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The Collation

Believe it or not: strange accidents and reports


“Strange Accidentes” and “Strange Reportes” from Folger MS E.a.6, fols. 84v-85r (click image to enlarge)

Early modern jokes and curiosities have a way of making us feel like insiders and outsiders at the same time. We’ll encounter jokes such as “A mad man is as stronge as two / Because he is a man besides himselfe” and think, Hey, I get it, early modern folks are just like us, and if I were eight years old I would think this was hilarious! Or how about this one? “Wo[o]ll is soe warme / Because it is all double. / w, oo, ll.” You might need to say it out loud for the punchline to hit—double u, double o, double ll—but it’s a joke that still works today. 1 

  1. The oddity of early modern variable spelling does put some distance between us and the joke: the writer spells wool “woll” but then needs to write out the spelling fully “w, oo, ll” in order to make sure it’s clear.
  2. Mrs. Honeywood appears in Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies (London, 1662), sig. Mm3 (p. 54).
  3. A variation of lines in Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (VI, iii, 1 and 2).
  4. See Henry Wotton, Reliquiae Wottonianae (London, 1651), p. 435, Wotton’s letter to Milton in which Wotton translates Italian advice given him by Alberto Scipioni, to keep his thoughts close and his countenance loose.
  5. To paraphrase, Men prefer old fish at the table and young flesh in bed.
  6. Kenelm Digby, Discourse concerning the vegetation of plants (London, 1661), p. 63, reports a similar story about a barley plant in Paris with 249 stalks and 18,000 grains.
  7. This string of one syllable nouns appears in Lily’s Grammar.
  8. See Old Meg of Hereford-shire … or Twelve Morris-Dancers in Hereford-shire of twelue hundred years (London, 1609) for an account of this event.


I imagine a cheese-eating dog lying by the fire would quickly experience the “blue flame” phenomenon (most frequently attempted today by middle school boys with lighters on camping trips….), and never get too close again.

Becky — August 9, 2012

Thanks, Becky! I had a feeling it had something to do with that…

Heather Wolfe — August 10, 2012

A wonderful post. Could you tell me where the joke about wool comes from? Personally, I find Morris dancing funny regardless of the ages of the participants!

Sophie — August 9, 2012

Thank you! The only place I’ve seen the wool joke so far is in Folger MS E.a.6. It’s on the left-hand page (reproduced above), second entry in the “column” on the left side, with the smaller writing. The only problem with its punchline is that it is dependent on a misspelling (by our standards) of wool as “wooll.”

Heather Wolfe — August 10, 2012

Dogs have difficulty digesting dairy products. If they eat cheese, they can suffer constipation, stomach upset, or diarrhea. I don’t imagine you would want your dog lounging by the fire with you when the symptoms hit.

Ernst Gerhardt — August 9, 2012

The ‘Carver’ proverb has a familiar ring to it, because it used to mean “the person who assigns the portion for everyone.” See Babington’s “A very fruitfull exposition…” “That euerie souldier should bee his owne caruer and take what he can get.”

And I think the dog/cheese-eating thing comes from a fear of the rapid oxidation of methane gases amongst dogs who enjoy the comfort of laying by the fire.

Alan Katz — August 9, 2012

Love this. Must be a fun topic to research!

Meredith — August 14, 2012