The Book of Noodles by W. A. CloustonStories Of Simpletons

Produced by Bob Jones, Frank van Drogen, Carol David and PG Distributed Proofreaders THE BOOK OF NOODLES: _STORIES OF SIMPLETONS; OR, FOOLS AND THEIR FOLLIES_. BY W.A. CLOUSTON, _Author of “Popular Tales and Fictions; their Migrations and Transformations_” “Excellent! Why, this is the best fooling when all is done.”–_Twelfth Night_. LONDON: ELLIOT STOCK, 62, PATERNOSTER
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  • 1888
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Produced by Bob Jones, Frank van Drogen, Carol David and PG Distributed Proofreaders





_Author of “Popular Tales and Fictions; their Migrations and Transformations_”

“Excellent! Why, this is the best fooling when all is done.”–_Twelfth Night_.




Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 67-24351







_Like popular tales in general, the original sources of stories of simpletons are for the most part not traceable. The old Greek jests of this class had doubtless been floating about among different peoples long before they were reduced to writing. The only tales and apologues of noodles or stupid folk to which an approximate date can be assigned are those found in the early Buddhist books, especially in the “Jatakas,” or Birth-stories, which are said to have been related to his disciples by Gautama, the illustrious founder of Buddhism, as incidents which occurred to himself and others in former births, and were afterwards put into a literary form by his followers. Many of the “Jatakas” relate to silly men and women, and also to stupid animals, the latter being, of course, men re-born as beasts, birds, or reptiles. But it is not to be supposed that all are of Buddhist invention; some had doubtless been current for ages among the Hindus before Gautama promulgated his mild doctrines. Scholars are, however, agreed that these fictions date at latest from a century prior to the Christian era._

_Of European noodle-stories, as of other folk-tales, it may be said that, while they are numerous, yet the elements of which they are composed are comparatively very few. The versions domiciled in different countries exhibit little originality, farther than occasional modifications in accordance with local manners and customs. Thus for the stupid Brahman of Indian stories the blundering, silly son is often substituted in European variants; for the brose in Norse and Highland tales we find polenta or macaroni in Italian and Sicilian versions. The identity of incidents in the noodle-stories of Europe with those in what are for us their oldest forms, the Buddhist and Indian books, is very remarkable, particularly so in the case of Norse popular fictions, which, there is every reason to believe, were largely introduced through the Mongolians; and the similarity of Italian and West Highland stories to those of Iceland and Norway would seem to indicate the influence of the Norsemen in the Western Islands of Scotland and in the south of Europe._

_It were utterly futile to attempt to trace the literary history of most of the noodle-stories which appear to have been current throughout European countries for many generations, since they have practically none. Soon after the invention of printing collections of facetiae were rapidly multiplied, the compilers taking their material from oral as well as written sources, amongst others, from mediaeval collections of “exempla” designed for the use of preachers and the writings of the classical authors of antiquity. With the exception of those in Buddhist works, it is more than probable that the noodle-stories which are found among all peoples never had any other purpose than that of mere amusement. Who, indeed, could possibly convert the “witless devices” of the men of Gotham into vehicles of moral instruction? Only the monkish writers of the Middle Ages, who even “spiritualised” tales which, if reproduced in these days, must be “printed for private circulation”!_

_Yet may the typical noodle of popular tales “point a moral,” after a fashion. Poor fellow! he follows his instructions only too literally, and with a firm conviction that he is thus doing a very clever thing. But the consequence is almost always ridiculous. He practically shows the fallacy of the old saw that “fools learn by experience,” for his next folly is sure to be greater than the last, in spite of every caution to the contrary. He is generally very honest, and does everything, like the man in the play, “with the best intentions.” His mind is incapable of entertaining more than one idea at a time; but to that he holds fast, with the tenacity of the lobster’s claw: he cannot be diverted from it until, by some accident, a fresh idea displaces it; and so on he goes from one blunder to another. His blunders, however, which in the case of an ordinary man would infallibly result in disaster to himself or to others, sometimes lead him to unexpected good fortune. He it is, in fact, to whom the great Persian poet Sadi alludes when he says, in his charming “Gulistan,” or Rose Garden, “The alchemist died of grief and distress, while the blockhead found a treasure under a ruin.” Men of intelligence toil painfully to acquire a mere “livelihood”‘; the noodle stumbles upon great wealth in the midst of his wildest vagaries. In brief, he is–in stories, at least–a standing illustration of the “vanity of human life”!_

_And now a few words as to the history and design of the following work. When the Folk-lore Society was formed, some nine years since, the late Mr. W.J. Thoms, who was one of the leading men in its formation, promised to edit for the Society the “Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham,” furnishing notes of analogous stories, a task which he was peculiarly qualified to perform. As time passed on, however, the infirmities of old age doubtless rendered the purposed work less and less attractive to him, and his death, after a long, useful, and honourable career, left it still undone. What particular plan he had sketched out for himself I do not know; but there can be no doubt that had he carried it out the results would have been most valuable. And, since he did not perform his self-allotted task, his death is surely a great loss, perhaps an irreparable loss, to English students of comparative folk-lore._

_More than five years ago, with a view of urging Mr. Thoms to set about the work, I offered to furnish him with some material in the shape of Oriental noodle-stories; but from a remark in his reply I feared there would be no need for such services as I could render him. That fear has been since realised, and the present little book is now offered as a humble substitute for the intended work of Mr. Thoms, until it is displaced by a more worthy one._

_Since the “Tales of the Men of Gotham” ceased to be reproduced in chap-book form, the first reprint of the collection was made in 1840, with an introduction by Mr. J.O. Halliwell (now Halliwell-Phillipps); and that brochure is become almost as scarce as the chap-book copies themselves: the only copy I have seen is in the Euing collection in the Glasgow University Library. The tales were next reprinted in the “Shakespeare Jest-books,” so ably edited and annotated by Mr. W. Carew Hazlitt, in three volumes (1864). They were again reproduced in Mr. John Ashton’s “Chap-books of the Eighteenth Century” (1882)._

_It did not enter into the plan of any of these editors to cite analogues or variants of the Gothamite Tales; nor, on the other hand, was it any part of my design in the present little work to reproduce the Tales in the same order as they appear in the printed collection. Yet all that are worth reproducing in a work of this description will be found in the chapters entitled “Gothamite Drolleries,” of which they form, indeed, but a small portion._

_My design has been to bring together, from widely scattered sources, many of which are probably unknown or inaccessible to ordinary readers, the best of this class of humorous narratives, in their oldest existing Buddhist and Greek forms as well as in the forms in which they are current among the people in the present day. It will, perhaps, be thought by some that a portion of what is here presented might have been omitted without great loss; but my aim has been not only to compile an amusing story-book, but to illustrate to some extent the migrations of popular fictions from country to country. In this design I was assisted by Captain R.C. Temple, one of the editors of the “Indian Antiquary,” and one of the authors of “Wide-awake Stories,” from the Punjab and Kashmir, who kindly directed me to sources whence I have drawn some curious Oriental parallels to European stories of simpletons._


*.* _While my “Popular Tales and Fictions” was passing through the press, in 1886, I made reference (in vol. i., p. 65) to the present work, as it was purposed to be published that year, but Mr. Stock has had unavoidably to defer its publication till now._


GLASGOW, _March_, 1888.






Reputed communities of stupids in different countries–The noodles of Norfolk: their lord’s bond; the dog and the honey; the fool and his sack of meal–Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham: Andrew Borde not the author– The two Gothamites at Notts Bridge–The hedging of the cuckoo–How the men of Gotham paid their rents–The twelve fishers and the courtier–The _Guru Paramartan_–The brothers of Bakki–Drowning the eel–The Gothamite and his cheese–The trivet–The buzzard–The gossips at the alehouse–The cheese on the highway–The wasp’s nest–Casting sheep’s eyes–The devil in the meadow–The priest of Gotham–The “boiling” river–The moon a green cheese–The “carles of Austwick”–The Wiltshire farmer and his pigs



The men of Schilda: the dark council-house; the mill-stone; the cat– Sinhalese noodles: the man who observed Buddha’s five precepts–The fool and the _Ramayana_–The two Arabian noodles–The alewife and her hens–“Sorry he has gone to heaven”–The man of Hama and the man of Hums–_Bizarrures_ of the Sieur Gaulard–The rustic and the dog 56-80



The simpleton and the sharpers–The schoolmaster’s lady-love–The judge and the thieves–The calf’s head–The Kashmiri and his store of rice– The Turkish noodle: the kerchief; the caftan; the wolf’s tail; the right hand and the left; the stolen cheese; the moon in the well–The good dreams–Chinese noodles: the lady and her husband; the stolen spade; the relic-hunter–Indian noodles: the fools and the mosquitoes; the fools and the palm-trees; the servants and the trunks; taking care of the door; the fool and the aloes-wood; the fool and the cotton; the cup lost in the sea; the fool and the thieves; the simpletons who ate the buffalo; the princess who was made to grow; the washerman’s ass transformed; the foolish herdsman–Noodle-stories moralised–The brothers and their heritage–Sowing roasted sesame 81-120



Simple Simon–The Norse booby–The Russian booby–The Japanese noodle– The Arabian idiot–The English silly son–The Sinhalese noodle with the robbers–The Italian booby–The Arab simpleton and his cow–The Russian fool and the birch-tree–The silly wife deceived by her husband–The Indian fool on the tree-branch–The Indian monk who believed he was dead–The Florentine fool and the young men–The Indian silly son as a fisher; as a messenger; killing a mosquito; as a pupil–The best of the family–The doctor’s apprentice



Introduction 171 Story of the first Brahman 176 Story of the second Brahman 178 Story of the third Brahman 181 Story of the fourth Brahman 185 Conclusion 190



* * * * *






“Old as the days of Hierokles!” is the exclamation of the “classical” reader on hearing a well-worn jest; while, on the like occasion, that of the “general” reader–a comprehensive term, which, doubtless, signifies one who knows “small Latin and less Greek”–is, that it is “a Joe Miller;” both implying that the critic is too deeply versed in _joke-ology_ to be imposed upon, to have an old jest palmed on him as new, or as one made by a living wit. That the so-called jests of Hierokles are _old_ there can be no doubt whatever; that they were collected by the Alexandrian sage of that name is more than doubtful; while it is certain that several of them are much older than the time in which he flourished, namely, the fifth century: it is very possible that some may date even as far back as the days of the ancient Egyptians! It is perhaps hardly necessary to say that honest Joseph Miller, the comedian, was not the compiler of the celebrated jest-book with which his name is associated; that it was, in fact, simply a bookseller’s trick to entitle a heterogeneous collection of jokes, “quips, and cranks, and quiddities,” _Joe Millers Jests; or, The Wit’s Vade Mecum_. And when one speaks of a jest as being “a Joe Miller,” he should only mean that it is “familiar as household words,” not that it is of contemptible antiquity, albeit many of the jokes in “Joe Miller” are, at least, “as old as Hierokles,” such, for instance, as that of the man who trained his horse to live on a straw _per diem_, when it suddenly died, or that of him who had a house to sell and carried about a brick as a specimen of it.

The collection of facetiae ascribed to Hierokles, by whomsoever it was made, is composed of very short anecdotes of the sayings and doings of pedants, who are represented as noodles, or simpletons. In their existing form they may not perhaps be of much earlier date than the ninth century. They seem to have come into the popular facetiae of Europe through the churchmen of the Middle Ages, and, after having circulated long orally, passed into literature, whence, like other kinds of tales, they once more returned to the people. We find in them the indirect originals of some of the bulls and blunders which have in modern times been credited to Irishmen and Scotch Highlanders, and the germs also, perhaps, of some stories of the Gothamite type: as brave men lived before Agamemnon, so, too, the race of Gothamites can boast of a very ancient pedigree! By far the greater number of them, however, seem now pithless and pointless, whatever they may have been considered in ancient days, when, perhaps, folk found food for mirth in things which utterly fail to tickle our “sense of humour” in these double-distilled days. Of the [Greek: Asteia], or facetiae, of Hierokles, twenty-eight only are appended to his Commentary on Pythagoras and the fragments of his other works edited, with Latin translations, by Needham, and published at Cambridge in 1709. A much larger collection, together with other Greek jests–of the people of Abdera, Sidonia, Cumae, etc.–has been edited by Eberhard, under the title of _Philogelos Hieraclis el Philagrii Facetia_ which was published at Berlin in 1869.

In attempting to classify the best of these relics of ancient wit–or witlessness, rather–it is often difficult to decide whether a particular jest is of the Hibernian bull, or blunder, genus or an example of that droll stupidity which is the characteristic of noodles or simpletons. In the latter class, however, one need not hesitate to place the story of the men of Cumae, who were expecting shortly to be visited by a very eminent man, and having but one bath in the town, they filled it afresh, and placed an open grating in the middle, in order that half the water should be kept clean for his sole use.

But we at once recognise our conventional Irishman in the pedant who, on going abroad, was asked by a friend to buy him two slave-boys of fifteen years each, and replied, “If I cannot find such a pair, I will bring you one of thirty years;” and in the fellow who was quarrelling with his father, and said to him, “Don’t you know how much injury you have done me? Why, had you not been born, I should have inherited my grandfather’s estate;” also in the pedant who heard that a raven lived two hundred years, and bought one that he should ascertain the fact for himself.

Among Grecian Gothamites, again, was the hunter who was constantly disturbed by dreams of a boar pursuing him, and procured dogs to sleep with him. Another, surely, was the man of Cumae who wished to sell some clothes he had stolen, and smeared them with pitch, so that they should not be recognised by the owner. They were Gothamites, too, those men of Abdera who punished a runaway ass for having got into the gymnasium and upset the olive oil. Having brought all the asses of the town together, as a caution, they flogged the delinquent ass before his fellows.

Some of the jests of Hierokles may be considered either as witticisms or witless sayings of noodles; for example, the story of the man who recovered his health though the doctor had sworn he could not live, and afterwards, being asked by his friends why he seemed to avoid the doctor whenever they were both likely to meet, he replied, “He told me I should not live, and now I am ashamed to be alive;” or that of the pedant who said to the doctor, “Pardon me for not having been sick so long;” or this, “I dreamt that I saw and spoke to you last night:” quoth the other, “By the gods, I was so busy, I did not hear you.”

But our friend the Gothamite reappears in the pedant who saw some sparrows on a tree, and went quietly under it, stretched out his robe, and shook the tree, expecting to catch the sparrows as they fell, like ripe fruit again, in the pedant who lay down to sleep, and, finding he had no pillow, bade his servant place a jar under his head, after stuffing it full of feathers to render it soft; again, in the cross-grained fellow who had some honey for sale, and a man coming up to him and inquiring the price, he upset the jar, and then replied, “You may shed my heart’s blood like that before I tell such as you;” and again, in the man of Abdera who tried to hang himself, when the rope broke, and he hurt his head; but after having the wound dressed by the doctor, he went and accomplished his purpose. And we seem to have a trace of them in the story of the pedant who dreamt that a nail had pierced his foot, and in the morning he bound it up; when he told a friend of his mishap, he said, “Why do you sleep barefooted?”

The following jest is spread–_mutatis mutandis_–over all Europe: A pedant, a bald man, and a barber, making a journey in company, agreed to watch in turn during the night. It was the barber’s watch first. He propped up the sleeping pedant, and shaved his head, and when his time came, awoke him. When the pedant felt his head bare, “What a fool is this barber,” he cried, “for he has roused the bald man instead of me!”

A variant of this story is related of a raw Highlander, fresh from the heather, who put up at an inn in Perth, and shared his bed with a negro. Some coffee-room jokers having blackened his face during the night, when he was called, as he had desired, very early next morning, and got up, he saw the reflection of his face in the mirror, and exclaimed in a rage, “Tuts, tuts! The silly body has waukened the wrang man.”

In connection with these two stories may be cited the following, from a Persian jest-book: A poor wrestler, who had passed all his life in forests, resolved to try his fortune in a great city, and as he drew near it he observed with wonder the crowds on the road, and thought, “I shall certainly not be able to know myself among so many people if I have not something about me that the others have not.” So he tied a pumpkin to his right leg and, thus decorated, entered the town. A young wag, perceiving the simpleton, made friends with him, and induced him to spend the night at his house. While he was asleep, the joker removed the pumpkin from his leg and tied it to his own, and then lay down again. In the morning, when the poor fellow awoke and found the pumpkin on his companion’s leg, he called to him, “Hey! get up, for I am perplexed in my mind. Who am I, and who are you? If I am myself, why is the pumpkin on your leg? And if you are yourself, why is the pumpkin not on my leg?”

Modern counterparts of the following jest are not far to seek: Quoth a man to a pedant, “The slave I bought of you has died.” Rejoined the other, “By the gods, I do assure you that he never once played me such a trick while I had him.” The old Greek pedant is transformed into an Irishman, in our collections of facetiae, who applied to a farmer for work. “I’ll have nothing to do with you,” said the farmer, “for the last five Irishmen I had all died on my hands.” Quoth Pat, “Sure, sir, I can bring you characters from half a dozen gentlemen I’ve worked for that I never did such a thing.” And the jest is thus told in an old translation of _Les Contes Facetieux de Sieur Gaulard_: “Speaking of one of his Horses which broake his Neck at the descent of a Rock, he said, Truly it was one of the handsomest and best Curtails in all the Country; he neuer shewed me such a trick before in all his life.”[1]

Equally familiar is the jest of the pedant who was looking out for a place to prepare a tomb for himself, and on a friend indicating what he thought to be a suitable spot, “Very true,” said the pedant, “but it is unhealthy.” And we have the prototype of a modern “Irish” story in the following: A pedant sealed a jar of wine, and his slaves perforated it below and drew off some of the liquor. He was astonished to find his wine disappear while the seal remained intact. A friend, to whom he had communicated the affair, advised him to look and ascertain if the liquor had not been drawn off from below. “Why, you fool,” said he, “it is not the lower, but the upper, portion that is going off.”

It was a Greek pedant who stood before a mirror and shut his eyes that he might know how he looked when asleep–a jest which reappears in Taylor’s _Wit and Mirth_ in this form: “A wealthy monsieur in France (hauing profound reuenues and a shallow braine) was told by his man that he did continually gape in his sleepe, at which he was angry with his man, saying he would not belieue it. His man verified it to be true; his master said that he would neuer belieue any that told him so, except (quoth hee) I chance to see it with mine owne eyes; and therefore I will have a great Looking glasse at my bed’s feet for the purpose to try whether thou art a lying knaue or not.”[2]

Not unlike some of our “Joe Millers” is the following: A citizen of Cumae, on an ass, passed by an orchard, and seeing a branch of a fig-tree loaded with delicious fruit, he laid hold of it, but the ass went on, leaving him suspended. Just then the gardener came up, and asked him what he did there. The man replied, “I fell off the ass.”–An analogue to this drollery is found in an Indian story-book, entitled _Katha Manjari_: One day a thief climbed up a cocoa-nut tree in a garden to steal the fruit. The gardener heard the noise, and while he was running from his house, giving the alarm, the thief hastily descended from the tree. “Why were you up that tree?” asked the gardener. The thief replied, “My brother, I went up to gather grass for my calf.” “Ha! ha! is there grass, then, on a cocoa-nut tree?” said the gardener. “No,” quoth the thief; “but I did not know; therefore I came down again.”–And we have a variant of this in the Turkish jest of the fellow who went into a garden and pulled up carrots, turnips, and other kinds of vegetables, some of which he put into a sack, and some into his bosom. The gardener, coming suddenly on the spot, laid hold of him, and said, “What are you seeking here?” The simpleton replied, “For some days past a great wind has been blowing, and that wind blew me hither.” “But who pulled up these vegetables?” “As the wind blew very violently, it cast me here and there; and whatever I laid hold of in the hope of saving myself remained in my hands.” “Ah,” said the gardener, “but who filled this sack with them?” “Well, that is the very question I was about to ask myself when you came up.”

The propensity with which Irishmen are credited of making ludicrous bulls is said to have its origin, not from any lack of intelligence, but rather in the fancy of that lively race, which often does not wait for expression until the ideas have taken proper verbal form. Be this as it may, a considerable portion of the bulls popularly ascribed to Irishmen are certainly “old as the jests of Hierokles,” and are, moreover, current throughout Europe. Thus in Hierokles we read that one of twin-brothers having recently died, a pedant, meeting the survivor, asked him whether it was he or his brother who had deceased.–Taylor has this in his _Wit and Mirth_, and he probably heard it from some one who had read the facetious tales of the Sieur Gaulard: “A nobleman of France (as he was riding) met with a yeoman of the Country, to whom he said, My friend, I should know thee. I doe remember I haue often seene thee. My good Lord, said the countriman, I am one of your Honers poore tenants, and my name is T.J. I remember better now (said my Lord); there were two brothers of you, but one is dead; I pray, which of you doth remaine alive?”–Mr. W. Carew Hazlitt, in the notes to his edition of Taylor’s collection _(Shakespeare Jest Books_, Third Series), cites a Scotch parallel from _The Laird of Logan_: “As the Paisley steamer came alongside the quay[3] at the city of the Seestus,[4] a denizen of St. Mirren’s hailed one of the passengers: ‘Jock! Jock! distu hear, man? Is that you or your brother?'” And to the same point is the old nursery rhyme,–

“Ho, Master Teague, what is your story? I went to the wood, and killed a tory;[5] I went to the wood, and killed another: Was it the same, or was it his brother?”[6]

We meet with a very old acquaintance in the pedant who lost a book and sought for it many days in vain, till one day he chanced to be eating lettuces, when, turning a corner, he saw it on the ground. Afterwards meeting a friend who was lamenting the loss of his girdle, he said to him, “Don’t grieve; buy some lettuces; eat them at a corner; turn round it, go a little way on, and you will find your girdle.” But is there anything like this in “Joe Miller”?–Two lazy fellows were sleeping together, when a thief came, and drawing down the coverlet made off with it. One of them was aware of the theft, and said to the other, “Get up, and run after the man that has stolen our coverlet.” “You blockhead,” replied his companion, “wait till he comes back to steal the bolster, and we two will master him.” And has “Joe” got this one?–A pedant’s little boy having died, many friends came to the funeral, on seeing whom he said, “I am ashamed to bring out so small a boy to so great a crowd.”

An epigram in the _Anthologia_ may find a place among noodle stories:

“A blockhead, bit by fleas, put out the light, And, chuckling, cried, ‘Now you can’t see to bite!'”

This ancient jest has been somewhat improved in later times. Two Irishmen in the East Indies, being sorely pestered with mosquitoes, kept their light burning in hopes of scaring them off, but finding this did not answer, one suggested they should extinguish the light and thus puzzle their tormentors to find them, which was done. Presently the other, observing the light of a firefly in the room, called to his bedfellow, “Arrah, Mike, sure your plan’s no good, for, bedad, here’s one of them looking for us wid a lantern!”

Our specimens may be now concluded with what is probably the best of the old Greek jokes. The father of a man of Cumae having died at Alexandria, the son dutifully took the body to the embalmers. When he returned at the appointed time to fetch it away, there happened to be a number of bodies in the same place, so he was asked if his father had any peculiarity by which his body might be recognised, and the wittol replied, “He had a cough.”



[1] Etienne Tabourot, the author of this amusing little book, who was born at Dijon in 1549 and died in 1590, is said to have written the tales in ridicule of the inhabitants of Franche Comte, who were then the subjects of Spain, and reputed to be stupid and illiterate. From a manuscript translation, entitled _Bizarrures; or, The Pleasant and Witlesse and Simple Speeches of the Lord Gaulard of Burgundy_, purporting to be made by “J.B., of Charterhouse,” probably about the year 1660, in the possession of Mr. Frederick William Cosens, London, fifty copies, edited, with a preface, by “A.S.” (Alexander Smith), were printed at Glasgow in 1884. I am indebted to the courtesy of my friend Mr. F.T. Barrett, Librarian of the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, for directing my attention to this curious work, a copy of which is among the treasures of that already important institution.

[2] “_Wit and Mirth_. Chargeably collected out of Taverns, Ordinaries, Innes, Bowling-greenes and Allyes, Alehouses, Tobacco-shops, Highwayes, and Water-passages. Made up and fashioned into Clinches, Bulls, Quirkes, Yerkes, Quips, and Jerkes. Apothegmatically bundled vp and garbled at the request of John Garrett’s Ghost.” (1635)–such is the elaborate title of the collection of jests made by John Taylor, the Water Poet, which owes very little to preceding English jest-books. The above story had, however, been told previously in the _Bizarrures_ of the Sieur Gaulard: “His cousine Dantressesa reproued him one day that she had found him sleeping in an ill posture with his mouth open, to order which for the tyme to come he commanded his seruant to hang a looking glasse upon the curtaine at his Bed’s feet, that he might henceforth see if he had a good posture in his sleep.”

[3] Only a Liliputian steamer could go up the “river” Cart!

[4] “Seestu” is a nickname for Paisley, the good folks of that busy town being in the habit of frequently interjecting, “Seestu?”–_i.e.,_ “Seest thou?”–in their familiar colloquies.

[5] “Tory” is said to be the Erse term for a robber.

[6] Halliwell’s _Nursery Rhymes of England_, vol. iv. of Percy Society’s publications.



It seems to have been common to most countries, from very ancient times, for the inhabitants of a particular district, town, or village to be popularly regarded as pre-eminently foolish, arrant noodles or simpletons. The Greeks had their stories of the silly sayings and doings of the people of Baeotia, Sidonia, Abdera, etc. Among the Perso-Arabs the folk of Hums (ancient Emessa) are reputed to be exceedingly stupid. The Kabail, or wandering tribes of Northern Africa, consider the Beni Jennad as little better than idiots. The Schildburgers are the noodles of German popular tales. In Switzerland the townsmen of Belmont, near Lausanne, are typical blockheads. And England has her “men of Gotham”–a village in Nottinghamshire–who are credited with most of the noodle stories which have been current among the people for centuries past, though other places share to some extent in their not very enviable reputation: in Yorkshire the “carles” of Austwick, in Craven; some villages near Marlborough Downs, in Wiltshire; and in the counties of Sutherland and Ross, the people of Assynt.

But long before the men of Gotham were held up to ridicule as fools, a similar class of stories had been told of the men of Norfolk, as we learn from a curious Latin poem, _Descriptio Norfolciensium_, written, probably, near the end of the twelfth century, by a monk of Peterborough, which is printed in Wright’s _Early Mysteries and Other Latin Poems_. This poem sets out with stating that Caesar having despatched messengers throughout the provinces to discover which were bad and which were good, on their return they reported Norfolk as the most sterile, and the people the vilest and different from all other peoples. Among the stories related of the stupidity of the men of Norfolk is the following: Being oppressed by their lord, they gave him a large sum of money on condition that he should relieve them from future burdens, and he gave them his bond to that effect, sealed with a seal of green wax. To celebrate this, they all went to the tavern and got drunk. When it became dark, they had no candle, and were puzzled how to procure one, till a clever fellow among the revellers suggested that they should use the wax seal of the bond for a candle–they should still have the words of the bond, which their lord could not repudiate; so they made the wax seal into a candle, and burned it while they continued their merry-making. This exploit coming to the knowledge of their lord, he reimposes the old burdens on the rustics, who complain of his injustice, at the same time producing the bond. The lord calls a clerk to examine the document, who pronounces it to be null and void in the absence of the lord’s seal, and so their oppression continues.

Another story is of a man of Norfolk who put some honey in a jar, and in his absence his dog came and ate it all up. When he returned home and was told of this, he took the dog and forced him to disgorge the honey, put it back into the jar, and took it to market. A customer having examined the honey, declared it to be putrid. “Well,” said the simpleton, “it was in a vessel that was not very clean.”–Wright has pointed out that this reappears in an English jest-book of the seventeenth century. “A cleanly woman of Cambridgeshire made a good store of butter, and whilst she went a little way out of the town about some earnest occasions, a neighbour’s dog came in in the meantime, and eat up half the butter. Being come home, her maid told her what the dog had done, and that she had locked him up in the dairy-house. So she took the dog and hang’d him up by the heels till she had squeez’d all the butter out of his throat again, whilst she, pretty, cleanly soul, took and put it to the rest of the butter, and made it up for Cambridge market. But her maid told her she was ashamed to see such a nasty trick done. ‘Hold your peace, you fool!’ says she; ”tis good enough for schollards. Away with it to market!'”[1]–Perhaps the original form is found in the _Philogelos Hieraclis et Philagrii Facetiae_, edited by Eberhard. A citizen of Cumae was selling honey. Some one came up and tasted it, and said that it was all bad. He replied, “If a mouse had not fallen into it, I would not sell it.”

The well-known Gothamite jest of the man who put a sack of meal on his own shoulders to save his horse, and then got on the animal’s back and rode home, had been previously told of a man of Norfolk, thus:

“Ad foram ambulant diebus singulis;
Saccum de lolio portant in humeris, Jumentis ne noccant: bene fatuis,
Ut prolocutiis sum acquantur bestiis.”

It reappears in the _Bizarrures_ of the Sieur Gaulard:[2] “Seeing one day his mule charged with a verie great Portmantle, [he] said to his groome that was upon the back of the mule, thou lasie fellowe, hast thou no pitie upon that poore Beast? Take that portmantle upon thine owne shoulders to ease the poore Beast.” And in our own time it is told of an Irish exciseman with a keg of smuggled whisky.

How such stories came to be transferred to the men of Gotham, it were fruitless to inquire.[3] Similar jests have been long current in other countries of Europe and throughout Asia, and accident or malice may have fixed the stigma of stupidity on any particular spot. There is probably no ground whatever for crediting the tale of the origin of the proverb, “As wise as the men of Gotham,” although it is reproduced in Thoroton’s _Nottinghamshire_, i. 42-3:

“King John, intending to pass through this place, towards Nottingham, was prevented by the inhabitants, they apprehending that the ground over which a king passed was for ever after to become a public road. The King, incensed at their proceedings, sent from his court soon afterwards some of his servants to inquire of them the reason of their incivility and ill-treatment, that he might punish them. The villagers, hearing of the approach of the King’s servants, thought of an expedient to turn away his Majesty’s displeasure from them. When the messengers arrived at Gotham, they found some of the inhabitants engaged in endeavouring to drown an eel in a pool of water; some were employed in dragging carts upon a large barn to shade the wood from the sun; and others were engaged in hedging a cuckoo, which had perched itself upon an old bush. In short, they were all employed in some foolish way or other, which convinced the King’s servants that it was a village of fools.”

The fooleries ascribed to the men of Gotham were probably first collected and printed in the sixteenth century; but that jests of the “fools of Gotham” were current among the people long before that period is evident from a reference to them in the _Widkirk Miracle Plays_, the only existing MS. of which was written about the reign of Henry VI.:

“Foles al sam;
Sagh I never none so fare
Bote the soles of Gotham.”

The oldest known copy of the _Merie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotam_ was printed in 1630, and is preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Warton, in his _History of English Poetry_, mentions an edition, which he says was printed about 1568, by Henry Wikes, but he had never seen it. But Mr. Halliwell (now Halliwell-Phillips), in his _Notices of Popular English Histories_, cites one still earlier, which he thinks was probably printed between 1556 and 1566: “Merie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotam, gathered together by A.B., of Phisike Doctour. [colophon:] Imprinted at London, in Flet-Stret, beneath the Conduit, at the signe of S. John Evangelist, by Thomas Colwell, n.d. 12 deg., black letter.” The book is mentioned in _A Briefe and Necessary Introduction_, etc., by E.D. (8vo, 1572), among a number of other folk-books: “Bevis of Hampton, Guy of Warwicke, Arthur of the Round Table, Huon of Bourdeaux, Oliver of the Castle, The Four Sonnes of Amond, The Witles Devices of Gargantua, Howleglas, Esop, Robyn Hoode, Adam Bell, Frier Rushe, The Fooles of Gotham, and a thousand such other.”[4] And Anthony a Wood, in his _Athenae Oxonienses_ (1691-2), says it was “printed at London in the time of K. Hen. 8, in whose reign and after it was accounted a book full of wit and mirth by scholars and gentlemen. Afterwards being often printed, [it] is now sold only on the stalls of ballad-singers.” It is likely that the estimation in which the book was held “by scholars and gentlemen” was not a little due to the supposition that “A.B., of Phisike Doctour,” by whom the tales were said to have been “gathered together,” was none other than Andrew Borde, or Boorde, a Carthusian friar before the Reformation, one of the physicians to Henry VIII., a great traveller, even beyond the bounds of Christendom, “a thousand or two and more myles,” a man of great learning, withal “of fame facete.” For to Borde have the _Merie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham_ been generally ascribed down to our own times. There is, however, as Dr. F.J. Furnivall justly remarks, “no good external evidence that the book was written by Borde, while the internal evidence is against his authorship.”[5] In short, the ascription of its compilation to “A.B., of Phisike Doctour,” was clearly a device of the printer to sell the book.[6]

The _Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham_ continued to be printed as a chap-book down to the close of the first quarter of the present century; and much harmless mirth they must have caused at cottage firesides in remote rural districts occasionally visited by the ubiquitous pedlar, in whose well-filled pack of all kinds of petty merchandise such drolleries were sure to be found. Unlike other old collections of facetiae, the little work is remarkably free from objectionable stories; some are certainly not very brilliant, having, indeed, nothing in them particularly “Gothamite,” and one or two seem to have been adapted from the Italian novelists. Of the twenty tales comprised in the collection, the first is certainly one of the most humorous:

There were two men of Gotham, and one of them was going to the market at Nottingham to buy sheep, and the other was coming from the market, and both met on Nottingham bridge. “Well met!” said the one to the other. “Whither are you a-going?” said he that came from Nottingham. “Marry,” said he that was going thither, “I am going to the market to buy sheep.” “Buy sheep!” said the other. “And which way will you bring them home?” “Marry,” said the other, “I will bring them over this bridge.” “By Robin Hood,” said he that came from Nottingham, “but thou shalt not.” “By Maid Marian,” said he that was going thither, “but I will.” “Thou shalt not,” said the one. “I will,” said the other. Then they beat their staves against the ground, one against the other, as if there had been a hundred sheep betwixt them. “Hold them there,” said the one. “Beware of the leaping over the bridge of my sheep,” said the other. “They shall all come this way,” said one. “But they shall not,” said the other. And as they were in contention, another wise man that belonged to Gotham came from the market, with a sack of meal upon his horse; and seeing and hearing his neighbours at strife about sheep, and none betwixt them, said he, “Ah, fools, will you never learn wit? Then help me,” said he that had the meal, “and lay this sack upon my shoulder.” They did so, and he went to the one side of the bridge and unloosed the mouth of the sack, and did shake out all the meal into the river. Then said he, “How much meal is there in the sack, neighbours?” “Marry,” answered they, “none.” “Now, by my faith,” answered this wise man, “even so much wit is there in your two heads to strive for the thing which you have not.” Now which was the wisest of these three persons, I leave you to judge.

Allusions to these tales are of frequent occurrence in our literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Dekker, in his _Gul’s Horn Book_ (1609), says, “It is now high time for me to have a blow at thy head, which I will not cut off with sharp documents, but rather set it on faster, bestowing upon it such excellent serving that if all the wise men of Gotham should lay their heads together, their jobbernowls should not be able to compare with thine;” and Wither, in his _Abuses_, says,

“And he that tryes to doe it might have bin One of the crew that hedged the cuckoo in,”

alluding to one of the most famous exploits of the wittols:

On a time the men of Gotham would have pinned in the cuckoo, whereby she should sing all the year, and in the midst of the town they made a hedge round in compass, and they had got a cuckoo, and had put her into it, and said, “Sing here all the year, and thou shalt lack neither meat nor drink.” The cuckoo, as soon as she perceived herself encompassed within the hedge, flew away. “A vengeance on her!” said they. “We made not our hedge high enough.”

The tales had, however, attained popular favour much earlier. Mr. Halliwell-Phillipps has pointed out that in _Philotimus_ (1583) the men of Gotham are remembered as having “tied their rentes in a purse about an hare’s necke, and bade her to carrie it to their landlord,” an excellent plan, which is thus described:

On a time the men of Gotham had forgotten to pay their rent to their landlord. The one said to the other, “To-morrow is our payday, and what remedy shall we find to send our money to our lord?” The one said, “This day I have taken a quick [i.e., live] hare, and she shall carry it, for she is light of foot.” “Be it so,” said all. “She shall have a letter and a purse to put in our money, and we shall direct her the ready way.” And when the letters were written, and the money put in a purse, they did tie them about the hare’s neck, saying, “First thou must go to Loughborough, and then to Leicester; and at Newark there is our lord, and commend us to him, and there is his duty [i.e., due].” The hare, as soon as she was out of their hands, she did run a clean contrary way. Some cried to her, saying, “Thou must go to Loughborough first.” Some said, “Let the hare alone; she can tell a nearer way than the best of us all do: let her go.” Another said, “It is a noble hare; let her alone; she will not keep the highway for fear of the dogs.”

The well-worn “Joe Miller” of the Irishman who tried to count the party to which he belonged, and always forgot to count himself, which is also known in Russia and in the West Highlands of Scotland, is simply a variant of this drollery:

On a certain day there were twelve men of Gotham that went to fish, and some stood on dry land; and in going home one said to the other, “We have ventured wonderfully in wading: I pray God that none of us come home and be drowned.” “Nay, marry,” said one to the other, “let us see that; for there did twelve of us come out.” Then they told (i.e., counted) themselves, and every one told eleven. Said one to the other, “There is one of us drowned.” They went back to the brook where they had been fishing, and sought up and down for him that was wanting, making great lamentation. A courtier, coming by, asked what it was they sought for, and why they were sorrowful. “Oh,” said they, “this day we went to fish in the brook; twelve of us came out together, and one is drowned.” Said the courtier, “Tell [count] how many there be of you.” One of them said, “Eleven,” and he did not tell himself. “Well,” said the courtier, “what will you give me, and I will find the twelfth man?” “Sir,” said they, “all the money we have got.” “Give me the money,” said the courtier, and began with the first, and gave him a stroke over the shoulders with his whip, which made him groan, saying, “Here is one,” and so served them all, and they all groaned at the matter. When he came to the last, he paid him well, saying, “Here is the twelfth man.” “God’s blessing on thy heart,” said they, “for thus finding our dear brother!”

This droll adventure is also found in the _Gooroo Paramartan_, a most amusing work, written in the Tamil language by Beschi, an Italian Jesuit, who was missionary in India from 1700 till his death, in 1742. The Gooroo (teacher) and his five disciples, who are, like himself, noodles, come to a river which they have to cross, and which, as the Gooroo informs them, is a very dangerous stream. To ascertain whether it is at present “asleep,” one of them dips his lighted cheroot in the water, which, of course, extinguishes it, upon which he returns to the Gooroo and reports that the river is still in a dangerous mood. So they all sit down, and begin to tell stories of the destructive nature of this river. One relates how his grandfather and another man were journeying together, driving two asses laden with bags of salt, and coming to this river, they resolved to bathe in it, and the asses, tempted by the coolness of the water, at the same time knelt down in it. When the men found that their salt had disappeared, they congratulated themselves on their wonderful escape from the devouring stream, which had eaten up all their salt without even opening the bags. Another disciple relates a story similar to the so-called AEsopian fable of the dog and his shadow, this river being supposed to have devoured a piece of meat which the dog had dropped into it. At length the river is found to be quiescent, a piece of charred wood having been plunged into it without producing any effect like that of the former experiment; and they determine to ford it, but with great caution. Arrived on the other side, they count their number, like the men of Gotham, and discover that one is not present. A traveller, coming up, finds the missing man by whacking each of them over the shoulder. The Gooroo, while gratified that the lost one was found, was grumbling at his sore bones–for the traveller had struck pretty hard–when an old woman, on learning of their adventure, told them that, in her young days, she and her female companions were once returning home from a grand festival, and adopted another plan for ascertaining if they were all together. Gathering some of the cattle-droppings, they kneaded them into a cake, in which they each made a mark with the tip of the nose, and then counted the marks–a plan which the Gooroo and his disciples should make use of on future occasions.

The Abbe Dubois has given a French translation of the Adventures of the Gooroo Paramartan among the _Contes Divers_ appended to his not very valuable selection of tales and apologues from Tamil, Telegu, and Cannada versions of the _Panchatantra_ (Five Chapters, not “Cinq Ruses,” as he renders it), a Sanskrit form of the celebrated Fables of Bidpai, or Pilpay. An English rendering of Beschi’s work, by Babington, forms one of the publications of the Oriental Translation Fund. Dubois states that he found the tales of the Gooroo current in Indian countries where Beschi’s name was unknown, and he had no doubt of their Indian origin. However this may be, the work was probably designed, as Babington thinks, to satirise the Brahmans, as well as to furnish a pleasing vehicle of instruction to those Jesuits in India whose duties required a knowledge of the Tamil language.

A story akin to that of the Gothamite fishers, if not, indeed, an older form of it, is told in Iceland of the Three Brothers of Bakki, who came upon one of the hot springs which abound in that volcanic island, and taking off their boots and stockings, put their feet into the water and began to bathe them. When they would rise up, they were perplexed to know each his own feet, and so they sat disconsolate, until a wayfarer chanced to pass by, to whom they told their case, when he soon relieved their minds by striking the feet of each, for which important service they gave him many thanks.[7] This story reappears, slightly modified, in Campbell’s _Popular Tales of the West Highlands_: A party of masons, engaged in building a dyke, take shelter during a heavy shower, and when it has passed, they continue sitting, because their legs had got mixed together, and none knew his own, until they were put right by a traveller with a big stick. We have here an evident relic of the Norsemen’s occupation of the Hebrides.

Several of the tales of the Gothamites are found almost unaltered in Gaelic. That of the twelve fishers has been already mentioned, and here is the story of the attempt to drown an eel, which Campbell gives in similar terms in his _Tales of the West Highlands_:

When that Good Friday was come, the men of Gotham did cast their heads together what to do with their white herring, their red herring, their sprats, and salt fish. One consulted with the other, and agreed that such fish should be cast into a pond or pool (the which was in the middle of the town), that it might increase the next year; and every man did cast them into the pool. The one said, “I have thus many white herrings;” another said, “I have thus many sprats;” another said, “I have thus many salt fishes; let us all go together into the pool, and we shall fare like lords the next Lent.” At the beginning of next Lent the men did draw the pond, to have their fish, and there was nothing but a great eel. “Ah,” said they all, “a mischief on this eel, for he hath eat up all our fish!” “What shall we do with him?” said the one to the other. “Kill him!” said one of them. “Chop him all to pieces!” said another. “Nay, not so,” said the other; “let us drown him.” “Be it so,” said all. They went to another pool, and did cast the eel into the water. “Lie there,” said they, “and shift for thyself, for no help thou shalt have of us;” and there they left the eel to be drowned.

Campbell’s Gaelic story differs so little from the above that we must suppose it to have been derived directly from the English chap-book. Oral tradition always produces local variations from a written story, of which we have an example in a Gaelic version of this choice exploit:

There was a man of Gotham who went to the market of Nottingham to sell cheese; and as he was going down the hill to Nottingham Bridge, one of his cheeses fell out of his wallet and ran down the hill. “Ah,” said the fellow, “can you run to the market alone? I will now send one after the other;” then laying down the wallet and taking out the cheeses, he tumbled them down the hill one after the other; and some ran into one bush, and some into another; so at last he said, “I do charge you to meet me in the market-place.” And when the man came into the market to meet the cheeses, he stayed until the market was almost done, then went and inquired of his neighbours and other men if they did see his cheeses come to market. “Why, who should bring them?” said one of the neighbours. “Marry, themselves,” said the fellow; “they knew the way well enough,” said he: “a vengeance on them! For I was afraid to see my cheeses run so fast, that they would run beyond the market. I am persuaded that they are at this time almost as far as York.” So he immediately takes a horse and rides after them to York; but to this day no man has ever heard of the cheeses.

In one Gaelic variant a woman is going to Inverness with a basket filled with balls of worsted of her own spinning, and going down a hill, one of the balls tumbles out and rolls along briskly, upon which she sends the others after it, holding the ends of each in her hand; and when she reaches the town, she finds a “ravelled hank” instead of her neat balls of worsted. In another version a man goes to market with two bags of cheese, and sends them downhill, like the Gothamite. After waiting at the market all day in vain, he returns home, and tells his wife of his misfortune. She goes to the foot of the hill and finds all the cheese.

The next Gothamite tale also finds its counterpart in the Gaelic stories: There was a man of Gotham who bought at Nottingham a trivet, or brandiron, and as he was going home his shoulders grew sore with the carriage thereof, and he set it down; and seeing that it had three feet, he said, “Ha! hast thou three feet, and I but two? Thou shalt bear me home, if thou wilt,” and set himself down thereupon, and said to the trivet, “Bear me as long as I have borne thee; but if thou do not, thou shalt stand still for me.” The man of Gotham did see that his trivet would not go farther. “Stand still, in the mayor’s name,” said he, “and follow me if thou wilt. I will tell thee right the way to my home.” When he did come to his house, his wife said, “Where is my trivet?” The man said, “He hath three legs, and I have but two; and I did teach him the way to my house. Let him come home if he will.” “Where left ye the trivet?” said the woman. “At Gotham hill,” said the man. His wife did run and fetch home the trivet her own self, or else she had lost it through her husband’s wit.

In Campbell’s version a man having been sent by his wife with her spinning-wheel to get mended, as he was returning home with it the wind set the wheel in motion, so he put it down, and bidding it go straight to his house, set off himself. When he reached home, he asked his wife if the spinning-wheel had arrived yet, and on her replying that it had not, “I thought as much,” quoth he, “for I took the shorter way.”

A somewhat similar story is found in Riviere’s French collection of tales of the Kabail, Algeria, to this effect: The mother of a youth of the Beni-Jennad clan gave him a hundred reals to buy a mule; so he went to market, and on his way met a man carrying a water-melon for sale. “How much for the melon?” he asks. “What will you give?” says the man. “I have only got a hundred reals,” answered the booby; “had I more, you should have it.” “Well,” rejoined the man, “I’ll take them.” Then the youth took the melon and handed over the money. “But tell me,” says he, “will its young one be as green as it is?” “Doubtless,” answered the man, “it will be green.” As the booby was going home, he allowed the melon to roll down a slope before him. It burst on its way, when up started a frightened hare. “Go to my house, young one,” he shouted. “Surely a green animal has come out of it.” And when he got home, he inquired of his mother if the young one had arrived.

In the _Gooroo Paramartan_ there is a parallel incident to this last. The noodles are desirous of providing their Gooroo with a horse, and a man sells them a pumpkin, telling them it is a mare’s egg, which only requires to be sat upon for a certain time to produce a fine young horse. The Gooroo himself undertakes to hatch the mare’s egg, since his disciples have all other matters to attend to; but as they are carrying it through a jungle, it falls down and splits into pieces; just then a frightened hare runs before them; and they inform the Gooroo that, a fine young colt came out of the mare’s egg, with very long ears, and ran off with the speed of the wind. It would have proved a fine horse for their revered Gooroo, they add; but he consoles himself for the loss by reflecting that such an animal would probably have run away with him.

A number of the Gothamite tales in the printed collection are not only inferior to those which are preserved orally, but can be considered in no sense examples of preeminent folly. Three consist of tricks played by women upon their husbands, such as are found in the ordinary jest-books of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In one a man, who had taken a buzzard, invites some friends to dine with him. His wife, with two of her gossips, having secretly eaten the buzzard, kills and cooks an old goose, and sets it before him and his guests; the latter call him a knave to mock them thus with an old goose, and go off in great anger. The husband, resolved to put himself right with his friends, stuffs the buzzard’s feathers into a sack, in order to show them that they were mistaken in thinking he had tried to deceive them with an old goose instead of a fine fat buzzard. But before he started on this business, his wife contrived to substitute the goose’s feathers, which he exhibited to his friends as those of the buzzard, and was soundly cudgelled for what they believed to be a second attempt to mock them.– Two other stories seem to be derived from the Italian novelists: of the man who intended cutting off his wife’s hair[8] and of the man who defied his wife to cuckold him. Two others turn upon wrong responses at a christening and a marriage, which have certainly nothing Gothamite in them. Another is a dull story of a Scotchman who employed a carver to make him as a sign of his inn a boar’s head, the tradesman supposing from his northern pronunciation that he meant _bare_ head.–In the nineteenth tale, a party of gossips are assembled at the alehouse, and each relates in what manner she is profitable to her husband: one saves candles by sending all her household to bed in daylight; another, like the old fellow and Tib his wife in _Jolly Good Ale and Old_, eats little meat, but can swig a gallon or two of ale, and so forth.

We have, however, our Gothamite once more in the story of him who, seeing a fine cheese on the ground as he rode along the highway, tried to pick it up with his sword, and finding his sword too short, rode back to fetch a longer one for his purpose, but when he returned, he found the cheese was gone. “A murrain take it!” quoth he. “If I had had this sword, I had had this cheese myself, and now another hath got it!” Also in the smith who took a red-hot iron bar and thrust it into the thatch of his smithy to destroy a colony of wasps, and, of course, burned down the smithy–a story which has done duty in modern days to “point a moral” in the form of a teetotal tract, with a drunken smith in place of the honest Gothamite![9]

The following properly belongs to stories of the “silly son” class: There was a young man of Gotham the which should go wooing to a fair maid. His mother did warn him beforehand, saying, “When thou dost look upon her, cast a sheep’s-eye, and say, ‘How do ye, sweet pigsnie?'” The fellow went to the butcher’s and bought seven or eight sheep’s eyes; and when this lusty wooer did sit at dinner, he would cast in her face a sheep’s eye, saying, “How dost thou, my pretty pigsnie?” “How do I?” said the wench. “Swine’s-face, why dost thou cast the sheep’s eye upon me?” “O sweet pigsnie, have at thee another!” “I defy thee, Swine’s-face,” said the wench. The fellow, being abashed, said, “What, sweet pigsnie! Be content, for if thou do live until the next year, thou wilt be a foul sow.” “Walk, knave, walk!” said she; “for if thou live till the next year, thou wilt be a stark knave, a lubber, and a fool.”

It is very evident that the men of Gotham were of “honest” Jack Falstaff’s opinion that the better part of valour is discretion: On a time there was a man of Gotham a-mowing in the meads and found a great grasshopper. He cast down his scythe, and did run home to his neighbours, and said that there was a devil in the field that hopped in the grass. Then there was every man ready with clubs and staves, with halberts, and with other weapons, to go and kill the grasshopper. When they did come to the place where the grasshopper should be, said the one to the other, “Let every man cross himself from the devil, or we will not meddle with him.” And so they returned again, and said, “We were all blessed this day that we went no farther.” “Ah, cowards,” said he that had his scythe in the mead, “help me to fetch my scythe.” “No,” said they; “it is good to sleep in a whole skin: better it is to lose thy scythe than to mar us all.”

There is some spice of humour in the concluding tale of the printed collection, although it has no business there: On Ash Wednesday the priest said to the men of Gotham, “If I should enjoin you to prayer, there is none of you that can say your paternoster; and you be now too old to learn. And to enjoin you to fast were foolishness, for you do not eat a good meal’s meat in a year. Wherefore do I enjoin thee to labour all the week, that thou mayest fare well to dine on Sunday, and I will come to dinner and see it to be so, and take my dinner.” Another man he did enjoin to fare well on Monday, and another on Tuesday, and one after another that one or other should fare well once a week, that he might have part of his meat. “And as for alms,” said the priest, “ye be beggars all, except one or two; therefore bestow alms on yourselves.”

Among the numerous stories of the Gothamites preserved orally, but not found in the collection of “A.B., of Phisicke Doctour,” is the following, which seems to be of Indian extraction:

One day some men of Gotham were walking by the riverside, and came to a place where the contrary currents caused the water to boil as in a whirlpool. “See how the water boils!” says one. “If we had plenty of oatmeal,” says another, “we might make enough porridge to serve all the village for a month.” So it was resolved that part of them should go to the village and fetch their oatmeal, which was soon brought and thrown into the river. But there presently arose the question of how they were to know when the porridge was ready. This difficulty was overcome by the offer of one of the company to jump in, and it was agreed that if he found it ready for use, he should signify the same to his companions. The man jumped in, and found the water deeper than he expected. Thrice he rose to the surface, but said nothing. The others, impatient at his remaining so long silent, and seeing him smack his lips, took this for an avowal that the porridge was good, and so they all jumped in after him and were drowned.

Another traditional Gothamite story is related of a villager coming home at a late hour and, seeing the reflection of the moon in a horse-pond, believed it to be a green cheese, and roused all his neighbours to help him to draw it out. They raked and raked away until a passing cloud sank the cheese, when they returned to their homes grievously disappointed.[10]–This is also related of the villagers near the Marlborough Downs, in Wiltshire, and the _sobriquet_ of “moon-rakers,” applied to Wiltshire folk in general, is said to have had its origin in the incident; but they assert that it was a keg of smuggled brandy, which had been sunk in a pond, that the villagers were attempting to fish up, when the exciseman coming suddenly upon the scene, they made him believe they were raking the reflection of the moon, thinking it a green cheese, an explanation which is on a par with the apocryphal tale of the Gothamites and the messengers of King John.

The absurd notion of the moon being a fine cheese is of very respectable antiquity, and occurs in the noodle-stories of many countries. It is referred to by Rabelais, and was doubtless the subject of a popular French tale in his time. In the twenty-second story of the _Disciplina Clericalis_ of Peter Alfonsus, a Spanish Jew, who was baptised in 1106, a fox leaves a wolf in a well, looking after a supposed cheese, made by the image of the moon in the water; and the same fable had been told by the Talmudists in the fifth century.[11] The well-known “Joe Miller” of the party of Irishmen who endeavoured to reach a “green cheese” in the river by hanging one by another’s legs finds its parallel in a Mecklenburg story, in which some men by the same contrivance tried to get a stone from the bottom of a well, and the incident is thus related in the old English jest-book entitled _The Sacke Full of Newes_:

There were three young men going to Lambeth along by the waterside, and one played with the other, and they cast each other’s caps into the water in such sort as they could not get their caps again. But over the place where their caps were did grow a great old tree, the which did cover a great deal of the water. One of them said to the rest, “Sirs, I have found a notable way to come by them. First I will make myself fast by the middle with one of your girdles unto the tree, and he that is with you shall hang fast upon my girdle, and he that is last shall take hold on him that holds fast on my girdle, and so with one of his hands he may take up all our caps, and cast them on the sand.” And so they did; but when they thought that they had been most secure and fast, he that was above felt his girdle slack, and said, “Soft, sirs! My girdle slacketh.” “Make it fast quickly,” said they. But as he was untying it to make it faster they fell all three into the water, and were well washed for their pains.

Closely allied to these tales is the Russian story of the old man who planted a cabbage-head in the cellar, under the floor of his cottage, and, strange to say, it grew right up to the sky. He climbs up the cabbage-stalk till he reaches the sky. There he sees a mill, which gives a turn, and out come a pie and a cake, with a pot of stewed grain on the top. The old man eats his fill and drinks his fill; then he lies down to sleep. By-and-bye he awakes, and slides down to earth again.

He tells his wife of the good things up in the sky, and she induces him to take her with him. She slips into a sack, and the old man takes it in his teeth and begins to climb up. The old woman, becoming tired, asked him if it was much farther, and just as he was about to say, “Not much farther,” the sack slipped from between his teeth, and the old woman fell to the ground and was smashed to pieces.

There are many variants of this last story (which is found in Mr. Ralston’s most valuable and entertaining collection of Russian folk-tales), but observe the very close resemblance which it bears to the following Indian tale of the fools and the bull of Siva, from the _Katha Sarit Sagara_ (Ocean of the Streams of Story), the grand collection, composed in Sanskrit verse by Somadeva in the eleventh century, from a similar work entitled _Vrihat Katha_ (Great Story), written in Sanskrit prose by Gunadhya, in the sixth century:[12]

In a certain convent, which was full of fools, there was a man who was the greatest fool of the lot. He once heard in a treatise on law, which was being read aloud, that a man who has a tank made gains a great reward in the next world. Then, as he had a large fortune, he had made a large tank full of water, at no great distance from his own convent. One day this prince of fools went to take a look at that tank of his, and perceived that the sand had been scratched up by some creature. The next day too he came, and saw that the bank had been torn up in another part of the tank, and being quite astonished, he said to himself, “I will watch here to-morrow the whole day, beginning in the early morning, and I will find out what creature it is that does this.” After he had formed this resolution, he came there early next morning, and watched, until at last he saw a bull descend from heaven and plough up the bank with its horns. He thought, “This is a heavenly bull, so why should I not go to heaven with it?” And he went up to the bull, and with both his hands laid hold of the tail behind. Then the holy bull lifted up, with the utmost force, the foolish man who was clinging to its tail, and carried him in a moment to its home in Kailasa.[13] There the foolish man lived for some time in great comfort, feasting on heavenly dainties, sweetmeats, and other things which he obtained. And seeing that the bull kept going and returning, that king of fools, bewildered by destiny, thought, “I will go down clinging to the tail of the bull and see my friends, and after I have told them this wonderful tale, I will return in the same way.” Having formed this resolution, the fool went and clung to the tail of the bull one day when it was setting out, and so returned to the surface of the earth. When he entered the convent, the other blockheads who were there embraced him, and asked him where he had been, and he told them. Then all these foolish men, having heard the tale of his adventures, made this petition to him: “Be kind, and take us also there; enable us also to feast on sweetmeats.” He consented, and told them his plan for doing it, and next day led them to the border of the tank, and the bull came there. And the principal fool seized the tail of the bull with his two hands, and another took hold of his feet, and a third in turn took hold of his. So, when they had formed a chain by hanging on to one another’s feet, the bull flew rapidly up into the air. And while the bull was going along, with all the fools clinging to its tail, it happened that one of the fools said to the principal fool, “Tell us now, to satisfy our curiosity, how large were the sweetmeats which you ate, of which a never-failing supply can be obtained in heaven?” Then the leader had his attention diverted from the business in hand, and quickly joined his hands together like the cup of a lotus, and exclaimed in answer, “So big.” But in so doing he let go the tail of the bull, and accordingly he and all those others fell from heaven, and were killed; and the bull returned to Kailasa; but the people who saw it were much amused.[14]

“Thus,” remarks the story-teller, “fools do themselves injury by asking questions and giving answers without reflection”; he then proceeds to relate a story in illustration of the apothegm that “association with fools brings prosperity to no man”:

A certain fool, while going to another village, forgot the way. And when he asked the way, the people said to him, “Take the path that goes up by the tree on the bank of the river.” Then the fool went and got on the trunk of that tree, and said to himself, “The men told me that my way lay up the trunk of this tree.” And as he went on climbing up it, the bough at the end bent with his weight, and it was all he could do to avoid falling by clinging to it. While he was clinging to it, there came that way an elephant that had been drinking water, with his driver on his back. And the fool called to him, saying, “Great sir, take me down.” The elephant-driver laid hold of him by the feet with both his hands, to take him down from the tree. Meanwhile the elephant went on, and the driver found himself clinging to the feet of the fool, who was clinging to the end of the tree. Then said the fool to the driver, “Sing something, in order that the people may hear, and come at once and take us down.” So the elephant-driver, thus appealed to, began to sing, and he sang so sweetly that the fool was much pleased; and in his desire to applaud him, he forgot what he was about, let go his hold of the tree, and prepared to clap him with both his hands; and immediately he and the elephant-driver fell into the river and were drowned.

The germ of all stories of this class is perhaps found in the _Jatakas_, or Buddhist Birth Stories: A pair of geese resolve to migrate to another country, and agree to carry with them a tortoise, their intimate friend, taking the ends of a stick between their bills, and the tortoise grasping it by the middle with his mouth. As they are flying over Banares, the people exclaim in wonder to one another at such a strange sight, and the tortoise, unable to maintain silence, opens his mouth to rebuke them, and by so doing falls to the ground, and is dashed into pieces. This fable is also found in Babrius. (115); in the _Katha Sarit Sagara_; in the several versions of the Fables of Bidpai; and in the _Avadanas_, translated into French from the Chinese by Stanislas Julien.

* * * * *

To return to Gothamite stories. According to one of those which are current orally, the men of Gotham had but one knife among them, which was stuck in a tree in the middle of the village for their common use, and many amusing incidents, says Mr. Halliwell-Phillipps, arose out of their disputes for the use of this knife. The “carles” of Austwick, in Yorkshire, are said also to have had but one knife, or “whittle,” which was deposited under a tree, and if it was not found there when wanted, the “carle” requiring it called out, “Whittle to the tree!” This plan did very well for some years, until it was taken one day by a party of labourers to a neighbouring moor, to be used for cutting their bread and cheese. When the day’s labour was done, they resolved to leave the knife at the place, to save themselves the trouble of carrying it back, as they should want it again next day; so they looked about for some object to mark the spot, and stuck it into the ground under a black cloud that happened to be the most remarkable object in sight. But next day, when they returned to the place, the cloud was gone, and the “whittle” was never seen again.

When an Austwick “carle” comes into any of the larger towns of Yorkshire, it is said he is greeted with the question, “Who tried to lift the bull over the gate?” in allusion to the following story: An Austwick farmer, wishing to get a bull out of a field–how the animal got into it, the story does not inform us–procured the assistance of nine of his neighbours to lift the animal over the gate. After trying in vain for some hours, they sent one of their number to the village for more help. In going out he opened the gate, and after he had gone away, it occurred to one of those who remained that the bull might be allowed to go out in the same manner.

Another Austwick farmer had to take a wheelbarrow to a certain town, and, to save a hundred yards by going the ordinary road, he went through the fields, and had to lift the barrow over twenty-two stiles.

It was a Wiltshire man, however (if all tales be true), who determined to cure the filthy habits of his hogs by making them roost upon the branches of a tree, like birds. Night after night the pigs were hoisted up to their perch, and every morning one of them was found with its neck broken, until at last there were none left.–And quite as witless, surely, was the device of the men of Belmont, who once desired to move their church three yards farther westward, so they carefully marked the exact distance by leaving their coats on the ground. Then they set to work to push with all their might against the eastern wall. In the meantime a thief had gone round to the west side and stolen their coats. “Diable!” exclaimed they on finding that their coats were gone, “we have pushed too far!”



[1] _Coffee House Jests_. Fifth edition. London. 1688. P. 36.

[2] “See _ante_, p. 8, note.” [Transcriber’s note: This is Chapter I, Footnote 1 in this etext.]

[3] Fuller, while admitting that “an hundred fopperies are forged and fathered on the townsfolk of Gotham,” maintains that “Gotham doth breed as wise people as any which laugh at their simplicity.”

[4] Collier’s _Bibliographical Account_, etc., vol. i., p. 327.

[5] Forewords to Borde’s _Introduction of Knowledge_, etc., edited, for the Early English Text Society, by F.J. Furnivall.

[6] It is equally certain that Borde had no hand either in the _Jests of Scogin_ or _The Mylner of Abyngton_, the latter an imitation of Chaucer’s _Reve’s Tale_.

[7] Powell and Magnusson’s _Legends of Iceland_, Second Series.

[8] An imitation of Boccaccio, _Decameron_, Day vii., nov. 8, who perhaps borrowed the story from Guerin’s _fabliau_ “De la Dame qui fit accroire a son Mari qu’il avait reve; _alias_, Les Cheveux Coupes” (Le Grand’s _Fabliaux_, ed. 1781, tome ii., 280).

[9] A slightly different version occurs in the _Tale of Beryn_, which is found in a unique MS. of Chaucer’s _Canterbury Tales_, and which forms the first part of the old French romance of the _Chevalier Berinus_. In the English poem Beryn, lamenting his misfortunes, and that he had disinherited himself, says:

“But I fare like the man, that for to swale his vlyes [i.e. flies] He stert in-to the bern, and aftir stre he hies, And goith a-bout with a brennyng wase,
Tyll it was atte last that the leam and blase Entryd in-to the chynys, wher the whete was, And kissid so the evese, that brent was al the plase.”

It is certain that the author of the French original of the _Tale of Beryn_ did not get this story out of our jests of the men of Gotham.

[10] There is an analogous Indian story of a youth who went to a tank to drink, and observing the reflection of a golden-crested bird that was sitting on a tree, he thought it was gold in the water, and entered the tank to take it up, but he could not lay hold of it as it appeared and disappeared in the water. But as often as he ascended the bank he again saw it in the water, and again he entered the tank to lay hold of it, and still he got nothing. At length his father saw and questioned him, then drove away the bird, and explaining the matter to him, took the foolish fellow home.

We have already seen that the men of Abdera (p. 5) flogged an ass before its fellows for upsetting a jar of olive oil, but what is that compared with the story of the ass that drank up the moon? According to Ludovicus Vives, a learned Spanish writer, certain townspeople imprisoned an ass for drinking up the moon, whose reflection, appearing in the water, was covered with a cloud while the ass was drinking. Next day the poor beast was brought to the bar to be sentenced according to his deserts. After the grave burghers had discussed the affair for some time, one at length rose up and declared that it was not fit the town should lose its moon, but rather that the ass should be cut open and the moon he had swallowed taken out of him, which, being cordially approved by the others, was done accordingly.

[11] This is also one of the Fables of Marie de France (thirteenth century).

[12] A complete translation of the _Katha Sarit Sagara_, by Professor C.H. Tawney, with notes of variants, which exhibit his wide acquaintance with the popular fictions of all lands, has been recently published at Calcutta (London agents, Messrs. Truebner and Co.), a work which must prove invaluable to every English student of comparative folk-lore.

[13] Siva’s paradise, according to Hindu mythology, is on Mount Kailasa, in the Himalyas, north of Manasa.

[14] Tawney’s translation, which is used throughout this work.



The Schildburgers, it has been already remarked, are the Gothamites of Germany, and the stories of their stupidity, after being orally current for years among the people, were collected near the close of the sixteenth century, the earliest known edition being that of 1597. In a most lively and entertaining article on “Early German Comic Romances” (_Foreign Quarterly Review_, No. 40, 1837), the late Mr. W.J. Thoms has furnished an account of the exploits of the Schildburgers, from which the following particulars and tales are extracted: “There have been few happier ideas than that of making these simpletons descend from one of the wise men of Greece, and representing them as originally gifted with such extraordinary talents as to be called to the councils of all the princes of the earth, to the great detriment of their circumstances and the still greater dissatisfaction of their wives, and then, upon their being summoned home to arrange their disordered affairs, determining, in their wisdom, to put on the garb of stupidity, and persevering so long and so steadfastly in their assumed character as to prove ‘plain fools at last.’ No way inferior is the end of this strange tale, which assumes even somewhat of serious interest when the Schildburgers, after performing every conceivable piece of folly, and receiving the especial privilege of so doing under the seal and signature of the emperor, by the crowning act of their lives turn themselves out of house and home, whereby they are compelled, like the Jews, to become outcasts and wanderers over the face of the earth, by which means it has arisen that there is no spot, however remote, on which some of their descendants, who may be known by their characteristic stupidity, are not to be found.”

Their first piece of folly was to build a council-house without windows. When they entered it, and, to use the words of the nursery ballad, “saw they could not see,” they were greatly puzzled to account for such a state of things; and having in vain gone outside and examined the building to find why the inside was dark, they determined to hold a council upon the subject on the following day. At the time appointed they assembled, each bringing with him a torch, which, on seating himself, he stuck in his hat. After much discussion, one genius, brighter than the rest, decided that they could not see for want of daylight, and that they ought on the morrow to carry in as much of it as possible. Accordingly, the next day, when the sun shone, all the sacks, bags, boxes, baskets, tubs, pans, etc. of the village were filled with its beams and carefully carried into the council-house and emptied there, but with no good effect. After this they removed the roof, by the advice of a traveller, whom they rewarded amply for the suggestion. This plan answered famously during the summer, but when the rains of winter fell, and they were forced to replace the roof, they found the house just as dark as ever. Again they met, again they stuck their torches in their hats, but to no purpose, until by chance one of them was quitting the house, and groping his way along the wall, when a ray of light fell through a crevice and upon his beard, whereupon he suggested, what had never occurred to any of them, that it was possible they might get daylight in by making a window.

Another tale relates how the boors of Schilda contrived to get their millstone twice down from a high mountain:

The boors of Schilda had built a mill, and with extraordinary labour they had quarried a millstone for it out of a quarry which lay on the summit of a high mountain; and when the stone was finished, they carried it with great labour and pain down the hill. When they had got to the bottom, it occurred to one of them that they might have spared themselves the trouble of carrying it down by letting it roll down. “Verily,” said he, “we are the stupidest of fools to take these extraordinary pains to do that which we might have done with so little trouble. We will carry it up, and then let it roll down the hill by itself, as we did before with the tree which we felled for the council-house.”

This advice pleased them all, and with greater labour they carried the stone to the top of the mountain again, and were about to roll it down, when one of them said, “But how shall we know where it runs to? Who will be able to tell us aught about it?” “Why,” said the bailiff, who had advised the stone being carried up again, “this is very easily managed. One of us must stick in the hole [for the millstone, of course, had a hole in the middle], and run down with it.” This was agreed to, and one of them, having been chosen for the purpose, thrust his head through the hole, and ran down the hill with the millstone. Now at the bottom of the mountain was a deep fish-pond, into which the stone rolled, and the simpleton with it, so that the Schildburgers lost both stone and man, and not one among them knew what had become of them. And they felt sorely angered against their old companion who had run down the hill with the stone, for they considered that he had carried it off for the purpose of disposing of it. So they published a notice in all the neighbouring boroughs, towns, and villages, calling on them, that “if any one come there with a millstone round his neck, they should treat him as one who had stolen the common goods, and give him to justice.” But the poor fellow lay in the pond, dead. Had he been able to speak, he would have been willing to tell them not to worry themselves on his account, for he would give them their own again. But his load pressed so heavily upon him, and he was so deep in the water, that he, after drinking water enough–more, indeed, than was good for him–died; and he is dead at the present day, and dead he will, shall, and must remain!

The forty-seventh chapter recounts “How the Schildburgers purchased a mouser, and with it their own ruin”:

Now it happened that there were no cats in Schilda, and so many mice that nothing was safe, even in the bread-basket, for whatsoever they put there was sure to be gnawed or eaten; and this grieved them sorely. And upon a time there came a traveller into the village, carrying a cat in his arms, and he entered the hostel. The host asked him, “What sort of a beast is that?” Said he, “It is a mouser.” Now the mice at Schilda were so quiet and so tame that they never fled before the people, but ran about all day long, without the slightest fear. So the traveller let the cat run, who, in the sight of the host, soon caught numbers of mice. Now when the people were told this by the host, they asked the man whether the mouser was to be sold, for they would pay him well for it. He said, “It certainly was not to be sold; but seeing that it would be so useful to them, he would let them have it if they would pay him what was right,” and he asked a hundred florins for it. The boors were glad to find that he asked so little, and concluded a bargain with him, he agreeing to take half the money down, and to come again in six months to fetch the rest. As soon as the bargain was struck on both sides, they gave the traveller the half of the money, and he carried the mouser into the granary, where they kept their corn, for there were most mice there. The traveller went off with the money at full speed, for he feared greatly lest they should repent them of the bargain, and want their money back again; and as he went along he kept looking behind him to see that no one was following him. Now the boors had forgotten to ask what the cat was to be fed upon, so they sent one after him in haste to ask him the question. But when he with the gold saw that some one was following him, he hastened so much the more, so that the boor could by no means overtake him, whereupon he called out to him from afar off, “What does it eat?” “What you please! What you please!” quoth the traveller. But the peasant understood him to say, “Men and beasts! Men and beasts!” Therefore he returned home in great affliction, and said as much to his worthy masters.

On learning this they became greatly alarmed, and said, “When it has no more mice to eat, it will eat our cattle; and when they are gone, it will eat us! To think that we should lay out our good money in buying such a thing!” And they held counsel together and resolved that the cat should be killed. But no one would venture to lay hold of it for that purpose, whereupon it was determined to burn the granary, and the cat in it, seeing that it was better they should suffer a common loss than all lose life and limb. So they set fire to the granary. But when the cat smelt the fire, it sprang out of a window and fled to another house, and the granary was burned to the ground. Never was there sorrow greater than that of the Schildburgers when they found that they could not kill the cat. They counselled with one another, and purchased the house to which the cat had fled, and burned that also. But the cat sprang out upon the roof, and sat there, washing itself and putting its paws behind its ears, after the manner of cats; and the Schildburgers understood thereby that the cat lifted up its hands and swore an oath that it would not leave their treatment of it unrevenged. Then one of them took a long pole and struck at the cat, but the cat caught hold of the pole, and began to clamber down it, whereupon all the people grew greatly alarmed and ran away, and left the fire to burn as it might. And because no one regarded the fire, nor sought to put it out, the whole village was burned to a house, and notwithstanding that, the cat escaped. And the Schildburgers fled with their wives and children to a neighbouring forest. And at this time was burned their chancery and all the papers therein, which is the reason why their history is not to be found described in a more regular manner.

Thus ended the career of the Schildburgers as a community, according to the veracious chronicle of their marvellous exploits, the first of which, their carrying sunshine into the council-house, is a favourite incident in the noodle-stories of many countries, and has its parallel in the Icelandic story of the Three Brothers of Bakki: They had observed that in winter the weather was colder than in summer, also that the larger the windows of a house were the colder it was. All frost and sharp cold, therefore, they thought sprang from the fact that houses had windows in them. So they built themselves a house on a new plan, without windows in it at all. It followed, of course, that there was always pitch darkness in it. They found that this was rather a fault in the house, but comforted themselves with the certainty that in winter it would be very warm; and as to light, they thought they could contrive some easy means of getting the house lighted. One fine day in the middle of summer, when the sunshine was brightest, they began to carry the darkness out of the house in their caps, and emptied it out when they came into the sunshine, which they then carried into the dark room. Thus they worked hard the whole day, but in the evening, when they had done all their best, they were not a little disappointed to find that it was as dark as before, so much so that they could not tell one hand from the other.[1]

There is a Kashmiri story which bears a slight resemblance to the exploit of the Schildburgers with the cat. A poor old woman used to beg her food by day and cook it at night. Half of the food she would eat in the morning, and the other half in the evening. After a while a cat got to know of this arrangement, and came and ate the meal for her. The old woman was very patient, but at last could no longer endure the cat’s impudence, and so she laid hold of it. She argued with herself as to whether she should kill it or not. “If I slay it,” she thought, “it will be a sin; but if I keep it alive, it will be to my heavy loss.” So she determined only to punish it. She procured some cotton wool and some oil, and soaking the one in the other, tied it on to the cat’s tail and then set it on fire. Away rushed the cat across the yard, up the side of the window, and on to the roof, where its flaming tail ignited the thatch and set the whole house on fire. The flames soon spread to other houses, and the whole village was destroyed.[2]

An older form of this incident is found in the introduction to a Persian poetical version of the Book of Sindibad (_Sindibad Nama_), of which a unique MS. copy, very finely illuminated, but imperfect, is preserved in the Library of the India Office:[3] In a village called Buzina-Gird (i.e., Monkey Town) there was a goat that was in the habit of butting at a certain old woman whenever she came into the street. One day the old woman had been to ask fire from a neighbour, and on her return the goat struck her so violently with his horns when she was off her guard as to draw blood. Enraged at this, she applied the fire which she held to the goat’s fleece, which kindled, and the animal ran to the stables of the elephant-keeper, and rubbed his sides against the reeds and willows. They caught fire, which the wind soon spread, and the heads and faces of the warlike elephants were scorched. With the sequel–how the king caused all the monkeys to be slaughtered, as their fat was required to cure the scorched elephants–we have no concern at present.[4]

* * * * *

In Ceylon whole districts, such as Tumpane, in the central province, Morora Korle, in the southern province, and Rayigam Korle, in the western province, are credited with being the abode of fools. A learned writer on the proverbial sayings of the Sinhalese states that these often refer to “popular stories of stupid people to which foolish actions are likened. The stories of the Tumpane villagers who tried to unearth and carry off a well because they saw a bees’ nest reflected in the water; of the Morora Korle boatmen who mistook a bend in the river for the sea, left their cargo there, and returned home; of the Rayigam Korle fools who threw stones at the moon to frighten her off one fine moonlight night when they thought she was coming too near, and that there was danger of her burning their crops, are well known, and it is customary to ask a man if he was born in one of these places if he has done anything particularly foolish. The story of the double-fool–i.e., of the man who tried to lighten the boat by carrying his pingo load over his shoulders;[5] of the man who stretched out his hands to be warmed by the fire on the other side of the river; of the rustic’s wife who had her own head shaved, so as not to lose the barber’s services for the day when he came, and her husband was away from home; of the villagers who tied up their mortars in the village in the belief that the elephant tracks in the rice fields were caused by the mortars wandering about at night; of the man who would not wash his body in order to spite the river; of the people who flogged the elk-skin at home to avenge themselves on the deer that trespassed in the fields at night; and of the man who performed the five precepts–all these are popular stories of foolish people which have passed into proverbs.”[6]

The last of the stories referred to in the above extract is as follows: A woman once rebuked her husband for not performing the five (Buddhist) precepts. “I don’t know what they are,” he replied. “Oh, it’s very easy,” she said; “all you have to do is to go to the priest and repeat what he says after him.” “Is that all?” he answered. “Then I’ll go and do it at once.” Off he went, and as he neared the temple the priest saw him and called out, “Who are you?” to which he replied, “Who are you?” “What do you want?” demands the priest. “What do you want?” the blockhead answers dutifully. “Are you mad?” roared the priest. “Are you mad?” returned the rustic. “Here,” said the priest to his attendants, “take and beat him well;” and notwithstanding that he carefully repeated the words again, taken and thoroughly well thrashed he was, after which he crawled back to his wife and said, “What a wonderful woman you are! You manage to repeat the five precepts every day, and are strong and healthy, while I, who have only said them once, am nearly dead with fever from the bruises.”[7]

To this last may be added a story in the _Katha Manjari_, a Canarese collection, of the stupid fellow and the _Ramayana_, one of the two great Hindu epics: One day a man was reading the _Ramayana_ in the bazaar, and a woman, thinking her husband might be instructed by hearing it, sent him there. He went, and stood leaning on his crook–for he was a shepherd–when presently a practical joker, seeing his simplicity, jumped upon his shoulders, and he stood with the man on his back until the discourse was concluded. When he reached home, his wife asked him how he liked the _Ramayana_. “Alas!” said he, “it was not easy; it was a man’s load.”

* * * * *

The race of Gothamites is indeed found everywhere–in popular tales, if not in actual life; and their sayings and doings are not less diverting when husband and wife are well mated, as in the following story:

An Arab observing one morning that his house was ready to tumble about his ears from decay, and being without the means of repairing it, went with a long face to his wife, and informed her of his trouble. She said, “Why, my dear, need you distress yourself about so small a matter? You have a cow worth thirty dirhams; take her to the market and sell her for that sum. I have some thread, which I will dispose of to-day, and I warrant you that between us both we shall manage very well.” The man at once drove the cow to the market, and gave her over for sale to the appraiser of cattle. The salesman showed her to the bystanders, directed their attention to all her good points, expatiated on all her good qualities, and, in short, passed her off as a cow of inestimable value. To all this the simpleton listened with delight and astonishment; he heard his cow praised for qualities that no other cow ever possessed, and determined in his own mind not to lose so rare a bargain, but purchase her himself and balk the chapmen. He therefore called out to the appraiser, and asked him what she was going at. The salesman replied, “At fifteen dirhams and upwards.” “By the head of the Prophet,” exclaimed the wittol, “had I known that my cow was such a prodigy of excellence, you should not have caught me in the market with her for sale.” Now it happened that he had just fifteen dirhams, and no more, and these he thrust upon the broker, exclaiming, “The cow is mine; I have the best claim to her.” He then seized the cow and drove her home, exulting all the way as if he had found a treasure. On reaching home he inquired eagerly for his wife, to inform her of his adventure, but was told she was not returned from market. He waited impatiently for her return, when he sprang up to meet her, crying, “Wife, I have done something to-day that will astonish you. I have performed a marvellous exploit!” “Patience!” says his wife. “Perhaps I have done something myself to match it. But hear my story, and then talk of cleverness, if you please.” The husband desired her to proceed.

“When I went to market,” says she, “I found a man in want of thread. I showed him mine, which he approved of, and having bargained for it, he agreed to pay me according to the weight. I told him it weighed so much, which he seemed to discredit, and weighed it himself. Observing it to fall short of the weight I had mentioned, and fearing I should lose the price I at first expected, I requested him to weigh it over again, and make certain. In the meantime, taking an opportunity unobserved, I stripped off my silver bracelets and put them slily into the scale with my thread. The scale, of course, now preponderated, and I received the full price I had demanded.” Having finished her story, she cried out, “Now, what do you think of your wife?” “Amazing! amazing!” said he. “Your capacity is supernatural. And now, if you please, I will give you a specimen of mine,” and he related his adventure at the market. “O husband,” she exclaimed when he had told his story, “had we not possessed such consummate wisdom and address, how could we have contrived means to repair our old house? In future vex not yourself about domestic concerns, since by the exercise of our talents we need never want for anything!”

The exploits of that precious pair may be compared with the following: An alewife went to the market with a brood of chickens and an old black hen. For the hen and one chicken she could not find a purchaser; so, before leaving the town, she called upon a surgeon, to try to effect a sale. He bought the chicken, but declined taking the hen. She then asked him if he would draw a tooth for it. The tooth was drawn, and he expressed his surprise on finding it was perfectly sound. “Oh,” said she, “I knew it was sound; but it was worth while having it drawn for the old hen.” She then called upon another surgeon, and had a second tooth drawn, as sound as the other. “What’s to pay?” she inquired. “A shilling,” said the surgeon. “Very well,” rejoined the hostess, with a chuckle; “you left a shilling due in my house the other night, and now we are quits.” “Certainly we are,” responded the perplexed tooth-drawer, and the delighted old woman returned to her hostelry, to acquaint all her gossips of how cleverly she had outwitted the doctors.

* * * * *

Ferrier says, in his _Illustrations of Sterne_, that the facetious tales of the Sieur Gaulard laid the foundation of some of the jests in our old English collections. A few of them found their way somehow into Taylor’s _Wit and Mirth_, and this is one: A monsieur chanced to meet a lady of his acquaintance, and asked her how she did and how her good husband fared, at which she wept, saying that her husband was in heaven. “In heaven!” quoth he. “It is the first time that I heard of it, and I am sorry for it with all my heart.”

Similar in its point is a story in _Archie Armstrong’s Banquet of Jests_:[8] Sitting over a cup of ale in a winter night, two widows entered into discourse of their dead husbands, and after ripping up their good and bad qualities, saith one of them to the maid, “I prithee, wench, reach us another light, for my husband (God rest his soul!) above all things loved to see good lights about the house. God grant him light everlasting!” “And I pray you, neighbour,” said the other, “let the maid lay on some more coals or stir up the fire, for my husband in his lifetime ever loved to see a good fire. God grant him fire everlasting!”

This seems cousin-german to the Arabian story of two men, one of whom hailed from the town of Hama (ancient Hamath), the other from Hums (ancient Emessa). Those towns are not far apart, but the people of the former have the reputation of being very clever, while those of the latter are proverbially as stupid. (And for the proper understanding of the jest it should perhaps be explained that the Arabic verb _hama_ means to “protect” or “defend,” the verb _hamasa_ to “roast” or “toast.”) These men had some business of importance with the nearest magistrate, and set out together on their journey. The man of Hums, conscious of his own ignorance, begged his companion to speak first in the audience, in order that he might get a hint as to how such a formal matter should be conducted. Accordingly, when they came into the pasha’s presence, the man of Hama went forward, and the pasha asked him, “Where are you from?” “Your servant is from Hama,” said he. “May Allah PROTECT (_hama_) your excellency!” The pasha then turned to the other man, and asked, “And where are you from?” to which he answered, “Your servant is from Hums. May Allah ROAST _(hamasa)_ your excellency!”

* * * * *

Not a few of the _Bizarrures_ of the Sieur Gaulard are the prototypes of bulls and foolish sayings of the typical Irishman, which go their ceaseless round in popular periodicals, and are even audaciously reproduced as original in our “comic” journals–save the mark! To cite some examples:

A friend one day told M. Gaulard that the Dean of Besancon was dead. “Believe it not,” said he; “for had it been so he would have told me himself, since he writes to me about everything.”

M. Gaulard asked his secretary one evening what hour it was. “Sir,” replied the secretary, “I cannot tell you by the dial, because the sun is set.” “Well,” quoth M. Gaulard, “and can you not see by the candle?”

On another occasion the Sieur called from his bed to a servant desiring him to see if it was daylight yet. “There is no sign of daylight,” said the servant. “I do not wonder,” rejoined the Sieur, “that thou canst not see day, great fool as thou art. Take a candle and look with it out at the window, and thou shalt see whether it be day or not.”

In a strange house, the Sieur found the walls of his bedchamber full of great holes. “This,” exclaimed he in a rage, “is the cursedest chamber in all the world. One may see day all the night through.”

Travelling in the country, his man, to gain the fairest way, rode through a field sowed with pease, upon which M. Gaulard cried to him, “Thou knave, wilt thou burn my horse’s feet? Dost thou not know that about six weeks ago I burned my mouth with eating pease, they were so hot?”

A poor man complained to him that he had had a horse stolen from him. “Why did you not mark his visage,” asked M. Gaulard, “and the clothes he wore?” “Sir,” said the man, “I was not there when he was stolen.” Quoth the Sieur, “You should have left somebody to ask him his name, and in what place he resided.”

M. Gaulard felt the sun so hot in the midst of a field at noontide in August that he asked of those about him, “What means the sun to be so hot? How should it not keep its heat till winter, when it is cold weather?”

A proctor, discoursing with M. Gaulard, told him that a dumb, deaf, or blind man could not make a will but with certain additional forms. “I pray you,” said the Sieur, “give me that in writing, that I may send it to a cousin of mine who is lame.”

One day a friend visited the Sieur and found him asleep in his chair. “I slept,” said he, “only to avoid idleness; for I must always be doing something.”

The Abbe of Poupet complained to him that the moles had spoiled a fine meadow, and he could find no remedy for them. “Why, cousin,” said M. Gaulard, “it is but paving your meadow, and the moles will no more trouble you.”

M. Gaulard had a lackey belonging to Auvergne, who robbed him of twelve crowns and ran away, at which he was very angry, and said he would have nothing that came from that country. So he ordered all that was from Auvergne to be cast out of the house, even his mule; and to make the animal more ashamed, he caused his servants to take off its shoes and its saddle and bridle.

* * * * *

Although Taylor’s _Wit and Mirth_ is the most “original” of our old English jest-books–that is to say, it contains very few stories in common with preceding collections–yet some of the diverting tales he relates are traceable to very distant sources, more especially the following:

A country fellow (that had not walked much in streets that were paved) came to London, where a dog came suddenly out of a house, and furiously ran at him. The fellow stooped to pick up a stone to cast at the dog, and finding them all fast rammed or paved in the ground, quoth he, “What a strange country am I in, where the people tie up the stones and let the dogs loose!”

Three centuries and a half before the Water Poet heard this exquisitely humorous story, the great Persian poet Sa’di related it in his _Gulistan_ (or Rose-garden), which was written A.D. 1278:

A poor poet presented himself before the chief of a gang of robbers, and recited some verses in his praise. The robber-chief, however, instead of rewarding him, as he fondly expected, ordered him to be stripped of his clothes and expelled from the village. The dogs attacking him in the rear, the unlucky bard stooped to pick up a stone to throw at them, and finding the stones frozen in the ground, he exclaimed, “What a vile set of men are these, who set loose the dogs and fasten the stones!”

Now here we have a very curious instance of the migration of a popular tale from Persia–perchance it first set out on its travels from India –in the thirteenth century, when grave and reverend seigniors wagged their beards and shook their portly sides at its recital, to London in the days of the Scottish Solomon (more properly dubbed “the wisest fool in Christendom”!), when Taylor, the Water Poet, probably heard it told, in some river-side tavern, amidst the clinking of beer-cans and the fragrant clouds blown from pipes of Trinidado, and “put it in his book!” How it came into England it would be interesting to ascertain. It may have been brought to Europe by the Venetian merchants, who traded largely in the Levant and with the Moors in Northern Africa.


[1] Powell and Magnusson’s _Legends of Iceland_, Second Series, p. 626.

[2] _Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs and Sayings_. Explained and illustrated from the rich and interesting folk-lore of the Valley. By the Rev. J. Hinton Knowles. Bombay: 1885.

[3] This work was composed A.H. 776 (A.D. 1374-5), as the anonymous author takes care to inform us in his opening verses.

[4] A still older form of the story occurs in the _Pancha Tantra_ (Five Sections), a Sanskrit version of the celebrated Fables of Bidpai, in which a gluttonous ram is in the habit of going to the king’s kitchen and devouring all food within his reach. One of the cooks beat him with a burning log of wood, and the ram rushed off with his blazing fleece and set the horses’ stables on fire, and so forth. The story is most probably of Buddhist extraction.

[5] A Sinhalese variant of the exploit of the man of Norfolk and of the man of Gotham with the sack of meal. “See _ante_, p. 19.” [Transcriber’s note: this approximates to the text reference for Chapter II Footnote 1 in this etext.]

[6] Mr. C.J.R. le Mesurier in _The Orientalist_ (Kandy, Ceylon: 1884), pp. 233-4.

[7] _The Orientalist_, 1884, p. 234. A much fuller version, with subsequent incidents, is given in the same excellent periodical, pp. 36-38.

[8] Archie Armstrong was Court jester to James I. of England. It is needless, perhaps, to say that he had no hand in this book of facetiae, which is composed for the most part of jests taken out of earlier collections.



Tales of sharpers’ tricks upon simpletons do not quite fall within the scope of the present series of papers, but there is one, in the _Arabian Nights_–not found, however, in our common English version of that fascinating story-book–which deserves a place among noodle-stories, since it is so diverting, is not very generally known, and is probably the original of the early Italian novel of the _Monk Transformed_, which is ascribed to Michele Colombo:

A rustic simpleton was walking homeward dragging his ass after him by the halter, which a brace of sharpers observing, one said to his fellow, “Come with me, and I will take the ass from that man.” He then quietly advanced to the ass, unloosed it from the halter, and gave the animal to his companion, who went off with it, after which he put the halter over his own head, and allowed the rustic to drag him for some little distance, until he with the ass was fairly out of sight, when he suddenly stopped, and the man having tugged at the halter several times without effect, looked round, and, amazed to see a human being in place of his beast, exclaimed, “Who art thou?” The sharper answered, “I was thy ass; but hear my story, for it is wonderful. I had a good and pious mother, and one day I came home intoxicated. Grieved to see me in such a state, she gently reproved me, but I, instead of being penetrated with remorse, beat her with a stick, whereupon she prayed to Allah, and, in answer to her supplication, lo! I was transformed into an ass. In that shape I have continued until this day, when my mother, as it appears, has interceded for my restoration to human form, as before.” The simpleton, believing every word of this strange story, raised his eyes