“I saw a dog making sauce, and an ape thatching a house” A Sixteenth-Century Nonsense Poem

Bib nat de france fr.1444b, f249r
“NOW, how does one thatch a house again??” Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr.1444b, f.249r

Whilst searching for an edition of a text that I am working on, I found a beautiful little nonsense poem, which exists in Oxford, Balliol College MS 354. The manuscript is a commonplace book, a kind-of early scrapbook, containing a variety of short texts, with the latest dating to 1536. It was owned by a man named Richard Hill, who may have been the cellarer of the same name who was part of the court of Henry VIII.

The poem describes many wild and wonderful things that the narrator claims to have seen, before  cheekily declaring that he will ‘have the whetston’. In the early modern period the whetstone was a visual marker of falsehood, which a liar could be forced to wear around his or her neck as a punishment. A whetstone is as an object that, though blunt in itself, is capable of sharpening other things. This imagery can be seen in Horace’s De arte poetica, where he writes: ‘Instead, I shall serve as a whetstone that has the power to render an iron sharp but itself lacks the ability to cut’ (transl. from Latin). So it is the words that come from the speaker’s mouth that, like metal sharpened on a whetstone, have the ability to cut deep. This idea reverberates in medieval and early-modern literature. The writer John Skelton wrote that tongues, though themselves boneless, could be sharper than swords and more robust than stone (see Complete Poems, ed. Henderson, p.247). Words, when shaped into falsehoods, can do serious damage. This connection between whetstones and the vicious tongue ran so deep that a work by the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Dekker features a chariot made wholly of whetstones, in which ‘Monsieur Mendax’ rides – ‘Mendax’ meaning mendacity or untruthfulness. For all this information about this interesting connection between whetstones, see Frank Rexroth’s book Deviance and Power in Late Medieval London (pp. 114-117 especially)

On a more positive note, a whetstone could represent the potential for dull wits to be improved through the the challenge of solving riddles, as is seen in this book of the eighteenth century:

'A New Riddle Book Or a Whetstone for Dull Wits', Lichfield, Staffordshire, England, UK, about 1790.

‘Lichfield, Staffordshire, England, UK, about 1790.

Anyway, let’s allow the poem to speak for itself.  I have provided a modern transcription below the original… enjoy:

Hay, hey, hey, hey, I will haue the whetstone, and I may.

I saw a doge sethyng sowse,
& an ape thechyng an houwse,
And a podyng etyng a mowse,
I will haue þe whetston & I may.

I sawe an vrchyn shape & sewe,
And a-noder bake & brewe,
Scowre the pottis as þei were newe,
I will haue þe whetston & I may.

I sawe a code-fysshe corn sowe,
& a worm a whystell blowe,
& a pye tredyng a cow,
I will haue þe whetston & I may.

I sawe a stokfysshe drawyng a harow,
& a-noder dryveyng a barow,
& a saltfysshe shotyng an arow,
I will haue þe whetston & I may.

I saw a bore, burdeyns bynd,
& a froge, clewens wynd,
& a toad, mystard grynd,
I will haue þe whetstone & I may.

I sawe a sowe bere kyrchers to wasshe,
The second sowe had a hege to plasshe,
þe IIIde sow went to þe barn to throsshe,
I will haue þe whetstone & I may.

I sawe an ege etyng a pye,
Geve me drynke, my mowth ys drye,
Yet ys not long syth I made a lye.
I will haue þe whetstone & I may.

The above edition is from Roman Dyboski, ed., Songs, Carols, and other Miscellaneous Poems (London: 1908)

My Modern English Translation:

I saw a dog making sauce,
And an ape thatching a house,
And a sausage eating a mouse*,
I will have the whetstone if I may.

I saw an urchin make and sew,
And another bake and brew,
Scour the pots until they looked new,
I will have the whetstone if I may.

I saw a cod fish sow corn,
and a worm blow a pipe,
and a peacock copulating with a cow,
I will have the whetstone if I may.

I saw a stockfish drawing a harrow,
and another driving a wheelbarrow,
I sawe a saltfish shooting an arrow,
I will have the whetstone if I may.

I saw a boar impose the rules
a frog wind a ball of thread,
and a toad grind mustard seeds,
I will have the whetstone if I may.

I saw a pig take headcloths to wash,
The second pig had a hedge to trim,
The third pig went to the barn to thrash,
I will have the whetstone if I may.

I saw an egg eating a peacock,
Give me drink my mouth is dry
It is not long since I made a lie!
I will have the whetstone if I may.

*’podyng’: ie. sausage, as in ‘black pudding’

pig1

This one washes his own kerchiefs! Harvard, MS Richardson 31

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