To mark April Fool’s Day, we’re not going to spin a yarn about Quakers and kilts or how George Fox invented porridge while in jail. Instead, here’s part of the true tale of an 18th century joke book recently added to our online catalogue. It may read like a shaggy dog story, but – believe us – there was plenty more that could have been said.
The Macaroni Jester, being, a select series of original stories – witty repartees – comical and original bulls – entertaining anecdotes &c. … by a gentleman of the world, and never before published to the world. To which are added Brown’s Quaker sermon and grace, was published around 1768 in Philadelphia, probably by Robert Jackson. Jackson was a Scottish printer who had worked in Dublin (where he had heated disputes with fellow printers over his “piratical editions”, and went bankrupt) before emigrating to America and building up a successful printing business publishing all kinds of books, including the first edition of Thomas Paine’s Common sense – a bestseller if ever there was one.
What, or who, on earth was a Macaroni Jester? Dismiss from your mind that image of a motley fool standing in a steaming pile of pasta, and conjure up an amusing fellow – elegant, sharp and mercilessly satirical. Macaronis were self-identified witty sophisticates, eventually lampooned for excessively foppish fashions and manners, personifications of an 18th century craze that spawned songs, plays and above all cartoons.
Although our small volume includes a ditty on “The Origin of Macaronies”, there’s little else of the Macaroni in it: the word has been used simply as a synonym for humour, satire and above all absurdity.
The jokes in the body of The Macaroni Jester poke fun at many stock figures, among them Quakers, but the real reason for the book’s presence in the Library was probably “Brown’s Quaker sermon and grace”, on the final two leaves (pages 97-100). Ironically, those very pages are missing from our copy (being the vulnerable outer leaves they probably simply became detached long ago). Instead, there are two additions to the original book. Inside the front board is pasted in a small satirical print, entitled The Quakers meeting; inside the back is pasted in a copy of “The Quakers [sic] grace” cut from a different work. Comparison with other copies shows that neither of these additions were part of the book as originally printed.
Our copy of The Macaroni Jester was purchased for 5 shillings from James Tregaskis, the London bookseller, at an unknown date, accessioned in 1933, and rebound in quarter leather. Did Tregaskis sell the print and “The Quakers grace” along with the deficient copy of The Macaroni Jester, or were they already combined by a previous owner? It’s a mystery, but the interest for our researchers lies in the two pasted-in additions.
The first of these, The Quakers meeting, is an eighteenth century satirical print, showing a group of Quaker men and women in their meeting house. Up in the gallery behind them a speaker is in full flow: their eyes are rolled up to him. In the foreground another open-mouthed figure raises his hands apparently in shock or religious transport. At each side stand shadowy broad-brimmed figures, looking particularly sinister. The artist has endowed his Quaker subjects with a horrible mixture of religious enthusiasm and absurdity. Another copy of this print is pasted into volume VI of the Gibson Manuscripts (Library reference MS Vol. 339/279).
As for the “Quakers grace”, the second addition to our book, and its missing companion, “Brown’s Quaker sermon” – far from being the latest witticisms, these were hoary old chestnuts (still, the old ones are the best, or so they say). Their supposed author, Tom Brown “of facetious memory”, famed for his wit and licentious lifestyle, had died in 1704, decades before our Macaroni Jester saw the light of day. Both sermon and grace were included in various posthumous collections of his works from 1708 onwards, apart and together. They were also published together anonymously as Azarias: a sermon held forth in a Quakers meeting, immediately after Aminadab’s vision. With a prayer for rooting out the church and university, and blessing tripe and custard (London, 1710) (not held by the Library, but available online here). The satirical “sermon” addressed to the “dear brethren and loving sisters” at a Quaker meeting, is an absurd sophistical argument based on an amorous encounter between one Azarias of Twittenham and a Quakeress called Ruth. The “grace”, a thanksgiving prayer before a meal, is a satire on Quaker language with heavy gluttonous overtones (“bless this tripe and this loin of veal”), ending in a final bawdy double entendre.
The crude “Quaker sermon and grace” may or may not have been written by Tom Brown, but Brown certainly didn’t omit the Quakers from his many satirical observations of contemporary London life (for example, see the modern reprint, Amusements serious and comical and other works (1927) – featuring his visit to a Quaker meeting in the company of an imaginary Indian). For Brown, just as for his contemporaries Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, religion was as likely a target for mockery as politics or manners.
We have to confess that the witty repartees and comical and original bulls purveyed by The Macaroni Jester failed to tickle us in the way they might have amused an eighteenth century reader. Nor was there rolling in the aisles after reading the “Quaker sermon and grace”. Humour does not always translate well between eras and cultures. Nevertheless, viewing another society through a contemporary satirical lens may afford invaluable historical and literary insights for the modern reader.
At all events, whether you’ve played an April fool prank yourself this year, or been the victim of one, we hope you will agree that laughter is an excellent thing, and that humour is, as a former owner of our little book opined, a fine “antidote against melancholy”.>