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A Hundred Merry Tales: visiting groups enjoy a very rare book!

Shakespeare's "A Hundred Merry Tales" is one of the earliest versions of rowdy and indecent jestbooks, which were collections of humorous stories that would've been more popular than one might think - appealing even to, perhaps, a certain royal monarch...

Madeleine Cox

Group visit season is upon us again and over the last few weeks we have been delivering our new "Trust Treasures" talk to groups from Allegheny College, Groningen University, and Tennessee.

Looking at the Merry Tales
Looking at "A Hundred Merry Tales"

One item featured in the new talk is A. C. Mery Talys (A Hundred Merry Tales),  printed in 1526 "at the sygne of the Merymayd (mermaid) At Powlys gate next to chepe syde" (Cheapside), by Johannes Rastell.

A Hundred Merry Tales is the earliest known example of an English jestbook. It follows a popular tradition in European literature for witty, vulgar tales (probably based on oft-repeated folk tales) and occasionally ending with a didactic moral point. These include stock figures such as hypocritical and stupid clergymen, wanton women and unfaithful wives, as well as humour at the expense of Welshmen. Interestingly, many of the basic plots/anecdotes are common across this form of literature in different languages. Despite the 'low' humour, such books were seen as light relief for the learned and wealth (important given that melancholy was associated with too much studying and seriousness!) and the Merry Tales are even reputed to have been read to Queen Elizabeth I on her deathbed.

Over the centuries, this little book (and its successor) have both become known as "Shakespeare's Jestbook". The reason for this is that Shakespeare has Beatrice make reference to A Hundred Merry Tales in Much Ado About Nothingin the masked ball scene (Act II, sc. 1):

BEATRICE: That I was disdainful, and that I had my good wit out of the 'Hundred Merry Tales' - well, this was Signor Benedick that said so. (ll.129-131)

In the footnote of the Oxford edition, this is described as a 'collection of crude anecdotes, first printed in 1526, but perennially popular'. We are told that Beatrice (understandably!) would have been outraged by the suggestion that this was the source of her wit.

So what were the hundred tales...And how bad was this insinuation? Project Gutenberg has a handy digital text with a list of titles. These include racy and crazy stories, such as:

  • Of the wyfe who lay with her prentys (apprentice) and caused him to beate her husbande disguised in her rayment (his beard gives his identity away!),
  • Of the Welcheman that delyuered the letter to the ape,
  • Of the man that had the dome wyfe, 
  • Of ii nonnes that were shryuen (shriven) of one preste (priest), 
  • Of the husbandman that lodgyd the frere in his own bedde,
  • Of the Welcheman that stale the Englysshmans cocke,
  • Of the courtear that ete the hot custarde.
Merry Tales index

Two particular favourites with staff and visitors have been Of the frere that stale the podynge (Of the friar that stole the pudding) - the hypocritical friar lectures his congregation on the sin of breaking the fast before mass, only for a stolen pudding to roll out of his sleeve as he flings his arms out to make a point - and (given our love of beards!)...

Of the gentyll woman that sayde to a gentyll man: ye haue a berde aboue and none benethe. xxx.

¶ A yonge gentylman of the age of xx yere, somwhat dysposed to myrth and gaye, on a tyme talked wyth a gentylwoman whyche was ryght wyse and also mery. Thys gentylwoman, as she talked with hym, happenyd to loke vpon hys berde which was but yonge and somewhat growen vpon the ouer lyppe, and but lyttell growen benethe as all other yonge mennys berdes comynly vse to grow, and sayd to hym thus: syr, ye haue a berde aboue and none beneth; and he, herynge her say so sayde in sporte: maystres, ye haue a berde beneth and none aboue. Mary, quod she, than set the tone agaynst the tother. Which answere made the gentylman so abasshed, that he had not one worde to answere.

Mery Tales
A fragmentary page of the Hundred Merry Tales

Our copy of this book is a collection of fragments, but only one complete text of A Hundred Merry Tales exists - this is in Göttingen. The British Library also has a fragmentary copy, but no others are known, perhaps making this our rarest book!

The challenge with this - and some of our other archive, library, and museum items - is making them interesting, entertaining, and accessible to the groups that visit us for talks and displays. Some groups are instantly in awe of the items on the table and this sense of history being right in front of them. Other groups need a little coaxing to see beyond the stereotypical 'dusty books' and 'old stuff'. We really enjoy bringing our collections to life and try to share what we have found interesting/funny about each item, as well as the historical facts. We love this quirky little book and look forward to sharing it with more groups.

A group visit last week

We aim to bring to life Shakespeare's world, sources, and legacy to life and help students better understand the plays through the use of library, archive, and museum items. We want more people to enjoy these items up-close and not behind the glass of an exhibition case. If you'd like to know more, please email [email protected] or take a look at the residential courses available for visiting groups from around the world and build up your own programme of workshops, lectures, and even stage combat and dancing classes.