Is This The World’s Oldest Joke? – Humor has been a part of our history as long as humanity has existed. Our ancestors most likely appreciated to laugh just as much as we do today.

It would be interesting to examine to what extent old humor is different from funny stories we tell today. Unfortunately there are very few preserved documents that could reveal what ancient man considered to be funny.

This following medieval manuscript is kept in the British Library. The language of the joke indicates that it was written about a thousand years ago. The text is written in Old Irish and was translated by Dennis King. “The Irish text finally surfaced in print in 1926, in volume two of the Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the British Museum, compiled by Robin Flower.

Dr. Flower wrote on page 586 that the text “obviously derives from some mediæval MS.”
Very few texts in Old Irish survive in their original written form. In almost all cases, the material was copied and recopied from older manuscript compilations into newer ones, as the old books wore out.
The language of this little anecdote is arguably more than a thousand years old, but the anecdote survives only in a paper MS in the British Library known as Egerton 190, copied in 1709 by Richard Tipper of Mitchelstown, Co. Dublin,” Dennis King said.

So this is the joke. Judge for yourself if you think it’s funny or not…

World's oldest joke
Is the world’s oldest joke written on this 1,000-year-old ancient medieval manuscript? Image credit: British Library

Three monks turned their back on the world. They go into the wilderness to repent their sins before God.
They did not speak to one another for the space of a year. Then one of the men said to another at the end of the year, “We are well,” said he.

Thus it was for another year. “It is well indeed,” said the second man.

They were there after that for another year. “I swear by my habit,” said the third man, “if you do not allow me some quiet I will abandon the wilderness entirely to you!”

Could this be the world’s oldest documented joke? Maybe it is… At least it gives us an idea what kind of humor people had 1,000 years ago.

First version of this article was originally published on 11 October, 2012