The world’s oldest jokes revealed by university research
By Stephen Adams, Arts Correspondent
Last Updated: 12:22AM BST 01 Aug 2008
Researchers found examples of double-entendres buried in the Codex Exoniensis, a 10th century book of Anglo-Saxon poetry held at Exeter Cathedral Photo: SAM FURLONG / SWNS
Perhaps the old jokes aren’t the best ones after all – even if the world’s most ancient gag is about that reliable stand-by: farting.
They found the wry observation in the Codex Exoniensis, a 10th century book of Anglo-Saxon poetry held at Exeter Cathedral.
It reads: “What hangs at a man’s thigh and wants to poke the hole that it’s often poked before?’ Answer: A key.”
Scouring ancient texts, researchers from Wolverhampton University found the jokes laid down in delicate manuscripts and carved into stone tablets up to three thousand years old.
Dr Paul MacDonald, a comic novelist and lecturer in creative writing, said ancient civilizations laughed about much the same things as we do today.
He said jokes ancient and modern shared “a willingness to deal with taboos and a degree of rebellion.”
“Modern puns, Essex girl jokes and toilet humour can all be traced back to the very earliest jokes identified in this research,” he commented.
Lost civilisations laughed at farts, sex, and “stupid people” just as we do today, Dr McDonald said.
But they found evidence that Egyptians were laughing at much the same thing.
“Man is even more eager to copulate than a donkey – his purse is what restrains him,” reads an Egyptian hieroglyphic from a period that pre-dates Christ.
The study, for a digital television channel, took Dr McDonald and a five-strong team of scholars more than three months to complete.
They trawled the internet, contacted dozens of museums, and spoke to numerous private book collectors in a bid to track down modern, interpreted versions of the world’s oldest texts.
The team then read the texts to find hidden jokes, double-entendres or funny riddles.
Dr McDonald said only those jokes that were amusing in an historical and modern context were included in the list.
Dr McDonald, a comic novelist and a senior lecturer in creative writing, added: “We began with the assumption that the oldest forms of jokes just would not have modern day appeal, but a lot of them do.
The world’s oldest surviving joke “is essentially a fart gag”, he said.
The 3,000-year-old Sumerian proverb, from ancient Babylonia, reads: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”
The joke has echoes of actor John Barrymore’s quip: “Love is the delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock.”
Dr McDonald commented: “Toilet humour goes back just about as far as we can go.”
Steve North, from Dave television, said: “What is interesting about these ancient jokes is that they feature the same old stand up comedy subjects: relationships, toilet humour and sex jokes.
“The delivery may be different, but the subject matter hasn’t changed a bit.”
See also: World’s top ten oldest jokes