From the ‘chicken or egg’ question to age of a mouse, some of the riddles from England’s oldest joke book.
Wynkyn de Worde had come to London in around the year 1476 to work for William Caxton, the first person in England to run a printing press. After Caxton died, Wynkyn took over the business and would go on to publish over 400 books over the late 15th and early 16th centuries. He published a wide variety of works, ranging from religious texts to romantic novels, and even children’s books.
In the the year 1511 he printed a short book called The Demaundes Joyous, which can be translated as Amusing Questions. Considered to be the oldest joke book in England, it consists of riddle-type questions with (somewhat) funny answers. Here are sixteen of these questions:
How many calves’ tails would it take to reach from the earth to the sky?
No more than one, if it be long enough.
What is the distance from the surface of the sea to the deepest part thereof?
Only a stone’s throw.
What is it that never was and never will be?
A mouse’s nest in a cat’s ear.
Why do men make an oven in a town?
Because they cannot make a town in an oven.
How may a man discern a cow in a flock of sheep?
By his eyesight.
Why does a cow lie down?
Because it cannot sit.
What is it that never freezes?
Which was first, the hen or the egg?
The hen, at the creation.
How many straws go to a goose’s nest?
Not one, for straws not having feet cannot go anywhere.
Who killed the fourth part of all the people in the world?
Cain when he killed Abel.
How would you say two paternosters, when you know God made but one paternoster?
Say one twice over.
Which are the most profitable saints of the church?
Those painted on the glass windows, for they keep the wind from wasting the candles.
Who were the persons that made all, and sold all, that bought all and lost all?
A smith made an awl and sold it to a shoemaker, who lost it.
Why does a dog turn round three times before he lies down?
Because he doesn’t know his bed’s head from the foot thereof.
What is the worst bestowed charity that one can give?
Alms to a blind man; for he would be glad to see the person hanged that gave it to him.
What is the age of a field-mouse ?
A year. And the age of a hedgehog is three times that of a mouse, and the life of a dog is three times that of a hedge-hog, and the life of a horse is three times that of a dog, and the life of a man is three times that of a horse, and the fife of a goose is three times that of a man, and the life of a swan is three times that of a goose, and the life of a swallow three times that of a swan, and the life of an eagle three times that of a swallow, and the life of a serpent three times that of an eagle, and the life of a raven is three times that of a serpent, and the life of a hart is three times that of a raven, and an oak grows five hundred years, and fades five hundred years.
These riddles from The Demaundes Joyous were edited and translated in The book of days: a miscellany of popular antiquities in connection with the calendar, by Robert Chambers, published in 1879. You can also find them in The Demaundes Joyous : a facsimile of the first English riddle book, edited by John Wardroper, and published in 1971.
Top Image: Chicken or egg? Photo by Ruben Alexander / Flickr