We English tend to pride ourselves on our sense of humour, so it’s easy to assume that our ancestors laughed at the same things that tickle us. I’m finding this is a mistake. While some jokes are indeed ‘as old as the hills’, other sources of humour in the 18th century would be more likely to make people wince or protest today than laugh. The Georgians were all politeness and polish on the surface. Look below, and you find clear evidence of a coarseness, even a cruelty, in a good deal of their humour.
The 18th century was an unsentimental age. They tended to see the world as it was in their time, rather than indulge in the romanticising and sentimentalising that became the norm by the Victorian period. No Georgian, however pious, would have resorted to hiding the legs of tables lest they provoke lustful thoughts.
Since the Georgians’ world was full of crime, prostitution, violence, deformity, filth and noise, the same can be said of a good deal of their humour, which tended to range from the merely bawdy and lavatorial to the obscene, crude and vicious. It’s clear many of them saw nothing wrong in making jokes about people with handicaps or deformities, about the insane, or on topics such as sexual violence and rape. Remember this was a time when ‘respectable’ people paid to go to the ‘bedlams’ where the insane were locked up, just to look at their ‘antics’ and laugh at their distress and bewilderment.
I’m certainly not going to quote any of the unsavoury stuff in this post, but it’s as well to be aware it existed, if only to set the more acceptable humour in some sort of context. Humour based on racial stereotypes was commonplace too. I can remember from my own youth that jokes against the Irish would not have raised anyone’s eyebrows. Anti-semitic jokes were equally prevalent. Looking though an 18th-century jest book, I found perhaps half of all the jokes listed there mentioned the Irish, and a good many others were aimed at the Scots and the Welsh.
Examples of Georgian Humour
Here are some examples of actual jokes from Georgian times that will probably produce no more than groans today. I have to say I found few of them very funny, though plenty caused me to roll my eyes.
A Country Farmer going [a]cross his Grounds in the Dusk of the Evening, spied a young Fellow and a Lass very busy near a five Bar Gate, in one of his Fields, and calling to them to know what they were about, said the young Man, no Harm, Farmer, we are only going to Prop-a-Gate.
A famous Teacher of Arithmetick [sic], who had long been married without being able to get his Wife with Child : One said to her, Madam, your Husband is an excellent Arithmetician. Yes, replies she, only he can’t multiply.
A Lady’s Age happening to be questioned, she affirmed she was but Forty, and call’d upon a Gentleman that was in Company for his Opinion; Cousin, said she, do you believe I am in the Right, when I say I am but Forty? I ought not to dispute it, Madam, reply’d he, for I have heard you say so these ten Years.
A CLERGYMAN was reading the burial service over an Irish corpse, and having forgot which sex it was, on coming to that part of the ceremony which reads thus, ‘our dear brother or sister,’ the reverend gentleman stopped, and seeing Pat stand by, stepped back, and whispering to him, said, ‘Is it a brother or a sister?’ Pat says, ‘Friend, ’tis neither, ’tis only a relation.’
A country clergyman, meeting a neighbour who never came to church, although an old fellow of above sixty, he gave him some reproof on that account, and asked, if he never read at home? “No”’ replied the clown, “I can’t read.”—“I dare say,” said the parson, “you don’t know who made you?” “Not I, in troth,” cried the countryman. A little boy coming by at the same time, “Who made you, child?” said the parson. “ God, Sir,” answered the boy. “Why, look you there,” quoth the honest clergyman, “are you not ashamed to hear a child of five or six years old tell me who made him, when you, that are so old a man, cannot?” “Ah,” said the countryman, “it is no wonder that he should remember; he was made but t’other day, it is a great while, master, since I was made.”
A MELTING sermon being preached in a country church, all fell a weeping but one man; who being asked why he did not weep with the rest, “Oh!” said he, “I belong to another parish.”
I presume a “melting” sermon means one that is “hot” — a “hell-fire and brimstone” sermon.
A LAWYER being sick, made his last Will, and gave all his estate to fools and madmen: being asked the reason for so doing; “From such,” said he, “I had it, and to such I give it again.”
And that, as they say, is more than enough of that!