Before Christmas, I read an article by Michael Rosen on Why we love limericks which celebrated the popularity of a new book of limericks by Ranjit Bolt, A Lion Was Learning to Ski. Given that I’m writing a guidebook to Middle English poetic form, I was surprised to read that ‘the history of the limerick form itself […] stretches back to at least the 11th century’. Had I missed something? Medieval limericks, it seemed, were a thing.
I imagined the post I could write about this. How popular would a blog post on the first ever limerick be? Think of the retweets! My follower count would sky-rocket. Maybe I’d make it to buzzfeed, or freshly pressed. Stardom beckoned…
But, of course, there aren’t eleventh-century limericks: it didn’t take me long to work that out. Various bits of early verse, either by coincidence or because of their musical form, are somewhat similar in form to the modern limerick we know and love. There seems to be an almost irresistible temptation to find the supposed origin of the limerick. And that temptation raises the question of what defines a form. If an early bit of verse (or a bit of an early verse) meets the criteria by which we recognise a current verse form, should it be called a ‘limerick’? I don’t think so, and here’s why.
An excerpt from the medieval rota, Sumer is icumen in, is cited as an ‘early example’ of a limerick in the Wordsworth Book of Limericks. In isolation, these lines might match the features we recognise as a limerick, but the whole text is something else, a song designed to be sung as a round. Or, as Bruce Holsinger argues in his contribution on ‘Lyrics and Short Poems’ in the Yale Companion to Chaucer (pp. 189–90), it’s an experiment in writing quantitative verse in English. What it isn’t, of course, in part or whole, is a limerick.
The Wikipedia entry on the limerick confidently pronounces that ‘the oldest attested text in this form is a Latin prayer by Thomas Aquinas of the 13th century.’ This claim, it turns out, derives from a 1968 Notes and Queries piece by Peter Horwath, which draws attention to an excerpt of five lines from a twelfth-century post-communion recessional prayer from the Missale Romanum. The entire prayer is headed Oratio S. Thomae Aquinatis, but this is a mistaken later attribution. Safe to say that Thomas Aquinas didn’t invent the limerick.
Another medieval scrap of verse frequently cited as one of the ‘first limericks’ comes from London, British Library MS Harley 7322, a fourteenth-century collection of Latin devotional and moral texts compiled by a priest as notes for preaching. On one page, in amongst the Latin notes, are three snippets of English verse on three beasts, the lion, the bear and the dragon. Each little piece of verse warns about the dangers of these fierce animals. The verses were printed by Furnivall in 1866, and from there (I would guess), the verse on the lion was cited as a limerick by Swann and Sidgwick in their The Making of English Verse: A Guide to Metres published in 1934:
Þe lion is wondirliche stronge and ful of wiles of wo . And weÞer he pleye oÞer take his preȝe he can not do bot slo . [the lion is amazingly strong and full of evil tricks, and whether he plays with or seizes his prey he cannot help but kill]
The rhythm is definitely reminiscent of the jauntiness of a limerick, as are the shorter two phrases. A limerick in a preacher’s notebook? It all sounds rather jolly, but I think these three animal warnings allude to the beast with seven heads which comes out of the sea in Revelations 13, resembling a leopard but with the feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion, taking his power from the dragon of Revelations 12. Taken out of context, it seems a bit like a limerick. In context, these are verses intended to be memorable, to stick in the mind and warn of the tricks of the devil. It’s the metrical freedom of this doggerel verse that produces the limerick form by coincidence.
We can thus only find ‘early limericks’ by ignoring their original context. Here’s a candidate from 1606 which John Leonard offers as the first English limerick in Notes & Queries 40:2 (1993). Again, this is a musical form, a madrigal by Michael East.
James Ogden, in ‘From Lyric to Limerick’, a 1994 Notes and Queries article, finds lots more songs which have this form. Looking at them with a retrospective view, we see them as proto-limericks. But almost all of them are songs, either songs in actuality or poetic imitations of song forms.
Eventually their song form gave them the name ‘limerick’. Edward Lear calls this form nonsense rhymes in his 1846 Book of Nonsense, and it’s likely he took the form from nursery rhymes and from popular folklore rhymes. A little later, these short poems acquired the name from the name of a tune to which you could sing them, Won’t you come to Limerick?
#notalion, as far as I understand this very funny hashtag, plays on the claim that a naturalistic representation of a lion is a sign of modernity. Medieval depictions of lions are #notalions because they aren’t accurate representations but rather artistic imaginations. These supposed limericks are, in reverse fashion, #notalimerick. To find limericks where none exist is to impose the modern on the medieval, to ignore their medieval identities.