My latest acquisition of Flash Fictions has more explicit farting in it than I’m used to.

That might be because it’s not technically Flash Fictions. I’ve bought a copy of the 1970 publication Jest Upon Jest, a compilation of short tales, anecdotes and (almost) one-liners culled from Jestbooks and ‘Collections of Merry Tales,’ originally published from the Reign of Richard III to that of George III (mad, I know), but probably handed down orally (and, in the case of the farts, aurally and olfactorily) for generations before that.

The true Flash Fiction, so we’re told, must have that flash of a white page being turned, but what that relatively new, and print linked genre has reminded us of over the last couple of decades is that we like a short, sharp, and often shocking short story, or tale.

Jest Upon Jest, in the spirit of Boccaccio’s Decameron, and of much else I don’t know of, no doubt, shoehorns 244 pieces of bawdy, scurrilous and politically incorrect humour into about 120 pages – with as much again in the way of ‘sources,’ notes, and bibliographical detail, not to mention an introductory essay by the editor, John Wardroper.

There is much cuckolding, a deal of showing the law to be an ass, one delightful finger up a bum, and much else, including the farts. Writers with a political axe to grind, or a social conscience might be outraged, but there is much here that made me laugh out loud (as well as, occasionally, silently wince!), as it puts its finger, literally as well as metaphorically on the things about being human that still amuse, disappoint, and embarrass us.

On my trusty high steed of being ‘a writer’ and looking for guidance from the past, it reminds me how comic timing can be thrown away when the words aren’t in quite the right order, and how powerful statements depend sometimes as much on not what they say, but precisely when they make the point of the saying. (I’m not sure how a good a sentence that was…but if you know what I mean, perhaps it will do!)

One of my favourites tells of the woman who went home to her husband after a night at the theatre, to report her purse stolen. She had hidden it beneath her smock, next to her petticoat! Didn’t you feel a hand? the husband asks… ‘Yes, quoth she, I felt one’s hand there, but I did not think he had come for that!’ (Number 41…The Unsuspected Hand, in the notes attributed to Henry Peachum, The Art of Living in London, 1642 – with an additional tale in French, that is even funnier, in my translation.)

Split into five ‘chapters,’ covering the interaction of the sexes, religion, manners between men, the common man and authority, and a section of ‘quips, retorts, tricks and blunders.’ Being a poor seafarer, one of the ‘retorts’ that struck a chord with me was: ‘I pray, hold still the ship a while till I vomit.’

Number 80, Brothers in Christ has an uncannily contemporary right to it, telling of a Scottish preacher exhorting that ‘all men are one another’s neighbours,’ and listing ‘the Turk, the Jew and the Moor,’ and then adding: ‘Yea, and the very Englishman is our neighbour too.’

The bawdy ones I like best, and not least because, coming from a time we like to think of as being less feminist than our own, so many of them have the women running rings round the men. More difficult to accept, but not without their elements of truth, are the ones that touch on rape, or rather, on alleged rapes, where often the ‘wenches’ seem to have been willing:

‘she took up her smock very willingly.’ ‘O Lord, sir, says she, if I had not done so, he kept such a wimble, as he had bored a great hole in my smock…’

Old tales like this, bawdy, unvarnished, unguarded and full of assumption, test the boundaries between vulgarity and coarseness, sensitivity and touchiness, rough and tumble and assault. In some cases we have moved on, and in others we have not: in some case we would have been best to stay put, in others a move is long overdue.

My introduction to these tales came, as others have done, from Hammerton’s The World’s Thousand Best Stories, in which I found Number 8. Of the man that would have the poet stand thereas he would. In this tale the husband repeatedly tells the wife where to stand the  pot (of boiling meat), which she dutifully does….until she loses patience and upends it over his head: ‘And now ben the pottage there-as I would have them.’

In the section on ‘manners and men’ violence is never far below the surface, and often an aggressive humour that seems to impose a strict social control:  ‘..if any man takes away my bread by my trencher, I must strike him.’ And in battle, ‘…there is an arrow sticking in your arse.   ……I know it as well as you do.’ Masters and servants here, jostle for primacy as do the sexes in the previous section: when Lord R. accuses his servant of being at an inn, instead of on duty, the servant comes back with….. ‘I did not see you, for if I had, I would have given you a quart of sack.’

The ‘Friars, Priests and Nuns’ are no holier than we, but have their own insights. A minister, during his sermon hears a man snoring: ‘Go wake that same snoring fellow. He’ll wake my Lord else.’

In as much as human folly is driven by the same motives as it always was, these tales retain their potency, to make us laugh, and to make us wince. Their characters may speak in outmoded dialects and use words the meanings of which we have to (and usually can) guess, but we know where they are coming from, and all too often can see where they will end up; we see ourselves in their antique mirrors.

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