Stories resembling that contained in the following ballad are to be met with in the literature of most of the nations of Europe; for example, in the Gesta Romanorum, (No. XIX. and [XXXV.] of Madden's Old English Versions,) in the amusing German tale Der Phaffe Amis, 98-180, in Eulenspiegel, (Marbach, p. 28,) and the English Owlglass (31st Adventure in the recent edition), in the Grimm's Kinder-und-Haus-marchen, No. 152, in Sacchetti's Novels, No. 4, the Patrañuelo of Juan Timoneda, Alcala, 1576 (Ritson, Anc. Songs, ii. 183), the Contes à rire, i. 182, (Gent. Mag. 65, i. 35,) etc., etc. King John and the Abbot, says Grundtvig (ii. 650), is universally known in Denmark in the form of a prose tale; and a copy is printed in Gamle danske Minder (1854) No. 111, The King and the Miller.
Wynken de Worde, printed in 1511, a little collection of riddles, translated from the French, like those propounded by King John to the Abbot, with the title Demaundes Joyous. By this link the present ballad is connected with a curious class of compositions, peculiar to the Middle Ages—the Disputations, or Wit-Combats, of which the dialogues of Salomon and Marcolf (existing in many languages) are the most familiar, and those of Salomon and Saturn (in Anglo-Saxon) the oldest preserved specimens. These dialogues, in their earlier shape grave contests for[Pg 4] superiority in knowledge and wisdom, underwent a change about the twelfth century, by which they became essentially comic. The serious element, represented by Salomon, was retained after this, merely to afford material, or contrast, for the coarse humor of Marcolf, whose part it is, under the character of a rude and clownish person, ""facie deformis et turpissimus,"" to turn the sententious observations of the royal sage into ludicrous parodies.
The hint, and possibly a model, for these disputations may have been found in Jewish tradition. We learn from Josephus, (Antiquities, Book VIII. ch. v.) that Hiram of Tyre and Solomon sent one another sophistical puzzles and enigmas to be solved, on condition of forfeiting large sums of money in case of failure, and that Solomon's riddles were all guessed by Abdæmon of Tyre, or by Abdimus, his son, for authorities differ. This account coincides with what we read in Chronicles, (Book II. ch. ii. 13, 14,) of the man sent by Hiram to Solomon, who, besides a universal knowledge of the arts, was skilful ""to find out every device that might be put to him"" by cunning men—that is, apparently, ""hard questions,"" such as the Queen of Sheba came to prove Solomon with,[Pg 5] (1 Kings, x. i.) some account of which is given in the Talmud.—See, on the whole subject, Kemble's masterly essay on Salomon and Saturn, printed by the Ælfric Society: also Grässe, Sagenkreise des Mittelalters, p. 406-471; the Grimms' Kinder-und-Hausmärchen, vol. iii. p. 236, ed. 1856; F. W. V. Schmidt, Taschenbuch deutscher Romanzen, p. 82.
Examples of the riddle-song pure and simple will be found under Captain Wedderburn's Courtship.
This ballad is taken from Percy's Reliques, ii. 329. The copy in Durfey's Pills to Purge Melancholy, iv. 29, or A Collection of Old Ballads, ii. 49, is vastly inferior to the present.
""The common popular ballad of King John and the Abbot,"" says Percy, ""seems to have been abridged and modernized about the time of James I., from one much older, entitled King John and the Bishop of Canterbury. The Editor's folio MS. contains a copy of this last, but in too corrupt a state to be reprinted; it however afforded many lines worth reviving, which will be found inserted in the ensuing stanzas.
""The archness of the following questions and answers hath been much admired by our old ballad-makers; for besides the two copies above mentioned, there is extant another ballad on the same subject, (but of no great antiquity or merit,) entitled King Olfrey and the Abbot. [Old Ball. ii. 55.] Lastly, about the time of the civil wars, when the cry ran against the bishops, some puritan worked up the same story into a very doleful ditty, to a solemn tune, concerning King Henry and a Bishop; with this stinging moral:
'Unlearned men hard matters out can find,
When learned bishops princes eyes do blind.'
 Among those nations who originated and developed the character of Marcolf (the German and the French) his fame has declined, but in Italy, where the legend was first introduced towards the end of the sixteenth century, his shrewd sayings, like the kindred jests of the Eulenspiegel in Germany, have an undiminished popularity, and his story, both in the form of a chap-book and of a satirical epic, (the Bertoldo,) is circulated throughout the length and breadth of the country, whence it has also been transplanted into Greece.
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