Tales of tricks and greed and big surprises: Laymen’s views of the law in Dutch oral narrative
Humor, Vol. 21:4 (2008)
Neither in Dutch nor in European narrative folklore does the lawyer have a positive reputation. It does not matter whether we look at the past or the present: in folktales the practice of lawyers is associated with greed, trickery and heartlessness. In the Middle Ages, when the profession was literally for sale, judges were accused of corruption and incompetence, but their reputation improved over time when they became well-educated and impartial professionals. In present and past, the common man looks upon justice as incomprehensible and unpredictable. European and American folktales (especially jokes) about law and lawyers basically share the same themes, but there is a remarkable difference in quantity nowadays. Whereas lawyer jokes are hype in the U.S., they are not in the Netherlands or Western Europe. The main reason seems to be the American ‘‘vulture culture’’ of suing, claiming, and cashing, as exposed in the news media. If Dutch and European lawyers take over the mores of their American colleagues, it will just be a matter of time before a vast number of lawyer jokes are transferred and translated.
In this article, I would like to focus on some Dutch (and other European) folktales concerning law, judges, and lawyers. I will argue that, in com- parison with older stories, the reputation of judges is relatively good now- adays, whereas the negative reputation of lawyers has not improved much since the Middle Ages. On the other hand, this negative image of lawyers has not led to a huge number of contemporary lawyer jokes in the Neth- erlands as it did in the United States.