Medieval Standup Comedy

Salon.com posted a review of the new book, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, today. The review mentions Poggio Bracciolini, the 14th-century Italian author of the Liber Facetiarum, a work it describes as “Europe’s first joke book.”* Since I’ve never heard of the guy or the book, I Googled until I found my way to this site, which hosts a public domain translation of some of the jokes, mixed with some from other medieval sources.

Alas, Chaucer it ain’t. In fact, I think Poggio must have been like a fourteenth-century Don Rickles, only not as funny.** Below, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of,*** I’ve tried my best to translate some of the jokes into that idiom:

This Florentine cook goes to the Duke one night after he’s served him dinner, goes right up to him and says, “Oh, lord, if you would be so gracious, could you please turn me into an ass?” The Duke looks at him like he’s crazy. “An ass? Why’d ya rather be an ass than a man,” he says. “Because,” says the cook. “I’ve seen all those guys you’ve given titles and treasure too, and they always end up as total asses. So I say, turn me into an ass!”


Man, I tell ya, those Florentines are nuts. Ever hear the one about the Florentine tailor? One day his wife gets pretty sick, so he goes and begs the doctor and says, “Couldja come by my house and take a look at my wife? I’ve got some tailoring to do, so you can just let yourself in.” The doctor says “Sure,” and he heads over to the tailor’s place, where he finds the woman in her bed, so sick she’s out of her mind. And then he rapes her. In fact, he takes his time with it and just barely makes it out the door as the tailor comes walking up. The tailor asks how she’s doing, and the doctor says, Oh, don’t worry, I’d say she’s just about cured.” The tailor heads in and finds his wife in tears, but what can he do, so he keeps quiet. A few days later, who comes calling at the tailor’s shop but the doctor’s wife, wanting a special new dress. The tailor says, “Yeah, I could do that, but I’ll need to come by your place to take the measurements.” When he gets her alone, he tells her he needs her to strip down naked, so he can be sure to get the measurements just right. She does, and, wow, she’s a looker. So he rapes her. Then he goes and tells the doctor what he did.

Heyoooh!

At least the Florentines can get wives. I once knew this guy in Pergola. He was looking for a wife, so his neighbor says, “How about my daughter?” “Her?” She’s way too young to marry,” he says. “Shows what you know,” says the neighbor, “She’s already had three kids by our parish priest!”

I said, “She’s already had three kids by our parish priest.” Is this thing on? Hello? Hello?

Two peasants go to buy a crucifix for their village church. They go to town to the crucifix guy, who sees them coming a mile away–total bumpkins–so he says, “I’ll sell you a crucifix, but you’ve got to tell me, do you want it alive, or do you want I should kill it for you now?” After talking it over, the peasants agree, “We’ll take it live. If the folks back home want it dead, they can kill it in less than a minute, we figure.”

I kid the peasants, but they know I love’m. Now, merchants on the other hand–can’t stand’em! My buddy Frankie Ortani, he once owed a merchant a lot of money–I’m talkin’ seriously in the hole to the guy. He’s working for King Ladislas out in Perugia at the time, and the merchant sends him a letter to remind him he needs to pay up. Thing is, the letter arrives on the same day as a letter from his wife. She’s complaining that he’s not been home in months and she’s getting… well, you know, she’s not had it in a long time, faithful girl that she is. So Frankie writes a letter for each of them, only he puts them in the wrong envelopes. His wife gets the merchant’s letter, and boy is she upset. It’s like he doesn’t care about her at all: he knows he owes her, but it’s going to take him some time to get it all up and please be understanding yadayadayada. The merchant, on the other hand, man, he’s pissed, cause his letter is full of promises of the kind a young fella makes to his wife, if you know what I mean. So the merchant takes the letter to Ladislas and says, “Will you get a load of the nerve of this guy? Doesn’t say a word about the money he owes me, and promises when he sees me he’s going to chase me around the room and then ride me until I’m tired of him. And let me tell you, I’m tired enough of him as it is.”

Speaking of debts, my buddy Dacko, he’s working as a tutor over in Florence, you know, looking after this young guy and his money. Old Dacko, he spends all this kid’s dough on wine and sandwiches. When the kid finally wises up and hires a lawyer, they call Dacko in to the magistrate and tell him he’s got to provide a legdger of all his income and outgoing expenses. So Dacko points at his mouth and his ass and says, “Sorry, I’ve got no record of incomings or outgoings other than that.”

You see, the sandwiches went into his mouth and came out his–aw, forget it.

You guys hear about the Easter sermon the priest gave in Perugia last year? “Brothers,” he says, “I need your help here. I just got finished listening to confession from your wives, and not a single one of them confessed to breaking her marriage vows. But when I heard your confessions, every one of you said you had been out there fooling around with the wives of other men. So let me ask you: Where are these women?”

Ha! Where are they, I ask ya? They’re not in my village, I tellya that. Anyway, that’s my time, folks. For those of you staying around, remember, the ten o’clock show is completely different from the eight o’clock show. Thank you, and don’t forget to tip your waitress. Good night, everybody.

*There’s probably a silent [extant] there in the claim that Poggio’s book was the first, since the name was used by Gervais of Tilbury in the twelfth century for a book of jokes he gave to the young son of England’s Henry II, sadly lost.
**Or possibly a fourteenth-century Andrew Dice Clay, only much, much funnier. Ayyyoah!
***To tell you the truth, about halfway through this post, it sort of morphed in my head into Gilbert Gottfried doing a parody of Don Rickles and became legitimately funny again, but not in the way that I think Poggio was hoping for. I realize that if you’re not as big a standup geek as me, this claim may not make any sense, so some of you will have to trust me when I say that while G.G. is just OK amounts of funny when he’s doing his own jokes, when he does meta-jokes about other comedian’s jokes, he’s a comedy god–much funnier than you’d think from a guy who whose chief claim to fame is voicing the parrot in Aladdin.

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  • Richard

    Once again, the translator is the hero. Well done, I was literally rolling on the floor laughing.

  • Karl Steel

    Great work. There’s an online edition of Poggio B. here. The edition I use is: Bracciolini, Poggio. Facezie. Trans. (into Italian) Marcello Ciccuto. Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli. Milan, 1994. I tracked it down not for the jokes but for the anthropophagy. My favorite? One of the earliest True Crime stories:

    CLXXI. HORRIBILE DE PUERO QUI INFANTULOS COMEDEBAT

    Inseram his nostris confabulationis rem nefandam horrendamque, nullis antea saeculis auditam, quam ego quoque fabulosam existimabam, quoad litteris cuiusdam Regii Secretarii certior factus sum, verum esse quod fatebatur. Sententia particulae litterarum his ferme verbis explicabatur: ‘Rem monstro similem accessisse prope Neapolim decem millibus passuum, in montibus Summae, quod est castrum eo loci situm. Puer Lombardus tredecim annorum captus est, et ad Praetorem perductus, qui iam duos infantulos trium annorum comederat. Seducebat eos blanditiis in speluncam quamdam, atque ibi suspensos in frusta partiebatur, partim crudas a recenti caede carnes edens, partim igni coctas. Fassus est se plures alios comedise, idque se agere, quoniam sapidiores reliquis carnibus viderentur; seque denuo commesturum, si posset. Cum dubitaretur insania ne hoc faceret, consulte ad caetera respondit, ut feritate, non dementia factum constaret.

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