had banned all gambling and gaming by the mid-seventeenth century. And nothing depicts moral decay and mental decline more readily than apes and a cat playing cards.
So maybe the two pieces had different--okay, completely opposite--messages. Or-r-r-r, maybe we've hit on the secret seventeenth-century Puritanical origins of "Dogs Playing Poker."
What do you think? You tell me!
(And just because these are so much fun, I'll leave you with "Pinched with Four Aces" to ponder. Discuss amongst yourselves!)
Last week, I came across an article that suggested that reading a book for a second time can offer mental health benefits. My first thought was, "Oh, this is great! I'm not crazy!" I said this because I've re-read certain books more than once a year--some since I was a child.(And with any luck I've benefited mentally in the process...)
This got me thinking about why I read certain books again and again, and the impact that some of those books have had on me. Some offer the comfort--and delicious anticipation--of a well-trodden path (Pride and Prejudice, Anne of Green Gables, Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, and now, Harry Potter). Others offer the dream of a different world (The Time Quintent by Madeleine L'Engle, and now, The Hunger Games), or tugged at something in my being-- (For example, I can see now that Little Women and The Little House books directly contributed to my desire to be a teacher).
Reflecting now, however, I think the book that may have had the biggest impact on me as a historian--and as a writer--was The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958), by Elizabeth George Speare. Set in late seventeenth-century New England, this Newberry winner tells the story of Kit, a hoity-toity miss from Barbadoes, who accidentally defies convention, ruffles the Puritan community, and comes to be accused--and tried--as a witch. Richly drawn characters, simple but elegant writing, and a delicately plotted narrative make this book, for me, a model for powerful storytelling.
Even more importantly, sitting down with this book--even as an adult-- makes me feel like I am sitting down with a friend.
I'm curious--what books comfort and inspire you? Are there books that you seek out, to re-read and enjoy again? What makes you want to read a book again? (I'll read your comments when I finish re-reading my book...)
Oliver Cromwell, destroyer of mince pies
_I can't say I've ever had mince pie, but I never would have guessed it has such a secretive, mysterious history. Is the mince pie capable of being so subversive that it must be banned?
Well, seventeenth-century Puritans thought so. For Cromwell--(the original Grinch? You tell me!)—Christmas represented a time of excessive drinking, gambling, and all around unwholesome merrymaking—all activities that made the Puritans a bit queasy, and decidedly ungodly.
So, in 1644, Parliament banned Christmas in England. They renamed the day Christ-Tide (you know, to remove the “papist” overtones of Mass). The hanging of holly and ivy was strictly prohibited. Merchants were advised to keep their stores and stalls open (to avoid sloth and idleness). And if soldiers walking by smelled a goose for supper—well, your goose was cooked.
And the poor mince pie? Banned in any public place. Ever since the Crusades, the mince pie had symbolized and honored the birth of Christ. When the Crusaders returned from the Holy Lands, three spices were added to a lamb pie-- cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg--each spice representing the three gifts bestowed upon the Christ child by the Magi. Pies were very small, shaped in the form of a cradle, and eaten throughout the twelve days of Christmas. So to the Puritans, these small pies represented everything that was wrong with Catholicism.
Christmas in the American colonies fared no better. The Massachusetts Bay Company General Court ordered that “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county."
Yikes! Five shillings for every offense—that’s got to add up. However, despite these prohibitions, people continued to make mince pies, calling them “shred” or “secret” pies. (Although calling it a secret pie might have defeated the purpose, but so be it).
And for Christmas lovers everywhere, don’t worry. The story ends well.
When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, the spectacle and merriment of Christmas returned, although it took a little longer in the colonies. And holding a place of honor at the Christmas meal, was the humble mince pie.
So, I'm curious--do people still eat mince pie this side of the pond? Or the other side, for that matter? And more interestingly, what other secrets and lost histories lurk within our everyday traditions and customs?
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.