32

John Heywood (c. 1497–1580) once wrote:

I never saw Banbury cheese thick enough
But I have often seen Essex cheese quick enough. 1 2

The first line alludes to how a Banbury cheese was very slender after you took off the rind.

What does the second line of this epigram mean?

I've come up with some grammatical possibilities, but the funny ones are implausible and the plausible ones don't seem to be funny.

  • I have often seen the Earl of Essex suddenly quit the premises — This would be funny, but as Essex was only 15 when Heywood died, and as the phrase "cheese it" is first cited 1812, this can't possibly be right.

  • I have often observed Essex cheese [i.e., a variety of cheese produced in Essex] to be full of living beings [e.g. maggots].

  • I have often spotted Essex cheese quickly enough to eat some of it.

There's also a possibility that "Essex cheese" is a noun phrase referring to something that isn't cheese, in the same way as a "Cotswold lion" is a sheep; in which case Heywood could have meant

  • I can detect quickly when I am being cheated.

Anyone know for sure, or have a more evidence-based guess?

44

Heywood is rhyming "thick enough" with "quick enough" and at the same time making a pun.

The word "quick" not only relates to speed, but to the state of being alive. We still use it in that sense today in the expression "the quick and the dead", and when we tear a fingernail "down to the quick".

Apparently Essex cheese had a reputation for being infested with worms:

A cantle of Essex cheese
Was well a foot thick
Full of maggots quick.
It was huge and great
And might strong meat
For the devil to eat.
It was tart and punicate.
John Skelton - Wikipedia

This wasn't necessarily considered a bad thing at the time:

Daniel Defoe in his 1724 work A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain notes, "We pass'd Stilton, a town famous for cheese, which is call'd our English Parmesan, and is brought to table with the mites, or maggots round it, so thick, that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese." — Stilton cheese - Wikipedia

Note that maggot infested cheese is to this day considered a delicacy in some areas, such as Italy's Casu marzu - Wikipedia:

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6

“Quick” is being used here in the sense of being alive or moving, as in quicksilver, quicksand, or ‘the quick and the dead’.

The Essex cheese could either be a very soft and runny cheese or, as suggested by Ray Butterworth, ‘alive’ with maggots. Not being familiar with Essex cheese, as in I have never heard of it or seen it, it could be either of those but the preceding reference to ‘thick enough’ suggests runny as an opposite to thick.

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