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The oldest joke in the world: Jokes from through history

BY Alex Johnson

22nd Feb 2023 Humour

5 min read

The oldest joke in the world: Jokes from through history

People have been telling jokes for centuries. From the ancient Greeks to court jesters, these are some of the oldest recorded gags from history’s jokesters

After he’s spent all his allowance, a useless student has to sell his books for money. The next time he writes to his father he says: 'You can congratulate me as my books are already supporting me!'.

- From Philogelos, the oldest surviving collection of jokes, compiled in ancient Greece during the fourth century AD, probably by Philagrius and Hierocles

"The thief was not at all smarter for swallowing these sentences"

A moth ate words which seemed amazing to me, that a maggot could consume somebody’s poem, a burglar in the dark… The thief was not at all smarter for swallowing these sentences.

- From The Exeter Book, a late tenth-century collection of writings, most famous for its dozens of riddles including ones for which the answers are probably a bookcase and the Bible. The answer to this one is a bookworm

"'Well elephant,' said Dante, 'Leave me alone to consider things greater than your words and stop annoying me!'"

When the poet Dante was living in exile in Siena, he was in a church examining his soul and privately preoccupied about something. A man approached him and asked various silly questions. “OK, can you tell me which is the biggest animal?” replied Dante. “The elephant”, said the man. “Well elephant,” said Dante, “Leave me alone to consider things greater than your words and stop annoying me!”.

- From the Facetiae by Italian scholar Poggio Bracciolini, the first printed joke book, which appeared in 1470

"I could wish that I had beene made a Booke, for then you would still be poring upon me"

A scholler that had married a young wife, and was still at his Booke, preferring his serious study before dalliance with her. At length, as shee was one day wantoning whilst he was reading; Sir, saith shee, I could wish that I had beene made a Booke, for then you would still be poring upon me, and I should never, night nor day, be out of your fingers. So would I (Sweet-heart) answered he, so I might chuse what booke. When she demanded of him what booke he would wish her to be: Marry good wife (saith he) an Almanacke, for so I might have every year a new one.

- A Banquet of Jests was a popular joke book first published in 1630 and regularly reprinted with updates in the following centuries. It is somewhat dubiously attributed to Archibald Armstrong, a jester at the courts of James VI and Charles I

Extracted from The Book Lover’s Joke Book by Alex Johnson, published by British Library Publishing at £9.99

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