The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVI. London and the Development of Popular Literature

§ 28. Jest Books

The atmosphere of the capital made itself felt in many ways, apart from experiments in style and the study of types. There are constant allusions to noted and notorious characters of the city, such as Lanum, Garret, Singer, Pope, Backstead, Field and Hobson. Tarlton became so famous that Gabriel Harvey was proud to have jested with him, and Fitzgeoffrey and Stradling honoured him in Latin epigrams. Some of these characters became the heroes of jest-books, in which old stories were told anew and associated with their names. Yet even in this field, the popular interest in London gives a touch of freshness. The compiler of the Merrie Conceited Jests of George Peele has managed to centre all his detached anecdotes round the attractive and novel personality of literary bohemians. Koggan and Eulenspiegel were traditional figure-heads, in which gipsy cunning blended with bucolic ineptitude. In George Peele, however, we find a consistent character devoted to pleasure and prodigality, who has discarded the inane antics of earlier jest-books, and governs his vagaries by the desire to escape a creditor or gain a dinner. But his frauds are still perpetrated with the heartlessness of an earlier age, and the book does not bear witness to the “civilitie” of London so convincingly as John Taylor’s Wit and Mirth (1635), in which the current witticisms of taverns, ordinaries and bowling-greens are worked up into “yerks” and “clinches.” Here we find the educated man’s amusement at the clown’s misuse of new Latinised words such as Dogberry mutilated, and the Londoner’s contempt for provincial arrogance. The phantasy on a bowling-alley contains conceits as elaborate as those of Overbury and Breton, and other anecdotes have touches of epigrammatic wisdom such as the essayists loved to record. The most noticeable feature is the predominance of the modern repartee—the flash of ridicule or humour struck out of a word taken in two senses—which is often associated with Sheridan.