How England’s oldest joke book answers your questions

What cannot freeze? What came first: the chicken or the egg? You can find out the answers to these questions from England’s oldest joke book.

Wynkyn de Worde had come to London around the year 1476 to assist William Caxton in running England’s first printing press. After Caxton died, Wynkyn took over the business and would go on to publish over 400 books. He published a wide variety of works, ranging from religious texts to romantic novels, and even children’s books.


In the year 1511 Wynkyn printed a short book called The Demaundes Joyous, which can be translated as Amusing Questions. Considered to be the oldest joke book in England, it consists of riddle-type questions with funny (or cringeworthy) answers. Here are eighteen of these questions and answers:

What is it that never freezes?

Boiling water.

Which was first, the hen or the egg?

The hen, at the creation.

Why do men make an oven in a town?

Because they cannot make a town in an oven.

What is the age of a field mouse?

A year. And the age of a hedgehog is three times that of a mouse, and the life of a dog is three times that of a hedgehog, and the life of a horse is three times that of a dog, and the life of a man is three times that of a horse, and the fife of a goose is three times that of a man, and the life of a swan is three times that of a goose, and the life of a swallow three times that of a swan, and the life of an eagle three times that of a swallow, and the life of a serpent three times that of an eagle, and the life of a raven is three times that of a serpent, and the life of a hart is three times that of a raven, and an oak grows five hundred years, and fades five hundred years.


How many calves’ tails would it take to reach from the earth to the sky?

No more than one, if it be long enough.

What is the distance from the surface of the sea to the deepest part thereof?

Only a stone’s throw.

What is it that never was and never will be?

A mouse’s nest in a cat’s ear.

How may a man discern a cow in a flock of sheep?

By his eyesight.

Why does a cow lie down?

Because it cannot sit.

How many straws go to a goose’s nest?

Not one, for straws not having feet cannot go anywhere.

Who killed the fourth part of all the people in the world?

Cain when he killed Abel.

How would you say two paternosters, when you know God made but one paternoster?

Say one twice over.

Which are the most profitable saints of the church?

Those painted on the glass windows, for they keep the wind from wasting the candles.

Who were the persons that made all, and sold all, that bought all and lost all?

A smith made an awl and sold it to a shoemaker, who lost it.

Why does a dog turn around three times before he lies down?

Because he doesn’t know his bed’s head from the foot thereof.

What is the worst bestowed charity that one can give?

Alms to a blind man; for he would be glad to see the person hanged that gave it to him.

What is it that is a builder, and yet not a man, does what no man can do, and yet serves both God and man?

A bee.

What man makes his living backwards?

A ropemaker.  

These questions from The Demaundes Joyous were edited and translated in The book of days: a miscellany of popular antiquities in connection with the calendar, by Robert Chambers, published in 1879. You can also find them in The Demaundes Joyous : a facsimile of the first English riddle book, edited by John Wardroper, and published in 1971.


Top Image: British Library MS Add. 42130, fol.166v