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Hypocrisy and Humour in the English Reformation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 May 2024

Ethan H. Shagan*
University of California, Berkeley
*Department of History, University of California, Berkeley, 3229 Dwinelle Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA. E-mail:


This article examines jokes about religion, particularly religious hypocrisy, in early modern English jestbooks, from the 1520s to the 1740s. It argues that over the course of England's Long Reformation, we find more and more jokes in which the solution, or alternative, to hypocrisy is not a more robust faith, making the inward heart correspond to one's outward show of religion, but rather a more profane Christianity, making one's outward face correspond to an all-too-human and worldly heart. Jokes about religious hypocrisy thus betray both a deep anxiety about piety, and the emergence of a profane species of Protestantism.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2024. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Ecclesiastical History Society

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1 The Oxford English Dictionary's entry under ‘hypocrisy’ says: ‘Greek ὑπόκρισις, the acting of a part on the stage, feigning, pretence’; and under ‘hypocrite’: ‘Greek ὑποκριτής an actor on the stage, pretender, dissembler’: ‘Hypocrisy, noun’ and ‘Hypocrite, noun’, OED, online at: < >, accessed 12 January 2024.

2 Augustine, St. Augustine on Faith and Works, transl. Gregory Lombardo (New York, 1988), 18.33, p. 41; The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus 16, online at: <>, accessed 12 January 2024.

3 See, for instance, Oestreich, Gerhard, Neostoicism and the Early Modern State, transl. David McLintock (Cambridge, 1982)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Davidson, Jenny, Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness: Manners and Morals from Locke to Austen (Cambridge, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 On early modern England in particular, where ‘puritan’ was often imagined as synonymous with ‘hypocrite’, see, for example, Nigri, Lucia and Tsentourou, Naya, eds, Forms of Hypocrisy in Early Modern England (New York, 2018)Google Scholar; Brown, Carys, Friends, Neighbours, Sinners: Religious Difference and English Society, 1689–1750 (Cambridge, 2022), esp. ch. 3 (109–50)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ryrie, Alec, Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (Oxford, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an excellent recent account of the broader Reformation scene, see Rublack, Ulinka, Reformation Europe, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 2017; first publ. 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Jestbooks have been studied by many literary scholars but few historians: see, for instance, Knights, Mark and Morton, Adam, eds, The Power of Laughter and Satire in Early Modern Britain: Political and Religious Culture, 1500–1820 (Woodbridge, 2017)Google Scholar; Brown, Pamela, Better a Shrew than a Sheep: Women and the Culture of Jest in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Holcomb, Chris, Mirth Making: The Rhetorical Discourse on Jesting in Early Modern England (Columbia, SC, 2001)Google Scholar; Minois, George, Histoire du rire et de la dérision (Paris, 2000)Google Scholar; Nilsen, Don, Humor in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century British Literature: A Reference Guide (Westport, CT, 1998)Google Scholar; idem, Humor in British Literature from the Middle Ages to the Restoration: A Reference Guide (Westport, CT, 1997); Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg, eds, A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day (Cambridge, MA, 1997), especially the article by Derek Brewer, ‘Prose Jest-Books Mainly in the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries in England’, 90–111; Anselment, Raymond, ‘Betwixt Jest and Earnest’: Marprelate, Milton, Marvell, Swift & the Decorum of Religious Ridicule (Toronto, 1979)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Thomas, Keith, ‘The Place of Laughter in Tudor and Stuart England’, The Times Literary Supplement 21 (1977), 7781Google Scholar.

6 See, for example, McEachern, Claire, ‘Why do Cuckolds Have Horns?’, Huntington Library Quarterly 71 (2008), 607–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Munro, Ian, ‘Shakespeare's Jestbook: Wit, Print, Performance’, ELH 71 (2004), 89113CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 89.

8 As late as the middle of the seventeenth century, there is evidence of gentlemen making their own manuscript jestbooks, compiling material they had read and heard in order to demonstrate their wit. See, for instance, the manuscript jestbook of Sir Nicholas Le Strange (1603–55), published in a modern edition as Nicholas Le Strange, ‘Merry Passages and Jeasts’: A Manuscript Jestbbook, ed. H. F. Lippincott (Salzburg, 1974).

9 A C Mery Talys (London, 1526), fol. 8v.

10 Darnton, Robert, ‘Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Séverin’, in idem, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York, 1985), 75104Google Scholar.

11 Copley, Anthony, Wits Fittes and Fancies (London, 1595)Google Scholar.

12 See Andrea Shannon, ‘“Uncouth Language to a Princes Ears”: Archibald Armstrong, Court Jester, and Early Stuart Politics’, SCJ 42 (2011), 99–112.

13 Anon., A Banquet of Jests: Or, a Collection of Court, Camp, Colledge, Citie, Country Iests, In Two Bookes. The Sixth Edition, much enlarged for the delight of the reader (London, 1640), 54.

14 A. S. Gent. [Robert Chamberlain?], ‘The Two Last Centuries of Bulls, Iests and Lies’, in The Booke of Bvlls (London, 1636), 11.

15 Crouch, Humphrey, England's Jests Refin'd and Improv'd (London, 1693), 52–3Google Scholar (no. 102). Italics original.

16 Anon., A Banquet of Jests, 126–7.

17 Copley, Wits Fittes and Fancies, 156.

18 Oxon, H. L.., Gratiae Ludentes: Iests, from the Universitie (London, 1638), 52–3Google Scholar.

19 Anon., The Complaisant Companion, or New Jests (London, 1674), 19.

20 Crouch, England's Jests Refin'd and Improv'd, 66 (no. 128). Italics original.

21 [William Hicks], Coffee-House Jests: By the Author of the Oxford-Jests (London, 1677), 42 (no. 71).

22 [Hicks], Coffee-House Jests, 45 (no. 77).

23 Hicks, William, Oxford Jests, Refined and Enlarged: Being a Collection of Witty Jests, Merry Tales, Pleasant Joques (London, 1671), 162 (no. 550)Google Scholar. Italics original.

24 Junior, Democritus, Versatile Ingenium, the Wittie Companion, or Jests of All Sorts (London, 1679), 39 (no. 13)Google Scholar. Italics original.

25 A. S. Gent. [Robert Chamberlain?], The Booke of Bvlls, Baited with two Centuries of Bold Jests, and nimble-lies (London, 1636), part 2, 69–70.

26 Ibid. 59–61.

27 Crouch, England's Jests Refin'd and Improv'd, preface, sig. A3v.

28 Ibid. 52 (no. 101). Italics original.

29 Hicks, Oxford Jests, 44 (no. 174).

30 Anon., Tales and quicke answeres, very mery, and pleasant to rede (London, 1532), sig. A1r (no. 2).

31 Anon., A Choice Banquet of Witty Jests (London, 1660), 15 (no. 46).

32 Ibid. 137 (no. 374).

33 Hicks, Oxford Jests, 14 (no. 60).

34 Ibid. 63 (no. 237).

35 Anon., Complaisant Companion, 77.

36 Anon., Polly Peachum's Jests (London, 1728), 41 (no. 110).

37 Ibid. 20 (no. 49).

38 Ibid. 3 (no. 6) and 30 (no. 78). Italics original.

39 Anon., England's Genius: Or, Wit Triumphant (London, 1734), 21.

40 Ibid. 35.

41 This is a fascinating phenomenon. Elsewhere, Peters is demoted to ‘a kind of buffoon jester to Oliver Cromwell’: [J. S.], England's Merry Jester: or, Court, City and Country Jests (London, 1693), 13 (no. 16). Whole jestbooks, The Tales and Jests of Mr Hugh Peters (London, 1660) and Hugh Peters Figaries (London, 1660), used Peters as a comic character. For more on this, see Hunt, Arnold, Protestant Bodies: Gesture in the English Reformation (Cambridge, forthcoming 2024)Google Scholar, which I was privileged to read in draft.

42 Anon., Ecclesiastical Transactions: Or, a Collection of Reverend Jokes (London, 1742), 8.

43 Whitford, Richard, A Werk for Housholders (London, 1530)Google Scholar, sig. B1v. I owe this reference to Peter Marshall: see also his Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation (New Haven, CT, 2017), 60.

44 Morreall, John, Taking Laughter Seriously (Albany, NY, 1983)Google Scholar.

45 Democritus Junior [Robert Burton], The Anatomy of Melancholy (Oxford, 1621), 196.

46 Baktin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World (Cambridge, MA, 1968)Google Scholar.

47 Cited in Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, 16.

48 See, for instance, Hutton, Ronald, The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year, 1400–1700 (Oxford, 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580 (New Haven, CT, 1992)Google Scholar; Marsh, Christopher, Popular Religion in Sixteenth-Century England (New York, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

49 Haigh, Christopher, The Plain Man's Pathways to Heaven: Kinds of Christianity in Post-Reformation England 1570–1640 (Oxford, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

50 See especially Maltby, Judith, Prayer Book and People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (Cambridge, 1998)Google Scholar.

51 See Sommerville, C. John, The Secularization of Early Modern England: From Religious Culture to Religious Faith (New York, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Brown, Callum, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800–2000 (New York, 2001)Google Scholar.