This joke combines three stock ingredients of much sixteenth-century bawdy humour — an old man, sex and faeces. As typical of its time as it was popular, it was printed in many different variations in some of the most prominent Latin and German joke collections. It was spread by word of mouth too: the joke of the incontinent groom was retold in towns as far apart as St Gallen and Leipzig.2 In the form quoted above, it was recorded alongside many other jokes by the St Gallen linen merchant Johannes Rütiner (1501–56/7) as part of his Commentationes (also known as Diarium), a large personal collection of information.

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Early modern jokes often follow narrative patterns similar to those found in modern jokes, and identifying them and their punchlines may, therefore, seem intuitive.3 However, these formal similarities do not necessarily make...

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