Loved to death

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This week’s Friday funny, brought to you as ever by author and journalist Eugene Byrne is a joke from William Caxton’s The Fables of Aesop, which is said to have been the first English joke to have been printed in English, in England

The joke

There was in a certayne towne a wydower wowed a wydowe for to haue and Wedde her to his wyf/And at the laft they were agreed and fured to gyder/And whan a yonge woman beynge feruaunt with the wydowe herd therof …

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OK, in modern English then …

In a certain town, a widower wooed a widow to have a wed as his wife, and at last they were betrothed. But when a young woman, being a servant with the widow heard about it she said to his mistress:
“Alas, mistress, what have you done?”
“Why?” said she.
“I have heard say,” said the maid, “that you are betrothed and will marry this man.”
“What of it?” said the widow.
“Alas,” said the maid, “I am distressed for you because I have heard say that he is a dangerous man, for he lay so often and knew so much carnally his other wife that she died of it. I am afraid in case the same thing should happen to you.”
The widow thought, then smiled and said: “Forsooth, I would not mind being dead. Is there not but sorrow and care in this world?”

The story

It might not be very funny, but this gag is of great historic significance. It comes from The Fables of Aesop, published by William Caxton in 1484. It is the first English joke to have been printed in English, in England.

Caxton (c 1420-1492), as every schoolboy used to know, and as every self-respecting pub quiz contestant still knows, introduced printing to England. Yet behind that workaday bit of general knowledge is an interesting and very sympathetic man. A successful merchant who travelled widely on the continent, Caxton saw this newfangled printing technology in Germany and set up his own press in Bruges, and then Westminster, where he printed Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in 1476. This wasn’t just about business or technology, though; Caxton felt his mission was to bring the great writings of Europe home, translated into plain, clear English. Of the 100-plus books he printed, he translated around 28 himself.

His translation of Aesop came from a German book and, the story goes, when he started work printing it he realised he’s have a few pages left over. So he added three stories of his own, including the joke above, which was presumably doing the rounds of London at the time.

If you want to download the whole thing, and read it in ye olde Englysshe, archive.org has it in various formats

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