By Danièle Cybulskie
One of the best ways to learn about a culture is to figure out its sense of humour. In medieval Europe, this means looking at fabliaux: short, funny tales that demonstrate common stereotypes and jokes – usually sexual, violent, and containing a clear scapegoat. They’re the type of story that usually see someone get his “come uppance”, or succeed by wits alone. I came across a fabliau called “The Peasant Doctor” this week, that shows the kind of clever turnaround medieval listeners loved, and that we still love today (thankfully, in a less-violent form). This version of the story is found in Fabliaux: Ribald Tales from the Old French.
The story begins with a rich peasant farmer who marries a poor knight’s daughter and immediately regrets it: what if one of her knightly friends (who has nothing else to do during the day, naturally) comes by and seduces her while he’s out ploughing? To prevent this, he comes up with the idea that if he beats her in the morning, she’ll weep all day, and when he comes home he can make it up to her, so they can enjoy the evening pleasantly. He tries this for a couple of days, and sure enough, his wife weeps all day so that no one wants to come near her – one day he has beaten her so hard, he “almost crippled her.” But during the afternoon alone, his wife has time to think. “Has my husband ever been beaten?” she says to herself. “Not he, he does not know what blows are. If he did, not for all the world would he give me so many of them.”
While she is mulling this over, two messengers of the king ride up, asking for some refreshment. She discovers they are looking for a doctor for the princess, who has a fishbone stuck in her throat. The wife tells the messengers that her husband is a doctor, but that he “is of such a humor that we won’t do anything for anybody unless he is first beaten soundly.”
The messengers go off to find the husband, who protests that he is not a doctor. They take it as a sign of his obstinacy and beat him, tossing him on their horse and taking him to the king. The messengers tell the king that they’ve found a brilliant doctor, but that he requires a beating before he’ll work. The king is amazed, but accepts this, so that when the farmer protests that he can’t get the fishbone out of the princess’ throat, the king exclaims, “What wonders do I hear! Beat him for me!”
The farmer, desperate, says he will cure the princess after all, which he does by making her laugh so hard the fishbone flies out (apparently, scratching himself naked by the fire is enough). Relieved, the farmer thinks he can now return to his normal life, but the king is so pleased that he declares the farmer will stay at court as his doctor. The farmer protests, is beaten again, and then relents.
One day, “more than eighty” sick people arrive at court, and the farmer is called upon to cure them. Predictably, he protests, is beaten again, and then says he will cure them. When the king has gone, the farmer says to the sick people that he will cure them by burning the sickest person there, “and the others will benefit from this, for all who swallow the powder of the man who has been burned will be cured immediately.”
He then asks the person who believes he is the most sick to come forward. Miraculously, no one is that sick anymore, and they all leave. The king, impressed, allows the doctor to go home again, with untold riches – enough that he never need plough again. Because he is too wealthy to work during the day, he no longer beats his wife, and they all live happily ever after.
This type of trickster-makes-good story isn’t unique to the Middle Ages, but medieval listeners did love stories of someone being wildly successful because of his wit – especially a peasant. Interestingly, in this story, the farmer’s wife is just as successful as he is, keeping herself safe from her beatings and ending up richer than she’s ever been. Often, fabliaux are about women who actually are unfaithful (sometimes they are punished, sometimes they aren’t), but this woman is actually innocent and undeserving of punishment (we’re talking by medieval standards, here), and she manages to turn her beast of a husband into a prince through her own cunning. The audience, then, gets two turnarounds to enjoy: the woman who outsmarts her jealous husband, and the peasant who outsmarts the king. A doctor who’s just making things up also speaks to the medieval sense of humour: who knows if most doctors are just making things up, anyway?
Domestic violence is rarely a part of the modern sense of humour (with tremendously good reason!), but slapstick, trickery, predictable repetition, and successfully faking expertise – especially if the character is the farthest thing from the stereotype of the expert – certainly are. “The Peasant Doctor”, then, shows us that our sense of humour may have (thankfully) changed somewhat, but that there are some things that we still find funny. It’s interesting to know that, even across hundreds of years, watching somebody manage to trick his or her way into a better life can still make us smile.
Top Image: Smiling Through the Centuries – A statue of Saint Malo of Normandy seen at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts – Photo by Peter Lee / Flick