In the very first issue of Community Living, in April 1987, our fabled first editor David Brandon wrote a great article entitled Simple Simon’s sad message – the cruel humour of kids’ comics.
David eloquently denounced the plethora of jokes in children’s joke books and comics about ‘thick’ and ‘stupid’ people, with names like Loopy Lulu and Stupid Sid. He saw these disablist and devaluing jokes deriving from the well-known19th century children’s nursery rhyme about Simple Simon who met a pieman going to the fair and proceeded to do all sorts of ridiculous things, because of his crippling lack of intellect.
Simple Simon himself has a long ancestry and has appeared in many guises over the centuries. He has played a big role in the consciousness of British people. A dictionary of slang from 1788, compiled by a gentleman called Francis Grose (1) defined a ‘Simon’ as follows: “…a sixpence. Simple Simon; a natural, a silly fellow. Simon suck-egg, sold his wife for an addle duck egg.”
This conveyed a number of meanings that were applied to ‘simple’ people at this time. There was a widespread belief amongst urban dwellers, particularly Londoners, that people from the countryside were dim and slow (think Norfolk jokes today), and so any popular rural name was turned into an insult that implied a lack of brains – as well as a Simon, you could also be a Roger, a Dick or a Ben.
The reference to a sixpence is because the sixpenny coin at this time was ‘easily bent or distorted’. Thus a sixpence could refer to a person who was physically ‘bent’, but also to someone whose low intellect meant they could be easily exploited. The rhyme about selling his wife for an egg refers to Simon’s inability to understand value or family relations.
There were numerous stories and songs about Simple Simon in the17th and 18th centuries, often sold in one-penny ‘chapbooks’ that even very poor people could afford. These Simons were always men, not the perceived child of the nursery rhyme, and always married to a shrewish wife, usually called Margery, who would become so exasperated by Simon’s stupidity that she would dish out all sorts of extreme violence to him.
In one story from 1775 (2) Margery hits Simon with a staff, ‘such a clank on the noddle, as made the blood spin’. She then ‘let fly with an earthen pot, which caused the blood to run about his ears’ and whips him with a dog whip. In a song from the same year, (3) ‘Poor Simon’ is attacked by the hard-drinking Margery who beats him with a large cudgel, ‘lugs’ his ears and ‘rings’ his nose, until he weeps. And this was the joke. Simon was so simple, he could not fulfil his role as a man, and was dominated and beaten by his wife, when it should be the other way round. To people in the 18th century, used to a social order in which men were always on top, this was hilarious.
And yet there was always a happy ending. Whenever it reached the point where Simon was pushed beyond endurance by Margery, and would start to weep, or even try to commit suicide (his attempts, of course, always failed), then the neighbourhood would intervene. They would summon Margery and Simon to them, open some jugs of strong ale, and persuade Margery to stop the violence.
They sent for his wife, who came without fail/ their peace was made o’er a jug of ale. (3)
Somehow, Simple Simon – laughed at, ridiculed, beaten by his wife, unable to understand what was required of him – somehow he hung in there and the community wanted him to stay. Simple or not, he was one of them.
- Francis Grose, A classical dictionary of the vulgar tongue, London, 1788 (2nd edn.)
- Anon., Simple Simon’s misfortunes and his wife Margery’s cruelty, which began the very next morning after their marriage, London, 1775.
- Anon., A pleasant song – of many more misfortunes of poor Simon, London, 1775.