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The Art of the Jest

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

During the Renaissance, humor was a large part of everyday life, both at court and in the countryside.

“A marriage can only be tranquil and peaceful if the wife is blind and the husband deaf,” said Alfonso of Aragon (1396-1458), the Spanish king who conquered Naples. Unlike earlier monarchs who were portrayed as devout, dour, and dull, Alphonso was a ruler who was wise enough to play the fool. The popularity of his jokes demonstrates how ubiquitous the art of jesting had become at the time.

A Banquet of Jests, c. 1632

By the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), no fewer than 21 collections of jokes were floating about Europe, including two in English. The first of these was the Hundred Merry Tales (1526), also known as Shakespeare’s Jest Book, as it was mentioned by the character Beatrice in the play Much Ado About Nothing.

This collection, along with the subsequent Tales and Quicke Answeres (1532), borrowed from continental sources and had some precedents in medieval compilations of exemplum, or moral tales intended for sermons. Like their classical counterparts, they were intended to aid eloquence, but they broke with the past by standing on their humor alone instead of serving a particularly didactic purpose.

The courtly use of these jokes is demonstrated in Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (1528), a manual for proper aristocratic behavior. The book devotes about a third of its content to proper use of wit in the royal setting.

For instance, Castiglione wrote that a sense of humor was “…suitable for the lips of men of some importance and can be used whether talking of amusing or serious matters.” Many of the jokes are attributed to Spain’s King Alfonso, but others are attributed to King Louis XI of France, Cosimo de Medici of Florence, and the Holy Roman Emperors Frederick and Sigismund.

Benevolence Through Comedy

Castiglione illustrated the magnanimous use of humor with a story about a greedy servant of Alfonso’s who subtly pocketed the king’s jewels as the king washed his hands. According to the tale, a year later, seeking to repeat the theft, the servant held out his hand as the king was again removing his rings to wash his hands.

Alfonso shrewdly quipped, “Let those you had before be enough for you, since these will do very well for someone else.”

Benevolence through comedy is a leitmotif even in the earliest joke books of the Renaissance. In Poggio Bracciolini’s Facetiae of Poggio (1470), the story of Prince Ridolfo being wounded by a clumsy archer demonstrates an example of such benevolence. In this tale, his servants threaten to dismember the man, but the gracious prince pardons him, humorously noting that the punishment should have been carried out before he was hit. The story shows that as a good sport, an ideal prince should be able to receive injury or criticism without losing face. It also shows that couching one’s criticisms with humor was a safe way to protest wrongdoing.

In a similar manner, one of the Merry Tales describes a poor woman who used her wits to admonish King Phillip of Macedonia, father to Alexander the Great. According to the tale, when the drunken King condemned her for a crime she had not committed, she asked the King to reconsider.

“To whom can you appeal?” the King asked her, and she wittily replied, “To King Phillip, but when he is more sober and better adjusted.”

Instead of being insulted, the King laughed and reversed his earlier judgment.

Rebuking both King and Pope

Interestingly, jokes from this time about popes and kings showed that they were neither infallible nor invulnerable. In Facetiae of Poggio, Bracciolini tells of a time when Pope Urban VI berated a man for having a “bad head.” The man supposedly replied, “That’s exactly what the common people say about you, Holy Father.”

Baldassare Castiglione

As Castiglione put it, It was allowable to laugh at the vices of those who are neither so wretched as to excite compassion, nor so wicked as to seem to deserve capital punishment, nor again of such exalted rank that their slightest anger can do one great harm.

As such, the kings from the English collections of jokes are viewed favorably, though with a hint of subversion. No English monarchs are mentioned by name in these books, but the reader is shown what is worthwhile in royalty by way of foreign example, as in several instances when King Louis XI of France is described as disciplining avaricious servants with clever one-liners.

The English aristocracy, on the other hand, were often the butt of jokes from saucy peasants. In one story from the Merry Tales, when an English courtier requested a common boy to hold his horse, the boy asked if the horse was too fierce to be held by just one person.

“Quod the courtier, ‘One may holde hym well inough.’”

The urchin then responded, “Than I pray you holde hym your owne selfe.”

Tudor Humor

By the time of the Renaissance, European courts were packed with witty aristocrats and as early as King Henry V, the royal court of England had become a place of urbane rather than martial prowess. One contemporary contemptuously recalled that knights of his day were “stronger with the tongue than with the lance; always ready to talk, but never to perform acts of war.”

Even Henry VII, the first monarch in the Tudor line, appears to have had some appreciation for humor. While known as a man of gravity, he cracked an occasional smile. When told by the Earl of Kildare that “all England he cannot rule,” Henry VII quickly responded, “No? Then he is meet to rule all Ireland.”

The indomitable Earl later threw himself on the mercy of the King’s humor when he was reprimanded for burning a cathedral. The Earl waggishly excused himself by saying that he had only done so because he thought the archbishop was inside.

If Henry VII had a slim sense of humor, his successor had none. Though Henry VIII could easily hold his own in the fields of poetry, music, and all topics of erudite conversation, he preferred battles of arms to battles of wits. However, Henry VIII had two favorite jesters at court, Sexten and Will Somers; the latter even became something of a confidant.

Henry VIII and his jester Will Somers.

But Henry did not suffer his own fools gladly. When one of them made an insensitive joke about his then wife Anne Boleyn and her daughter Elizabeth, friends had to protect the jester from the King’s wrath.

Another anecdote that demonstrates Henry’s erudition also points again to his lack of humor. A lover of poetry, the king challenged Sir Andrew Flamock to complete the following verse:

  Within this tower

  There lieth a flower

  That hath my heart.

  Sir Andrew responded:

  Within this hour

  She pist full sower [sour]

  And let out a fart.

  Irritated, the King bid the varlet begone.

A Last Laugh

It appears that Henry VIII’s victims had the best lines. Due, perhaps, to his lack of sense of humor, there was no shortage of victims. Among the most famous were Thomas More and the King’s second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Thomas More

The King’s Lord Chancellor and author of the famous satire Utopia, More was well known for his sense of humor, keeping his own jester and a pet monkey for amusement.

Erasmus wrote of More, “It might seem that jesting was the main object of his life.” For even when Moore refused to swear an oath to the King over the Pope and was therefore sentenced to be beheaded, he reputedly tried to cheer up his guards by saying, “Pluck up thy spirits, man; my neck is very short!”

Just before the killing stroke, he is also said to have moved his beard, quipping, “It were a pity it should be cut off, as it has done no treason.”

Anne Boleyn's motto, embroidered, c. 1530

Henry VIII’s fondness for beheading gave many people the opportunity for such black humor. Anne Boleyn was known for her rebelliousness and sarcasm, and in the early days of her marriage to Henry, her livery bore the Latin motto, Ainsi sera, groigne qui groigne (Grumble all you like. This is how it’s going to be.).

But her defiant attitude did not, in the end, endear her to her husband. On her way to the chopping block she is reported to have laughed about the executioner brought from Calais, saying, “He shall not have much trouble, for I have a little neck. I shall be known as La Reine sans tete—Queen Lack-Head!”

Elizabeth’s Jesting Nature

Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, had her mother’s wit and her father’s authority. The Queen was so fond of jokes that her secretary was forced “to entertain her with some relation or speech whereat she may take some pleasure.”

Ambassadors to her court mixed equal parts of amusing “court news and accidents” with their regular dispatches. Mary Stuart even instructed her ambassador “to leave matters of gravity and cast in merry purposes” to better suit Elizabeth’s “natural character.”

Artist Audrey Poulin's depiction of Queen Elizabeth.

Her jesting nature was so conspicuous that Frederick Chamberlain, editor of the Sayings of Queen Elizabeth (1923), devoted a whole chapter to her “gentle side.” One of these sayings was recorded by an ambassador who related the good news that the Archduke Albert had liberated the city of Grave in the Netherlands. The Queen punned boldly, “The Archduke is risen from the grave without the sound of a trumpet!”

Spanish diplomats fared no better with the waggish Elizabeth. When an ambassador for King Phillip II asked for the return of a prisoner, she jested, “The king of Spain may have his head if he wants it, but his body shall be left in England.”

She even received the ambassador Guzman de Silva by saying, “King Phillip has sent a Gooseman [Guzman] to me and I, in return, have sent a man to him not a whit better than a goose.”

Humility Through Humor

Elizabeth also showed humility with her self-deprecating humor. When a Venetian gentleman was given a tour of her palace that culminated in a personal audience, she quipped, “If what you have seen has pleased you, you now behold the worst—the mistress.”

She even pre-empted attacks on her gender with witticisms. Upon hearing that the Pope admired her, she jested to an ambassador, “I think he and I should get married.” To a lord who made flirtatious comments, she responded, “If you were in the habit of seeing such things in your bed as I do when in mine, you would not persuade me to go there.”

And when she was praised in Latin for her virginity, she replied, “I would answer you in Latin, but for fear I should speak false Latin, and then they would laugh at me.” (A double entendre that poked fun at both her command of Latin and her chastity.)

Machiavelli wrote that the ideal prince should imitate the cleverness of the fox and the strength of the lion. Henry VIII was certainly a lion, but a humorless one who could not tolerate the slightest thorn in his side. But Elizabeth was the lion’s cub, and her humor could be both playful and dangerous. She followed in the footsteps of rulers such as King Alfonso, who used comedy instead of castigation to build respect.

This method of using humor mirrored Castiglione's sentiments, who wrote that the ideal potentate should “know how to refresh and charm the minds of his listeners and move them to merriment and laughter, without ever being tedious or boring.”


This article was originally published in Renaissance Magazine, issue #24, and written by Greg Giaccio.


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