When Keith Thomas wrote “The Place of Laughter in Tudor and Stuart England,” he could not ignore the so-called Marprelate Tracts, which are famous lampoons on Queen Elizabeth's bishops. But they are a problem, because they are examples of what can only be termed Puritan humor. No one yet has described them as the work of a “funny Puritan.” Those words repel each other. So we usually say they were the work of a “Puritan sympathizer.” Funny Puritans don't exist, almost by definition. Professor Thomas searched for an acceptable expression and finally dismissed the episode—seven pamphlets which have been called “The best prose satires of Elizabeth's reign”—as “bizarre.” In his view, then, it is all simply inexplicable, and he hastens to assure readers that “not only the Church but also its Puritan opponents condemned Martin [the pseudonymous “Martin Marprelate”] for treating the matter with such levity.” Here we have the Puritans we know and love, the ones whom H. L. Mencken defined as those who live with the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.
But English Puritan literature for children reveals other anomalies in this characterization. Puritans and (after 1660) “Dissenters” wrote a great deal for children, more than any other group in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most of it is tedious if not downright grim, including some of their attempts at humor. But much of it was intended to give pleasure. The purpose of this article is to look into the strangely neglected subject of Puritan humor through the prism of their works for the entertainment of children.