No. 3, October 2006

‘All doe ride the Asse’

  Click the image to enlarge it A picture of the Ridinge of the Asse was licensed to Henry Roberts on 7th March 1607 according to the Stationers’ Registers, thus providing a very precise date for the fine print previously attributed by A.M. Hind to an ‘Anonymous Engraver, c.1600-10’, 1 and surviving only in a later impression in the British Museum and the Houghton Library, Harvard, with the address of the late seventeenth-century publisher, John Garrett. Recently Antony Griffiths firmly attributed it to the engraver Renold Elstrack, born c.1570 and last heard of in 1625. He further noted that the printseller Thomas Jenner was advertising it as part of his stock in 1662 as The Ridinge of the Asse, and that it must have passed, on his death eleven years later, to Garrett (as did most of the rest of Jenner’s stock). As Griffiths cogently remarks, ‘That only two impressions survive of a print that remained in production for so long is entirely typical of early British printmaking’. 2 Elstrack is also known as the engraver of at least one other broadside satire, the traditional misogynist Bulchin and Thingut.

Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, given what little we know of Elstrack’s family origins, his engraving derives quite closely from an early sixteenth-century German woodcut of which an impression survives in the Douce print collection at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, though not the speeches given to the various representatives of society who struggle to ride the ass. Evidently a fairly well-known motif in Germany, it is found, for example, on one of the biscuit-moulds (dated 1517) belonging to Claus Stalburg the Rich, Mayor of Frankfurt, who catalogued it thus: Der 16. stain ist das eselryten, und will eyn iglicher der allernest seyn [The 16th stone (biscuit-mould) is Riding the Ass, and everyone wants to be the very next]. 3 The German woodcut print is untitled, but the full title of Elstrack’s version – Whilst maskinge in their follies all doe passe/ Though all say nay yet all doe ride the asse - probably accurately reflects the intention of the original composition, i.e. it is a general, rather than a particular, satire, in which, with the exception of the judge (Mr Justice – though the verse explains that his motives for declining to ride are selfish), all social ranks and types of early Jacobean society (including the prostitute Dame Punke, Don Pandar, Don Gull and a Gallant) are associated with asinine folly (cf. the similar message of Doctor Panurgus, which will be discussed next month). All ‘ride the ass’, that is, everyone is foolish, though they even squabble about this. With this usage, compare the title-page woodcut to The Fool’s Complaint to Gotham College (1643) depicting a fool riding on an ass which says, The fool rides me. Though seemingly unrecorded elsewhere, Robert Burton appears to use the idiom in precisely the same sense and context in his vastly learned Anatomy of Melancholy (1621): that they may go ‘ride the ass’, and all sail along ... in the ‘ship of fools’. 4 Burton shows an awareness of pictorial prints throughout his book, referring earlier in passing to the fact that all the world is mad... it is (which Epicthonius Cosmopolites expressed not many years since in a map) made like a fool’s head (with that motto, Caput helleboro dignum). 5

A late seventeenth- or perhaps early eighteenth-century engraver revived and revised Elstrack’s composition to illustrate another sheet entitled, The ass age, or the world in hieroglyphick. An amusement, agreeably resembling the humour of the present times. Interestingly an earlier state, which must have been pirated, is suggested by the words Beware of paultry wooden-cutts after the imprint, and, indeed, a woodcut-illustrated version survives in the Folger Shakespeare Library, entitled The ass age: or, the fools in fashion: being a comical description of the times, dated 1712.

British Museum 1855,0114.189. Dimensions of original: 290 mm x 423 mm.


A.M. Hind, Engraving in England in the Sixteenth and Sevententh Centuries (3 vols. Cambridge, 1952-64), vol. 1, pp. 290-2. Back to context...
Antony Griffiths, The Print in Stuart Britain 1603-89 (London, 1998), pp. 145-6 (no. 90). Back to context...
Malcolm Jones, The Secret Middle Ages (Stroud, 2002), pp. 7-8. Back to context...
H. Jackson (ed.), Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (London, 1972), p. 72. Back to context...
Jackson, ed. cit., p. 39. This particular fool’s head world-map is, in fact, extant, and was issued in Antwerp some thirty years before Burton wrote, c.1590; there is an impression in the Douce Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford: Portfolio 142 (92). I reproduce it in M. Jones, ‘The English Print, c.1550-c.1650’, in M. Hattaway (ed.), A Companion to English Renaissance Literature (Oxford, 2000), pp. 352-66. The Dutch print is itself an elaboration of an earlier French woodcut version by Jean de Gourmont II (Paris, c.1575). Back to context...