Imogen Knox (University of Warwick)
Twelve Merry Jests of One Called Edith, the Lying Widow was published in 1525. The writer, Walter Smith, was a member of the household of Thomas More. As the title suggests, the text includes twelve humour stories which chart the activities of a deceptive character named Edith. The twelve ‘jests’ chart Edith’s travels around England, from her native Exeter to London. To support herself, Edith plays tricks on a variety of people, though often her lies are revealed to her own detriment. The 1525 publication only survives in fragmentary form, though the humour of these stories endured throughout the sixteenth century, and in 1573 Richard Jones chose to reprint the text (Fig. 1).
Figure 1: Walter Smith, XII Merry Jests of the Widow Edith (London, 1573),
Huntingdon Library via EEBO.
This post focuses particularly on the fifth story of Edith’s exploits, which involves her extorting goods from a pilgrim couple after pretending to be suicidal. My doctoral research explores the articulation of suicidal feelings in early modern Britain. As such, the idea of faking a desire to kill oneself, and the possibility that this could be funny to early modern people, is of great interest to me. The prevailing historiographical narrative surrounding suicide in early modern England is that it came to be regarded with more seriousness than ever before in the Tudor period, and was widely treated as both criminal and sinful until enlightened attitudes in the later eighteenth century encouraged sympathy with - rather than vilification of – suicidal people. This line of interpretation was first expressed by Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy.1 Although this narrative has been challenged, a story of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century abhorrence, with an eighteenth-century turn towards medicalisation, remains dominant. It is curious then that a sixteenth century tale which centres around (pretend) suicide, should be framed as entertaining and amusing. Before exploring the fifth jest in detail, it is necessary to say a little more about the genre of jest books and Edith’s character as depicted in the text.
Jest books were an intensely popular form of literature in early modern England. They solidified as a form during the reign of Henry VIII, and though they began with a primarily elite audience, by the seventeenth century access to these texts had become far more widespread. Jest books primarily took two forms. Firstly, they might comprise a collection of short, unconnected jokes in the sense of a modern joke book. Sometimes these were organised into themes. Wits, Fits and Fancies from 1614 included sections like ‘of noblemen and ambassadors’, ‘of priests and friars’, ‘of women’, and ‘of fellons and theeves’. At other times, authors launched straight into their jests. The first two jokes included in A New Book of Mistakes were ‘of an userer and a debauch’d gallant’ and ‘of a puritan and his friend eating a pudding’ (Fig. 2). Secondly, jest books might be shaped by an overarching narrative of the exploits of a central comic figure. Scogin’s Jests was a popular example of this, and it was also the format taken by Smith in writing his jest book which centred the widow Edith.
Figure 2: Anon, A New Book of Mistakes (London, 1637), Huntingdon Library via EEBO.
As Tim Somers has recently observed, beyond those interested in humour, historians have rarely made use of jest books as a source.2 This is despite the fact that they covered a huge range of topics and can therefore provide insight to a wide variety of aspects of early modern life and culture. Tim Reinke-Williams points out that jest books as a source have much to reveal about gender relations and household politics due to the common focus on these issues in the jokes.3 This is indicated by the significant section on jokes about women in jest books such as Wits, Fits and Fancies, and the apparent popularity of jokes about cuckoldry. One such joke from the 1693 jest book England's jests refin'd and improv'd was the following:
One told his Wife, that there was a Law making, That all Cuckolds should be drown'd: O pray, my Dear Husband, says she, then learn to Swim.
Smith was, then, a relatively early adopter of what would become an intensely popular form, which endured into the eighteenth century. Edith is fairly typical of the central characters of these narrative-driven jest books, as a roguish figure who engages in various pranks on those she encounters. She is, however, somewhat unusual, as more often these central characters were male.
If readers didn’t already know what to expect from Edith, they are immediately informed of her character. The title of the 1525 text refers to her as a ‘Lying Widow’, while the 1573 reissue billed Edith as a ‘lying widow, false and craftie’. Despite the term essentially functioning as a title for Edith, she is not in fact a widow. The text reveals that she had abandoned her husband, Thomas Ellys, and run off with a servant. After the death of her illegitimate child and her abandonment by her lover, which is quickly skipped over, her life of trickery begins. The widow persona seems to have been adopted by Edith as a means to gain sympathy from people, who she could then take advantage of.
Throughout her travels she tricks ‘both men and women of every degree, as well of the spiritual, as temporality’ during her travels across the south of England. By the time we reach the fifth jest, she has already lied to a gentleman, tricked a poor man into unthatching his house, scammed her way out of paying for an inn, and stolen from an academic. Often Edith deceives for her own financial benefit, but sometimes she seems to just be having fun.4
The fifth jest begins with Edith on the banks of the river Thames when she spotted a couple riding by. Something about them suggests to Edith that they are en route to Canterbury, and it is perhaps their status as pilgrims that she thinks might make them susceptible to her trickery. As it relates to popular religion, this humorous narrative may be of particular interest to My-Parish members. Edith flagged them down, claiming that ‘she fared as she would herself drownd’, and the couple, John and Anne Frank, came running to help. Her choice to pretend to be suicidal is an interesting one for a number of reasons. It suggests firstly a general familiarity with suicide as a concept, which might indicate that this was something early modern people encountered or discussed with regularity. Edith is also described confessing her suicidal thoughts to complete strangers, perhaps suggesting the topic was not so taboo as assumed by scholars. The method she chooses to feign a desire to carry out, drowning, is pragmatic due to her proximity to the river, but was also the most common forms of suicide in early modern England. Finally, the decision by the author to depict Edith as faking suicidality implies that sixteenth-century people thought individuals capable of this. The idea of suicidal feelings as fake or put on seems to contradict the portrayal by historians of suicide as an intensely serious topic. Claims of feeling suicidal could apparently be insincere, and, perhaps as a consequence of this, puzzling or intriguing if not entertaining.
John Frank drew on his faith to advise Edith to ‘thynk on God and banish the fowle feend’. It was general knowledge in this period that the devil was capable of introducing suicidal thoughts into people’s minds. It was therefore crucial to guard against such demonic intrusions with steadfast faith. He continued, ‘beware of dispayre, thy self not shend’, using a euphemistic term for suicide. Despair was heavily associated with suicide in this period, to the extent that Judas, who killed himself after his betrayal of Christ, came to represent the emotional state. Demons were often depicted alongside Judas’ dead body, representing both his descent into sin and the demonic influence in his decision to take his own life.
Pretending to have been restored by Frank’s words, Edith immediately got down to business: ‘had ye not come the sooner, verily, I should haue ben damned perpetually, But I pray you now, tel me what I shal doe’. The Frank couple (perhaps also a word play which denotes their character) took Edith with them on their journey to London, during which time she began to spin her lies. Edith claimed that her ‘goods ar taken away by might’ by others who had exploited her status as a widow. Though widows could sometimes exercise a considerable amount of power, they were also susceptible to mistreatment by others. This also figured as an explanation for her suicidal state. In his 1667 Counsel to the Afflicted, for example, Owen Stockton recognised that loss of property and material goods might cause people to become suicidal. Stockton wrote his text in the aftermath of the fire of London, out of concern that the devastation might cause a serious rise in instances of suicide.
During her time with the couple, Edith takes advantage of their kind hospitality and draws their friends into the scam, sending a scrivener on a wild goose chase for a valuable gold plate which she claimed to own. She stole the Franks’ money as well as a dress belonging to Anne. However, Edith’s deceit was uncovered when people around town revealed to the scrivener that Edith had no assets or property to her name. When confronted by the pilgrim couple, Edith ‘gan for to pray’, presumably in an attempt to appeal for Christian forgiveness. She made her escape in the night, and John Frank was left ‘full sad’ and ‘nothing merry’.
It may be hard for us as modern readers to know what to make of Edith’s exploits. A significant challenge of using material like this is understanding the humour. Though Linda Woodbridge has argued that jest books like XII Merry Jests of the Widow Edith express scorn towards lower class rogues,5 I agree with Reinke-Williams and Somers that these narratives more often champion the ability of these figures to trick their social betters. Primarily, texts like this were intended for the ‘delight’ of the reader, and thus, any moral they might convey about the behaviour described were secondary. Though Edith’s deception is discovered in the fifth jest, she largely escapes the consequences. In the text as a whole, sometimes she is punished, and at other times she gets away. Edith is not intended as a figure for emulation, but she is nevertheless entertaining. She behaves shamelessly throughout, and the more derisive forms of laughter evoked by the text seem to be directed more at the people she tricks than at Edith herself. In the context of the fifth jest we are primarily laughing at the gullible, pious, pilgrim couple, who, in their good natured attempt to help someone, fall victim to a scam. Their eagerness to assist a stranger who they meet on the road leads to the loss of their money, and they never complete their journey to Canterbury.
Jest books such as Merry Jests of the Widow Edith have much to tell us about early modern culture, not least, as explored in this post, popular attitudes towards suicide as well as the strength of religious feeling among many lay men and women. There are challenges to utilising them as a source. However there is much to be learned by considering what early modern people found funny.
Imogen Knox is a doctoral researcher at Warwick’s Department of History. Her thesis explores the ways in which people expressed and enacted self-destructive feelings, particularly in the context of witchcraft and demonic possession. She recently published an article on pin-swallowing with Cultural and Social History and is currently undertaking a project on early modern suicide jokes. She tweets @Imogen_Knox.
- Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy, Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1990).
- Tim Somers, ‘Jesting culture and religious politics in seventeenth-century England’, Historical Research 95:267 (2022), 19-44, at 19.
- Tim Reinke-Williams, ‘Misogyny, jest-books and male youth culture in seventeenth-century England’, Gender & History 21:2 (2009), 324-339, at 324.
- Walter Smith, XII Merry Jests of the Widow Edith (London, 1573), Huntingdon Library via EEBO.
- Linda Woodbridge, Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature (Urbana, 2001), particularly pages 193-203. See also her ‘Jest Books, the Literature of Roguery, and the Vagrant Poor in Renaissance England’, English Literary Renaissance 33:2 (2003), 201-210.